Burning Wheel is a roleplaying system created by Luke Crane in 2002, revised to the aptly-named Burning Wheel revised 2005, and re-updated to Burning Wheel Gold in 2011. Character creation ('Character Burning') is done by choosing 'lifepaths' within each of the playable races. The main setting is unapologetically even more Tolkienesque than the basic D&D including Trolls that turn to stone in sunlight and Orcs who were formerly elves. For Men, however, the lifepaths are designed based on 12th-century France, so it's also much more medieval than many fantasy RPGs.
The system's main agenda is focus on generating conflict and eschewing minor dice rolls in favor of advancement of the story—and major dice rolls. It is stated by the author that events in-game should involve as much personal stake as possible for the characters. If there is no conflict, no dice are rolled. Complimentary to this is the advancement system: rolling anything related to a character that can improve, in most cases even if the roll fails, advances your skill if there is something at stake involved in rolling. The result is that redundant dice checks are eliminated and all rolls should be tied to story advancement.
Combat in the system is designed for multiple levels of complexity: trivial combat can be resolved with two rolls, and high-stakes combat can be detailed to the point of scripting stages of combat and individual maneuvers that trump, avoid or negate one another.
Also notable is the inclusion of Emotional Attributes for the traditional fantasy races. While Elves, Dwarves and Orcs are inherently more powerful than humans, they suffer from respective attributes that advance under appropriate conditions and can make a character unplayable if pushed too far. Elves suffer from Grief, Dwarves from Greed, Orcs from sheer Hatred and Dark Elves from Spite. Humans have an optional variant of the subsystem known as Faith, which is more or less Exactly What It Says on the Tin.
Dice rolls are done with a number of d6 equal to the skill or stat needed and successes are based on whether the skill/stat is normal level (black denoted with a B and succeeding on 4-6), Heroic (Grey/G 3-6), or Godly (White/W 2-6). One of the differences to many other role-playing games is that characters have 3 Beliefs (which they gain experience for following) and instincts which state something about your character's actions that must be assumed even if it is unstated ("Always alert" means that the GM must allow you to roll to see an ambush, even if you did not say you were looking for one).
There are currently three extra rulebooks in addition to the main rulebook, which explains the core rules and introduces four base playable races (Dwarfs, Elves, Men, and Orcs) and their lifepaths. The Monster Burner introduces four more playable races: Roden (anthropomorphic rodents), Great Spiders (giant intelligent spiders), Trolls, and Great Wolves (giant wolves ranging from Tolkien's Wargs to those in Princess Mononoke) along with many monsters and the rules to create more. The Magic Burner introduces more magic systems, some new lifepaths who use these systems, rules for creating your own, and describes some of the archetypal mages (both good and evil). The Adventure Burner is mostly system commentary and campaign creation advice.
Several books with additional settings and rules were written. Burning Sands: Jihad is Dune with the Serial Numbers Filed Off very, very minimally. The Blossoms are Falling is Burning Wheel set in Heian-era Japan... which means the katana has not yet been invented and the term "bushi" is far more common than "samurai," who are only just rising to prominence. Under a Serpent Sun was a Post Apocalyptic adaptation that was bleak even for that genre and inspired by (and full of Shout Outs to) At the Gates; it was disowned by Luke Crane for being basically flawed and unplayable.
Two other full games use adaptations of the Burning Wheels rules but require no additional books: Burning Empires, which uses the Iron Empires science-fiction setting and Mouse Guard, which adapts the graphic novels of the same name to RPG form.
Burning Wheel provides examples of:
- All Trolls Are Different Based on Tolkien's trolls the basic Burning Wheel troll is big, dumb and turns to stone permanently when exposed to sunlight. However different traits can give the horns, hooves, an unexplained likableness and even an immunity to sunlight. They're still likely to be bigger, dumber and tougher than any other PC race, but apart from that they can be very different.
- Annoying Arrows: Averted. A bow or crossbow can incapacitate your average conscript with a single shot from just the pain alone.
- Heavy armor can still shrug off some arrows, but against a longbow (greatbows) with bodkin arrows you'll need immense luck not to take crippling wounds even through plate armor.
- Armor and Magic Don't Mix: Entirely averted. Sorcerous lifepaths don't include training with arms or armor, and spells are expensive enough that you may not be able to afford armor, but nothing stops an experienced or high-lifepath character from being a Magic Knight.
- Armor Is Useless: Averted, especially with shields. One can get around this by moving to the closest combat range where armor bonuses are nullified and, as the book puts it, "stab them through their visors."
- Even at closest range armor still counts. You have to actually have someone incapacitated to bypass armor. You can do that by getting close, wrestling them to the ground, and immobilizing them, but not just by being close.
