Some thoughts on The Burning Wheel

Recently my Tuesday night Role-playing group played a nine-episode campaign of Luke Crane’s Fantasy RPG system The Burning Wheel. The current edition is Burning Wheel Gold.

It’s safe to say the experience was divisive. We started with (I think) 6 or 7 players, and in the end-game had two. But that end-game… wow.

It’s a fascinating system, and to say that it’s not for everyone is an understatement of the highest order. But its weird mechanics have produced hands-down some of the greatest story moments I’ve seen in an RPG system. I’m going to try to tease some of the reasons for that out here.

First up, the presentation. The books are written in a first-person style and insist that there’s Only One Way To Do It. Some people find the style irritating, but I think a much larger problem here is the lack of coherent editing. It’s difficult to find where things are, and no PDFs are available for easy searching. The rules in one book also contain references to rules in other books (some of which are out of print), with no cross-referencing. It’s very much the author’s home system, published as-is, with all that implies.

But how does it play?

Character Creation

Characters are created (burned, in the parlance) by using a life-path system. The GM tells you how many life paths you can take, and you travel through them picking up skills and traits as you go.

The life-path system has no pretensions to balance. At all. Want to just win at everything? Elves are the way to go. Want your character to be pretty incapable? Orc. Despite having no licence, Burning Wheel is perhaps the most Tolkienesque of games that I’ve ever seen. And this implied setting is heavily baked into character creation. Want to play an Orc? (Two of my players did.) Then you start out with the Cannibal trait. And everyone who’s not an Orc hates you. Your life paths, like you, are nasty, brutish, and short. And your skills suck.

Other than this implied setting – you get nothing.

And here’s where it starts to get interesting – the world is created in play by the players. It’s a no-prep system. Instead, the world is formed by their actions.

The Core Mechanic

The basic gameplay mechanics are available free from DriveThruRPG but I’ll try and explain how it works:

Every skill that you have is rated from 1 to 10 next to it, with 1 being “You’ve seen a sword before,” through to “You’re the most legendary sword-wielder on the planet.”

Similarly, everything that you might want to do has a difficulty from 1 to 10 with one being “You don’t even need to think about it” and 10 being “A miracle.”

To do something, you roll a number of dice equal to your skill. Less than three on a die is a failure, four or more is a success. If your successes are equal to or greater than the difficulty, it happens.

And here’s where it takes a sudden left-turn from other RPGs. The world is not an objective reality which the game interrogates; instead, it is defined by your roll.

Before rolling dice, you establish these things:

  • What do you want to happen if you succeed?
  • What’s the difficulty?
  • What happens if you fail?

The difficulty’s a flat number based on the 1 to 10 scale. Let’s say you’re facing off against a dragon with your sword and you want to kill it with one thrust.

What do I want to happen? I want to kill the dragon.
What’s the skill I use? Sword, axe, bow. Any of those would work.
What’s the difficulty?  Let’s face it, that’s going to be a miracle. 10.
What happens if I failWell, as GM I can only see one option here, which is that you get eaten.

And then you roll the dice. And if you make the number, the thing you want to happen, happens. And if you don’t then the other thing happens.

And whatever happens stays true. Forever, unless the state of the world changes.

What do I want to happen? I want to pick the lock on this door and get through before the monsters arrive.
What’s the skill? Locksmith would do the trick.
What’s the difficulty? It’s an act that requires expertise, so that’s a 5.
What happens if I fail? You fail to pick the lock.

Make the roll, and you’ve picked the lock. So far so ordinary.

But here’s the interesting thing – you failed to pick the lock. And that’s true forever. Neither you nor any other member of your party will ever be able to pick that lock unless the state of the world changes (eg someone replaces the lock with a different one).

This takes a lot of time to get your head around. Here’s an example from our game.

What do I want to happen? I want my friend to impress the King by dressing smartly. I’ll use my Court-wise skill to outfit him in the latest fashions.
What’s the difficulty? This will require expertise: 5.
What happens if I fail? Everyone at court thinks he’s a rube.

Don’t like the failure mode? Fine, don’t make the roll. (Obviously if the PC being dressed looks at the failure possibility and says no thanks, I don’t want to take that risk and will do something else instead rather than dress up in the finery you select, then no roll would be made in that case either.)

But if they agree to dress up, and you fail the roll, both of you are stuck with the result. The world has crystallised around this choice, which will remain true. You’ve got a bad rep with the court or an in with the King. You can’t look at the roll and go “Ah, I’ve failed, let’s try a different outfit.”

Once you start to get your head around this, the possibilities are endless, because you make the world.

Another example from the game. The King is dead (a terrible accident, or so the party like to tell everyone) and they are now temporarily in change of the Capital City.

What do you want to happen?  I want to organise a Constitutional Convention to completely reform the governance of the Kingdom, introducing civil rights for LGBT folk and setting myself up as the Regent.
What skill do I use? Persuasion.
What’s the difficulty? Ha ha ha. 10.
What happens if I fail? You’re in the dungeon, and the exiled leader of the opposition has returned and is now running the country.

