Circles is a PC ability, or hybrid player/PC ability?

I had been thinking of Circles as existing in both the PC and player space, that is either the PC (“I look for someone I know in the market”) or the player (“I need to coincidently run into someone right now, I’ll roll Circles”) could use it.

But looking at the codex I now think I’m wrong: circles is not an abstract process, PC can’t just wish or imagine up someone, they have to take action to justify a circles roll.

So I guess I can boil my question down to this: if I’m ostensibly alone in a vast desert, I can see flat unmarked sand for 20 miles in all directions around me, can I still circles someone up (albeit at a high ob)?

Depends on whether or not the GM feels that wandering through the desert is important.

You could be Indiana Jones, pulling a mystical coin out of a tomb. You look at the strange inscription and say “I don’t know what this means…I but I think I know someone who does.” Test Circles, draw a red line across the globe, and wind up in Nuremberg. Even if you fail the test, it’s only because the Nazi’s are already waiting for you.

OR, you could be a lone gunslinger, searching for someone who possesses the “Shine.” In this case, the GM may rule that it’s the desert who is your adversary - so long as you can cross it alive, you will have that fated meeting…but you can’t test your Circles until you’re out of it.

Basically, it’s all up to the tone and style you guys agreed on, and what the GM knows about this story and world.

Long story short, Circles is not a meta-ability - it requires action on the character’s part, but the nature of that action depends on your play-style and the GM’s vision.


There are many stories in fiction where the hero is found in the middle of a desert by a much-needed ally. It just hast to be a bit contextual, right? So I think, yes, it’s possible to have someone appear anywhere with a proper Circles test.


Wises specifically allow players to add something to the world because it’s convenient, so Circles allowing them to have their character and a useful NPC intersect without external “approval” is entirely in keeping with what Burning Wheel does/doesn’t care about playing out.

“Say Yes” could even be read to suggest a GM shouldn’t even require a Circles test if the alternative to a useful NPC happening to turn up is leaving a player to wander aimlessly rather than get to the plot.

As @SchoonerAskew indicates with “Nazis get there first”, the thing that matters isn’t whether players can summon up an NPC, it’s whether a roll drives a dramatic story forward.


Ah, well this is confusing.

Schooner effectively says no, you can’t just circles someone up in the desert, which matches my reading of the codex, but Peter and Dave say yes the player can use it to have someone turn up in the desert.

I was hoping there’d be consensus among experienced players…

Peter, Dave, would you justify the appearance of someone with character action in advance?
I.e. provide fictional cause that will afterwards justify the effect of someone being here before knowing whether or not you’ll find anyone?
Or do you say “the circles roll says someone’s here, so now let’s justify it after the fact with some fiction”?

I didn’t see my answer as contradicting Schooner. I see it as us both saying that a BW test moves the plot forward: if it succeeds, the player has advanced to the next dramatic step of their dramatic goals; if it fails, the player has a new dramatic challenge to overcome to achieve their dramatic goals.

Stripping away the subtlety, this could be expressed as Drama!.

Both having someone happen to crest a dune and having the player travel from the middle of the desert to Austria require suspension of belief: the first for the coincidence of the meeting, the second for the coincidence of avoiding all the vast risks without even needing to test. Where they might differ is in Ob, Forks, Consequences.

So, if a player wants someone to crest the dune because that’s what they think drives their plot forward, perhaps the Ob is high and the consequences are being captured by hostile tribespersons; whereas if they just say they want to find a person, the GM can choose where it happens depending on other things and perhaps have a lower Ob and less drastic consequence.

I see the “justification” of the person being available as a combination of Circlee qualities, Consequence, and “does it matter?”: what might go wrong defines at least one edge of what might go right, and for the rest does it matter why they are there?

For example, the player decides they want a hot-air balloonist in the middle of the desert, the GM could set the consequence of failure as “they’ve crashed and need help to repair the balloon”; moving forward to the point of having a working balloon somehow, the player wanted the balloonist to balloon not for backstory, so potentially the next step is “the balloonist floats you easily across the enemy tribe’s range and lands you on a plateau saving you weeks of dangerous travel” and the question of why their was a balloonist there isn’t actually relevant to the drama. If the players want that balloonist to be acting from particular reasons, then that’s likely to be part of the Ob of the Circles test, so if the backstory does matter, the players define how it matters.

