Mike VanHelder Reviews Burning Wheel Classic on Gaming Report
From Burning Wiki
Burning Wheel Fantasy Roleplaying System
For those of you seeking a gritty, versatile fantasy roleplaying system that features simple die pool mechanics, use-based skill progression and a combat system that requires proper planning and rewards intelligent play, look no further. Burning Wheel has got what you're looking for.
If, on the other hand, you like class/level based systems, combat that requires very little thought or the ability to take a sword to the gut from an ogre without losing anything but a couple of hit points, stay away. We all know what other fantasy roleplaying system you ought to be playing.
Burning Wheel is the brainchild and product of Luke Crane, who cites as his major influences JRR Tolkien, Shadowrun and AD&D 1st edition. The Tolkien influences are fairly obvious: His four PC races are Men, Elves, Dwarves and Orcs, and the way that they are presented is very Middle Earth-y. Mechanically, the system is superficially similar to Shadowrun: It's a D6-based die pool system in which skills are based off of statistics. It's a lot harder to quantify the influence that AD&D has on the game, but overall the general tone and scalability seems closer to the sensibilities of 1st ed., which (as some of us still recall with fondness) could range from epic-scale high fantasy to blood-soaked mud-slogging through a hostile and inimical world.
I find the system itself to be very tightly constructed. As I've said before, it's a die-pool system. A number of D6s equal to the skill being tested, plus any applicable bonuses for related skills, are rolled against an Objective number. Unlike Shadowrun, the target number almost never changes -- it's usually 4 -- and the Objective refers to the number of successes needed. Advancement isn't handled through experience points. Rather, a skill is advanced through use: After a set number of skills tests of varying difficulties, or a certain number of hours of practice time, the skill increases. Stat advancement is handled the same way. Conversely, skills and stats that aren't used very often can decrease, so a land bound sailor's Rigging skill can expect to get pretty rusty after a couple of years away from the sea.
Magic in Burning Wheel is rare, difficult, expensive and very powerful, which suits the system very well. Each race has a different kind of magic, except for the Dwarves who get ridiculous amounts of skills instead. Humans have your more traditional types of magic, featuring incantation and hand-gestures, whereas Elves get spell-songs and "Grief," or the angst of the immortal. Orcs get complex and infernal rituals, which are based off of the special Orc stat "Blasphemous Hatred."
Combat is handled in a very unique fashion in Burning Wheel. Instead of taking initiative and acting in turn, players plan, or "script" out their next three rounds, or "volleys"-- anywhere from one to six actions for starting characters, depending on the relevant stats -- ahead of time. This results in the need to try and anticipate what your opponent might do: Will he strike first, or block? Will he take the defensive, or try and move inside your guard? It is possible to change a character's actions in-between rounds, but it's also costly and difficult, which puts a priority on careful planning and fighting smart, not hard.
Also worthy of note is the lethality of Burning Wheel combat. A good swordsman is more than capable of doing a Mortal Wound to your average hero with a single blow. Wounds left unattended get progressively worse, and can lead to death from shock and blood loss in a few hours if proper medical attention is not provided. This makes intelligent scripting in combat all the more important, as even one miscalculation can lead to a really sloppy mutual kill. Fortunately, the robust armor rules do provide a good degree of protection from errors in judgment. In Burning Wheel, a knight in full plate armor isn't just a schmuck with a low AC. He's an force of destruction to be reckoned with, as even the most expertly aimed arrows and sword-blows from the strongest man can bounce right off of his metal shell. Combats between armored opponents tend to take a long time, as the armor gets progressively more and more damaged and it becomes easier for lucky strikes to slide through the armor plates. This is wonderfully evocative, and seems very realistic.
Character creation is a lot of fun. Instead of creating a fully formed starting character from out of nowhere, a player is forced to shepherd his character through their entire life, from their birth station and through their occupations and life experiences to the current day. For example, a Human character might start off Born Peasant, then move to the Seafarer setting where he'd spend six years as a Ratcatcher, get promoted to Marine, then after a few years get promoted again to Bosun, then leave the sea for a landlubber's life as a Sergeant in the city guard. Each of these occupations, called Lifepaths, takes a certain number of years and grants a certain number of points to spend on Skills, Stats, Traits and Resources. The number of lifepaths a character can take is regulated by the GM. Each different PC race has their own sets of unique lifepaths, and I find that the non-human races are done up very well. In particular, I enjoy the Orcish lifepaths, which include Cattle-Slave, Black Destroyer, He Who Sits Astride the Howling Black Beast, and He Who Cleaves the Heads of His Enemies From Their Shoulders and Sets Them on Pikes for All to See.
I think Burning Wheel is an excellent system, but it's not perfect. Luke Crane writes in a very distinct, almost pedantic style, and while for the most part that works very well within the context of the game, it can grow tiresome and it is occasionally a bit jarring. For one thing, I don't understand what strange obsession/fear Crane has with/of fire breathing clowns, but he really needs to get over it. Also, I would contend that a trait called "Chow Yun Fat" has no place in a fantasy roleplaying system. The Artha system, which functions as a rough analogue to the Karma system in Shadowrun, needs some work. Finally, a personal pet peeve of mine is that even though Burning Wheel is a very lethal system, because of a quirk of the damage system it's almost impossible to kill even a helpless and unconscious opponent with a single knife blow unless you possess superhuman strength or your intended victim is the weakest of pale, skinny weaklings.
Fortunately, all of these issues (except for the clown thing) and more are being addressed by the developer and the enthusiastic fan community at the BW website forums. Not only are all rules questions about the game answered by the game developers, but also beta-test material like an expanded magic system and new monstrous PC races (thus far, the properly Tolkeinish Giant Spiders, Great Wolves and Trolls) are freely available for downloading through the site. Also of note are the conversion rules for making a BW character out of a character from that other fantasy RPG that I mentioned earlier.
Burning Wheel is an excellent fantasy system, and is easily worth twice the asking price of USD15.00. For that amount of money you get two professionally bound, elegant looking softcover volumes that contain within them a wealth of information perfectly suited for running a realistic fantasy RPG.