Learning Curves in Burning Wheel

edited December 2006 in Story Games
OK, so I have all three books for Burning Wheel. I've read through them, grinding through the density (though helped by Luke's extremely clear prose and style). Despite preferring systems like Heroquest or FATE or TSOY, I'm strangely attracted to the game. I'm mulling over proposing a BW campaign to the new group I'm trying to put together. But the rules density is just flat-out daunting; I'm working to get a handle on them myself, and I don't know if I can carry a group through the learning curve--probably nobody else will have the inclination to pore over the books. Most of my local player pool are either WW Exalted players or lifelong DnD folks.

Let me be clear: the various parts aren't the problem. Each individual subsystem makes sense. But when I try to assemble them all, comprehension hits a breaking point. I get a handle on the base system, then add in PTGS (OK), then Steel (OK), Positioning (check), and Scripted Combat (I get the subsystem, but...we're unraveling), Advancement (errr...), Artha (uhhh, OK...) then Damage, Wound Effects, Versus Armor...and blooey. I'm left with the feeling the time investment is going to leave me a lonely evangelical in an empty room. Mind you, I know I can master them, but I "got" TSOY in less than an hour. I "got" FATE in one read. The issue isn't so much about me learning the rules--that's a question of time investment. The issue is teaching other players who very likely won't be as motivated to slog through the text.

I've read the ideas about using pre-generated characters running through set pieces to illustrate the various rules systems before getting into the real game, and speaking from my teaching experience, that makes sense. If I can convince my players to join a "Burning Wheel class," essentially, we may be able to proceed. Otherwise, Hell's bells, I guess I'll fall back on something less formidable.

So my question is: how do you approach inducting players into new rules where the rules are dense enough or radical enough to represent a phase change from their previous gaming? How do you coax people off the d20/Storyteller nipple?


  • The best way to learn how to play Burning Wheel is to have rafial teach you how to play it. On this coast, anyway. :)

    I could not have gotten my burn on without Wil's expert burn-mastering and rules-tutoring. He used the approach you cite--pregens and set pieces and so forth.
  • I'd like to think that I'm doing a decent job of teaching BW to my old d20 gaming group as we move forward on a series.

    If you're having trouble teching yourself the rules as written, i don't know what to say - i "get" BW from reading it - but if you're looking for advice on teaching it through play i can offer what i'm doing, as another newbie.

    My approach involved first approaching players individually, talking with them about the game, and why i like it, and skimming through the book, emphazising the lifepaths & beliefs. Then i ran a demo game with pregens - an expanded version of the Sword scenario - and discussed how they felt it went, what they liked & disliked, and i talked about how things might go if we were to continue on from the events in the session. (Advancement & Belief rewriting)

    When we sat down to get our series started, i focused on making clear the limits i saw on what the game could or couldn't be, and emphasized talking about / creating characters from a perspective of relationships and motivations, only bringing in the lifepaths & pointbuying system after the players started having a good idea of who their characters would be.

    Of course, we haven't actually started playing yet! But i'm confident that in two weeks we can jump in, and things will click.

    As for the rules modules, i think the key is taking it one step at a time - start with the core system, and only start using the more complex resolution systems as confidence in the base system accrues. I didn't quite do that, so far, but i've made sure that my fellow players at least have a familiarity with the various resolution systems we'll be using, even if they don't yet know the precise rules.

    Hope my rambly ramble helps in some way! >_>
  • edited December 2006
    Cool. Thanks, Johnzo. What worked especially well for your learning curve? Put another way, what did you have particular trouble grokking?

    I'm really, really going to be dealing with folks who haven't played much other than gnome illusionists, elf sorcerers, and AD&D thieves.

    Edit to add response to Sempiternity: Thanks, sir, very helpful. I've got the core system down cold, I think. And I actually have a lot of the subsystems as well, and I'm burning up a few characters to get the Character Burning down pat. Internalizing it all and becoming fluid will require actual play. The more I think about it, the more it seems clear I ought to run a few demos as an audition as much as anything else. If the players like it and bite, we'll move on to the next "class."
  • edited December 2006
    The sample scenario, "The Sword" is very good. It tends to ramp up in a very good way for teaching. The party usually starts out with some simple stuff, like rolling dice to search, sneak and so on. Eventually an arguement starts, which is a good time to pull out the Battle of Wits and work through it as a group. When the argment doesn't go someone's liking, the swords come out and you can work through "Fight". That leaves advancement, resources, and cirles. Advancement isn't that important in a one-shot, so it doesn't matter if players forgot to mark down some of their tests. They should do it though, just to start building the right habits. Resources and Circles aren't too hard to figure out, so you can leave them for when they come up naturally in play later on.

    Also, The Sword has nice recognizable archetypal characters and is a great lead in to beleif-driven play.

