Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Burning Wheel review

I've heard some good things about The Burning Wheel role-playing game. It attempts to fully integrate character actions into the story. This is a very good idea and what should drive RPGs.

Game System

I dislike the basic game system. It uses dice pools. You roll a number of six-sided dice and count results of 4 or more. If the count fulfils the number required, you succeed in your action. If not, you fail. The reason why I dislike this system is that you always have to grab different numbers of dice, spend a couple of seconds figuring out if you succeeded (not really knowing what your chances were) and pick up, from the floor, a lost die because you had to roll 5 of them. It just screams of a design by someone who doesn't understand probability or how to get take the tedium out of RPGs.

What you are looking for when rolling a die is a way to take a decision out of the hands of the players and game master, and into the hands of chance. Generally, the result is binary (success/fail), occasionally more interesting (critical success, success, fail, fumble), but it's never anything that requires such an involved method as what Burning Wheel uses. Obviously, flipping a coin won't work. However, does that mean you want varying numbers of dice, a variable "success" requirement (4 or above, 3 or above, 2 or more) or varying counts required to succeed? E.g., in The Burning Wheel, you could need 5 "successes" with 7 dice, each "success" being a roll of 3 or more. Not only that, occasionally when you roll a six you get to roll another die! Argh! What is the point of all this complexity?

What is better: Take all those variables into account and figure out your percentage chance of success and roll a d100. What is best: Ditch the system entirely and use something sensible.

RPG advice

It's not all bad news. The book is really very good in describing what roleplaying games are all about. It's about characters and story and their interaction. Dice, the book explains, are used whenever you can't just say "yes" to a request by a player. That is, if the character wants something that someone doesn't want it to have, you roll. Keeping this in mind when playing RPGs is invaluable.

There is also the "Let it Ride" rule. This is such a simple and seemingly obvious rule that I'm surprised I've never used it. It can apply to any RPG. It is, essentially: Just roll once to perform a task, no matter the subtlety or the game time involved. Rolling multiple times can often mean you didn't get the result you really wanted. Learn to deal with the result rather than re-rolling.


Another extremely good idea are the beliefs, instincts and traits of a character. (In reality, only beliefs and instincts are innovative. Traits already exist in many games, like Savage Worlds' edges and hindrances and RuneQuest's gifts and compulsions.) A player is instructed to write down three beliefs that their character has (e.g., "the poor are little more than pebbles to be trodden on"). If the player plays their character inline with their beliefs, they are rewarded. Attributing beliefs, instincts and traits to characters distinguishes them from other characters much better than stats ("my character is strong") or roles ("my character is the thief") do.

However, having described these new ways of characterisation, The Burning Wheel then imposes a rather complex reward mechanism that the author calls "artha". It's all too much complexity and I can't see how it does anything other than detract from the storytelling, which seems at odds with the overall idea of the RPG. I'd much rather have my players write down their beliefs, instincts and traits and simply award a RuneQuest improvement point (or D&D XP) whenever they play their characters correctly. A storytelling RPG should be all about simplifying and adding ways to improve the storytelling process, not hindering it by adding complexity.

Duel of Wits

The duel of wits sub-game is an clever attempt to undertake social conflict as part of a game. It's an expanded rock-paper-scissors. Players write down a series of argumental/rhetorical volleys, each as a type of action. In a duel of wits, the player may:
  • Avoid the topic
  • Dismiss your interlocutor
  • Feint
  • Incite
  • Obfuscate
  • Make a point
  • Rebut
Each action interacts with the other actions differently. Each speaker writes down a series of three actions at a time and they are played off against each other. The actions resolve simultaneously. This all needs to be role-played at the same time too. You can't just say "I make an eloquent point."

It's a clever system, but it seems too complicated. I don't see why one needs to formulate social interaction. In fact, once you have the idea of a debate in your head, you couldn't you allow the discussion to evolve more organically, rather than systematising it?

Combat System

The combat system is similar to the duel of wits. Players write down their actions in a series of volleys and all combat occurs simultaneously (like in Diplomacy). Actions are:
  • Avoid
  • Beat and bind (attempt to knock away a weapon)
  • Block
  • Charge/Tackle
  • Counterstrike
  • Disarm
  • Feint
  • Great Strike
  • Lock (i.e., grapple)
  • Push
  • Strike
  • Throw Opponent
I like it. It's simpler than most combat systems and yet there are a whole heap of cinematic options that could result in some fairly interestingly unpredictable battles. Still, I do kind of like the control you get in turn-based games like RuneQuest (which has all those combat manoeuvres and more).


The simultaneous conflict in Burning Wheel is a cool idea. I could see how that would be very fun to play. It might even speed up the often very slow combat sequences in RPGs. The way characters are created and played is also really cool. Nevertheless, I can't see why I'd ever play the Burning Wheel. The basic game mechanic (dice pools) is dire and infects every element of the game. It's too complicated and too tedious. Furthermore, there are too many rules! It's a 300 page book, almost entirely made up of rules. I'd need to completely re-work the whole thing to make far less mechanistic and complicated.

However, it's not all bad news. A lot of the ideas from the Burning Wheel went into making Diaspora. The end result for that RPG is very different. But that's for another day.


