Burning wheel onboarding advice seems conflicted, and onboarding seems hard

I’ve played and run rpg’s for a few years now. I’ve played some D&D 5e, 3.5(just a little), and some Pathfinder. I’ve been trying to find other/better systems, but I’ve had trouble. There’s a lot that goes into it, but a lot of the things I’ve long heard people talk about wanting, a lot of the things I want, all seemed to kind of click into place when I read burning wheel.

BITs at the core is amazing. Taking character motivation first seems to allow for a lot of the characters and stories I’ve wanted to allow in rpg’s to thrive. For example, the idea of a paladin is often driven by their beliefs, instincts, and traits in a way that I feel if not character driven, is hard to portray or play in a game(unless the “campaign” is built specificially around them). Allowing buy in in this way also seems solid for understanding if a game is viable/will be enjoyable, but also keep the game moving forward. I also love how fulfilling BITs is a good barometer for success, and is rewarded. Instincts seem like a very awesome way to allow people to portray themselves in ways that it’s easy to forget to explicitly mention(or would be boring to mention ahead of time). Traits, well traits are just a nifty bonus.

I really love the simple resolution mechanics, and how Intent and Task both seem to encourage pushing for rolls, but also seems to provide a solid framework around thinking about role playing, but also getting better outcomes. I like how money and connections are pushed to rolls rather then being handled by tedius bookeeping or gm fiat. I like how burning wheel acknowledges rolling in a meta sense. I really like how the more complicated rules are just extensions of simpler rules in interesting and dynamic ways(although some of the complicated ones feel like a bit much at first).

Character building, I could take or leave, but I struggle to imagine running BW without it. I have avoided/had trouble thinking about games like FATE because I think coming up with a balanced set of skills seems difficult, but the list in burning wheel often feels like a bit much. I’ve seen people frustrated at both feelings of how not varied stats are to start(especially abilities), how the 1/2 point problem still exists to a large degree for abilities. I’ve experience some frustration with how long it takes to nail down and explain the mechanical side of building characters(you know, everything that’s not bits) to actual players.

I havn’t played that much(I’ve run trouble in hochen once, and also did a burning session that resulted in…well a lot of problems), but I also have a little bit of concerns with how it runs over longer periods of time, how the mechanics feel in both short and long periods, but also whether things would “go off the rails” at some point for me like some other systems tend to do(although magic seems more interesting/better then other places).

So to get into my point, after droning on and on(I’m sorry). I don’t understand the advice I’m given often for teaching burning wheel. It’s said at various points to run only humans and avoid magic, but the often advised starting points (hochen and the sword), contain all of these things. I’ve also tried to tell people that to start off, but they run straight to magic and non-human characters. I’m also confused by how the default material heavily guides to “just use intent and task, and save the complicated rules for later”, but hochen and the sword both shove you straight into attempting more complicated rules. Given that I feel the strongest part of the game is BITs, it also seems weird to not focus more on building bits, especially in a way that garners the same buy in that you want from a full game. Sure hochen has some of it, but it feels a bit muted.

All together, the rules just seem a lot to onboard people into. I may be passionate(I have jokingly personal referred to the book as “the gospel of crane”) , but I think it’s hard to get other people as passionate as I get to read a 600 page book, or even just the hub and spokes, and even then you might miss a lot of the rational/understanding that either I pulled out of it, or that I got out of the codex. Actually running the game, well, there doesn’t seem to be a way to gradually bring people in, let people wade a bit in comfort before moving on, to ease people more into the rules that are…less important and push them head first into the most important parts. I also have trouble remembering all the things without the ingraining you get from running it a lot/even a little(it’s been months since I ran the demo games), and lack some of the confidence to run the game.

I’ve tried to think about ideas of how to ease people in slower, while still allowing the same amount of player choice/buy in that exists in the full rules. Like trying to combine character burning with actual play? Trying to “unlock” rules as time goes on like a “legacy” game? Somehow run some simplified version of burning?(although I’d have no idea how to balance that, and I’d have fears of making an awkward and bad system). But I’ve had trouble figuring out how to do stuff like that, and whenever I talk about the idea, people just tell me to run “the sword” or “trouble in hochen”.

