Sunday, December 11, 2011

Tabletop Review: Luke Crane's Burning Wheel

So I picked up a copy of Burning Wheel Gold - the latest and probably last edition of Luke Crane's award-winning tabletop role-playing game - about a month ago. Between it being about 600 pages long and working on NaNoWriMo (not to mention traveling for Thanksgiving), it's taken me nearly this long to get through it.

First Impressions

It's pretty clear from the first few pages that Burning Wheel is a response to Dungeons & Dragons and other traditional fantasy role-playing games. It was released just before D. Vincent Baker's Dogs in the Vineyard and the popular FATE system; in many ways, it stands at the vanguard of the modern "story game" and "indie game" movements with its greater focus on theme and narrative. Burning Wheel was one of the first games to institute the policies of "say yes or roll dice", "don't roll unless it's meaningful", and "make failure interesting" - principles which have since become accepted wisdom in the gaming community.

What separates Burning Wheel from most modern indie games is its complexity - its "crunchiness" - and its focus on simulation and realism. What differentiates it from older D&D and White Wolf products is its equally strong focus on story, theme, and character. In some ways, it's the best of both worlds - you get your D&D3E-style "I'm experiencing what it's like to live and struggle in this fantastic setting" experience, while at the same time being able - and encouraged - to tell compelling stories.

Characters

Burning Wheel characters consist of skills, traits, and beliefs. In other words, a character is defined by what she can do, what she's like, and what she thinks/wants. Playing the game means trying to tell compelling stories about your characters. You decide what your character wants and, by playing, discover whether or not she gets it and how she is changed by the experience.

Character Creation

A character gets where he is at the start of the game by following a sequence of "lifepaths", each of which is very specific and tied to a particular role, job, and place in real medieval life.1

For example, you might have been born in a city, apprenticed to a blacksmith, picked up a little fighting knowledge, hired yourself out as a guard, and eventually joined the army. That's five lifepaths. Each lifepath would have given you certain traits and skills and made others available for you to buy. It would have aged you a particular amount. The move from the city to the military would have required a certain opportunity to open up (you can't just magically transition from one setting to another). And it would create a coherent story with connections to people and places which you could call on (or just invent on the fly) later.

1 If you're a human. If you're playing with non-human races and you're an elf, dwarf, or orc, you get a completely different set of life paths which are tied to those races' fictional cultures.

Beliefs

The only thing the character creation process doesn't affect significantly is your character's beliefs. Beliefs let you tell the GM and the other players what motivates your character, both in the short and long term. Your soldier above might have a belief of "I need to ingratiate myself with my commanding officer so I can get a promotion," or "I will prove to my father than I can make something of myself." (Since you have at least three beliefs, he could have both.)

Beliefs and traits in Burning Wheel combine to have a similar effect to FATE's aspects. They help raise flags that show everyone at the table what you want to see in the story and hint at how you might like your character to develop. I am firmly convinced that any game which wants to have coherent character development and story arcs needs to do this, so it's good that Burning Wheel does (really, it was one of the first big games to do this).

Tests

Playing the game consists of tests. In a sequence of scenes, typically framed by the GM, each player describes what his character is doing, saying, etc. When the player wants to do something that would be difficult or met with some resistance, or when something happens and the character needs to defend herself or just keep from losing her cool, a test is made.

Tests are performed by taking a number of 6-sided dice equal to the character's skill level and rolling them. For most human characters, a roll of 4 or higher is success, 3 or lower is failure (in other words, it's a coin flip). You compare the number of successes to the difficulty, or obstacle, and succeed the test if you meet or exceed it. Stakes are set before the test - the player (or each side in a contest between characters) says what they want to have happen, and on a success, it does.

In many ways, this mechanic plays a lot like FATE, where ability increases are exponential and a difference in skill of even a few points can make one character far better or more competent than another. The fact that you're rolling a specific number of dice, however, adds another complication: it may simply not be able to succeed at a task - you might just not have enough dice. This is where traits, other skills, or even help from other players can come in - they allow you to have more dice than you normally would have. In a game, you will have may tasks which are impossible without help but very manageable with it, and this encourages cooperation.

Optional Mechanics

The entire game can be played just using single tests, but there are optional pieces which can be used when more detail is required (and really, this is where the game shines, so you should definitely use them where appropriate).

For example, two knights dueling could be resolved with a single test of sword vs. sword skill. Or it could be resolved using the highly detailed "Fight" mechanics, which simulate melee combat.

A heated negotiation between two merchants could be resolved using a single haggle vs. obfuscation opposed test, or it could be resolved using the gem in Burning Wheel's crown: the "Duel of Wits". The Duel of Wits allows you to role-play out a social conflict, mechanically, with different "moves" representing different debate tactics. It allows players, regardless of their real-life oratory skill, to participate in intense dialogue, with their characters' skills serving as the foundation for their success or failure.

