First game soon. Cop drama!

Greetings fellow Burners! I got turned on to Burning Wheel through a one-off game of Mouseguard a few months back. Really like what I’ve read!

I’ll soon be taking my first steps into the game as GM. I’ll be playing with one player. She’s interested in using the theme of a cop drama, taking inspiration from Law & Order, X-Files, Grimm, Sherlock Holmes, etc.

So, here’s what I’m trying to keep in mind:

  1. Make sure the relevant skills get in there. Intimidation, Interrogation, all of that good stuff.
  2. Be sure the Beliefs really put the pressure on for dealing with whatever the crime happens to be
  3. Try to get a Relationship in there to make things even more personal.
  4. Keep it simple at first. Mainly simple Ob skill rolls, here and there a linked test. Try to keep the rolling focused on parts of the story that relate to Beliefs. Hold off on the complicated Rim stuff until we’ve got our feet under us.

So, I’ve got three questions:

  1. Am I on the right track?
  2. What do you think is a reasonable number of lifepaths for a solo player going as a human detective? 4? 5? As I’ve only burned two characters just for practice I can’t say I’m expert at this or anything, but I was coming up with characters with B3 skills who were capable of having maybe one or two B4 and B2 skills. Is that about right for starters?
    3)Regarding Beliefs - You want 3. Should I have my player come up with 2, then introduce the theme of the first adventure and then have them develop the third? Or let the player come up with all 3 after pitching the adventure?


Lots of folks swear by 3 lifepaths for a solo game because it lets your character “grow up” a lot pretty quickly. If you want a more competent baseline, 4-5 is pretty solid. I’d recommend sticking to 4 if the character has a lot of focused or powerful LPs; you end up with too many skills and traits otherwise. For example, a 4-LP Bailiff is a well-rounded and skilled investigator, and likely got there through another skill-packed lifepath like Student, Squire, or Young Lady. But if you’re playing some kind of jack-of-all-trades escaped slave / gravedigger / ratcatcher who got randomly appointed town constable by a drunken mayor, 5 LPs might not be overloaded.

It’s also good to have a sidekick NPC (see the Relationships section in the character burning chapter). Sidekicks are a great way to cover a few bases that the protagonist is missing, and give you a steady source of interaction and a good subject to write a belief about.

My advice to you would be not to do a “You’ll learn what the game is about during the first adventure” kind of setup. It’s just worked terribly for me every time. I find that Burning Wheel characters gel much better when you can “hit the ground running,” so to speak. You might find the game taking an unexpected turn anyway (check out the one-on-one game between Luke and Rich that’s stickied in the “Playing…” section!) but every time I haven’t had that initial forward momentum, we just got stuck.

Thanks for the advice Alex - if I’m getting you correctly you’re advising that I make sure that the rules are well known prior to the actual start of the game, so that it doesn’t grind to a halt as the rule explanation gets in the way of the game?

You want your player to come up with all three Beliefs after the two of you have the premise worked out. Or ideally, work these things out together at the same time, so the Beliefs reflects the situation but the situation can also change to accommodate the Beliefs.
But you can’t have your player make Beliefs before establishing what the adventure’s going to be. They need something to base their Beliefs on! And if they make Beliefs that are irrelevant to what you wanted the game to be about, you’ll have problems.

Exactly this.

The way I think about it (which is a bit reductive and absolutist, honestly, but hopefully it illustrates the point), there are two kinds of TV show pilots.

One kind is about easing the audience and the protagonist into the situation at the same pace. When you discover that there are vampires and suddenly your old life doesn’t matter much anymore. Or you uncover the first clue to a conspiracy. Or you move to a new town and try to make friends or whatever. This is how I started games when I first learned about roleplaying, and it works pretty well for a lot of plotlines. This kind of opener doesn’t work well in Burning Wheel, however, because the game really demands that characters have beliefs constantly pushing them forward.

The other kind of pilot is when we see a protagonist who’s already driven and hooked into the situation, and we as the audience are sorta “catching up” with them. It’s quite likely that a lot of stuff is going to change over the course of that first episode, but oftentimes those changes are driven by the protagonist’s own actions more so than outside forces that totally surprise them out of the blue.

Knowing the rules isn’t as important, in my view. At least one person at the table should have a good handle on the “Hub” section of the book – keeping track of the mechanics for tests, reminding everyone to set success and failure stakes or pointing out Let It Ride situations, &c. – but in-depth rules knowledge isn’t necessary to get a game off the ground. In particular, it’s okay to just completely ignore the extended conflict mechanics (Duel of Wits, Fight, Range and Cover, and the supporting stuff like wounds and weapon stats and whatnot). Really it boils down to “roll tests when you want stuff and follow your beliefs.”

Which is why we’re placing such an emphasis on getting those beliefs really tight before you start. (I’m speaking from experience – I’ve had several one-on-ones fall apart because my beliefs sucked. I’m playing one now where everything just sorta works because my beliefs are better.)

Echoing Alex, Burning Wheel as a game is written with the expectation that people are going to have to look things up. It’s a complex game, don’t assume you’re going to know everything that’s going on. For example, I’ve been running Burning* games for the last four years and I still refer to the Circles Ob list every single time someone uses Circles. Partly it’s because there’s a lot going on, but also because it keeps everyone honest and engaged with the system.

TL,DR - The cop drama story morphed into a former slave on the road looking for home and rescuing the downtrodden along the way, plus two questions regarding resources.

