Burning Wheel: Back In The Saddle

I’ve been running a Burning Wheel game for the first time in years, and was reminded that swaths of the indie world might not know about this seminal work. I’ve written about it a ton, but here’s a one-stop overview.

(The) Burning Wheel

Okay yes, formally it has a “The” in the beginning. Absurdly underpriced rulebook and Codex available from BWHQ. If you find a PDF, it’s pirated and you should feel bad about having it.

Luke Crane’s Burning Wheel, nearly two decades old now (and its final revision edition appeared a decade ago! EDIT: Burning Wheel Gold Revised came out 2019, and made a few small but important changes to Gold, which came out in 2010), is still one of the most important indie games ever created. But as time goes by, its importance has changed. There’s a generation of indie gamers who started in PbtA and Fate and lyric games, and they have no use for its lessons. But for folks coming from an older, perhaps more conventional roleplaying background, Burning Wheel is still an indispensable bridge to the modern world of game design.

Here’s why Burning Wheel still matters. And … why it doesn’t.

Wheel 101

The current generation of indie gaming fans might not even know what the deal is with Burning Wheel. Here’s a quick recap of the game’s killer apps, and why it works.

Layered Complexity

You can play the core system of the game — simple die pool tests against either a value set by the GM or against other players’ rolls — and get most of the BW experience. And then you can add other systems as they come up: authoring NPCs into the fiction, tracking one’s finances without counting money, and so on. Get good at those elements and you can move on to several minigames that address melee, ranged combat, and verbal conflicts. It’s set up like layers of an onion — well, the hub, spokes and rim of the Wheel, formally speaking — and doesn’t leave anyone behind who doesn’t want the extra complexity.

A Tight, Consent-Oriented Transaction

There are three pillars to how BW’s transaction works:

((Radically) Transparent) Intent, Task, and Consequence: To do literally anything in the game, you need to make your intent — that is, the actual desired result of your efforts — abundantly clear to the table. You can’t play close to the vest, you can’t try to “beat” another player or the GM through fictional positioning trickery. Then, the GM tells you what task (skill) you need to roll to achieve that intent. Finally, the GM is obligated to tell you before you roll what the consequence of failure is. But get this: the player isn’t obligated to make that roll. They have to consent to it. The GM can always offer a different task, but can also change the difficulty and/or the consequence. It’s very clear, above-board negotiation. Lots of players get tripped up on this transparency mandate, and it’s Burning Wheel’s first and most powerful lesson.

Say Yes or Roll the Dice*: This is a philosophical and procedural stance that not every event in the game needs to be rolled off. The GM can just say yes to anything a character tries: not just the boring stuff, but great and exciting plays as well. This intersects with the game’s advancement system, which relies on actually using your abilities and skills, so sometimes you don’t want the GM to say yes. But it’s always there, demanding the GM aim the camera of uncertainty only at what is important. When you’re rolling, it means something important is happening. That’s a useful indicator to the players.

*EDIT: Okay, this has come up a couple times online! “Roll the Dice or Say Yes” is what appears in the book. It’s always appeared in the game this way. It’s formally called “Vincent’s Admonition,” named after a rule/philosophical stance in Vincent Baker‘s game Dogs in the Vineyard. The reverse order is a old cultural artifact, repeated often enough that I still forget sometimes. But giving credit where credit is due is rare enough in gaming, so let me set the record straight here as well. As a practical matter, the point here is that saying yes is a powerful focus tool (“roll the dice” is the default trad thing and, in my opinion, doesn’t really need to be repeated other than to clarify that saying yes or rolling dice is the decision point.)

Let it Ride: Another lesson that trips new folks up, players are prohibited from rerolling for different outcomes, until the situation that led to the roll materially changes. If you rolled to pick a lock and you missed, you can’t roll again: you just can’t unlock this one. This applies to GMs as well! They can’t demand new tests for things characters already accomplished. If your intent is to sneak into the castle, you’re not going to roll once for the tower guard, once for the dogs on patrol, and again for more guards in the courtyard. The scalability of intent is a tool BW GMs use to direct and focus play, along with Say Yes (above).

These three pillars work together in a tight, consistent and fair way. Everyone has to be clear about what they’re trying to accomplish, the GM has to decide whether the players need to roll at all, tell them what they’re risking before the roll, and then the outcome is final and unchangeable once it’s over. Depending on your background, that may sound like pretty typical play or it may sound radical and unfun. (The latter crowd is wrong.)

Player-Authored Incentives

The killer app of Burning Wheel is artha: three flavors of bonus points you earn and spend various ways. The entire cycle of the game comes down to using Beliefs, Instincts, Traits and their interplay to generate artha. It’s all carrots, no sticks, so every time the player engages, they’re complicit in their own story.

