Framing Scenes

This is a general question regarding gameplay. I ran a 7-session BWG game that dissolved after a while – not all of the players were enjoying the system, so we moved on for our usual game nights. Finally I’m getting a new, smaller BWG game launched this week so it’s on my mind again. One thing I learned from running the game is that framing scenes and situations seemed to be an extra important aspect of GM’ing this game and is often how I arranged a lot of my preparation… by a list of “time, place, and people who are there” sort of scene setups that I’d drop on the players (most of them designed to provide opportunities to confront beliefs.) Maybe it was just my players, but fairly often this is how the game flowed, and I had difficulty getting the players to push forward to scenes past the ones I had set up for them – there wasn’t a lot of player pro-activeness in terms of “this is what I want to do next”, etc.

My question is, is this a normal way for this game to flow? How often in an average session do you frame a scene pro-actively as a GM and how often does it happen in reaction to a player announcing an intent? Are my experiences indicative of maybe weak beliefs on the players’ parts or am I failing to engage them in a meaningful way?

Any of your musings about the moment-by-moment scene framing and pacing of the session and how you handle it would be much appreciated.

I try to make sure the players have clear goals tied to the story at hand.
Then I try to keep up the pressure on them, making it clear those goals are important, but not giving them the opportunity to easily accomplish them.

“You need to find that artifact, but the baron wants to see you…right now.”

So chain those scenes together until the players are beat up and frustrated. Then ask, “What are you going to do now?”

Also, when dealing with new players it is so vital (so so so) to be on their side. Encourage them, cheer them on and, most important, let them know their options. Make suggestions about Resources, Circles and skills.

Of course, you’re still playing the opposition. Of course you’re going to try to thwart their every move, but such is the strange nature of being a BW GM!

This is something that’s too hard to really say without seeing you play, but, here’s some things to remember that will help.

Scene framing is definitely a crucial step, but it’s only one part of the chain of things that make Burning Wheel work. You need to make sure:

  1. The Situation is loaded and immediate, not far off. (“Sauron might get the Ring” is far. “Boromir is obsessed with the Ring and looking at you weird lately.” is now.)
  2. The players understand the need to be proactive.
  3. The players are willing to put up loaded Beliefs with things they care about.
  4. …then Scene Framing (and pressing conflicts, etc.)

1-3 is like all the stuff you need to make fireworks, and 4 is the match. If 1-3 is duds, 4 doesn’t give you anything.

It’s also worth noting that 2 & 3 require shifts of mentality for a lot of players and it may be hard if they’re used to playing a different way. A lot of players are used to be spoon fed, or railroaded, so they just learn to stop trying to do anything proactive or even trying to put anything they care about on the table.

One of the valuable things about The Sword demo is that it shows that all the action can come from the players pursuing Beliefs and not the GM having to hammer things into place.

I like to get a loaded situation, ready to explode, then ask loaded questions to build Beliefs (like such: ).

Then when it comes to Scene Framing:

  1. Most scenes threaten the goals of the characters (obstacles, conflicts, NPCs trying to stop them)

  2. A few scenes help the goals of the characters (opportunities, NPC alliance changes, clues/info revealed)

  3. Non-active players, who don’t want to get active? I tie their characters INTO a goal for the active players, so at least they’re caught up in the main flow and it forces player-player interaction.

In some games that might be the dangerous misunderstanding (“…but only a Spaniard would have been able to get the key from the monk… and you’re the only Spaniard for miles!!!” “Wait, it wasn’t me!”), in other games that might be the necessary info or skill or resource (“You’re the only one with connections to the thieves’ guild. We NEED to know what happened to that contract…”)


This is precisely the kind of advice I was asking for. Very helpful, thank you both.

Being on the players’ side and presenting them with options is a new idea for me – in D&D I typically try to avoid offering different options or solutions to problems, because the players want to figure things out on their own. But with BW, I realize things work differently because there’s less GM control over what happens when certain things are attempted due to intent and task… so that makes it easier for the GM to play on the side of the players as a participant and help them weigh their options.

  1. Non-active players, who don’t want to get active? I tie their characters INTO a goal for the active players, so at least they’re caught up in the main flow and it forces player-player interaction.

I know what you mean here, but a specific example would be awesome if you have one.

So a few months back, I run a pick-up game of Burning Wheel for some folks - we set up to do a Kurosawa style tragedy/epic.

Everyone’s playing a general, and the daimyo just died the night before battle, survived by his 4 year old son. In short the characters are: The Schemer, who wants power, the Gambler, who has been skimming off the treasury, and The Adulterer who has been sleeping with the Daimyo’s wife.

Of the three players, the Gambler is the least active (the player had also never played roleplaying games before). So I make sure the Schemer learns of the Gambler’s past misdeeds which then the Schemer uses to push the Gambler in siding against the Adulterer and trying to arrange for him to get killed.

In this case, the Gambler became an opportunity for an active player. Alternatively, you can make a passive player an obstacle to an active player (“But we need you to lie to your father, otherwise we can’t get into the Archives…”).

The Belief is the goal, but the “how do we do it?” is the path to getting to the goal and you make sure active players’ paths go through the passive players and you can either get passive players to help out, bargain, or conflict against these things.

That said, this works best on a short term situation, like moving the spotlight around over the course of a campaign. If a passive player NEVER fights for their Beliefs, NEVER gets active, those are the folks I don’t play with for very long.


I’ve had similar problems in the past. When our campaign first started, the players pretty much needed pre-planned adventures. Once a few of them started “getting it” and being proactive, it was necessary to loosen my grip on the reins. From that point forward, efforts on my part to pre-plan too much have always felt like a bit of a let-down. The story flows much more organically when players are being pro-active. Sometimes they do need a good kick in the pants though.