Calamity, Calumny, and Catastrophe
I've talked a lot about Torchbearer from the player's perspective, but the area that's most important to me as a full-time GM is how much work it takes to run an adventure. Thankfully, Torchbearer is comparable to other games in terms of time commitment to design adventures. The major difference is in how that time is spent.
Whereas other games might require you to plan a dozen or more rooms/encounter areas for a single session, a game of Torchbearer only needs a handful to thrive as players tend to spend more time engaging with each challenge. My group consistently made it through four rooms during our three-hour sessions. This means that larger dungeons will take several sessions to complete and it's plausible that an entire campaign could unfold within a single locale.
Despite this, you will still spend just as much time on those few rooms as you incorporate ways to challenge the player's beliefs, introduce interesting twists, and keep the story moving. That's the real challenge of GMing Torchbearer, turning ordinary traps and monsters into something the players care about. Some may argue that this has always been the case (and they would be right), but because Beliefs are what drive advancement, it's doubly important to learn how to present opportunities to call on those Beliefs without forcing them to do so. A simple way to encourage your players to do so is to read their Beliefs prior to making any important decision.
The other challenge is going to be rules mastery. In a previous article, I encouraged GMs to read the rules a minimum of three times. Torchbearer was the game I had in mind while giving that advice. I don't want to give the impression that this game is overly complex because it's not, but there are enough moving parts and situational rules that it does require more than one look. My general guideline for rules competency is this: you should be able to explain what every item on the character sheet is, as well as how to incorporate it into play.
While most games that emulate the world's most popular roleplaying game take a back-to-basics approach to rules design thanks to the OGL, Torchbearer relies on the ingenuity of more modern game design to add a fresh twist to the tried and true dungeon crawler experience. It is, admittedly, not for everyone. The sheer number of rules means there is a pretty steep learning curve, and some players may find the design philosophy jarring compared to more traditional games.
I'll close by answering the same question I asked in the first part of this review. So, what exactly is Torchbearer?
Torcbearer is a game for people who want purposeful dungeon crawling with hard rules for resource management. It is not a game about killing all the monsters and getting the treasure; rather, it is a game about what you'll risk just for the chance to rise above the squalor of the masses. Will you risk hunger, exhaustion, and your health for nothing but a rumor of gold? Are you willing to profit and suffer from the best and worst parts of your personality? Can you stand for your beliefs to be challenged, and, if they change, will you go home demoralized or embrace them just as fervently?
If you answered yes to any of those questions, this is the game for you. Now count your torches, ration your food, and swing by the Burning Wheel store for any supplies you may need.