Drifting Steel

NOTE: This thread has been necroed and is no longer current. I brought the thread back myself only to point out that my rules drift idea had been playtested and deemed broken. The thread might still be a good read for anybody who is thinking about modding the Steel mechanics, but please don’t post in this thread again. Make a new thread and link back to this one if you want. I’ll reply to it! I’ve since gone back to the core Steel rules, but I still have some issues with Steel, and would be happy to continue a discussion about it in another thread.

Here’s my proposal for how Steel might be modified to more well-suit a heroic campaign, while still keeping within the game’s tenets of Fighting for What you Believe. Note that the intent is not to remove or downplay Steel at all. The intent is to make Steel a viable mechanic for frequent use without having the story revolve around cowardly heroes, while still posing a real challenge to true heroes with high Steel. To tell a more heroic story than the usual Burning Wheel fare.

I’d appreciate feedback on this, as I am proposing it to my group for use in our current campaign. Critique, criticize, blame me, it’s all good. I can take it!

Also, there was a good discussion a year ago on the BW forum about this very same topic. Link’s below. I independently came to a lot of the same conclusions as in that thread, but I also take a new approach to how Hesitation should work.


Now, here we go:

Steel Tests

The Hesitation attribute is GONE. Bye-bye.

Steel tests use the Obs located on pages 364 - 365 of BWG for most tests. For example, “Weird, low-grade supernatural phenomena - Ob 1”, and “Witnessing real bloodshed and gore (a murder, a bloody accident) - Ob 3”. Etc.

Steel tests for taking a wound use the following Obs:

Ob 3 ~ Light
Ob 4 ~ Midi
Ob 5 ~ Severe
Ob 6 ~ Traumatic / Mortal

In the case of an ambush, the Steel test Ob versus Surprise is equal to the Margin of Failure (MoF) of the failed Observation versus Stealth test. For other cases of being surprised by mundane things, the Ob should fall between 1 and 4.

Failed Steel Tests

If a Steel test is failed outside of combat, the consequences are fairly open to interpretation. Task and Intent versus GM consequences can be used when appropriate, or you may choose from the list of Hesitation actions below to RP out.

If a Steel test is failed in combat, choose your form of Hesitation, using the rules below.

Hesitation Actions

If you fail a Steel test versus Pain, you may choose from any of the available hesitation options.

If you fail a Steel test versus Surprise, you may only choose from the following options: See Stars, Fall Prone and Beg for Mercy, Swoon, or Run Screaming.

If you fail a Steel test versus Fear, you may only choose from the following options: Fall Prone and Beg for Mercy, Swoon, or Run Screaming.

If you fail a Steel test versus Wonderment, you may only choose from the following options: Stand and Drool, Swoon, or Run Screaming.

Stand and Drool
= Steel test MoF, in actions
Permitted Actions: None permitted

See Stars
Hesitation = Steel test MoF, halved, in actions
Permitted Actions: None permitted

Stagger Around in Pain
= Steel test MoF in actions
Permitted Actions: Only defensive actions are permitted. Extra successes on a Block have no effect.

Fall Prone and Beg for Mercy
= Steel test MoF in actions, can continue longer if desired (see below)
Permitted Actions: You may make a Persuasion test to plead for your life. Your opponent is not under any obligation to spare you. However, you may not be attacked for a number of actions equal to the number of successes you rolled in excess of an attacker’s will. Any attack actions scripted against you during this period count instead as if the attacker was Standing and Drooling. Make the Persuasion test immediately upon hesitating, and keep the success dice in front of you to help you keep track, taking away one success per action. Note that pleading only works against sentient creatures capable of compassion.

Fall Prone Screaming in Pain
Hesitation = Steel test MoF in actions
Permitted Actions: You may turtle up in a ball and Block with a +1D bonus. Extra successes on a Block have no effect. No other actions are allowed.

= Steel test MoF, doubled, in actions, can continue longer if desired
Permitted Actions: You lose consciousness for a little while. You may not take any actions. If your failed Steel test was a result of a wound, however, roll the Die of Fate and subtract your total wound penalties from the value rolled. On a 1 or lower, you look like you’re dead to the passing eye. This doesn’t work if the wound was obviously non-life-threatening, such as a Light wound to the arm or something like that.

Run Screaming
= Steel test MoF in minutes
Permitted Actions: Drop what you’re holding and run away, screaming like a little girl. If you are in unfamiliar surroundings, you will be lost when you come back to your senses. Others can follow you, and multiple characters who fail Steel tests together can run away screaming together.

*** *** *** *** ***

That’s it.

