Previously: Alternity, Star Wars, Mage, Transhuman Space, Adventure!, Feng Shui, Fate Core, 13th Age
When the other games I have done were difficult, it usually meant that I either had some mixed feelings on a key component or I liked the game too much. This game is going to be difficult for a very different reason. I could be wrong. The game we are going to look at today require a crazy amount of system mastery and is geared toward long term play. Both of those things could lead me to make a factual error on the nature of this game. So bear in mind I have not played this game as much as is recommended in order to fully understand it. So I could be wrong. Bear that in mind while we dig into...
This game is intense. it is filled with niche rules and subsystems that all interact with each other in important ways. It can be very daunting to get into. Heck I have played it a fair bit(for me) and I am still daunted by the mechanical depth on display. And it is depth. A lot of games with this level of crunch are often strange hodgepodges that were constructed, seemingly, at random. Not so Burning Wheel. Everything in this game feels deliberate and focused. Its just that sometimes I am not sure what it is focused on. Many people have an issue with the tone the designer takes in the game, and I get that complaint. Sometimes the game can feel a little bit like it is talking down at you. That said the game is very good and when it is played well it practically sings.
The book I will be using is the Gold edition. Which covers a lot of the additional material that had been added on to the basic game in the previous edition. The art is sparse. It is black and white line art with a sort of sketchy feel. There are no sidebars of any note. Each chapter has a little illustration up in the corner of the page so that there is a visually distinct way to quickly jump to the chapter you need. The book is hard bound and a beautiful book at that. It has a sort of fleur de lis pattern in red on a golden background. the title and wheel design sort of blend into that background. Not sure if I like the color choices, bu the book is very distinct. Also each page within has a medieval style set of knot works drawn as a border for the margins. Again not sure how I feel about it, but it is interesting and evocative. Overall it is a good looking book, though some of the choices might not be to your tastes.
The core mechanic is a d6 based dice pool system where you are looking at each die to see if the die surpasses a target number and then you count successes. You have attributes and skills these are added together to give the dice pool(I think). You can also get a die or two from someone with the same skill helping you and you can get extra dice from related skills, call FoRKs(fields of related knowledge). You also get artha, which are a bunch of different kinds of points that can be spent to alter the dice rolls in a number of ways. I would go further into that but it gets pretty complex pretty quick. And you only really need to know the basics of how dice rolls work for now. Your character also has beliefs and instincts, which are how you gain artha(which is very important, as this game can be very lethal). Beliefs are goals you have set for your character that you wish to accomplish. You gain artha when you accomplish the goals. You have three of them. Instincts are macros for you character. They are things that your character always does or always does in certain types of circumstances. I think you can gain artha from these too, but I might be mis-remembering, or I may have played it wrong. If you want your character to always have a knife on him, or always fill his pockets with food when available, instincts make that happen without you having to tell the GM that every time.
Character creation is fairly complex and in depth. You make your character through a life path system. The GM will tell you how many path choices you get and what paths will be available or forbidden. There are many different paths available and each one will influence how the world looks around you. When you have made all your choices, you find out how old you are and how many points for physical and mental traits that gives you. The samples in the book are Human paths, Elven paths, Dwarfish paths, and Orcish paths.
There are a load of subsystems for a bunch of different conflicts and such. Fighting breaks down into range and cover and fight. Fight is in close melee type stuff and it is really lethal. Range and cover is ranged and it can be even more lethal. Duel of the wits is how it handles social conflict. For many of these there are lists of tactics you can use in a moment by moment basis and you must choose your actions three at a time and you cannot change them mid stride, and you do not get to see your opponents moves until later. Combat and debate end up feeling really tense and require you to out guess your opponent and play the game as well as playing the game, if you know what I am saying. As I said these systems can get very fiddly and complex.
Advancement is probably my favorite part of the game and something I plan on stealing for things in the future. Basically to advance a skill or an attribute you need to take a number of tests as a set number of required successes. So to advance a skill from four to five would require you take four routine tests(1-2 successes) and two difficult tests(3-4 successes). I want to use something like this for a game based on Dragonball Z. As you get more advanced in a skill you need more difficult or higher tests and it can get very hard to find situations which challenge you enough to advance. I know I have not covered everything in detail, but I hope I have shown a hint of why this system is so unique and interesting.
This game does not have a direct setting as such. However it does have an implied setting that is really quite spiffy. It is a very Tolkien inspired setting while also being very much in the vein of a Medieval Romance and a little bit of Wizard of Earth Sea, Conan, and Lankhmar. This game reminds me a great deal of the fun I used to have as a kid playing MERP(Middle Earth Roleplay), and the big lists of things that would build the setting through character creation, at least in my mind. This game does that in spades. Each choice you make in character creation builds the world up a little bit, and when you get to beliefs you start building what is most important and thus what will show up in the game. You also have a skill(sort of) called circles, which you roll to create NPCs who know your character. How well you do describes how they relate to you and builds interesting interactions with the world. The longer you play the game the more you flesh out the parts of the world you care most about and it can get quite nuanced and interesting. That said it does not have full setting on its own, it just grants you the tools to make the setting you want and make it matter as much as you want it to matter. I like that.