Chatty Plays, Part 1: Burning Wheel, Getting into the Game

The Background

The Burning Wheel is a fantasy roleplaying game that was published about 10 years ago by then unknown author/designer Luke Crane. In 2003, with a bit of guts, luck and the help of others, he got his scrappy little game in the hands of one Kenneth Hite and ended up getting Burning Wheel named  ‘best game of 2003’ .

Fast forward to 2008, I heard of lots of buzz for a game called Mouse Guard generated by fellow bloggers and I got curious.  I knew it was based on another game called the Burning Wheel, a game I’d heard of but had, until then, dismissed as “one of those story games with no substance” (yes, I was a pretentious idiot then… I’m less of an idiot now).

I purchased Mouse Guard at Gen Con 2009 and was immediately swept by the stellar writing, conversational tone and the sheer genius of the intricate yet elegant mechanics that made up the game.  However, as much as I liked reading it, I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around how to actually play the game.

Then, during the fall of 2009, I was invited to a local Montreal gaming con, sharing guest status with some East Coast Indie designers. That’s where I more of less gracefully introduced myself to Luke, a story I immortalized here.

As I mastered that game about heroic mice, I became curious about Burning Wheel.  It seemed to offer a complex yet highly emotional thrill ride for all players involved with a game session. I had to try it and evaluate if my players would be likely candidates for it.

Hook, Line and sinker

I met Luke again at Pax East 2010 and he was generous enough to offer my friends and I a very dynamic demo of ‘The Sword”, the quintessential one-shot Burning Wheel demo adventure.  I loved every second of it, so did my friends.  The game made its way on my ‘must play again” list.

My invitation at Burning Con a few weeks back and the 2 excellent scenarios I got to play in managed to sell  me body and soul to the game system. I bought several copies of the core books and one set of everything else named “Burner” .

I had but one hurdle…

…could I convince my Friday-Night-tired friends to adopt the game?  Like D&D’s last 2 incarnations, Burning Wheel resides on a handful of simple, core rules.  They are however supplemented by a vast array of options that make the game much richer, yet more complex to play.

So what is Burning Wheel?

The Burning Wheel is a fantasy RPG that  enables play in worlds that are equivalent (both  technologically and socially) to 13th Century Western Europe/Middle East  and 12th Century China. While there is no set world or gazetteer-like descriptions of kingdoms and city-states, there is an implied setting in the form of the races available for play, the various lifepaths you choose while “burning” (i.e. creating) your characters and the available gear you must choose from.

The game is driven by dice pool task resolutions where you roll a bunch of D6 (based on skills/abilities and helped by dice lent by others) to achieve a certain number of successes per roll. For example, To lift a portcullis, you may need to roll 6d and have at least 4 of them come up with a result of 4+ to succeed.

Combat can be very detailed and entails a complex combination of opposed rolls for positioning, a series of ‘rock-paper-scissors’-like exchanges to simulate blows, pushes, charges, dodges, feints, etc.  Then any landed blow needs to land on a specific body area, possibly warded off by armour and the gravity of any wounds inflicted is then figured out.

Three  elements make the game completely different from others I’ve seen before (Mouse Guard excepted, of course):

  • The game has a mechanic to play out Duel of Wits (arguments) with binding results (you lose an argument, the whole party goes with the winner’s point of view or compromise)
  • Each PCs have sets of player-chosen belief and instincts that guide  how they act and react in the story
  • Players get rewards in the form of 3 types of action points for playing in line with their beliefs and instincts

I could write a lot more about it, and I plan to write an actual review of it soon (although the game is 10 years old, you can Google a ton of them I’m sure).  I just wanted to give a rapid overview.  Needless to say, a lot of dice are thrown, emotions run high, and things often go in unexpected places.

The Sword, Chatty DM Style:

So as I was preparing for last Friday’s game, my 3rd as a player and 1st as a GM, I decided upon running The Sword, the simplest adventure to run.  You can find it here.  Its premise is dead simple: Four  adventurers explore a  dungeon and the only treasure they find  is this one Magic Sword.  The situation is “who gets the sword” and the complication is that all the PCs have conflicting beliefs and instincts about said sword.

While reading the scenario over, I had a few challenges.  First I had 5 players where the scenario called for 4.  Secondly I had my friend Yan who had played the adventure before at Pax East. While the Sword is endlessly re-playable, I know Yan prefers new experiences whenever he invests his free time in something .

To resolve this, I used one suggestion from the scenario and I offered Yan the possibility of playing a guardian monster, he accepted.  Asking around on the Burning Wheel forums (whose users were very helpful), I was informed of the likely pitfalls (ex: 4 on one ganking up on the monster) and was given tips on how to pull it off.

Using the game’s Monster book (The Monster Burner), I made Yan an Ophidian Hunter (A snake woman, like a Lamia Noble in D&D) and rearranged all the  PC’s beliefs to fit her presence in the dungeon and  heavily favoured a likely 3 vs 2 split between PCs.  Her main beliefs were that the sword belonged to the Ophidians because it had been made with scales from a Brood-mother, murdered at the hands of the sword-maker (another PC’s father).  She also needed to lie in wait until she thwarted an attamept at taking the sword before taking it for herself (explaining her guardian role).

