GM and Player Situation Authority

I’ve been delving into a lot of other games recently, after some false starts with Burning Wheel (I’ve had great games before, but the last few just failed to get going).

Looking over my notes a main point of tension had to do with the how of challenging beliefs. A couple of the players had differen expectations of my role as GM, based on what they heard about Burning Wheel and saw in Actual Plays.

So, here are my expectations and what had worked for me in the past.

The GM is the person who is presenting a Big Picture and Situation. After the situation is established and flesh out, characters’ concepts are hammered into place - the situations and Big Picture begin to take a more solid shape. Good so far…here is where the expectations clashed.

Then the players write beliefs to engage with the situation, and as the GM - I respond to the players actions. There isn’t any pre-decided conflict, obstacles or expected scenes. The player’s authority over the situation when play begins is limited to the actions a character can take and mechanisms of the game. Beliefs are to communicate what is interesting, and provide focus on what the players are intending to do in relation to the Big Picture and current Situation. There is give and take, we all feel like players and no one knows what is going to occur session to session. I, as GM, have a setting and npcs that move in response to the players driving after their beliefs.

Now here is what the two players expected. The beliefs predetermined the content of scenes and what conflicts would happen. That my job as GM was to string obstacles and conflicts based on solely their beliefs - irregardless of the events in the setting that we decided on.

Essentially, they wanted to resolve what was written down and anything outside that “not about their characters or not collaborative storytelling”. I’ve seen advice and actual play around the idea that the GMs role in Burning Wheel is to do solely that. How else would players engage Artha if the GM didn’t frame those scenes and conflicts? Anything outside the players belief and what they’ve written down is not “what the game is about”.

Example from a game

I will do what is necessary to secure the throne for Michelina

The expectation was I would hard-frame scenes solely around this conflict or I would make the outcomes always refer back to the beliefs - regardless of the content of the Big Picture, Situation and immediate circumstances. The player expected only to have scenes around those beliefs, and the situation would be presented to them.

When I brought in an overland travel obstacle, I was told “no one has beliefs about that, just skip it” despite the setting having reasons this sort of journey could be dangerous and how it could “mess up” plans by throwing a wrench in the works. It wasn’t the “story” was supposed to be and as GM I needed to make sure that beliefs were centered on every scene.

This felt like too much “play before play” or another way to put it, the only “story” that mattered was what was decided before play. This also doves tail into disagreements over Intent and Task, which makes sense given the differences in expectations - but that’s another topic.

Both ways are obviously functional, my way has worked for me and the other way clearly works for other people. I don’t think one way is more “correct”, even if my tone kinda screams “I don’t like this kind of play”.

I am curious what people’s experience is with GM authority in Burning Wheel? Do you prefer a more responsive and reactive role with players having to be proactive or a story guide to ensure players beliefs are challenged directly?

I’ll answer any questions as best I can too.


I think I’m more in your camp, but I sympathize with the position of the players in your example. In a game with them, my impulse would be to do the Big Picture and Situation work that you’ve described. To begin play I would focus on conflicts around their Beliefs.

I use failure to introduce new obstacles—either new characters in their way, conflicts with existing characters or physical obstacles. Session to session, the players should be writing new Beliefs as they are forced to confront the new obstacles in their path. Using this method, my campaigns rapidly become about the journey rather than the destination.

But you can’t create plausible failure consequences—characters, physical obstacles, etc.—without doing the work at the top. You need a strong Big Picture and a pressing Situation to inform those decisions. Without them, the obstacles feel like an imposition to the players. But with a compelling raison d’être, the obstacles feel natural and credible to the players—something that they want to tackle to overcome on their journey.


To some extent you’re both right. The players are correct that obstacles should turn back around and be rooted in beliefs, however the GM has final say in how this gets expressed (BWG, page 64 - GM’s Role). Remember that Deeds themselves are often times rewarded tangentially to the main narrative thrust pushed by beliefs - the beliefs usually got players there, but the deed is rewarded for going above and beyond.

