First Impressions: Torchbearer Dungeoneer’s Handbook

Just look at that little guy!

I have a very specific type when it comes to RPG rule books: digest-sized, uncoated pages, hardback. I blame it on Burning Wheel Gold. Nothing against the taller books with glossy pages, but with so many of them, the one that looked like a fantasy novel really stood out—and as someone who likes reading rule books for the sake if it, I appreciated the more comfortable form factor. I even imagined it would be easier to lug around to the Burning Wheel game I never quite managed to get going.
Now, there’s a little more competition. In particular, Old-School Essentials fits exactly the same niche, and has also earned a top spot in my collection. I’ve had more luck getting old-school games going too, or at least cribbing from that style of play when tables demand the current edition of D&D.
All of this is to say that I offered no resistance to the Torchbearer 2nd Edition Kickstarter. Old-school dungeon crawling? Based on Burning Wheel? In a series of chunky digest-sized hardcovers? Now that I have my hands on them, the plan is to read them, give my initial impressions of each book (and, if I can whip up the interest, review the game at a couple of points in a short campaign). I’ll be looking at the books along three lines:

  1. Reading. How much I enjoyed just paging through the thing. Even if you’re not a weirdo like me who likes doing that for the sake of it, I’ll go into more pertinent details, like the writing and physical quality of the books.
  2. Stealing. In the sense of stealing ideas from the book to put into your other games, whether its specific rules or general inspiration. (Don’t actually steal the books. Support the people who make them.)
  3. Playing. Admittedly this is just a guess, but I think it’s the fundamental goal of any rule book: does it make me actually want to play the game?
    With that out of the way…

First first impressions: this book is gorgeous. The cover art is an evocative scene of a monster looming over a pair of adventurers, the name is embossed in gold, there’s a nice linen finish. I could make a hacky joke about judging a book by its cover, but it’s clear that a lot of care and attention to detail went into this, and in a time where most media can be had digitally, it’s worth noting that, if you get a hard copy, it’s a nice product to have.
The print quality also looks great. I’m not crazy about the chapter headings seeming to replicate an ink bleeding effect, which just makes it look blurry, but the rest of the text is crisp and clear. The printing is two-toned, mostly black ink with blue highlights. There’s Nordic scrollwork along the edges, which reinforces what I’ve seen called a “Viking Tolkien” vibe. (Which I love. It’s like mashing together The Hobbit and Skyrim.) I adore the artwork, too. It’s mostly line art of fantasy characters, which really evokes an old-school spirit. The artists include some heavy hitters from the OSR, and even Mouse Guard artist David Petersen!
Alright. So it looks and even feels great, but how does it read?
Pretty damn good, honestly. The thing I appreciate most about it is that it manages to clearly and succinctly explain its rules without sounding like a dry technical manual. Everything flows, typically in bite-sized sections, making it easy to learn the rules or brush up on them one section at a time, here and there. Sometimes rule books just act as reference documents, or feel like they are a codified version of a rule set designed by committee. Torchbearer feels warmer and more comfortable than that. It feels like people explaining a game to other people, including mood setting, examples, and asides. It has a heartbeat.
The result is that reading the rules evokes a certain feeling of gameplay. Obviously any game can include snippets of example play, and this game is no exception, but even that can end up a bit plain. Torchbearer comes in strong, with even the opening passage sets the scene for gritty adventures with down-on-their-luck misfits trying to eek out a living. It’s the kind of thing you can include when pitching the game to a group of players, to quickly and effectively get the tone across.
Even without having played the game, Torchbearer is clearly built for a purpose. It’s not trying to be all games to all people, but to generate a game cycle of hard expeditions and periods of rest, with a strong emphasis on resource management. There are glimpses of joy and comfortable moments, and lightheartedness—There are even rules for riddles! How cool is that?—but this game is about The Grind. It hangs in the air, heavy and ominous, in large part because it’s never properly explained.
As much fun as I had reading this, it’s not a complete system in and of itself. Torchbearer’s basic set is divided between two books, the Dungeoneer’s Handbook and the Scholar’s Guide. (I’m usually a little wary of publishers dividing rules to sell more books, but eh, these would be unwieldy if combined into one volume, and you can buy both of them in a slipcase for the cost of one of the 5e core rule books.) Usually, when a system is broken up like that, one book will be the core rules themselves, while any other or others would include tools and references to help run the game. It seems that Torchbearer doesn’t work that way. The player-facing and GM-facing rules might not be so easily split.
On the one hand, it’s a bit inconvenient and means that the rules don’t always make sense without a broader context of how the game works. On the other… I kind of like that mystery. New players come into the game with their characters ready, but uncertain about what the future holds for their characters. They will know that the Fighter skill will make them stronger in combat, but not what combat actually looks and feels like until they get into a fight. It also, presumably, will be more asymmetric. Traditional RPGs have the GM fulfill a different role from the players, but still interacting with the same systems in more or less the same way. I’m curious to see how that works when reading the Scholar’s Guide.

