Interview – The Man behind Torchbearer, Thor Olavsrud

I recently had the good fortune to be able to interview the man behind Torchbearer RPG. This was really exciting for me. I was an early kickstarter backer. In fact, I couldn’t throw my money at the campaign quick enough! Well, enough about me spending money, let’s talk about Thor. This opportunity is just the thing I needed to help spur me on to mastering Torchbearer this year. Damn you Torchbearer! I will win! Ok, without further ado, I present to you Thor Olavsrud.


Credit: Kurt Komoda
Credit: Kurt Komoda

RB: Let’s start this interview off right, you’re no stranger to the RPG industry. Please tell Rolling Boxcar readers a little about your RPG resume. (feel free to include any links you would like)

THOR: Sure. In late 2003 or early 2004 I made the trek from my home in NYC to New Jersey for a now-defunct little con called UberCon. While there I ran into Luke Crane, who had recently published his fantasy roleplaying game Burning Wheel.

I’d heard about his game online, so I sat down for a demo of the scripted combat system. I think I played a dwarven prince in a fight against an orc chieftain, and we went around for a few volleys before the orc grappled me, locked me up, jammed the sharpened edge of his shield into my face until my armor failed and then finished me off when I hesitated due to the shock of my wound. I was hooked! I loved everything about the game: its aesthetic, its attitude and its rules.

I was (and am) a professional writer and editor, and since we lived in the same city I gave Luke my card and told him that I was available if he needed an editor.

I don’t think I expected Luke to take me up on it at the time, but it just so happened that he was hard at work on the Monster Burner and needed an editor (a friend who is not a professional editor had edited the first published edition of Burning Wheel, but decided one book was enough).

We clicked as a team during that project and we’ve been working on projects ever since. I’ve edited and developed for the Monster Burner (2004), Under a Serpent Sun (2004), The No Press RPG Anthology (editing only, 2004), Burning Wheel Revised (2005), Burning Sands: Jihad (2005), Burning Empires (2006), Under a Serpent Sun Revised (2006), The Blossoms Are Falling (2007), Magic Burner (2008), Mouse Guard (2008), Bloodstained Stars (2009), Adventure Burner (2010), Burning Wheel Gold (2011) and Mouse Guard Boxed Set (2011). I did bits and pieces of writing for Burning Sands, Magic Burner and Adventure Burner.

For a time, I also worked on games outside BWHQ. I edited Michael S. Miller’s With Great Power… (2005), Nathan Paoletta’s carry. a game about war (2008), Michael S. Miller’s and Kat Miller’s Serial Homicide Unit, Brennan Taylor’s Mortal Coil Revised (2009), Brennan Taylor’s How We Came to Live Here (2009), Renee Knipe and Danielle Lewon’s Kagematsu, Joshua A.C. Newman’s Shock: Human Contact (2011) and D. Vincent Baker’s and Joshua A.C. Newman’s Mobile Frame Zero: Rapid Attack (2012).

And of course, I worked as designer, writer and art director for Torchbearer (2013), The Dread Crypt of Skogenby (2013), The Petersen Bestiary, Vol. 1 (2013), The Petersen Bestiary, Vol. 2 (2014), The Torchbearer Player’s Deck (2014) and Torchbearer GM’s Screen (2014).

It’s been a busy 10 years!

RB: I would like to focus on Torchbearer if I may (I was a Kickstarter backer). As the creative mind behind Torchbearer RPG, what or who influenced you during the creation process?

THOR: That’s actually a pretty involved question. There were a number of things going on.

Torchbearer is obviously derived from Mouse Guard, so Luke’s ideas and design aesthetic were a big influence. Having spent so many years working and playing games together, I probably couldn’t have escaped that if I had tried.

My polestar for the project was my memory of what it was like to open the red box for the first time as a 12-year-old kid and get blown away by a game. I didn’t want to recreate D&D, but Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson and Tom Moldvay were a huge inspiration.

In the Kickstarter video, I related a story from my college years. I went on a caving trip in upstate New York to Clarksville Cave. I had been to Luray Caverns in Virginia as a kid — it’s an amazing place to visit, but it’s a commercial cave with open spaces and electric lighting. Clarksville is a wild cave with lots of squeezes you have to worm your way through — you need a helmet, and knee and elbow pads are very much recommended! It wound up raining heavily while we were underground, so one of the passages we had to go through on the way out had flowing water that was nearly chest deep. It’s an experience that powerfully affected me and I wanted to bring at least a little bit of that into the game.

