Torchbearer is an old-school RPG that puts the crawl into dungeon crawl. In fact, it puts the “crawl away bleeding and starving to sell that one cracked gem you grabbed from the hand of the cleric as he died screaming so you can buy enough food to not perish on your next jaunt back out into the hellish world you had the misfortune to be born into” into dungeon crawl.
There are plenty of great reviews out there summarising the mechanics of Torchbearer, so I won’t rehash that here in detail. What I want to talk about is how it feels to play, based on a single session I ran for two experienced, open-minded players who signed up for the premise of the game. They came ready to be ground into dust by attrition and impossible choices.
Unfortunately, they left incredibly disappointed.
Character creation was quick and painless, and I think both players enjoyed stocking their inventories. The inventory system has been widely praised, for good reason. It’s granular enough to offer interesting, meaningful choices about what to bring, but hand-wavy enough to avoid counting the pounds. It allows treasure to be abstracted really simply without too much shuffling around items between bags. It focuses on the important choices: what weapons do you have? What treasure do you take and leave? How much light do you need? It’s also pleasingly intuitive, with no confusion arising.
The light mechanic similarly is just great. Torches last a certain number of turns, and cover a certain number of people. No need to worry about time on a minute-to-minute basis, or know the exact dimensions and distance of each room, object, and creature – but you still need light and have meaningful choices.
I ran them through the first two levels of Dyson’s Delve, a truly wonderful megadungeon that offers plenty of meaningful choices and different paths through its early stages. As a DM I had a great time.
My one gripe was that the rules are laid out really poorly. I read the book ahead of time and made myself a cheat sheet, but nonetheless ended up spending a lot of time trying to find rules such as how to buy things in town; how to recover from conditions; and so on. The rules imply monsters have skills comparable to the PCs – stealth is supposed to involve opposed Scout rolls, for example – but I couldn’t find them, or rules explaining how to improvise this. As a result I ended up using the Cypher system approach of treating each monster as a flat number (its Nature) and hoping for the best. This worked ok – but I have no idea if this is how the game is meant to be played.
Nonetheless, I found the system pleasant to run. The philosophy the game seems to encourage is to allow any actions by the players as long as they have a good plan. This led to interesting discussion and strategy, and (from the DM’s perspective) a smooth ride. You have a good plan to shank that guard? Great! It works! Let’s move on. A check is made only whenever there’s a risk of something going horribly wrong. If you fail you still get what you want, but with a complication. This ties nicely into the time, light, and hunger systems by keeping the grind moving at a slow but steady pace.
Consequently, checks are key moments, key beats, that the DM can really focus on. Whereas in D&D there are so many rolls that consistently letting players fail forward quickly becomes difficult, the focus on occasional but critical rolls in Torchbearer allowed me to really hone in on creating interesting complications. I had space to breathe, helping me to creatively move things forward and make the characters’ lives worse with unexpected twists. I’m going to try to incorporate this into my other games: when the players have a good plan, let’s just let it succeed, even if failure is possible.
In short, I loved the action economy of Torchbearer and felt like it gave the players a lot of freedom to be creative.
My players did not agree.
I trust my players and we play together regularly. I trust them to tell me when I’m running things poorly, and to distinguish “we’re not familiar with the system” from criticism of the system itself. Both of them are DMs, too, and both have played more systems than I have. They’re smart people.
Where I saw huge scope for creativity, they felt constrained. They complained that they had to play me, the DM, rather than the scenario: it was less about creative problem solving than about manipulating their fellow human. This isn’t because I was unyielding; they both said I was more lenient than they expected given the premise of the game. Nonetheless, the psychological effect of focusing in on these few, hugely pivotal rolls was a loss of immersion in the fiction.
Once they each had a condition or two their mechanical options also became hugely constrained. They simply could not pass certain checks. Together with the lack of immersion, this led to an almost total loss of their sense of agency.
One player pretty much hated it, start to finish. The other sees the merits in the system but says it is so deadly at low levels that it amounts to a random name grinder: throw PCs into the dungeon until one lucks out and can advance enough to gain some agency. He’s enthusiastic to play it again, but reckons the low levels are just not fun.
I have never played a game with such divergent experiences between the players and the DM. Torchbearer provides a really nice set of (admittedly poorly explained) systems that, when mastered, would lead to a really good dungeon crawler. It abstracts things in all the right places. It potentially offers players more freedom to succeed than D&D – there are far fewer checks, so far fewer chances to succumb to bad luck – and gives the DM space to breathe and make each check meaningful.
My players just… did not enjoy it. They didn’t feel they had any agency. They found the mechanics, in places, alienating. They hated the town mechanics for buying and selling, the almost total lack of ways to heal the Injured condition at low levels, and the lack of options for fleeing combat.
The book suggests the game needs to be mastered over 8-10 sessions, and I respect that. It’s a fairly complicated set of interlocking systems which I think has a great deal of merit, and certainly will take time to master. But I don’t think we’ll be revisiting it without at least giving starting players a few skill boosts, even if this is somewhat against the spirit of the game.
Torchbearer sets out to achieve a particular tone and flavour, and I think it does this really well. I really recommend giving it a go. It rewards mastery and extended immersion in the game’s rule set and mindset; unfortunately, for my players at least, it was just not much fun.