In summary:

– You still roll Steel in all the normal cases. The Ob might be a bit lower than core BW sometimes, but it’ll be higher than usual at others. Hesitation will often be lower than core BW, but will sometimes be much higher.

– It still makes Steel tests important. You still have to Fight For What You Believe, and it’s still hard to do!

– Hesitation in fight scenes is more dramatic. You don’t just cower all the time. Now you can stagger around like a WWF wrestler, turtle up on the ground in agony, or bite the bullet and just stand there seeing stars. The decision of which form of hesitation to take is a strategic one, with each form having different hesitation times and even a few permissible actions. The goal is to emulate what happens on a real battlefield, and I think these options are more in line with reality than what is available under the core rules.

– It also introduces new strategies related to forcing Steel tests upon other characters. When ambushing an enemy, actions spent hesitating are usually lower than in the core rules. However, if you set up the ambush well, using lots of linked tests, helping dice, etc., you can raise the Ob of your enemy’s Steel test, giving you more of an edge in the combat. It’s less random, less based on the Steel attribute itself, and more based on using the Task and Intent system to its fullest. Spells and elf songs that cause fear or wonderment work similarly.

– Instead of just passing up those low Ob Steel tests and handing out free advancement tests for them, you now have the option to roll Steel for anything. This is possible using the core rules, but doesn’t happen as often. Core has the same Ob for little things as for big scary stuff, with only a handful of modifiers ranging from +1 to +4 Ob to make up the difference. Making players roll Steel for little stuff under the core rules kinda detracts from the feeling you get when you have to roll versus the big stuff. Now, with a range of Obs and hesitation options, it is more than possible, and makes big scary stuff REALLY scary. And little stuff, not so scary, but still might give you a pause.

What do you think?

Hi Dean,

I usually try not to comment in Spark threads, but I thought I’d share a few of thoughts about Steel in general:

  1. Steel keeps characters alive. High hesitation obstacles mean that characters tend to back out of a fight before they become seriously compromised. Screw with that and you may wind up with far more seriously wounded characters than you realize. Kublai plays a faithful character in our Burning THAC0 game. Once during a desperate fight he prayed for a miracle that allowed him to ignore wound penalties (and thus Steel tests) during the fight. He wound up with 4 Light wounds, 2 Midis and a Traumatic as a result. It can get really ugly.

  2. Generally, by the time characters can really back up being in a fight that dangerous, they have high steel and low hesitation anyway.

Out of curiosity, what Ob was that miracle? Sounds like it’s roughly the same as an Intervention, only it doesn’t actually take you out of harm’s way.

I tend to agree with Thor about Steel. One of the big problems I tend to have is remembering to hand out situational Steel tests. If you don’t do that, your characters will never advance their Steel, and they’ll always seem like wussbags. If you actually take the time to go over events every session and hand out the appropriate situational Steel tests, the characters will advance their Steel quite nicely.

I also second the “Steel keeps players alive” business. There are times where that Run Screaming hesitation has saved my bacon. Then you come back to that antagonist after you’ve beefed up, and you kick its ass!

If you want more “heroic” characters, I’d do it through traits. There are plenty of traits that reduce hesitation, and you can easily make a Call-On for Steel. Call it “Thrilling Heroics” or something: a Call-On for Steel when doing something heroic and arguably stupid. Or something like that.

Neat. Stagger Around in Pain is a neat option!

I generally prefer simpler with rules mods and I’d probably just do 2 things:

  1. Change the name of “Stand & Drool” to “Tense up and Glare” (because, that’s what heroes do when they hesitate)
  2. Make the players spend a Fate point if they want to Stagger Around in Pain, since it is a better option than running, fainting, or begging. Then it also gives them another reason to want to earn some extra Artha.
  3. Keep the Ob by wound type option. That’s pretty cool for hardened warriors. I’d also let people roll Faith (or Hate, or Grief) if it made sense in the moment.


Oh! Forgot to add that Steel tests should probably not be open-ended now.

Also, there should be some Ob penalties added to the wound Obs for people without combat experience. Getting a Light wound in your first fight is terrifying. Getting one in your 100th fight is just a matter of course. I’d say that the Ob penalty would no longer apply once you pass one of your high-Ob Steel tests in battle.

Hi Thor, thanks for replying. In response, ultimately, you’ve been playing (and working on) this game for far longer than I have, so of course I believe you. I also read through that entire afore-linked thread, and understand all the arguments in favor of Steel, and the philosophy behind why it’s a part of the Burning Wheel experience.

