So I have never played Burning Wheel, but I’ve been on a quest to find a system that can run fantasy style hests ala Gentleman Bastards. Needless to say I’ve gotten a couple of recommendations to use BW. So I wanted to figure out - how can I use Burning Wheel to play in worlds of con artistry, acts of thievery, and the criminal underground?
First off, welcome to the forums! I’m going to explain a few features of Burning Wheel and tell you why they’d be good for a heist-based game. As you’re not that familiar with the system, I’m going to try to not get bogged down in the actual mechanics of play – if you’re interested, go ahead and buy a copy of Burning Wheel Gold: you won’t regret it.
In Burning Wheel, a Linked Test is a series of rolls where the outcome of previous rolls affects your ability to succeed in the current roll. In particular, you gain a bonus if you passed the previous test, and incur a penalty if you failed. As an example, a bank robbery might be a Linked Test: You test your Persuasion to convince a guard to give you the location of the blueprints of the Baron’s vault. You succeeded, so you have an advantage on the next test, which is a Stealthy test to break into the home of the Royal Architect and steal the blueprints. You failed this test – you got the blueprints, but woke up the architect. Now there’s extra security at the vault, giving you a disadvantage to the Climbing test you must pass in order climb the walls of the vault without being spotted. In general, any sufficiently difficult and abstract goal – steal the priceless artifact from the vault, assassinate the king, plant a horse’s head in the bed of the local crime boss – can be split up into a linked test. This not only helps the player accomplish the task at hand, but opens up new ways for things to go wrong and alter the course of the characters’ stories.
Intent and Task
In Burning Wheel, a test is a combination of intent and task. If your character wants to sneak into a building and take out the guards, your intent is knock out the guards, and your task is sneak into the building to do so. In this case, your character would test their Stealthy skill. If the test succeeded, then they knocked out the guards, no questions asked. There is no roll to knock out the guards after sneaking in: you stated your intent, and got it. This is just one manifestation of the more abstract nature of Burning Wheel as compared to other systems; it allows the focus of the game to be on the large scale as opposed to the minutiae. Other examples of this include using your Sword skill (task) to get through a room full of weak enemies. There’s no need to explicitly kill each and every enemy; as long as you succeed in the test, you get your intent.
If this worries you in terms of conflict with major enemies (I use my Stealthy to sneak up on the Big Bad Arch-nemesis and kill them), note that the GM, as always, has the power to say, “No, you can’t do that”. Furthermore, there do exist other combat mechanics in Burning Wheel (Bloody Versus and Fight!), which I won’t discuss here (though I can expand on them if you want), but deal with more detailed types of combat.
Duel of Wits
In a world of con artistry, thievery, and crime, an argument with the Mafia leader is much higher stakes than a scuffle with the authorities. Burning wheel has a very detailed social conflict system called the Duel of Wits, in which you script various verbal maneuvers – such as Obfuscate, Rebuttal, and Avoid the Topic – in order to destroy your opponent’s argument. The results of the Duel of Wits are binding (with a few exceptions), and in a political game, the results of a lost Duel of Wits can be more devastating that that of a lost fight. This mechanic is perfectly suited to trials, (and, with the way failure works in Burning Wheel, the characters will likely see their fair share of these)
Failure Complicates the Matter
In Burning Wheel, the GM must announce the consequences of failure before the roll. This is because, in Burning Wheel, failure doesn’t just mean you don’t get what you want – it means something went wrong. To reuse an example, if you’re trying to sneak into a building to take out the guards and you fail, then maybe you take out the guards, but one of them sets off the alarm before you can kill him.
For another example, maybe you’re using Inconspicuous to follow the Count through the city without being noticed. Failure might mean that you’re noticed, but it could also mean that you lost the Count and started following his body double by mistake. Failure should heighten the drama and tension in the story, as well as force the players to seek another means of getting what they want.
Beliefs are the core of Burning Wheel, they drive the characters, and thus, the game. Its all fun to rob banks and hold up caravans, but why is your character doing this? Are they a Robin Hood character, robbing the rich to help the poor and downtrodden? Are they seeking to return stolen artifacts to their rightful owners? Beliefs aren’t just semantic, though – a good BW game should challenge beliefs. What happens when Robin Hood learns that the people who he’s been giving money are being arrested and killed for possession of stolen goods? Or if the “stolen” artifacts were never stolen to begin with?
Characters can have 3 beliefs in BW, so there’s ample room for conflict between a characters beliefs. If your beliefs include: “I must return the Heartstone Gem to its rightful owners, the Wood Elves” and “I vowed to resuce my sister from her forced marriage to the Necromancer Jean-Luc Picard”, what does your character do when he learns that the only way to break the spell on his sister and free her is to destroy the Heartstone Gem? These kinds of clashes are best in already tense moments – a Failed test got you locked in the Duke’s vault, and now you’re having a personal crisis because the only way to escape is to destroy the treasure within.
Though, I should point out that the antics the GB pull off are far from Burning Wheel level of competency. The Locke Lamora books are about a team of hyper-competent con artists, while Burning Wheel is about adventurers who sometimes fail, and fail hard. You’d have to accordingly adjust the Obstacles that you assign to things.
(My personal favorite notion is to use the Leverage RPG, and replace the Hacker role with Alchemist, but that’s something for elsewhere, I think.)
BW can actually do competence just fine. Some of it’s adjusting Obs so it’s not punishingly difficult to do cool things, but a lot of it is making the consequences of failure never be screwing up and looking like an idiot. Misjudgments that blow up in your face, sure. Things getting worse because of insufficient planning or unexpected twists, definitely. Even falling just short in impressive feats because of overestimation of skill. Just don’t go for gross failure of basic tasks, ever.
This is my manifesto for how BW failure should work in general to set the genre and tone of a game. Or rather, it would be my manifesto if I hadn’t already declared another one, remarkably apropos:
That, as I have said elsewhere, could be a manifesto for BW failures.
Thank you for the all the great tips.After hearing this I think I’m shying away less from heists and more about groups of criminals interacting with each other. I think BW could work well for this.
Burning Wheel is fantastic for groups of criminals interacting. I am currently playing a character who is undercover infiltrating the criminal underworld to oust the conspirators behind the many attempts on the kings life. When keeping your cover intact is a belief and protecting innocent life is a belief you end up faking a lot of deaths. This game which is just me and the GM, is the game I have been waiting to play my whole life, but was always stopped by restricting rules of other systems.
So far I have escaped prison. Become the most sought after fugitive from my homeland. Faked many deaths. Covered my tracks with the Arson skill. Walked into my homelands embassy and admitted who I was. And currently I am poised to kill a top level slaver to take over the slave trade for myself so that I can send these slaves to my homeland where they will be free. The kicker is I have worked it out so that my king is buying the slaves from me and setting them free. This way I can continue protecting innocent lives, and I can receive discreet funding from home.
As a BW player and a big fan of the GB, I would say you’ve definitely got the right system in front of you. Locke had very strong beliefs that often landed him in trouble, which is exactly how the BiT system in Burning Wheel functions. I think as long as your players embrace the concept of failing forward, you should have a blast.