Beginner's Questions


  I've often considered playing tabletop RPGs, but only recently found a group- we're selecting a game, and BW appears accessible, streamlined, and eschews miniatures and grid-board combat. The emphasis on storyline and character development is stellar, but, frankly, I'm worried that combat is lacking- from what I've seen thus far, the mechanics render battle deadly (character level/stats/items notwithstanding). Thus, I'm assuming skirmishes are sparse and constitute only a minor portion of gameplay- I don't want a slugfest (if so, I'd have opted for D&D) but desire a fair amount of combat to undergird the narrative and social interactions. Would BW still work? Thank you!

Take a look at the Bloody Versus rules on page 426. They have the advantage of being both more simplified and less lethal than standard Fight.

Combat can be quite dangerous, but doesn’t actually tend to be lethal - battles usually end before things go that far, with combatants being disabled by their wounds. And even if they do take a Mortal, they can still spend a Persona point and have survival guaranteed. (Though recovery for that is extremely nasty, so it’s not like they get away scot free.)
I’ve heard it suggested that either Duel of Wits, Fight, or Range and Cover should come up once every one or two sessions? For our group, it’s more like once every four or five. But we do a ton of the aforementioned Bloody Versus. We had one character out of commission for a while due to injuries, but that’s it - and it’s the character who does the most Bloody Versus of the lot.
If even that’s too risky for you, the rules encourage resolving violence via straight-up versus tests when appropriate, which lets you set the danger level yourself. There won’t be tactical mechanical crunch if you do that, but you can still award an advantage die for clever setup or tactics if you want.
Also, armor helps a lot to reduce combat deadliness. (Right? My players haven’t actually been using it, but I remember past experience indicating that it’s a pretty big thing.)

But don’t take our word for it - particularly not mine, our campaign’s used Fight all of maybe twice. Go download The Sword and give it a try for yourself! Odds are good Fight will come up, and if not, you can always just grab the characters and do a Fight for no real reason afterward. (Definitely helps anyway to try Fight in a risk-free test scenario before it happens in the game for reals, so your players will have some idea what they’re getting their characters into.)

(Wow, now I’M the guy saying “Go play The Sword” to people. I feel like I’ve joined some kind of cult or something…)

Our group uses a lot of Bloody Versus. It’s only resulted in one character being out of commission for a while, once.
My understanding is that though Fight is gritty and tends to beat up the characters, it also tends to end before anyone actually dies - they are disabled by wounds, or fail Steel tests (caused by wounds) and opt to Run Screaming rather than sticking around until the bitter end. My group hasn’t been using it enough for me to base this conclusion on very much actual experience, but my strong impression is that this is true. I believe armor is also a big help. And even if they do take a Mortal wound, they can spend a Persona point to have survival guaranteed - though recovery’s pretty nasty, so they won’t exactly walk away unscathed.
If that and Bloody Versus both seem too risky, the rules encourage you to, when appropriate, resolve violence with a simple standard versus test. In that case, you can set the stakes wherever you want: “If you fail, he cuts you in the thigh for a Midi wound and runs off to warn the others while you’re lying there bleeding.” Not much mechanical tactics crunch, but you can still award an advantage die for clever strategies or whatever.

Best way to decide what you think is to go grab The Sword and run it. Odds aren’t terrible that a PVP Fight will come up. If not, you can always just take the characters afterward and go “Okay, now we’re fighting for some reason.”
It’s a good idea to have a practice Fight with throwaway characters anyway, so the players will have some idea what they are getting their characters into in the real game. And it’ll give you a sense of how deadly combat is, though take into account that new players won’t likely be nearly defensive enough and will probably fall faster than they ought to.

Combat is deadly but not lethal for basically all of the reasons that SeaWyrm mentioned. Outright death happens rarely and the ability to spend a point of Persona artha makes even an outright killing blow survivable (but still disabling for a long period of game time).

Bloody Versus is quick but might not deliver what you’re looking for. Full on Fight however is pretty detailed though in a very different way from D&D grid combat. D&D combat is mostly concerned with positioning and resource management, whereas Burning Wheel combat is concernd more about out-guessing your opponent and taking advantage of opportunities.

These are excellent responses- thank you!

