Some RPGs are demanding. While you can’t homebrew D&D into anything, it is still flexible and doesn’t demand that you play it a specific way. Some games do. There is no end of teeth-gnashing about this; for some reason people take more issue with RPGs having set procedures than, say, board games. But, as the entire indie RPG community knows very well, making a game for a specific purpose and experience often nets you a better version of that experience than trying to simulate it with a ruleset designed with breadth in mind. I’ve been having some revelatory experiences with such a targeted game recently; I will say though that when I say “targeted game” and “specific experience”, most are imagining a zine, something small, not a 600 page hardback with red and gold filigree. Yeah, I’m talking about Burning Wheel.
The first time I tried to run Burning Wheel I made the mistake of assuming it behaved like other fantasy RPGs. I also, tellingly, made the mistake of assuming that the skill and testing mechanics were the most important rules in the game. It’s a classic traditional RPG view, and in the case of Burning Wheel it’s wrong. It also means that some of the criticisms of the game and its design are similarly ill-founded, though that’s not to say that the game escapes criticism. After having both failed to play Burning Wheel and, more recently, successfully played Burning Wheel, I’ve come to three separate conclusions. First, I really like this game. Second, Burning Wheel has way more in common with indies like Apocalypse World than it does with traditional RPGs, and its packaging and rules density often prevents people from seeing that. Third, Burning Wheel is in a way a first real shot at designing a narrative game for crunch-heads, for people who love the interlocking rules and density of games like GURPS, Ars Magica, or Heavy Gear but are more interested in pointing those rules towards story and character than combat and physics. While many games have dabbled in that space since Burning Wheel’s first release in 2002, few if any have leaned in this hard.
Burning Wheel is a game of medieval/Tolkienesque fantasy. Looking at it from a traditional perspective, you see a dice pool driven system, a detailed lifepath character generation mechanic, the infamous skill-by-skill progression rules, and three completely separate conflict resolution mechanics (four if you count the shorthand “Bloody Versus” rolls). You also see the Belief and other Artha mechanics, where players earn three different types of points (Fate, Persona, and Deeds) based on how they engage with their characters’ Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits. From a trad perspective you think “ok, a meta-currency” and don’t focus on it. This is a huge mistake. This is not only a huge mistake, it’s the exact mistake I made, and it’s what sank my first attempt at playing Burning Wheel into a quagmire.
The Belief mechanics drive the game because they establish the way that the GM actually produces plot. In my current Burning Wheel game, Beliefs are reviewed at the beginning and end of every session, and usually every player changes at least one belief each session. None of this contradicts what’s in the book; reading back through the Beliefs section in Hub and Spokes I can see that procedurally we’re doing pretty much exactly as the rules describe. That said, getting there and understanding a) why Beliefs are the most important mechanic in the game, b) how to write good Beliefs, and c) how to use Beliefs as a GM all required both reading the book and a degree of play experience as well. Parsing the book’s advice about Beliefs is, to put it mildly, difficult.
At the beginning of the Beliefs chapter in Hub and Spokes, Beliefs are described as “explicitly stated drives that tie directly into the world and setting.” This is a good description, but the book then goes on to use as examples what are at best difficult or at worst objectively bad beliefs to write for a character. Both “One man can make a difference” and “It’s better to smooth wrinkles than ruffle feathers” are examples from Hub and Spokes, and neither of those are easily playable Beliefs. The other main issue is that there isn’t enough emphasis placed on how dynamic Beliefs can and should be.
Now, it says right in the chapter that Beliefs should change often as the character grows, but given how differently Beliefs act from other RPG mechanics that look like them, this should be up front. Ultimately these criticisms of the Belief mechanics are technical writing criticisms…through bumbling around until a more experienced GM showed me, I got to learn exactly where clarity was missing from the rulebook. I’d say there wasn’t an issue with my understanding what to do in abstract, but with all of the mechanics that touch the Artha Wheel (not just Beliefs but also Instincts and Traits), how best to do it is often not well illustrated.
When looking at the skill mechanics, it’s much clearer that the issues with these mechanics are borne more out of perception and expectations than any flaws with the writing. While the per-skill advancement is an intense amount of bookkeeping, the importance of the roll mechanics on a micro level make sure that it’s difficult to lose sight of when a character gains a test so long as you’re mentally present during a session. The issue really comes down to the fact that the skill system is built as a character development mechanic, and as such is confusing if you’re thinking about characters from just a rules perspective. When I look at a more traditional RPG, the skill list is intended to be a fairly comprehensive list of what characters in the setting should consider being good at. As such, adventures written in those systems typically make use of all of those skills, and it’s expected that at least one character in a gaming group has a degree of proficiency in each one. Burning Wheel has over 200 skills and, to put it bluntly, most are never used in any single campaign.