Or to put it another way: if a game system can include dwarves using seduction to rob a dragon, it can include someone happening to ride over a dune at just the right moment.


Burning Wheel has various factors that are applied to Circle tests, depending on circumstances, etc.

I don’t have my book to hand at the moment (so I cannot confirm whether this is our table language or the book’s), but, at our table, we refer to the Ob penalties as for Occupation, Station, Disposition & Knowledge and Time & Place.

It’s possible that this last one (Time & Place), is what you’re running up against.

Assuming that this is not a “Say Yes” thing from the GM’s point of view, and they can see the potential for what you’re asking, you can then look at the factors.

Trying to find a trader in a market on market day? Probably no Time & Place factor.

I’m going to have to reach for my books when I get home and check page references and language, but the Time & Place factors are (roughly)

  • Doesn’t matter
  • Unusual for the character (+1-2 Ob)
  • Right here and now! (+3 Ob)

So, if it doesn’t matter when or where you find them, then you can potentially circle without the higher penalties and then, when you later get out of the desert / to the Lost City / do-the-world-map-and-red-line-thing, there they are.

If you desperately need your balloonist to turn up before you die of thirst, then that Time & Place might feel more important…


Grabbing the book off the shelf behind me, Page 381 suggests you have a freakishly good memory because that wording is almost exact. The only variation is that instead of an ! the final bracket says “in the middle of trouble”.

The example text includes having a rescuer turn up in the crowd at your execution, so, the Ob +3 bracket seems specifically designed for “unfeasibly avoiding death/maiming/similar”.

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Previously this is exactly as I’d understood it - you could meet someone in an empty desert, you just had to apply the +3 ob.

But this passage from the codex makes me think I was wrong:

Circles is not an abstract process. Your character is not simply wishing or hoping, summoning another being from the darkness of his or her mind. Circles, as an ability like any other, requires action on your character’s part.

So how do I reconcile this with finding someone in a trackless desert? Am I struggling with something that is clear to everyone else?

The codex seems pretty clear that Circles can’t be used just as a tool for the player alone, the player needs to do it through the character like any other ability, but I don’t think the character can do anything to justify circles making someone appear in the desert…

Apologies if I’m being unclear…I’m just trying to grok the unfamiliar. I’m writing as I think through it.

Is the answer to the dilemma in my head this:
“my character looks at the sand around him to see if there are any tracks visible”
or even just:
“I scan the horizon for any people”

Do either of these both satisfy what is in the codex and allow someone to be found in an empty desert?

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To my mind, you’re on the right track, @Ristomo!

What’s the character doing? Does it make sense in your setting?

Your two examples could work well for your game.

Think about:

  • who are you the player and you the character trying to circle?
  • why do you need to circle them?
  • how is the character doing this?
  • is it in setting?

For that last one, say you’re playing as Mark Watney from the book (by Andy Weir) / film “The Martian”. The whole premise is “you’re on Mars, there’s no one else on Mars”.

As such, “can I circle up some friends?” is a flat “no” (possibly accompanied by the GM saying “Mate mate, we agreed you were alone. Please stop taking the proverbial”).

Similarly, if you’ve already established in your game that there’s no one in your desert but you, then no Circles for you!

However, assuming that this is not the case, for your desert example, how could be:

  • As I need a trader, I’m building a large bonfire to attract them come nightfall, when I’ll be more visible to them.

  • As I want to find those bandits, I’m going to put on my finery and wave my jewellery about whilst yelling “What shall I do with these SACKS OF GOLD?”

  • I need rescuing from my own stupidity (as I’m stuck in a bloody desert), so I’m going to unpack my bolt of brilliant green silk and, keeping hold of one end, I’m going to let the wind blow it up and outwards like a flag / banner to attract attention.


I have a very similar question about circles. As a different example, what if there is, say, a group of thugs. They are effectively faceless NPCs, that is, their stories and names don’t matter (yet), only what they are doing right now. My character ends up in trouble with these thugs in a back alley.

Could I say something along the lines of “I know one of these people from way back when, he wouldn’t want to beat me up!” and make a circles test (probably with a decent obstacle penalty) to establish that? My character isn’t exactly taking an action to find someone, the people are already there, and it’s used more like a wise.

