Ten Lessons From Playtesting Our Torchbearer Expansion

A scientist helping an inventor by making their invention transparent.
Arr, me hearties, after a mere four years of development, Rising Tide is finally released for sailors and officers alike to enjoy. The time we spent on this Torchbearer expansion involved a lot of writing, rewriting, and of course, playtesting. So much playtesting. Looking at the final product, it’s amazing how much it changed as we learned more about how the game was actually played. A number of those changes arose from particularly bizarre circumstances, and I want to share just a few of those stories with you today.

1. Sometimes There Should Only Be One

Rising Tide is a game about resources. Although players must ensure their ship has enough coal to keep the engines running and food to keep the crew on their feet, we decided it didn’t make sense to track water as a separate resource. This is partially because Torchbearer treated water and food as almost interchangeable, but also because adding a third major resource meter was just too much for most players to keep track of.

Even so, it seemed only natural that explorers should be able to outfit their vessel with equipment to save water. This struck us as both in-theme and a great way to give players more options. Thus, the rain barrel was born. This handy piece of gear fills up with extra rainwater, which then extends the ship’s rations. In exchange, the players give up a little of their cargo space.

Everything seemed fine: we even had rules for how often the barrel would refill, but then a playtester noticed there wasn’t any limit on how many barrels they could have. They immediately set to sea with a ship covered in rain barrels. By the letter of the rules, they would almost never have to buy supplies again since the rain barrels all refilled at the same time.

My first instinct was to split water and food into separate resources, then to create an elaborate system for tracking weather and measuring how much rain would realistically fall on a ship in any given time. Then I realized it just made more sense to say each ship could only have one rain barrel at a time. Still, a part of me mourns for the barrel ship. It was broken and ridiculous, but it had heart.

2. Even Beds Can Be Overpowered

Torchbearer is a game about exploring dungeons, so naturally, adventurers have to wait until they’re back in town to enjoy the comforts and mechanical bonuses of sleeping on a soft bed. But in Rising Tide, explorers sail a ship around that has beds on it. So it seemed natural that PCs aboard a ship would get bonuses for rest and recovery based on how good their crew quarters were.

Mechanically, these bonuses were mostly represented by free rolls to recover from penalty-inducing conditions whenever the ship dropped anchor. At first this worked out great, and it warmed my heart to see the power gaming monsters of my RPG group concerned with what kind of mattress they’d be sleeping on. All was well.

But then someone found a problem: In Rising Tide, managing a character’s conditions is a big part of the game. Every action that is taken risks getting more conditions, which encourages players to stop and consider if finding that last bit of treasure is really worth it. This is very important to the game’s balance. By granting extra recovery rolls whenever the ship dropped anchor, the beds were breaking that balance and encouraging the PCs to take wild risks since it was so easy to get rid of their conditions later.

My playtesters caught on quickly, and soon acquiring better beds became the seas’ national sport. I had meant to craft rules where R&R was important, but I’d created a monster! Nothing but beds mattered. Engines, armor, and even cannons were casually tossed aside. It was a free-for-all to see who could be the most well rested. Eventually, I solved the problem by revising the rules so beds only gave free recovery rolls in port, something that happened a lot less often than dropping anchor. But I still remember the days when comforters ruled the seas and a ship’s fate rested on a single mattress.

3. Not Everything That Looks Abusable Is Broken

When building Rising Tide off Torchbearer’s blueprint, one of the first things we did was pare down the skill list, partly because a lot of Torchbearer’s skills didn’t really apply to adventure on the high seas. I’m also just a fan of games where every skill is clearly printed on the character sheet. This eventually left us with a total of 24 skills.

A side effect of this process was that unlocking every skill in the game was suddenly a possibility, and one playtester made it their goal to do just that. They studied the rules and discovered that by lowering their Nature* attribute, they could learn new skills faster. This tickled their power-gaming heart, even though a lower Nature comes with significant downsides.

In both Rising Tide and Torchbearer, characters learn new skills by first attempting tasks with their base attributes, but against significantly higher obstacles. This meant a lot of failing, but our intrepid playtester kept on until they finally accomplished their goal near the end of our final playtest campaign. They had smashed their face against every skill in the game and emerged victorious.

This was fairly useful, as characters in Rising Tide can give other players bonus dice if they’re using the same skill, but after some time I decided it wasn’t actually overpowered. Unlocking every skill had taken most of a campaign, and required major sacrifices in other areas, so I left the rules untouched. If anyone in your group decides to embark on a quest to catch all the skills, make sure they know that they’re in good company.

4. Skill Substitution Can Quickly Unbalance a Game

A scientist with a steampunk projector.

In Torchbearer, both magicians and clerics have spells that let them substitute their main magical skill for the Fighter skill. These spells turn magical characters into powerful combatants, but they’re balanced by Torchbearer’s small number of spells per day.

