Actual Play – Burning Wheel (11/26/2008)

GM: Sean Nittner
System: Burning Wheel

This report is coming a bit late because of Thanksgiving and having to work this weekend, which is really a shame as a lot happened in the game and I don’t think I’ll remember all of it.

Julian – A peasant conscript who is getting in over his head.
Jordan – A paladin of the Silver Hand who’s righteous temper is going to earn him a court martial.

Wow, I’ve been told before that Burning Wheel rocks, but I didn’t realized quite how much until I ran it. I’m in love with this game. Also, we only used the simple mechanics for the first game (as per Luke’s suggestion). So even though there were wounds I didn’t use DoW or Fight mechanics, we’ll get to DoW next session and then in a session or two I’ll do range and cover and fight. I guess I should be more specific and stop gushing.

What rocked:

The advancement system – players love to check boxes and see things progress. Experience points are so nebulous, but ticking away at box and seeing your character progress is awesome. There were some bits of confusion here, see below.

Character driven plots – I started the game with one conflict. One of the characters discovers a fallen knight, who will prompt them to a certain action (which hasn’t even come up yet) but there will be complications making that action difficult. This was a conflict I knew all the characters would have some interest in and would have a pretty high level of urgency. No action = tragedy. Wrong action = heroism and tragedy. There is not right action.

So, this seemed pretty cool, I was excited about throwing it player’s faces, but before I could even get the far, Jordan goes off and kills some foot soldier in cold blood! It was awesome. The player totally played up the “Psychotic” trait along with his beliefs. I think it just goes to show that Strong Belief + Psychotic = Axe Murderer (or in this case Hammer Murderer). Now the story is taking a very different direction. There will be a trial, which will be quick and decisive. I don’t know what the player is going to set for his body of argument, but I’ve been thinking about what the Sergeant of the soldier wants… and it’s brutal.

Also, the supplies are dangerously low. It just so happens that a peons motivation to keep the army well stocked and a powerful Lord’s desire to trump Arthas are in alignment. However, will the Julian get himself in a shit load of trouble or will he end up with a leg up on Baron Pererolde? Hell if I know, I guess we’ll find out next session. Both of these plots just sprung up in the game, and both of them in some ways tie to my original conflict. Friggin awesome.

Consequences. Every test has a condition. “If you fail this roll, this happens.” That condition has made the game brutal and it has also made me very aware or superfluous tests. If I can’t think of something that happens should a test fail, then it is a very clear indicator to me, there probably shouldn’t be a test at all. Every time a skill or attribute is tested, the character will learn something, this makes tests somewhat precious and not to be doled out without purpose. So far the tests have been things like “or else you will throw out your back”, “or else the soldiers will beat the hell out of you”, “or else the lord will not trust your sincerity” and my personal favorite “or else you’ll get lost in the woods and find something really scary.” This game is merciless and I love it.

Circles. This is a mixed bag. I like the rules, but I was disappointed in my own execution. We’ll see how it goes.

Die Pool modifiers – I really like that things like getting help, using a Field of Related Knowledge, making a Linked Test or lobbying for an advantage die make a huge difference. When you’re rolling 3 dice, adding even one really changes the odds. And similarly, being wounded, in the dark, etc, really hurts.

NPC evolution. Sergeant Aaron the asshole was basically the result of a circles roll. He is now going to be a thorn in Jordan’s side forevermore. Unless of course, Jordan just kills him… that will make things simpler… sure it will. Point being, this asshole didn’t even exist until play started and now he’s a pivotal (or at least important) character.

The sides are uncertain. I could sense that Jordan really wanted to call the entire Perenolde camp the bad guys, but things are more complicated than that. Some people do just need a good killing, but most of the characters are too dynamic to be simply good or evil. We save the simple kill for the orcs… yeah, because that has never been complicated.

Intro movie clip. I found a cool clip from 13th warrior that I felt would adequately portray the battle between the orcs and the humans in Strathbad that happened the night before the game started.

What could have been improved:

My execution of circles was poor. Jordan made the roll and I didn’t deliver. It will be amended next game.

I was a little shaky the beginners luck rules, when does it qualify as a test for an attribute and when does it add to the practice log for skills. I’ve got it figured out now but I messed it up a couple times in the game.

Jordan shined really brightly (literally and figuratively) but I don’t feel like I gave enough attention to Julian, the peon. I’m hoping to rectify this.

The game has a certain rocky start because I was expecting another player (Jordan’s childhood friend turned rival) to be in attendance. Le sigh. Day before Turkey day, what can you do.

I’m still not sure if I handled wounds correctly. I doled out a couple superficial wounds when it seemed appropriate. Even “superficial” however, are pretty serious. A crack rib and a deep gash in the shoulder, not something you can ignore. In general I wanted to engage more of the rules than we did (for instance when the paladin was running from the undead creature, I wanted to use the range and cover rules) but found that keeping the first game simple was adequate.

