Why I Like The Burning Wheel Roleplaying System

Two friends and I started a dwarf-centric table-top roleplaying game a year and a half ago. We are nearing our 40th bi-weekly session and all three of us are still excited about the game, so I guess we're doing something right. But this success is also because we are flexible enough to do something different when it was called for.

About two month ago, we switched the game system we were using. Instead of 4th Edition Dungeons And Dragons, we are now using the Burning Wheel rules. The D&D system was built for and around strategic miniature combat, and though it served our gaming for about thirty sessions, we felt we were working around it more than within it. This isn't to say one system or the other is better; the Burning Wheel system just fits better with the type of game we all wanted to play.

Two examples of why I prefer it came out in last Saturday's game.

Early in the game, one of the characters was making a semi-political sort-of speech, the sort that has a lot of thinly-veiled accusations. Unfortunately for him, when he rolled the associated skill, the dice came up poorly. Some of the crowd took offence and ganged up on him and the other player. The result was a short fight, the two player characters against seven run-of-the-mill, blue-collar, nobody-special NPCs. 

In the D&D system, the GM has several options to balance out this type of encounter. The most common are choosing creatures with level-appropriate stat blocks and/or increasing the number of creatures (usually bolstering the group with one-hit minions). In the Burning Wheel system however, characters do not "level up". It has a slow build-up of skills, both in variety and amount. Also, this skill build-up is based on what they actually use, as opposed to being linked to their class. So player characters are only good in street brawls if they've been in street brawls several times in the past, and even then, that doesn't make them super-heroic.

In two-against-seven odds, our protagonists got their asses handed to them. Not by city guard, not by dangerous creatures, not by highly-specialized assassins, not by fudging dice rolls. They were just out-numbered by average (one might argue below average) unskilled people.

Later in the game came the second example.

One of the player characters had humiliated an NPC dwarf by shaving the NPC's beard. In our game world (and I think in most dwarf fantasy tropes), this was a personal insult, near unforgivable. Due to the above scuffle, that NPC's dwarven clan was able to abduct our player and demand retribution… he was to shave his own beard clean off. How horrible!

No, there is next to zero mechanical, rule-based benefits to the player's character being bearded or clean-shaven. His stats do not change, his skills do not change, etc. From a character-sheet point-of-view, all the player has to do is say, "okay," and done. Any consequences are completely story-based, and will only come out in role-playing.

The Burning Wheel system has something called a "steel test". It is a stat roll that the player makes to determine if his character handle or do a certain thing. IN the above example, if the player fails that steel test, he would hesitate… he thinks he can do it, but when presented with the basin and razor, he can't bring himself to remove his glorious beard! This same test is used when the character witnesses something shocking, horrific, awe-inspiring, beautiful, etc. Its a built-in mechanic to see if the character possibly falters, something a player would rarely do, especially if its to his detriment.

These are just two examples why we switched systems. The 4th Edition Dungeons And Dragons ruleset is designed to make players feel heroic, epic, slaying masses of terrible creatures, finding treasures and magics, striding across lands mythically. We wanted our game to be story-based and character-based, to be less about combat-encounters and more about roleplaying, where NPCs had goals and motivations, and where getting into a fight was usually the last and most dangerous option in any situation.

If you're thinking of running or playing a roleplaying game where the focus is more on roleplaying (instead of how uber-awesome your character sheet is), I recommend you give Burning Wheel a shot. Every time I play it, I find another example where it fits my play-style… in fact, don't be surprised if I make this a series of articles on the topic.

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