When I first converted Torchbearer’s magic into Rising Tide’s weird science and steampunk technology, I decided a per-day limit didn’t really fit, so I created other costs for supernatural abilities. Unfortunately, when I’d finished turning magic spells into weird science formulae, I’d left in skill substitution.

That turned out to be a serious mistake. You see, without the per-day limit, skill substitution was just too powerful. Skills are hard to come by, and letting some characters get the benefits of the Fighter skill without actually having it made anyone who took it the old-fashioned way feel cheated. No penalty I added to the substitution formulae seemed to balance them.

This dynamic also felt wrong. With sorcery, it’s believable that casting a combat spell would also imbue the caster with the skill to use it. But in a weird science setting, a character who makes a Tesla gun shouldn’t automatically know how to use it in a fight. Eventually, the solution became clear: treat these formulae as powerful weapons rather than skill substitutions. Players who wanted to make combat scientists could still do so, but they would have to invest in the Fighter skill like anyone else.

5. Economies Require Careful Pricing

One of the biggest problems we had with Rising Tide’s economy was figuring out how to price ships. On the one hand, they needed to be expensive enough that players didn’t view their own ship as disposable. On the other hand, they couldn’t sell for so much that taking one as a prize would set the party up for retirement.

Eventually, we reached a compromise. A ship’s hull would be relatively cheap, and a lot of the value would come from the facilities inside, from cannons and torpedoes to libraries and machine shops. That way, any ships captured could have sustained heavy damage to their facilities, reducing their value.

This came back to bite me when a playtester realized that the starting ship, with all of its valuable gear, could sell for a whopping amount of money. Because of some quirks in the system’s math, the starting ship actually sold for more money than it cost to replace. I’m sure you can see the problem.

Fortunately, my playtesters didn’t actually go down this ship-ception road because they’re not that cruel, but we did spend a good hour joking about infinite ship money. Then they all pitched in to help me fix the math.

6. A Game Can Only Do So Much

An old painting showing a fleet of ships in harbor.

If there’s one thing players love more than a ship, it’s two ships, or even three ships. Building a fleet of vessels was something our playtesters expressed interest in from the very beginning, and eventually we thought, “Sure, why not?” We already had rules for multiple ships fighting in the same battle; surely it wouldn’t be hard to add in some rules for owning a few extra craft.

Hubris, thy name is game designer. This was near the end of the playtest process, so we threw a few rules together and tried them out. Our approach was that a second ship would function exactly like the first, with its own records sheet and supply needs. This turned out to be a major problem because while managing one ship sheet can be fun, managing two is a huge pain. It was a task no one wanted to take on, as it involved a lot of repetition between the two ships.

To make matters worse, keeping track of what ship each PC was on proved much more difficult than expected. This got especially difficult in combat, which is when it most mattered. Each ship had different weapons loadouts, and it really didn’t make sense for a PC to use one ship’s mortar in the first round and the other ship’s torpedo tube in the second round, unless there was a lot of swimming involved.

After a few sessions of this, it was clear that the fleet rules had to go, so we scrapped them. Including half-baked rules would have been a disservice to anyone wanting to play Rising Tide, and it was an important lesson in why no game can have all the things. We’d still like to return to those rules in an expansion someday, though, so players everywhere may know the thrill of ordering their entire fleet to turn broadside.

7. What’s Fun Depends on Context

A cache of old fashioned firearms.

In the early days of Rising Tide, we imagined it as a small booklet you’d refer to when getting on a boat during your Torchbearer game. Even as Rising Tide grew into a much larger expansion, we still imagined that when not on a ship, PCs would follow the normal Torchbearer rules, including inventory management.

From there, it seemed obvious that explorers would gear up whenever they disembarked their ship, similar to the way they do at character creation in Torchbearer. After all, it just made sense that characters would be able to replenish their supplies while on board since a ship has to carry enough stuff for dozens, possibly hundreds of people.

We assumed that since gearing up in Torchbearer is fun, it would be fun to do it again any time PCs left the ship. We even considered rules that would change what equipment players had access to based on their ship’s facilities. Then we ran into a problem: gearing up in Torchbearer is fun because you only do it once. After character creation, adventurers replenish supplies as they go, never again filling an entire inventory from scratch.

Gearing up every time the PCs disembarked got boring fast, and we ended up skipping it more often than not during playtesting. That was a clear sign that it had to go. Before long, we jettisoned the entire idea that Rising Tide would transition into Torchbearer’s rules when the PCs stepped off the ship. Instead, we treated shore adventures as an extension of the ship mechanics and made much simpler rules for how much loot the explorers could carry back. This allowed us to focus more on the ship inventory and was another reminder not to include all the things in our game.