So, as you can probably see, I loved Burning Warcraft, I’m looking forward to Wednesday.

Also, see buffaloraven’s report on it here:


  1. I really enjoyed this game.

    I didn’t see this mentioned(by me or you), but I think it deserves to be said that we came to the conclusion that this game isn’t for everyone! I explained it to Steve, and he was interested in the Warcraft part, but didn’t like the system. Chris, on the other hand, was pretty interested in the rewards method.

  2. Anonymous

    Burning Wheel would be a fun game with just a GM and one player. The game has a slow pace to it. Characters are rewarded by creating conflicts. Conflicts require a lot of on the spot thinking of the GM, rule checking, and detract from role play. Conflicts at times feel forced. There may not have been a conflict if a reward were not present. Conflict penalties are extreme. There are a lot of small skills that can be leveled up, but to level up any of them you have to take a major risk. Dice pool modifiers detracted from the flow of conflicts. Since the risk of failure is so extreme, the players are encouraged to seek any additional dice they can to succeed. The attempt to garner extra dice via forks or assistance created a small negotiations phase which further took away from the game’s story.

    I encourage everyone to try Burning Wheel.

    • Thanks for the feedback. I agree with you on some points, others I think were more about circumstance than intended game play and some are definitely intentional. Let me be specific.

      Characters are rewarded by creating conflicts.

      I agree, and like this part of the game. It actually has two separate advancement systems. One for practice (which is very slow) and one for real conflicts (which is much faster but incurs risk). Burning Wheel is founded on the idea that heroes are forged out of normal guys that take extreme risks and make major sacrifices for their beliefs. Characters can always give and opt not to make a test, but these are the stuff that heroes are made of.

      Dice pool modifiers detracted from the flow of conflicts.

      I chalk a lot of this up to familiarity with the game. This is definitely a game that rewards understanding the mechanics in a manner similar to D&D 3.5 but goes even further by allowing players to essentially invent rules. For example, in D&D you could get +2 from Flanking or attacking someone that is prone, but not necessarily because you have a good survival skill and know the terrain better than your foe. In Burning Wheel you could do just that. BW is crunchy with hidden crunchy beneath the surface.

      The attempt to garner extra dice via forks or assistance created a small negotiations phase which further took away from the game’s story.

      I agree. I think BW is played on two levels. On one level you engage the fiction and on another you engage the system. I’ll have to refine my thoughts in this further, but the glue that BW uses to bind those to elements is different than any other game I’ve seen. I’m not articulating this very well right now, but all I can say is I really like how this works. Strange coming from a system-light guy like me.

      The game has a slow pace to it.

      I’m not certain of this yet. Much of the reason I started this game was so that I could learn the system. I learn through doing, but that means a lot of looking things up at first. I believe that many of the conflicts would have been resolved much faster if I was more familiar with the rules.

      Conflicts require a lot of on the spot thinking of the GM, rule checking, and detract from role play. Conflicts at times feel forced. There may not have been a conflict if a reward were not present.

      There were too many conflicts in the last game. I wanted (in one part to test the system and in another part to reward the players) to create a lot of tests. This meant filling the game up with lots and lots of conflict. Clearly there were rolls (such as determine if he is breathing, if you notice your food stores being low, etc) that I shouldn’t have made and just should have given out the information. This is a learning curve for me as a GM. It’s also a reminder that if there is nothing to lose, then there shouldn’t be a roll, just let the player succeed.

      There are a lot of small skills that can be leveled up, but to level up any of them you have to take a major risk.

      I think the level of risk is commiserate with the task. Want to kill a soldier in front of his five allies? Yes, that is dangerous. Travel alone in the snow in the dark looking for someone with no tracks? Yes, very dangerous. Try to convince a lord that you’re his “yes man” when you’re just a lowly peon that he doesn’t respect? Not so much. I did definitely push for tense situations, maybe too much. I’m a self identified character masochist and it sometimes takes me a while to realize that other players aren’t. I don’t think this is a fault of the system but me as a GM.

      Since the risk of failure is so extreme, the players are encouraged to seek any additional dice they can to succeed.

      The game has more nuance than that. If you stack all kinds of things in your favor, you may succeed but you sacrifice advancement. The higher your die pool gets, the easier the task, the lower the reward.

      I encourage everyone to try Burning Wheel.

      Cool. Thank you for trying it in my game. As the game continues, if you change your mind you’re always welcome back at my table.

      • Thank you both for the reassurance and the compliment.

        I definitely find myself puzzled by my fascination with Burning Wheel. In general I totally agree with you, I prefer lighter rule systems as well, but as I’m learning the nuances of Burning Wheel, the game feels like crack. Can’t really explain it yet, but I know I like it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *