Preparing to GM Your First Game

Hey guys,

Long time roleplayer here, mostly D&D 3.5 and 1st edition. I’ve always been the GM and I’m going to take that role on again in Burning Wheel. Very excited.

Does anyone have any advice on some things I should have prepared for GMing my first game? NPC’s, plots, etc. I enjoy the concept of co-authorship but it leaves me wondering how to get ready for the game. Judging by what I’ve read in the “Playing the Game” section, I gather that most of what the GM does is reactionary to the players intentions. As a result, does that mean there isn’t a lot of prep work involved in Burning Wheel? Because that would be pretty cool.


Yup, that’s what it means. :slight_smile:

Something I like to do, assuming I have good BITs to work with (not an assumption you should be making on your first outing – I expect you’ll be back here after your first session with lots of questions) is to build out NPCs with the explicit purpose of challenging those BITs. Triangles are good – two PCs and an NPC, each with Beliefs aimed at each other. Perpendicular Beliefs for your NPCs are also better, IMO, than directly oppositional Beliefs. So that’s a good place to start.

What does your initial situation look like? BW best practice is to start the game in a very unsettled, dynamic way: something big has just happened, something urgent is facing the players.

“Reactionary” is a problematic word. Notice Paul’s NPCs have their own agendas. You can’t just sit back and letter the players drive the boat. They’ve indicated the stuff their characters are made of with their BITs. Your job is to bring the world to bear on those things and challenge them. The GM has tons of power and authorial control in BW.

It’s important to get the ingredients going in - players have bought into a central problem, and they’ve created characters that are relevant to the game, and who have a shared belief/goal that aims them squarely at addressing the central problem. PCs also have hooks into secondary goals, relationships, and wises that add texture to the world and give the GM additional vectors to introduce things.

When I’m GMing, I definitely do not prepare plot. You’re playing to discover the plot. Don’t plan scenes, but plan the ingredients to make good scenes.

Mostly, this is a stable of NPCs who want something from the players. They want to help them, urge them on, oppose them, or use them in some way. But they want something.

You can play a fairly reactionary role as GM, but if you do so what tends to happen is that the players’ goals get more diffuse - they get invested in side plots and the group can lose coherency. So a key task is to create pressure, particularly the unifying pressure of the central threat.

You can also underscore its importance by having supportive NPCs come along, “Hey, it’s really great that you’re going to fight the liche!” This underscores the importance of the goal, but does so in a friendly way - which switches up the tone from constant opposition, giving the players role-playing new avenues for their plans.

Keep tabs on beliefs - every session, aim at one or two of them to really give the players meaningful choices. Learn what they’re willing to sacrifice to achieve their goals. Use challenges to ask questions about their priorities.

Keep track of what the players have done. You can underscore the significance of their choices retroactively, but ensuring that their world (the portion they experience, that is) is affected by what they’ve done. NPCs confront or celebrate them, societal or political changes, changes in relationships. I keep a list of things to reintroduce - NPCs they liked, ripples from previous actions, etc.


If you can, make the first session a game with a prepared scenario and pre-gens.

Tell the players, “This is your chance to kick at the system, see how it works, and don’t worry if you make mistakes or your character gets maimed. Once you have an idea of how things work, we can make characters and set up a scenario for real.”

Highlight the basics before you do anything like touch the complicated stuff… here’s a BW quicksheet I wrote which works really well as both a reference at the table and a teaching guide for new players:

If they’ve played and seen what happens, then talk about situations and figure out a general kind of situation/campaign the players want- do they want a desperate battle against evil? A dark political drama? Set up the situation. Name the movers and shakers. Have the players lay out an idea and Beliefs. (Some easy fun tools to build good Beliefs: )

NOW, if you’ve got that? Then open the book and do character generation. Otherwise, it’s way too easy for players to get lost in the choices and either go into decision paralysis or just pick things because they sound neat which end up making no sense for the game at hand (“Wait, why do you have a farmer turned baker to fight off the Evil Lord?” “Well, I thought it might be fun!” “um…”)


Yeloson’s post is right on the money if you’re talking about everyone’s very first game of Burning Wheel. The advice below is for a first session of a campaign after everyone has bought into the game system and has a little experience with it.