The reason the skill list is so long is that these skills have flavor and tell you about how the character works, rather than tell you which part of the game your character is effective at. This ends up working out fine because of the synergy of three mechanics: FoRKs, Failing Forward, and the Beginner’s Luck rules. FoRKs, or ‘Fields of Related Knowledge’, help keep a wide range of skills relevant, even if they’re directly tested infrequently. Even when a character doesn’t have the obvious skill for a task, there’s usually flexibility in which one can be tested, and this is also represented by FoRKs. This does go back to the mechanical/narrative misconceptions which are so easy to stumble over in Burning Wheel; skills are as much details about the character as they are an indication of ability, which is the primary reason that skills aren’t meant to be a mutually exclusive and completely exhaustive list. FoRKs also mean that Burning Wheel gives more mechanical competency to broadly skilled characters, lessening the disadvantage of having more, lower valued skills.
Failing forward is important in many ways in Burning Wheel and how the game works, but when it comes to skills it ties into the Beginner’s Luck rules in a key way. Namely, building the game around failing forward lessens the consequences of gathering tests for Beginner’s Luck. In Burning Wheel, you learn new skills mostly just by trying to do them, though there are rules for being taught. You use the value of the skill’s “root” attribute, but base difficulties are doubled. Make a certain number of tests, and you “open” the skill. While the doubling of base difficulties is punishing, the attribute value will be higher than the value of a new skill, so there’s an offsetting bonus that makes easy tests only slightly harder but difficult tests significantly harder. The way these rules all work in concert ends up making it feel like your character can do anything if they set their mind to it, which is broadly true and also feels way more empowering than gaining experience points ever did.
The overarching theme of the game is that the players drive the story by showing the GM what’s most important to them, and the GM in turn pushes on those things. This is true when it comes to the setting and situation (through Beliefs), mechanical proficiency (through the skill mechanics), and relationships (through the Circles and Relationship rules). It’s also true whenever there’s conflict, and that’s exactly why there are multiple tiers of conflict resolution. The basic rules of the more involved conflict mechanics, Fight, Range and Cover, and Duel of Wits, are all similar and are in turn similar to the conflict mechanics used in Torchbearer. In any protracted conflict, you and your opponent choose maneuvers in secret, reveal at the same time, and then roll according to how your maneuvers match up.
The difference between Burning Wheel and Torchbearer is that Torchbearer uses a genericized system with four maneuvers, while Burning Wheel builds up separate systems with distinct (and more) maneuvers for ranged combat, hand-to-hand combat, and social conflict. While my current Burning Wheel game has not gone on long enough to see many extended conflicts, my character was involved in a Duel of Wits which, to me, provided significantly more richness than the Torchbearer equivalent without gaining too much in complexity. Having conflicts be at least a little complicated is part of the system though, because they aren’t supposed to occur unless there’s narrative weight behind them. The heft of the conflict rules seems in part to discourage you from using them, because Burning Wheel is not supposed to feature the amount of combat that, say, D&D does. But when you do pull the conflict rules out, it’s an event, and thanks to the fact that the pivot points are when actions are revealed, stumbling about with the rules is much less detrimental to pacing than it is in a more traditional wargaming combat system. One of the reasons that I personally find the conflict systems, arguably one of the more complex part of the rules, easiest to deal with is that it’s one of the few places where the translation between Burning Wheel and Torchbearer is fairly direct. While the games use similar rules, the way rules are used is such that most mechanics, Beliefs and Skills at the very least, end up operating completely differently and serving very different purposes. Burning Wheel really is its own animal, even using the same mechanics doesn’t really end up making the same game.
Burning Wheel as a game is pretty amazing. It ticks a lot of boxes for me, featuring interesting crunch, drama-driven mechanics, and lots of weighty decision points. Burning Wheel as a document is harder to pin down. The game broadcasts its intent well, and frankly it’s a cracking read; few games inspired me like Burning Wheel did when I first read it. But, much like Eclipse Phase, my attempts to use Burning Wheel to actually run a game were more frustrating. It wasn’t the same set of issues; Burning Wheel as a mid-game reference is well done, especially when you consider the play aids and the separable Hub and Spokes rules document. Instead, I think the issue was a paucity of detail around how to engage with the game, especially in the open-ended mechanics like those attached to the Artha Wheel.
Luke Crane has written in multiple places that he sees a good role-playing game as something that requires skill, much like a good board game or sport. I do see that Burning Wheel requires skill, and spending more time with the game has deepened my appreciation for it. That said, from an accessibility point of view, it could benefit from some examples of play, and some more guidance on what good play looks like. The Burning Wheel Codex does this to some degree, but with more of the essay-adjacent writing that, frankly, saddled us with these issues in the first place. Ultimately, these are traits of a passion project: the rules are all there, and if you understand how to engage with them, there is a phenomenal game in that book. If you don’t understand, the designer doesn’t really care. And for those of us who want our friends to play Burning Wheel with us, that’s just about as bad as the fact that there is no PDF version. The biggest compliment I can give, then, is that I’m still going to try to convince my friends to buy Burning Wheel and let me teach them.
Burning Wheel is available online from The Burning Wheel Store.
Note: this review was written based on the author’s experiences with Burning Wheel Gold. The currently available edition, Burning Wheel Gold Revised, has had errata-level corrections and clarifications made.
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