Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Burning Wheel and the transition between Mid and New School games.


I spent some of my time on NYE this year playing the much belated second session of  Burning Wheel RPG campaign I've prepared. I only have two players, which is rather atypical for a Fantasy Swords and Sorcery style rpg, but with Burning Wheel this works quite well. Burning Wheel is a game where the relationships and development of the characters in narrative rather than statistical terms is the focus of the game. The key system that makes this game exceptional, and very innovative back in 2002, is its beliefs, traits, instincts method of defining characters. Really since DnD player characters in rpgs have been primarily defined by numbers as far as the game rules are concerned. The innovation Burning Wheel brought in was to have the player define a belief, or goal that defines their character, and then more detailed character traits and reactionary instincts to go with it. To give an example, one of my players has a squire character that is masquerading as a knight. So within the game he puts forth a pretence of virtue and knightly honour as he sees it, whilst trying to cover up his true low stature. When he does this he gets rewarded with fate points, that he can later use to fudge dice rolls to his advantage. Its a clever system that forces players to play their roles and define their arguably more interesting personality in dry ink terms.

There is a second reason however, that I am glad I only have two players. Burning Wheel is a heavy, crunchy, rules dense system. Its hard work to learn, teach, and play. Burning Wheel sits at the border between the rules heavy simulationist games that rose to popularity in the later ADnD days of the late 80s, and the New School of narrativist games, that focus on storytelling rather than numbers, that Burning Wheel is one of the fathers of. Burning Wheel has both this clever narrativist approach to defining and playing characters but it is also as number crunchy, if not more so than DnD 3.5, or GURPs, or any of the other technical systems. The book itself is full of self defined acronyms and terms that you forget if you don't play on a regular basis, and the experience, skills, and number systems all revolve around a cleverly interlocking fist full of D6's system. The influence of ADnD and WhiteWolf games is clear. Going forward in time, the idea of defining a character with a few key phrases and attaching a mechanical meaning to said phrases is central to the Fate system, and can be seen in FFG's new Star Wars Edge of the Empire game. Many Indie games such as Fiasco or Hot War also clearly owe a debt to this design.

Burning Wheel is hard work to play, it takes a good 5 minutes to create and stat a monster, and running a fight sequence or a verbal exchange can get bogged down in rules, and i don't know if i'd be that keen on running it with more than 4 players. If I want a narrativist game Dungeon World offers a simpler and more accessible, if more limited, system, or as more often than not these days, if I want a more old school gamey experience then Dungeon Crawl Classics or OSRIC will likely out compete Burning Wheel for table time. I will keep the book, its a very pretty book, and probably play it now and again after finishing this campaign but I wonder if the ever evolving RPG world has moved on. I suspect that rules light systems are the future.

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