Character driven play

Hi there!

I am about to start a campaign with the BWG rules. My ambition is for the campaign to be as open and character driven as possible, without any pre-planned main plot.

I fear, however, that the players, being used to railroaded campaigns, will look to me for a grand storyline. Or that they will expect me to throw them quests to complete. I also fear that I, unconsciously, will encourage this.

Do you have any advice on how to avoid this? I am aware that this is a huge question, but I really don’t want this campaign to become the usual railroaded affair where the GM provides 99% of the content.

Thanks in advance!

  1. If you tailor quests aimed at their BITs that is still character driven. Are you maybe muddling character driven and player driven?
  2. Do not sit at the “head of the table”. I am very serious here, change where you are sitting. To change your mindset and theirs. Go ahead and tell them this, that you expect them to use their characters to drive things.
  3. Silently stare at them till they do something. This is mostly serious. :slight_smile: Become comfortable with the dead air of nobody/nothing happening. If you want the players to do something you need to give them room to do it. So fight your urge to take control and fill up that dead air.

Have you gotten together with them to brainstorm the setting yet?

from the few times that we have ran burning wheel I can tell you that the brainstorming session is the probably the most crucial for fostering this style of gameplay.

what I do is I come up with a series of different pitches, I personally like one for each of the major races and then one that is kind of a free for all pitch. this way the players can choose which one that most appeals to them. I have seen a lot of times that 2 or 3 of your pitches merge into one story and then off you are running.

also it may sound funny but if you have a laptop or a recording device record at least the brain storming session. it will save you a ton of time on note taking cause you can go back and listen to it before prepping for the next session. plus you can hear what the players did not really care for in the last session. At least that has helped me and my group with this style of game play.

I don’t think sitting there silently is a good way to accomplish anything. You’re trying to play a fun game here, so you gotta teach others how to play it.

Best thing to do is to really brainstorm those Beliefs together, and as you do so, tell the players that whatever they pick for their Beliefs will be what the story is about. Once the story starts, continually ask the players, “What do you want to do?” You’re asking them for their intent here, so if they declare they want to do something other than follow their beliefs, make sure you bring this to their attention. Eventually they will catch the hint.

And don’t forget, you are the only one with the power to start a scene. You can set those scenes up to fire off their beliefs. Don’t worry about railroading – it’s what they asked for.

You will need an immediate situation at hand because beliefs drive play. Let the layers make suggestions until there is a situation you can work with.

“Character driven play” is one of those terms that makes me start getting concerned. It’s true Burning Wheel characters drive play, but often there’s a hidden assumption by the GM when they bandy this term about that GMing burning wheel is reactionary and the GM doesn’t do anything except respond to what the players do. Nothing could be further from the truth. The players have painted big targets on their characters in the form of Beliefs and Instincts that tell you what they’re about. As a GM, you’re honor bound to hit them there. Build NPCs tailor made to hit them. Build NPCs that want things from them that run counter to their beliefs. Build NPCs that want things from them that put one character’s beliefs in opposition to another. Build NPCs that want them to follow their beliefs into places they never wanted to go. Play those NPCs to the hilt. Bring the adversity.

To quote the Good Book:

The GM controls the flow and pacing of the game. He has the power to begin and end scenes, to present challenges and instigate conflicts (Page 551).

Burning Wheel is a character driven game. It’s inescapable; it’s how you play the game.
To demonstrate this, you should give them a quest. The trick is, don’t tell them that the outcome of the quest is determined by their actions. It’s not so much about what they do, but how they do it.

The first step, though, is to give them a clear goal to fight for. Once they get rolling, you can start challenging their Beliefs in ways they don’t anticipate.


All right, thanks a lot for the advice everyone!

I think I’m just concerned that my players will ignore their BITs and just chase after whatever they think is the “main plot” and try and guess what I (as the GM) want them to do.

At least that is how things have gone in my previous campaign, albeit with other sets of rules. They try to do “the right thing” and win the story rather than play their characters.

Hopefully, the BITs and some brainstorming will do the trick!

Here’s the problem: in BW, players don’t make the story. They make characters with BITs, and those BITs tell you, the GM, what the story has to be about and has to include. Not explicitly, but you’re given the framework upon which to build your story. It’s your job to make the main plot about those BITs, or the steps of accomplishing the main plot about those BITs, so that pursuing the main plot and pursuing characterization are one and the same.

If they are not, and if you find the players chasing some perceived plot over their characters, take a time out and go over what’s going on. It may be what interests them as players isn’t what you (or they!) expected. Write new beliefs and instincts that are relevant and go from there.

You can run quite a “traditional” game with BW, and I’d recommend it for new players. Sandboxes are hard and not especially better in any way. Give them a plot, get their buy-in, and get them to make characters that also care about the plot and everything will chug along smoothly.

Have you seen Fuseboy’s “Situation Burner” ( in Gold Sparks? I think the Situation is a great way to frame the story and to ensure that you have a party that’s going to be trying to accomplish something together. You can work with the players and come up with the situation together by having everybody throw ideas out until one sticks and everybody gets excited about it. Then everyone knows that the princess has fled her wedding to Prince Humpalot and everyone from her worried father the King to sinister foreign agents and cultists are looking for her, and that the players are going to play (a peasant family sheltering the princess) (an ambitious knight and his retinue looking to profit from the situation) (the princess, her nanny, and her secret lover) (the king and his court) or whatever. The players still drive the plot - there’s no bearded man in a tavern that hires them to clear out the keep on the borderlands - but everybody knows what the central conflict is. Conflict is important, and the lack of it can kill “sandbox” games.