My feeling is that in most situations the GM should make sure that there is a connection between what the players want to see (expressed in the form of Beliefs) and what the GM needs to do in order to provide a living world (the big picture and/or situation). Why is overland travel dangerous? How could it interfere with the players plans for securing the throne? Maybe the bandits that are making travel dangerous are in the pay of the duke who is the primary obstacle towards securing the throne and the conflict is a way to bring that out. Just because the game relies on this connection doesn’t mean that the players can weasel themselves out of trouble via the belief mechanics, it simply means that the GM has to do a little extra legwork to tie it all together.

On the flip side, the players are on the hook for making sure their beliefs fit with what is going on. As the Ranter notes on BWG p. 550, beliefs that don’t fit are a handicap. And page 551 explicitly states that the role of the GM is to control the pacing and flow and to present conflicts that fit within the context of the game.


Did you all talk about tone or theme for your game? It can be good to get an idea of what kind of conflicts you all are interested in before play begins so that you’re not expecting high political drama and then get blindsided by a travelogue obstacle. (Though you can do both and it could be fun.)

As for me personally, as a player I want my GM to have a strong Big Picture and Situation. I am lazy, give me a set-up rife with Conflict so I don’t have to put too much work into writing Beliefs. :sweat_smile:

Going deeper into it, I’m of the opinion that the Big Picture and the Situation are basically the GM’s Beliefs. They are the priorities the GM sets for how they want to engage with the game. The GM, as another person sitting at the table, should have their priorities weighted as much as any other player. Their priorities should relate to the players’ Beliefs, sure… but the players’ Beliefs should also relate to each other! You wouldn’t think it right to say that another player’s priorities have no place at the table; I don’t think the GM is a meaningful exception.

Some of this is stylistic, sure, and some tables favor a more reactive GMing style. Even I do, from time to time, but in those cases I think the burden of providing a charged Situation falls on the players. If you guys want me to run entirely based on your Beliefs, then your Beliefs better be damn juicy.

That’s a pretty weak Belief, especially for this kind of game. Maybe in the context of other Beliefs it’s okay, but it doesn’t tell us why you want to secure the throne for Michelina, or provide concrete guidance for what “what is necessary” means. You’re basically providing the GM carte blanche for whatever obstacle they wanna throw at you. A travel obstacle can be a perfectly valid challenge for that Belief, if what you need for Michelina’s throne-security is on the other side. If that’s not the kind of obstacle you’re interested in, focus your Belief to indicate other, juicier obstacles.

Players also have to worry about maintaining continuity with their Beliefs. Players (I’ve found) will often want to change Beliefs before a situation has reached its conclusion. Don’t let them.

In a game I’m running, the initial situation involved tracking down and confronting a demon. The players did that, inflicted a Light Wound on it, then ran away… Then they changed their Beliefs and ignored the demon for a few weeks. When they caught wind that the demon had been following one of them around at night, they ignored it. The session after, the demon ambushed his target, captured him, and brought him to its lair. They were blindsided, and little Artha was had that day. I have the authority to prevent Belief changes as the GM, and even beyond that, as someone at the table I have the ability to say, “Oh, you’re changing that demon hunting Belief? What are you going to do when it hunts you down for revenge?” I made a mistake as a GM. But my players also made the mistake of writing Beliefs that did not address the situation.

With an only-Beliefs-will-determine-play paradigm, players can change Beliefs to dodge the consequences of their actions. It falls on either the players to chase consequences with their Beliefs or the GM to deny Belief changes until the consequences have been resolved.

Those are some thoughts, I might have more later; I’m game to chat more about philosophy.

Edited for grammar.


Looking at what notes I have, I can see how we never landed on a really compelling reason the game starts here. The games all had low-key openings. The initial beliefs weren’t driving play forward in a strong direction. So, tightening up that situation would help counter-act that - especially in regards to making failure zip a bit more.

