Burning Wheel Review

To take a detour from game-design posts for a moment – I’ve been reading through Burning Wheel lately and have some reflections on it. Burning Wheel is one of the games to come out of the Indie game “revolution” that took place in recent years, when many new independent games came out to popular acclaim, including Dogs in the Vineyard, Mortal Coil, Artesia and Spirit of the Century, among many many others.

Basically, what happened is that years of theorizing about roleplaying games with things like GNS Theory intersected with the falling cost of self-publishing due to new and improving technologies. The result was an incredible profusion of indie games. One of these games was Luke Crane’s Burning Wheel, and I caught the bug and picked it up recently.

I like the way that BW is written, first of all. It is in a very approachable style, and “flavor text” is only used to exemplify how a rules element might look in-game. Luke utilizes various voices, represented by little imp icons, to mark side-notes in reference to the rules, including reminders, admonitions and explanations.

BW is a very complex system, by far the most “crunchy” of the indie titles I’m familliar with. The system is a simple d6 system where d6’s are rolled and 4-6 is a success, where 1-3 is a “traitor”. Obstacles, or Obs, are set as the number of successes necessary. Rolls are written so that they are more rare than other systems – there is the Let It Ride rule, which I like, which says that a roll stands for a situation until something drastic changes. This is to prevent GMs from demanding multiple rolls for one task, and to prevent players from demanding new rolls every time they fail.

You have the usual Attributes (Power, Agility, Forte, Speed, Will, Perception) and Skills (a huge number of them for any imaginable situation) that are in almost every RPG. You also have some derived Attributes, such as Health and Steel (a character’s ability to recover from fear or pain) and Reflexes.

Along with these, however, you have Emotional Attributes, one for each of the four main races that he discusses. Dwarves have Greed, Elves have Grief, Humans have Faith and Orcs have Hatred. These emotional attributes directly impact the game and also play into the race-specific kids of magic available to each of these races. I have to say, I really like this. It adds color and interest, and also reflects, in the case of Dwarves, Elves and Orcs, a Middle-Earth feel.

In BW you also have Instincts, Traits and Beliefs. Instincts are things that your character does without thinking – the are expressed as if-then statements, and are a way of taking out insurance for a character, as well as a good way to get into trouble. The common example is “draw my sword at the first sign of trouble” – problems arising from this are obvious, but it also protects your character from being taken unprepared most of the time.

Traits are interesting – the are descriptive, and some affect the rules. You have Character Traits, which just describe, Dice Traits, which add or take away dice in certain situations, and Call-on Traits, which allow rerolls in certain situations. Most interesting is the fact that ‘negative’ traits cost points, in stark contrast to systems like GURPS where you take Disadvantages to earn more character points. The reasoning behind this, I learned on the BW Forums, is that Trait cost reflects the attention that that trait will demand in the game, among other things. Negative traits are also great ways to get into trouble, and getting into trouble earns you Artha (see below).

Finally, Beliefs are what really drive your character. You start with at least three, and Luke recommends that the first one be about your past, the second one be about your future goals, and the third one tie you into the situation that the game is built around. Beliefs should be driving forces that are specific enough to be interesting, and they should have consequences built in whenever possible. They can be anything from “Never trust an Elf farther than you can toss him” to “I must prove I am the rightful king”.

Artha is a point currency used in the game. In short, you spend Artha to modify your rolls, making extraordinary success more likely. There are three kinds of Artha – Fate, Persona and Deeds, in order of how powerful they are.

Fate Artha are earned by roleplaying Beliefs and Instincts in a way that entertains and drives the story forward. This is where those negative Traits come in. Negative Traits are more likely to be entertaining and to drive the story forward than positive onces. Failure is almost always more interesting than success. With Traits, Fate Artha is earned only when use of the Trait moves the game in an unexpected direction. Fate Artha is also awarded for Humor – just making the group laugh. Finally and most rarely, Fate Artha is awarded for having the right skill at the right time to move the story forward.

