Burning Wheel


The Burning Wheel RPG is not another d20 clone. It is a roleplaying game designed to appeal to the narrative gamer who doesn't want to get bogged down in mechanics. While the game shows a lot of promise, I remain unconvinced that it will work at the game table. The elements of shared storytelling are broken by a number of mechanics that seem added to give the player the extra mechanisms that they expect in a roleplaying game. Tactical combat, skill advancement, character creation are expectations in a roleplaying game; and Burning Wheel addresses these in detail. But, I find these rules are arbitrarily appended to a core system that was not constructed to bear their weight. As a whole it left me wondering if the original intent was to end the rules at chapter two.

It is very well written. The presentation of the material is logical. I also appreciated the size of the books -- they are 5 x 8 perfect bound books. At the beginning there is promise that the system is based on a simple mechanic. The deeper you get into the book, the more convoluted it becomes. The game is skill based and uses a mechanism of success on a dice pool. What I found compelling is that it seems to present one of the best explanations of how to use skills to resolve action I have seen in an RPG. The consistency of the skill test is also one of the drawbacks.

Burning Wheel presents a system where players will be immersed in an in-game interaction until the skill test is required. The roll of the dice resolves the success and then the narrative of the success or failure flows from there. The game is pitch-perfect on the result of failure of a dice roll -- it leads to more obstacles to overcome. Failure is interesting and drives the story forward. Success, however, doesn't do much for the game. The problem is scope.

If I am a skillful orator, a single quick interaction can range from mundane to inspired. Over a prolonged discussion I will settle to the middle of my bell-curve at being skillful. There is no mechanism in Burning Wheel that matches what in DnD terms would be "taking 10". That isn't a huge problem for the game, but the effect on the action is. When running a game a skillful GM will be able to expand or contract the action to focus on moments of conflict, tension, and excitement. Burning Wheel can artificially lump action together by the nature of the rules as written. Again, not a huge problem, but a detraction from an otherwise excellent core mechanism.

Where the game really comes off the rails for me is when we start adding the next set of rules around tactical situations. It just gets bogged down.

Has anyone played this game at the table? How did it work for you? How many sessions did it last?

Well first and foremost, may I say it's good to see you returning to the tranquil garden of gaming meditation that is Gamegrene, Gil.

I have heard of Burning Wheel but have not had the pleasure of trying it out. At present I'm too bogged down in running the 'grand finale' of my 3.5 campaign to look at anything else. Aiming to wrap up by the end of September. After which I will be open to ideas.

I look forward to reading of people's experiences of 'Burning Wheel' here. It sounds like an interesting concept.

I really admire what they *tried* to do with the rules here. It was a pleasant read after so many d20 clones, but I'd like to see if anyone has made this system work...

I also appreciated that character building wasn't chapter one -- it wasn't even in the first book. The order of the chapters can tell you a lot about the mindset of the designer. In spite of my reservations, I highly recommend giving it a read. For those of you who have time to be social; you could play it and let us all know how it works out.

Hi Gil,
While I own the books, I've yet to read them, let alone play the game, so I can't really offer much advice.
I do think it's not a rules-light system, though, so maybe it's just that you're expectations make you feel bogged-down?

In any case, I recommend that you give a listen to one of the RPG podcasts that have covered this game, such as Brilliant Gameologists, The Walking Eye or The Podgecast.

Thanks Zip. I think you are right that it was never intended to be a rules-light system. That was probably my perception reading through the first chapters. To me the game is designed backwards: Soft core rules, harder more-rigid outer rules structure.

Rather than light and heavy, I think we should have some more classifications of rules systems:

Rules Brittle: The game has lots of hard rules; but when you play the game they end up fracturing into a million little useless splinters. As much as possible you avoid the rules in game lest you end up breaking them. When you do use them you treat them gently -- actually re-creating the examples from the manual so as not to introduce any extra burden.

Rules Soft (and Furry): The rules of the game are explained in open, expressive, language that warms your heart as you read through the game. During play however, you are deluged by a thousand little Tribbles -- trilling away in a maddening cacophony as you try to experience a game. Eventually you realize that your game experience isn't about saving a dragon, or slaying a maiden stuck in a tower; it is about taking care of the pretty little rules some twit thought up. You have to feed the rules, pet the rules, and never get to play the game.

Rules Gelatinous: This system is more than bendable. In fact, it takes on the shape of the players so well that it will squeeze happily into any shape. The rules let you get away with anything so long as you push hard enough. At some point you realize that the rules are just there to impede action...any action. They are a thick messy blob.

Rules Rigid (aka The Matrix): Strong and rigid this gaming system is close to bulletproof. It long ago lost any notion of modelling a shared narrative; and you may have to hire a moving van just for the gaming material required to play, but you can't break the system unless you dig very deep into the published material. Most people who play this game take perverse pleasure in trying to break it and become those who can bend the Matrix to will. This subversive behaviour is labelled "Optimization." The DM may send out rules-agents to try to squish the characters and restore the Matrix, but a crafty player has many options available to prevent them from going Splat(no Pun-Pun intended).

I played this game. Character creation was awesome as was the group campaign brainstorming session . Many of the players couldnt understand the idea of creating subplots for their characters to get xp. So the game only lasted 3 sessions. I like the character history and campaign brainstorming and its influenced my other gaming projects.

Um, pitching in a couple years later here, I'm not sure I get where you're coming from?
Success doesn't do much for the game? Huh? You mean you're saying the story isn't really going anywhere unless the players are failing? And any situation where take ten would be relevant, the GM would (or at least ought to) Say Yes and bypass die rolling entirely. Or am I misunderstanding?

I've seen multiple groups get bogged down with the combat, so I know what you mean there. Fortunately, Gold edition improved on that somewhat. My group still hasn't really gotten the hang of Range and Cover, but Fight is much smoother and Duel of Wits was always reasonably straightforward.

Anyway, I've been running a campaign of this system for 12+ sessions, and it's been going reasonably well. Most of the bumps have to do with us getting caught on old D&D habits, I think, and a lack of focus in our basic game premise.

If I remember, and it has been a while, I was objecting to some kind of lack of a success mechanism. You attempt an action and it either succeeds or fails. Failure leads to more gameplay and work-arounds to overcome the failure. There were no shades of success; no narrative openings. So it seemed to me at the time that failure was more interesting than success.

Having read the books so long ago I am sorry but couldn't really comment more.

I saw a quote on a commercial for "Zero Dark Thirty" from Kennedy:

"Too often we... enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought."

So without some more discomfort... I don't get an opinion.

Do you know what is different with the Gold Edition to the standard one? Is this game gaining more traction? That is a sign that it is working at the table.