Death, then, is improbable, but combat is overall debilitating (and potentially crippling). Is a plot that’s partly mired in skirmishes impractical, then? For instance, consider a setting where enemies roam the countryside and often assault settlements- your party would thus be frequently vulnerable to attack.

How well (or not) would that work with BW’s combat mechanics?

Not necessarily impractical, just make sure that your players (and brigands) don’t try and fight to the death. One solid wound, even a light wound, and most people will back off, run away, or beg for mercy (regardless of the steel outcome). That said, if your remember to make your Steel tests things will work our fairly reasonably.

Remember also that beating someone unconsious through Light wounds (a broke rib or two, plus a really wicked concussion) is fictionally different than taking them out via a single Traumatic wound (run through with a sword, probably some internal damage) even if the penalty is the same in the end.

As for your specific question on if that would work, for the low-stakes combats you’re looking at either Fight with enemies who give up quickly when bested or Bloody Versus. For the important fights, Fight is your goto.

If the party is going to frequently find itself under attack, it’s only going to be a matter of time before someone goes down. Odds are they’ll be able to get up again, but at a price: potentially weeks to months of time spent recovering before they’re back to full strength, and that’s assuming that they roll well enough on their Health Tests to make a full recovery at all. In the mean time, they’ll suffer die penalties to everything they attempt, which can add up to eventually incapacitate a character. So, is “a plot that’s partly mired in skirmishes impractical, then”? Depends on what you want from the plot. If you want a campaign about epic heroes kicking all kinds of ass on the way from one battle to the next, then maybe not. But if you want a more down-to-earth plot about vulernable characters dealing with the realities of violence and strife, then Burning Wheel may be for you. Really, I think the biggest consideration would be how fast you want the game to be paced: If you want the party to roll from cambat to combat with nary a break to lick their wounds, then that’s not going to be very practical – the characters are going to break down sooner or later; but if your pacing allows for the party to occasionally take a few weeks off in between scenarios to recover from their injuries, then I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t work.

To allay another fear, about the game not liking frequent clashes, the advancement system really works best with around one major conflict (or more) per session. That can be Duel of Wits or Range and Cover instead of Fight, but regular Fights work fine. However, for minor skirmishes it may be too detailed and you may want more Bloody Versus. You can figure out if you’re zooming in on inconsequential fights too often in play—if you find you don’t care and want them over with, go to a quicker resolution.

If you like the combat mechanics but dislike the lethality, there are a couple of easy tweaks. Is it characters dying that bothers you? Hand out enough persona and encourage your players to hold onto it and they literally cannot die without being willing; they can always spend their artha on Will to Live. A separate issue is that healing times are very long, so surviving with gruesome injuries is crippling (unlike D&D, where a few spells or a few nights’ rest and you’re good to go). If that’s the case, consider dramatically reducing the healing times or introducing other workarounds. Make laying on of hands a very low-Ob Faith test or introduce an easy spell to do it. Make healing potions common! It can throw off the feel of the world, but if you don’t mind it’ll mean combat itself is a grim affair but recovery afterwards is relatively painless.

One thing I’ll point out explicitly: BW’s Fight is not great for having many quick battles where your PCs crush opposition but use some resources (HP, items, whatever, in the D&D encounter sense). Getting injured snowballs fast, and combat will often end with a lucky blow and a failed Steel test. If you want your guys to feel heroic they need either much weaker opposition or acceptance that sometimes it’s going to be their characters who are fleeing in panic or blubbering on their knees for mercy. Again, not a D&D feeling, and it comes across as off-putting when your awesome heroes are brought down by lucky mooks. For such mook fights I prefer Versus or Bloody Versus or even simple tests for which even the consequence of failure is simply an imperfect victory. Sometimes if you want larger than life heroes it’s not about whether you win, it’s about how overwhelmingly you win.

If you don’t want heroes of heroic stature and want to play with realistic protagonists in a dangerous world you can ignore a lot of that. Even a peasant with a pitchfork can perforate your lungs if you’re having a bad day.