Persona Artha are to reward general roleplaying. It is earned for Embodiment, when a player captures the mood at the table perfectly – great speeches, dire decisions and gruesome revenge to name a few examples. Moldbreaking is another way to earn Persona Artha – when a player roleplays her inner turmoil in-game when faced with a decision that violates her Beliefs, Instincts and Traits in some way. Players can nominate each other for this award. When a PC accomplishes Personal Goals, Persona Artha can also be rewarded. Finally a group’s Workhorse and MVP can earn Personal points for being the ones who make it happen behind the scenes or for the one that really shines in a given session. These last two are generally voted on at the end of a storyline, and in BW the GM and players get one vote each in these instances.

Deeds Artha are awarded for accomplishing things far beyond the character’s immediate goals. They are the most rare, powerful, and loosely defined. They seem appropriate at the end of a major story arc that was successfully concluded and that had wide impact beyond the PCs. Deeds Artha always comes with a cost or a sacrifice of some kind.

One final note – on character creation. BW uses a Lifepath system, where you create a character by going through their life as a series of experiences over time. For example, a PC might be Village Born, then a Troublemaking Kid, then an Apprentice, a Journeyman, then she gets Conscripted, and finally joins the standing army as a Military Sergeant. I like this system because it forces you to have a story for your character and because it covers failures and misfortune as well as success. Rather than have a particular point-amount for starting PCs, you have a number of Lifepaths, so that all of the PCs have similar amounts of life experience, though this experience will be very diverse.

In brief:

What I like about Burning Wheel:

1. It is driven by beliefs and characters are rewarded for both success and failure
2. Lifepaths force players to make concrete choices that result in the backbone of a story for a character’s background
3. There is a vast diversity of skills, traits and other bits and pieces to make the game infinitely interesting
4. The rules reward player interaction, roleplaying, and getting into trouble
5. It has a very strong Tolkienian feel, though its limited because Luke couldn’t afford to license the actual Middle-Earth property
6. Emotional Attributes are awesome

What I don’t like about Burning Wheel:

1. I like more interesting dice mechanics. The d6’s become essentially 50/50 coins that you toss in most cases, which leads to a less-interesting progression of probability
2. It will be very hard to get someone into this game if they aren’t interested in a) lots of crunchy rules and b) lots of roleplaying and c) deadly, brutal combat
3. The Human magic system of Sorcery lacks flavor and interest. I’m still waiting for the Magic Burner supplement to come out to see if this is fixed
4. Specifically, the Fight! system is very complicated. Granted, its much more interesting than the D&D combat system for example, but its at least as complex
5. The Resources system is overall very intuitive, but I don’t like that you still use points to purchase specific equipment. Why not let what you own come naturally from what lifepaths you chose?
6. Finally, as for the dice system, it seems that sometimes the game assumes that dice are equivalent to raised Obstacles, which just isn’t the case statistically. It leads to a few absurd situations, opposed rolls that are impossible to win, etc.

Overall

I’m going to need to test-drive this baby and see how it handles. Lots of interesting things and a few things I like less. I imagine, with high player buy-in, it could be amazing. But then again, so can most games out there.

I give Burning Wheel 4 out of 5 stars – great concept, well-written, I like anything Tolkienian, but I could do with some rules changes.

3 thoughts on “Burning Wheel Review

  1. P.S.

    On reflection, I really like the fact that 'negative' Traits cost points, for two basic reasons. One is that they really discourage min-maxing, taking negative things to get more positives later.

    The other is a problem that comes up in White Wolf games a lot with the Enemy Flaw. You take this Flaw, get points for it, and then it tends to dominate the game. Your enemy becomes the group's enemy, and takes up lots of story time and narrative attention. All for something you got points for.

    Its more interesting to pay for an Enemy because it is central to your concept and because that's the story you want to tell – one about you dealing with a powerful foe. You're telling the group “this is what I want out of the game” and paying for an interesting and exciting way to drive the story forward.

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  2. It's crunchy enough and specific enough in style that it almost seems like it would be fun to get a separate group at Gamescape together for a continuing campaign so we could all learn the system.

    Seems like one-nighters etc.. aren't really going to be enough and our present group includes some players who have less time or interest in learning such a complex new system.

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  3. i think that's probably…yeah, probably the case. i'm not sure how to fit this in, with a game night and GRPA and whatnot, but maybe a monthly thing, or an ongoing game at GRPA that persists from one event to the next…at least two or three in a row to get things solidly down. and Josh said they sold four copies of BW at Gamescape, so maybe we'd get four players with their own books, making it a lot more interesting/interactive

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