I guess this is one part feedback, and one part question. Do y’all have any advice on these concerns or thoughts? What have you said or done to inspire people about the game? Do y’all have easier methods to onboard people or deal with early times problems? Do you have any advice to gain confidence running the game(especially as that’s probably the only way I’m playing any game for a while at least)?

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You could take the complex mechanics out of a pre-written scenario. Instead of a Duel of Wits/Range&Cover/Fight use linked tests. To further adjust complexity, you could either set an Ob to succeed or have extra successes be extra results; or set the Ob using versus.

For example: instead of doing an argument in a king’s court using Duel of Wits, have a linked {Topic} skill and {Talking} skill to prepare and deliver an argument for each side with success being get your purpose but have to compromise heavily, success over going toward not compromising, and four time opponent’s successes being everything you wanted.

Remember, BW is about challenging and portraying BITs not being “balanced”, so deciding to use a different mechanic from the one that a scenario writer has put in doesn’t violate any contract with the players.

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Burning Wheel onboarding is hard, you are not imagining that. If you are aiming to do anything beyond the lifepaths and implied setting provided in the book, you need to have someone who understands the rules thoroughly before you can truly expand on it. The setting is very “there” for a book with no explicit setting. That’s a big part of its charm.

My best advice to you is to start with Torchbearer. Burning Wheel will make way more sense after.

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I’ve thought about that, but I don’t really get the turn thing(with mousguard either), and they don’t really contain some of the core things that interested me in burning wheel.

My concern being if at some point the rules stop helping me, and start no longer forming the goodness that helped me earlier, then it’s a bad place to be in. Or if players end up, say, only using one skill, or not understanding or being frustrated in their set of skills, that’s also a weird hard place. The point being, I think there’s still a lot of room for possible weird unfunness?

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My bad: I meant, you don’t need to use a chunk of the rules just because someone else has decided they would use that chunk for a particular thing; so you can get a campaign for new players going by replacing the very complex rules with something less complex. That way they get to see how, for example, BITs is a really powerful way to reward character without having to struggle with scripting Fight volleys as well.

Application of skills is another thing you can apply on a sliding scale to get players onboard with the fun without worrying about system mastery: for example, say you’re going to be generous with what you allow players to fork/help with to begin with, so a character not having a high level in the perfect skill isn’t limiting.

Also, I haven’t found being unskilled to be that limiting. In last Sunday’s session, I was happy enough to risk making doing the critical roll in a Duel of Wits unskilled without using Artha and succeeded because forks and helping really make a difference.

Being unskilled can even shape character and strategy: my character’s approach to problems is partly shaped by him wanting to open Scavenging, so he’s got a lot of things he’s cobbled together from stuff he found rather than buying and has risked getting arrested/attacked because someone else might claim ownership of some junk he picked up.

If you’re still worried, make the cost of failure getting the intent but with complications linked to someone’s BITs (e.g. if a player is negotiating a contract to take some stuff somewhere and has “agreeable” as a trait, then have them make a deal take the NPCs word all the duties have been paid then realise in transit they can’t prove it: they can still get the profit if they come up with a way around the issue but an ordinary courier job has become characterful because of BITs).

So, as long as your players are there for the character-driven drama rather than “winning”, you can adjust or omit chunks of rules until they have the basics down.

To avoid any misunderstandings later, I’d suggest stating at the start “I’m not using these rules to begin with and I’m going to be generous with skill application for the first X sessions”, so your players know you’ve simplified to begin with rather than expecting those will be the rules forever.

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Good advice above. One thing I wish I had access to when I started on Burning Wheel that might have helped is recorded examples of actual play. I think the Roll20 Burning Wheel series is quite good and shows some experienced players and some new players. They also hold off on more complex subsystems for a long time.

I personally found the premade adventures to be much less fun than something we set-up ourselves (since player investment in characters is something that really makes Burning Wheel hum) but I can see them being useful for exposure to the rules.

