The Burning Wheel is a fantasy roleplaying game that was published about 10 years ago by then unknown author/designer Luke Crane. In 2003, with a bit of guts, luck and the help of others, he got his scrappy little game in the hands of one Kenneth Hite and ended up getting Burning Wheel named ‘best game of 2003’ .
Fast forward to 2008, I heard of lots of buzz for a game called Mouse Guard generated by fellow bloggers and I got curious. I knew it was based on another game called the Burning Wheel, a game I’d heard of but had, until then, dismissed as “one of those story games with no substance” (yes, I was a pretentious idiot then… I’m less of an idiot now).
I purchased Mouse Guard at Gen Con 2009 and was immediately swept by the stellar writing, conversational tone and the sheer genius of the intricate yet elegant mechanics that made up the game. However, as much as I liked reading it, I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around how to actually play the game.
Then, during the fall of 2009, I was invited to a local Montreal gaming con, sharing guest status with some East Coast Indie designers. That’s where I more of less gracefully introduced myself to Luke, a story I immortalized here.
As I mastered that game about heroic mice, I became curious about Burning Wheel. It seemed to offer a complex yet highly emotional thrill ride for all players involved with a game session. I had to try it and evaluate if my players would be likely candidates for it.
Hook, Line and sinker
I met Luke again at Pax East 2010 and he was generous enough to offer my friends and I a very dynamic demo of ‘The Sword”, the quintessential one-shot Burning Wheel demo adventure. I loved every second of it, so did my friends. The game made its way on my ‘must play again” list.
My invitation at Burning Con a few weeks back and the 2 excellent scenarios I got to play in managed to sell me body and soul to the game system. I bought several copies of the core books and one set of everything else named “Burner” .
I had but one hurdle…
…could I convince my Friday-Night-tired friends to adopt the game? Like D&D’s last 2 incarnations, Burning Wheel resides on a handful of simple, core rules. They are however supplemented by a vast array of options that make the game much richer, yet more complex to play.
So what is Burning Wheel?
The Burning Wheel is a fantasy RPG that enables play in worlds that are equivalent (both technologically and socially) to 13th Century Western Europe/Middle East and 12th Century China. While there is no set world or gazetteer-like descriptions of kingdoms and city-states, there is an implied setting in the form of the races available for play, the various lifepaths you choose while “burning” (i.e. creating) your characters and the available gear you must choose from.
The game is driven by dice pool task resolutions where you roll a bunch of D6 (based on skills/abilities and helped by dice lent by others) to achieve a certain number of successes per roll. For example, To lift a portcullis, you may need to roll 6d and have at least 4 of them come up with a result of 4+ to succeed.
Combat can be very detailed and entails a complex combination of opposed rolls for positioning, a series of ‘rock-paper-scissors’-like exchanges to simulate blows, pushes, charges, dodges, feints, etc. Then any landed blow needs to land on a specific body area, possibly warded off by armour and the gravity of any wounds inflicted is then figured out.
Three elements make the game completely different from others I’ve seen before (Mouse Guard excepted, of course):
- The game has a mechanic to play out Duel of Wits (arguments) with binding results (you lose an argument, the whole party goes with the winner’s point of view or compromise)
- Each PCs have sets of player-chosen belief and instincts that guide how they act and react in the story
- Players get rewards in the form of 3 types of action points for playing in line with their beliefs and instincts
I could write a lot more about it, and I plan to write an actual review of it soon (although the game is 10 years old, you can Google a ton of them I’m sure). I just wanted to give a rapid overview. Needless to say, a lot of dice are thrown, emotions run high, and things often go in unexpected places.
The Sword, Chatty DM Style:
So as I was preparing for last Friday’s game, my 3rd as a player and 1st as a GM, I decided upon running The Sword, the simplest adventure to run. You can find it here. Its premise is dead simple: Four adventurers explore a dungeon and the only treasure they find is this one Magic Sword. The situation is “who gets the sword” and the complication is that all the PCs have conflicting beliefs and instincts about said sword.
While reading the scenario over, I had a few challenges. First I had 5 players where the scenario called for 4. Secondly I had my friend Yan who had played the adventure before at Pax East. While the Sword is endlessly re-playable, I know Yan prefers new experiences whenever he invests his free time in something .
To resolve this, I used one suggestion from the scenario and I offered Yan the possibility of playing a guardian monster, he accepted. Asking around on the Burning Wheel forums (whose users were very helpful), I was informed of the likely pitfalls (ex: 4 on one ganking up on the monster) and was given tips on how to pull it off.
Using the game’s Monster book (The Monster Burner), I made Yan an Ophidian Hunter (A snake woman, like a Lamia Noble in D&D) and rearranged all the PC’s beliefs to fit her presence in the dungeon and heavily favoured a likely 3 vs 2 split between PCs. Her main beliefs were that the sword belonged to the Ophidians because it had been made with scales from a Brood-mother, murdered at the hands of the sword-maker (another PC’s father). She also needed to lie in wait until she thwarted an attamept at taking the sword before taking it for herself (explaining her guardian role).
And thus was Mah Dusah, Sister of the Second Scale created.
I was ready to introduce my players to the scenario…
Up next: My players go all Canadians on the scenario…