Newbie GM + The Sword

So here’s a challenge for everyone: read through the Hub & Spokes, get to the end, take advice, grab the Sword & pre-made characters, run sample session…flail around dangerously! (I had ordered my copy through the FLGS and couldn’t bear to wait anymore. :rolleyes:)

I wanted to get my campaign rolling so I invited people to come for a two hour learn-the-rules demo and realized as I sat down that I had no rules for Fight! among other things. It turned out to be worth the time just so that get familiar with the bits and pieces of the character sheet and dice-rolling mechanics (even if we couldn’t do combat, ah well, I was ready to improvise if needed), but I have a few questions remaining from my test drive (and from having since read through more of the rules in my physical copy):

[li]I got into an argument with a player as to what constitutes as “scene” for the purposes of Advancement. I look at it from a very TV/movie perspective: changes in location, time, or dramatic conflict (e.g. rocks fall and suddenly people are in a chase scene), not a beat, as in, “well, Ssisz just got done arguing with us, so it’s a new ‘scene.’” Also, if it’s per scene, and there could be multiple rolls for a skill, do you always use the first occurrence? What if the player faces another level of difficulty later and that’s the one they needed? Do players get to pick and choose when they get to check off a box so long as it’s once per scene?
[/li][li]Duel of Wits: I assume this is just for super-fancy “skill challenge” sequences, not just your every day “I diplomacize the NPC.” I assume if the characters are just trying to persuade or lie to the city guards, it’s either an Ob test or a versus test. If the players are trying to convince each other, do they need to do the DoW or should we just RP it out? The Sword refers to the DoW extensively so I felt like I was doing it wrong, but once I read the rules, I was like, “Holy shit batman, rules much?” I may make cards with the various Feint/Rebuke/Point moves at some point when there’s a high stakes hearing or debate but until then, I think I’ll pass, or just have them roll against the Body of Argument with their various skills for a more complex exchange.
[/li][li]I don’t like rules. I have enough things to memorize in my day and would rather worry about crafting a story than adjudicating complex battles and debates. I’d heard BW was crunchy but also full of character-driven-mechanics goodness, so I thought I could brave it, but damn. Any suggestions and house rules people have for simplying the game are totally welcome.
[/li][li]Finally, I’m having a really epic campaign, inspired in part by Jacqueline Carey’s Sundering duology. Basic premise is that you’re on Saron’s side in the LotR, but your “Dark Lord” may not be as evil as his enemies portray him to be. Meanwhile, you’ve been branded a villain, and you’ve turned your back on or been forced from the Light side for your reasons, and you’ve been empowered to enact your Vengeance in exchange for your souls. Basically, one of their Beliefs will be tied to their Vengeance and they can start out with a Grey shade in a related stat and skill, since you’ve become one of Evil’s champions. I’m thinking I’ll need to start these characters with 6 or so lifepaths to create the kind of anti-heroes I’m after. Only thing is, I don’t want all 40-year old characters. Is there a guideline for “Prodigies” or other exception individuals who can have a lot of experience/skill without being middle-aged?

If there’s an agument between PC’s, start by letting the Players discuss it amongst themselves: if they can come to an agreement without dice, good; but when it becomes apparent that niether party is willing to give ground, it’s your job as GM to take things to dice. If one PC is trying to convince another of something, and the convincee wants nothing of it, do a straight skill test with an Ob equal to the convincee’s Will. If both parties are engaging each other, each trying to convince the other of something, then give the players the option of a versus test or a duel of wits. Versus tests, obviously, are quicker and simpler, but also more black and white – the winner gets their way, and the loser gets nothing; the main advantage of Duel Of Wits is the existence of rules for abjudicating whether someone is owed a compromise, and how much. Indeed, unless someone does either exceptionally well or exceptionally poorly, it’s almost guerenteed that even the loser will get at least a minor concession. Ultimately, whether a dispute is best handled as a straight versus test or Duel Of Wits depends very much on the preference of the players, and of the GM.

To my understanding:

  1. TV/Movie scene pacing. Players can pick 1 of multiple rolls to get the advancement. That said, unless you’re playing with the detailed conflict rules, you shouldn’t be encountering too many cases where players are repeatedly rolling the same skills/attributes over and over - if you are, maybe you should up what’s at stake per roll in during the Intent/Task part of the roll.

