It’s been five years since the Kickstarter for the Torchbearer RPG. There have been a lot of developments since then, both through official BWHQ products and the open Torchbearer Sagas License.
While there are plenty of early reviews that cover the basics of the game from when it first released, there aren’t many resources detailing the state of the game five years in. So if you’re looking to get into Torchbearer RPG or if you’re already a fan and just wondering what’s new out there, this post is for you!
What is Torchbearer?
Torchbearer is a modern, character-driven RPG that focuses on an old-school style of role-play; namely, the dungeon crawl. It is based on the brilliant Mouse Guard RPG.
It’s not truly an Old School Revival (OSR) type of game because it doesn’t regress to old-style game mechanics. It’s more of a spiritual cousin of OSR, taking the innovations of the indie RPG scene and applying them to old-school themes.
The end result is a game filled with the thrilling danger and deathtraps of old-school play, but that focuses on how personalities interact with the challenges they face. It’s not so much about overcoming obstacles (or dying ignominiously) as it is about who is facing the obstacles and how they are changed by them.
Although it’s derived from Burning Wheel, Torchbearer differs from that game in that the action is very site-based. The focus of the adventure is usually on a perilous location that the group must explore and survive, even if they all have different motivations for doing so. That’s a bit different from the broad agenda-setting powers granted to the players in Burning Wheel, although some of that still remains in Torchbearer.
Who Plays Torchbearer?
We’ve found that people with no previous RPG experience take really well to the game. In a lot of ways, Torchbearer is more like what new players imagine fantasy RPGs to be like than mainstream RPGs tend to be. The focus on descriptive interaction and characters really lines up with the spirit of the hobby. Torchbearer is also comparatively light on character options; although I wouldn’t call it “rules light”, character creation is very straightforward. This makes it easy for new players to jump in without having to do any research.
Experienced role-players face more complex issues when getting into Torchbearer. In our own groups, many players have had to unlearn some habits from a lifetime of fantasy RPGs. The emphasis on description over game mechanics can feel limiting at first, and the role of failure in Torchbearer is radically different from other games (except perhaps Mouse Guard). Even so, most experienced players come to love the game as it brings them back to a more freewheeling and creative era of the hobby.
The Torchbearer Sagas License
Torchbearer is a great game, but it has even greater potential. BWHQ has provided an open license to commercially publish materials for the game under their editorial veto, called Torchbearer Sagas. There’s also a non-commercial license called Dungeoneers and Dragonslayers. This means anyone can write and publish Torchbearer adventures and rules!
And you should publish! If you’ve had a really great, memorable session of Torchbearer why not consider writing it up as a module for other folks to experience?
We plan to talk a whole lot more about the open licenses here on this blog, including some collected advice on how to use the tools that are out there and get your module to release. It's our plan to aggressively promote not only the Torchbearer RPG but every Sagas and free product for the game — from Mordite Press or anyone else.
So What’s Out There Now?
If you've only just heard of the game or you're thinking of revisiting it after some time away, it can be very challenging to piece together all of the materials that are available. Below we're going to explore all the different products and accessories as of Fall 2018! It may not be comprehensive, but we'll cover all the big points.
Rulebooks and Essentials
All you really need to start with Torchbearer is a copy of the rulebook (either printing) and a bunch of six-sided dice.
Torchbearer RPG 1st and 2nd Printing
There are two printings of the rulebook. The first printing has metallic gold lettering on the cover and no byline. The second (current) printing has a purple stylized logo and a byline for Luke and Thor.
If you’re just getting into the game, you can absolutely make do with a first printing. There are a handful of corrections—mainly with helping skills and level two traits—but 99% of the first printing is correct and useable. There is also a PDF version available.
The core rulebook covers the basic classes from 1st to 5th levels. That’s actually enough for a good amount of regular gameplay; at least 11 sessions, likely more, as we will explore in a later blog post. BWHQ has released playtest versions of the classes from 6th to 10th level as a free PDF, plus the entire Paladin and Thief bonus classes!
Along with those higher level classes come Spells and Prayers for them to use!
In addition to a few spells for magicians of levels 6th–8th, the playtest spells include more spells to be learned during the first five levels as well. They won't be on the starting spell table, but they will make for excellent loot! Note that although 5th level spell slots are available in the playtest Magician 1st–10th, no 5th level spells have been revealed yet. Your GM will have to invent some!
