Burning Wheel: Smoke Without Fire?

For the past few weeks I’ve been playing in a Burning Wheel game – something I’ve wanted to do ever since I first read the system about 5-6 years ago. Having actually played the system, however, I find myself somewhat underwhelmed.

Let’s start with the good stuff, though: BW is stuffed full of really good advice for GMs and players alike. Creating characters who are driven by Beliefs, allowing characters to drive the plot, spelling out that conflict creates story, keeping the GM’s touch light and their ability to interfere minimal… this is all good stuff. I think everyone should read Burning Wheel, if only to get these ideas into their skull in a form which is explicitly noted and mechanically supported.

And fortunately all of these ideas are game-independent: you’ll get less mechanical support for belief-driven characters in, say, D&D but you can still implement them. You can still let them drive the plot rather than the GM leading them down a pre-defined story path.

I say this is fortunate because the BW system is bad, and you should probably not use it for anything. Since I love criticism, I’m now going to spend the rest of this post examining my dislike for it.

1. Poor Organisation
This isn’t really a game design issue but it is hugely annoying.

The first thing you will notice when you crack your BW book (or books, if you have the old version) is that nothing is where you expect it to be. The recent ‘gold’ version of the game fixes some of the organisation issues but many remain. A short list (off the top of my head) follows:

  • Lifepaths are not in any kind of order – not by ‘sub-setting’, not by logical progression, not alphabetical.
  • The index is useless unless you know the specific terminology for what you’re trying to find. There’s no such thing as ‘training’, for example: you’re looking for ‘practice’ or ‘instruction’.
  • The master skill list doesn’t contain all relevant information (such as what ‘type’ the skill is for training purposes) – there’s no substitute for flipping through and finding the skill.
  • A number of other organisational problems I had – traits all over the place, magic in three separate books – may have been rectified in the new version. So I won’t talk about them here.

2. The System Clunks
The basic system is simple and quick. Collect as many d6 as you can persuade the GM to let you get away with, roll, job done.

It goes downhill from there.

The first problem is that there are too many skills. Way too many, and too specialised. (‘Ditch Digging’, anyone?) Because of a dearth of skill points characters will be utterly incompetent outside their area of expertise, and it’s very easy to make a character who is accidentally incompetent within their area of expertise because you didn’t know they needed Skill X to do Thing Y. Cue comedy results.

(Never mind that a skill of 6 – default maximum for starting characters – means you only hold the wrong end of the sword about one time in ten.)

Then you have the issue of skill and trait classifications. For skills I like to use Stealth and Observation as examples. They are classified as forestry skills. Stealth, in particular, is almost impossible to get as a path skill in character gen unless you have some sort of wilderness stalker lifepath. In fairness you can still get it thanks to open skill points, but it annoys me that urban characters are all assumed to be clanking dullards.

For traits, my pet peeve is Tall Tale Teller. It’s a trait that gives you bonuses to certain social roles if you can spin a story to go with it. It is only available to pilgrims. Not only that, but it’s a compulsory trait for pilgrims. So all pilgrims (or ex-pilgrims) are fantastic storytellers, and no one else is. Oh, except tinkers. Who also get a compulsory-available-to-no-one-else storytelling trait called The Story (I think).

I get the Canterbury Tales reference, okay? But your in-joke just made my game world really weird.

Of course, skills can be learned and improved in play, which leads me to my next problem: you have to track everything. Every time you make a test, check a box. Every time you spend artha (fate points) on a test, check a box. When you have the right number of checks erase them all, edit your skill rating, start again. This gets cumbersome really quickly – it would be fantastic in a video game, which would track these things automatically (Romancing SaGa 3 springs to mind as a game which does something very similar) but in PnP games it grates.

It also leads to a lot of metagaming regarding what sort of tests you need to advance, including a tendency to ‘attempt failure’ if you need a particular level of test.

Actually, most of our BW sessions are metagaming – the ratio of ‘game discussion’ to ‘actual play’ works out at around fifteen minutes of discussion to five minutes of play. Mostly it splits about half and half but every so often we’ll get into a detailed breakdown of how best to do something or, worse, we’ll try to use the Detailed Conflict Resolution Mechanics.

I could complain about the DCRMs all day – and since this is my blog, I will. First of all there are three versions (Fight!, Range and Cover, Duel of Wits) which are all just different enough from each other to render their similarities more misleading than helpful. (I think sorcerers’ duels get a fourth version, too, but I don’t know for sure.)

