Naming The Faceless: Burning Wheel
Here’s what I know about Burning Wheel.
- Mouse Guard is based on it and I like Mouse Guard a lot
- It’s got some kind of lifepath character creation system
- The book on my shelf is still wrapped in the plastic it came in when I bought it
That’s it. I don’t even know whether the book I’ve got (the Gold Edition) is the most recent edition. And, frankly, I’m not about to spend the time finding out. This is the edition I own so it’s the edition I’m going to use.
Let’s crack the spine and make a character.
The Foreword to the book is encouraging. It states, boldly, “Burning Wheel’s character creation drips with character history. History breeds conflict. Conflict means taking a stand. What will your character stand for?” I’m into it.
The book then goes on to say that there’s no default setting for the game, and that gives me pause. This might be a frustrating exercise, making a character who’s a collection of meaningless numbers and abilities with no ties to any fiction. We’ll see what happens I suppose, though any excitement I was feeling about this process has just drained out of me like…I don’t know, something that drains. Quickly.
The next thing that saps any remaining enthusiasm is this paragraph: “The basic rules for play are presented first. We recommend starting by reading the first 75 pages of Burning Wheel. After digesting the basics, make […] a character.”
Seventy. Five. Pages. In a book that’s already told me there’s no setting or lore.
75 pages of pure mechanics is my nightmare scenario but I guess this is what’s going to happen now. I’ve got some reading to do.
I have a confession to make. Reading mechanics makes my head hurt. I learn games best by doing, not reading, and if your game book frontloads all the rules for play without giving me the ability to jump in and start playing, I’m probably not going to read them.
That’s exactly what happened with Burning Wheel. I got about 20 page in, did a big frown when it started talking about exponents and shade, and skipped the rest of the rules to get to character creation. Let’s see if that had any ill effect on the rest of the process, shall we?
After another 5 pages of lectures and explaining what’s about to happen and why it’s so very important (I’m really not enjoying the tone of this book at all – can you tell?) it’s time to get down to Character Burning. It’s broken into three categories:
- Developing a concept
- Choosing lifepaths
- Spending the points earned on those lifepaths
Within these three categories there are twelve steps, and the rules say that I should expect to take 45 minutes to an hour the first time through.
I’m cautiously optimistic that I’ll enjoy this little character creation minigame. That optimism is tempered by the fact that I haven’t enjoyed reading anything preceding it in the book. Maybe that’s a me problem.
The first step is developing a concept, which is meant to tie in to the kind of story your group wants to tell and the world they want to tell it in. Since I’m doing this solo and don’t have anything to go on, I’m going to take the concept of the character I made last week in Mӧrk Bӧrg – a fallen royal called Arvent whose kingdom has crumbled into extreme poverty, who is trying to reclaim their former glory.
The next step is to choose a lifepath limit. I guess this is like the number of reenlistments in Traveller? The book says that three-lifepath characters make good starting characters so I’ll do three. Unless I hate it or this post gets overly long, in which case I’ll do fewer.
At this point I decide to read the rest of this chapter before I do anything else (which breaks down the 12 steps for character creations and is one big example). It’s 20 pages long and as I go through it any residual enthusiasm I had for making characters in this system evaporates.
But anyway. Step 3 is to choose “character stock” – Dwarf, Elf, Orc, or Man. Since there’s no inherent setting to the game I don’t really know what this means, if anything. I decide on Man purely because the character I made in Mӧrk Bӧrg was human so I guess this one should be, too. And that’s the default option in most games, right? In theory it will be the most straightforward, and that’s what I need right now.
There’s no page references here. I turn pages until I find the section titled “Man”, with a finger in the book so I can turn back to the instructions to remind myself what I’m meant to do.
I’m not going to document every little detail of the character creation process as I flip back and forth in this book. I’m going to list the lifepaths I choose in the same format the book’s example gives, and then go into the mechanical decisions. Let’s see what happens.
The fun part of this process is that I’m writing this blog as I’m making the character, not afterwards, and so I don’t know what’s going to happen.
What happened is that I gave up. I started picking lifepaths, beginning with the Born Noble path as required. I tried to figure out how to make a character from fallen nobility, and assumed this would require me to pursue some Leads. I wanted to choose the Prince of the Blood lifepath before having the fall happen, and that was where I hit a wall. That lifepath requires the Your Grace trait, which is something that comes from the Born Noble path. But I couldn’t fully get my head around how Traits work. Do you need to choose them in order? Can you buy any trait from your lifepath once you’ve taken the first one (which is required)? I have no idea, and after half an hour of flipping back and forth in the book trying to work out what the fuck I was supposed to do I gave up.
I refuse to believe that anyone has ever made a character for this game in less than 15 minutes, as the book claims is possible once you’re used to it. If I ever suggest to you that we play Burning Wheel, come round to my house and kick me in the throat.
Next week I’m going to make a character in something that I actually enjoy.
January 28, 2021 @ 8:48 pm
I was in a similar position, having heard quite a bit about Burning Wheel, and owning a copy that I’d never read, and I made a new character back on the first. Reading your article was a bit therapeutic in that it made it clear to me I wasn’t just overreacting.
The book seems so proud of not being a setting-specific game, but there’s so much setting distilled into the character creation process, and so *much* to the character creation process I couldn’t believe this was a darling of the indie scene.
June 25, 2021 @ 1:54 pm
“It’s 20 pages long and as I go through it any residual enthusiasm I had for making characters in this system evaporates.”
I really laughed out loud reading this! Honestly, I think this funny blog post is the best thing to come out of Burning Wheel.
August 3, 2021 @ 12:16 am
I fundamentally disagree with all of this but yet completely understand where you are coming from. Burning Wheel works best when you have someone to guide you through it and only starts to tick when you spend a long time with it. It is not pick up and play at all and is very firmly for someone willing to read a lot of stuff and then guide their players through it. Setting creation and character creation are sessions onto themselves best done communally and not alone. It is a game that requires labor but once it does start making sense the thing about making characters in 15 minutes holds true. At this point I can quickly make a character for myself because I know how all of the moving parts interact and click into one another. It is why it is beloved not despite it. Still I get wanting to just be able to sit down with a game it make sense and then be off to the races with a character.