Other optional mechanics are Circles ("I need to find a guy..."), Wealth (there is no explicit currency in the game, but characters still need to be able to buy stuff - and eat!), and Range and Cover (for shooty fights instead of stabby ones). Oh yeah, don't forget Sorcery!2

I will mention that fighting in Burning Wheel is much more deadly than in other fantasy games and recovery take a lot longer, so unless your game is specifically about fighting you probably won't be doing a whole lot of it. Also, people of different lifepaths won't all be equally trained in fighting, so if you are playing a fight-heavy game, you need to either make sure that all of your characters know how to use a weapon or at least brawl, or are okay with standing on the sidelines/cowering/fleeing when the weapons come out.

2 I won't go into this; it works a bit like magic in Dresden Files and generally seems like a good fit for the game; you don't need to play with magic at all if you don't want to, however.

Advancement

This is one of the best - and worst - parts of Burning Wheel. Skill advancement comes from using skills (I'll get into that in a bit). But just as in FATE, doing cool stuff gets you points that you can use later to boost rolls and give yourself the opportunity to succeed at difficult tasks. Specifically, you get points for playing to or against your traits, pursuing your beliefs, and for doing incredible deeds. You also get points if the other players think you did a good job during a session in one of several predefined ways, like helping a lot or having your character solve a problem when nobody else could.

Skill advancement works based on use. In order to advance a skill, you need to test it a certain number of times. Furthermore, those tests need to be against easy, moderate, and difficult obstacles, the specific number of which increases with skill rank (it's easy to raise a low skill, but hard to raise a high one). In all cases, you need a test against at least one obstacle that you could not possibly beat in order to advance (note that trait and helping dice don't help here, either). In other words, in order to advance, you either have to spend points you got for playing your character well, or fail tests.3

I really like this mechanic. If nothing else, it rewards a player for putting her character in difficult positions, even where she knows the character will not succeed. It rewards the player for creating drama, and for expending resources. I kind of wish more games did this (again, FATE kind of does).

The problem with advancement in Burning Wheel is that players need to do a lot of bookkeeping. Every time they have a scene where they tested a skill, they need to remember to mark it down. Failure to do so means not advancing. Also, because XP isn't handed out just for participation, the GM has to be careful to allow players to get into situations where skills they are interested in using are tested, without allowing the players to outright lobby for unnecessary tests.

3 Helping also counts towards advancing a skill, which simulates learning by apprenticeship. I also really like this aspect of the game, because it allows stronger characters to help bring up weaker ones.

Concerns

First, I can see why Burning Wheel is so appealing, especially to D&D players who are looking for a little more depth in their games. It does a really good job of being a fantasy tabletop game while also being a modern narrative, character-driven game.

But therein lies a potential problem - players and GMs coming into Burning Wheel for the first time have to understand that this isn't D&D. It isn't a game about "winning" by killing the evil wizard and saving the princess. If that were everyone in the party's goal, in fact, it would be a very boring game. Characters should work at least a little bit at cross-purposes to keep things interesting. A PCs-vs-the-world mindset is just wrong for this game.

Second, the game is not mechanically balanced at all. It's not supposed to be. In any meaningful contest other than a bar brawl, the landed knight or lord is just going to beat the farmer or cowherd. This is perfectly realistic from a historical perspective - the knight has land, resources, men, connections, and training that the farmer has no hope to ever achieve. But it also makes it difficult to come up with scenarios where people from different lifepaths can interact meaningfully.

Third, since there is no real effort at balance, a player who wants to mise out as many skill or trait points as possible probably can, though the resulting character would not be coherent and would probably not play very well. Players need to be encouraged not to go down this road during character creation, and instead to focus on making an interesting personality with a lot of possible stories they might want to tell.

Finally, as I've mentioned before, there is a lot more listening and planning ahead required so that everyone at the table can have part of the spotlight and see their character grow and advance. The DM must create situations that highlight each character's strengths and weaknesses, put them in positions to achieve their goals, play to and against their traits, test skills that they need for advancement, etc. And the other players have to be paying enough attention to support that and help (both in character and by steering the story) where necessary. I'm pretty sure a player without buy-in to what the group wants could totally derail a Burning Wheel session, much more severely than the player could in a game like D&D where the players typically have a common goal regardless of their disagreements.

Conclusion

Burning Wheel is a very heavy, complex game. It straddles the line between modern story games and old-school tabletop RPGs. I think, because of that, it will appeal to players looking for either a simulationist experience or a narrativist one or both. In other words, this is a game that could appeal to fans of both D&D3E/Pathfinder and Spirit of the Century/Dresden Files/etc.

On the other hand, if you're not a fan of crunch, rules-heavy systems with lots and lots of lists, you aren't going to like Burning Wheel very much. It is possible to run the game with only a minimal subset of the rules and I think if you have very story-oriented players who don't mind glossing over the technical bits it might still work for them. However, there are plenty of other systems now that might be better suited for a group of that type.

I think I do really want to play this game, and I know a few people who might have the specific itch that Burning Wheel is designed to scratch. If and when that happens, even if it's just a one-shot, I'll write another review and we'll see how my opinion changes.

Posted by Dave at 12:27 PM | Tags: games, tabletop

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