Sunday, October 24, 2010

Review: Adventure Burner

It's possible you've never heard of Burning Wheel before. That would be sad, because there is quite a bit to like about it, both in the rules of play and the somewhat formalized manner in which play should be conducted.

So far, Luke Crane has released the two-volumed set of Burning Wheel, Revised Edition, Monster Burner, Magic Burner, and just recently the promisingly named Adventure Burner. Interestingly, the name is a bit of a misnomer—the book really covers more than the title suggests.

About the Main Game: Burning Wheel.

If you're not familiar with Burning Wheel, let me describe some of some of the points which make it interesting:

  • Players are not only supposed to list their characters' Beliefs and Instincts, they're integral to the operation of the system (hence their capitalization).
  • There are three types of experience, which are earned for different aspects of play. Each is used in a different way.
  • Earned experience is not spent directly to improve skills. Experience is spent to improve skill rolls. Skills are improved by attempting tasks above your skill level. However, the only way to succeed at a test with a difficulty number greater than your skill is to spend experience, and generally the greater the difficulty number the greater the consequences for failure.
  • Once you have enough attempts (not even successes, but attempts) at extraordinarily difficult tasks, your skill level goes up. Even if you're out in the field. Even if you're in the middle of a fight.
  • There is a three-stage physical combat system which encompasses multiple strategies reminiscent of rock-paper-scissors with several additional weapons of varying offensive and defensive power thrown in for good measure and an extra dose of the strategizin'.
  • There is a similar three-stage system for arguments. (Really. It's called "Duel of Wits.")

So yeah, there's a lot going on here. Quite a bit of nuance, some novel approaches toward play and the characters' (and players') role within the game, and a touch of custom vocabulary which can be a little annoying and hard to pick up. But that's a discussion for another time. The game is very much character-centric, and it's made clear in numerous places that the action can't simply exist, it must exist for a reason, and that reason is to challenge either the characters or their preconceptions.

The first two books—the general rulebook and the Character Burner, are the core of the system. Monster Burner and Magic Burner are earlier supplements that take the philosophy of the first two books and apply them to other topics, namely any custom creatures (friendly and hostile) that the PCs may encounter, and whatever magic system the game uses, and several are detailed therein.

Adventure Burner goes a little wide of the target, but in a good way.

The Adventure Burner Book Itself

The book is 367 pages in a 5.5"x8.5" format, in size and thickness very much like its brothers.

Adventures, or Object Lessons? And really, why can't they be both?

The book leads off with three potentially very short scenarios which are possible situations that might arise during a game. Each can be used to demo the game (each has pre-generated characters). Each also has some extra information useful to the prospective GM.

"The Sword" contains the end part of a quest, and provides one last formidable conflict: who really makes off with the treasure. It also serves as a demonstration of how each character's Beliefs can drive a situation. There's no map, no monsters, just a bunch of player characters with a single objective that can't be shared, and the skills required to take it from the others.

"Trouble in Hochen" is a mystery scenario where the PCs have to investigate some strange goings-on. It has a very lengthy introduction, though, in which the GM and players talk about the kind of world they're building and the kind of adventure that they'll be facing. It demonstrates the process by which these kinds of things first get rolling. It then goes into some detail how the generalities of tying the customized situation into the character's Beliefs. Again, there are the Beliefs.

And "Thelon's Rift" is what's called a "microdungeon," which is a very short dungeon crawl involving a handful of challenges and a greater demonstration of the system in action. It's also a lesson on adapting an existing situation to an existing group by tweaking and tailoring the characters' Beliefs.

The adventures end, but the object lessons continue

Around page 82, the book rolls up its sleeves and gets to work. Given the character-centric nature of Burning Wheel, though, it can't just talk about the action itself. Action is just one tiny little part of the equation, along with situation (why the action is taking place), setting (where the action is taking place), and of course the characters (the ones who are mired hip-deep in the action).

This section is small, but it asks a lot of questions of the GM, about where the characters fit into the setting (and tailoring the setting to fit their needs) and how the situation applies to them.

The Scenic Route

Around page 100, it goes off track. But in a good way.

See, through the main books of Burning Wheel, there is a lot of information about creating strongly motivated characters, but there aren't a lot of examples of completed characters. In fact, there aren't any, making you wonder once you've gone through all the steps in the basic book whether you've really finished.

This section of Adventure Burner starts with a little bit on choosing a campaign and fitting the characters with appropriate Beliefs, and then corrects the original oversight by including 32 pre-generated characters. They don't have their Beliefs or Instincts, the figurative staples of the Adventure Burner vernacular, making these complete as far as character generation goes but incomplete for any adventuring.

They're useful to show what characters look like when finished. They're also useful if you want to start playing with pregens, and that's always a good thing.

And then you're buffeted with advice. Or it's an advice buffet. Or something.

The section on "Commentary" which begins on page 174 is a bit more rambling. It touches on a lot of different aspects of play, dedicating a few pages to each. The commentary consists of a lot of suggestions, anecdotal advice, and proposed house rules and alternative procedures about running the game itself, not just on creating and running "adventure."

The most interesting are those bits about "proposed house rules and alternative procedures." Those are where the author talks about places he deviates from the rules he himself wrote, and explains why. Reading through that, and that is pretty much the back half of the book, will give the GM new insights into both how the author intended the game to run and how the author actually runs the game now.

Again, I stress: Everything, not just adventures. And Good Thing.

If there's another edition of the book, I fully expect the back half of Adventure Burner to be devoured by the main rulebooks because this information is too useful to leave out.

Buy this supplement if...

  • You want to create adventures for Burning Wheel.
  • You want to get your characters—and players!—more invested in your Burning Wheel adventures.
  • You want to create a new one-shot adventure, short campaign, or long campaign for one or more players (yes, that covers pretty much every combination).
  • You want to tune up your existing Burning Wheel game.

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