roleplaying games

The Wheel Turns, and the Wheel Burns

The Talmud discusses the nature of conversion to Judaism. A rabbi is supposed to turn away a prospective convert three times. When he returns after the third time, that is how the rabbi knows the convert is serious enough.

That philosophy, if not the literal process, is how I’m slowly but surely developing my game of Burning Wheel.

I’ve called Burning Wheel my ‘favorite game I’ll never play’, due mostly to the fact that despite my admiration for the system and how it’s written, it’s simply incompatible with the prevailing habits and playstyles of my most consistent group, the online group that spawned from my college group. Burning Wheel works best with 3-5 players and poses significant bookkeeping and spotlight management work on a GM who tries more. Burning Wheel requires a degree of rules and system mastery which occurs only when each player has a copy of the book available and has made an effort to read and reference it. Burning Wheel does not come in PDF form. Burning Wheel is built around narrative systems which come to fruition around 12 sessions into a game, and has progression mechanics that may not come into play until 50 sessions in, if at all.

My online group has 8 players. My online group purchases manuals inconsistently, and almost always in PDF. My online group rarely plays games which last longer than 15-20 sessions. There is not a fundamental compatibility here.

As such, I’ve started poking all game players in my life, ending all conversations about Burning Wheel with “I can’t run Burning Wheel without players who are interested in Burning Wheel.” My girlfriend, actually, was the first one to give the magic response:

“I’m interested in Burning Wheel.”

And as of the last week or so, I’ve gotten a second person to tell me that they too are interested in Burning Wheel. So now I just need one more, and I can start to figure out how I’d be able to run a game of Burning Wheel.

Why Burning Wheel? I mean, it’s a fair question. It won’t be the only narrative game in my stable. I’m running an Apocalypse World game for the online group on a back-burner basis, and my in-person group is switching from Urban Shadows to Dungeon World. Dungeon World especially may scratch some of the same itches as Burning Wheel.

But Burning Wheel presents things that other games don’t. It has a great lifepath system, but the system for creating a character narrative through play is much deeper (as it should be). It has a lot of crunch and moving parts, but doesn’t fall into wargaming tropes which break immersion (it may be that I’m in love with simultaneous action systems). The advancement system is delightful, fiddly as it may be. From my admittedly limited impressions, the system seems more like something you want to play with than a “simulator” system where you put in a certain amount of work to get a certain breadth of results.

I think in terms of rules density, Burning Wheel and GURPS are probably on par. The key difference is that while GURPS has rules for settings and events, Burning Wheel has rules for a playstyle. GURPS is broad, Burning Wheel is deep. It does mean that if you’re not interested in precisely what Burning Wheel does, you’re not interested in Burning Wheel.

But if you are interested in Burning Wheel, you know why it excites me. And you may be someone who could join my future campaign.

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2 thoughts on “The Wheel Turns, and the Wheel Burns

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