- Armor is a chance to complete avert all damage no matter how successful the attack was otherwise. Plate armor can make even a mediocre swordsman an unstoppable juggernaut on the battlefield, at least until they've taken enough hits that the armor starts coming to pieces around them. The Dwarves' signature mail is too tough to be damaged by ordinary weapons, meaning fighting a Dwarf Prince is likely an exercise in futility.
- Attack! Attack! Attack!: Using the "strike" maneuver over and over again in scripted combat is just begging your opponent to counter-maneuver, although due to how severe wounds are in the system if you hit him hard enough the first time he may not have the chance.
- Also impossible with many weapons. Many require you to script something in between attacks; the slowest require you to script an action of getting back into position to strike. Ranged weapons require many actions to reload, to the point where firearms are most likely going to be used once and then dropped in favor of melee.
- In many ways the point of heavy armor. If you can ignore incoming blows you don't have to bother with avoiding and blocking, you just keep hacking away.
- Can work if you have a quick weapon, especially with good VA (versus armour, reduces the effect of armour). If you land the first blow, you have a chance to inflict a wound, which might cause your enemy to hesitate, AND reduces his stats for the next roll. If the opponent hesitates, you hit him again, he hesitates AGAIN, you reduce his stats again, rinse and repeat. This troper witnessed one battle where a dwarf prince hacked away at a 15-foot monster's legs, repeatedly causing him to hesitate, and eventually accumulating enough "midi" wounds to reduce one of his stats to zero, which the game equates with unconsciousness. Now, the GM had built a min/max'ed monster that would have taken out the dwarf prince with a single hit if he had ever got the chance, but it was NOT the outcome anyone was expecting.
- Ax-Crazy: There's loads of rules for just how Ax-Crazy the Orcs can get. Examples: an Orc-only trait known as "Flights of Murderous Fancy" can be invoked after suffering a humiliating social defeat. The Orc is given massive dice bonuses, the higher his Hatred the bigger the bonus, in the course of viciously and descriptively obliterating whatever humiliated him.
- Dwarfs with high Greed can be driven to murder each other if there's a dispute over something incredibly valuable.
- Elves can have their Grief turned into the Spite of the Dark Elves, which tends to involve them killing everyone they loved, or at least trying.
- Battle of Wits: The rules support debates, arguments, court sessions, and other such discourses as much as violence, perhaps even more.
- Boring, but Practical:
- Recipe for success in Burning Wheel's Fight! subsystem: reduce your opponent to zero dice using locks; slit his throat at your leisure. note
- Wearing armor, probably using a shield, and using a good weapon. You can be tricky with wrestling moves or close quickly with a knife, but playing as a stereotypical knight will work wonders.
- Canis Major: Great Wolves are horse-sized wolves of human intelligence. Some are born into, or captured and enslaved by, the "forces of darkness" to act as mounts for Orcs. Some become shaman-like spirit speakers or use ancient magic. Most just live like wolves and avoid contact with any bipeds save the occasional Elf.
- Character Alignment: Characters must have three beliefs (with some traits giving you additional beliefs). They might seem like alignment; they are not. They are goals and motivations, but they are very malleable and violating them is as important, and often as rewarding, as following them.
- Clap Your Hands If You Believe: Human Faith powers have a scale of "miracles" that can be performed for having faith in their deity. The author suggests using only Major miracles for games, or not even granting clear powers at all, if one wants to keep a fair amount of buffer between the sacred and the profane.
- Combat Pragmatist: GM-permitting, one can add dice from other skills to a combat roll if they describe how they're using them to get the advantage. This means that one can throw in dice from their Brawling, Throwing or even Social skills to a swordfight if they, for example, stamp on their rival's foot, throw gravel in his face and then convincingly lie about having slept with his wife.
- Competitive Balance: Luke, the author, has stated that the game is designed to lack any sort of conventional balance. A character who has been a slave all their life will simply be worse, statistically speaking, than playing a well-off noble. The only measure of balance is that the slave character will inevitably have more ways for the player to make their life hard for them and therefore receive more Artha points, used for such things as allowing re-rolls or saving your life.
- The races are particularly unbalanced by design. Dwarves and Elves are stronger and tougher than men. The rules suggest giving Men more lifepaths and elder races fewer if they're supposed to be on the same power level. Our Elves Are Better indeed.
- Critical Existence Failure: Played with, but ultimately averted. Injury mechanics log every wound received and each wound penalizes all dice rolls by a certain amount depending on severity. If your penalties exceed any of your stats you are rendered unconscious or incapacitated with pain but do not die unless your wounds worsen due to bleeding. The closest thing in-game to a CEF is receiving a Mortal Wound which instantly puts your character into a state where if they do not receive medical treatment immediately they will die.
- There's no playing, just aversion, although it should be noted that it's possible, albeit very, very difficult, to kill someone in a single blow in regular combat. Most characters don't have the skill and strength to do it.
- Damage Reduction: How armor works.