I should also mention some of the OSR luminaries. I was inspired by Matt Finch’s A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, James Raggi’s Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Roleplaying (and some of his incredibly atmospheric adventures), and Justin Alexander’s blog The Alexandrian (particularly a series of posts called Jaquaying the Dungeon, based on techniques drawn from maps created by Jennell Jaquays).

Finally, there was my paternal grandmother. When I was a boy in Norway, she told the most wonderful folktales. Her influence will probably be quite a bit clearer on the Middarmark setting, but it definitely forms the backdrop of Torchbearer for me.

RB: Imagine for a moment that a second edition of Torchbearer was going to be done, what one thing you would add and what one thing you would remove from Torchbearer? What would they be and why?

THOR: It hasn’t even been two years yet! At this point, I wouldn’t change very much. I’d probably rip out the Asymmetric Conflict Goals paragraph on page 149 and rewrite it because it seems to trip up a lot of people. I may just do it when we reprint.

RB: What does the future hold for Torchbearer? Could we expect to see more published supplements or other add-ons in the future?

THOR: More Torchbearer! I’m plugging away at the Middarmark setting/gazetteer that we promised in the Kickstarter. It’s been slow going, but I think folks will dig it when it’s done! We’re also working on the follow-up book to Torchbearer, which will have rules for taking characters from level 6 to level 10, along with rules for wilderness adventures and a bunch of other stuff. We don’t have a name for it yet, but I tend to refer to it as the Torchbearer Expert Companion. We don’t want fans to wait too long for the content in this book, so Luke and I recently released a free PDF of level benefits from 6 to 10 and we’ll release some higher level spells and prayers soon.

A while back we released simple language licenses that allow people to make stuff for Torchbearer using our trade dress and sell or share it. I’m hoping to see folks release some stuff using those licenses this year. My friend Jared Sorensen has already created and sold a number of new classes for the game and I’m really hoping to see some adventures soon. Sean Nittner has been working on one he calls Stone Dragon Mountain and I think it will be amazing.

RB: Let’s face it, Torchbearer is a little on the crunchy side; how do you sell new folks on the idea of Torchbearer?

THOR: It is a crunchy game, but I’m not apologetic about it. I like crunchy games! If I can see everything a game has to offer in a session or two, I get bored. Torchbearer is a game that takes skill to play well. You’ll get better at it over time. And actually it’s not just you as an individual — playing Torchbearer well requires great teamwork. You and your friends will get better at playing as a team, if you’re willing to put in the effort.

Still, I don’t think Torchbearer holds a candle to Pathfinder or Exalted or games like that in terms of complexity. If you play those games, Torchbearer shouldn’t send you running for the hills.

As for selling it? I think people have a lot of love for dungeon delving games to begin with. And some of those people are tickled by the idea that their character could make a wrong turn somewhere, lose their light and die cold, alone and hungry in some forgotten hole. But that end isn’t inevitable. With skill and a little bit of luck you can change your fate!

RB: What advice can you offer to new players and GMs that are committed to learning and playing Torchbearer, but have yet to actually play/run?

THOR: Grab some friends, download The Dread Crypt of Skogenby and give it a try!

Be as descriptive as you can — you want to get the GM to invoke the Good Idea rule as often as possible. Celebrate your accomplishments but really make sure to enjoy the bad things that happen to your characters. Think and act like a team. Keep in mind that the first session is the hardest! Once you have a few Rewards to spend from previous sessions, you’ll have a lot more power to swing things your way. Don’t wait to earn checks. Use traits against yourself early and often so you can camp frequently.

RB: Where can readers purchase Torchbearer?

THOR: You can buy Torchbearer directly from us through the Burning Store. The PDF is available on DriveThru. Your FLGS can order it if they don’t stock it already, or you can get it through Amazon.

RB: For those familiar with Torchbearer and other Burning Wheel products your name should not be unfamiliar to them. Aside from Torchbearer, in your opinion, what is your most important  contribution to the Burning Wheel line of games and products?

THOR: Most important is tough. I guess the most recognizable thing is probably the Circles mechanic, which players can use to bring NPCs from their past into the session.

RB: So, what’s next from the creative mind of Thor Olavsrud?

THOR: Right now my primary focus is the Middarmark setting. After that I’d love to do some adventures.

RB: Can you elaborate on the Middarmark setting? What can we expect to see in the wat of modules?

We actually teased the Middarmark setting a bit during the Kickstarter, though we optimistically promised it would be out in 2014 (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/burningwheel/torchbearer/posts/493221). It’s still coming and Kickstarter backers will get a free PDF when we do release it.

