TFM is an acronym for “TeX Font Metrics”; TFM files hold information about the sizes of the characters of the font in question, and about ligatures and kerns within that font. One TFM file is needed for each font used by TeX, that is for each design (point) size for each weight for each family; each TFM file serves for all magnifications of “its” font, so that there are (typically) fewer TFM files than there are PK files. TeX, LaTeX, etc., themselves need only know about the sizes of characters and their interactions with each other, but not what characters look like. By contrast, TFM files are not, in principle, needed by the DVI driver, which only needs to know about the glyphs that each character selects, so as to print or display them.
Note that TrueType and OpenType fonts contain the necessary metrics, so that XeTeX and LuaTeX, using such fonts, have no need of TFM files. A corollary of this is that setting up fonts for use by these engines is far easier.
FAQ ID: Q-tfm