I first noticed The Burning Wheel about a year and a half ago at my Friendly Local Game Store. It was a gorgeous red and gold book sitting on a shelf begging to be read. I walked by it more than once because I thought “D&D 5e is all I need, why read another game system when I barely have a steady group for D&D 5e?”
Flash forward to now: I have a steady game group of amazing players and I’ve been making an active effort to expand my perspectives and experiences.
Enter my voracious Youtube watching. Interior, Day. We see a man with flamboyant hair and a punk rock attitude. This man is Adam Koebel, creator of Dungeon World. Lover of gaming. Writer, Streamer, Designer, Producer, and entertaining as hell to listen to.
Adam can’t stop ranting about this game called The Burning Wheel.
Shit, I passed by that book a hundred times. Guess I better check it out, huh?
Holy shit. This game is ridiculous.
Burning Wheel is a game where, according to their official website,
“You write your own Beliefs about what you want and Instincts that describe how you react. You advance your skills to help you get there and you earn traits that describe how you come out on the other side. One way or another, when you play Burning Wheel, you’re playing with fire.“
Playing with fire indeed. No character classes. No abstract “Hit Points”. No predictable turn based combat. No part of it that does not mechanically and elegantly fold back in on itself. No character without some deeper motivation. This game is a well oiled machine of drama and high stakes play. This game is what Skyrim wishes it could be. This game is Burning Wheel.
Taken from the back of The Gold Edition core-book:
Burning Wheel is an award-winning fantasy roleplaying game in which players take on the roles of vibrant, dynamic characters whose very beliefs propel the story forward.
Sounds good, right? Does it deliver though? FUCK YES IT DOES.
During character creation you are tasked with choosing Lifepaths to determine how your character has lived SINCE BIRTH. You choose a Birth Life Path and then a certain number of Lifepaths based on how seasoned you want your character to be. There are no levels or classes in the game but the number of Lifepaths you take is a good indicator of how competent or powerful your character will be. 2 Lifepaths? You’re basically a powerless young adult. 3 Lifepaths? A mildly skilled adult. 5 Lifepaths and you’re a well seasoned veteran of some walk of life.
Your skills and your statistics are directly related to the Lifepaths you choose and your age. Certain skills and abilities are only available to certain Lifepaths, so right from the get-go your choices affect how you can play your character.
And the Advancement System? Whoa buddy. Your skills only increase if you use them. You don’t get better at swinging a sword if you never swing your sword. You don’t wondrously gain a feature out of thin air just because you gain something called a “level”. This is medieval fantasy life bruh. You gotta lift to get them gains. And you can die from all manor of nasty cuts and bruises.
Speaking of wounds: The Physical Tolerances Greyscale (or PTGS for nerds in the know).
Based on your stats you have different tolerances for Superficial, Light, Midi, Severe, Traumatic, and Mortal Wounds. Any one of these wounds could give you a nasty penalty to ALL your skills. In Burning Wheel there is no such thing as “oh yeah i just got hit by three arrows and a lightning bolt but I’m still running around 30ft every 6 seconds in full plate armor and smiling.”
All this hardcore shit is awesome but what about those sweet, sweet BITs? Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits. These things that are in most roleplaying games but are forgotten about after character creation. In BW, if you play according to your BITs and you get mechanically rewarded. Did you move one step closer to “Running the best damn Oddities shop?” Cool, you just gained Artha. What the fuck is Artha? A free re-roll, a chance to do more damage, or that last little push you needed to convince the doubtful prince to invest in your growing business. You have BITs that when you play to them you gain Artha. You use Artha in Tests to succeed and move closer to what you want. As you move closer to what you want you get better at the abilities you use. You learn to take greater risks towards your goals as you gain Artha and spend it and get better and so on and so on.
The game really is a Burning Wheel. Like Adam Koebel says of it, “It’s the Swiss watch of roleplaying games.” Gods dammit it is complicated as shit. But when you get all the parts moving and turning, it is a beauty to behold the intricate and complex stories that it can create around a table.
Don’t pass by the Gold Edition sitting on a shelf. You’ll regret not learning it sooner.