8. Mistakes Can Turn Out Great

Removing the individual inventory rules was one of the best decisions we made during Rising Tide’s production, but it was fairly late in the design process. Before that, I was determined to convert every Torchbearer adventuring item into something explorers would use in Rising Tide. For some items, this was easy. Swords became rifles, and the mirror became a telescope.

But one item that resisted conversion was the wooden stakes used to slay vampires. Bloodsuckers just didn’t fit with the steampunk gothic aesthetic of Rising Tide, so the stakes served no purpose. I spent quite some time thinking of what equivalent a wooden stake could possibly have for seaborn explorers, and eventually I hit on a solution: invent a new monster.

That monster became the undying, a sort of undead created by the strange physics and mysterious radiation of Rising Tide. Instead of blood, they drained years off a victim’s life. That fit much better into the new aesthetic, and now I could convert the wooden stake into something used specifically to kill undying. I went with a lead needle, leaning on the idea that lead would absorb the radiation that powers an undying. It might not be scientific, but it creeped out my players well enough.

Then we got rid of the character inventory rules, and the lead needles went with them. I’d created an entire monster to justify the inclusion of an item that didn’t exist anymore. At first, I was discouraged by the wasted effort, but then I realized that the playtesters were still super into the undying as monsters. In a setting where sea monsters are the norm, a humanoid enemy can be a good change of pace. We even had a few who wanted to become undying. And that’s how the time vampire earned its place of honor in the Adversaries section.

9. Streamlining Can Make Huge Improvements

In Torchbearer, it’s assumed that everyone will buy their own supplies, so it makes sense for each adventurer to have their own Resources attribute that increases as they build up credit. This quickly became a problem in Rising Tide, since most purchases are supplies for the communally held ship.

It wasn’t long before the playtesters realized that if they designated one character to make all purchases, that character’s Resources attribute would go through the roof. Pretty soon, the players could purchase nearly anything they liked, which completely broke the game’s balance. At the same time, this highlighted how uninteresting it was to roll Resources over and over again to buy all the supplies a ship needs. In Torchbearer those rolls are spread out, but it’s all one supply pool in Rising Tide.

Eventually I came up with a single solution to both problems. Instead of rolling to purchase each supply individually, the party would build up a tab of sorts as they filled their ship, then pay for the whole thing when they left port. Unusual purchases like new weapons would still be made separately, but all basic supplies would be lumped together. Not only did this reduce the number of Resources rolls, but it significantly shortened the port phase, letting the players get back to the action sooner.

This design choice reminded us that more detail is not always better. Combining resupply into one roll reduced player freedom a little, but it also meant we could spend more time and energy each session on exciting nautical adventures. That sort of streamlining is something RPGs could do more of.

10. Mega Playtesting Is Best Playtesting

A Chinese painting of multiple river boats.

By about halfway through the Rising Tide playtesting process, we had a problem. We knew the basic concept was sound, and we’d reached the stage where we needed as much feedback as possible to help us adjust the details. The game wasn’t yet ready for anyone but me to run it, and I just didn’t have the time to run two playtest campaigns each week.

Our solution was to create two playtest groups, then run them on alternating weekends. Fortunately, we had no shortage of volunteers, and both groups filled up quickly. I set them in the same world, and occasionally they would hear about each other’s adventures or even encounter the aftermath of those adventures.

The experiment worked great, as two playtest groups allowed us to get a much wider array of feedback than normal in a much shorter time. But as the campaigns drew to a close, I decided we should do something special to celebrate. Naturally, that turned into a twelve-player mega session as I invited both groups to play together for the big climax.

To be fair, we didn’t actually get much playtesting done in that session. With so many players, I had to handwave most of the rules and focus on the narration. But it was super fun anyway. The two groups intermingled after months of hearing about each other’s exploits secondhand, and everyone had fun trading anecdotes. Then I dropped an army of sea monsters on them, and the session became an epic struggle for survival.

We didn’t learn any super important lessons on game design from this mega session, but it did teach us that playtesting will be a lot more productive if it’s fun. Playtesting is work to be sure, but if it becomes drudgery, you’ll likely be in such a hurry to get it over with that you don’t get any useful data. Don’t be afraid to switch things up occasionally to keep the story interesting, the same way you would for any other campaign. That way playtesting can be something to look forward to, not a chore to be dreaded.

Well, there you have it: a little peek into the world of RPG development. Rising Tide was a lot of work to create, but looking at the final product, it was work worth doing. We hope you all enjoy playing it as much as we enjoyed making it.

Do you like Torchbearer?

Play it on the dark seas with our expansion, Rising Tide. Check it out.

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  1. Greg

    An incidental observation:

    In a normal area, the amount of rain a surface gets in a day is measured in fractions of inches. Rain barrels don’t fill up very fast unless you have them under something to funnel in the runoff of rain hitting a large surface.

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