How is the GM intended to interact with the game?

I have been reading the BWG rules through a couple of times. I bought it recently and haven’t yet played it.

As far as I can tell, some of the GM’s roles are clearly defined. Here is a brief run down of what I have understood:

[li]The GM is responsible for creating an overall situation that challenge the PCs’ beliefs.
[/li][li]Within that situation, the GM frames scenes that challenge the players’ beliefs, and bring into play their instincts and traits.
[/li][li]The GM decides whether an action requires a roll (“say yes or roll”)
[/li][li]The GM sets the failures conditions for rolls and the obstacle
[/li][li]The GM sets actions for NPCs in the combat subsystems - Fight!, Duel of Wits, and Range and Cover
However, it doesn’t seem clear to me how pro-active the GM is outside of those combat subsystems, and what kind of rules basis there might be for those actions. Do NPCs initiate their own actions? If so, do they need intent and task? And failure conditions? And does the GM state any of this out loud?

For example, let’s imagine an NPC assassin bursts in the door of a tavern where Lauren’s PC and her NPC husband, Roger, are. The assassin wants to throw a poisoned dagger at Roger. There are a number of ways this could proceed:

[li]The GM and his assassin acts just like a player and their PC do. The GM states an intent “Kill Roger”, and a task “Hit him with my thrown poisoned dagger”. The GM would then also set a failure condition - perhaps, “The dagger makes only a grazing cut on Roger, giving him a smaller dose of poison”. Assuming that Lauren tries to protect Roger we then do a versus test with a known failure condition.
[/li][li]The GM just does anything that makes sense fictionally, until a player intercedes. The GM would narrate the assassin throwing the dagger Roger, and unless Lauren does something, Roger dies with no dice rolled and no rules invoked - i.e. we only use dice when players are involved in conflict. Lauren is then the one who takes an action with an intent and a task - “protect Roger” by “leaping into the way”. Then the GM sets obstacles / calls for a versus test and sets the failure condition.
Those two are, I think, pretty close to extremes, but you get the idea - there are a lot of ways of handling NPCs actions. For traditional RPGs, these things tend to be left undefined. Different gaming groups then evolve their own way of doing things - and to you it may seem obvious the way in which you would resolve the situation above. I certainly have default modes of doing things from other games I have played. But I am interested in:

[li]Does Burning Wheel define this? Or is every group expected to have their own mode of play?
[/li][li]If it does define it, how does it define? How are NPCs expected to act?
Sorry if this is in the rules somewhere and I just missed it. Equally if this exists on these forums somewhere - it was an abstract enough question that I had trouble searching for it.

The assassin thing:

“Hey Roger, make a speed test against the assassins thrown weapon. If you fail you get a Light Wound and you are poisoned”

But Roger is an NPC.

I too am new to Burning Wheel with only limited experience with the game, but here are my thoughts:

  1. The Assassin should only be introduced if there is a Belief dealing with Roger’s health and/or survival. In other words, it has to be important to the player that Roger stay alive for some reason. In your case this is covered as they are married and generally married people prefer to keep each other alive. Other options: Roger could be a valuable prisoner that you want to ransom. He could have information you need, or have a skill you need. At any rate, by a player investing a belief in “I want to keep Roger safe until X” or “because Y” then they are signalling the GM that Roger’s well being is fair game to be challenged. In fact the player wants the GM to create some fun story revolving around an attempt to harm or kill Roger.

  2. If there are beliefs on the line, your PC will be both motivated and obliged to act when that belief is challenged. “I lost my first husband to violence. I will not lose Roger.” If that’s the belief, and an assassin blasts through the door of the tavern with drawn steel, you’d better bet that your player will be jumping across the table at you with a fist full of dice saying “NO YOU DON’T!!!” With beliefs engaged, the player and the system are all engaged. However, if there is no belief about Roger, no particular result is guaranteed. The player may or may not be engaged, and the system surely is not engaged.