  2. If both sides have something to go for, then Versus. Each character makes their argument, then give Advantage to the side that has a good argument, and/or some kind of upper hand (“He’s the Duke, you’re in his court. He’s getting +2D Advantage.”). The closer the difference between the winner and the loser? Make the winner give some concessions to the loser.

  3. I’ve run a very light version of Burning Wheel in 1 hour for new players. You can probably steal some ideas from this:

  4. An easy hack rule to add is to allow the players to ignore the years added from a single lifepath or two. I call this the “anime hack” where you end up with 19 year old heroes equal to veteran generals.

That said, you should really make sure the players are actually excited by the concept. If they’re “eh, ok”, that’s not going to work really well. Burning Wheel really needs the players’ buy in, because their Beliefs are what’s going to push play and be the focus of where the game goes.


Also: it’s more than fine to run the game without using the detailed conflict mechanics of Fight, DoW, or R&C for awhile, until you feel comfortable with those first 74 (or whatever it is) pages—the Hub. But don’t go mucking about with house rules for Fight or DoW or R&C—you’ll get bizarre results.

This has to do with a situation right then and there wherein players will be making multiple rolls of the same kind. Situations like this arise when fighting (in Fight! and other modes), Range & Cover, Duels of Wits, etc. So it’s more in line with your “dramatic conflict” than any of your other examples.

You always take the most difficult test, unless the player needs a specific one to advance, such as being a single Routine test away from advancing prior to the extended conflict/series occurring. In that case, if you have a Difficult and two Routine results, you use one of the Routines. In every other situation, it’s the most difficult result (a Difficult in my example), regardless of whether it’s helpful for advancement or not.


RP it out if you can. If no one’s budging, use DoW or a versus test if you don’t like DoW mechanics.

Don’t use the Rim rules, such as Duels of Wits, Range & Covers, and Fights!. Stick to Hub and Spokes.

There’s the potential for using the Child Prodigy trait, but only with 2-LP characters (and the trait points to get it, which I usually hand-wave, to be honest).

I would very seriously suggest you not go with 6-LP characters since you all are just starting out with BW. Advancement will be glacial, and it can be difficult to determine appropriate challenges for such powerful characters – they’ll steamroll through some things, and be obliterated by others. The setting sounds fun, but I’d have them work their way up through the “ranks of eeeeeevil” and make command, domination and gathering their own forces be elements of their Beliefs, if that’s what they want.

See, this is what I needed to know. I’ll have to adjust the premise a little bit but I think I can roll with it. Also, I think I may add some Rim rules once a session/as they come up, just to see how they work. Otherwise it’s nice to know they’re totally optional and I’m not “doing it wrong” by sticking to basics.

To be honest, BW mechanics seem like the much more complicated inspiration for the Lady Blackbird concepts. Roll a d6 pool, each 4 or higher is a success to count against the “obstacle.” Get artha based on your Beliefs/Instincts/Traits; get XP based off of your Secrets and Keys. Your Lifepaths are your background and dictate your attributes, skills and traits; your Traits are informed by your background and dictate the sorts of skills you have.

Lady Blackbird was definitely influenced by Mouse Guard. Mouse Guard is a Burning Wheel variant, with more streamlined mechanics. So, yes.

However, the currency cycle drives play very differently since you don’t earn artha until its time for artha awards. The benefits from hitting keys in LB is immediate.

  1. A scene is fluid in my opinion. I don’t think “is this scene over or not?” is the right question you should be asking for logging tests for advancement. What you have to ask is: 'What has changed that justifies a new test?" is there a new conflict, a different task+intent or situation? some tasks will spans over several scenes but they are still one task+intent. You don’t throw the dice again every scene for the same task+intent. If in a scene, there are several totally different task+intents or conflicts that have use the same skill, I let them log the tests because the conflict is different (this does not apply for DoW, Fight! or R&C, that is just one conflict.). But to be honest in my games that only happens very rarely

2 + 3. The rules are actually very simple in burning wheel once you master the core of the game: “What is the task and intent of my players?”
“What do my players really want to accomplish?” and “How are they going to do it?” These are the key questions you have to be constantly asking as a GM. When task and intent is clear you attach rules to them. Usually the hub+spokes will suffice: simple tests, versus tests and open tests. set obstacles add complication and gather dice from skills, add helping dice, advantages, FoRK’s. from the Rim rules, Resources and Circle rules will come in the game very regularly. But even with Resources and circles the core questions are the same “What is the task and intent of my players?”.