The player could say “I want to wade through the battlefield, slaying enemies as I go until I meet the Horned King and enter combat against him.”
And then the GM goes “Okay, roll Sword vs. Ob 7, if you fail it means the enemies land blows against you and you’ve got blood dripping from a midi wound when you meet the Horned King.”
Or maybe “Okay, roll Perception vs. Ob 3, if you fail it means the Horned King sees you first while you’re fighting off a dozen men singlehanded and he gets the drop on you.”
Or maybe even “Sure, you lay a swathe of destruction before you, splitting his army in twain and leaving a thousand corpses in your wake, and the Horned King is impressed and dismayed. He stands up from his throne as you approach, clutching the Thunderspear protectively.”
So you can totally have heroic wossname, using the way you set obstacles and failure (or just Say Yes) to set the scope.
Though if your PC only has Sword at, say, B2, things might get… weird. Particularly in the third case. All of a sudden, the godlike warrior freezes up and can’t land a single blow against the Horned King, eh? So it’s better if the PCs work their way up to that level of heroism over time. That’s what Epiphanies/shade-shifting are for, after all - becoming heroic. But it is an option available to you.

If you want to play out a bunch of little battles where the PCs are supposed to win and nothing’s really at stake, then yeah, BW’s not the system for you. In those cases, you’d either just do a simple roll (if there might be an interesting consequence for failure after all), go ahead and Say Yes (if the point is just to make the PCs look good or the enemies to look weak or something), or else just don’t even make it happen, what’s the point.
Combat’s only exciting and dramatic when it’s meaningful, and has real consequences. That doesn’t mean skirmishes are impractical at all. Sounds like a great premise to me - just make sure everyone’s got something personal to protect in those settlements or something of the sort. They aren’t JUST fighting the enemies, they’re defending the family farm, because old Grandpa, he’s back there hiding in the cellar with his bad hip, and you can still remember when he sat you on his knee as a boy and taught you to play ukulele, you can’t leave him to die! So you’ll fight them here in the same fields where you grew up, you’ll rain arrows down at them from the old climbing tree, you’ll set up barricades where once you set up scarecrows and dig trenches where you used to plow ditches for pumpkin seeds. THAT’S consequential and dramatic combat. (Probably Range and Cover rather than Fight, but whatever, 'snot the point.) (Oh, and we’re assuming the player has a Belief about this farm or something, y’know? That’s how the players tell you what THEY think is exciting and meaningful. The one thing that’ll ruin your premise is if the players don’t care about fighting those skirmishes, so find out what they care about and make the skirmishes be about that.)

Oh, and death is less than improbable. PCs start with a Persona point, and they can’t die if they spend a Persona point, and they can’t lose Persona points except by choosing to spend them. So death is only possible if they 1. Choose not to spend the point to live, or 2. Choose to spend their very last Persona on something else, which presumably means it’s important enough for the character to potentially die for, and then take a mortal wound before they can get another Persona to replace it. So it flat-out can’t happen unless the player allows it to happen.

Right, these responses have clarified everything; I appreciate it!
It appears that I’ll opt for BW. Cheers.

I would like some pointers to adventure writing.
As a new GM to BW I have found that I both need to introduce elements in the scenario/campaign that the players can react to and create beliefs as the adventure goes on and also challenge existing beliefs.

Sometimes I feel that the group gets divided when I focus on challenging beliefs. I suspect this has to do with the forming and specifiying the situation before the adventure starts. I guess that is my bad. Let me give you an example of the next session I intend to run. Please comment on this:

The tattoo you found on the undead corpse that attacked the princess is the mark of the fourth expidition of the eye of Zeuden.
The fourth expedition traveled to the dragonridge and the south of the realm of silvermark to start a temple in an old ruin.

Is that an ok situation to write a belief about? The players are a knight seeking more info on the new age and an inquisitor that intends to root out evil and destroy it.

Why not to give them (the players) more information about what they need to do to find the inquisitor? It is easier to write beliefs about something you want or someting you know. Also, there is no adventure writing in burning wheel. In fact, after the first maybe the second session, u should be able to play without any prep.

It basically boils down to “the people that attacked the princess live over there,” right? How is the situation tied to the characters right now? What do you all know about the princess and the 4th Expedition?

What do the characters feel about the princess and the fact that she was attacked? Is the Knight a vassal of her father and sworn to protect her from harm? Is the Fourth Expedition known to be an evil that needs rooting?

The 4th expedition, they know nothing about except that it was the same order of priests that the player inquisitor belongs to.
The princess is involved with the player knight and has been a major political player the last few sessions.
She seems to be quite manipulative.