Beliefs are a terrific, very difficult tech: you state things your character deeply believes in and cares about, and ideally attach a goal or action to that. So things like “I deserve to be king, so I will murder my brother the heir.” Or you can go with a Belief without an action: “God guides my hand in all things.” It’s difficult, though, because you’re asking players to commit to what they care about. Surprisingly tricky! More advanced play means writing and updating Beliefs constantly to maximize the artha you earn from pursuing, completing or conflicting with other Beliefs.

Instincts are programmatic reactions your characters can always do. These macros started, I think, as a way to protect players from bad GMing: “Always have my sword ready,” for example, means the GM never gets to say “a-ha, you’re caught off-guard!” Instincts get more interesting when they’re potentially problematic and get your character in trouble. “Always have my sword ready” is not an awesome instinct when trying to bribe a city guard or seduce royalty, right? You’re never obligated to get yourself in trouble, but if you do, you gain artha.

Finally, traits are little descriptors you mostly don’t have much control over. You’re obligated to start with some traits via the character creation system (below), and you can buy some useful ones as well. Later, though, traits get voted onto your character based on how other players perceive your play. Neat, and occasionally aggravating if you’ve been signaling something you didn’t intend. It’s hard to be given “cowardly” by the other players when you think your character was just being very careful!

This authorship sinks its claws into the players when they commit to exactly what they’re doing to earn artha. Some of that will come from pursuing Beliefs, or letting your Instincts get you in trouble, or for allowing your Traits to send play off in new and surprising directions. The result is quite different from external XP or advancement schemes that involve hitting someone else’s marks to get your cookies.

Emergent Character Complexity

This is, I think, where Burning Wheel stands in stark contrast to PbtA style and many other indie games: every character is a complex, bespoke creation. There are no templates, no classes, no playbooks. Instead you’ve got lifepaths within settings, with constraints on how one progresses from path to path. The GM can fine-tune the focus of their game by restricting settings and setting the lifepath count (3 is good zero-to-hero, 7 is towering badass), but otherwise players have a lot of options. The downside is that there are no Burning Wheel pickup games.

The game also features a use-it-to-improve-it advancement system. In practice it’s fussy to track every roll, but it’s also a powerful incentive in its own right: If you know you’re just one high-level test away, you might just go for it and accept that you’ll (probably) fail the roll and invoke the consequence. Between advancement and artha earning, the players are constantly pulled toward making life hard on themselves now, so life will be easier in the future

Finally, the other players occasionally vote to give each other new traits. If you’ve been an ardent worshiper, you might pick up Faithful (the power to pray for miracles!) or if you’ve been mean to NPCs, you might end up with Jerk. Later, if you’re jerky to an NPC and that sends the fiction off in a surprising direction, you’ll get paid artha.

The interplay of lifepaths, BITs, advancement and trait voting means every character is mechanically and fictionally complex and unique. I’m not sure I’ve seen anything close in any other game.

Rewards Mastery

Because the game is meant to be gamed and optimized and worked, players can get good at it. This shows up most pointedly in its various minigames: Fight, Duel of Wits, and Range and Cover. Each of these involve scripting moves in advance, comparing, and watching chaos ensue. It generates delicious, genuinely dangerous uncertainty. It’s also the kind of thing you, the player, can get good at. You might have a middling-fair sword fighter but they’ll be spectacular in the hands of a skilled player.

Internal Tension Is Good, Actually

Last bit: Burning Wheel’s systems come together such that intraparty conflict becomes an important source of energy for the game. Rather than a well-lubricated “party” that exists only to defeat obstacles, a typical group of Burning Wheel characters will have drives and needs that conflict with one another. This makes for great adventure fiction. A typical best practice is for players to have some BITs aimed at one another, and others aimed outward at whatever the campaign premise currently is. The very clear, aboveboard transaction I described above ensures everyone’s on a level playing field when it comes to using the system to fight (each other, sometimes) for what they want.

You Should Still Play BW If…

Should you really still care about a decades-old game? Maybe! If:

You came from D&D

Or any conventional big-book RPG background, really: Cypher, Gumshoe, Savage Worlds, Storyteller, BRP, and so on. Burning Wheel argues most traditions of “trad” play are anywhere from unproductive to actually toxic, which is a point of contention (or aggravation) for folks who don’t like the game. They’re not wrong! The game has a strong underlying philosophy, and it continues to be best-in-class for teaching trad folks what is de rigueur in much indie-style play: radical transparency, strong authorial collaboration among everyone at the table and not just the GM, that uncertainty can be good, that consent is powerful.