First off, I will say that we put a lot of really good advice for this sort of thing in the Adventure Burner. It’s out of print on our end, but I know there are still a few of them available in retail. If you can find a copy, it’s really useful.

Anyway, the groundwork for a successful session starts in your character creation session. As a GM, you want to come to the table with one or more ideas for a campaign and pitch them to your players. Imagine you’re pitching a new movie or television series. You need to get the players excited about the idea and get their input in shaping it.

Example from a campaign I started recently: “Hey guys, how about a historical game set in the medieval Baltic? If we do this, I’d like to start at the eve of the 13 Years War between the Prussian Confederation and the Teutonic Order. Knights, mercenaries, Mongols, pirates, merchant princes and more.”

Everyone at the table got excited by the idea, and we started kicking the tires and figuring out how it would fit together for us. We decided on a game that would initially be set in and around the city of Danzig with the characters members of a free company that had recently been destroyed. They all gave themselves reason to hate or dislike the Teutonic Order and they were all interested in rebuilding their company. Great!

We also decided we wanted to bring pirates into the game. We decided the initial situation would involve the Teutonic Order seeking to recruit the Likedeelers (a pirate brotherhood active in the Baltic) to their cause with a Letter of Marque. The first story arc would involve the characters attempting to stop the Letter of Marque before it could reach.

That’s the context in which they wrote their Beliefs: Hatred for the Teutonic Order, a desire to rebuild their mercenary company and a need to stop the Letter of Marque from reaching the Likedeelers.

I tend to be a fairly visual person, so one of the first things I do when planning a first session is to take all the affiliations the players created for their characters and put them on a sheet of paper. I also add the characters’ relationships and beliefs. Then I draw connections between them if I see any. I look for signs of overlap or tension between the characters. I know those areas are where I’m likely to get the most bang for my buck if I introduce situations that complicate them.

Once I’ve done that, I start adding in my own characters with their Beliefs, looking for ways to create tension in the lines I’ve already established on my paper. One of my favorite techniques is to place an NPC at odds with something that a character, or even the whole group, wants, but also to have that same NPC be of like mind with something that another character, or the whole group, wants. Or I’ll make them want the same thing that a character or characters want, but using methods they dislike.

I find this adds fantastic moral complexity to my games, causing the players to really navigate what they truly want, and also to add a nice element of internal conflict as the players often discover their characters come down on different sides of those issues.

Perhaps you could give an example?

You always manage to find more work for me. :wink:

OK. My Burning Bruca game (currently on hiatus) is essentially fantasy Renaissance Italy with a lot of inspiration drawn from Mark Smylie’s Artesia comics.

The campaign started with two or three lifepath characters (a miller, a laborer and a butcher) in the town of Bruca, which is out in the middle of nowhere and has hung on to ancient pagan traditions. It has recently been taken over by a new Signore who is an absentee landlord, but his steward has no patience for Bruca’s pagan ways or backwater customs. The village has become divided against itself. The steward, in the Signore’s name, outlawed sacrifices as repugnant to the King of Heaven. The followers of the old ways are unable to perform the rites and sacrifices necessary to keep their pacts with the old gods and the fae, who have given Bruca many gifts.

Meanwhile, the Signore’s men swagger through the streets of Bruca and do as they will. Some of the people of Bruca have embraced the new ways and bow their necks to the new Signore and his men, while others—especially among the hot-blooded youth—refuse to accept the changes. It is no longer altogether uncommon to hear the clamor of clashing swords in the darkness of Bruca’s alleys.

So one player, Bret, is playing a laborer, Brutus. He has a brother, Matteo, who is an inimical relationship. He also has a relationship with their mother, Caterina, who runs an Osteria in the village. Bret’s beliefs were all about driving the newcomers out of Bruca and returning it to the old ways.