To directly answer your question, what happens and how does the GM act, I think your example is right on. You pick a belief and challenge it. If this means send in an assassin, then you present the assassin and then let the player(s) act to fight for their beliefs. I think that I would keep the NPC’s intent simple and focus your results of failure more on the player, though. Instead of “If the assassin wins, Roger dies right here and now. If the assassin fails, Roger is poisoned,” I might put it as “The assassin tries to kill Roger.” And then let the player state Intent and Task and let success and failure depend on the player’s action. Let them dictate how much effort they want to invest here. If they want to end it here and now, they will intend to stand and fight I suspect. If they find this all very exciting and wonder why somebody would send an assassin, maybe they intend simply to escape the tavern, which opens things up to a drawn out chase. Failure in that case might mean that they get out alive (but with Roger poisoned), and the Assassin is hot on their heels. You could get a whole session out of evading the assassin, trying to find a healer, and searching for clues as to who sent the assassin!

There is an appendix kin the back of the book called “The Role of the GM” which should have you covered.

As to your assassin situation, it’s tough to answer hypotheticals, but: it depends. In this case, the GM would probably want to frame it such that the PC is in opposition to the NPC. “The assassin readies a knife, it looks like he’s going to hit Roger. What do you do?”

Also, with versus tests each side has an intent. If the bad guy has an intent to hit Roger and fails, he does not get his intent. Rachel also gets whatever her intent may have been.

You can roll NPC vs. NPC or straight-up narrate. Which is preferable really depends on the situation. If you’re purely narrating stuff, try to create situations where the players can affect the long-term outcome (e.g. Roger has been poisoned! Save him! as opposed to Roger is dead! Sadface!).

I feel like that’s a bit too reductive. It could easily be the consequence of something else. You have a belief about taking down a criminal syndicate and they endanger your family and friends, for instance.

There are a variety of answers here, mostly using the mode of presenting the NPCs actions in an interesting way and then expecting the players to act (via Intent and Task). This is what I would lean towards.

However, there is quite a lot of “well in this case…” and “I feel that…” in the answers. Thank you for your opinions and ideas - but does Burning Wheel provide a definite answer for the role of the GM?

For example, in Apocalypse World, the GM never rolls dice, and the players and GM alternate in taking actions (“moves”). In that system, the GM gets to do bad things to the players when the players fail a roll. I know that is not the system for BW. My point is that AW clearly defines the way in which the GM interfaces with the system. Is there an equivalent statement anywhere for BW? Anything from the mouth of Luke or found in a book somewhere? Or an extended play example that indicates one way or the other?

I have looked at the “Role of the GM” chapter of pg 551 of BWG. It talks only in a very high level way about the GMs responsibilities, and doesn’t touch on this issue.

There’s a whole actual-play forum. Take a look at the stickied Si Juk threads – that’s a one-on-one game GMed by Luke.

Looking at p. 551, it says that the GM’s role in Burning Wheel encompasses the following:

[ul][li]Making sure the mechanics match the story. This point is important enough that it gets rephrased a couple of different ways. What does this mean in practice? Well, it means a couple things. First, going back to Intent (p. 24) and Task (p.25), we know that the core of the mechanics revolve around the player stating their character’s intent and the means by which they aim to make it happen. The GM’s job there is a) to make sure this is an appropriate intent; b) to question the player until the ability to roll is evident; c) to state the consequences of failure before the dice are rolled (p.32); d) to engage further mechanics as required: set the obstacle, or determine the opposition in a versus test, or determine that this is a linked test, award advantage dice, etc.; e) introduce complications on failure (p.32). That’s a lot of stuff!
[/li][li]To get across the theme of the game/the GM’s vision. The GM has a big picture in mind, and knows what the opposition to the players is up to. The GM also has the power to set and end scenes and Say Yes, which controls the flow and pacing of the game. These are all tools the GM uses to focus the action on the parts that are relevant to the story. Also, by setting complications from failure (or compromises from Duels of Wits, etc.) the GM can also reinforce the themes of the game.
[/li][li]To challenge and engage the players. This is about more than just setting obstacle numbers, although that’s important too - it’s more challenging and engaging when your rival is as good as you or better, and contesting them is difficult! But it’s also very much about introducing challenges, complications and unexpected outcomes. The game is about these characters and their Beliefs. The GM needs to make sure that the challenges he or she puts in front of the players are meaningful ones they will engage with, and that the complications of failure (and sometimes even success!) tie into and challenge those Beliefs.[/ul]
Does that help? As you can see, a lot of this stuff is sprinkled throughout the Hub chapters. p. 551 is what ties it all together into an agenda or play principles for the GM, like in AW, but the specifics are often found with the mechanics they relate to.


