So, what exactly is Torchbearer?
From the website:
Torchbearer is a riff on the early model of fantasy roleplaying games. In it, you take on the role of a fortune-seeking adventurer. To earn that fortune, you must delve into forlorn ruins, brave terrible monsters and retrieve forgotten treasures. However, make no mistake, this game is not about being a hero or about fighting for what you believe. This game is about exploration and survival. You may become a hero. You might have to fight for your ideals. But to do either of those things, you must prove yourself in the wilds. Because there are no jobs, no inheritance, no other opportunities for your deadbeat adventurers. This life is your only hope to prosper in this world.This description is similar to any number of games being put out by the OSR community right now. However, for whatever intentions it shares with the likes of Labyrinth Lord, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Swords and Wizardry, DCC RPG, and countless others, Torchbearer is far more different than similar to any of those other games. It meticulously tracks turns. There are strict inventory rules. Campaigns progress through highly structured phases. You'll never roll a D20. I could go on, but let's start with the easy part: the physical book itself.
Peter Mullen, who has contributed to many of the high profile releases of the OSR community, illustrated the cover for Torchbearer. It depicts your group of typical adventurers plumbing the depth of some cavern: their weapons are drawn, their torches lit, and they stand feet away from a grinning dragon. Anyone familiar with Mullen's work can tell you that it's about as far away from the sleek stylings of Pathfinder or more recent editions of D&D. On the artwork alone, this book will fit in well next to your tattered copies of the AD&D core books.
Torchbearer takes that aesthetic one step further. Not only do the books look like they're straight out of 1978, they also feel like it. This is hard to explain, but anyone who has laid their hands on the original core books will know exactly what I'm talking about. Luke and Co. have always been about producing "books-as-artifacts", and this is no different. It's a nice touch, a subtle nod to the game's biggest source of inspiration.
The interior of the book is all black-and-white and printed on similar paper to The Burning Wheel rulebook. Torchbearer doesn't feature as much art, or as varied a style as some other OSR releases, but this is not a bad thing. Every section header has a distinct piece, and the illustrations that are placed throughout the book are all top-notch. Quality, not quantity, is the name of the game here.
The only issue, I think, is the price. Torchbearer retails for $35 and clocks in at just under 200 pages. The Burning Wheel rulebook, while printed in the smaller A6 format, is three times larger at 600 pages and only comes to $25. Personally, this isn't an issue for me, as getting a complete game for under $40 in hardcover is a steal (doubly so considering I got the PDF for that price), but I can see some gamers balking at the price of admission. Luckily, Luke and Co. have decided to offer PDFs of this game. If you're curious (or just prefer your books electronically), you can get in on the action for $15.
The Burning family of games has one of the best character creation systems ever designed. While not quite as robust as Burning Wheel, players build their character to be far more than a collection of stats. You answer questions about your past. Your answers determine who your friends are, who your enemies are, whether or not you have any surviving family, in addition to what skills you have picked up in your life. At the core of these games are Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits. Beliefs articulate perhaps the greatest relevant moral guideline your character lives by. Instincts are the more knee-jerk reaction part of your character. Traits play a vital role and will affect your character both negatively and positively.
Torchbearer deviates from the other games in the Burning family and includes classes. In keeping with its nod to the old days of D&D, these are race-class hybrids. Players may choose to play the Dwarf Adventurer, Elf Ranger, Halfling Burglar, or, if they choose to play a human, Cleric, Warrior, and Magician. Each class offers a standard package of skills, ability scores, traits, and weapon and armor proficiencies. Each race also offers a specific Nature. Nature is defined as three descriptors, such as Hiding, Boasting, and Remembering, and is used in place of skill or to bolster your odds of success. Players differentiate themselves through deciding their Homeland, Social Graces, Wises, and Specialties. This process is very smooth and lends itself especially well to group character creation.
The one part that I find players struggle with is writing Beliefs and Instincts. It is, admittedly, difficult to define your moral code and automatic reactions in a single neat sentence or two. In general, I've found players grasp this within a few sessions as they try to incorporate them into play and revise them as necessary. Some may find this frustrating, as advancement is linked to working these into the story, but levels in these game matter far less than in others. If a player is struggling to incorporate these into the story, they either need to be reevaluated or the GM needs to do a better job of offering situations where they might be applicable.
Torchbearer also deviates from pretty much every other game in how starting gear is purchased. To put it simply, it's not. Whereas other games allow you to equip your character according to resource points or starting gold, the only limiting factor here is what you can carry. This is brilliant. Since each item takes up an exact amount of space in your inventory and said inventory is fairly limited, players learn to make the tough decisions betweens wants and needs before even stepping foot in a dungeon. This is a useful skill to have as resource management is one of the central parts of the game.
Once characters have been made, you're ready to set out on your first adventure.