This is the first day of 2021, and I stumbled across Tim Brannans 31 day character challenge, and so I put together a schedule of 31 different new systems that I wanted to make a character in. First up is “Burning Wheel”, whose name pops up in various “indie” circles from time to time, as one of the foundational works in that world. Its taken me a while to get to it, but I picked up a copy of it last year, and now I’m finally having a chance to dig into it.

I’m working from the Burning Wheel Gold Revised book which was published in 2019. It’s a very pretty book, with a lovely color, lots of interior artwork and layout that looks nice, despite the fact that it’s all black and white. The first challenge is finding the character creation rules. Scanning the first chapter, there’s a lot of interesting and unique terminology, which I wish there was a glossary for. Eventually, I find the “Character Burner” section on page 81 where the character creation stuff is.

There’s a 12 step process for making characters. It’s not a random generation system, they’re all choices and “building” a character. The game kind of makes a lot of hay about this, presumably because it’s a fantasy game, and there’s a lot of D&D in it’s veins.

So, getting started with step 1: Character Concept. I played a D&D character for a short time named Mangrove, who was an atypical cleric, worshipping all of the gods, instead of just one, trying to curry favor with all of them at once. I’m going to try recreating this character in Burning Wheel, which is likely to adjust the character a bit.

Step 2 is chosing my lifepath. I’ve played games with Lifepaths before too, though generally random-roll ones. This is where things start to get complex. My idea for my character is a heretical priest. There’s a life path for a Heretical Preist, which sounds great. Now I have to dig back through the life paths to connect from birth to my “Heretical Priest” life path. It’s a little complex navigating the webs of “settings”, “sub settings” and requirements for each step of the life path. There seems to be an option to repeat life paths, which is kind of neat, but not quite appropriate for what I want out of the character. There were a few problems that I started to notice in the Lifepaths section where I was unsure whether I could use “Temple Acolyte” in place of “Acolyte” as a pre-requisite for the Heretic Priest, but I finally managed to iron out a path that looks like it makes sense. The end result of my life path selection looks like this:

Setting Lifepath Time Res Stat Skills Traits
City Dweller City Born 12 yrs 10 - 4 points 1 points
Outcast Apostate 3 yrs 6 - 4 pointsDoctrineHeretical DoctrineForeign Doctrine 1 pointsApostate
Outcast Heretic Priest 7 yrs 6 - 7 pointsHeretical DoctrineOratoryApostate-wiseDemonologySummoner-wiseCultist-wise 2 pointsLunaticOverbearing LoonyFaith in Dead Gods

Step 3 is finding out my age. It’s reasonably simple, just total up the time spent on each life path, and then count the number of times I changed settings: 12 years + 1 year + 3 years + 7 years = 23 years old! Pretty young. In D&D I played this character at age 17, but that’s because the default setting of D&D is a little more magic rich than Burning Wheel seems to assume. It’s interesting, since Burning Wheel asserts that it’s setting neutral, etc, but there are definitely assumptions abou the setting that get encoded into the complexity of the Lifepath system and tables.

Step 4 is Building my stat pool. It varies with age, so at 23 I have 7 points of mental pool, and 16 points of physical pool. This is actually the peak for both pools, so yay.

Step 5 is the first place where I come in contact with “shades”, which sends me back to the rules section to understand what’s going on. Basically, they represent a way of making tasks I try with that stat seem “easier”. During character creation though, shades look like they’re prohibitively expensive, so I’m going to make all my stuff at creation “black” shade. I decided on Will: B4, Perception: B2, Agility: B5, Speed: B5, Power: B3, and Forte: B3. Those “exponents” represent how many dice I’ll be rolling, and the “B” determines what my target number for the roll is to be considered a success.

Step 6 gets pretty complex. I have to find the skills that are given by my life paths. Then I get 4 points of general skills to add on from my City Born lifepath. The first skill in each are required, and they cost less than they might otherwise, which is good. They start at half the relevant ability, rounded up. I end up with Doctrine: B1, Heretical Doctrine B3, Oratory B5, Foreign Doctrine B3, Seduction B5.

Step 7 is Traits. Again, the life paths dictate what options you have, a required trait or two, and a list of discounted traits. Traits seemed like they might have a lot of possibility, but they kind of fell apart. Most of the traits didn’t even have a description of them, often falling into broad groupings. For example the “-wise” traits are just a passing familiarity with the knowledge topic, which is nice to have, but when I only get 6 of them, feels like a real waste of points, when others give you bonus dice in various situations and tests. Some of the traits, such as “Faith in Dead Gods” aren’t even listed anywhere in the book, which as near as I can tell makes it a variation of Faitful, which opens up “Emotional Magic” to my character. But I’m honestly not certain. I end up with Apostate, Lunatic (Which gives me the ability to know the Phase of the Moon at any time?), Faith in Dead Gods, and Comely.

Step 8 is just math. Cauculating my attributes is easy compared to the last 6 steps. Time to relax.

Step 9 is selection of my Resources. There are a lot of different ways to allocate resources, between equipment, Relationships, Affiliations (which are a special kind of relationship), and Reputation (which is again, a special kind of relationship). Spells are also resources, but fortunately for me emotional/faith based casting is more off the cuff and doesn’t use spells. So I buy a bunch of equipment, and a single relationship: Aurana - a low ranked priestess of an organized church who has a romantic history with Mangrove. She has been working to change his view on the gods, and is increasingly frustrated that his heretical doctrine isn’t just dying out. They’re currently on the outs, but the two have undeniable chemistry and she wants to save him from himself. 5 points (she’s a fairly minor force in the city) -2 for romantic relationship, -1 for a forbidden relationship.

Step 10 is just math again! This is getting easier. Just averaging a few things, and I’m done.

Step 11 is Beliefs and Instincts. They seem like the most interesting part of this character sheet, but I’m honestly so tired of this character creation process that I’m done. I pick a quick Belief and a single Instinct. I think I can choose more (up to 4 each?) and they make advancement easier for my character, but as I said, I’m tired. I’m done.

Step 12: Choose a name. Done.

Damn, that was a slog. I might be spoiled having spent a lot of time in OSR and Story games recently, but this is a complex character creation process. This system seems like it provides a lot of detailed interactions for the characters and players, but damn, I don’t think I’d ever play this. First off, it’s a ton of math and detail orientation for a character. That’s not uncommon, though I’d be willing to say Burning Wheel gives several of the “math heavy” games like Pathfinder, GURPS or Champions a run for their money. But oddly, even though this game is in its 3rd printing/revision, there’s still a lot of missing rules for things that you have to spend points on. There’s a lot of points spent on rules that are non-existent or vague at best. But you still have to track all the points and math!

I’ll be honest, the reason this blog is late is because I had to finish this character on the morning of the 2nd, because it was so complex I couldn’t finish it in the 3 hours I had allocated to this on the night of the 1st.