Review: The Burning Wheel Fantasy Roleplaying System

The Burning Wheel Fantasy Roleplaying System is a system with some neat ideas that, unfortunately, fails for me in a crucial area.

The core system itself is pretty elegant and simple.  You have a dice pool of d6s that you roll and, usually, if you get a 4, 5 or 6 you get a success.  The more successes you get, the better you perform the action.  In some cases, if you have a “grey” or “white” dice pool, you can get successes on 3s or even 2s.  Magical actions “explode” on a 6, allowing you to reroll and possibly get more successes.

The game is heavily narrative, and if you fail you are encouraged to turn that into interesting twists and turns rather than just a failure.  Perhaps instead of just not being able to pick the lock on a door, instead a local city watch member rounds the corner just at the crucial time.  This narrative even extends to characters, who have a set of Beliefs that they get bonuses for playing out and Instincts which are things the character always does or never does.  For example, one of your Instincts may be “When I’m surprised, I draw my sword.”  This gives you some measure of protection against the GM trying to screw you over as you can be guaranteed to have that sword drawn when you are surprised.  How well you play up your Beliefs are voted on by the rest of the group, and they can change or evolve over time depending on how you play the character.

When you buy the game, it comes with two books, the core rules and the Character Burner for $25 US.  The core rules have none of the character generation info, and the Character Burner has none of the core rules for the book so it’s nice that you get both for less than most single-book RPGs these days.  The books themselves are softcover and in a paperback format similar to the Essentials books for D&D.  They also don’t really look like RPG books, having very simple covers, so they might be easy to overlook on the shelf.  This is basically an indie title (though it is from the same people as the Mouseguard RPG), so the production values are not going to be what you’re going to get with, say, D&D or the World of Darkness.  The art ranges from so-so to “that’s fairly neat.”

Burning Wheel has perhaps one of my favorite character generation systems; you take your character through various Lifepaths in his life, and that determines what skills, traits and so on you have access to.  Once you finish creating the character, you total up the years spent on Lifepaths to get an age and that determines how many points you have for stats.  The game doesn’t worry overly much about balance, but there are a few ways to keep characters in the same general power level.  For example, you would want to limit the number of lifepaths starting characters can take so that everyone takes the same number of lifepaths (three or four is probably the best for “standard” type characters).  Characters also have Traits, which can be good or bad…why would you take a bad trait?  Well, aside from story purposes and depth of roleplay, it can give you bonuses for playing them up right.

The system doesn’t have classes or levels, instead you increase skills the more you use them.  I like this a lot, even though it is a bit more complex…once you make W skill tests of X, Y and Z complexity, your skill or stat rating goes up by one.  The magic system is likewise pretty neat, with failed spells leading to some very interesting results as your character accidentally speaks the magic words wrong (and, yes, this makes me think of Army of Darkness…”I said the words.  Well, maybe not every little syllable…” which is never a bad thing).  I like my magic a bit on the dangerous side, so, yeah!

Now for the stuff that bothers me.  One is a minor thing, the other a major thing…

First, the minor thing.  The game seems to rename gaming terms just for the sake of doing so, and in some cases it’s just…clumsy sounding.  It’s not character generation, it’s “character burning.”  They aren’t knowledge skills, they’re “wises.”  They’re not combat rounds, they’re “Exchanges.”  You don’t take turns, you take “Volleys.”  Ability scores?  Nay, I say…”Exponents!”

Now, the major thing.  I hate the combat system, including the social duels system.  At the beginning of each Exchange, which consists of three Volleys, every combatant privately “scripts” what he’s going to do for the Exchange.  That includes defensive maneuvers.  Yes, that’s right, you might choose to parry even though nobody attacks you on that Volley!  If your action is rendered pointless, you can either “Stand and Drool” and waste an action or spend one of your later actions to change what you’re going to do.  Yes, you read that right, if you parry and nobody attacks you, you’ve just either wasted your action or have had to spend your next action to actually do something.  Additionally, the combat is a bit overly complex with weapon lengths, closing distances and so on all factored in.  I will flat out say it, I don’t like this.  I get what they’re trying to do, I understand why they’re trying to do it, but I prefer a more fluid and adaptable combat system.  As a result, for when I run the game at some point in the future, I have rewritten the combat system almost entirely to be more flexible and cinematic and a bit more streamlined..and I’m not one to apply house rules normally.

If not for the fact that the combat system, as written, is so unlikeable to me, I would not hesitate to recommend this game wholeheartedly.  The price is nice; where else are you going to get two 300ish page rulebooks for $25?  The combat system can be hammered into a more flexible shape and normally, that would be a dealbreaker for me, but I like the rest of the system so much that I’m willing to rewrite the parts I don’t like.

[tags]Burning Wheel,review,Role Playing Games[/tags]

8 thoughts on “Review: The Burning Wheel Fantasy Roleplaying System

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  1. Agreed with you on most of your points and this is from someone who has played in three short BW campaigns.

    One of the things that annoyed me about the combat system, if you must use scripting, is there is no way for a superior combatant to ‘read’ his opponent and use his superior knowledge to have some idea of what the enemy is going to do next. Which, as I understanding it, is an important point of being an experienced fighter.


  2. To that list of dislikes, let me add two, one minor and one major.

    The minor one is the patronizing tone of some of the writing. When Luke writes about the “Let it Ride” rule, for instance, he doesn’t go into the whys and wherefores of the rule, he just pulls out his “Angry Imp” icon and basically shouts at the reader for having the gall to question his reasoning.

    The major one is, the rules are hideously disorganized, particularly the lifepaths. I tried creating a combat veteran character, only to find that one of the qualifying previous lifepaths (“sergeant at arms”) doestn’t actually exist. The paths are not organized alphabetically, which means you have to guess what order Luke was thinking of when he jotted them down.

    For these reasons, and the ones you mentioned, BW is more a frustrating experiment in RPG design than a fun game. I tried to get some folks in my group to get into it, but after one session we decided to try more fun systems like Savage Worlds and Spirit of the Century.


  3. Amp,

    I left my feelings about the tone out of the review, in case it was just me, but yeah, I noticed that too. It’s even worse in Adventure Burner where at one point, he basically says “either accept it or play a different game.” That’s not an exact quote, of course, but it was very much the tone.


  4. I played BW at Origins and had a great time during the session. I went straight away to buy the books you just reviewed. However, it’s a system that I don’t think I’ll ever run for anyone. The issues you outlined above are exactly what brought me to that conclusion. That said, I think the game has a good deal to offer from a character-development standpoint; that’s why I bought it.


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