And you successfully make the roll, and whatever you asked for is now true. There you are, running the country.

So storytelling works completely differently in this system to any other. You choose the thing you want to see in the world, and (providing you make the roll) narrate straight to it.

World-changing events become commonplace based on the beliefs of the characters – which is very different to taking a wander into a dungeon to get  some pie and experience points.

Character Advancement

Character advancement is by testing skills – whenever you make a roll you compare the difficulty to your skill, and need a certain number of tests in each category to advance. If you don’t have a skill, you can test against it anyway, but difficulties are doubled – so you’re likely to fail anything but the simplest tasks.

It doesn’t matter if you succeed or fail, you still get the test. So it’s good to start using skills, even if the failure mode is bad for you.

Beliefs

Your character has three Beliefs, which define the game they want to play. So if a character has a Belief “I will kill the last dragon” then they’ve defined a couple of things about the world:

  • There is only one dragon left
  • A lot of the story that we’ll tell will be about finding and attempting to kill it

A character gains Artha points by acting on their beliefs, which can be spent on things like getting extra dice for rolls.

Interestingly, you gain the Artha by acting either with or against the belief, as long as it comes into play. So if you have the Belief “All Wizards Must Die”, then  if you come across a wizard, then no matter whether you kill them or spare them, you still get the money.

Artha is spent to make amazing things happen – like adding extra dice to your roll, or shifting the roll so it becomes a lot easier. With Artha and a friend or two to help out, suddenly those impossible 10s become a lot more likely.

The extra subsystems

Outside of these basic rules, there are other subsystems for fighting and convincing other characters to do what you say – but when we tried them (especially in the early stages when attempting to get our heads around the very different way in which the core mechanic forced us to engage with the game) we found them to be un-necessarily complicated, and I ended up rolling back the system so that everything was run from the core mechanic – which worked very well, once we’d figured out how it worked.

Final Thoughts

All in all a fascinating experience, and definitely one I’d like to try again. But it may be difficult to find others who’ll give it the time and space to become its own thing. If your idea of fun is just going out and murdering monsters rather than creating a world and inhabiting it, perhaps this isn’t for you. It certainly wasn’t for five out of seven of my players.

The emphasis on learning-by-doing and use of Artha to make the impossible possible means that it’s perfectly doable to create a character who can change the world through the awesomeness of their crafting skills; a knitter or basketmaker with the power of kings.

I can completely understand why this system is beloved by game designers and unpopular with those looking for a “normal” RPG; the way that the core mechanic creates a living world on the fly rather than helping you interact with one which already exists results in a completely different style of gaming, where instead of making your character try against a world that already exists, your success or failure alters the fabric of the world itself.

One Reply to “Some thoughts on The Burning Wheel”

  1. As one of the two players who played this campaign all the way to the end, I thought I’d add my perspective from the other side of the table.

    First of all, the massive player attrition was not just because people didn’t like the style of interacting with the world. It’s worth noting that the same group an GM subsequently played a very successful campaign of Apocalypse World, which also gives the players scope to define the world. The thing that was most widely complained about in Burning Wheel was the sheer amount of admin. Three different types of experience check, three different types of artha, a different system for learning a new skill… the system could be massively simplified without losing its strengths.

    Chargen was also quite problematic – and again, it didn’t really need to be. I like lifepath chargen – Traveller is one of my favourite systems – and I do like the way the implicit background is expressed through chargen. However, the system is restrictive and overly complex in terms of which careers lead on to other careers, and an awful lot of page-flipping is required to figure any of it out. People were losing the will to live by the end of the chargen session. Also, the implicit setting is highly racist, sexist and homophobic. That’s fair enough as a worldbuilding choice, and I had fun leaning into that and having my character struggle against it, but some players did find it off-putting and it’s hard to blame them.

    The way Burning Wheel allows players to massively affect the world with a single die roll (provided they are able to get their skills and bonuses to stack up enough) is indeed exhilarating, and provided quite a unique game experience. However, after a few iterations of this the world can seem insubstantial, as it can be so readily changed. Apocalypse World seems to handle this better, providing structure to anchor and reuse world elements to create a sense of coherence and depth.

    The biggest problem though, I felt, was with the degree of system mastery required to have a fun game. If you work carefully through the chargen system to make sure you have a few high-level skills that reinforce each other, and if you study the complex artha system and ensure that you build up the right kinds of points and deploy them properly, then you can do this world-changing stuff. If you go through chargen naively, picking up an assortment of lower-level skills, then you have little ability to be effective in the world. In principle, low skills advance quicker, but in practice it means spending many weeks failing at mundane tasks as you build up advancement points while the people across the table are running a revolution. It’s no surprise that people don’t find that much fun.

    And this, I feel, is the tragedy of Burning Wheel. There are, as you say, bold and exciting ideas in it, and it can provide for remarkable storytelling in play, but it could have been so much simpler and more accessible while retaining those qualities.

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