Grading the Burning Wheel System

How do you feel about the Burning Wheel System?

  • I love it.

    Votes: 18 22.2%
  • It's pretty good.

    Votes: 12 14.8%
  • It's alright I guess.

    Votes: 6 7.4%
  • It's pretty bad.

    Votes: 11 13.6%
  • I hate it.

    Votes: 3 3.7%
  • I've never played it.

    Votes: 29 35.8%
  • I've never even heard of it.

    Votes: 2 2.5%

pemerton

Legend
Anyone willing to give an explanation for how it differs from more traditional systems like D&D?

Edit: I am aware that it is very different
As per my post 71 upthread, I think there is a tendency to exaggerate the differences.

You can read some actual play here: https://www.enworld.org/threads/burning-wheel-actual-play.680804/ And there is a character sheet appended.

The character has standard FRPG-ish elements:

Stats (Power, Forte, Agility, Speed, Perception, Will);

Derived attributes (Reflex, Health, Steel, Hesitation, Circles);

Gear, and an associated attribute, Resources;

Skills​

PC gen is via Lifepaths (two or three LPs is a young PC who will have fewer skills, rated probably at 2s and 3s; four or five LPs is a solid starting character who will probably be 30 to 40 years old with some skills at 4 and 5).

Lifepaths yield points that (together with starting age) yield stats. Lifepaths also yield skills and skill points; resource points (used to purchase starting gear and property, and also starting Relationships, Reputations and Affiliations - these all combine to affect starting Resources).

Some skill points can only be used to purchase skills that are made available by lifepaths (these are pretty much what you would expect - eg the Squire lifepath makes Sword skill available). Others - general skill points - are less common, but may be used to purchase any skill. The opening level of a skill is dependent on designated stats (eg Sword depends on Agility) but once opened, a skill advances independently.

The systems has over 100 skills. Some of this is the result of various craft and weapon skills - eg the system distinguishes Armourer from Blacksmith from Coppersmith from Whitesmith (= silver-smith); and distinguishes Axes from Hammers from Maces - but the system also has a wide variety of social skills (eg Extortion is different from Intimidation is different from Ugly Truth), healing skills (eg Apothecary is different from Herbalism is different from Field Dressing is different from Surgery), etc.

Note that the labels on the above-linked PC sheet of "good skills" and "evil skills" is not a system thing; that's my classification of my two columns of skills, as part of my understanding and presentation of the character.

Starting Circles is half Will, and can also be modified (slightly) by how resource points are allocated. After a PC is generated, Circles advances independently of Will, just like a skill. The point of Circles is to meet characters from your past; a Circles check can be modified by appropriate Affiliations and Reputations (eg Aedhros has a Reputation as ill-fated for himself and others; this is a bonus when hoping to meet Half-Orc thugs, dubious necromancers, other Dark Elves, and the like).

Health is derived from Will and Forte, modified by background (eg if your backstory includes having been tortured, your starting Health is lower). Steel is derived from Will, Perception and Forte, also modified by background (eg if you backstory includes having been tortured, your starting Steel may be higher). Health and Steel, once generated, advance independently like a skill. On the other hand, Hesitation is 10 minus Will; and Reflexes is a straight average of Perception, Agility and Speed. These two attributes vary with any variation in those skill ratings.

Lifepaths also give traits. Some of these are analogous to D&D-ish feats (Call-on Traits, some Die Traits). Some are analogous to Champion-ish disadvantages (some Die Traits, eg Maimed or Missing Eye). Some are purely descriptors (Character Traits). Traits may be gained or lost through play - sometimes as consequences, and also via the "trait vote", which is a periodic process where the table agrees how each PC has changed or developed and what affect that has on their traits.

Some traits also generate an additional attribute, called an Emotional Attribute. Eg all Elves have the Grief die trait, which gives them the Grief emotional attribute. Aedhros (the PC whose sheet is attached to the post linked abov) is a Dark Elf (in the JRRT sense, not the Vault of the Drow sense) and so rather than Grief has the Spite emotional attribute. My Knight of a Holy Military Order PC Thurgon has the Faithful trait, and so has the Faith emotional attribute, which permits prayers that are somewhat analogous to D&D cleric spells.

Each character also has Beliefs and Instincts (typically three of each, though some Die Traits open up additional slots). Beliefs are statements of conviction or hope or aspiration or goals. Instincts are statements of behaviour. The player can re-write these at any time, subject to the GM being allowed to postpone a re-writing if it seems like an attempt to squib or to dodge a pending or unfolding conflict.

Upthread I posted the key "how to play" text from the BW rulebook:

the following is from pp 9-11 of BW Gold Revised (almost the same text can be found in Revised, pp 12-14):

In the game, players take on the roles of characters inspired by history and works of fantasy fiction. These characters are a list of abilities rated with numbers and a list of player-determined priorities. . . . Expressing these numbers and priorities within situations presented by the game master (GM) is what the game is all about. . . .

