Thoughts on Burning Wheel

For years I didn’t play Burning Wheel because I was scared of it: I was intimidated, it would take too much effort, we’d have to devote a lot of time to it, and so on. At one point, we made some characters, and that was as far as it got–we never played them. But I always wanted to. In addition to it sounding good on paper, and chatting with the author over the years, my good friend Eppy has played with Luke, so I had a bit more understanding of how the game works, and really liked what I heard.

Then, we finally played it. It’s everything I had always been told it would be. Unlike, say, D&D3E, what I experienced was exactly what it said on the tin (with one minor nitpick–I’ll get to that later). 

There are 3 tricks, IMHO, to playing Burning Wheel that aren’t explicitly in the rulebook. (Well, they might be in Gold–we last played before Gold was released.)

You Need to Build Your Setting

There’s an implied setting the same way that there is in D&D. To get an actual setting, you’re gonna have to build one. You can do that however you want, including “discovering” it through play. But you’ll do better if you sit down together and bounce some character and setting ideas around all at once, figuring them both out together.

Frex, we ended up with a world where human magic was a new thing, developed to overthrow the elves in a recently-ended war. We decided up front that orcs were off-screen (if they ever showed up), and there was no such thing as dwarves. There was more to it, but the point is that we needed some context. We didn’t get into a whole lot more detail than that prior to the first session, except for some details that came out of the character creation. One example: based on the lifepaths people took, we determined how long ago the war had ended.

As a corollary, do not try to define every last detail of the setting before you start. You’ll undermine the game play by doing that. Things like Wises and Circles work best if there is wide latitude to create the setting in response to the rolls.

Beliefs Are Active

Beliefs drive the characters, and the characters drive the game. You might not know it from the handful of pages devoted to them, but solid, interesting, action-driving beliefs are the real core of the game. Make your characters with interesting beliefs that everyone cares about. Beliefs need to drive change and action. When crafting a belief, you should be able to envision how it could be “completed”, and thus changed. “All dwarves should die” is ok, but “I will kill every last stinking dwarf!” is better. And don’t make your beliefs static–your character grows and advances by accomplishing belief-driven goals, so they should have an end state.

One trick we picked up is to create one very-short-term belief–something your character might accomplish in a session or 2–one medium-term, and one epic one. You should expect your beliefs to be regularly updated as the character’s situation changes–they accomplish them, or make them impossible, or make them moot. These are all good things. And be careful that you don’t pick beliefs that tear the characters apart. Putting them at odds is good, even putting them at constant loggerheads is fine. But unless you want someone to feel left out, or the characters to go their separate ways and not be a group, watch out for beliefs that draw the characters in opposite directions, thus eliminating their interactions.

But always state your beliefs as a goal or an action, not just an opinion.

Learning Is A Process

Don’t try to use all the rules at once. Of course, the rulebook even says this, but it seems like nobody actually believes Luke when he says it, so that’s why it’s here. Our first two sessions, we didn’t even use all the spokes. I (and one other person in the group) was familiar enough with teh rules to know what things there were rules for, and when an appropriate situation came up I or we decided whether or not to bust out that rule. Steel, frex, we used the very first time it came up. Combat, however, we didn’t. I don’t even think we used Bloody Vs. for our very first combat, instead just relying on basic skill rolls, just like everything else. And then we used a combo of Bloody Vs. and Range & Cover for the next few sessions, not bothering to bust out Fight! until a very momentous (in terms of the story in the game) situation came up.

The only part of the Rim we used right from the start was spellcasting. And even then, we fudged a little at first. Just make sure everyone knows that, for anything you don’t use Spokes or Rim for at first, it may change a little once you do. So if you do basic skill rolls for spellcasting, the wizard may end up more or less capable once you pull in the full magic rules (probably both–more because of adding another stat into the die rolls, less because of fatigue and spells going awry).

Also, there’s absolutely nothing that says you have to use all of the Rim, or even all the Spokes, to have a good solid game. Personally, I haven’t met a rule in Burning Wheel yet that wasn’t awesome. But tastes vary. And the game works just fine if you use the subsystems only some of the time. So, we continued to use Fight! and Range & Cover for important combats, and Bloody Vs. for minor ones. Likewise, some social conflicts were just a skill roll, but if people thought it would be fun we’d bust out Duel of Wits. You can go back and forth from scene to scene on any of the Rim, and mots of the Spoke, rules, and the game will work just fine. Might even be better than using all the detail all the time. I’m pretty sure the game would also work just fine if you *never* used the Rim. (Though, honestly, at that point I’d recommend something with less crunch overall, like The Shadow of Yesterday, which focuses even more heavily on its equivalent of Beliefs.)

A couple minor suggestions on actually using the rules:

First of all, I think we defined Wises too narrowly, though it was following the examples in the book. I think it would’ve been better to go just a smidge wider in their scope, to prevent characters having (or needing) a bazillion Wises. The good news is, since skills are gained from use, not spending points, if you use more skills, you’ll have more–unlike some games, where you’d simply run out of skill points. The bad news is, it can get frustrating to only rarely have an applicable Wise. 

Secondly, if you want bringing in NPCs to be a significant part of the game, make sure people (or at least one of the PCs) start with high Circles scores. I don’t have the book in front of me, but you should be able to figure out that a low Circles means you can never find anybody. Most skills (and stats) in the game are just fine with a 3 or 4–not awesome, but competent. With Circles, I think we figured out that you really need more like a 5 or 6 before you start feeling competent when you use it. The main reason is that, at least for people I’ve RPed with, the typical sorts of things the players wanted to do (and are used to using contact checks for in RPGs of all sorts, IME) would generate obstacles of around 6–and the obstacle 2 or 3 checks that they had a realistic shot at felt really disappointing. Somehow that one caught us off guard when creating characters.

We played Burning Wheel for well over a year of weekly sessions, and it was awesome! I loved the characters, I loved the stories we created, I loved the setting we created, I loved how the mechanics work, and I would love to play it again. Which makes it the only crunchy RPG I think I’ve ever enjoyed running. Normally, I go for things more like The Shadow of Yesterday or Primetime Adventures.

[This is slightly reworked from a response I made to a post on Dice Monkey.]

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