The Seven-Sided Die

Burning Wheel initial impressions

Posted Sunday January 18, 2009 at 09:06 PM

I finally picked up The Burning Wheel yesterday and read the first 77 pages before bed. At that point Luke tells the reader to go read the Character Burner, get some friends, make some characters, and try out the system as presented so far.

Burning Wheel is a pretty heavy system, so I like that the core is separated out like that. It means that there's a natural way to introduce players to the system. The Battle of Wits, Fight!, and other rules can be introduced later as players master the core concepts.

The other major impression is that the core concepts are subtle but powerful. Nowhere does Luke say that gameplay involves very large chunks of time resolved with some narration and a scant few rolls. If he had, the reader would probably rebel (if they're a very D&D-style, moment-to-moment gamer) or would have a hard time reconciling that high level of task resolution with the fine-grained character system. Presented as it is, though, the idea that infiltrating the Prince's castle and absconding with his valuables can be resolved with a few linked tests in a matter of minutes of play time—and that this is a good thing—just arises naturally as I grasped the mechanics and read the examples. I'd read that Burning Wheel games get a very lot done in even short sessions, and I can see why now.

The drawback and strength of the system is how much decision power it puts into the players' hands. It doesn't just say that the game revolves around the characters, but it actually builds it into the fundamentals of the rules. If you're using The Burning Wheel, you can't not make the game turn on the characters' choices.

How is this a drawback? The system demands very high rules contact from the players. Unlike a number of other systems, you can't run The Burning Wheel for players who don't care to ever learn the rules. Consciously handling the rules is the only way for players to make their characters effective at tasks. Some systems will work fine if the players just declare their fictional actions and leave translating that into mechanics to the GM. The type of gameplay it offers that distinguishes The Burning Wheel from other systems is inaccessible to that kind of player. There's little point in playing The Burning Wheel without investing heavily in the system as well as the characters and world.

I can't even say that the handling time for the system is long or short. It seems as if the system is almost always being handled. The system being very intertwined and about as elegant as such a heavy system can be will make handling the rules a pleasure, though.

Comments (8)

Monday January 19, 2009 at 06:29 AM

There's some examples of having single rolls accomplish a lot in the text, if I recall correctly. It's a good habit to get into and cured my of annoying dithering and stalling. We are there to play, not focus on some time-consuming trivialties.

I had not even realised all of that before reading this post. Good post.


Monday January 19, 2009 at 06:52 AM

Luke really does manage to show rather than tell with his writing. The first few examples of using single rolls to accomplish a lot struck me as odd, but it wasn't long before I realised how liberating that would be.

These thoughts came to me when I was considering how my group might receive the system. Some are players who love system for its own sake, and some are really not that sort. The players' high degree of system contact means that I'll likely only ever run this for the real system-monkeys in my group.

Callan S.

Tuesday February 03, 2009 at 02:03 AM

In terms of the apparent downside, I'd have to say really, it wouldn't be good for players who fall asleep half way through the session, either. But is that a downside?

Also I thought alot of players had stopped bothering to learn the rules PRECISELY because the rules don't empower them. Why learn something when the GM just does what he wants, anyway? These players might have given up on learning RPG rules, but atleast the reason they gave up has been removed. Because of that, they might come back to it.

Finally, do we really want to be the hobby where people turn up in order NOT to be active participants?


Wednesday February 04, 2009 at 11:24 PM

There are systems—such as Savage Worlds—in which a player can play most of a session without any rules contact. They don't need to crunch the numbers and run the possibilities in order to be effective as a player, they just need to decide on the fictional course of action they wish to take and then make any rolls the GM calls for.

It's the difference between "Player: I insinuate something about the Prince's sordid past to him in order to show I've got blackmail material, win his cooperation, and get him to call off his guards. GM: Ok, roll 3d7+1," versus "I'm going to allocate 6 points of Bribe to the contest, and I offset the 2 pip penalty for only having information to offer by invoking the Playing It Close To My Chest rules. That means I'm rolling 3d7+1 for my Win Ally test and my actions automatically force the Captain of the Guard to take a 2 action penalty if he tries to attack me!"

There's nothing wrong with the first or the second, but different players prefer more or less rules contact during play, and more or less time spent familiarising themselves with the rules outside of play. My group is entirely composed of people with very busy schedules, so a heavy-investment system like The Burning Wheel is prohibitive to get off the ground.

Quite aside, I think there's more to the phenomenon of players avoiding learning rules than just the GM overusing their fiat. A big part of it is, I think, that most systems are pretty much the same: they can be broken down into how to create a character and how to hit things. Some systems have particularly innovative ways of hitting things or representing different characters, but I think this trend has encouraged players to avoid learning anything more than they have to in order to create a character and hit things.

The Burning Wheel is unusual in that its rules for creating characters and hitting things are just the tip of the iceberg. (A pretty big tip, in term of character creation, but nonetheless merely the tip.) The really interesting stuff is in the fundamental assumptions about what rules are for (which turns everything on its head), in the Artha/Advancement system, and in the way the mechanics inject drama into actions that aren't hitting things.

As for inactive participants, well, no. I'd much prefer that everyone have the passion for the game that I do, but some players are in it more for the social aspects, and some only invest into it as much as they do any other entertainment.

I enjoy being a hardcore roleplayer, but I don't think roleplaying should be only for the hardcore. That way lies death for the hobby. I've actually been pondering a post about the hardcore and barriers to entry into the hobby, but damned if I can find the time to write these days.

Samuel Van Der Wall

Saturday February 28, 2009 at 12:04 PM

I keep hearing good things about Burning Wheel, however, I've never seen it in a game store. I guess I may just have to break down and buy it. Even if I don't play it, at least I'll know what everyone has been talking about regarding the game.

Samuel Van Der Wall’s last blog post: RPGBomb - A Social Networking Site For Roleplayers


Saturday February 28, 2009 at 06:42 PM

I bought my copy at my FLGS. They actually stock a notable number of indie and small-press titles. From talking to him I know that the owner has played and enjoyed a lot of these smaller games (Burning Wheel included), so that's probably the biggest factor in why most stores don't carry it.

Even if you don't play it, it describes a style of play that is a valuable part of the toolbox. I've already found that my playing and GMing have been influenced by some of the broader ideas. I particularly like how it heavily emphasises frequently changing the time scale of play in order to put the majority of game time on the interesting choices and minimise the amount of time spent on just getting from Meaningful Choice A to Meaningful Choice B.


Saturday May 16, 2009 at 07:39 AM

I'm glad you had fun playing Burning Wheel. It is my favorite system. :)

The point of doubling obstacles for both NPC and PC in your case is so that the PC could earn a test (could be a difficult or a challenging one).


Sunday May 17, 2009 at 12:10 AM

Hi AquaFox!

As I understand it, tests earned from Beginner's Luck are always determined by the base Obstacle before doubling. So, an Ob 2 Alchemy test without actually having the Alchemy skill open would be an Ob 4 Perception test. Normally Ob 4 against (say) Per 4 would be Difficult, but for the case of Beginner's Luck it counts as Routine (the original Ob 2 vs exponent 4). Have I got some wires crossed?

(From context, I think you meant to comment on First Burning Wheel AP report. Should I move these two comments to that post?)