Thanks again for all of the great advice! This afternoon we sat down and started working out some details. Things took an interesting twist and I’m thrilled with how it all happened because we’re arriving at something that my player seems to have some investment in.

We started with the concept of being a detective, and we talked about how simply being a detective and having cases thrown at the character would be kindof flat, and that things would be better if there was a personal drive for the detective work. I cited Kate Beckett from the TV show Castle who became a homicide detective because her mom was murdered. That kicked things off, and my player came up with the idea that her personal trauma that will drive her is that she was captured and enslaved as a young child. She was taken far from home, and a big motive for her will be that she really hates slavery and injustices similar to that.

At this point we really started to diverge from the cop drama idea we started with. We opened the book and started flipping through lifepaths for inspiration. We came up with Born Peasant, then took the lead to Servitude and Servant lifepath. Then we decided that somehow the enslavement ended, and we took a lead to City Dweller. Her character hired on with the city guards for a time to get her feet under herself. But the big motivation is to go abroad and rediscover where home is, and try to reunite with her family, so the city guard thing isn’t long term. We need to get this character mobile so she can travel about and try to find home. So we took City Peddler and figured that she wants a mobile career. She’ll travel from town to town, keeping her head above water by peddling her goods and always be on the lookout for clues to her past - and she probably can’t keep herself from stepping between the downtrodden and the oppressors that she encounters along the way.

I think this is fantastic! I love the way the seed of the idea - ripped from home and trying to make your way back - combined with the Lifepath character generation of Burning Wheel to give life to this great character idea. Really looking forward to our first session.

So far Beliefs are still in process, but the rough idea is “find family,” “dislike criminal slavers” and “bring justice against slavers and thieves.” Instincts are still being mulled over.

Here’s my next hitch: Resource Point total for this character is 18. After some basic arms, clothes, and a skill toolkit for the Peddler thing, we’ll be very low on resource points. Not a huge problem, really, as we’re not going for a very wealthy character here. But… there will be no resource points for Property, which means that the starting Resources Exponent will be 0. Is that right?? That seems crippling. And honestly, in the few characters I’ve burned just for the sake of practice with the process, 0 Resources exponent has been a theme. Am I doing something wrong? Or is that how every campaign begins… with dirt poor humans groveling for a loan?

Second hitch: I envision this traveling peddler walking town to town leading a donkey laden with the small amount of gear owned, but with 18 resource points, that’s very tight. 8 for the skill toolkit, 5 for arms, 3 for clothes shoes and traveling gear… that leaves 2 resource points. A relationship would be fantastic, but I already can’t afford the pack animal (5 points). What’s the general wisdom - as it’s not really something that impacts rules and is more for flavor, just give her the donkey?

Thanks so much for your time!

Having zero in Resources is pretty common for peasant-type starting characters. Rubberbanding between B0 and B2 during play is also pretty common. The thing with low-Resources characters is you pretty much can’t buy anything, so every possession you need to acquire ends up having a bit of a story behind it. Maybe you find it during your adventures. Maybe you steal it. Maybe you fight a guy for it. Maybe you roll Scavenge to get it. Maybe you straight-up barter one of your existing possessions for that other thing you need.

The big catch is the “lifestyle maintenance” test. If you fail that with B0 Resources, something else has to give – your animal gets sick, your toolkit breaks, &c.

The way you claw your way out of the Resource B0 hole is using the spoils of your adventures (which translate into cash or funds).

The lifepaths are pretty much designed to make you want gear and stuff that you can’t afford. I’ve had a lot of success taking a thing you really need but don’t have at the start of the game – like that donkey or that toolkit – and making a belief about how I need one, now. It creates an immediate situation that works pretty well for a first adventure.

What are her “arms”? Does she have a serious weapon or just a crappy knife or walking stick?

Thanks for the feedback, it’s good to know I’m not completely off base here.

I think I’ll take your advice about using a Belief and some adventures to help supply some of those initial needs.

We have not yet defined what arms she’ll be using. I admit that I don’t really get the impact of the difference between run of the mill, poor quality and superior arms yet. In fact, at least early on I’m planning on keeping well clear of Fight! so maybe it really won’t matter for a while. But, we know she’ll have at least some martial training from her time as a guard, so she’ll at the very least have some way of defending herself while she’s on the road. I could see it being just a knife or walking stick, or something very simple like a wooden club.

Look at the weapons chart in the back. Quality correlates to stats (especially VA, which is important for cracking armor). If I recall correctly, poor-quality weapons also give you +1 Ob to tests involving them.

It’s not the end of the world if you give PCs a bit more resources, but my personal preference would be to make the first session something like “Outlaws jacked my stuff! Time to outsmart them and get it back!” (no skill kit) or “Living in the city has gotten bad for me. It’s time to pack up my stuff and hit the road” (no transportation).

2 rps is perfect for a really fun little relationship. For example, minor (5) immediate family (-2) forbidden (-1) is a great way to establish a connection to a character whose life is very different from the protagonist’s – a noble half-brother, a sister in the church, a father who loves you from afar but can never acknowledge you because his order forbids it, &c.

My game is also going to be something like a “medieval” cop drama–a sort of bastard child of The Wire & A Song of Ice and Fire with a crazy uncle named The Sopranos. So I’m following your thread with interest.

As far as lifepaths, Thor (I think) once suggested to start at the end and work back. Work with the player choose a life path that models wherethe character “ends up,” and then work back. Have everyone talk about it at the table–just monitior the collaborative process to make sure everyone will be able to exploit the spotlight in awesome and distinct ways. (That’s the real concern, yeah?) That’s my plan anyhow.