Long-time AD&D/Pathfinder Player - First time BW GM.

Hi all,

Per the thread title, I’ve been running, playing, and enjoying D&D since cracking the cover of the Expert Set back in the 80s. Aside from a few dabbling experiments with Call of Cthulhu, I’m essentially inexperienced with systems outside of the TSR/WoTC/Paizo world. As of Friday, I’ll be running my first session of BW as a side game with about half of my usual Pathfinder players, and I could use some advice.

The major question I have is about filling time at the table, and ensuring that there’s enough going on to keep the crew engaged. With Pathfinder, for example, I can pull together a dungeon with room-by-room descriptions, populate it with traps, monsters, and stuff to find, and generally rely upon the crunchiness of combat to chew up a certain amount of at-the-table time. A big battle, for example, will take 30-45 minutes to resolve; assuming a 4-hour session, I can weave together action, roleplaying, and exploration with a reasonable amount of fluidity, while ensuring that everyone gets a bit of what they like.

Burning Wheel does not seem quite so crunch-oriented. That’s a large part of the appeal, but I’m curious as to how actual play sessions tend to go, absent the mechanics of dungeon crawling or super-detailed combat? I’m noodling on a world premise and some early conflicts, but am not certain that I have enough content to keep the crew of 3 players interested for 2-3 hours. (Assuming a 4-5 hour game, we’re going to kick things off with The Sword, followed by burning our characters and discussing the basic world and how those characters will slot into it.) How much preparation do more experienced GMs suggest for a Burning Wheel session, especially a first run?

Hi Hip,
Welcome to the fire.

BW is very crunchy, but in different ways than Pathfinder.
I cannot recommend enough that you start by running the demo scenario, The Sword.
You’ll fill the evening with the demo and making characters.
Be sure to have a rough world pitch ready for the players, but also take input from them for situations and characters they’re interested in.

Once you’ve got that under your belt, come on back and we can talk more. You’ll have questions, I’m sure.

Your preparation is:

a) the situation
b) the characters
c) and how they are related to each other and to that situation.

Make a good initial situation with your fellow players. (Something everyone wants to play.) Make characters related to that situation. (If it is a wedding, someone might be the bride and someone might be the jealous ex-boyfriend, for example.) Start simple: Don’t use the Range and Cover or the Fight mechanics yet, no Sorcery, just the first 74 pages from the book. Do not pre-plan what is going to happen, but think in possible Bangs you could come to use.

During the session, make a lot of questions and build on the answers. Look to the characters’ Beliefs and generate conflictive situations. When they fail their rolls, it is your chance to drive the narrative in the direction you want it to go, so don’t make the players roll dice if you don’t want they fail. If they succeed, don’t make they roll again. Now the narrative goes where they want. You have this compelling situation, this characters involved in everything that is happening and often with conflicting interests, and suddenly you have story. It’s not your job to entertain them. The game is entertaining enough by itself if everyone cooperate and accept the premise.

Good luck!

Thanks to both of you for the advice. For this first session, I suspect that running The Sword and starting a Character Burning will encompass a sufficient amount of play time to be adequate, but I’m hoping to have enough basic setup down to also introduce the game world, if needed. That’s the bit that intimidates me, as I’m attempting to veer away from prepared dungeons, “random encounters” (blech), and other D&D-esque trappings.

Luke, is the Adventure Burner still available anywhere? I had hoped to use it for inspiration and to pick up some of the methodologies you use in world design, but despite a few weeks of watching eBay, Amazon, and various booksellers, I can’t track down a copy anywhere.

Hi Hip,

Check out the questions in this sticky thread: http://www.burningwheel.org/forum/showthread.php?4298-Burning-Sherwood-Luke-s-Qs-Our-A-s. If you and the other players can answer those by the end of burning characters, you all will be in good shape. I believe the questions were reprinted in the Adventure Burner.

Looking forward to reading more about your game and your experience with Burning Wheel.

Try to make the game world with your fellow player, not by yourself. Say: “I want to play ‘this’ kind of story in ‘this’ kind of setting. Are you interested?” Don’t be too specific. The details you will create with them during the game. Now you and your group think in an interesting situation in advance: a meeting, a debate, a siege that is going to happen, a king who is about to die, a wedding, a war that is about to begin if no one does anything to stop it, an assassination attempt, preparations for a trip, the arrival of someone who changes everything, etc. Then you, as a group, burn the characters.

