Running A BW Dungeon Crawl

I’m gearing up to run a BW in the near future and a big focus is going to be dungeon crawling. I don’t want to use the word megadungeon, but the focus of the campaign will be exploring a single, large environment (the dungeon is both above and below ground) that is tied to the larger situation. I am not looking for recommendations to play Torchbearer - I love that game, but the focus is less on resource management and more on unraveling the mystery around the location.

Specific questions:

Mapping: how much detail do you use in mapping a dungeon for BW? I know that the level of detail you would for a D20 game is inappropriate, but is it enough to have the dungeon sketched, with some high level notes on each room, and a few gaps to be filled in during play?

Traps: This is semi-related to drawing the map, but how have you handled traps? An obvious way seems to use them as a complication in failure, but how would you handle a location that is trapped (ie if the players don’t check or take caution, it goes off)?

Places of Magical Power: one of the ideas for a room is a vast chamber full of lit, slowly burning candles. Each one represents a living soul in the nearby city and snuffing it could potentially kill them. Mechanically, if this ever affected a character my thinking is that it would trigger some kind of test (Health, Forte, Will, etc) and the margin of success would determine how often the character begins taking wounds (a quest would then be to locate and relight said candle). My question is: is this level of magic too powerful for BW?

Magic Systems: Faith, Death Art, Sorcery, and Blood Magic all feel right but I’m wondering what else might fit. This is more about character options - each player would be restricted to a single subsystem (except Blood Magic). Anything else particularly well-suited to crawling?

In addition to those questions, would love to hear any general advice, watchlits, or problems from anyone who has run a dungeon-focused game.

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For the question about traps there is a section on them in the codex that might help

We ran many dungeon crawls using BW and in many ways it’s actually easier than in D&D.

Here’s a thread from last year with more advice:


Here’s my take on your specific topics:

Mapping - Your inclination is correct. Since we used old D&D modules, there were maps already to use. But in no way did we make use of their level of detail. Maybe a better approach is something like the old Zork maps. That is, it never mattered the dimensions of the room nor the exact details. Descriptions should be vague enough so that Wises, Failures, and other tests can alter the place as needed. Tracking where you are wasn’t really important until it meant a juicy result. For instance, the players wanted to Scavenge enough material to make new torches. Failure meant that they wandered around too much and now were lost.

Traps: Mostly handled as failure results. Now, if there is a chest that holds the fantastic prize and you want it to be trapped, tell the players that it is trapped. Now what will they do? Indiana Jones knew that the gold idol was trapped, he tested, failed, and the result was a Speed test to outrun the boulder. That is Belief-driven traps as opposed to random ones.

Places of Magical Power: Your idea is insane. Haha! That’s so incredibly powerful. Unless it’s directly Belief-driven and the players have researched it and understand its use, then this needs to be axed. How unfair would it be to randomly present this in a dungeon with them having no idea why or how it works?

Magic Systems: It’s wise to restrict the Magic system, but other than that, they all can be useful in a dungeon environment. However, Faith, Sorcery and Art Magic will have many more practical applications.


Thanks! This was super helpful. Glad to know my instincts were correct around the map.

That callout in traps is super helpful. Makes sense that obvious ones could be a source of tension to challenge beliefs.

As to the magic place idea, hearing that my idea is insane tells me I’m onto something but it needs to be tweaked. It sounds like an element that would need to be introduced prior to them encountering it - ie, they learn if The Hall of Souls through a Circles test or a Wise and then write a Belief about it. Or maybe it’s explicitly called out in our Situation Burning (which hasn’t happened yet).

One last question around magic: if I wanted to use Corruption, are there any issues with restricting who it would apply to? My thinking is that anyone practicing Sorcery (or one of the other magic subsystems) would be required to take it but I don’t want any Faithful characters to have it.

I’ve no experience using Corruption, though it seems intended for Sorcerous skills and not Faith.

I also want to state that Random Encounters are not a thing in BW dungeons. They make excellent failure results, though.

Oh yeah, there definitely wasn’t going to be a randomly stocked dungeon a la D&D. I’ve run lots of BW but the game has usually been focused on high stakes drama/politics rather than a more traditional dungeon.

Speaking of creatures though, I definitely have some mean undead sketched out for this.

looks over at a setting that was to be Torchbearer, realizes it’s actually Burning Wheel

Well, this was helpful!

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I’m currently running a Dungeon-Crawl-ish style game. The actual play is on YT:

I completely understand your abjection to Torchbearer. I think it’s a book of interesting ideas and tweaks on the usual BW formula, but it feels completely and severely lacking in the shadow of Burning Wheel. That said, the two have some not-incompatible mechanics. (I haven’t done this yet, but I’m thinking of lifting the Wises mechanics to replace BW wises, for example).

Anyway, when it comes to running adventures, me and my players all love exploration and mystery, but they’re not big on random encounters; so I’ve almost completely removed them. I let players explore their first time through an area with only set-piece encounters and planned events. Then if they re-trace a path, have to backtrack, etc. then I get them to test Orienteering, Navigation, Spelunking, or something similar to travel the distance; and if they fail then I spring an encounter based on margin of failure.

Because of the focus on exploration, myself and my players LOVE maps. But I don’t like using them for battles. I prefer theatre of the mind. I made a melee hack recently that fits a more traditional OSR style combat system into the game too, which I’ve used, and which works very, but (ironically) doesn’t actually suit my play-style that much: Still you might get some use out of it!

I don’t use traps often. When I do it’s usually in one of two forms: An thing that pretty much explicitly says “this is a trap”, and disarming it is a puzzle, which punishes the players for wrong answers; or as a failure consequence for other tests. (E.g. pick-locking this chest, if you fail you still open it but it’s trapped). I don’t like reactionary traps, because I want to avoid players moving too cautiously or poking everything they see with a 10 foot pole. I like players to know when they’re about to get hit by a trap, so that if they still get hit by it it’s 100% their fault.

Magic breaks everything. Don’t try to account for it, just accept that certain things you carefully designed will get instantly broken or bypassed by magic and clever thinking. At least in the early dungeons. But if your world is self-consistent, then the original in-world dungeon-designers would eventually learn to start incorporating ant-magic related mechanisms and wards into their buildings.

I run with Faith, a custom mix of Sorcery and Summoning as one skill (i.e. Vancian magic), Enchanting, and Corruption. Just remember to give some spells to your villains too. And honestly, for some villains, I’ve started giving them spells that they can cast without testing: Because seeing an NPC fuck their own spells up and ruin the encounter is less fun.

Your places of power idea seems not necessarily ‘too powerful’, but it sounds purely narrative to me. As in, don’t even bother trying to mechanise it. But make it properly signalled to players that this what the candles do. If it does get used on them, let them spend Persona for a complication; instead of hitting them with a Mortal Wound and forcing them to Will to Live + 9 months of infirmary bed-time.

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