Why don’t I run Burning Wheel?

A player in The Edge of the Forest asked about Burning Wheel the other day, and there’s a Reddit thread asking “what is BW?” right now. The discussion in the latter focusses on the experience it leads to, on what Burning Wheel well and as designed achieves. E.g.

What is Burning Wheel?

Well, there’s this novel idea that whatever is the important thing about your game, you should design the rules around that thing. There’s a limit to how fast we can communicate, and so we abstract the things that don’t matter and focus on what does. I won’t go deeper, but there’s a whole philosophy to it.

Burning Wheel follows this philosophy. Burning Wheel says, “Who gives a crap how much gold you have or how many goblins you have murdered? That’s not important. The important things are those moments when you stand at a pivotal crossroad, where your choices either affirm your core sense of who you are or change you forever. The moments when you are purified in the crucible of decision.”

So the game is structured around your character’s beliefs. You roll when it is important to your beliefs. You advance when your beliefs get challenged. A character can wade through a battlefield of goblins and gain nothing, if he has no core belief challenged by the event. He can bake a cake the next day and have a life-changing epiphany if he has a core belief about bakery.

That’s why it’s awesome.


And I think that’s the right way to describe it — tell people, first, what it achieves. If they want more, tell them, how it does it. And it does do those things, so it’s important to tell people. I don’t know anything that does them better — nothing I’ve run, anway.

(Admittedly, the description above is inaccurate in details, and overstates how focussed BW is. If you want a more prosaic and accurate version, try the top-rated post in that thread — https://www.reddit.com/r/rpg/comments/7t4usm/just_what_is_burning_wheel/dt9um91/)

But I don’t run it now, and don’t plan to. Why?

  • It’s just too complicated, too fiddly. I don’t believe that all those rules, all those tick-boxes, are really necessary for play. I don’t have a like-for-like replacement that is simpler, but believe it can be done.
  • There are so many damn subsystems, and so complex. The book says you don’t need to use them (“You can just use the Hub and Spokes), but Luke Crane has said recently (on a podcast, possibly this one) that if you don’t use the subsystems the Artha economy won’t work properly. (The subsystems encourage you to spend Artha much faster in game time than you would without them, and the design is calibrated for that).
  • When I ran it, and it ran well, I’d spent months of effort in reading, in forum engagement, in internalising the culture of the game and how to play it. I suspect I’ve forgotten most of that learning now; I’m not willing to do it again. And I don’t believe it needed to be that hard.
  • Most of the players in my circle, the people who play Immergleich and Edge of the Forest, are not interested in complex rules. Playing with them, Blades in the Dark feels too complicated. Burning Wheel would be an anathema.
  • There’s not much culture of hacking around the game. This would be fine if it were perfect. As it is not, there is little support if you do. I use published rules is for community support as much as for the rules themselves. And I’ve never met a ruleset I didn’t want to hack.
  • There’s no SRD, no open licence, no (tacit or explicit) permission to hack and publish. I recognise Crane’s legal right to protect his IP, and I recognise that he feels protective of his creation. It’s frustrating, however — by using a closed-rights model he has innovated and then impeded derivative innovation. It’s especially frustrating because the product is such a mixture of great ideas and polarising ones.
  • I find the game’s player culture, in general, rather annoying. BW’s fans, and sometimes the developers or their associates, can be dismissive, even hostile, to anyone who doesn’t want to play the game exactly as written and exactly as Crane et al propose. I recently came across a thread at BWHQ which by turns describes this, exemplifies it, and explains why they’re like that. (Short version – read this post describing the problem).

Longer term, I’d like to identify or create other games that isolate the active ingredients of Burning Wheel play and make them accessible to many more people. That won’t be easy, though. Not least because you need a community to teach this play style — it’s too difficult to teach through text alone.

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