fathoming the unfathomable

Torchbearer, like many old-styled RPGs, leaves open why the player characters came together as an adventure party. Why do they keep trusting and depending on each other? Why do they risk their lives for each other?

By Jeremy Weate from Abuja, Nigeria – Swords of Qādisīyah, CC BY 2.0, Link

Obviously in games like Torchbearer, the metagame reason is if they don’t, they die. But I feel it’s important for play to have an in-fiction touchstone. Not just for verisimilitude; I think it helps us care about the characters and gives players more to grab on to in play.

I made the list below a few years back. My idea was the players first agree on a shared background, a history or purpose that glues them together through thick or thin. Then they build characters to fit and support that concept. Not as a straitjacket or a wish list of power-ups, more a solid foundation to fall back on should things get existential.

There’s no reason for the PCs to have identical motivations, but sharing some will make sense of why they work together at all.

I put these motivations into four groups for convenience: desperation, money, ambition, and duty. Maybe they survived a disaster together, are paid by the same patron, or hunt the same enemy. Or all of the above: when you’re desperate, you often need money, which leads to ambitious plans…

This is similar to Into the Dark’s Adventuring Parties in the Twilight Empire, but higher level, more abstract. In many ways, I prefer Into the Dark’s approach. It has the benefit of providing depth to the setting, gives the players natural antagonists in the setting, and seems a little more gameable. It also reminds me a little of Blades in the Dark crews. Something like it might be useful for the Abyss, the adventure region I’m developing for Torchbearer. I’ll add to the list.

Nevertheless, a benefit of my motivational approach is it’s also useful for GM characters and people who aren’t adventurers. For example, the Abyss is such a terrible place, why does anyone live there at all? What drove them there in the first place, what keeps them there still?

This list may inspire some answers.  


  • Disaster – fleeing to find refuge, e.g. village destroyed, ongoing war, famine,…
  • Escape – fleeing persecution: slaves, gladiators, prisoners, criminals, soldiers…
  • Coerced – bullied into furthering goals of or entertaining <blackmailer/faction/god>
  • Conscripted – hoping for a pardon, citizenship,…


  • Poverty – climb out of the gutter any way they can
  • Indebted – owe money, fealty or favour to person/organisation
  • Heist – working on a really big con/theft/deception
  • Mercenary – Patron pays for bounty hunt, field research, discovery, mapping,…


  • Enemy – Bring down the <something or one>, revenge, assassination
  • Rescue – loved one, prince, persecuted people
  • Raiding – love of pillage and raiding
  • Pilgrimage – holy journey
  • Knowledge – Uncover ancient mystery, dangerous secret, personal history, wonder


  • Diplomacy – foment strife, weaken powerful, incite unrest; or prevent such
  • Religious – recover holy relics/artefacts, rever divinity, save souls
  • Crusaders – Crusade against <distant threat or monster>
  • Vision – myths about fate, ancestor, lands, ascendance, downfall, demons
  • Family – this is your family’s place and all they have ever known

an intro

Roleplaying games: I love ’em. Playing, reading, dreaming, designing, whatever! They’re great. So I thought I’d share a little of that love. Here’s trying.

When I moved to a new city 10 years back, I founded my best and strongest friendships around a shared loved of roleplaying. The kind where you go to someone’s house, sit around a table and shout nonsense and brilliance at each other for a few hours. I played a range of games, with independent publishers being my bread and butter. I haven’t played D&D since I burned out on 2nd Edition in the nineties.

I usually play twice a week. I’m lucky that way. At the moment, that means a few games of Blades in the Dark (running Shadows and Assassins crews and playing in Hawkers) and playing in Legacy: Life among the Ruins. 

I’ve also had few stop-starts designing, but most of my energy for games has been playing and facilitating. I’ve certainly seen a few designs crumble in my hands, after many months of meanderings. But that comes with the territory.

At the moment, I’m designing a setting to string together a few Torchbearer games I’m planning to play next year. It’s inspired by the central location of the novel Boneshaker.

The Maw. The Abyss. Hell. All names of a hidden valley, smote by the gods, forever shrouded in a corrupting fog, a poisonous wound filled with unplundered treasures and terror, and a haven for those who hunger to flee the world. For a whole society of exiles, criminals, and refugees hide in its murky depths, in safe harbours carved out of the wasteland. Maybe small, overcrowded and filthy, but to you, torchbearer, they’re heaven.

Torchbearer campaign: Abyssal lights

I’ll put up more of my ideas for this, and other things, here. Till then.