Posted on March 16, 2009 by alymonster
Burning Wheel Fantasy Roleplaying System (BW) isn’t like other RPGs. Yes, that first sentence is maddening; “What is BW like, then?!” you shout, frustrated. Let me sum up…
First off, Burning Wheel is a story-driven game. Kept simple, the rules are astonishingly playable, with sample-of-play threads written throughout the main book and the supplements that remind the GM and the players that they are sharing a story that they tell together. The entire point is to be fun; well, isn’t that the point of hobbies?
Yes, but how? Burning Wheel utilizes D6 in a success-fail system; all character Stats, Attributes, Skills, etc. are ranked and rolled pretty much the same. Each is set with a Shade – which sets which number rolled on each die counts as success/failure – and an Exponent – the number of dice you roll for that test. The GM sets an Obstacle for each test; with few exceptions, each time a test is rolled, the character earns points for advancing that skill. In other words, the more someone does something, the better they get at doing it, even if they mess up what they’re doing. Just like real life. In fact, there are times you have to try things that you have no feasible way of succeeding at in order to advance your skill. Just like life. Ah, but you can’t simply roll tests any time you like in order to become an incredible Master Archer of Death overnight. Unlike other games, BW rules specifically state: “Say ‘Yes’ or Roll” – meaning that you either automatically do what you want to do, or there has to be a reason why it’s important to the story to roll a test. So, all that target practice? Probably wasn’t a test. No reason to go boil anthills.
“Great, but other games are story-driven, and seem to use similar dice systems.” True, and I’ve always had a tendency to enjoy such games. BW takes what those games did well, and builds on it, adding shutters, finials, and a nice coat of paint to what amounted to a boring, brick abode. How does it do this?
That gets me to my second point, which is: BW completely redefines the GM-player relationship. In it’s essence, RPing is about consensual storytelling; the GM and the players get together and improv out scenes after deciding on a few given rules (the game system, the characters, etc). BW doesn’t change that – it builds on it, making that relationship much more complex and complete. Elegantly, the system of rewards – what other games use experience points/etc for – is built in a feedback loop that reinforces this new, communicative, way to game.
Right, but how is that different from other reward systems? Well…
Each character has a set of Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits that help to drive plot and story. All of these are entirely communicated to the group. All of these are a synthesis of what the character is and what the player wants; they act to define what drives the character as well as how the player wishes that character to interact with the story. These invite the GM and other players to engage with the character in ways that cause the story to develop. They, in essence, act as a shiny red button that signifies that the character will twitch if you push that button… Push, push, push! The simple beauty of the reward system is such that, if a player character engages these Beliefs, Instincts, or Traits in the game, they get Artha points.
Artha comes in when you choose to add a little something extra to a test. Spend an Artha point, get extra oompf for a roll. When you spend Artha on a test, you log which Skill/Stat/Attribute you used the Artha on; once a certain amount of Artha is spent on any given Skill/Stat/Attribute, it gets a Shade shift. Which means that your success number just dropped by a digit. Your character becomes more heroic, better, faster, stronger… So, the rewards (Artha) that you get for roleplaying (Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits) directly feed the course of your character’s development from “Peon Bob Blackwearer” into “Bobert the Dread Necromancer” – well, provided you do a bit of good planning with your Artha expenditure and skill practice. Let me repeat that, because it’s worth it: Artha is spent to raise the probability of successful tests of Skills and Attributes. In other words: when you play in character – whether you are following your Beliefs, Instincts, or Traits, or playing through the conflict of violating such – then you get rewarded in such a way that your character progresses!
All of this makes for incredible gameplay. Our play tests turned into regular gaming nights, because we found the system so comfortable to play! Heck, it’s easy to run, since the system is conducive to minimal GM planning. Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits change subtly over time, in response to the continuing story, giving the group dynamic entirely new spins. BW plays great, is easy to use, is easy to modify, has helpful online forums, useful supplements, and is an indie game, which I adore. I’ve gone from my intro to BW several months ago, to a big fan of the system and it’s spinoffs. I cannot recommend this game more! Go out and try it!
Review by Aly Condon