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On-boarding is a about engendering enthusiasm. If you’re trying to get players on-board for certain constraints, you gotta get them enthused about those constraints. It seems like you’re trying to get them enthused for a campaign, so… What’s the campaign? What’s the “Big Idea” and Situation (that involves only mundane humans) that I’m gonna be excited to explore? Tell me about that rather than telling me what I can’t do.

If you don’t have a concept for the campaign, you might consider consulting the Codex and/or (emphasis on the ‘and’) brainstorming with folks here on the forum.

As for Hochen and The Sword, consider that those (especially The Sword) are primers that aren’t necessarily meant to survive one session or two. Them having those peskier advanced issues may not be such a problem for a disposable test run. To bring them back into the notion of on-boarding, why are you excited to run either of those? The Sword is about the Duel of Wits; if you’re excited to run The Sword, you gotta be excited for the Duel of Wits (or be willing to cut the core out, replace it, and stitch the new abomination back together). By contrast, Hochen is a paranormal investigation; it’s less system demo and more standard adventure module. If you wanted to do Hochen without magic, you could. I would probably run it as a lower case ‘spooky’ cult investigation with maybe some insurrectionist angles to replace the mystical ones. (Now we’re brainstorming campaign ideas.)

Either way, consider that Hochen and The Sword were written by the folks at HQ, while there may still include some challenges for running those games (though, The Sword is pretty straightforward about what the challenge is, so you can prepare yourself), the advice for burning your first campaign need not apply; these certainly weren’t Luke’s first adventures.

TL;DR: If you’re having trouble getting excited for your campaign idea, make sure YOU are excited for your campaign idea. If you aren’t, find an idea to get excited about and run that instead.

I guess I should be more specific about my concerns or balance and “culturing fun”.

When I look at the skill list (or basically, the list of things that can have numbers), we have a lot of skills that have more obvious uses and values (like say, health, or persuasion) either because of their broad name/domain(say persuasion vs the persuasion that’s limited to clerical types of dialogue), or their applicability to more advanced, or core systems(wounds are pretty core, and persuasion is one of the more broadly applicable Duel of wits skills). I worry here that by straying from lp builds, I might expose(or prematurely expose) characters to problems. These problems could be things like characters having skills that the player has trouble applying to what they want to do or the situation that exists, or players reaching levels of skills that become hard to effectively challenge in any sense(and one of my personal goals is to "keep dice as part of the contract for role-playing/not devolve to pure gm fiat in any way).

Because of that, I’m inclined to go pretty close to the book for character building, but in doing so you quickly expose players to the most nasty part(imo) or the book, which is the general skill list, the general traits list, and just a lot of minutia, and moreso, a level of decision paralysis that distracts players from chosing with any degree of speed and distracts them from the more important parts of character building. And while it love to say “let’s start with just bits and a concept and then go straight into the actual flow of play” it’s rather awkward to try and start at that, you don’t have all the pieces to make that work.

Tbh, the two most important things I want to present are character driven play(which I see driven out and expressed by bits), and the intent->task loop that I’ve felt a certain amount of personal happiness with, but I feel drives out a lot of other positive outcomes. I like all the other stuff burning wheel provides, but I have trouble trying to pull out those things to start while bringing in as little of the other parts as possible (while leaving room to bring them in). Not just because I think it lowers onboarding costs(and allows them to expirence those two most important cores first and as soon as possible), but also because I feel a certain amount of difficulty in running those other systems(and even understanding some of those systems). Especially some of the magic ones, and fight.(I prefer dual of wits to a large degree at the moment as to exposing higher more detailed systems, both because of its simplicity, but also it’s uniqueness).

I want to run things well, and sell burning wheel, but when I try and explain things I often feel faced with the insurmountable mountain of onboarding with no good feeling quick path to the more important bits. My hope is a lot or the stuff I like gets expressed well once actual play starts, but how do I get there quickly without sacraficing the stuff that makes it actually work?(or at least, in some mental framework that doesn’t make me or my players mentally confused or nervous)

I hope that all makes sense?

This is where the synergy between BITs and plot potentially helps: a character’s Beliefs describe some of what the player wants challenged in the session (or at least they should). So, if you have players only update their beliefs at the end of a session then you have the gap between sessions to plan the next session with challenges that can be overcome with cunning use of available skills.