When you have a hostile or hateful relationship, it’s easy to allow it to be two dimensional. This guy hates the other guy and that’s all there is to it. But it doesn’t have to be black and white. I quickly decided that Matteo would be one of the Signore’s partisans. He’s seen the way the wind is blowing and his plan is to pick the right side early. But he doesn’t actually hate Brutus. Actually, he loves Brutus and his mother very much. He wants to do everything in his power to get Brutus to understand that the old ways of Bruca are finished. Anyone with any sense will side with the Signore. And, for good measure, I noted that Matteo hates Brutus’s friends. So here’s a character that is in direct opposition to the player character’s belief. He wants to destroy that belief if he can. But he’s also got a sympathetic motive. There’s some serious grist there for play.

I started the game with the player characters standing over the body of a youth they knew, Ricardo Lucchino. Ricardo was a groom at the castle and one of the Signore’s partisans. The player characters had gotten into a back alley brawl with him and killed him. That was the first scene of the game.

After the player characters escaped the scene of the crime, the next scene involved Matteo and his gang of toughs dragging Brutus out with them. They proceeded to find a boy, Luca the carpenter’s apprentice and blame him for Ricardo’s murder. They drowned the innocent Luca in the river as Brutus watched, unable to bring himself to say anything. Matteo privately made it clear afterward that he had blamed and then murdered that innocent boy to avert suspicion from Brutus. We were off and running! Bret struggled with how to have Brutus deal with Matteo for six months of game sessions before he finally managed to bring Matteo over to Brutus’s way of thinking.


That sounds so awesome and i so would want to play this…

Thanks. It’s been a fun campaign. Hopefully Iskander will soon be well enough to come home and we’ll be able to restart the game.

Any pic of the relationship map?

Well, the first session was just conducted last night. The players seemed to have a lot of fun, but I was left feeling a little empty, which is no fault of the system itself. I just felt under-prepared and was improvising everything. We didn’t use anything from the Rim of the Wheel, as suggested. I also didn’t have a copy of the PCs BITs in front of me (is there a GM sheet for this?) so it was easy to get off track in that sense. I think it’s safe to say that it was a sort of stumbling preface, so things will probably go more smoothly next time. Some of the PCs insisted that they not know each other from the first session, which made it hard to consolidate their Beliefs. And, since they didn’t have their Beliefs set up before the session began, I wasn’t able to prepare any NPCs that had contrasting/conflicting Beliefs. Speaking of which, how many NPCs should I fully burn up for a campaign (totally varies, I know, but I’m just looking for a rough guideline)?

Here’s a rundown of the situation so far:

Three of the PCs are dwarves, yet none of them know each other before the campaign begins. One, Tarn, is a prince whose hold has been invaded and his family slain by a rival clan. He is wandering the valley region that is the setting for our game, trying to call people (men or dwarves) to his banner so he can reclaim his hold and exact vengeance for his slain kin. The usurpers seem to have a lot of power and influence within the valley and for some reason, they are also rounding up all dwarven rune casters. They have put out handsome bounties on them, to be brought back alive. As it happens, one of the other PCs, Bethilda, is a dwarven rune caster. She is sort of a conniving wise woman/healer. Obviously, she is on the run from these bounty hunters. The next characters don’t fit into the overall theme as well. The third and final dwarf is a tinkerer/scientist type dwarf named Fayne who despises rune casting, but not for the reasons other dwarves do. Most of the dwarven stock consider rune casting to be dangerous, born from the throes of madness, but Fayne considers it superstitious nonsense - he’s a dwarf of science. Lastly, the fourth PC is a shady mannish merchant woman/fence by the name of Gretchen. She owns a shop/junkyard in the village of Willowick, which is where the action starts. When the game begins, Fayne is working for Gretchen, owing her some debt (one of his oaths), crafting things from the scrap metal of her yard. Bethilda has been in the village a few days, quietly practicing her craft for those who come looking. Tarn, hooded and cloaked (under which is a set of beautiful dwarven mail!), is just entering the village, a great storm at his heels. Oh, there are also some freakish lightning storms that have been ravaging the valley.