  1. Just out of curiosity, did you actually play the game before you reviewed it? I ask because there are a lot of things that you seem to have overlooked in the review, like the advancement system, which is related to both your dice pools and the artha cycle.

    Really, get 4 friends together and run through The Sword demo, which is available at as a free download. I'm not saying it'll make you like the game, but, with Burning Wheel, just reading the rules doesn't give you a full picture of how the game runs in play, no matter how long you've played other games.

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  3. No, I haven't played it. I agree it would be better if I had. Nevertheless, after reading, I don't really want to play.

    The main reason I doubt I'd play is that there is too much complexity. We're playing MRQII at the moment. It's complex, but not too bad. (And it's an excellent system.) My players aren't going to learn all of the rules in detail, so that means I'll have to do it. Therefore, I'm always looking for something with less crunch. Burning Wheel is more complex than MRQII (or at least on par.)

    I had a look at Mouse Guard, that seems less unwieldy. And, of course, Diaspora - similar in a lot of ways - is just plain elegant. That's a game I *really* want to play.

    Re: advancement. I thought artha *was* the advancement system.

  4. I've never had a problem with dice pools systems (ShadowRun, Star Wars d6, and the standard d6 system). It may sound clunky but it's really not. I can see why people are turned off when they hear about them though.

    Also even though the book is 300 pages you have to consider the pages are half the size of a standard rpg book. So it's really no bigger than your average system.

    I think the most important part in BW is artha. You use it to help advance and do cool stuff. Players earn that by the gm challenging their beliefs. They may have to make some decisions they don't want to have to make and it drives the game forward intensely. The artha and belief systems are amazing in play.

  5. I think you have done a great job of reviewing the game. I also think your review is positive overall. You highlighted what you consider to be the appealing parts of the game's design, and criticized the system for being unnecessarily complex in the combat, experience and scripted social interactions.

    I'm actually fond of dice pools, from playing Shadowrun in my teens and lots of table top war games, I quite like complex combat systems, but I agree that they slow the action down significantly and these days we just don't have time for that.

    It was your mention of the Diplomacy style combat and 'duel of wits' that really puts me off the game (I really dislike Diplomacy, its one of the few games that really can't stand) - although to be fair, I agree we should give it a go and see how it plays out in practice.

  6. I probably focussed too much on the dice pools. They're useless, that's for sure, but whatever. It frustrates me that so many games use gimmicky mechanics. Fudge dice, dice pools, d20+18, normal distribution, etc. But that's RPGs. You got to come up with something "novel". Every RPG does it. BW is in no way exceptional. In fact, it's much tighter than D&D or Pathfinder, for instance. Way, way tighter.

    Diplomacy is a superb game. You only don't like it because it's so nasty (extreme and horrible competition). BW is good in that it's utterly co-operative, so I don't think you'd find it in any way painful to play.

  7. I really liked you review and in fact it's maybe the only one found on the web which completely agrees with my very same POW about the game.

    Just finishing browsing the BWG book, and never took a chance to play it yet. Been through many, many RPG systems before, most notably AD&D, Rolemaster, The Riddle of Steel, d20/SRD/PFRPG. Always loved when RPG not only is a dice-rolling feast, but more of a character -and story- development thing.

    TBW has some good (altough not exactly as innovative as the author implies) ideas in, most notably the BITs system and how it helps developing the story. The Let it Ride and general "say yes or roll the dice" approach also are cleverly thought out.

    The Artha and test systems, otoh, are way overly complicated for the goal they want to achieve. And I agree, there's absolutely no need of a in-game mechanic for arguing, nor of a so much long and complicated character generation system.
    The game in the end lacks spontaneity and loses on the entertaining value. It's no game anymore, it's more of a "character acting on a (faint) subject throwing at them by the GM". No way to keep the storyline on track if playing the game as the rules imply. No way to play the game as the rules imply if you want to follow the story.

    1. "It's no game anymore, it's more of a "character acting on a (faint) subject throwing at them by the GM". No way to keep the storyline on track if playing the game as the rules imply. No way to play the game as the rules imply if you want to follow the story."
      Whoa! That´s quite a lot to say about a game you haven´t played.
      It´s Ok if you don´t like it, but saying the game is not a game (what?) without any kind of evidence/proof/etc.
      Also, I don´t know what would it be to "follow the story" or "keep the storyline". That´s pretty much the opposite of what BW delivers. No premade story to follow, the story generates while playing by the players creating and following their PCs´ beliefs, the GM putting obstacles between them and what they seek, and the dice telling the outcome of conflicts.
      At least when I played it, it was fun and ran smooth: when you´re not running a fight, duel of wits or range & cover, the game´s really easy to run (and you should only use those 3 sparingly).

      1. The artha system is really easy, 2 kinds of artha that show up a lot (deed points are rare), with the conditions for obtaining them. At the end of the session, read the conditions and see how many artha gets each character.
      2. Couldn´t agree less of an in-game mechanic for arguing. I want a discusion to be as fun to run as a fight, so why shouldn´t it be? I understand if you don´t like it, but that´s only a matter of oppinion, not so much "there´s absolutely no need of an...".