When it comes to tabletop gaming, I have one particular preference about the style of game that I play that greatly defines the products I purchase. Any system with a complicated ruleset is an immediate turn-off to me. This stems, I think, from a negative experience with certain rule-heavy games like Dungeons and Dragons and Pokemon Tabletop Adventures. It felt like it took me way too long to learn these systems and trying to recall every rule during play bogged down the session. On top of that, because of the rigid game mechanics it was difficult to create exactly the character type that I wanted – I often had to edit a concept or limit my creativity because the ruleset didn’t allow for what I wanted to create.
When I discovered Dungeon World and, by extension, the Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) genre of games, I never looked back. I love the simple mechanics and narrative freedom. I love being able to easily hack the game if I need to change something for the sake of the story my group is telling around the table. I’ve recently discussed two PbtA games that I’m dying to play – Apocalypse World and City of Mist – and a big part of what draws me to those games is this engine which I have come to enjoy so much around the tabletop.
But among the many games I wish to introduce my friends and fellow RPG geeks to, there is one which I fear as much as I anticipate. This is a game which promises to challenge my aversion to complicated mechanics, to convince me that sometimes complex rules are the perfect companion to creating an intricate narrative with deep characters. That game is The Burning Wheel.
If you’re not familiar with The Burning Wheel, it is a fantasy game created by a fella named Luke Crane (who I assume was an action hero before making a tabletop game). Taking place in a classic fantasy setting with elves, dwarves, orcs, sorcery, and elemental gods, the game focuses intently on the characters in the game and what beliefs drive them to action. While your character will have stats (MANY stats), the main focus is the system of beliefs, instincts, and traits that influence what they say and do. The game is all about challenging those beliefs, pushing a character to prove that they truly believe something – or to realize that they don’t.
The way these beliefs work is pretty great in play, because it takes pursuing your character’s goal and makes it a mechanical aspect of the game. When you pursue your belief but don’t achieve it, you get a Fate point, which allows you to reroll some of your dice to earn more successes on a test. Spending Fate points on your rolls helps to improve the skill or stat that you are rolling, so by pursuing your beliefs, you are actually helping your character to advance and become more powerful.
Instincts are a particularly cool aspect of the game that allow you to mechanically declare that your character will do certain actions without thinking. Stuff like “I always have my weapon ready at the start of combat” or “When I have free time, I always practice my sorcery.” These instincts are really flexible – they can pretty much be anything – and they give you advantages but can also be a way to earn Fate points when they get you into trouble. This makes instincts that could be problematic in certain situations – “I always have to have the last word” in the king’s royal court, for example – beneficial for earning you the points needed to enhance your character.
Advancement doesn’t just depend on Fate points, though. While Fate allows you to “shade shift” your stats so that you succeed on lower dice rolls, the only way to increase the actual score of your various skills is to test them. Every time you roll dice to utilize a skill, you test it. Some tests are routine, some are challenging, and some are difficult. The higher your skill, the more difficult of a test you need in order to advance, and at high levels you need tests that are downright impossible in order to get better.
What an awesome system, right? The only way to get better in this game is to push yourself physically, mentally, and ideologically. THAT’s how your character grows. This is different from other games in that generally mechanical improvement is guaranteed but for your character to undergo narrative development, you have to shoehorn it into the game. With Burning Wheel, the mechanics help you include character development in the story. And no character gets better by just resting on their laurels and doing the easy stuff all the time. They have to be challenged in order to better themselves.
The final cool thing about Burning Wheel is that you can use this system to play all kinds of different characters. It’s not a “universal” system like GURPS, but the huge selection of skills available to you along with the belief mechanics makes it compelling to play character types that would otherwise be dissatisfying. Want to play dueling musicians always trying to one-up each other? Write some beliefs about how you’re cooler than the other guy and go nuts. Want to play out an epic fantasy quest involving a cleric, a warrior, a magician, and a rogue? You can do that too. This game does all the classic fantasy stuff but it also does things are aren’t possible in other games thanks to mechanics that make it narratively engaging to be something other than a mass-murderer.
This works out in a couple of ways. First of all, Burning Wheel has detailed social combat mechanics, allowing you to verbally battle someone with the same kind of tactical thought and care as a physical fight in other games (and in this game too). You don’t just have “Persuasion” and “Intimidation” – you have Oratory, Soothing Platitudes, Seduction, Extortion, Ugly Truth, and more. By fleshing out social mechanics, Burning Wheel opens the door for intrigue in a way that a game like D&D or Dungeon World doesn’t.
Second of all, the game has different mechanics for when a moment is significant versus when it is just a simple obstacle. Beating up four dudes who jump you in an alleyway isn’t a twenty-minute combat encounter. You establish the stakes, roll once, and that’s it. The fight is over and you go on with your life. This works the same way with social combat as well – you don’t need an entire Duel of Wits just to convince the bouncer to let you into the bar. But if the encounter is significant – which is to say, if a character’s belief is at stake – then time zooms in on the scene and things become more granular. Each swing of the sword or witty retort is important because the outcome of this encounter truly impacts the game world by impacting what people believe. The mechanics literally allow for you to gloss over the moments that aren’t as important so you can focus in on what matters to your characters.
So what kind of Burning Wheel game would I want to play? What kind of game would I want to run as the GM? Compared to the other articles I have written in this style, I feel like there’s a lot of overlap between the kind of game I’d want to create for my players and the kind I’d want to experience for myself. It would feel to me like a waste of Burning Wheel’s excellent social combat system if I didn’t put an emphasis on philosophical duels between charismatic individuals. I like the idea of using Burning Wheel to run a game focused on court drama, and I don’t mean royal court. You can play as lawyers in this game, and I think that’s the direction I would want to take my first Burning Wheel character – an attorney striving desperately to make his mark on a corrupt justice system from the inside.
“Ian, isn’t your day job trying to improve the justice system from the inside?”
Weeeeellll on that note I turn the conversation to you, adventurers! Have you played The Burning Wheel? Would you want to? What kind of stories would you tell with a game driven by the beliefs of the characters? Let me know in the comments below, and I hope you have a wonderful weekend!