As for Clerics, the new 3rd Circle prayers have them covered for 6th–8th levels, as well as some indispensable spells in the lower Circles. No 4th Circle prayers have been completely revealed — however, The Terrible Price playtest rules reveal the existence (though not the details) of the mighty Raise Dead prayer.
This is an optional rule for replacing or saving high level characters in the event of their untimely demise. To use them, you’ll need the guidelines for making characters above first level which are a little harder to find. We’ll cover that process a bit in a later blog post.
These two volumes feature new monsters for the Torchbearer RPG illustrated by David Petersen of Mouse Guard fame!
- Volume I
- Devil Boar
- Disturbed Spirit
- Volume II
- Cinder Imp
- Elder Nixie
- Giant Cyclops
Long-time Torchbearer players have come to realize that there are a handful of “missing” rules in the book. There are isolated class abilities and references to “Battle” conflicts and a few other things sprinkled throughout the book that are not fully explained. Most of these result from the game being derived from the Mouse Guard RPG. While the rules in question are not central to the game and it is not essential to reference Mouse Guard to play Torchbearer, a real completionist will want to have a copy of Mouse Guard 2nd Edition to help fill in the gaps.
If all you’ve ever seen is the core rulebook, you’d be forgiven for thinking Torchbearer is kind of light on class options. In truth, between official playtest releases, Memento Mori’s classbooks and Mordite Press’ offerings, there are nearly fifty playable classes for the game. Below, we explore the sources of those classes, but if all you're interested in is a list, the Underworld Torchbearer Wiki has it covered.
Burning Wheel introduced two classes, the Paladin and the Thief, as free PDF downloads not long after the Torchbearer Rulebook was released. Both of those classes are re-released alongside the playtest classes 1st–10th linked above. In addition, Torchbearer Gazetteer: Middarmark includes a Skald class, a warrior and poet of social standing in the Middarmark.
Memento Mori Theatricks classes
Memento Mori’s Jared Sorensen cranks out awesome classes for Torchbearer on the reg. He’s single-handedly covered nearly every classic FRPG trope, from dark elf sorcerers to minotaur pit fighters to half-vampire-vampire-hunters!
Shane King and Hayes Edgeworth bring us the Rune Casters, two classes that utilize their own exotic magic system. ALSO THERE’S A FISH MAN CLASS. Note that these classes are only presented with levels 1st-5th (as that was standard at the time of release), but perhaps we can collectively shame the authors into expanding to 10th!
Mordite Press offers Fearless and Freebooting, nine Middarmark-themed classes which fill out the thematic and mythological niches explored in the Torchbearer Gazetteer: Middarmark. We absolutely have plans for more Torchbearer classes, but those are super secret!
There are some other playable classes sprinkled throughout the Torchbearer Sagas products, notably including the Hobgoblin Raider in The Lost Crown of Tesh Naga.
A game that centers on dungeon crawls just cries out for unique adventure modules. While Torchbearer excels at working with small-scale modules from other fantasy RPGs and generic 1-page dungeons, there are quite a few options out there specifically written for Torchbearer. Perhaps in a future blog post we will make a foolish attempt at stringing all published Torchbearer modules into a single campaign!
Three Squires is the adventure featured in the core Torchbearer rulebook. It is gritty in tone, and it serves as the origin story of a surprising number of adventurers! As a word of caution, the dungeon is actually quite large for a Torchbearer adventure site, especially for novice players. Expect this to take four or five sessions of play, and don't be surprised if it takes your characters to 3rd level.
This is the FREE official "beginner " module from Burning Wheel HQ, and it does a good job of establishing the basics of the game for new players and GMs. It is much smaller in scope than Three Squires, so it is manageable in one session for an experienced GM, making it a good pull for a convention game. A word of caution (and mild spoiler) is warranted here: the adventure's end hinges on the players' ability to think beyond simply bashing monsters with their weapons. As a result, players who are totally new to the hobby tend to survive a little better than experienced fantasy RPG folks who have been conditioned for decades to seek violent solutions.
