Thursday, September 27, 2012

The REAL Burning Wheel Gold Review


OK, so I posted a review of Burning Wheel Gold at the beginning of the year, but it was based off of a few read-throughs and playtest reports from forums, so no personal experience to really relate to anybody. It's been 10 months and I've had quite a bit of time to run not just Burning Wheel but Mouse Guard and Burning Empires. So, here's my review, after 10 months of being soaked up in Luke Crane's work, and what do I think?

This is a truly remarkable game. There are some parts of the game that I'm not a particular fan of (character creation, you giant pain in the ass you), but the things that Burning Wheel sets out to do it does so well that I'm in awe of it. What does it set out to do? An RPG that will make stories similar to Lord of the Rings, the Earthsea Cycle, the Count of Monte Cristo. What does this mean? The RPG is designed to give you a story that will be long, character-driven, and fun, while keeping the sanctity of the character not being you, but someone who you watch develop and become attached to. This last point is probably the most important difference between this and other RPGs. We'll get back to that in a little bit. 

Burning Wheel is a D6 dice pool-based system. You roll a number of six-sided dice equal to your number in the skill, and try to roll a number of successes equal to the obstacle number, or Ob. If you succeed you get intent that you originally stated, carte blanch If you fail, however, the GM instead gets to muck with your original intent while making sure the plot still moves forward. Failed your Power check to knock that door down? Oh, you get the door down, but you attract the attention of your hated rival, who has been following you the whole damn time. Or the guards. Or your father, who owns the facility. Y'know, something awful and unforeseen but that doesn't get in the way of the narrative. These results stand for the entirety of the session, thanks to the Let It Ride rule, which states that all die rolls, unless changed, stand. So if you failed that Power check, all applicable Power checks fail until the situation changes or the end of the session. If the GM can't think of an interesting failure for your task, you automatically succeed.  Notice that interesting should mean something linked to your Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits, also known as BITs.

Oh, right, BITs. I should probably explain those. 

Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits are the things that make the wheel turn! These determine not only characterization, but where the plot will go, and what hooks the players and GM will be able to pull on to make the story move. Beliefs are an ethical statement with a specific plan of action attached to said Belief. This is where you get to state what your character is about and what he is going to do about it. Instincts are those little things your character has learned to do in the course of his life that aren't necessarily the best things to do, but he does them anyway (like "Never accept an insult"). Traits are personality traits that you are the embodiment of, for good and for ill. 

You then get rewarded for playing out your BITs with something called Artha. Artha are points that you get for role-playing in such a way that the story moves forward. There are three types of Artha: fate (for playing out your BITs, especially to the point of trouble!), persona (for fulfilling personal goals and breaking free of your BITs), and deeds (going beyond your own problems and helping everyone in a heroic fashion). Artha may then be spent to improve your dice rolls so you can get what you want. If you're playing the game correctly you find that you've got a good story-game, filled with drama and tension as you earn Artha for playing out your flaws and spend said Artha so you can get your goals accomplished. 

That's essentially the game in a nutshell, folks, but there's a bit more to it. Burning Wheel has a lot more to offer, and this is where a lot of people have issue with the game, because Burning Wheel refuses to do anything like any other RPG I've ever seen. This is good, because the mechanics are exactly suited for the game, but bad, because the mechanics are just enough out of the norm to get some rather significant balking from people, particularly RPG vets. If you've never played an RPG before this won't be as much trouble, but the next section is a bit more for the people who have issue with the following mechanics. 

Burning Wheel has a series of extended conflict resolution mechanics that are based off of the same basic idea. You construct a series of actions from 3-9 moves ahead of time, and play them out against your opponent, who has done the same. These moves are then resolved in a rock-paper-scissors format. This is done for two very good reasons: it puts a very strong tension into the conflict and it keeps the sanctity of player-character separation completely intact. I have never had so much tension as I've had in a single Fight! or Duel of Wits, because you genuinely have no idea what is going to happen next. I've seen conflicts turn around so quickly it makes my head spin. And again, this reinforces the fact that you are not your character, something that is critical to making this game run. Why is this critical?

Burning Wheel is designed to be resolved in 30+ sessions, and some games last years. You are watching a character evolve for a very long time, and, quite frankly, that can be a little dangerous without the proper distance.People get all wrapped up in their characters all the time and that's a bit unhealthy. Burning Wheel recognizes this and makes sure that you will always be a spectator of your character's actions, not a perpetrator.

Now, on to the thing I don't like about Burning Wheel: length of character creation. What you do is you put together a basic history of what your character has been doing all the way up to the beginning of the story in what's called Life Paths. It's a fine system, and is frankly quite awesome, I just don't like how long the ****ing thing takes, especially with beginners (myself included). It's taxing and exhausting, and sometimes is just infuriating how detailed it is. But, the thing is that all these parts are necessary to make the game work in this particular way. 

And that's the last thing you need to know about this game: it is NOT for everyone, and was never intended to be. Burning Wheel is heavy, crunchy, finicky, intense, and very particular. If you read this review and find that some of the things in this game really don't jive with you, that's fine! Burning Wheel is not the only story-based game out there, but it's a really awesome one. Do NOT buy this game looking for a catch-all RPG, because this isn't it and, let's be honest here, such an RPG doesn't really exist (no, not even DnD). But if you're looking for a game that will give you a story like the Lord of the Rings, the Earthsea Cycle, and the Count of Monte Cristo, this is that game. It's only 25 bucks for an awesome hardcover, and I cannot begin to tell you how excited this game makes me on a weekly basis.