The Middarmark is a fantasy setting that draws heavily on Norse mythology and Scandinavian folktales. Luke likes to describe it as if the vikings had conquered Greenland and Nova Scotia only to find the ruins of the Roman Levant beneath the roots of the forests. It’s got new settlements, monsters, Hero Cults and lots of adventure seeds to inspire GMs. Every place in it has at least one weird thing that could be blown out into a whole campaign by an enterprising GM. It’s also just a small part of a much larger world. One of my friends and playtesters has been noodling around with an archipelago to the west of the Middarmark and I’d love to see fans make the setting their own and add to it if they’re inspired.

As for modules, they’re a bit farther out, so I can’t say anything definitive about them. I’ve been noodling around with one in which you find a legendary castle that was swallowed by a sinister forest generations ago and thought lost, and another involving an abandoned dwarven watchtower. Those may be a little involved, but I’d also like to do some smaller modules that could be played in a session or two, like The Dread Crypt of Skogenby (https://www.burningwheel.com/store/index.php/dread-crypt-of-skogenby.html).

I’m also hoping that we’ll start to see some folks releasing adventures under our licenses. I know that Sean Nittner is currently working on a module under our Torchbearer Sagas license (http://www.torchbearerrpg.com/?page_id=78) that he calls Stone Dragon Mountain. He’s drawing a lot of inspiration from Tibet and Nepal, and I think it will blow people away.

RB: Will we see you on the convention circuit this year? If so, where can our readers meet, talk and more importantly, game with you this year?

THOR: I’ll be at PAX East with Burning Wheel and the Dungeon World kobolds this year. I’ll also be at Gen Con with Burning Wheel, though our booth situation is in flux at the moment. I’m not sure about PAX Prime, but it’s on my radar — it’s tough because it’s so close to Gen Con and I have a day job. Hopefully we will also be able to resurrect Burning Con this year. Sadly, we weren’t able to hold it last year because our normal venue jacked the rates on us, but I’m hopeful we’ll figure something out this year.

If it’s there and it’s happening, I’ll be running games. The past few years we’ve been a bit lax about getting games on the schedule at Gen Con, but I’ve run a lot of games at Games on Demand. I highly recommend checking it out. There are so many cool games to try!

I’m always happy to chat, so feel free to say hello if you spot me.

RB: What are you thoughts on virtual gaming? Do you have any recommended platforms or interfaces for our readers to consider?

THOR: Honestly, I don’t have a lot of experience with it. One of the nice things about living in New York City is that there’s no shortage of face-to-face games. I could have a game very night of the week if I had the time and energy for it!

I played a game on Google Hangouts once and it was pretty decent.

RB: Please tell our readers what three industry or hobby personalities you would love to see interviewed by Rolling Boxcars and why. 

THOR:
Lee Gold, founder of Alarums and Excursions (http://www.conchord.org/xeno/aande.html). I’d love to hear her take on the founding of the zine and its role in shaping the west coast RPG zine in the early days. (there’s a bit about Lee and Alarums & Excursions in this Jon Peterson article: https://medium.com/@increment/the-first-female-gamers-c784fbe3ff37)

Jennell Jaquays, artist, tabletop game designer, and video game designer (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jennell_Jaquays). Jennell, in my opinion, is one of the greatest module and setting designers in the hobby. Dark Tower and Caverns of Thracia, both published by Judge’s Guild are masterpieces. And campaign settings don’t get much better than Griffin Mountain.

Sean Nittner (http://www.seannittner.com/), podcaster (Narrative Control: http://narrativecontrol.libsyn.com/), project manager for Evil Hat (http://www.evilhat.com/home/), game developer and con organizer. I don’t know how Sean stays on top of everything he does, but he’s masterful at it. On top of everything else, he seems to write interesting actual play posts about all the various games he participates in. I want to know where he gets his energy!


Thor, It has been an absolute pleasure to interview you! I have publicly committed to learning and mastering Torchbearer this year (see here). I was hopeful that your were more involved in the virtual gaming scene, but alas you are not. I was going to ask you to run a game so that I could play. Keep me in mind if you ever do decide to run a virtual game! Anyways, thank you for your time and willingness to let our readers get to know you a little better.

I challenge everyone out there to delve into the world of Torchbearer and master the game with me this year! Form your own groups, inspire your friends to greatness or just make them buy the book and run the damn game for you!

Until next time, happy gaming!

~ Modoc

Join the Rolling Boxcars family at Boxcar Nation on G+ for additional conversations, virtual games and much more.

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