Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Why I Love Burning Wheel

When I rummage around in my brain looking for the first association I have with tabletop roleplaying games, it's difficult to tell which one actually came first, but I there's a distinct memory in my head of a winter camping trip with my Boy Scout troop when I was about 9 or 10. It was early evening, and we were all ready just to sit and do something low-key after a long day of having fun in the snow. A few of the older boys brought out some books, emblazoned with the title "Dungeons and Dragons" in a epic font. Tired as we were, we played until the wee hours of the morning when our Scoutmasters finally made us get to bed.

I loved it. I played it quite a bit with the boys in my scout troop for the next couple of months after that particular camping trip, but then, boys being boys, we moved onto other things for awhile. Since then, I've hardly played tabletop RPGs at all. It wasn't so much that I didn't enjoy the game any longer, I certainly did. But I found it hard to find people I enjoyed playing with. For a long, long time I couldn't really put my finger on why that was, but I just got the sense that the way I got enjoyment out of those games was not the way they did.

Then, when I was at PAX East, my friends and I wandered over to the card and board game checkout table, and we happened to pick up a game called Munchkin. Aside from the fact that the game was tremendously fun, this was the first time I had heard of munchkinism. Suddenly it became clear to me why my efforts to have fun roleplaying had so often come up short: to varying degrees, a lot of the people I had played with were guilty of munchkinism. 

I researched the idea a little more. In particular, I picked the brains of some friends who had more roleplaying experience than I did. I discovered a general feeling that systems like Dungeons and Dragons, though well-known and still a lot of fun, tended to foster munchkinism, particularly when the Dungeon Master didn't know how to deal with it. For instance, people tended to play just to get items or make unbalanced min-maxed characters (in other words, exactly the way people play Diablo II).

So, when I started searching for a gaming group again in earnest, I also looked for an alternative to the world of Dungeons and Dragons. It had served me well, but I needed a game and a group of gamers that was more focused on roleplaying than on mechanics, that was more interested in telling a good story than pushing all their stats past 18. Thanks to my friend Colin, I found that alternative in Burning Wheel, and I honestly don't know that I'll ever go back. 

Why, you ask? Well, I'll tell you (otherwise why the hell would I be writing this). Here are a few of the things that have made Burning Wheel very rewarding for me thus far:

In my previous roleplaying experiences, characters were created by picking a race, a class, rolling some dice and then, if you felt like it, covering all that with a thin veneer of backstory. In Burning Wheel, picking a race (called a Character Stock) is where the similarity stops. And, if I may say so, it offers the finest translations of Tolkien Elves, Dwarves, and Orcs to have ever made their way into an RPG, tabletop or otherwise.

From there, you figure out your character concept. It can be anything. Really. Ideas that would be mundane in most other games can be rich, diverse, and fulfilling in a Burning Wheel campaign. Then you burn your character ("burn" is the BW lingo for "create") using lifepaths, constructing a rough skeleton of the character's history from birth until just before you start using him (or her). Then you assign your stat and skill points based on what your character would have earned through his "life". Pretty cool, huh?

The Player Creates the Story
I know not all games are this way, but in many tabletop RPG's the game master (GM) is king. Your adventure is entirely dependent on your GM's storytelling skills (and/or ability to buy good add ons). In Burning Wheel, the GM is mostly just the arbitrator and the person who takes care of all the NPC business. You decide on a setting/world together as a group at the table and then the GM uses your BIT's (discussed in a bit) to create conflict. Resolving the conflicts encountered is what generates the story, and so storytelling becomes decentralized. It's like that game where you write the first sentence of a story and then pass it around the room and then you see what you get, only better.

Roleplaying is a Game Mechanic
The real meat-and-potatoes of the game is based off the Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits (BITs) you create for your character. These things basically tell the GM - and the other players - what you want your character to be about and what you want the game to be about. Playing these BITs up - or going against them for the sake of storytelling - earns you something called Artha. Artha can be spent to improve die rolls, change your luck, or even save your character's life. Good roleplaying = more Artha = more tangible, mechanical benefits during conflicts. Genius, isn't it?

Any Setting You Want
What's that? You don't want to play the old standard adveturers-meet-in-a-medieval-bar-and-band-together-inexplicably campaign? Then don't. Play any campaign and setting you want, inspired by your favorite works of fantasy and fiction. And if the game doesn't give you everything you need to play your desired setting out of the box (so to speak), pick up the Monster Burner and build your own lifepaths, character stocks, traits, skills, and more. 


But, perhaps the most important reason I've embraced Burning Wheel so fully is that it makes tabletop gaming feel like something that isn't dirty. You don't have to hide this stuff away in your basement. In fact, our group plays at bars, for all to see. Because it's not about being a nerd (ok, not all about being a nerd), it's about creating a meaningful story and experience with your friends. Hell, even girlfriends might dig that.

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