Giving the Burning Wheel a Spin

Burning Wheel

Several months ago I managed to put together a group that was willing to dive in to a game of the Burning Wheel. The Burning Wheel is an RPG system by Luke Crane that has a real focus on character growth. After several sessions, real life got in the way and we have since decided to end the campaign and move on to something else. I wanted to share my experience with the game and my thoughts on how it was running the game for a group of people that have never played it before.

For several years I’ve been a fan of the RPG content that Rollplay puts out on Twitch and Youtube.  Adam Koebel, the official RollPlay GM, has continuously sang the praises of Burning Wheel, even going as far as putting together a 30+ minute presentation on why he loves the game. After hearing all of these good things about the game I ended up purchasing the game from him at the Burning Wheel booth at GenCon a few years ago. And with the book in my grasp I was ready to play! Well maybe not quite yet.

The Hub: Picking Up Burning Wheel for the First Time

Burning WheelThere’s no denying that the Burning Wheel book itself is gorgeous. The 600-page, hardcover book instantly made me feel like I was holding something magical. The art throughout the book is stunning and evokes the game’s “setting” extremely well. I loved paging through it, and for a while that was all I did. It wasn’t until almost two years later after putting my group together that I really dove in to the rules and learning what the game had to offer.

For new players, Burning Wheel recommends only playing with the “hub” of the game, which is the basic rules. You save the “rim” and “spokes” for later when everybody is more familiar with the game system. This is for good reason too. There are several additional subsystems the game offers and some are pretty complicated. I had read through the book twice and knew that the “Fight” system was going to be beyond my understanding for the immediate future. We were going to stick with the basic rules.

At its very core Burning  Wheel is a pretty simple game. Each character has skills that let you roll a certain number of dice. When you try to do something that requires that skill there is a you roll some dice and try to roll a certain number of successes versus an obstacle number. If you succeed, you do what you intended, if you fail something bad can happen. I asked all my players to get a copy of the book and read the first part of the book. We’d spend our first session creating characters.

Bringing Characters to Life in Burning Wheel

Burning WheelCharacter creation for Burning Wheel is great. It’s fairly complicated, but just by creating a character you are creating their backstory. The game builds characters using something called lifepaths that determine where a character’s position in society and where they can go from there. Start as a child in a village, then become a sailor, and then start the game as a ship’s sailmaker. Not every character is going to be a hero, and the game is probably more interesting that way. There is a huge variety in lifepaths which allow a player to make nearly any character they can think of.

Our setting was a world that had stopped spinning. A huge wall, the Duskwall, was built along the border of two nations where the world was in a constant state of sunset. Life was hard and the people living along the wall were getting restless. Our characters were a hardened criminal, a fallen priest, and an oil merchant, who all had interest in seeing the corruption of the city rooted out. This was exciting! I really liked the setting and our characters all had rich backstories right from the start. I couldn’t wait to see where things went from here.

Spinning the Wheel, a Strong Start

Our first session of actual play went really well too! Every character had a chance to introduce themselves and make some tests. They quelled a food riot and laid the groundwork for a plan to eliminate the major crime boss of the city. As things started to get more complicated the game started not to work for us very well. There are a couple major reasons for this I think.

First, with only the basic rules I was struggling to find good ways to punish the characters after a failure. Whenever a physical altercation occurred it never felt like enough to just say “Ok, you’re hurt now.” But without some of the more advanced rules there isn’t really a way to track damage or injury. It felt awkward and arbitrary.  There are a few subsystems in the game that handle damage, but we were sticking to the basic rules. For this part of the game I wish I would have dug a bit deeper in to the “bloody versus” rules for damage, but without a real understanding of the damage system it didn’t feel like the right choice. Unfamiliarity with the rules leads in to my second point.

Getting Tangled in the Spokes of Burning Wheel

Burning WheelIn the Burning Wheel rules, the game encourages players to really engage with the system. The players should call for tests when they want them, they should declare they want a linked test, etc. I don’t think we ever had that level of familiarity and engagement. I’m not saying that the game failed because my players didn’t know the rules, of course everybody knowing the rules inside and out will make the game run better, but Burning Wheel is all about pushing your character to their limits and unless the player is actively trying to do that through the mechanics of the game, you don’t get the full experience.

If we needed to introduce more complex rules in order to enhance our experience, I didn’t see it happening successfully. Our sessions weren’t frequent enough for everyone to be fully engaged with the rules and it felt like the game punished me for it.

As we played through a couple more sessions these issues continued. We couldn’t play that frequently, which led to both me and the players losing familiarity with the rules. Eventually we had to cancel a session last-minute and the game fizzled out, which I think I’m ok with. I loved our setting and characters and perhaps we can revisit them someday, but probably with a different game system.

How to Avoid Getting Run Over By the Burning Wheel

So the advice I’d leave anyone with, is that if you’re going to play Burning Wheel, learn it, and learn it well. I knew this going in and still never felt prepared enough to be fully comfortable with the system. For a relatively inexperienced game master and a casual RPG group, Burning Wheel was just a little too much to handle. I’m still very intrigued by the system and would love to play it again, but maybe as a player, and with somebody that has more experience running the game and coaching the players to really get the most out of the game.

I hope you enjoyed my thoughts. Please take a minute of your time and let us know what you thought in the comments below or on Facebook!