Thursday, 21 November 2019

Review: Five Torches Deep

When I first learned of Five Torches Deep, it was seeing their kickstarter launch just as I was preparing to release Into the Unknown and I was wondering just how much overlap there was going to be between this 'O5R' game and my own.

After reading Robot Goblin's comparative review of both systems, I decided to pick up the pdf and do a review of it myself. I will of course be comparing it to Into the Unknown as well, but will leave that for a follow-up post. Without further ado, let's go:

tl;dr - a "whitebox" style adaption of 5e. Even slimmer than whitebox, it is missing essential parts for running a full game, but wins out with superb layout and usability at the game table.

Presentation & First Impressions:

Five Torches Deep (hereafter 5TD) is a 5e-inspired OSR system in a mere 49 pages. Despite its short page count, it doesn't skimp on rich full color art, makes generous use of whitespace, has large fonts and a dedication to small and easily scannable sections that makes it pleasurable and easy to read.

The pdf is an unconventional landscape letter format, which looks very nice on my desktop monitor. It also has "digital spreads" which look even better on my wide screen and a 15x26.6 inch version optimised for tablet use. Really nice touch. Of the 49 pages, 17 of them are full page art, or table of content, quick reference sheets of previously explained rules and character sheet. So the game itself (or, the digital version I am basing this review on) is a mere 32 letter pages in landscape letter format.

One way it achieves its extreme brevity is skimping in places. Its rule sections on reaction rolls could have used another paragraph or two. There's no magic items, only six monsters and no equipment list. Traps are glossed over. For a gold=XP system, the lack of any treasure tables stands out as well.

The major criticism I have of 5TD is that it is not a standalone game. It basically assumes you have already played 5e and requires use of 3rd party material since due to the lacks mentioned above.

Rule stuff:

Compared to 5e. we get four races (elf, dwarves, halflings, humans), four classes (warrior, thief, zealot, mage), xp=gold and a slower XP progression table. Morale and reaction rolls are back and everything is simplified and the math made even flatter. Old. School. As. Fuck.

5TD does not seek to be fully compatible with 5e. It uses old school ability modifiers and generally blends the 5e math with B/X math. It is quite transparent about this, to its credit.

You can customise the four basic classes a little bit with your choice of archetype at 3rd level, which basically substitute for the wealth of classes in 5e (archetypes for the zealot, for example, are cleric, druid and paladin). 

Starting HP is a bit lower than 5e. The good stuff you get as you level up is much more pared down compared to 5e (except warriors, the stars of the game, who get 3 attacks at 9th level).

Combined with old school ability modifiers, it makes characters more squishy than their 5e counterparts, especially at lower levels, which should suit most old schoolers just fine.

Some of the class choices strike me as a bit odd. Zealots are proficient in all armor. Druids in heavy plate is a thing. Thieves can use all weapons, but only light armor. Watch our for the greatsword-wielding rogue in leather armor. But thieves in this game are much like in OD&D - they shine mostly out of combat and have little to do with the skirmisher rogue from 5e. 
Overall, it is a class chassis that invites homebrewing on and I mean that as a compliment.

Skills are replaced with vaguely defined but terse and to the point proficient checks, much like proficiency areas in ItU but terser. Works as it should and makes me wish I had been more terse in implementing proficiency areas in ItU.

Its combat system is very pared down. There is an active action, movement and a quick action. That's it. Usable I suppose, but perhaps not very fun if you are not used to running imaginative and descriptive combats where the rules just resolve your described actions. Fine if you are an experienced old schooler, but I would have wished for a bit more hands-holding here.

Its spell section is among the briefest of any system anywhere, and is perhaps most comparable here to S&W Light. Basically a page spread for arcane casters and another for divine casters, with five spells per spell level and no more than two lines of description per spell. On one hand, this seems too little (it also gives guidelines for how to import spells from 5e). On the other, it is a tantalising invitation to the kind of whitebox style of play 5TD seems to go for - They describe the bare essentials of each spell and looking at them, I am inclined to think it is good enough for playing the game with a DM comfortable making rulings and letting wizards be inventive with the rest.

New rule stuff:

Paring down a game to make it lighter and faster is in itself a simple exercise and 5TD does well enough on this to achieve its aims. What is more interesting and says more about the kind of game it wants to be is the rules added to its slimmed down framework. And here there are some very interesting innovations:

As compensation for not having statted out monsters, it somehow manages to pack a monster creation system into its 32 pages which is excellent and worth the price of admission alone. I will be referencing this section in my own games going forwards.

5TD simplifies encumbrance (I especially like its elegant gradual loss of speed and wish I had thought of it myself). And from here 5TD further develops gives an interesting and modern take on a resource management focused game:

Intelligence determines your (re-)supply rate, with rules for foraging, durability and repairs adding into it. This sets a clear tone of an exploration game with well defined boundaries for resources and how to mantain and manage them.

Using INT in this way ties into the design goal of no dumb stats. CHA for example, determines how many magic items you can attune to and how many henchmen you can retain. All characters have a use for every ability score.

We get rules for returning from the dungeon to safe camp which is a lovely touch. Simple resilience/exhaustion mechanics and solid overland travel rules that builds 5TD further as an exploration game. There are also simple and elegant rules for renown, which is nice.

The running the game section gives some brief and decent advice for how to run adventures along with some helpful tables for getting things flowing. Alongside the monster generation tables, morale and reaction rolls being back

Final Impressions:

If Into the Unknown is a 5e adaptation that seeks to emulate the "non-advanced" B/X style of play, 5TD is the 5e equivalent of S&W Whitebox - Extremely pared down, too slim for newbies to just pick up and play, but a welcome basic platform for old school tables that don't want the rules to get in the way and are confident of adding what they need or like on top ad hoc. 

What it adds to this is an emphasis on using this slimmed down 'whitebox' version of 5e is a resource-management game of wilderness and dungeon exploration with an emphasis on procedural generation of content and outcomes in play. So overall, a very old school re-make of 5e.

The major criticism I have is that you can't run this game without having to supplement with stuff like monsters, equipment and treasure tables from other games. 

Which is a shame, as they strike me as very low hanging fruits for a game that could easily add a dozen pages without losing any of its slim lightweight character. The game is simply too pared down as a standalone game. A few comparisons on word count:
  • PHB & DMG 5e: 410,000
  • Into the Unknown: 133,000
  • B/X: 113,000 words
  • White Box S&W: 33,000
  • Five Torches Deep: 18,000
When your game is nearly half the word count of the game that is renowned for its brevity and lightness, I think a case can be made for being too lightweight. S&W Whitebox spends 15,000 words on having a basic equipment list, a generous monster list and good magic item selection. So basically the difference in length between the two systems.

Get this if: You're old school gamers who'd like to take 5e for a pared down light and fast old school whirl and are comfortable filling in the blanks yourself. Or if you would like to steal some nice modern mechanics for old school games. I am in the latter category, will definitely be stealing stuff from this and am happy with the $10 investment.

Don't get this if: You don't like old school games or are new to gaming.

Overall, a welcome addition to the O5R sphere. It is exciting to me that we are seeing old school spin-offs of 5e. I see a lot of old school bloggers who happily ran labyrinth lord or Sword&Wizardry, but are now running old school games with 5e. I'd love for them to start picking the 5e spin-offs like 5TD and Itu that are actually adapted for old school play.

next up - A more in depth (and possibly subjective) comparison between Into the Unknown and Five Torches Deep!

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