Don’t look the book yet. Just think in interesting protagonist (as if this were a movie or a book) and define their personalities, their loves and hates, their appearances, their clothes, etc, and why their are tied to this situation. They don’t have to be friends, not even to like each other. Their are not a party. They are the protagonists in a story that is about to be told, not by you, but by the dinamic between all of you and the game mechanics. Then, and only then, use the lifepaths to bring to life all those fascinating characters.

Probably doesn’t matter at this point, because I assume you’ve had your first session, but there is also this:

Honestly, I’d try and make it very clear that everyone has to be proactive, and that it is no longer your job to connect the dots, but theirs. If you push this point I think it’ll work out OK.

The hardest thing for all the DnD players I’ve known to adapt to is the Duel of Wits, because they’re used to ****ing at each other for hours, and seem to think that this is fun. I am STILL trying to get people to realize that it’s not fun, but habits die hard. I don’t know how to break them of it, but if you find a way please let me know too, because I’ll be very interested.

This is all very useful stuff, as I start to dig into the nuts and bolts of getting a BW campaign off the ground. I’ve not run our first session yet – that’s tomorrow evening, with 4 hours allocated. My plan is as follows:

With the various character sheets pre-printed, I’ll give the introduction to The Sword as written, and then describe the characters and allow the players to choose their PC. We’ll run through the session, introducing mechanics and gameplay a bit, and also breaking the ice on the night. I expect this to take 30-45 minutes, an hour on the outside.

Next, I plan to give an overview of the game concept and some of the potential conflicts that the group will be interacting with. Per some of the advice in this thread and elsewhere on the forums, I’m going to open up a bit about what would, in my usual Pathfinder games, be secrets that get doled out slowly over time. Here’s what I’m thinking for the game setup:

The overall setting is our world, an indeterminate number of centuries after the human race was nearly wiped to extinction. Nuclear war, biological plague, and climate change all played a part; as the curtain rises on the campaign, the planet has largely returned to a natural state, with only husks of humanity’s cities and former predominance left.

The immediate situation finds the party (all drawing from the Men stock, with Elves/Dwarves/Orcs unavailable at the outset) as members of a small village (Littleton) that stands on the outskirts of what once, long ago, was Springfield, IL. The players are welcome to choose any setting-justifiable set of lifepaths they like, but their third and final path must be from the Villager line.

The village is run by an Endless One named Grimm; in this campaign, the Elf stock is recast as a Man who, for reasons that don’t really matter much and can be hand-waved as radiation-related, do not age or die naturally. They experience the Grief mechanic per the stock rules, and aside from the flavor, are Elves. Grimm has kept Littleton safe for many decades through magical means, wrought in secret. However, his life is coming to its close as Grief from the long centuries of struggle against the Ghouls, Bandit Hordes (Orcs), and Subterraneans (Dwarves) have taken their toll.

As his abilities wane, Bandits are drawing closer, and as the game begins, bandits are attacking a farm on the outskirts of town, under the leadership of a bandit named Krief. The group can engage martially, attempt to intimidate or negotiate with the bandits, or ignore the situation as they see fit, but it provides a starting point for an antagonist, a shifting dynamic (the village coming under attack is a change, and figuring out why and how to reverse it a major goal for the group), and an opportunity to start in media res. Regardless of what happens here, a young farmer names Jules, known about town because his wife just gave birth to a baby boy, is badly injured (off-scene) in the attack.

Following this opening, the broader village is introduced, roughly divided into three factions: (1) Grimm and the “regular” families and laborers who are generally loyal to him, (2) the farmers, led by an ornery but intelligent older man named Harold, and (3) a group of mostly younger men who consider themselves to be the village’s unofficial security force. The second major conflict comes from the political tensions between these groups: the farmers, who live furthest from the village center and have been the target of recent bandit attacks are getting frustrated with Grimm. Grimm is aware of the dangers, but takes a long view and seeks to avoid conflicts where possible. Finally, the “security force”, although historically little more than a glorified hunting group, is naively excited by the prospect of “tracking down those bandits and taking the fight to them for a change!”.