- To the extreme. It doesn't matter how evisceratingly lethal a blow is. Roll armor dice. If successful, that hit is canceled. Good armor is worth its immense cost.
- But not quite played straight. If armor works, you take no damage, period. If armor doesn't work, you take full damage and the armor does nothing. Improving the quality of your armor increases the likelihood of not taking any wounds. In some ways it's more like making you harder to hit, except it doesn't help your opponent to be better at hitting you.
- Determinator: What happens if your Steel is high and, to a lesser extent, if your Hesitation is low. Wounds, terror, and even many magics will not deter you until you are physically incapable of continuing.
- Drama-Preserving Handicap: Players are rewarded with a form of versatile Experience Points for deliberately invoking drama-generating handicaps upon themselves.
- Driven to Suicide: what happens to Orcs or Dark Elves who let their Hatred or Spite get too high.
- In the Under a Serpent Sun disowned expansion, this is a major part of the setting. The Meek have Need, which increases until they take their own lives. La Résistance has Despair, which can fuel their anger but still eventually leads to suicide or, rarely, joining the Answered and becoming the enemy. The Answered feed on suicide and carefully cultivate the Meek so that they die properly.
- Easy Exp: Subverted with skill advancement and inverted with Fate Points. Advancing skills through use seems easily exploitable but you can only advance skills by advancing the plot. As the book puts it, "No testing your magic skill by sitting around the tower setting your couch on fire." As for the inversion one way of earning Fate Points is to invoke a flaw or trait of your character in order to generate further conflict or make your, or everyone's, life harder.
- Experience Points: Of the non-traditional sort. Stats and skills, which must be used to advance, require level-dependent dice tests to improve. They use a series of dynamic experience points called "tests." Artha Points can be used to make a character's skills/stats hop to heroic or godly stature, making them another form of XP besides their in-game use.
- Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Orcs are nicknamed after their role in the horde, such as "Edge Grinder" or "Head Taker," until they get big enough and bad enough to deserve a ritual by which they are granted Names to Run Away from Really Fast.
- Fauns and Satyrs: Burning Wheel employs a rather darker interpretation on satyrs than in most other fiction. They are hedonistic and cannibalistic monsters thay first lure unsuspecting humans among them to party, then proceed to slaughter and devour the men and rape the women for reproduction.
- Functional Magic: Dwarven crafting and rune casting and Elf songs are examples, as well as human Faith. Most human spells have functional purposes such as the simple lighting of fires or causing weather effects to favorably/maliciously change.
- Hit-and-Run Tactics: A mobile character with a long weapon can use positioning to swoop in, strike, and flee before their enemy can land a blow. Also a viable tactic in ranged combat to keep your opponent out of range.
- And averted in that it's hard to win positioning when you've just effectively disarmed yourself by loosing your arrow and the guy with a sword is now charging you. You can pull this off, but the long time required to draw and knock a new arrow, and the positioning disadvantage, means that this is a tactic for the very nimble.
- Genre Savvy: The book assumes the players have experience with common fantasy tropes and is written accordingly. Many of the rules themselves are genre savvy. Orcs, for instance, have a trait that simply makes them run faster if they're fleeing combat in a cowardly panic.
- Giant Spider: In the Monster Burner book one of the 'playable' monster races is the Great Spiders which are spiders of human intelligence, modeled after Shelob and the Mirkwood spiders of Tolkien's Middle-Earth, that range from the size of a medium sized dog to that of a horse (depending on breed and life-path). Most are loners (like real spiders) and the rest are either pack hunters or 'Evil'.
- Gorn: An Orc with the trait "Unrelenting Savagery" can add his Hatred dice to combat rolls if the player is able to describe how gruesomely and disturbingly he is murdering his foes so that the other players at the table grimace and squirm.
- Half-Human Hybrid: Half-elves must choose if they've embraced their Human or Elf nature. In the former case they gain a minor elf-related trait and in the latter case they're just another elf.
- Ignored Epiphany: The penultimate Spite check that a Dark Elf can make involves "realizing that the Paths of Spite breeds nothing but hatred and division and that this divergent path will be the end of Elvendom — but walking it anyway."
- Instant Expert: Not quite averted. You have to use a skill you don't know (with difficulty) a number of times before you learn it, and the number of times required is dependent on your stats. With high enough stats, you can learn a skill instantly just by trying it—and you'll start with a fairly high degree of mastery. In practice, virtually no characters ever have stats high enough.
- Intelligent Gerbil: Roden are intelligent human-sized anthropomorphic rodents who divide themselves into Country Mice (Vegetarian Amish types who look like field-mice) and City Mice (Stereotypical criminal rat-person, with 'Pinky' and 'The Brain' included as possible life paths, Narf) with murderous cultists and albino mystics thrown in for good measure.