I stick to the rules and try play by the letter. I used to be a player and a storyteller who didn’t like rules. In most systems the rules only hinder my role-playing or stop the flow of the game. Burning Wheel is the first game I ever played that entwines role-playing with rules harmonically. Don’t skip rules because they seem complex. There usually is a reason for them being the way they are. Most rules in the Rim are rule modules which you can leave out or add as you please. Make clear at the beginning of the campaign which rule modules you are going to include. They will influence the flavor and pace of your game.
If you leave out duel of wits for example you will only have a choice between opinion A or opinion B when your players try to persuade each other or an important NPC. You get a very black and white game which can be very dramatic in its own. With the complex conflict system of DoW, you get to add spicy and interesting complications and compromises which will give your campaign a more intrigue and complex like flavor.

  1. For your first game, don’t use gray skills. I know it is tempting, but don’t. In the first games we played, Gray skill brought a complete different balance and it disrupted the flow and the game fast because I had no experience in Burning wheel games. They make it harder for you as a GM because you will feel that you are not posing enough challenge as a GM. Players will have a feeling that things are all too easy, and will get bored fast if every challenge is too easy. Theirs and your inspiration will dry up too fast. I think it is a good idea not to get blinded by skill levels, focus on believes instincts and traits. I want my players to sit on the edge of their seat trying to struggle out of their problems. Black scale makes for a more heroic game than gray scale in my opinion. I love a grittier game and I noticed my players do too.

For your first campaign:
You and your players should be focusing on learning to create games with believes, instincts and traits to get the game rolling. You as a GM have to learn to challenge their Believes, bait their instincts and traits and create interesting complications. That is really really really hard stuff to grasp and it is going to take you at least 2 campaigns to master. It is even harder than memorizing and implementing rules. But it is worth the time. It will make your gaming experience very intense. Until now everyone I introduced to burning wheel doesn’t want to play anything else anymore.

My advise is to run the Sword first, if you haven’t. With new players and especially if you are a new GM’s it is a must. You really need the practice in running burning wheel and taking it one step at the time will let you grasp the complexity of a burning wheel game. After that have a tryout campaign, keep it simple with 4 life paths. Characters will be competent but balanced and they will leave room for you as a GM to learn to create complications. You can experiment with the core rules and a few rules modules, but try to focus on the hub and spokes. Adding modules as play asks for them is a good idea if you want to learn the rules.

Also, the premise of a BW campaign is never never never created by the GM. It is created by the entire group.


One key element of a Duel of Wits: there has to be an argument in which both (all) participants have stakes. If Alice wants Bob to join her in a quest to find the MacGuffin, and Bob says no, there’s no roll. Bob may suffer consequences of his refusal if Alice is influential, or even just angry and dangerous, but Bob can always just refuse to play along. “Convincing” someone is a lousy intent, because you don’t usually care what they think, you care what they do.

The Duel only happens when there are two participants, each of whom want something from the other, and there is some middle ground that gives both something but that neither one is thrilled with. If players RP their way there, fine. If not, make them pick up the dice and see whose character is more convincing.

Say Yes and Let it Ride are two rules that can help navigate situations like this.

this is definately important. a Scene would normally be a logical break in the story. when the players have moved the story ahead, a scene change or some other spectacular thing. Even within scenes the circumstances could change, allowing a second roll. for example if you were intimidating a group of persons and you failed your intimidation roll but your buddy bob burst into the room cause you were taking to long and lobs the head off one of the persons, I would allow bob an intimidation roll. with a helping die from the other player if he roleplayed out the scene well.

keep in mind the rules are there to keep the game moving and fun. when they get in the way keep in mind the Let it Ride and the Rule of “YES”. these two rules will take you a long way in burning wheel. also it is a lot of fun to let the players know exactly what is on the line before they roll after they state their intent. as far as intent make sure it is a strong intent not some weak intent like I am going to track them, make it I am going to track the enemy to find his camp site that he used for over night if he had one. this really helps push the story and make it more cause the player has some idea in mind at that point.