Burning Wheel (BWG 📖) is a gorgeous and massive tome. It is something you’d expect from a self-professed game system geek [Walking Eye Interview with Luke Crane and Vincent Baker]. There is little in the way of flowery narrative, instead, a tight focus on explaining a convincing way to play role-playing games.
Burning Wheel’s motto is “Fight for what you believe.” By its very nature, a fight is violent and unpredictable. Burning Wheel revels in this unpredictability. It demands that you state why and how you are doing something before you cast the dice. It demands that your Game Master (GM 📖) state what will go wrong if you fail.
First and foremost, Burning Wheel uses dice, perhaps the most fickle of all randomizers, to resolve situations. Then again, most role-playing games are dice-based.
Beyond that, chaos and chance are immediately obvious in the Sorcery section. Fail a spell and you might just summon an angry god, an Imp, or consume an innocent zoo animal in the fires of heaven. You can be a Wild Mage in Dungeons and Dragons (D&D 📖) (2E) with surge tables, but those are tame compared to Burning Wheel’s spell failures.
Chaos is also present in the scripted actions (e.g. Fight, Range & Cover, and Duel of Wits). Players declare several actions based on imperfect information. They then work at resolving those declared actions. It is very hard to divine the results of a Fight. Or what a compromise will be. We managed to succeed in a Duel of Wits without a compromise; Something we thought would be nigh impossible.
For all of the chaos, if you play by the rules, you have several powerful tools at your disposal to help reign in the chaos: Helping dice, FoRKs, Linked Tests, Call-On Traits, Artha, and Let it Ride and “Say Yes or Roll”. This is a different chaos than random encounters. It is the narrative chaos of many participants, acting with various efficacy.
Linked tests and helping dice are about leaning on other people. Will your friends show up when the stakes are high?
FoRKs and Call-On traits represent areas of personal competency that compliment primary tasks. A player can work to incorporate numerous FoRKs into their tests.
Artha is the lifeblood of Burning Wheel. It is the reward for your hard-fought battles – regardless of their outcomes. It is the currency you use to engage in the fight for that which is precious to you.
All of the above “control” features are dice-based. But not “Let it Ride” and “Say Yes or Roll.” “Let it Ride” doesn’t help you succeed at a test, but it insulates you from a badgering GM that wants to keep throwing you back into the same conflict.
“Say Yes or Roll” provides the player a way of requesting potentially trivial things without spiraling into a complete unpredictable mess. And if a player happens to request something non-trivial and it’s cool in the GM eyes, the system encourages the GM to “Say Yes.”
Barely Managed Chaos
At the intersection of unpredictability and control is the moment when the dice stop rolling. Was the test a success? Or was it a failure?
In the case of success, the player is given their intent. The rules encourage the Game Master to offer a bit of color commentary regarding the test and move on.
In the case of failure, the player does not get their intent. But more importantly, the rules demand that the Game Master not make failure boring. The system rules the Game Master to twist the intent into an interesting complication – be the malevolent djinni “granting” the character their wish.
In Failure is the Path to Success
The probability curve of Burning Wheel means that there will be plenty of failure, and for some, this isn’t acceptable. However, Burning Wheel mechanically rewards failure – not quite like Mouse Guard – by codifying mechanical advancement as being achievable only when you reach for something outside your grasp.
In my last session of Burning Wheel, as a player, I was ecstatic that I had failed my Cooking test and suffered food poisoning (+1 Ob for the next day). That meant it would be fairly easy to get a Challenging test for my Astrology. My Astrology required only one more Challenging test to advance; a hard to manufacture test.
Wrapping It Up
Burning Wheel offers so much to ingest and digest. For me, it was my first introduction to a non-traditional rules set (i.e. not D&D, Rolemaster, Star Frontiers, Shadowrun, etc). It’s a different kind of game. While it does spend pages explaining how your character interacts with their world. It also outlines how you, the player, interact with your character as well as other characters and players at the table.
Though I write quite a bit about Burning Wheel, I am by no means an expert burner. I don’t feel like I’m an amazing GM. I do, however, find that Burning Wheel provides the recipe for me to become a better player and GM – both for one-shot play and campaign play. And that is why I choose Burning Wheel.