Last Saturday I played The Burning Wheel, by Luke Crane, for the first time.

The review on RPG.net sums up the system fairly well, I think. So I’ll just give my impressions and experiences.

My initial impression: it’s another Chivalry & Sorcery, Fantasy Wargaming, or even Rolemaster.

That is, the designers believe mainstream games like D&D aren’t “realistic” enough and need to be corrected. That’s the vibe I got, and so I braced myself for plethora of rules trying to emulate realism in a game–and explanations as to why D&D is wrong.

But then, as the Game Master handed our pregenerated characters and explained the rules, I got the feeling it was a more narrativist game. Our characters would be driven by their deep beliefs and instincts as described on their sheets, sort of like White Wolf’s World of Darkness games, Pendragon, or maybe even Fate.

Yet every time I tried to roleplay any kind of exchange with an NPC or another character, I had to roll dice. Also, you are rewarded for having you Beliefs and Instincts tested at the end of the game, so in way you’re encourage to try to “win.”

I played Placidia, the owner of an Inn taken over by a rowdy gang of sports hoodlums–part of the chariot-racing factions of Constantinople. It was 718 C.E., and the Arabs had besieged the metropolis.

The other players ran characters with occupations that resemble careers out of Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, or Warhammer Fantasy Role Play: Ratcatcher, Noble, Priest. Yet instead of having one career, each of our characters had multiple. For example, the Noble at one point had become a Harem Slave. My character was a painter of religious icons.

The game master later revealed he had a rough idea where the session would take us, but it was up to us, and our character’s Beliefs and Instincts, to drive the session forward. He was surprised the game focused on saving my character’s Inn.

He stressed to us: “For each action you character takes, you have to explain why.”

For example, from the opening scene of the session:

Game master: “Why are you putting the religious icon up in the common room of your Inn?”

Me: “To guilt the sports-fans into leaving. The painting has the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, but instead of the Virgin Mary looking down at Jesus, she’s looking back at the viewer with contempt and judgement.”

So I rolled a handful of dice (d6s) got some successes. It also helped that the player running the priest could aid in this effort. It turns out that the game mechanics encourage players to help each other, though I’m still not quite certain how the mechanics work.

Still, this was a nice touch. I’ve noticed over the years players in a group often don’t coordinate and plan with each other during the game. So if the rules encourage player interaction, then that’s great.

We were successful, my character’s Inn cleared out. And the game went on to deal with the plots and motivations of the other characters.

Yet eventually the story came back around to saving the Inn: the sports-hoodlums return, my character got into an argument with their leader: Scipio.

And here’s where the game started to break down for me, and how I misread my character sheet. I thought Placidia was a “social character”: she had acting, ran the Inn, had contacts throughout the city, according to her skill sets. But she lacked one crucial skill: Persuasion.

The game master then referenced the Duel of Wits rules from The Burning Wheel sourcebook. I could pick three out of six or eight argument tactics like Obfuscate, Feint, or Rebuttal. Scipio picked his three. Our arguments, as the GM, explained it, had hit points. Each success removes a “hit point” from other other’s argument.

Then I asked: “How long will this take?” (in real-time)

Game Master: “About a half-hour.”

Me: “I don’t want to do this.”

I’d seen enough of the rules. It seemed like the rules took up more game time than they should. And why bother arguing if my character didn’t have a crucial skill to enable her to argue?

Something similar happened again when the Priest in the group told my character to put my Icon back in the Inn. But when I explained the Inn was targeted to be burned and wanted to save the Icon, the GM told us to make opposing die rolls.

Why couldn’t I just roleplay it out with the player’s priest? Why does every social exchange require some kind of die roll?

Apparently, as the GM explained, the rules were meant to reign in players who (for lack of a better example) put a “3” in their character’s Charisma and then try to roleplay somebody who’s persuasive.

So I grudgingly had Placidia put the icon back inside the Inn. I, myself, just didn’t want to argue anymore. (And in retrospect, this exactly what Placidia would have done, what often happens when somebody gets fed up with arguing over a minute point).

In the end, the Inn was saved from destruction. The players had roleplayed their characters’s Instincts and Beliefs fairly well, so that would have been taken into account if we played another session. There’s some sort of point system for advancement, though I’m not certain how it works.

My character got a Fate Point back for acting according to her beliefs.

The game master went on to explain more on how the rules worked, and a lot of it just sounded overly-complicated. He showed us the combat system for player-characters versus villains. It sounded like it worked similar to Duel of Wits.

There’s also a simpler combat system for character versus “minions.” 

No fighting happened in the game, of which I’m glad.

At this point, I don’t know if I want to play The Burning Wheel again, but I’d like to take another look–at least to learn more about the rules.

And despite the frustrations with the rules, I did have a good time. And I did walk away from the game with something I hadn’t experienced for a long time as a player:

Catharsis.