Adapted from an email I sent to my group:
Always the elephant in the the room that is my brain is my mixed experience with Burning Wheel. The things I enjoy the most about games – wounds that feel real; potentially mortal combat; supporting non-combat encounters (i.e. Duels of Wits) as much as combat; lack of roll-based initiative systems; mechanical incentives for good roleplaying; ways for players to add to the fiction of the game; abstract measures of resources rather than meticulous tracking of every gold coin; mechanisms for resolving disagreements between players in-character; evocative, non-class-based (though admittedly detailed) character creation – it does all of that. It was the first game I read that made me realize that those things were possible, and I still think it’s one of the best at encouraging the behaviors it does in an implied setting that is beautifully Tolkien-esque.
The downside of all this is that if you engage the numerous optional subsystems in the game instead of just relying on the core mechanic, the game is complex. It’s at the opposite end of a spectrum from Apocalypse World. If Apocalypse World reveals the fiction through simple rules and strong GM guidance, Burning Wheel constructs the fiction through mechanics. You cannot hide from it. Neither Apocalypse World nor Burning Wheel permit “casual” players. You can’t sit back and wait for the combat, because almost everything you do uses a skill. Each time you use a skill, you’re making progress towards it improving, even (sometimes, especially!) if you fail. You use artha to succeed where it would otherwise be impossible, but to gain artha, you’ve got to put yourself at risk and pursue your Beliefs.
With engaged players, it’s a very tight system. With less engaged players… it’s not pretty.