My stance is kind of a mixed one. I love the concept of Steel, and have no intention of removing it from my game. However, taking control of a PC away from the player is a very powerful effect, one that can be controversial and sometimes leads to bitterness. Furthermore, I don’t really agree that “all but the most exceptional are … cowards at their core,” to quote Luke himself. Maybe I have a more optimistic view of human nature, I dunno. I’d just like to tell stories with more bravery than cowardice.

Steel is not the only thing that keeps characters alive. The wound penalties are grim enough to dissuade staying in the fight once you get hurt. Poor player decisions to remain in losing battles is what makes characters die. You see it in every other RPG. Burning Wheel uses Steel to avoid this, but it can feel very forced at times.

I feel more apt to pause the RP for a moment and say, “Hey, if you don’t retreat next positioning test, the possibility is very high that your character will die. He knows that, he sees it coming as a looming sense of doom. Would you say that this fight is important enough to your character to risk dying, to confront death face to face, to put everything on the line just for this one Belief? Yes? OK, can you tell me why?” When a player decides that retreat really is the best option because the Belief just wasn’t worth it after all, it is much more satisfactory than being forced out of battle without much of a choice in the matter.

I have a question: Do you ever Say Yes for Steel tests during combat? When a seasoned character takes a Light wound, do they always roll Steel, or will you sometimes just Say Yes because they’re combat veterans? I’d really like to know the official stance on this.

I think the reason Steel worries me most is just that. I had one player whose character had Steel B7 roll one success on a Steel test versus pain. This was a seasoned fighter, a pirate knight, and a total brute of a man with MW B12. He had taken a Light wound in the last action of an exchange and was forced to run away, lest his opponent scripts bloody murder in the next exchange. Going to dice always risks a random result, and for situations like that I don’t feel it should be quite so random, regardless of the probabilities inherent with having high Steel and low Hesitation. Artha be damned, sometimes the dice just hate you, ya know?

The “Thrilling Heroics” trait is a fun idea. My group will be testing out my Steel rules soon, and then will revert back to the core mechanics for a session or two, so we can compare and choose which version we want to stick with. If we go with basic Steel in the end, I just may give out free heroic traits to characters that require them.

Making Steel tests easy across the board is what I don’t want to do, though. I want less-frightening stuff to be easy to resist, and scarier stuff to be really damned scary. The core mechanics handle this just fine with die and Ob modifiers, but there seems to be a general disincentive to roll versus the less frightening things your character might encounter. Without those traits or a high Will, you stand a pretty high chance of getting shit-scared at the slightest things. Some might say this makes sense, but it doesn’t feel right to me.

While characters may choose Stand and Drool for hesitation versus pain in my Steel mod, the better option is See Stars. Same effect, lower hesitation. Stand and Drool is meant primarily for failure versus Wonderment.

I’ve tried hard to balance the hesitation options the way I want them to work, but it may need more tweaking yet. I don’t feel spending Fate should be necessary. I gave Stagger Around in Pain some defensive options because it has a longer hesitation time. You can also bite the bullet and See Stars for half the time spent hesitating, but you have no actions available to you. Falling Prone gives you a possible bonus to defense, whether you Scream, Plead, or Swoon, but of course you end up prone. Running Screaming works just like in Gold, except that your hesitation lasts for a much longer duration (mainly because it’s fun to get lost).

I’ve been thinking of other options that could be used instead of this Steel mod. One, which was suggested by one of my players, was just to Say Yes for most things and only call for Steel tests for very serious wounds and stuff. Another idea would be to use the core mechanics, except to allow defensive actions only while hesitating. Or to save Steel tests until the end of an exchange. Forced hesitation mid-exchange seems more like a death sentence to me than a life-saver.

I never say yes to a Steel test during combat. The character who has just been injured has lost at least a die to everything and one point of Reflexes on top of that. He’s probably best served ducking out of the combat and regathering his resources, even if the player is gung ho to push forward. In your example, your player could have swooned, allowing his opponent to choose Engage another opponent during the next exchange, leaving the player’s character to come back to his senses and use the Eye of the Storm to get up and maybe even shrug off his wound before diving back into the fight. I’ve seen that in at least a dozen action movies.

While Burning Wheel definitely has a lot of elements that empower players, it also spends a lot of time taking away player choice. If your players dislike being forced to hesitate, they’re going to hate trait votes, since the other players at the table are going to assign their character a new trait without the player of the character in question getting a vote in the matter.

Fair enough. Thanks!

The combat example I gave was an oddball situation. It was a one-on-one fight. The PC was way tougher than his opponent, but the other guy got a very lucky strike in, while the player rolled dismally in his Steel test. The wound in question was a Light knife wound to the arm. The end result kinda gave us a pause, the fiction just didn’t add up. But of course, that’s just one freak occurrence. I know it doesn’t usually go down that way.