Harold wants Grimm to send a group to the ruins of Springfield, some days travel away, to seek and retrieve medical supplies for Jules. Grimm, aware that the last attempt to raid the ruins resulted in the mysterious disappearance of a group of skilled trackers, is arguing for a longer but ostensibly safer trip east to what was once a small town named Mt. Auburn, where the remains of a rural clinic are said to still house some scarce antibiotics and supplies. The missing men in Springfield are a sore topic in town, with the various factions arguing for and against risking supplies and men to effect a rescue. This forms the third and most immediate conflict, as the players are (naturally) the nominated group, and can attempt to influence the direction of their journey by getting involved with one or more of the factions in town.

My thinking is that there are a lot of ways to get involved here; the group could choose to align with one faction and burn characters supporting a particular view, or they could opt to take opposing positions and work through the conflicts in pursuit of a higher goal of saving the village. There are a number of directions that the campaign could take, with player choice being the determining factor here. I think (?) there are a sufficient number of built-in situations and hooks to seed some interesting character arcs, enable meaty BIT choices, and get us off the ground.

That said, I’m new to this, so feedback is quite welcome.

Skip the initial bandit attack. Describe it that Jules was hurt and it’s up to the PCs to do something about it. Have the PCs either be Jules’ immediate family members or lover or best friends. Otherwise, why should they care? Make sure they all take Beliefs about him and you’ll be off in no time.

Or have the PCs be relatives of the lost trackers who went to Springfield. This will create a side Belief to rescue them.

I’d go ahead and tell the players about all of the NPCs/factions you’ve laid out here (and any others) before creating characters, that way they can also choose Relationships and/or Affiliations with the various groups. This would really give them a reason to care about the town and the politics going on there. I think it would be totally neat to see a player grab that and say, “I want to be close friends with Grimm” or Harold, Jules, or even a bandit(!) or whomever, because it is a sign they are invested then.

I’d also tell them you’re going to start in media res with the bandits coming to town. Because I’m slightly worried about the bandit attack as Kublai also said… and gave great advice about!

Most of the other NPC stuff you should make into NPC Beliefs and have them gun for those motivations and again try your very best to tie in player character BITs.

For me that first session is more about letting the players “explore the space” so I can see what they are interested in, where they poke around, who they talk to, what they are concerned about, and what direction they seem to be heading in. Plus I need downtime to create those connections and Belief challenging situations - it is a personal GM-weakness for me.


So goooooooood!! :slight_smile:


I learned from Luke that the best way to make a setting come alive, especially when it’s a small, tight-knit village like described here, is that everyone knows or is related to each other. Everyone knows most others’ secrets (aka Beliefs), too. So it shouldn’t be a problem to be personally invested in saving the village or members of its community. Be careful if a player wants to play a stranger-in-town PC - that’s a red flag he’s not invested in the setting.

what I found has been also useful is have the players create groups to have affiliations with or relationships with. if they want a crime sindicate that they want a relationship with have them tell you how this hits into their character, and make them name it. it is yours after that but they get the initial set up and how that orginization works.

In my most recent excursion into burning wheel I created 3 noble families and a small faction that character was aligned with. with the group we also started to see the setting come together in almost an italy feeling so we made the prime city into a Venice inspired setting. beauty with a seedy dark underside. has been a great starting and the world is ours and the gm is helping conduct the story.

Sure that can work, but I’ve found - that is to say experienced - that it can lead to super weak play. Not to say that it can’t work with the right group. Anything can work with the right group, yeah.

The last few times I’ve been in a group that tried to “Burning Wheel by committee” it was weak and didn‘t last more than two sessions. One player creates the ministry for silly walk, another creates the cult of Ix’t’l a group that worships alien bug creatures that want to darken the sun, the third creates a merchant guild, and the last player creates a group of librarians that want to experience everything they’ve read about.

What is the GM doing at the table here? Nothing. In fact to create any more groups would just be diluting an already thin situation, if one can even call it that, that the “player committee for creating situations“ created. And in play? What’s going on there? In my experience the “gaming by democracy” thing sucks. The GM has to bring it.

What if the crime syndicate the player wants doesn’t fit?

I feel that those world burning questions aren’t a checklist that the players go down and make up answers for as they read along. No. It is a list the group looks at after the GM-pitch to make sure they have made an interesting situation.