And now, a quick recap of the session:

Tarn entered the village and headed for the inn. Bethilda, watching from the barn she had been staying in, was nervous to see a dwarf, fearing he’d come to collect the bounty on her. From their shop, Fayne and Gretchen also saw Tarn enter the village. Soon after, a band of dwarves also entered the village. I had them go to the shop and question Fayne about any rune casters that might be hiding in the village. They also insulted him for working dwarven crafts for humans. There was an intimidation test here by Gretchen, with Fayne giving a helping die (:)). Gretchen failed the test and the dwarves mocked them some more and asked some more questions, then left of their own accord, making their way straight for the barn. From the tavern window, Tarn caught a glimpse of the dwarves - members of the clan that slew his kin! He stepped outside and confronted them just before they broke into the barn (where Bethilda was hiding). I had some peasants gather around at this point (holy shit, look at all these dwarves!) and Prince Tarn talked them down. This was a great opportunity for a DoW but I stuck to the basic rules. With a G4 oratory (!), Tarn easily dispersed the dwarves for a while. He then noticed Fayne and Gretchen watching from the doorstep of their shop, at which point he approached them and questioned them. They agreed to meet in the tavern for a discussion in a half hour. Tarn headed back to the tavern.

At this point, the storm was really picking up, lashing rain, lightning streaking across the sky. The peasants were getting spooked and I had them approach the barn in a big mob, looking for the wise woman. She let them in and used her herbalism skill to create “calming draughts” for the peasants. They were being pretty rowdy and Bethilda didn’t want those dwarves to discover her, so she tried to send the peasants home with a persuasion test. Well, she failed, but they still went home. Very loudly. They burst the doors open, feeling brave thanks to the draught, at which point the PCs saw one of the dwarves from before watching from the tavern window. He looked right at Bethilda, frowned, then disappeared from the window.

That’s where the session ended. I didn’t keep track of the tests because I felt it would have slowed down gameplay - I really hope I can remember what was tested. Maybe it would be faster just to jot down Bethilda - Ob 3 Herbalism test, and then mark the test later? Though it says that advancement happens as soon as the requirements are met, so… Maybe I should print out those GM sheets.

Now that I’ve done this recap, I think the session went pretty well. Maybe I was not feeling so good about it because I felt like I was scrambling with an unfamiliar system. I also wish there had been more BIT action going on.

Thanks for reading this, anyone who does!

Any further suggestions?

It sounds like you were tracking tests for your players. IMHO that’s not a great idea; it slows you down, makes them more disconnected from the game, and makes it harder to track advancement. If it’d take too long for them to work out the difficulty of a test as they go just get them to grab a sheet of paper and write down test Attribute/Skill, Obstacle and Dice and work out the difficulty of the test afterwards.

You can even write the rough equation for difficulty at the top: Challenging if Dice<Ob, Difficult if Dice<=Ob*1.5, Routine otherwise. It’s not completely exactly correct, but it’s good enough.

Your first session sounds like fun.
If you were tracking tests yourself, it’s a good idea to have a player not in a scene track tests for you, that way you can get on with the scene.

Players should track their own tests. Don’t worry about burning up NPCs at first. Decide the few things they’re good at and give them B4 or B5. if they need another skill, make it a B3. Add beliefs and instincts as needed. Once they’re important you can burn em.

Do note that Relationship NPCs should be full-burned, and do so with the input of the player who paid for that Relationship.


What I did for my campaign is the players and I spent about a month before the BW game started creating the setting together. We did so via group emails while playing other games in the meanwhile. We started by tossing around a few broad ideas, then chose one and expanded, expanded, expanded. I let the players fill in whatever details they wanted. Controversial choices would go to a vote. The homebrew world really took on a life of its own as a result, and we’ve all immensely enjoyed storytelling in it.

Also, make sure you prep well for the first adventure, as has been mentioned above. The rest of the campaign will sort itself out, but the first adventure will feel clumsy if some prep-work isn’t put in.