I now have plenty of experience with this game. I played in Jim Chokey’s Red Domes campaign, which was over 25 sessions long, and I am now GMing a game which has gone for 6 sessions. I am ready to reflect on what I like and dislike about this game. I will not describe the game’s mechanics in detail here. For that, see some of the reviews on rpg.net.
First, I want to say why I love this game. It really opened my eyes to new perspectives on role-playing.
Conflict resolution. When you have any kind of conflict or obstacle in the game, you start by setting the stakes: What will happen on a successful roll, and what will happen on a failed roll. This seems really simple, but it is really quite revolutionary. Ok, I know other “forge-inspired indie games” games do this too, but BW was the first one for me. This principle has several good consequences. One is that players won’t be screwed by the GM, because they know exactly what they will get on a success. Another is that player’s can’t whine when they fail, because they know what’s going to happen if they fail before they roll the dice. A third point is that the stakes-setting before rolling the dice can be used to create interesting effects of both success and failure. Interesting failure is very important. Failures are used to drive the story forward by creating new twists that the players have to handle, not to stop the story dead in its tracks, as often happens in traditional RPGs.
One subtle point is that in order to make failure interesting, one often has to make it more severe than a normal vanilla failure would be in a traditional RPG. There is a tendency (or maybe it’s just me) to make failures into more or less “critical failures”. This in turn implies that you have to make successes into “critical successes” to make it worthwhile to roll the dice. The end result is that a lot is at stake when you roll the dice, which is great for moving the story forward and for creating suspense at the table!
Traditional gamers may not like this dramatic all-or-nothing aspect because it is “unrealistic”, but I love it; more than anything, what I want out of role-playing is good story. You never see protagonists in movies or books get a bland vanilla failure. If they fail, it has serious consequences.
Related to these conflict resolution principles is the “Let It Ride” rule which states that you can’t just re-roll until you succeed. If you could, it would detract from the “each roll really counts” principle. This is also a rule against the GM screwing you over by making you roll 4 Stealth rolls to get into the castle (one to get to the gate, one to get over the wall unseen, one to cross the courtyard, etc) instead of just one.
Also nice are the rules for characters helping each other, and for combining several skills (using “linked tests” and “forks”). In practice, because each roll matters and due to the stakes-setting process, there tends to be a fair amount of negotiation before the dice hit the table. I personally like this negotiation part of the game. Again, however, it is a kind of “meta-game” which traditional gamers will shun.
Rewards for role-playing. The second area where Burning Wheel was somewhat revolutionary to me was in how it rewards role-playing through rather detailed game mechanics. While other games may have a generic “give extra points to players who role-play well” advice, BW takes this much further. Each character has beliefs, instincts, and traits, and playing according to these gives specific rewards. Furthermore, this is the main way to get these rewards — not through killing monsters etc. Players simply have to play their characters as written on their character sheets, or lose out in a big way. The rewards are used to make future die rolls more successful. In the case of instincts, the rewards are for playing them in a way that hurts your character. The game really encourages players to go for interesting story consequences rather than “winning the GMs adventure”. There are even traits like “blindness” which you have to pay points for during character generation (I have yet to see a player pick that one though)!
Here again, traditional players might frown on the role-playing mechanisms as being overly restricted and perhaps in the way of a more nuanced picture that a player might have of how his character should act. I really like this kind of system, however. In practice, subtleties of player characters tend not to be noticed during play. You may understand how your character feels and thinks in a particular moment, but the rest of us at the table probably won’t notice, and role-playing is a form of collaborative story-telling. Burning Wheel encourages uncompromising and somewhat extreme beliefs in order to create interesting conflict.
Furthermore, these conflicts are what the game is about. It’s not about the GM’s cool plot. This is also enormously important and, for me, different. It is also very liberating from a GM point of view, because not very much preparation is needed. Just hit the PCs where it hurts, i.e. challenge their beliefs, and play will proceed from there. This is also so much more fun when you’re not the GM. In most games, you might create a really cool character, and your GM will encourage you to write a cool background and to have strong beliefs and all that. But when play starts, you’ll find that it doesn’t really matter. You’re playing the GM’s plot. This can be fun for the GM, but it’s a bit like puppet theater with the GM as the puppet master.
Player Narration. The third area where BW is really different from most games is that it allows players to narrate story elements that are not directly caused by their characters. This primarily happens through two rule mechanisms: Circles and Wises. Circles allows players to make up some new character that they would like to meet. If they succeed in a die roll, the character exists and they meet him. Wises are special skills that allow players to create game-world facts in some specialized domain. For example Weather-wise allows you to actually say what the weather is, if you make the roll.