- Jumping Off the Slippery Slope: the Paths of Spite supplement, which provides rules for playing Dark Elves, is all about this: most Dark Elves start down the Path after being betrayed by someone they trust or watching their loved ones die due to another's incompetence; by its end, they should be routinely allying with their own former enemies "just to get one goddamn thing done."
- Magic Is Evil: How Dwarfs view the fate-warping Rune Casters, their own form of "mage" who are shunned from their society.
- Mutually Exclusive Magic: Human arcana, Elf songs, Dwarf rune casting and Orc Blasphemy are all race-based and cannot be learned by someone not born of their stock.
- Slightly averted. Roden get a limited form of the Gift, as humans have it, and have similar Faith—except rather than a Church, they have crazed murdering cults.
- One-Hit Kill: A black-shade wound tolerance meeting a grey or white-shade weapon ends up like this. A grey-shade weapon will kill with a scratch.
- Our Dwarves Are All the Same: Since they are based on Tolkien's dwarves they fit most of the stereotypes, to the point of having Greed as a racial trait (although it can have other focuses the Mithral or Gold).
- Our Elves Are Better: Since the setting is even more Tolkienesque than D&D the elves are one of only two playable races that are unaging do not suffer from decrepitude (Orcs are the other one, but they have their own problems). However, since abilities get harder to learn the higher they go the shorter lived races catch up quickly. They also suffer from their immortality, represented by the Grief attribute that gets worse as they witness years of betrayal and atrocity.
- Catching up is relative, though. The system makes improvement harder and harder as you get better, so skilled Elves will simply become more skilled slower than unskilled Men (or Elves). The gap will shrink but never close if they keep practicing at the same rate. An Elf masters skills as quickly as anyone (and usually picks up new skills faster, thanks to high stats).
- Our Orcs Are Different Orcs are Tolkien style for the most part, and like Tolkien's orcs are mutated elves. Like the elves they only get more powerful with age, although thanks to their violent culture their lives tend to be 'nasty brutish and short'. In fact, of the playable races, the orcs are the only one where it is recommended that instead of giving players a set number of 'lifepaths' they can have the GM should let them take as many as they want to, in the knowledge that too many is likely to see them maimed with the possible wound getting progressively worse the more 'ambitious' they get. They also have 'Hatred' as a racial trait and it is made clear it is only the fact that they hate everyone else more than themselves that allows them to function.
- Just walking through a pretty forest forces Orcs to increase their Hatred.
- Religion of Evil: Roden cults are very close to this, as described. It's also quite possible to have the implied monolithic human church be either this or Church Militant.
- And on the other side, the Redwall-esque Roden of the Fields seem to have a religion and are entirely wholesome and peaceful. It's quite possible for the clergy, particularly those with the Faithful trait, be beatific, beneficent miracle-workers and tireless champions of the meek. The Orcs' religion, if that's what their Seers are, is still entirely evil, much like all of Orcish society.
- Single-Stroke Battle: The perfectly possible, if not likely, outcome of two opponents with swords and no armor. The first blow will probably determine the winner.
- It's often not possible: A lethal blow will almost always require five successes, which requires five dice. Not all combatants, or even most combatants, have that much skill with their armaments. Interestingly, this also means that a duel between two highly skilled, heavily armored warriors is much more likely to begin and end with a single lucky blow than a brawl between two unarmored conscripts with swords. The latter just aren't good enough to land mortal blows.
- The fact that taking a solid hit often makes a character freeze, panic and flee, or fall to the ground gibbering means fights do often end in one blow, just not lethally.
- The Six Stats: Averted. Their are six, but they are Power (much like Strength), Forte (much like Constitution), Agility and Speed (like Dexterity, together), Willpower, and Perception. Of note, there is no stat for how smart a character is, how likable a character is (Willpower is the closest!), or other standard mental stats.
- Further averted by derived stats and miscellany. Health, Steel, Reflexes, and emotional attributes are based on other attributes and the answer to a brief questionnaire. Yes, living in filth makes you unhealthy and being enslaved can break your resolve (unless you're iron-willed, in which case it only makes you more indomitably determined!)
- Weak, but Skilled: A low stat can easily be compensated for with a high skill.
- But averted in that skills begin at half their root stat. You can become skilled, but you start an advantage if you're not weak.
- What Kind of Lame Power Is Heart, Anyway?: The Raise Bread spell, which does Exactly What It Says on the Tin.
- Skills include things like Sword (badassery), Rhetoric (moving speeches), Blacksmith (an essential, honorable trade)... and Ditch-Digging.
- Who Wants to Live Forever?: Elven Grief in a nutshell. Dark Elven Spite is lashing out at the world for being not immortal.
- Wolverine Publicity: If you read through the Trait list, there's one at the end called Wolverine, which, unsurprisingly, helps you to recover from injuries faster. See? Wolverine's everywhere!