And thus was Mah Dusah, Sister of the Second Scale created.

I was ready to introduce my players to the scenario…

Up next: My players go all Canadians on the scenario…


  1. My group also went Canadian on it way back when — too much damn compromise (outside of mechanics). Damn our “No worries there, buddeh” mentality.

    Circles and -wises are also really important to mention as unique and amazing mechanics in BW. Circles allow players to create or bring in NPCs on the fly. That blew my mind and quickly became one of my favourite mechanics. (And when you fail, Enmity Clauses make for the best times as a GM.)

    Wises are like knowledge skills in D&D, but allow you to invent info on a particular thing. Trial By Combat-wise could let you invent the fact that duels are the highest form of legal jurisprudence in the City of Karneth, or that the winner of a duel must be celebrated and put up in the city for free for X duration. It’s incredible to have that much story weight in the players’ hands (and makes it insanely fun to be the GM).

    To mix ’em up to give an example, you could say “You know, I’m pretty sure this city has ancient and almost-forgotten catacombs.” That’d be a high Obstacle… probably 6 or 7 for “obscure knowledge”! But if you succeed, you make it true in the game. Follow that up with a Circles test: “My brother is an experienced graverobber who knows the layout of the catacombs and will lead us through them.” (Circles Ob 5 or 6, perhaps.) If the player rolling that fails, maybe the brother does indeed know the ways through… but he has a huge debt he needs to pay off and will try to screw the players somewhere along the way, such as leading them into a trap…

    (Just a minor quibble, Phil, but it ought to be noted that the results of a Duel of Wits only affect the person(s) engaged in it. Everyone else is left unaffected unless they want to be held to the results, or a Body of Argument specifically includes bodies of people, such as a king trying to convince the players to all go find his daughter while the players just want him to grant them pardons for a crime. That’s fairly rare, though.)

  2. Hey Chatty,

    Thanks for this series. I’ve been curious about Burning Wheel for a little while now. I’m excited to see what a DM can do with the system.


  3. Good stuff. I have this on my list of RPGs I need to play. I just found my way into a Castle Falkenstein game, finally getting that one off my list. Thanks for covering this. I would like to see more coverage of rare yet heralded RPGs.

  4. “Up next: My players go all Canadians on the scenario…”

    So Burning Wheel has lots of “Apologize and Capitulate” rules, eh?

  5. Ha! Almost, Dave. For my group, it was an immediate desire to find a compromise “between” conflicting Beliefs. They were all “We can work this out, there, buddeh. No need for dem dere dice, guy.” To counter that, you just pretend you’re the devil on each player’s shoulder:

    To the Elf: “You’re going to let the dwarf get his hands on the sword your father made? Oh yeah… that’ll help out your exile situation…”

    To the Dwarf: “Just like an Elf, eh? They give a treasure to the Dwarves and then say it never happened — that it belongs to them. Oh well. Guess that works out fine for them to have it back. It’s not like you swore an Oath or anything…”

    To the Human (or is it Roden?): “I don’t think those guys are going to pay you. I think you’ve been cheated. Oh, and looks like one of ’em’s getting the sword, too.”

    Etc. 😀

  6. GAH, I had a long seminar today.

    @Rafe: Thanks for holding the Burning Lantern on this post today. I didn’t want to write a review so I selected just a few hightlights of the game that will come up in my game report. I also made an editorial choice when I oversimplified the Duel of Wits Win/compromise thing. But you are right, so I’ll defer to your description, saves me the word count! Thanks!

    @Mike: I’m happy to see that my exploration of this system is of interest to you. Stay tuned as I’ll post the 2nd part with the whole story real soon. Hopefully early this week.

    @Alphastream: Thanks for the kudos, I never got to try Castle Falkenstein and it sits on my ‘must play these games from the 90s’ pile like Over the Edge and Shadowrun.

    @Dave: Ha ha ha… You can stick it buddy! I’ll show you a Canadian capitulation. 🙂 But yeah, as Rafe says, Canadians (French ones at the very least) are initially open conflict-adverse. You’ll see how it turns out soon enough.

    @Rafe: Duuude, don’t over sell it! I need to write a Part 2 here! 🙂

  7. Sorry! Hard not to get into huge discussions about what you love. Just ignore the overzealous fanboy over here. 😉 I’ll shut up now and heckle later.

  8. That’s all right man, I know how much you love the Wheel! I’m writing part 2 right now!

  9. I watched Luke run the Sword at gencon this year which sold me a copy of the game.
    Though I’ve only run it once, On the Edge is one of my favorite seat of your pants rpgs, second to Amber Diceless. (And it has some cool mechanics for mechanics monkeys to monkey around with.)

  10. The year before he sold me Mouseguard the same way.

  11. Luke is very good at his craft (one of the best I’ve seen so far) and has Charisma coming through his pores. The Sword made me curious about BW, playing it with some people of his HQ sold me on it body and soul for sure.


  1. […] miss parts 1 and 2 of this story of my first foray as a Burning Wheel RPG Game […]