By Luke Crane, BWHQ , $15 + P&P
The Burning wheel is a fantasy RPG of epic heroes, dwarves, orcs and elves. Wait, don't leave yet! Just because it's well trodden territory, it doesn't mean there's not some life in the old stalwart yet. Burning Wheel certainly tries to give the most popular arena in RPGs a kick up the butt. Does it succeed? Well, read on.
The Burning Wheel consists of two books, half sized and is available over the Internet from its author Luke Crane. In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I helped Luke (who's an all-round nice guy) with his web site, so this review may not be entirely un-biased. BW is an amazing deal for what you get, considering that most RPGs cost £20 for a main book, to get two for £12.50 (including postage) is a great deal.
The first book details the system. It's an engaging read, largely because the style is chatty, but also because there are lots of helpful boxouts explaining things, and icons to alert you to possible troublesome areas. The layout is neat and clean, something that more expensive RPGs can't always claim.
The system uses dice pools of normal D6s, results of 4 or more are successes (unless you are supernaturally skilled, in which case you might use 3s or 2s). You roll skills (and sometimes stats), but no rolling for every detail, just the main thing you want to achieve. The book makes sure to advise against the "roll until you fail" style of GMing.
BW has a number of cool tweaks that push it above the D&D clone. The first is its concepts of Beliefs, Instincts, Traits and Artha. When you create a character, you note down core beliefs and things that are instinctive to your character. If you follow these, you get Artha, which is a plot point style reward. You can use if for all sorts of bonuses in game. A nice instant roleplaying reward. Traits are character foibles that can help your character out in a tricky situation.
So, where's the innovation? Well let's start with Burning Wheel's scripted combat system. Before each round you set out which actions you'll perform, and these then go off in order, as do everybody else's. This makes for a different experience to more traditional systems, with a hectic, nicely descriptive and unpredictable edge. Fights tend to be cautious affairs too, and requires a good understanding of the state of mind of your opponent (so the GM had better be a good narrator). There's a nice full example in the Appendix to help get to grips with it.
BW's other big plus is its character creation system, which works through character generation rather like a hybrid of Traveler and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (though less random than both). Your character progresses through Lifepaths, accumulating skills and traits (cool little add-ons). Characters build up a feeling of depth through their past. A good system for creating a character if you have no predefined ideas, and flexible enough that you can get what you want. If you like a solid grounding to your characters, then this is the system for you. Lifepaths are provided for Humans, Elves, Dwarves and Orcs, more are available online.
The magic system is based on a series of elemental themed spells. There are plenty of options here, though many are familiar fantasy stalwarts. I was less impressed here than in other areas of the game. There are also some simple and abstract faith rules, allowing for priestly characters to call on their gods.
BW is fairly loose as far as setting goes. Most of it is implied from the lifepaths rather than set out. Essentially it's a generic Tolkien style sword and sorcery setting. Obviously, this means that if you're looking for a different system to change the flavour of an existing D&D game it's well placed. For other settings, less so. It does have some lovely tweaks that make it lean heavily towards a classic Middle Earth style setting, such as the rules for elven grief that add personality and balance at the same time.
An important thing to note about BW is that it has a lot of support on its website. New lifepaths, creatures, spells, alternative rules and essays are all available. There's a goodly level of support in the forums for new players too, and these are also a great place to see just what other people are doing with the game.
Burning Wheel is an example of how much difference a divergent approach to system can make to a roleplaying experience. It's well presented, fun to read, and different enough to stand apart.