Enmity clause could of course be, say “oh yes, you do know him, but he really does want to beat you up… And in fact, it’s personal”.

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You can’t decide what someone’s going to do by circling him up, only what he is.

This was an entirely separate question from mine btw.

As for the actual finding, I think it’s similar to going to the marketplace to find someone - you’re looking for a familiar face in the crowd, the only difference is here the “crowd” is much smaller so the ob is higher.

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Ok, thanks guys for discussing it, the process has been very helpful, thanks @Mark_Watson, I think you’ve managed to convince/reassure me that my original position and my read on what the codex says aren’t mutually exclusive.

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The rule specifically says you can circle up a rescuer in the crowd at your execution, so you can circle up someone in the alley who wants to stop you getting beaten up at that point.

If you want to narrow that down so it’s a member of the gang rather than a passer-by, that’s where increasing the Ob would come in.

As @Ristomo says, you don’t get to define their demeanor beyond being a “rescuer” in some way. They could easily do it because they want you to do a dodgy job for them and think you’ll be less likely to fail if you can’t see out of one eye.

Yes, that is precisely what Circles is for. You’d take the “Right here, right now” obstacle penalty (+3). You could declare that the person is a friend or otherwise loyal to you and would want to help you (specific disposition, +3). Or you could state that you were on favorable terms the last time you saw them, but they don’t owe you anything (+1 Ob or +2 Ob; you’ll need to convince them to help, but will probably get advantage to do so). Or you could just bank on your past relationship to give you an opening (no obstacle change, but you’ll need to test to convince them to help you).

  No.  Well, wait.  This is 
  interesting.  Lando.

  Lando system?

  Lando's not a system, he's a man.
  Lando Calrissian.  He's a card 
  player, gambler, scoundrel.  You'd 
  like him.


  Bespin.  It's pretty far, but I 
  think we can make it.

  	(reading from the 
  A mining colony?

  Yeah, a Tibanna gas mine.  Lando 
  conned somebody out of it.  We 
  go back a long way, Lando and me.

  Can you trust him?

  No.  But he has no love for the
  Empire, I can tell you that.

The Circles ability exists to allow you to bring in NPCs from your character’s past. The more specific you are about who they are, what they know and how they feel about you, the higher the obstacle. After the roll, you and the GM fill in the details about your relationship.

The point of the Codex entry is simply that Circles is not divorced from intent and task. You need to justify in the fiction how you might know the person that you’re bringing in. You don’t need to fill in all the details before the roll. But you need enough to make the roll plausible. Otherwise no roll.


I don’t want to throw gas on the fire here, but the title of this thread is very provocative. So I am compelled to add: All abilities are “hybrid” abilities or even just player abilities. There are no characters but for the stories we tell afterwards.

Players operate these latent characters by making their intentions known, framing the action within a particular task and marrying that with the shared, agreed-upon current status of the world. The player’s goal with any role is to change the game state in the way they intend–usually in a fashion that is beneficial to their idea of their character.

It doesn’t matter if you’re testing Power or Circles, it’s all the same. All abilities are meta to one degree or another, used to get what you want. The limitation—in the sense that this is game with artificial constraints that make play unique and interesting—is that you must frame your desires in terms of your character’s actions and how they relate to the fictive world.


Ah, well it certainly wasn’t intended to be provocative at all - I just tried to boil down what I was wondering to a few words for the title.

I was originally wondering whether or not circles could be used without considering the PC (say while the PC is unconscious, to use an extreme example) - so I was going to title it “PC ability or player ability” but thought maybe I’d better change “player” to ‘hybrid’ seeing as the ability only exists on the PC sheet.

I don’t know if your post is merely simple basic rpg theory or something more Luke, but in either case it’s well beyond anything I’ve thought about.

I just wanted to know if I’d be “cheating” if I just decided that I want my character to randomly run into an NPC in an empty desert. (In a game I’m in my character recently ran into someone in a forest because I wanted an NPC to save his skin so rolled circles - I thought this was fine until I read the Codex, then got worried)

And now my understanding is that it’s not, providing I justify it with some fiction about how my character tries to make it happen.

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