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.
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
- Make a 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?
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:
- Beat and bind (attempt to knock away a weapon)
- Great Strike
- Lock (i.e., grapple)
- Throw Opponent
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.