There are consequences to your choices in this game. They range from the very black and white, "If I engage in this duel, my character might die," to the more complex, "If my character undertakes this task, he'll be changed, and I don't know exactly how." Recognising that the system enforces these choices will help you navigate play. I always encourage players to think before they test their characters. Are you prepared to accept the consequences of your actions?

The in-game consequences of players' decisions are described in this rulebook. The moral ramifications are left to you . . .

The players interact with one another to come to decisions and have the characters undertake actions.

One of you takes on the role of the game master. The GM is responsible for challenging the players. He also plays the roles of all of those characters not taken on by other players; he guides the pacing of the events of the story; and he arbitrates rules calls and interpretations so that play progresses smoothly..

Everyone else plays protagonists in the story. . . . The GM presents the players with problems based on the players' priorities. The players use their characters' abilities to overcome these obstacles. To do this, dice are rolled and the results are interpreted using the rules presented in this book.​
Beliefs, Instincts, Relationships, Reputations, Affiliations and some traits (especially character traits) are the "player-determined priorities" referred to in this text.

The GM's core responsibility is to frame scenes that speak to these priorities - "present[ing] the players with problems based on the players' priorities". This prompts the players to declare actions for their PCs. The resolution of these actions determines what happens next.

Action resolution is governed by three key principles:

*Say 'yes' or roll the dice - if the player declares an action which doesn't put something that matters (by reference to player priorities) at stake, then it succeeds - it is mere colour that moves the fiction along (this is the GM's call, but the player is allowed to make the case that something is at stake). If something that matters is at stake, then the dice must be rolled. The actual rolls are standard dice pool resolution: roll you dice, count your successes (by default, that's 4+ on a d6) and see if you meet the target (either a fixed obstacle, or the result of an opposed roll).

*Intent and task - when an action is declared, the player states both intent (what they and their PC hope to achieve from the action) and task (what is being done). Task determines both the obstacle (and the book has a lot of advice on setting obstacles, both general and by reference to those dozens of skills) and the skill(s) that are tested (there are relatively intricate rules for augments - eg my Blacksmithing skill helps my Armourer skills - as well as prep - eg I heat the forge to a tremendous temperature before I start smithing - and help - eg my apprentice works the bellows while I pound the steel into shape). On a success, both intent and task are achieved. On a failure, intent is not achieved, and the GM narrates what happens (including whether or to what extent the task succeeds or fails - this is the basis for @Old Fezziwig's comment, not far upthread, about the system allowing for partial successes).

*Let it ride - once a test is resolved, the matter is settled and only if things in the fiction change significantly (there is fairly extensive advice on what this means) can whatever was at stake in a previous test be re-staked by the GM.​

There is also a relatively intricate system of "meta-currency", called "artha" - Fate, Persona and Deed points can all be spent to modify dice pools and dice rolls in various ways. These are earned by reference to the player priorities (eg expressing a character trait in play earns 1 Fate point; acting on an Instinct so as to cause trouble for your PC earns 1 Fate point; resolving a Belief earns 1 Persona point; impassioned roleplay that gives voice to some conflict among your Beliefs, Instincts and traits earns 1 Persona point ("mouldbreaker"); etc).

This is important to the game, in that the maths tend to be relatively punitive unless artha is spent. The principles that govern the GM, and the players leaning into their priorities, should generate a situation where artha is earned and spent, and the PCs' fortunes ebb and flow.

It is the principles that govern scene-framing and action resolution, and the ebb and flow that results, rather than the technical details of the PC builds and dice roll systems, that make BW play different from some typical approaches to D&D, CoC, etc.
 

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pemerton

Legend
Just to add to that last sentence: think about a typical D&D module, or CoC adventure, which presupposes a sequence of events, and which assumes that the GM will draw upon the secret backstory of the module in framing scenes and resolving declared actions.

There are contradictions to "say 'yes' or roll the dice" - eg something might be at stake, yet the module require the GM to say no because that is what the module dictates (eg nothing interesting is to be found in this place).

There are contradictions to "intent and task" - eg the player might succeed at a task, but not their intent (again, because the module dictates what an or can't be achieved at this time or at this place).

There are contradictions to "let it ride" - eg if the players don't find the clue here, then the GM is instructed to provide it to them there.

And the whole sequence of events is established without regard to any player-determined priorities.

In principle, it could be possible to use the BW approach to framing and resolution while using D&D PC sheets and basic action resolution mechanics. In practice, though, I think technical limitations will emerge. D&D non-combat is a bit thin (outside of 4e skill challenges, which absolutely can be run BW-style). And D&D combat tends to generate a whole lot of play that cannot be filtered through "say 'yes' or roll the dice".
 