I guess it’s up to you to create a fiction that supports the rolls…that’s what they’re for…The combat in Burning Wheel Revised between the spider and the Mage (don’t have my book with me) is a perfect example of a GM taking those dry dice roll results and turning them into a narrative…

If you’ve ever banged yourself hard on the funny-bone you’ll understand how you could “run screaming” from a light wound to the arm…

Its a Captain Hammer moment… “Mommy… this must be what pain feels like!” . Hell it doesn’t seem like it hurts the story, just makes it more real the character had a sudden mortality check… oh crap I could actually get hurt doing this. And yeah its a light knife wound but what does that mean in combat … It may be an ugly gash down his whole arm and look really bad until he has a second to check it out.

This is all by design! Everyone in Burning Wheel is subject to pain and hesitation. The greatest knight, the most powerful dragon. If the situation was reversed and the player got a lucky strike against a big bad, he wouldn’t be demanding the Steel system be hacked. He’d be calling it the best thing ever.

Trust me, we once made a dragon hesitate – for one action – and we certainly weren’t complaining about the Steel system then!

I like the basic changes to resolution, but the new hesitation actions feel like a bit of a cop-out, since they allow you to do so much more than the original ones do. Maybe “Stagger Around in Pain” and “Fall Prone and Beg for Mercy” should be special actions made available through traits? (Like Gloryhound is.)

No one likes to be humiliated, but the Steel test results are humbling on purpose. Read accounts of hand to hand fighting from any age and you’ll read about men and women reacting badly to pain, surprise and stress. There are a few stand out moments, of course, but those folks passed their Steel tests!

Last time I ran Trouble in Hochen, this is the only reason the party survived. Brin managed to (thanks to a lucky Fate point) score a superb hit with a Beginner’s Luck axe test and the demon bear blew its Steel test and bolted. Considering the Knight had two traumatic wounds and that was the best possible hit Brin could score, they were damn glad for the Steel mechanics.

As for the hack, only young I’d do is get rid of “See Stars”, and keep “Run Screaming” in actions, maybe actions doubled. I’m a big fan of steel as it is, for reasons stated in this thread, but your hack looks like it would work for what you’re doing. Those are just the two things that make me wince. Good luck with your spark :slight_smile:

BW rules -> BW fiction. Any Fight! is scary in BW. A simple thug with a knife can end you.

If you want less scary, Bloody Versus with suitable stakes (i.e. suitable for your concept of the fiction) may be your thing? I’ve used it as such.

Wow, thanks for all the replies, everybody! I’m glad to see I’m at least creating enough of a stir to garner so much attention, if not creating interest in my ideas. ^^

For the record, I do not want less scary, or less realistic, or less brutal, etc. I want the system to be balanced the way I like it in order to tell the kind of story I want to tell. That’s about it! I do not want to resort to only Bloody Versus, and I do not want to have a “regular” BW campaign where everybody starts out as chicken-shit and eventually becomes unbreakable. I want a campaign full of scary fight scenes and nameless horrors, with PCs that are a bit harder to break by campaign’s end than your average peasant, but not so unfeeling that mundane things absolutely never phase them.

I have been tweaking the system, and have come up with something a bit different from what I wrote in the first post. I’ll write it all up here when I’m done. Doing play testing at the moment, and will be incorporating it into my group’s campaign. A few of the basic changes:

– Still using variable Obs. Some of the Obs are being tweaked the way I like them.
– Steel tests are no longer open-ended.
– Obs versus wounds are now based on the quality of the hit, not the severity of the wound. The actual IMS result is used to determine the Ob for the Steel test. Wound penalties already apply to Steel, and that portrays the severity just fine.
– Hesitation in Fight is now equal to the MoF in volleys, not actions. Oh, yes. The Obs are a bit lower, but hesitation is pretty brutal if you fail. (I’m considering new house rules to Reflexes as well, as I don’t want to see such a wide gap in my game. This will change a kot of things too.)
– Basic hesitation options are straight out of the book.
– If you want defensive hesitation, you have to spend a Persona point.
– Defensive hesitation has been expanded, balanced, and made pretty powerful across the board. It costs Persona, so it should be good.
– Using the optional Persona Complications rule to allow complete cancellation of hesitation at the expense of a consequence. Took a wound to the leg and failed a steel test? Spend a Persona, eliminate hesitation, and your leg is now BROKEN. Me likes.

