Burning Wheel

We had our first session of our new Burning Wheel game yesterday. Felt pretty great to be a player. Mostly it’s a much-needed reminder of what all the uncertainties of being a player feel like.

Two of us are old-time BW superfans so it was like slipping back into an old favorite pair of shoes. Shoes we had forgotten to air out, kind of forgot that there’s that spot that rubs on your heel, oh jeez these are kind of heavy, why were these favorite shoes? I’ll never forget the big picture of how the Wheel turns but the details, oh lord the details. Particularly since we’re on Gold, and the vast majority of my time is in Revised, and things are different.

Our newest player has ramped up just fine, because the big picture of BW (building die pools, versus and scripted tests, chasing BITs) is quite similar to Mouse Guard and Torchbearer. The big difference, I think, is how elaborate the Artha machine is in BW compared to the others. And it’s that complexity that really drives the game.

The big player-facing uncertainty I was reminded of was the quiet, totally unspoken negotiation between player and GM to buy into each other’s contributions. There’s so much player authorship early on (and in our case, very little GM authorship to start other than a map and a few locations, no driving premise per se) that it really does feel different than, say, the first shake-out session of Apocalypse World or a more GM-driven experience like Mutant Year Zero. Or a campaign-driven setup like King Arthur Pendragon, where everyone’s already aware of the “right” things to focus on.

It’s an interesting dance! I’d try a thing and feel if it was “fun” or at least interesting. The GM would toss out a thing and wait to see if we’d take the bait. The players aimed at each other (per my always-awesome BIT recipe: https://plus.google.com/u/0/+PaulBeakley/posts/LGxwZ61UetR for reference) and felt out what was interesting about each other’s starting bit of authorship. There’s so, so much more cross-negotiating. I think it’s good! But it’s hard. Harder than everyone looking to the GM for cues as to what’s important. It’s stealthily non-trad in a way I think a lot of folks overlook.

Our three characters are weird and very low-scale, given we constrained ourselves to three lifepaths and only the peasant, villager, and outcast settings. (Religion was open but nobody went after it.) One of us is ummm born villager -> village guard -> shopkeep or something, at the ripe old age of 19. Another is born villager -> groom -> hunter, another 19yo I believe. Because I could and it seemed fun, I’m born peasant -> augur -> mad summoner. Building a guaranteed fail machine is so freeing! It also reflects kind of the worst side of star player behavior: the boredom-avoidance urge. Trying hard to be the ringer, but my girl is so, so broken and strange. It’s hard to be a wallflower.

In the end, we did the artha payout checklist and everyone got a really healthy dose for the second session. I don’t know about the other players, but I feel like our BITs are claustrophobically interwoven. It’s good for tension! And I think at some point very soon we’ll need to start resolving some of the most immediate mutually-incompatible drives.

17 thoughts on “Burning Wheel

  1. Playing Burning Wheel is HARD. And it has nothing to do with mechanics. Mechanics are complex, yes, but it’s the building of the relationships and the driving from beliefs and the cold start, and the whole: Player is DRIVING thing. So different from everything else

  2. I had a surprisingly pleasant time playing in Matt Weber’s one shot at Dreamation. He really knows the system, and was good at showing us just the parts we needed. The scenario and PCs were nicely tuned. And he made failures super interesting. Makes me want to try running it again. Almost.

  3. Two of us are old-time BW superfans so it was like slipping back into an old favorite pair of shoes. Shoes we had forgotten to air out, kind of forgot that there’s that spot that rubs on your heel, oh jeez these are kind of heavy, why were these favorite shoes?

    Don’t you mean “the shoes you didn’t buy at character creation”?

  4. Beginnings are always an interesting dance. I’m in two BW games right now: One I’m running and one I’m playing in.

    The one I’m running is a campaign/setting I started years ago, but I rebooted it with a whole new group a few years back — new players, new PCs, but the same kicker I used with the original campaign. It’s been really cool to watch the game start in the same place and rapidly begin to diverge as these new players make different choices, fail in different ways, and pursue different beliefs.

    With years of play in this setting to draw from (established NPCs, places, etc.), this game tipped more in the GM-directed direction than yours (at least for the first few sessions), though the players have certainly made it their own. When we held our character-creation session, I provided six ready-made affiliations PCs could buy into (they were also free to create their own, as normal). The players didn’t end up buying into any of them, but just seeing them and their interplay provided a lot of fodder for starting beliefs.

    The one I’m playing is the 20+ year BWHQ house campaign (those of you who frequented the old forums might remember posts about the adventures of Si Juk, or the Storm King campaign). All the characters are 2nd, 3rd or 4th generation characters (i.e., Si Juk started as the errand-boy of one of the original PCs).

    My character is one of the newer ones. I’ve been playing him for about 10 years. For a long while he was the newest character, though we have a few new characters in the current arc. One of the new PCs has been an NPC retainer/bodyguard for a long time, but his master is off doing something else, so he’s come to the fore.

    We do 6-24 session arcs every other year or so. Often we play the same characters. Sometimes we play different characters in the same world. Sometimes we do arcs that feature only one or two of the main characters.

    Every time we start up again, we do the same dance you described. The characters are familiar, but it’s also been a while and it takes time to adjust to being in their skin again. I think we also tend to be more risk averse with these characters, at least in the first few sessions — it seems a little harder to throw caution to the winds with an old, familiar character.

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