I’ve been reading and enjoying Torchbearer recently. It’s a distinctive take on the Worlds Favourite RPG. It focuses in hard on the logistics element of original dungeon crawling, with every turn taking the party one step closer to isolation and despair as the lanterns finally gutter out. You’ll see a lot of propaganda from the OSR brigade about how this is a central element of gaming and how it’s been lost in modern iterations. Well, I don’t remember it that way to be honest. My games in the 70s were all about battling monsters and defeating traps. I honestly never noticed that all the xp came from treasure! Which goes some way to explaining why we so rarely got above level 3. Turns out I was doing it the hard way.
But I do agree that my favourite part of dungeoneering is in the exploration. I appreciate rules for encumbrance, lighting and mapping. Torchbearer covers this part of the game in some depth, which is why I picked it up. No review yet though, that’s not for today. Instead, I wanted to cover a related topic: light.
When I play games I always like to feel I can shut my eyes and see the scene, as if it were a film, or an illustration. I like doing that! Even better when a few of us all get similar imagery and we note it out loud. High fives all round. Clearly, when I’m DMing, I’m trying to paint a picture that all the players will see the same, or near so. If anything I tend towards over doing my descriptions, perhaps from years of internalising boxed text. I’m no longer surprised when a player acts in direct contradiction to a described aspect in the scene, it’s happened too many times now. What does surprise me is how often that disconnect happens in relation to lighting.
When I visualise a scene, the lighting is the very first thing to come to mind. I need to know if it’s candle, torch or lantern. The rules have always supported all those and more, but purely on a descriptive level, the lighting really matters to me. Dark shadows, foggy streets, dusk and twilight, it’s all good stuff. So I’m always shocked when players tell me their plans and I invariably have to ask who’s holding the torches, and where are they? I usually get a slightly huffy response as if to say “does it really matter?” I believe it does, and not because I’m into pixel bitching, but because the scene in my head absolutely relies on lighting.
Clearly, I’m unusual in this. What weirds me out is what sort of mental pictures do my players have when I’m talking about crypts and cobwebs? From the way they act, I have to assume there are Krieg lights in every nook and cranny. Maybe it’s maps and minis that provide a ceiling free top down view that are to blame.
I distinctly remember playing a Thief back in the day and I asked the DM if I could crack the lock on a treasure chest. Sure, he said, but where would I be standing and how would I get enough light for the job? Good question. My answer was to place a lit torch on the floor in front of the chest, and I would attack the lock from behind and above the chest. When the roll went south and the chest sprayed hot oil across the room, all that positioning really mattered. The by now napalmed MU wasn’t best pleased.
So that’s how I picture scenes in dungeons.