So, for example, if a player has the belief “send my beloved a poem” but has no Poetry, you could include an NPC poet who lurches out of an alley way, grabs the character, and tells them he’ll do anything if they save him; which changes “my character doesn’t have the right skill” to “I have a choice between testing unskilled and getting my character tied up in a potentially complex situation”.

Always falling back on a roll is a solid approach to BW.

Try creating situations in which the brilliant skill doesn’t help or is opposed by plausible circumstances.

For example, if a character has a really high Persuade, have an honest guard interupt them at a key moment because they’ve been accused of a crime; the character might be able to easily persuade them it’s a mistake, but because he’s honest he still wants to take them to the watchhouse to take a statement because that’s what the law says happens in this situation.

Or have a watchman try to stop them while they are trailing someone through the city. They might have the Persuade to deal with the conversation without getting arrested, but all the police officers I know view someone who seems in a hurry to leave as suspicious, so there could be significant Ob penalties to persuading the watchman fast enough to not lose sight of the person they are trailing.

In my experience, skills &c. have a soft cap anyway: once a skill is high it only advances from difficult and challenging tests; which are harder to get the higher a skill is.

I love the way the Character Burner works: it’s how I ended up with a noble who is great a gossiping and making candles but can’t read, write, or deliver stirring speeches. However, I agree it isn’t swift compared to other systems unless one already has the BW mindset.

Making the most of Character Burner requires someone who is familiar with the LPs so they can guide other people into more interesting routes between points. So, I’d suggest generating a lot of characters yourself before doing CharGen with players, so you understand how it flows and how early steps knock onto late ones (e.g. choices about equipment and personal connections driving Resources).

One way around decision paralysis is to declare you’ll be having a very early trait vote: if players know they can get more traits in X sessions time, they don’t have to agonise over whether not having a trait from the start will really limit the character. As the traits a character gets/loses from a vote are going to be based on the BITs they’ve set, then it is a form of starting with BITs and a concept and going into play.

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My group jumped from D&D5e to BW a few months ago, and had to deal with all of this. It took maybe 5 or so sessions for everyone to fully get into the mindset of the new system and to understand how the rules worked, but everyone stuck through it.

One thing that definitely helped was printing reference sheets. We printed a bunch of extra papers, covering stuff from treatment and recovery to advancement tables, just so that we could refer to those really quickly.

Additionally, while we skipped the full character burning system for the campaign in favor of more accurately recreating our characters, we first ran a one-shot where the player that had read the most about the system GM’d. This happened to be me, rather than our usual GM, and it allowed me to take the entire group through regular character creation and introduce the underlying mechanics in a setting where the group could experiment with the system.

I took them all through character creation, one step at a time, which took about 2-3 hours. Then, we had enough time to play through a quick scenario that I totally didn’t borrow from the codex, where I explained intent and task and other core concepts within the context of the game. I avoided going into more complex systems like fight. Basically, a live example where the players themselves can experience how things work and ask questions.

The advice presented on page 12 of the codex is also very sound. Getting everyone to agree to fully trying out the system for a handful of sessions before judging it is important if you want to get people into the system.

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I run one shots for random strangers online, targeted at inexperienced players, every week.

I think the choice of optional subsystems used depends on both the experience of the players (beginners in this case) and the GM. A highly experienced GM who’s been GMing BW for years and years (which I am not) may be able to whip out Fight! in The Sword for rank beginners and be just fine, but it’s perfectly ok to not use them. I use DoW with people who’ve never played, I don’t use Fight! or R&C (I can’t get them through it fast enough to reasonably fit in the session).

I absolutely would build things up in layers to introduce your group, something along the lines of:
Core
Core+DoW
Core+DoW+Circles
Core+DoW+Circles+Resources
Core+DoW+Circles+Resources+Character Burning
Core+DoW+Circles+Resources+Character Burning+Fight!
…you get the concept.

I guess I should be more specific about my concerns…

Possibly you are somewhat like myself, over-analysing and overthinking it in advance. What I have found in the last year or so while learning TB and BW (go see my huge lists of TB question in these forums), is that your concerns about BWHQ games, while perfectly valid and logical in theory, will in fact turn out to not actually be problems of any significance, or will be something that virtually never actually happens.