In the games that worked, like the Middle-Earth game, set in Rhovanion during the Witch King’s campaign to enslave the north. I began the game with the humans and the dwarves on the verge of war, with the player being the final emissary to stop this conflict (or keep it going). So, probably something more like that…

That is another thing, I felt the “places” we were playing in felt a little vague. Like - there was a lot of high concept stuff but very little glue holding it together. It didn’t have a sense of feeling like somewhere people lived.

One thing I realized after those games, and just hanging out more. There was a big divide in what our touchstones are for fantasy. So, I felt our discussions of tone and theme were always a bit muddled. We had an easier time getting on the same page in other idioms, fwiw.

You know, damn - I wish I kept an Artha journal because the games that didn’t click had far more belief changes. So, on my end - I felt like I was having to revise a lot every session rather than just continue on.

Ya, never really thought about the GM having that sort of authority. I know I may have exercised some soft “well, maybe you shouldn’t get rid of that belief quite yet” but never a “now isn’t the time”. That is something to think about too.


Yeah, that’s on page 54 and 55 of BWGR, by the way. If you need the rules-legal arrow in your quiver.


Yes! Thank you! :smiley:

I am known to be a bit of a rules lawyer…but in my defense, I often looked up rules to find out exactly how much my character should be screwed over. I am a bit of a masochist, Dark Souls is my favorite video game series after-all.


Happy to help!

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To respond to a particular example: “No-one has a Belief about this, skip it”

It’s really hard for me to imagine that a party is travelling from A to B and no-one has a Belief that involves being in area B. Any overland travel obstacle, any obstacle really, that’s in between you and your destination is an obstacle that impacts your goal. Failure is Interesting, so if you’re travelling to for a purpose, that purpose can be weakened by Failure.

Gandalf didn’t have a Belief about the Pass at Caradhas, but the failure to go an easier route and having to go through Moria instead changed the story.

If a situation can put accomplishing a Belief in jeopardy, it’s still tied into a Belief, even if only a little weakly. The easiest way to challenge a Belief is to make it look hard, or offer an easy out.

In Burning Wheel, I think at least 60-80% of the stuff that my players do is directly related to their Beliefs. But there’s a world that, sometimes, they just have to interact with, and that makes it a better game, not a worse game. Taft, the Hunter, had beliefs about the Forest, Wolves, and an Enemy, but when he failed a Resources test, his roof fell in, and his wife expressed her weariness with him, the player really enjoyed the experience of making that better. So much so that Taft is now a Family Man.


I’m not sure your players realise how painful “only things directly related to a Belief are played out” is as a rule; because it means the only way to get a test is to actively advance a Belief.

Which means, for example, if you want to expose the corrupt Duke in front of the court, you’re going into the DoW with starting level skills or even Beginner’s Luck; even if the characters strive relentlessly to plan for their good skills, it’s almost impossible for them to be good enough at everything as starting characters that you can’t slap them with a plausible Belief-related scene that doesn’t require the things they aren’t good at: they’re all master orators and lawyers… but the Duke is corrupt so sends an assassin the night before.

I love love love scenes that aren’t “tick off a Belief” because they’re deeply fun; however, even if I didn’t, I’d crave them for the opportunity to get a difficult or challenging test toward a skill that might be the key to completing the Belief.


It was absolutely painful to be honest, skills so rarely advanced, and because of the laser focus - we hit an Artha bloat fairly quickly too (esp. with the session by session awards that I’m not doing the next game I run).

We don’t game together anymore. The games weren’t adding to fun of hanging out for any of us. So right before the pandemic, we called it good. We wanted different experiences from rpgs in the end (the ghost of creative agenda haunts us).


Hopefully we were able to give you some useful feedback to help your next game go better.

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It’s honestly restored some confidence in going with my gut, rather than try and please all approaches to play.

Like, I didn’t mention how the other half of the group was pushing for less “jump to conflict to conflict” and pushed for more building and color scenes in Burning Empires parlance.

It might be a bit before my next Burning Wheel game, I am eyeing picking up game that was dropped for health reasons, Artesia: Adventures in the Known World and converting it over to Burning Wheel…but I am deep into Glorantha right now, soooo that’s taking my time.

(I’d love to find a game to play in).

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