Secondly, the DCRMs are entirely one-on-one focused. The whole game is, really – it handles conflicts with multiple people on each side spectacularly poorly, and I have a vague recollection that you’re supposed to pare it down into a one-on-one structure wherever possible – but the DCRMs exemplify the problem. Combine this with the time that a dramatic conflict takes, and you have the problem of half the group having nothing to do for fifteen minutes (or more) while one or maybe two do their thing.

And finally the metagaming problem rears its head again. DCRMs are so involved that the ratio of ‘time spent rolling dice and doing game rule stuff’ to ‘time spent playing the game’ expands significantly. This is most noticeable, I think, in a Duel of Wits – you each say a couple of lines of biting dialogue, then roll dice for five minutes. Repeat until someone is bored into submission.

Oh, and the adversarial nature of the DCRMs encourages you to think you can outsmart your opponent by a careful choice of actions but because everything is a) scripted three steps in advance and b) completely secret it more or less comes down to blind luck.

And while I’m on the subject of conflicts: a light wound (-1 die on all actions) is one step up from a superficial wound (+1 difficulty on all actions) but each +1 diff is worth two dice of penalties, making punching yourself in the face to convert three superficials into a light is an effective healing technique. (Any wound more severe than light is basically lethal.)

2a. The System Produces Wacky Results
A sub-set of clunk.

Most of the ones we have encountered are to do with Resources and Circles. For starters, the only way to raise your Resources is to use your Resources: you literally have to spend money to make money. Or, less sensibly, you can throw a six-course banquet for 100 people and become wealthier as a result.

Even less sensibly, doing honest work only helps you restore ‘taxed’ (temporarily lost) Resources dice. If you have a Resources of 0 there is literally no way for you to make money. You can’t succeed on a Resources roll with 0 dice and you can’t get a job to earn Resources because that only restores lost dice, it doesn’t grant you new ones. Your only hope is to steal something valuable or get someone to spend money on your behalf.

Because when someone helps you with a Resources test it counts as a success for both your Resources and theirs. Thus by having someone buy you shoes (or a castle, or whatever) you become richer and so do they.

Circles is also a bit odd. You can roll it to find a contact, but even if you go to meet this guy at his home or place of work you can’t find him again without rolling Circles again. Even if you just sit in his home and wait for him to turn up. You have to succeed about five times before you can just ‘go to where he is’.

3. ‘Gritty’ + ‘Character-Driven’ = Wank
So, death is easy in Burning Wheel. Anyone with a bow has about a one-in-three chance of one-shotting you, no matter who you are. In fact, they have a further one-in-three chance of giving you a bleeding wound that will bring about your inevitable death. If mortally wounded you have to spend a persona point (a type of fate point) immediately or die. But even if you spend the point you have to roll Health against a difficulty of ‘GTFO’ or die. Then a surgeon needs to roll Surgery against the game GTFO difficulty or you die.

Then your character is incapacitated for six months to two years while they recover, meaning they’re effectively out of the game anyway.

But the EZ-Murder system isn’t what I’m complaining about. I’m okay with gritty realism when it comes to stabbing people in my RPGs.

Actually, that’s not true. I think that the fact you can survive a terrible wound against all odds but still have to roll up a new character sucks giant neon balls. Realistic or not.

Anyway. My problem is that if you’re going to have a game where life is cheap it needs to have two qualities which Burning Wheel does not:

  • Character generation should be quick and easy in order to facilitate getting the player back into the action as soon as possible. See, for example, old-school D&D and its retro-clones. You can whip up a new character for OSRIC or S&W in about ten minutes – two minutes if you don’t bother picking a good name and just call them ‘Kevin II’ or whatever. Character gen in BW is neither quick, nor easy. Too many skills, poor lifepath organisation, traits and skills assigned to lifepaths more or less at random… I’ve complained about all these elements already. Better hope your character dies at the end of a session so you’ve got time to make the next one.
  • The plot should be able to survive the death of any player character (or NPC, for that matter). BW is designed to promote character-driven storytelling, which gets kind of screwed up when a scrub with a crossbow takes out one of the characters. Kind of like if the detective in The Usual Suspects pulled his gun and put a bullet in Kevin Spacey’s forehead half an hour in. Oops, what now?

4. tl;dr
Burning Wheel is full of good ideas, wrapped up in a system that clunks and scrapes and can’t decide if it wants to model fiction or reality. Read it, then apply its lessons to any other game system of your choice.

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