My preference is: the GM pitches a general situation or two or three, “I’m thinking of a small fishing village on a stormy coast with a weird fish-cult and fish people. Here are some NPCs and a few groups in the area that you should tie your characters to. What do you guys think?”. There is room there for player input, but they are also bound to that general idea. Then it gets refined by what the players say and create in character burning. But that core big picture, theme, tone, premise, creative vision, and all that remains in the GM’s court. The GM has a job too and part of the GM’s job is also to bend to fit in ideas from the players, just as the players have to bend to fit in to what the GM’s pitched, yeah.

Unless one wants to drift BW to be GM-less/full game.

@Irminsul: I think you have some issues with your group that are beyond what this game can handle. BW is designed to deal with some dysfunctional behaviors that certain GMs have. If the group as a whole is not on the same page you have a problem.

What if the crime syndicate the GM wants doesn’t fit? What if the GM wants to create a ministry for silly walk, a group that worships alien bug creatures that want to darken the sun or/and a group of librarians that want to experience everything they’ve read about?

Yes, in BW players can create groups and Affiliations for their characters, during character burning and in game too. That it is not under the GM’s approval. What it is under the approval of the group is the kind of Affiliations or factions we can create.

This is the kind of game that you play with the right group.

I don’t think I’ve said anything controversial here!

[tangent] Sure, I’ve had dysfunctional groups and particularly individuals within groups. Notice the plural - I’ve played with dozens of different groups and all of them always had something “dysfunctional” about them. You know like any relationship because we are people and not robots and life isn‘t unicorns and rainbows all the time. Whatever… [/tangent]

But that isn’t even the point. Look at what the original poster posted: a small village, bandits, some ruins, and some groups within that village. There is probably no room for a crime syndicate in a village of a few hundred people at best. Unless the GM was fine with that, then that would be fine. It is possible the player would be stretching the tone, theme, and big picture too far though.

Important part: notice that first the players have to fit their concepts within the GM’s pitch and then second the GM has to fit the players concepts within his big picture. But I believe the order here is important. If the player doesn’t want to go along with the general pitch then maybe that player should give their own pitch and be the GM!

The point is that the GM has duties in Burning Wheel and one of those is to come to the table with a pitch (or two or three or more), look at page 548 - 552 of BWG. Or the Luke Crane quote I gave on the first page of this thread. Or any number of other sources within Burning Wheel I could start quoting.

It is fine Etsu Riot that you like to play a different way. The world is big enough to accommodate that I think. But your way is not the only way and neither is mine (you know, like I said in my post!). So just think of it as an alternative and not a personal attack against your way.

But this has nothing to do with what you said in the previous post, and I was talking about what you said there. I’m sorry if you always find something “dysfunctional” about the people you play, but your examples, like the “ministry for silly walk”, are a little extreme. (Too extreme, in fact, and I doubt it’s commonplace. If it is, you must apply extreme measures, I guess, like taking control about the fiction.)

And I’m sure you can answer without try to polarize the discussion. It’s not my way vesus the real way. You’ve tried to do the same thing in previous discussions, and I find it somewhat annoying. It fascinates me that you always find justification for your ideas in the book or wherever, but you extrapolate it, interpreting it to your particular way. (The JD Corley Principle, I suppose.) We all do it, in one way or the other.

I’m starting to feel like you are stalking me and personally insulting me, just so we are clear here Etsu Riot.

What did you miss when I said:

That is pretty crystal clear to me.

Let’s stay on-topic?

I agree that order matters! I think the important thing is for the GM and players together to first come up with a Big Picture situation that they’re all bought into; after that, any individual factions created through the process of finishing the game’s setup are much more likely to fit.


Irminsul the points that you brought up is valid. when you have players that want off of the wall affiliations and groups it does make it very difficult. it is the idea that I took from reading through the books is that the GM does have the final say in what orginations and affiliations that exist in the world. so if someone said I want the “department of funny walks” you can make them justify it or just a flat out no. Also the players spending their resource points on these social aspects tell you how important they would like it. if they buy a whole lot of them with a base of 5 then you are looking at something that maybe once every 7 or 8 sessions you should bring in so they don’t feel like it is a wasted point sink.