Old Fezziwig

What this book presupposes is -- maybe he didn't?
I don't have anything to add to these last two posts, but I found actual play threads to be really useful when I was learning how to run the game. @pemerton's linked to one of his, which is great stuff, and the Si Juk actual play posts from the old BW forums (way back in 2003) were really helpful to me in terms of figuring out how they were intending the game to be played. I think current BWHQ thinking is that these are dated and that their advice for play is not entirely the same now (which is why they haven't been officially reposted on their new forums), but it's an interesting insight into how play worked between Burning Wheel and Burning Wheel Revised and how Luke Crane ran the game.
Oh, and Ölrun's Journey over on RPGnet is a great AP, too.
 
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Kannik

Hero
I think we should be cautious of buying into too narrow a conception of what is "typical" or "traditional". I was trying stuff with PC backgrounds and backstories, and framing situations around those, in the early 1990s. It didn't always work, and my vehicle - Rolemaster - was manifestly not as suitable for the task as Burning Wheel.
To be clear, I as well was in no way saying that 'typical' wasn't/isn't capable of character depth, character growth, or character-inspired situations. I was using 'typical' to speak of the cycle of rule interactions (extemporaneous play until uncertainty leads to die roll and result leading to further extemporaneous play, run by the GM) compared to what I experienced in MG (scene setting leads to die roll and result leads to fiction creation, split into GM and Player turns).

(Note: the above in brackets is, of course, grossly simplified :))
 

Kannik

Hero
Anyone willing to give an explanation for how it differs from more traditional systems like D&D?
To add to what's been posted above, here are two posts from our experience in Mouse Guard:


And here are a couple of things that I found elsewhere (and so am not the author):

Here's a doc that lists a good number of options on what to do during the Player Turn: Loading Google Docs

And here's a PbP Mouse Guard game writeup that was good for getting the flavour/tone of the game: MouseGuardPbP.docx
 

MuhVerisimilitude

Adventurer
Just to add to that last sentence: think about a typical D&D module, or CoC adventure, which presupposes a sequence of events, and which assumes that the GM will draw upon the secret backstory of the module in framing scenes and resolving declared actions.

There are contradictions to "say 'yes' or roll the dice" - eg something might be at stake, yet the module require the GM to say no because that is what the module dictates (eg nothing interesting is to be found in this place).

There are contradictions to "intent and task" - eg the player might succeed at a task, but not their intent (again, because the module dictates what an or can't be achieved at this time or at this place).

There are contradictions to "let it ride" - eg if the players don't find the clue here, then the GM is instructed to provide it to them there.

And the whole sequence of events is established without regard to any player-determined priorities.

In principle, it could be possible to use the BW approach to framing and resolution while using D&D PC sheets and basic action resolution mechanics. In practice, though, I think technical limitations will emerge. D&D non-combat is a bit thin (outside of 4e skill challenges, which absolutely can be run BW-style). And D&D combat tends to generate a whole lot of play that cannot be filtered through "say 'yes' or roll the dice".
Amazing replies, thanks you.

Very informative. So here's a follow up question to your point about searching a room. Are you saying here that in BW there would be something in that room if it was successfully searched?
 

pemerton

Legend
So here's a follow up question to your point about searching a room. Are you saying here that in BW there would be something in that room if it was successfully searched?
So the question is, why is this room being searched? In what way is that a situation or problem based on the players' priorities?

The answer to that question will shape the action the player declares. And the intent of that action will tell us how to narrate failure (if the search fails).

Here's an actual play example of a search - Alicia and Aedhros searching the strongroom of a petty harbour official:
She then looked through the material in the strongroom, to find charts of the waters around the Hardby harbour: Reading with Research and Navigation FoRKed, and help from Aedhros's Scavenging (he can't read human texts, but can recognise a chart). I set an Ob 2, and my friend made it.

We then discussed a bit more, and he decided Alica would also look for accounts or similar documents (eg records of custom duties paid) that might reveal how much the master of the ship we had sailed on (which we decided is named The Golden Sow) had actually made. This was Beginner's Luck Accounting (ie Perception) with Research FoRKed. I set the obstacle at 3, which was doubled (for Beginner's Luck) to 6. The test succeeded. I then rolled a die and we agreed it was 5D that the master had made.

Finally, we decided that both Aedhros and Alicia would look around for any valuables - Ob 3 Scavenging to find 2D of coins and the like. Aedhros succeeded, but Alicia failed - and so two guards arrived, having been alerted by whoever saw Grellin grab the official and pull him back in the back door.
The "metagame" context for that search was Alicia's Belief that she would make enough money to acquire a ship of her own. The in-fiction context was the presence, in the harbour, of a vessel - The Golden Sow - whose master both Alicia and Aedhros had reason to hate.

You can also see the narration of a failure - this one has a classic soft move/hard move structure - the soft move was Grellin pulling the official back in the back door (creating a risk that this was noticed), and the hard move is the follow through at this point, with the guards turning up to wallop on the PCs.
 

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