My primary reasoning here is that, as far as Steel is concerned, spending Artha should count for something. More than other stats and skills, I want artha to really empower the player when spent on a failed Steel test. As it stands, an average character has a pretty dismal chance of ever passing a Steel test, even if he spends the maximum limit of 3 Persona and 1 Fate. I don’t care for this much. Ob 5 and higher is pretty damned hard to beat, no matter how many dice you’ve got. I don’t want to see PCs forced to raise Will to B6 as quick as possible. I want to see characters evolve naturally.

And yes! It’s just my personal preference! But hopefully once I’m finished, I’ll have something that somebody might want to try out.

~ Dean

Wait, what? Ob 5 is not that hard to beat with, say, seven open-ended dice. (Particularly if you throw a Fate to reroll a traitor, and since “fate is useless” seems to be flavor of the month for December, no one is using their Fate anyway.)

Two things that I would strongly consider in your modifications:

  1. Steel as it stands has a highly nuanced degree-of-failure setup. Passing is good, failing isn’t so bad, hesitating into the next exchange is really bad. As long as you’re not hesitating long enough to let your opponent rescript, your exposure is limited, but once you’re into that next exchange, you’re meat. So in the current setup, failing by one or two, or even three or four early in the exchange, is reasonably okay. By changing it to volleys, you produce a system that (all other things being equal) has fewer low-impact and more high-impact failures. That seems counter to your intent.
  2. Hesistation-reducing traits are really quite important in the current setup. As you note, it is quite difficult to reduce Hesitation by any other means. IMO the real mark of a hard bastard in BW, someone you do not want to fuck with, is Hard as Nails. But the next best thing is a hes-reducing trait. I’d rather tangle with the Sword B7 guy than the Sword B5 guy with Fearless or Life is Death. Have you thought much about how they should work in your hack?

Care to elaborate on this? I was actually just about to crunch the numbers comparing this new proposal to the RaW, but I can’t really do that without the actual Obs. The late, great mathematician/computer scientist John McCarthy had a saying that “He who refuses to do arithmetic is doomed to talk nonsense”; and I’m pretty sure no one here wants to talk nonsense.

If that’s what you want, you might consider upping the starting lifepath limit at character burning.

Hi everybody. I’m the one with the Captain Hammer moment. New to BW, slowly getting a grip on everything. I want to mention that when I flubbed the Steel roll so badly (1 success on 7 dice, and I should have been rolling 6 dice) I fully expected to have a problem. What I was surprised about was that it was so hard not to hesitate. My character was getting into a fight where he expected to take a cut or two but also expected to win. He’s an experienced bare-knuckles fighter going up against a weaker and apparently frightened man with a knife. Then when I took a light wound I had to make an Ob 6 roll with 6 dice! I agree with Dean, it didn’t seem to fit quite right and doomed us all to frantically trying to raise our social abilities so we could stay in fights longer. Dean cooked up his house rules, which are still in testing but I think they’re better for modeling experienced melee fighters while still making it hard for inexperienced softies to stick in the fight.

But you’d have to have a Will of 5 and a Steel of 8 to roll 7 dice against Ob 5 on your first light wound, making you one of the bravest, baddest bastards around. If I had a Will of 5 I’d have a Perception of 2. Even so you’d only have a 40% chance to succeed before you spent Artha. Only 40% against the first light wound with a Steel of 8 and a Will of 5 seems wrong.

Well, reflexes is penalized by wounds, right? So if you have a reflexes of 4, you will hesitate for volleys after your first light wound anyway, right? And more than 1 volley with your second light wound. So if you have Reflexes 4 and your opponent has reflexes 5 and you take a light wound at the end of the exchange and fail Steel by 3, you’ll hesitate for the entire next exchange and the opponent can script stab stab / stab stab / stab. If you took two light wounds you’ll be hesitating clear into the next exchange with the RAW, but with Dean’s hack you’ll have some chance to survive the three volleys, scripting two blocks or avoids and getting caught with your pants down for one, and be able to act again on the following exchange if you’re still alive.

Besides, why would faster-reflexed characters recover from pain or fear faster than slower-reflexed ones? I could see surprise, sure, but clutching your wound and gasping for Mommy seems more Forte-related than speed-related.

Apologies if I’ve gotten any of this wrong. I’m here to learn.

The way I see it, the reasoning behind the existence of Steel and Hesitation and the relationship between them is that being fearless is not the same as being brave. There exists all the difference in the world between being scared/in pain but pushing on anyway and not even having whatever’s going on register as scary; the former is very hard, whereas the latter is much easier, if you can only get yourself into the right mindset.