Returning to the book at hand, I found plenty of great ideas to experiment with and apply to other games.
Torchbearer’s Beliefs, Creeds, Goals, Instincts, and Traits feel like a more fleshed out version of 5e’s Beliefs, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws—in that they are fleshed out at all. I’ve played the latest edition of D&D on and off for about seven years now, and not once have I seen written personality traits come up in gameplay beyond the first session or two. They’re a way of fleshing out a character at creation, and that’s about it. I’m sure some people will take exception to this, but they are exceptions to the rule.
But in Torchbearer, these characteristics actually have more of an impact. Playing with or against them gets you Fate and Persona points, both of which let you improve your odds when rolling dice in various ways. The counterpoint would be that 5e has a similar mechanism in its inspiration, but that is also typically ignored. You can’t do that in Torchbearer, because spending Fate and Persona are how you gain levels. You can advance skills independently, but to get the benefits of higher character levels, you need to spend points that you can only collect by playing your character.
Oh, and it’s also how you earn “checks.” Checks are used to set up camp and recover, though the precise details, presumably, lie in the Scholar’s guide. Imagine if, in 5e, you NEEDED to play to your character’s strengths and weaknesses of character in order to earn a short rest.
These would take some hammering to fit into the rather finicky “balance” of 5e, but I can see plenty of ways to adapt them. You can increase the rewards for roleplaying with XP and recovering hit dice, or require a player to play to their character’s personality in critical moments, for good or for ill, a certain number of times to level up (in addition to collecting enough experience).
One of the more acquired tastes in old-school games derived from the Basic line of D&D products is “race as class.” Instead of selecting both a race and a class for your character, the two are combined, and different fantasy races are treated like any other class (which defaults to human). Some people like the simplicity, others prefer opening up character options (and not treating fantasy races as monoliths). Torchbearer has a peculiar approach: technically, characters have a separate “stock” and “class.” But, they are both inextricably linked in the rules-as-written. All Halfling player characters are burglars, and all burglar player characters are Halflings.
That confused me at first, until I arrived at the section on advancement. When a character levels up, they have a choice between two benefits. This benefit might be related to your stock or your class. So, while it constricts options at creation, it does allow for characters of the same class to be differentiated from one another, and opens up some clear avenues for house rules and homebrew. There are other games that do something similar—namely, Shadow of the Demon Lord—but this particular implementation is ripe for application into some old-school games.
And those are just the points I think are ripest for mechanical adaptation. There’s plenty more that’s valuable as a general inspiration: the flavor text is great at setting a dungeon-crawling mood; the “Describe to Live” principle distills the lateral thinking aspect so beloved in old-school games; the distinct phases of play (adventure, camp, town) show the common lineage between classic Dungeons and Dragons and modern games like Blades in the Dark; “Nature” is a great way to represent a push-and-pull tension within a character; slot-and-location inventory sounds promising (though I think it will be better detailed in the Scholar’s Guide), and the elves are deeply sad, which is an interpretation I don’t think we seen enough of.

Surprising absolutely no one, I’m looking forward to reading the rest of these books, and, hopefully, rounding up a group to give it a go. My expectation is that this is going to be a tightly focused dungeon crawler, with an old-school feel through new-school designs. As a player, I imagine a tough but rewarding experience, where characters feel real, mortal danger, and victories, though rare, are all the sweeter for the difficulty in achieving them. (Hey, I always appreciate seeing a protagonist getting the ever-living daylights beaten out of them. It makes me root for their struggle, and cheer to see them overcome it.) As a GM, I expect a bit of a balancing act, keeping the gears moving and properly engaged with one another, but in a way that generates momentum in play. I’m a bit daunted by the sheer number of intricately connected mechanisms, but at least each individual part is simple, and, hopefully, they come together into a thrumming, efficient machine.
But hey, even if it doesn’t quite work out, I’m enjoying the process. These books are motivating.

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