Traditional GMs will hate to give players this kind of control. I love it. It gives players more buy-in into the game world, because they helped to create it.
Character generation. Lastly, I want to mention the lifepath character generation system, which creates colorful and often surprising characters.
So with all these beautiful features, what is there to hate about this game? Let me count the ways… In general, one could say that all the ideas of the design are good, but the execution sometimes does not quite succeed. Some details follow.
Conflict resolution, again. I stated the general principles for conflict resolution above, but the game also comes with “sub-systems” (or “mini-games”) that cover a number of different common kinds of conflict. In particular Fight! (the combat system) and Duel of Wits (social conflict). These subsystems are very detailed, slow, and full of modifiers that have to be looked up, added and subtracted. To make matters worse, they require players and GM to script three actions in advance in secret, which are then played out. The scripting phase adds to the resolution time, and often makes actions seem unnatural, especially in Duel of Wits, because the conflicting parties are not playing against each others’ arguments and points directly, they sort of plot an overall argument strategy in advance and play it out no matter what the opponent says (until 3 actions later, when you can script another 3 actions). In Fight, you roll for positioning, roll for attack, roll for parry, roll for armor (!), determine injury, subtract injury penalties from your abilities, and so on. While you can do interesting maneuvers like disarm and feint, these often fail because they have to be scripted in advance and when you get to that action your enemy may no longer be in a position where you can execute it against him.
All these die rolls made during the detailed conflict subsystems do not adhere to the “every roll counts” principle discussed above, which makes the game rather inconsistent. Instead, the outcome of one of these conflicts depends on the aggregate of many die rolls. This has the added effect of tilting the playing field towards whoever has the higher stats, since any random variations tend to be averaged out over many rolls.
More than anything, these systems are puzzling, because they seem so unnecessary. In my experience, they are not at all conducive to the overall goal of creating a good story. There is one more aspect that needs to be mentioned. The subsystems have a different range of possible outcomes than the general conflict mechanism: In Fight! and Duel of Wits you can get “compromise” or partial results. The general mechanism is binary: You succeed completely with your intent or you fail. In other words, Fight! and Duel of Wits are too detailed but the general mechanism doesn’t have enough detail. Instead of adding on rules-heavy sub-systems, a better solution would be to have a graded scale of success in the general resolution mechanism.
Rewards for role-playing, again. This is the heart of the game. In principle, players can just look at their character sheet, figure out interesting things to do, and get rewarded for it. However, the belief/instinct/trait system, and the closely associated reward system, are way too complicated and unclear. To start with, each player has 3 beliefs, 3 instincts, and any number of traits, which come in 3 different types. There are 3 different kinds of rewards (called artha points, of the fate, persona, and deeds varieties), given out for different kinds of “good behavior” by players. One quirk is that “goals” are really important in the reward system, but goals are not a high-level abstraction in the game. Instead, common practice reported on the BW forums is to write goals as part of your beliefs. What is really needed is a radical streamlining of these systems, and for these attributes to take up a more prominent space on the character sheet. In fact, the Mouse Guard RPG, which uses a streamlined version of the BW rules, more or less handles all my complaints in this matter.
Player Narration, again. The Circles system is really nice, but the obstacles to find anyone interesting are very high. Actually, I find this to be generally true about obstacles in the game; players tend to fail more often than not. They can help each other, but only if they have the same or similar skills, which is often not the case. Wises are nice but very limited in scope. One player might have a Weather-Wise skill, but no other one. It’s like the game only grudgingly gives players narrative powers. Compare this to games like Mortal Coil which gives the players tokens that they can spend to add any fact about the game world, or to frame a scene for themselves.
Character generation. While the lifepath system is interesting, it can also get in the way if you have a particular character concept in mind. In particular, the mandatory skills and traits are annoying. Too often the life paths create caricatures.
World burning. This refers to creating the setting and situation that forms the background for play and for generating player characters. The game does not come with a specific setting. Instead, the GM and players are (presumably) supposed to come up with one together. Unfortunately, there is no advice whatsoever on how to do so in the books, which makes it very difficult. Contrast this with (again) Mortal Coil, which lists very specific steps to go through in this pre-game phase.
So where does this leave us? For my part, it leaves me much wiser for the experience, and hungry to try out other games that seem to incorporate a lot of what’s good about Burning Wheel and avoid its pitfalls! But first we have to finish out current campaign. For the time being, I am just avoiding Fight! and Duel of Wits like the plague 🙂