But it is also not shy about telling you what’s wrong with trad play too: unlimited GM authority is toxic, planned adventures are boring, and intraparty conflict should be not only acceptable but encouraged. This aggressive tone, I think, also reveals rifts and dysfunctions that long-standing play groups may have not realized they harbor. I’ve heard so many stories of groups breaking up over BW — it’s a thing.

You want to understand current (non-OSR) fantasy

Burning Wheel tech shows up in all kinds of places. Mutant: Year Zero and The One Ring in the trindie world, The Veil and Ironsworn for a couple PbtA examples, Blades in the Dark and the entire FItD family as well. BW popularized Beliefs, Say Yes, Let It Ride, use-to-advance, and lots of other ideas. Don’t know about you but I find it easier to understand and interpret game designs when I can see the underlying values.

You want to understand adventure fiction

The absolute best part of Burning Wheel, for me, is that it beautifully models a popular and game-able kind of fiction: the character-driven adventure yarn. The BIT system is for characters who know what they want and will stop at nothing to get it. It does reactive play less well, and programmed “adventures” not at all. “Going on an adventure” without anything driving that for the character will mean no artha earned, which ultimately means slow or no advancement.

But Don’t Bother If…

Ten years is many lifetimes in game design. I wouldn’t recommend the game any more if:

You’re a committed storygame nerd

If you come from a tradition of GMless/GMful play, lyric games, solo games, PbtA/BOB, or larp, and have no intention of engaging with trindie games, Burning Wheel might not have much to offer. It’s orders of magnitude more complex than any of these kinds of games, the learning curve is intense, and even a quick game demands more investment than picking up a playbook and answering some questions. The game has a huge social and psychic footprint and that doesn’t work for everyone.

Complex economies are work

If the idea of tracking multiple economies that can be spent in multiple ways doesn’t thrill you, you might not dig the game part of this game. Same with tracking each roll you make for advancement, and evaluating when you’re close enough to advancing something to warrant an unwinnable roll. The game rewards mastery but it also demands it.

You love to hack

The lifepath system is murderously difficult to hack. Individual entries need to be balanced along like six criteria, settings need to be balanced against one another, and combinations need to be exciting, interesting and sensible. It’s so hard that the next generation of Burning Wheel, Mouse Guard, uses a simple questionnaire instead.

You think player mastery feels weird

Player mastery can feel weird! In some places, BW protects you: your character can be a much more skilled and persuasive speaker than you, for example, because of how the Duel of Wits minigame plays out. This is a notorious blind spot in most trad games that rely on the actual players to talk things out, which can lead to more skilled and persuasive players getting what they want in a way that doesn’t represent their dumb, unpersuasive characters. But it can also get weird on the combat side, where players can be so good at scripting their fights that they win more often than their unskilled, clumsy characters normally would.

The Rest Of the Family

Final bit to catch everyone up! The Burning Wheel family of games includes:

Burning Empires: a very specific sci-fi adaptation, featuring comic-book-like play that closely models the Iron Empires comics by Christopher Moeller. It’s more compact in some ways, more complex in others. Most notably, BE features a tight economy of scenes for each character and the players are in semi-competition with a semi-impartial GM. The competitiveness is touchy and hard to pull off well, but produces some powerful play juice.

Inheritance: this is a mostly-freeform larp-ish game about Viking families gathered to argue over the inheritance of a recently deceased patriarch. It’s a preprogrammed scenario, and procedural uncertainty is reduced to cards that explain who wins in the event of violence. But it’s highly replayable because Beliefs drive play as hard as in the original. Good luck finding a copy, though: Keep an eye on eBay.

Mouse Guard: this variant, another comic adaptation, features simplified character creation (questions instead of lifepaths), simplified scripting (multiple versions of the same basic minigame, each with their own special takes “weapons” and such), simpler but still use-based advancement, and more focused artha generation (one Belief, one Instinct, one Goal). It’s quite a lot easier to hack, which is a big deal. But it’s also not (quite) Burning Wheel. I’m not sure you’d get the same trad-fixing lessons playing Mouse Guard: it’s not constantly telling you you’re doing it wrong.

Torchbearer: huge breakout success, based on Mouse Guard but evolved well beyond it. This is BWHQ’s love letter to B/X D&D, viewed through the Burning Wheel lens. There are some neat tricks that expand on its Mouse Guard roots: the GM is encouraged to just “say yes” to folks who come up with a “good idea,” rather than forcing them to grind through their supplies. “The Grind” is probably Torchbearer’s most notable feature: every roll burns down light, food and so on. A new edition is about to become available.

10 thoughts on “Burning Wheel: Back In The Saddle”

  1. One of the things that makes Burning Wheel system(s) so satisfying for long-term play is that it satisfies the “keep learning and tweaking” urge without resorting to the standard “get more numbers” or “get more splatbooks” approaches. It’s more about mastery, emergence, tuning.

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