The sole sagas offering from DDE Adventures. We'd love to see more! Lost Crown is an inventive dungeon crawl reportedly inspired by an iconic Dyson Logos map, which we recommend tracking down if you plan to run it. The eponymous crown is destined to become one of those storied artifacts that passes from hero to hero as each meets their inevitable doom.
Secret Vault is an official BWHQ module by Thor Olavsrud, and for my money it is the best of the lot. Although it is on the large side for a single session, the use of a timer keeps the action fast-paced and keeps the pressure on the players. Secret Vault is an excellent choice for a convention game to challenge more experienced Torchbearer players.
Todd James' contest-winning submission to the BWHQ module contest, this medium-sized adventure module is lavishly illustrated by... Todd James! Moreso than any of the previous modules on this list, Hand of the Pit turns up the "weird " knob to eleven and makes a great delve for grungy, scrappy adventurers.
For our maiden voyage at Mordite Press, we wanted a module with a truly "classic " feel — goblins, barbarians, and evil priests infest this dungeon complex.
Featured in the Torchbearer Gazetteer: Middarmark, In the Shadow of the Horns weaves the rich, epic elements of that campaign setting into a sample adventure with a map by the formidable Michael Prescott.
Sean Nittner nabs the title for the largest, most ambitious Torchbearer module to date. With over 60 pages of dungeon, setting, NPCs and rich detail (not to mention stunning art and design), a group could easily use Stone Dragon Mountain as the basis for a dozen sessions or a small campaign in itself.
Our most recent module, Roost of the Condor Queen, takes the adventurers to a much stranger land indeed. The party will brave the branches of the Great Tree of Puku, and face down mystical beings who have traveled from the Otherworld. The adventure also includes robust support for the Banish/Abjure conflict, which you can keep on hand for all sorts of supernatural encounters.
Hot off the presses! Shane King's new module just dropped last month and features a forlorn fortress drifting across the sky, bound for doom. Stay tuned on the blog for a review once we've had a chance to loot the heck out of it. And oh yeah, since it's released under the non-commercial Dungeoneers and Dragonslayers license, it is FREE!
Now let's have a look at some of the rules products for players and GMs that have been released for the game. You may notice there are only a precious few. We're all hungry for more, obviously, but at least Torchbearer doesn't have fifty pounds of "essential" books to hog all of your backpack slots. The whole game system is pack 1!
This stunning volume details the world of Middarmark, an epic realm inspired by Norse Mythology.
Jared Sorensen of Memento Mori rounds out the roster of magic items for Torchbearer and then some!
Although not strictly required to play the Torchbearer RPG, having at least two player decks on hand gives you the ability to manage action choices with cards, greatly enhancing the gameplay. We highly recommend it! There are two different versions of the cards available — the first printing comes in the thick box with the loose top. This has slightly taller (and more functional) divider cards, but it lacks some of the additional cards that are featured in the second printing. The later printing comes in a more traditional cardstock box but introduces several new gear cards.
As with the rulebook and the player decks, there are two versions of the GM screen available. The original GM screen is slightly smaller and has different information printed on it, but both versions still contain useful info and will shield your precious GM notes from the prying eyes of players.
This is the official source for news about Torchbearer straight from BWHQ. There's a special category for playtest materials which is not to be missed. Hey, look how much Mordite Press stuff is on there!
Mordite Press's D. Koch is maintaining a wiki that compiles all of the various character options and stuff available in the game. Sort of like this blog post, but on a more granular level useful for actual play. If you want a list of every magician/elf spell in the game across all books with page number references, or a list of all of the Immortal Lords yet mentioned, this wiki is what you seek! And if you see anything missing from it, go ahead and get involved!
Table-based loot rolling isn't for everyone, but the fact is your players need loot to stay alive! Make sure you're giving them their fair share (five might 2 goblins is 10 rolls! 10!) by firing up the larkvi.com Torchbearer Tools! This can be a real life-saver for the GM.
There's more to the world of Torchbearer out there, but hopefully this puts everyone on the same page about the state of the game. In future blog posts we'll cover more niche topics like the excellent hacks that exist for the game. Mordite Press is currently developing several new modules and supplements for Torchbearer Sagas, and we're also working with a few independent folks to get their own Sagas imprints started. Hopefully in another year or two there will be so much more to Torchbearer I'll need to create a new list!
Art by Matt Gibeault