I disagree, Dean. You can frame a scene, or you can ask players to frame a scene, and there’s a certain momentum either way. If you frame a scene and threaten a belief you put the characters on the back foot - they’re fighting to defend their interests (or reconcile their beliefs) in the face of something pressing them. And that’s awesome conflict. But you can do it the other way, too. If you ask the players to frame the scene they’re pressing forward and putting the antagonists on the back foot, actively going after what they want, and the game master is reacting. I think the best games are mixes of the two.

The key part that you miss is “…till they do something”. Also, “…mostly [serious]”. If you do not give them time to come up with something to fill the dead air then most people that are used to heavy GM control and characters that are added to a setting are quite likely to continue in past patterns. Because you are telling them to. shrug


And don’t forget, you are the only one with the power to start a scene. You can set those scenes up to fire off their beliefs.

The GM is the one with the final authority on a new scene. BUT (and it is an enormous BUT) players are very much expected to initiate action, with a scene change (or scene initiation) flowing naturally from that.

So to STFU (after clear prompting) and staring at them till the uncomfortableness of dead air spurs them into action is a VERY effective way to draw the players into active participation. At least ones that there is any chance of it (and you really need just one to set the example for the others). EDIT2: Give tips like “if you are not sure what to do next, the answer is on your character sheet”.

Sure it feels sort of slow at the start. Definitely different. But it is an investment with the RIO payout coming pretty quick, in the same way that character burning is upfront investment that pays out to faster play in short order.

I disagree, Dean. You can frame a scene, or you can ask players to frame a scene, and there’s a certain momentum either way. If you frame a scene and threaten a belief you put the characters on the back foot - they’re fighting to defend their interests (or reconcile their beliefs) in the face of something pressing them. And that’s awesome conflict. But you can do it the other way, too. If you ask the players to frame the scene they’re pressing forward and putting the antagonists on the back foot, actively going after what they want, and the game master is reacting. I think the best games are mixes of the two.

I agree, Ten. Asking the players to frame the scene is basically what I meant when I suggested a GM should be frequently asking the players what they want to do next. You are asking them what the next scene will be. They decide, and then you ask them to embellish with more details. Same thing as letting them frame the scene.

EXCEPT that the GM has more say in the matter. The GM has to look for ways to bring the situation down into the dice. The players should be doing this too, but the GM has to do this. And the GM has veto power if the player uses too much artistic lisense in their descriptions. There’s a difference between the GM and the players when it comes to scene framing. And sometimes the GM really does have to step it up and push towards a scene they have in mind… Example from yesterday’s game session: Gm-What do you want to do next? Player-I go home. O.O

Good luck, Oolaa!

The wonderful thing about BW is that the “main plot” and their BITs should be one and the same. If they don’t have BITs dealing directly with the plot, something went wrong in the brainstorming/campaign burning. Go back and address this issue immediately, should it arise.

All right, after reading through your advice and checking out the campaign burner I’m starting to get an idea of how to approach the game.

Are there any other articles or resources that deal with campaign burning or the first brainstorming session?

Character driven =/= player driven.

You, the GM, are a player. You are supposed to drive the story forward when they fail their rolls. They move the story forward when they are successful fighting for what they believe (or what their characters believe). But you are playing too. Never ask for a die roll if you don’t want them to fail.

First you need a Situation. A Situation could be like a Quest, but can be another thing entirely. Then you and your friends write Beliefs for the main characters around that Situation. (The King is dead. There are wolves attacking the people of the village. Someone is missing. Etc.)

As a GM, ask a lot of questions. When they look at you, waiting for you to tell them what to do, ask them. Be an active participant, but be prepare to be also a spectator. (Because you are asking a lot of questions and they are describing their surroundings, painting a picture of their world for you and the rest of the players.)

And, of course, share this that you have said to us with them too. They should know what you expect to get from the game. They can not play the game properly if they don’t know the rules.

Thanks for your reply!

  1. There is one thing that I can’t seem to get a hang of: should the GM only drive the story forward when the characters fail die rolls? Should a GM avoid setting scenes until the characters fail?

  2. We had a brainstorming session this evening and we came up with this old norse setting. The players will be a jarl and his court. They will be competing with other jarls for the custodianship of some sacred ruins. They have to prove their worth to the king before the winter solstice. I think this will give the players the opportunity to approach this situation in many different ways. I will encourage them to write beliefs that tie into this great competition.

Do you think the situation has potential, and do you have any advice I can forward to the players when they write their beliefs?

Thanks in advance!

No no. You should setting scenes, I think. But the other players can stop you. They can put their characters in the way of your own characters. For example, there may be a plot to kill the king, but if they know (if the playes know) they can try to do something about it (even if the characters don’t know anything about it yet). You, as a player of the game, have plans for the king. You want him dead. But if the players destroy your plans (if the king is saved) you have to go with it. But, if they fail, your characters can continue their sinister plans. Of course, not every situation has to work this way.

I like the Situation. There is a lot of room for Beliefs there. One character could have one or more Beliefs about the ruins (the land of his ancestors, perhaps?). Another about prove his worth to the king. Another one about defeat a log time enemy jarl. Another could be loyal to another player character. Etc.

The big problem my campaign’s been suffering from is a lack of focus. Our initial situation was kind of blah, in that there was no urgency and the players, despite discussing it beforehand, didn’t ultimately seem all that interested. (Actually, they shot down all the things I wanted to throw in that I thought would add interesting conflict and urgency, so go figure. In retrospect, I should have put my foot down more. I’m the GM, gorramit!)
So that situation seems potentially like a good one, but don’t make the mistake we made - make sure it’s personal! Everyone at the table should have an immediate reason to care about those ruins. Not just the characters, but the players! And as the GM, don’t just sit back and let them do whatever - put the pressure on them!

I would definitely have put my foot down…in demanding that they come up with Beliefs they actually gave a damn about (or at least clarified the ones they had).