And when the Players look to the GM to find out what happens next. And there’s no rule that players and GMs alternate in taking actions in AW, it’s a conversation without a strict order of actions that depends heavily on the fiction to determine when a move is triggered. AW does make things more explicit with a list of GM moves.

As a GM in BW, you should create and play a world that is interesting and feels real. You create NPC’s with agendas that impact the PCs and then play those NPCs. You have the same scene framing and other powers that you have in AW. You don’t have to roll to kill Roger the NPC, you can just Deal Damage, but you have an Agenda about challenging the characters and seeing what they’re made of. So, presumably you’re trying to kill Roger in front of the PC for a reason and the PC is the protagonist, so it’s likely they should have a chance to stop you.

“My Stealthy vs, your Observation, Failure means that Roger has a knife sticking out of his eye” is appropriate to some fiction. Or, “I bust in, make a steel test to see if you’re surprised and hesitating or if you can get the jump on me before I throw my knife at Roger.”

Your role as GM is to bring adversity and conflict to the PCs and see what they become trying to overcome it.

Thanks, both of those replies are very helpful.

For what it’s worth, although I think I’m in a minority on this (as with many GMing style choices in BW), I almost never roll as the GM. During the conflict systems I roll for NPCs, of course, but that’s about it. I almost never use Versus tests and I use Bloody Versus pretty rarely. Mostly, I declare what’s happening, and then ask the players that all-important question: “What do you do?” Except in BW it’s almost always better set up and phrased, "What are you going to do about it?

The GM also has the ability to move the fiction forward until a player asks to interject, though the GM’s job is to prompt those interjections. A man opens the door. He walks in. He draws a dagger. He hurls a dagger at Roger. All of those have points where Lauren could declare her intent and a task could be set. When, exactly, you start really prompting depends on what you, as the GM, want out of play. Not outcome, but behavior. Do you want to see how Lauren’s character reacts to a threat? Then give a warning and a big pause when a knife is brandished. If you’d rather see her react to harm done, you can give no chance to oppose before the knife is thrown—but then I’d almost never have Roger be dead. That’s a good setup for testing Beliefs: is that “I will kill every one of the Black Knife Brotherhood!” Belief really more important than trying to save your husband?

One other aspect of BW that took me a while to grasp is when players get to pause and interject actions. If Lauren says, “Whoah, can’t I use my Perception or Assassin-Wise to notice that he’s a threat before he impales Roger?” after the knife is cast, she may have a point. When players want to act it’s often better to rewind a bit and let them than plow through. Not always, but it’s worth considering.

Hmm. That’s tricky. That’s getting into Instinct territory. “Always be on the lookout for assassins” or whatever. I’m sure there’s a line between the two somewhere, but I don’t know exactly were it would fall.

Maybe. So much depends on the fiction. If the GM wants Roger dead, Rogers basically dead, right? If the GM wants a Roger dead in front of the PC with her having no chance to do anything but watch, that Roger’s pretty much dead again. The real question is why does this GM want Roger dead so bad? How important is Roger in the game and why, when the player wants a chance to get involved in an effort to save Roger at great personal risk, is this hypothetical GM bent on denying them any agency? Why not say “Sure, you want to throw yourself in front of Roger? Pick up some dice.”