All you need to do is remember the core rules, and the core concepts (intent&task, etc), and if you have those you’ll be just fine for anything that happens - you can always fall back on these. Even when you’re onboarding other people.

how do I get there quickly without sacraficing the stuff that makes it actually work?

Depending of course on what you mean by “quickly” the answer is probably “you don’t”. You give them a taste of the core rules, and if they like those you ask for a bit more commitment, and build up from there.
The game runs just fine in the short term without using anything but the core rules.

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I think the biggest thing to grok about character burning in BW is that it purposefully doesn’t give you everything you want or gives you things you don’t want in order to provide hooks upon which to hang beliefs, instincts, situations, etc.

Also, don’t get hung up on the skill list too much. Skills are very fluid in BW given how advancement works, and “balance” is not a concern like it is in other games. Because of the way the core gameplay and reward loops work, it’s pretty much self-balancing from a DnD or d20 system perspective. Let your players min-max and power-game as much as they want, at the end of the day if you’re focusing on BITs and tightly focusing the game on scenes and situations that challenge or involve BITs, the game will hum. Just make sure that each players’ time in the spotlight is balanced and no single player is dominating the table.

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It depends on the stated intent. If it was just ‘convince the guard I made an honest mistake’, sure. If it was to ‘convince the guard to let me go’ and the player rolls successfully, the character gets away.

If the GM in this instance wants to make it hard for this player, they should give the guard a decent Will or Interrogation, apply appropriate modifiers for how ‘red handed’ the culprit was caught, and give the guard a call on trait of ‘Follows the letter of the law’.

Intent is definitely all: what I was trying (and flailing) to express was that even a successful Persuade might not solve the entire problem. So, the player beats the Ob and is released, but that doesn’t mean it’s all gone away; perhaps the guard mentions it to others so now the character has a genuine “fleeing the law” warrant out for them.

Of course a player can give an intent of “convince the guard to let me go and consider me an upstanding citizen who they don’t investigate later, fast enough that I’m not delayed in what I was doing”, but the GM can rightly give that a very high Ob, or potentially even veto it.

Which is where you could get players to broaden their skill usage: for example, Persuasion (fork Law-wise) doesn’t work for the intent of “not going back to the watch house with the guard and not arousing suspicion” but Law-wise fork Persuasion does because the ‘majority’ of convincing an honest guard not to do something is showing why the law doesn’t require it rather than showing how it benefits him.

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You expressed it well. I just wanted to remind OP that a ‘successful roll is sacrosanct in Burning Wheel and neither GM nor other players can change the fact that the act was successful’.

Exactly. Though a player with a high persuade might well do this if they were trying to get a challenging or difficult test. Which means they may well fail it.

Beware about forking when rolling beginner’s luck, because forks don’t apply there, as far as I know.

The rules on Exponent 0 (BWG, p37) do state that if a skill is currently 0 you can’t fork into it.

However, the rules of Beginner’s Luck (BWG, p37) say that if you don’t have a skill you can test using a stat instead, and don’t mention not being able to fork.

So, my interpretation is that a Beginner’s Luck test is a stat test not a skill test with Exponent 0; and thus one can fork into it. However, I can see the argument for saying if you don’t have the skill you can’t fork.

Per pg 36, FoRKs can be used “when testing a skill”. Beginner’s Luck allows you to test a Stat, which would make it ineligible for FoRKs.

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I used to allow it too, until I read otherwise from Luke itself: https://www.reddit.com/r/BurningWheel/comments/6fgndv/i_allow_players_to_fork_into_beginners_luck_tests/
Although it’s true it should be more clearly stated in the book.

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Back on the topic, what’s worked for me was not to allow players to freely peruse through the book for skills and traits, as that only confused them. I ask and suggest those things to players. Having a bit of experience with the system, I can help them get their concept done, better than a big list. And it saves all of us some time, too.

Also, if you feel like it, you could make your own scenario and even create the Pcs for it, then players use them. That’s worked fine for me.

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