    And I second the motion about getting rafial to teach you to play. :)
  • edited December 2006
    Posted By: HexabolicCool. Thanks, Johnzo. What worked especially well for your learning curve?
    I think that the current version of Burning Wheel is much crunchier than the one we played. The lifepaths, while time-consuming, were not confusing. Everyone was a veteran gamer, and I'd seen the same stuff in the R.Tal games of yesteryear so they were not conceptually weird at all. Steel seemed pretty simple. My guy had buckets of it. We had no tests of wits that I recall, although I think the Die of Fate was prominent in one scene. The maximum crunch we saw was during a brief fight, which we were reasonably well prepared for by Wil's tutorials.

    An aside: for me, the defining feature of Burning Wheel is the chaotic combat system. Whereas The Riddle of Steel feels like wuxia sword ballet and D20 feels like a Flintstones' boxing match, Burning Wheel feels like a schoolyard fight or a bar brawl, a slippery desperate clench, occasionally interrupted by a decisive blow. It's a Churchill speech of a fight system; when you engage it, you will quickly become the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events. I liked it. But I bet a lot of people don't. It's way different from the predictable whittling you get in d20
    Put another way, what did you have particular trouble grokking?
    The biggest stumbling point I personally had was the Artha rules. We were playing with alternate rules that had three different kinds of Artha that were usable three different ways and recharged three different ways. This extra complexity never quite explained itself or justified itself to me, and I had to refer to cheat sheets for it.

    Here's our Actual Play reports. Man, they're fun to read years later.
  • Ah. Cool. Thanks, guys. I'll check out those AP reports, Johnzo. Tony, I'll grab the Sword and give it a read.

    FWIW, I'm considering a total Elf Citadel game, replete with intrigue and blood opera, long time scale (200 years or so) over the course of the game. For some reason, this concept has really grabbed me by the brain stem.
  • Posted By: HexabolicFWIW, I'm considering a total Elf Citadel game, replete with intrigue and blood opera, long time scale (200 years or so) over the course of the game. For some reason, this concept has really grabbed me by the brain stem.
    BW would support that game really well. Below is a link for a one-shot, in a series of warm-up one-shots that I ran for a group I played a BW campaign with.

    The King in Gray
  • And don't be afraid to use The Sword as a frame for future building play with your player's own PCs or a troupe-style play. See how the PCs are made, have them tied together with BITs and have Beliefs focus on some of the mechanics. Work out the conflict patterns ahead of time - "okay so lets work out THIS conflict here and then this conflict here and see where it takes us." Get right into the meat of it and let folks beliefs and instincts point you to where they want to focus the game and what rules THEY want to start with.

    So with the elf idea work out the big picture. Have some of the players play some of the people involved in the conflicts there. Get everyone invested in what's going on and introduce an agruement - bingo! Duel of Wits. Rinse and repeat for other sub-systems. :) Don't feel like you have to approach the system in it's entirety in the first go.

    Is that stuff at all helpful?
  • When I look at other indie RPGs, BW/BE seems crunchy. When I look at the two systems I play on a regular basis, D&D and HERO, I start wondering what the heck people are complaining about. :)

    First off, let me recommend the BW wiki, especially the combat outline. There are lots of other handy aids, too.

    Second, in the con sessions I've played with Luke, we hardly used any of the really advanced subsystems at all. There's tons you can do with just simple Versus tests. Both the book itself and the people in this thread are right in that you need to start with the simple bits and work your way up.

    Not to mention, remember that complexity = importance. You don't have to bust out Fight! every time someone swings a sword or DoW for every conversation. Save them for the really important, game-changing events your players care about.

    IME, BW is a game that seems complicated until you run it once or twice. Once you get past the conceptual hurdles of scripting (the biggest stumbling block for newbies, IMO), the game is cake.
  • Hey folks,

    Thanks for all the perspective and advice. Much, much appreciated. The references are great.

    Judd, I was totally thinking about the King in Gray as the Elf stuff came bubbling up. I read that thread when you first posted it, and it completely blew me away. BTW, what do Elves roll against when checking to see whether Grief increases? Do they roll Steel, or are Grief checks more about accumulating tests as per advancement?

    And 'zo, that kind of meaningful, deadly combat is something I'd really like to punch up in a system.

    Eruditus and Buzz, yeah, absolutely that advice rocks. I've been gaming for 20+ years, but this is a new and ambitious venture, and I'm feeling some self-imposed pressure. Three of the prospective players are really good friends of mine. One is an elf freak, another is only interested in medieval tropes and settings. All three derive about 99.9% of their game experience from D&D. So I guess on a social level, if I'm going to lead them into uncharted territory and ask them to invest the time and energy to learn a new system, I should make every effort to make the experience fun and rewarding. Maybe that says something co-dependent--though I'm aware their commitment and willingness to step on up is a key piece as well.

    Aside: Sometime I ought to write an extended analysis of crunch taxonomies. Hero and DnD just fall apart for me because of either the handling time and IMHO excessive granularity in the case of HERO, or the legion of standalone, one-of-a-kind rules that form a thick layer of barnacles around the d20 ruleset, thereby increasing immensely to search time. BW, for all the granularity, is written in a clear, modular fashion, and the emphasis lies with rules as principles rather than tabular data. And the Belief-driven, gritty consequences, and (per Johnzo) chaos-laden combat system makes for a seductive package.
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