It’s legitimate to say that even catching the assassin before he does his work doesn’t give enough time to stop him, but you have to be sure that’s what the game really needs. In other words, you can Say Yes or you can call for dice, but think carefully before saying no. And the Perception may come too late to stop him, so your options are more limited. Take the dagger? Try to knock Roger aside?

With an Instinct, I don’t think you can ever say the assassin is too fast. That’s what the character is about: noticing assassins. She’ll notice and get a chance to act.

I agree. These are the GM choices that make the game.

Of course, if the GM wants to challenge the PC’s belief by harming/injuring Roger without allowing the PC to intervene, he can just set up the scene differently.

For instance. “Roger has only stepped out long enough for you to take a few pulls on your ale, when you hear a commotion coming from the direction of the privy. What do you do?”

(This is why hypotheticals are discouraged :smiley: ).

The GM’s role is fairly explicit. “To challenge the BITs of the PCs. To set consequences of failure. To move the overarching plot along, creating a sense of urgency. Plus any others I haven’t mentioned.”

First, let me say that I understand why you have these questions. Some of the rules are variations on previous editions or out of print content in other BW games, and they make more sense in that larger context. I think a lot of the actual implementation of the rules is an oral and internet-written tradition, and not readily apparent from what is written. So with my sympathies in mind, let me suggest how I approach the issues.

With respect to adjudicating NPC acts–I think there are three categories.

[li]First, if a PC wants to oppose the NPC, there’s going to be some rolls from the PC. Because the game is about the PCs, I’ll always try to frame contests to center on the PCs. To play off your example, if the husband was a PC, he’d be making the roll. But he’s not. So I’d try to frame the conflict as one between a PC and the assassin NPC. If a PC wants to oppose the assassin, I’ll probably ask for an intent and task and set up a roll–or series of rolls–with the PC to spot or otherwise intercede.
[/li][li]If a PC doesn’t want to oppose the NPC, I determine whether the NPC’s act plays into a PC belief/instinct/trait, a PC resource, or is important to the story. To play off your example, the PC may have a belief or instinct that pertains to the husband; the PC probably spent points or otherwise invested resources in acquiring the husband; and a PC spouse is probably important to the greater story. So if regardless no PC wants to oppose the assassin, I’ll roll for the assassin in the open at a set obstacle, or maybe do a quick opposed roll in the open.
[/li][li]Third, if the PC doesn’t want to oppose the roll, and the NPC act does not play into a PC belief/instinct/trait, does not affect a PC resource, and is not important to the story, I’ll decide how things are likely to turn out and maybe let the die of fate decide whether something unexpected happens.

Where is any of this written? In between the lines, I suppose.

Another related role I have is in managing “boring stuff.” I bring this up because you mentioned the GM determines what makes sense fictionally. In my game, I made it clear that the game is seeking to replicate the feel of a TV serial–not real life or a D&D style tactical game. So I frequently offer contrivances and conveniences to keep the story moving swiftly. For example, I’ll give players the opportunity to meet up conveniently or run into one another with a timing that is implausible for real life, but fits perfectly well with the feel of a TV serial. Or, if the PCs take an act where there isn’t much to do, I’ll offer the chance for a short summary–for instance, “There isn’t much going on in the church guys. If you have something you want your character to do here, cool, otherwise I’ll just sum up the search and we can move on.” For me, these sorts of quick-handwaves are very common to get table-play focused on the conflicts.

Although BWG is much improved over previous editions, it can still be hard to put it all together, and sometimes, the way people play in fact seems rather distinct from the printed text. If you feel like you have an interesting set of rules, but that it’s hard to put it all together–I very much sympathize.

Thanks to all for the help. :slight_smile:

A side note from someone who haven’t played (yet)
If I understand the intent of the rules correctly, one way to handle something like stopping an assassination would be to go
“Okay, so there’s an assassin sneaking around who’s going to jump in and throw a dagger at your spouse” and then have something like a linked set of rolls to discover and intercept said assassin (Like, roll if you hear him and if you don’t the roll to catch the dagger gets harder or whatever). Given of course that the player wants to try to stop it.

Would that be a correct reading?