[Review] Taking a first look at The Burning Wheel Gold

            This review is a First Look. First looks are deeply opinionated reviews based on my first one or two readings of the system – usually before I’ve even played the game. The good part of that is that I’ll give you an unfiltered opinion. The bad part is that I’ll get stuff wrong about mechanics, how to play, and in general make a mess of the game. I trust you’ll enjoy yourself as much as I do.

The Burning Wheel Gold is the newest version of The Burning Wheel RPG, by Luke Crane, published in 2011. It’s a fantasy adventure game with a heavy character and story focus, and the game’s implied setting draws heavily on Tolkein and Medieval Realism.  The core idea of The Burning Wheel is Intent and Task: You, as a player, declare what you want to happen in the game world, and then say how your character goes about it. Then you and your GM decide what skill or attribute you should roll to see how it happens. It’s a wonderful book, and I think you should know:

The second page convinced me I’d have no choice but to give Luke Crane’s game a try.

I’d skipped the foreward, as I usually do, forewards being things given to lofty exhalations convincing you of the merits of something you just want to start reading instead of start reading about.  So my first two pages were Nine and Ten. Crane takes his time just after introducing the game for one special thing that, I think, makes him not just a game designer but a writer and a gentleman: he explains the voice of his text. The voice is the rules voice, that of the game explaining itself to you. Throughout are presented three imps, however, at the heads of paragraphs. They introduce Luke’s voice to you, instructing you in the game, warning you against styles of play incompatible with the rules, and being amazed at the good stories you’re going to tell with the rules. It’s the subtle combination of good writing, jokes, and thoughtfulness that makes The Burning Wheel Gold (BWG) an eminently readable game book – not just a rules reference.

This is Luke leveraging the power of the indie production. He’s making his games a real product of their creator’s mind, so the system doesn’t present itself as a bland composite, but instead as a pure dilution of ideas. Simultaneously, this is good editorial sense. We’ve got a clear line between the opinion and the must-do. Those little imps prevent the text from devolving into a morass where the ill-defined opinions and warnings of the creator might as well be rules, and the rules may as well be opinions and warnings. They prevent the desperate need for reams of advice on how to play the game that end up separated from the text of the game itself. They’re also damn amusing.

I’m not going to offer an opinion on whether or not RPG books should contain advice on how to play the RPG itself. That’s another post for another time, and I’m of two minds on it. Suffice to say: The Burning Wheel Gold does it, and does it well.

The system itself is a D6 dice pool system where a 4-6 is a success towards the target number set by the GM (which BWG calls an Obstacle), pretty standard, and no fancy dice tricks. You gather up your pool based on the “Exponent” of your skill, ranging from One (Rank amateur) to Ten (Unparalleled Mastery.) Players are encouraged to narrate for an extra die in their pool. The book itself calls this lobbying for advantage, and I think that sounds about right. Interestingly, there’s a sharp distinction in the player’s domain and the GM’s domain here. The GM gets to set everything to do with the target number for the test, but the system doesn’t often remove dice from a player’s pool. The system only makes the test harder by increasing the Obstacle. It’s a fail-it-forward system, so the GM isn’t providing flat failures. You don’t fail to pick the lock; you fail to pick the lock before the guards come. Sure, the door is open, but since you failed the test you get a complication.

The Fancy Tricks: Burning wheel provides detailed rules for advancement, which is prompted by the use of your skills in varied circumstances. I like this – it may be the most detailed and interesting presentation of the “Use it to advance it” system I’ve ever seen, and incorporates simple rules for natural learning, self-taught training, and being taught by another character. Burning wheel also presents the idea of “Fields of Related Knowledge” (called FoRKs) that allow a character to “FoRK” a die from, say, his Cave-wise skill into his Spear skill when fighting a great spider in cramped environments. Your blacksmith could FoRK a die from her Sword skill when making a new type of basket hilt for her weapons, because she has a more than theoretical knowledge of sword design. It’s a mechanical idea that sees traction in a lot of systems, but rarely does showing how your character’s skills form a coherent whole really become part of play. Similarly elegant are the helping rules, simple and pleasing. Crane assumes you’re going to use them a lot and so they fit seamlessly into Intent and Task: Say how you’re helping and hand over a die. You’ll want every player to have “their” color of D6 so that when helping they can physically hand dice to the other player. That way, you’ll be able to see exactly who helped make a success (or failure!) possible.

Characters have Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits too. These are the things you see in contemporary RPG design: A facet of your sheet that’s a phrase with mechanical impact instead of a number with mechanical impact. Beliefs drive play, they’re what your character is fighting for and what your character wants to see done. Instincts are if/then and always/never statements that are macros for your character. They exist in a space outside the rules, before dice are rolled. Luke’s imps call them “GM Insurance” for players. Traits are things about your character, little descriptive phrases like Hairy, Hopeful, Misanthropic, Drunk, Seen Not Heard, or maybe even Secretly Worships The Black Sea God.

These Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits fuel the system’s metagame point economy, called Artha (pronounced ar-tuh.). There are three orders of Artha, Fate, Persona, and Deeds. Each order is received for different roleplaying actions, and each can be spent for different mechanical effects. You need to accumulate Artha so that you can advance your character towards being more and more of a hero over time. They’re roleplaying rewards at heart, though. Rewards for sticking to your character and what you’ve said your character believes in. They’re pleasant, and don’t seem overtly obtrusive because they’re awarded at the close of each play session so that awarding won’t stop the flow of play. On the surface, they’re like FATE’s Fate Points mated with Primetime Adventures’ Fanmail. Below that, they’ve got a rich system purpose that works alongside roleplaying rather than on a purely mechanical level. I give Artha my wholehearted approval. It’s rare you find such a complete reward mechanic married to a game.

That’s the basics of The Burning Wheel. There are a whole lot more rules, too, which the system calls “The Rim of the Wheel.” I’ll write about them individually in a full review once I’ve played the game to satisfaction. They mostly consist of who your character knows, how much money your character can scrape together, and various conflict rules. At first glance, they seem inspired. The “Duel of Wits” mechanics especially. They’re very intriguing, consisting of a simultaneous resolution mechanic where you script out a few actions – such as dodge, parry, or strike – and then resolve against your opponent’s secretly scripted actions. Interestingly enough, they’re modular subsystems, and you can play the game fine without them.

The Last Thoughts:

That Burning Sensation: I can’t stop thinking about playing this game… I’ve conned my gaming group into playing it, even, as our next campaign. That means expect a full review soon.

Those Good Ideas: The game gives you a checklist for the end of each session. That’s great! It supports the game’s mechanics, helps players get recognized for their contributions, promotes you talking about your game (which heads of interpersonal conflicts), and helps detox from such a high tension play environment as the one this game promotes.

The Art: The pastiches of olde-schoole fighting plates from European manuals of arms instruction, re-imagined with fantasy warriors, are some of the most inspired and inspiring game artwork I’ve seen in a while. Blending modern clean-line design with an old category of picture. Great stuff. Didn’t actually know what these were until a friend pointed them out to me, loved them even more when I knew what they were referencing.

Worth it? Yes. I’d pick this book up just to read it, Crane’s got great things to say about RPGs, and even if you’re not planning on playing the game you can’t go wrong.

I Need Stars: Fine. Four and a half out of five stars – the only thing holding this game back is the complexity of some of the systems. If you don’t mind complexity, like me, then this game is probably five stars.


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