Does that answer your questions noclue ?

It should benopen to the players they could form an expedition or use a library to find out more and write beliefs around that right?

This is kind of hard to figure out from the core book (at least in Revised; BWG is a bit better, I think), but the cycle goes like this:

The GM creates a big picture and a situation. This isn’t necessarily a world; in fact, heavy world-building can be counterproductive. This is really the situation, setting the stage for the drama. “In a kingdom a lot like A Song of Ice and Fire, the king is on his deathbed and a dozen claimants are poised to vie for the throne.” “The oracles have chosen you as the pilgrims who must ascend the sacred mountain and meet the gods. I’m thinking Greek overtones to the setting, just humans, no magic that you can use.” “The Orcs have banded together and only one undermanned fort stands between civilization and ruin as effete nobles play at politics and ignore their onrushing doom.” More detail, but you’re setting up some idea of what the game’s about. Players can and should jump in: “I’d really love to play a demagogue trying to topple the monarchy in favor of a republic!” “What if the fort’s supposed to be jointly held by Men and Elves, but the Men aren’t showing up and the Elves are about ready to give up on humanity in disgust?” Once you’ve got a big picture, players write Beliefs. Some can be personal but at least one needs to tie in.

Then the GM runs some scenes that push players’ Beliefs. Players will update their Beliefs to be about the new situation. The GM hits those. There’s a constantly evolving interplay. Players say what they’d like to pursue in their Beliefs and the GM runs with it to give them fodder for more Beliefs or make them struggle with the ones they have.

If you just throw a situation at the party mid-game they may not care. That’s fine; you drop it. Go with what their Beliefs are about, not what you’d like them to make Beliefs about. What Beliefs do they have now and how can you tie the plot you’re interested in running in with those? For splitting the party, I’d suggest encouraging players, especially for a new group, to try to cooperate on Beliefs that interlock so they can pursue them at the same time. And sometimes you have to give up the spotlight for someone else. But remember it’s also your job to make sure the situation is relevant to as many of their Beliefs as possible. If one has a Belief about fighting Orcs, one wants to prove his loyalty to his liege lord, one wants to find a lost treasure, and one wants to prove her brother’s innocence… you maneuver them into circumstances where the liege’s interests are protected by recovering a treasure from ruins overrun by Orcs. Maybe you can’t tie innocence in. Does she have a Belief about duty? Helping her friends? Find another Belief. Make everyone feel like their characters have something at stake!

Edit: The most helpful thing you can give us is what the characters’ Beliefs are right now.

I think I’d answer not really to both questions. I’m still in the dark about whether the characters really care about getting to the bottom of this attack. More to the point, I’m confused about whether the players really care about this as well.

It feels like you’ve prepared an adventure out in Dragonridge so you want the players to write beliefs that get the characters out there. Is that vaguely in the ballpark?

Yes the dragonridge is where i want the adventure to happen. Is that the situation that they should form beliefs about?
More on the setting:
Peragion is a country not very different from westeros. Not long ago a comet appeared in the sky as a message of change. Some weeks ago the king was murdered, different factions are struggeling for the throne and the players have been selected by the gods to save the country in the coming dark age.
“The forth expedition to the dragonridge seems to be having something to do with the attack on the Princess. They also seem to be affected by or using black magic…”

I will come back with the player beliefs soon.

Okay, that’s a terrific set up. I’m assuming the players had little to do with establishing any of that stuff, which is okay. I like everyone to sit around in a character and situation creation session so that everything comes to life organically, but it doesn’t have to be done that way.

But, but, but, the focus of play needs to center around the PC’s Beliefs. The princess is only useful to you in so far as you can use her to challenge or inspire their beliefs. The expedition is only a Thing to the extent that you make it fit into the world created by the Beliefs that end up on the Character sheets. It’s not your job to create a thing that can be revealed to them, or that they can investigate. Those things are fine, but your primary job is to make a thing that stands either in opposition to, or in support of, the Beliefs that drive the characters. So, when the PCs pursue their beliefs they run smack into your stuff and if they don’t pursue their beliefs, your stuff runs smack into them.

Here’s a thought experiment. What is the Princess’ Belief?

Edit: I do realize my tone can get strident at times. Please keep always in mind that you’re talking to a crazy person, who has spent way too much time thinking about this stuff.