"The Wheels of Change" - How do you GMs handle big events going on in the background?

I always create characters and groups who exist outside the immediate action, but who are nevertheless opposed to the players… Important groups with their own agendas… I ensure that beyond the situation and the setting, something Big is happening in the background - the wheels of change are grinding on. The players might never directly encounter this change, but even just mentioning it enriches the game… They should be scary… these rumblings are a way for the GM to indicate that Beliefs are being challenged whether you’re there or not. (Codex pages 70-72)

How do GMs balance having background plot and world building, and the PC’s beliefs? I’ve seen some people really emphasize that the GM shouldn’t be making anything up beyond the scope of player beliefs, but this advice quoted above in the Codex seems to emphasize the need for GMs to create a living world disinterested in the PC’s beliefs.

Also, what’s a good way of managing background events, groups, and people?

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Hi @JcraftW! I was waiting to see if other folks would jump in on this topic, but the idea of the Big Picture is extremely important to me—and to the functioning of Burning Wheel.

The most essential point here is that game masters* need to provide Big Picture elements in order to make Beliefs meaningful.

For example, let’s examine a Belief such as “I will claim my uncle the duke’s title no matter the cost.”

It’s a solid directive. Everyone at the table knows what motivates this character. The Belief also provides a crucial signal to the game master to create a compelling antagonist.

However, there’s more depth beneath that simple, solid Belief. To give the Belief the barest credibility, the game master needs to answer a series of rather obvious questions:

  • Duke of what? Who and what does he rule over?
  • If the uncle is a duke, who is his overlord? A king? An emperor?
  • Is the uncle a tyrannical, incompetent, corrupt or benevolent ruler?
  • Does his crown lay heavy on his head or is he a careless ruler?
  • What is the aristocracy and nobility like in this land?
  • If the duke is the uncle, who are the protagonist’s parents? What is their relationship like?

While the above questions and their answers begin to sketch a big picture, they are still not enough for a functional game of BW. The game master must now step in and provide adversity—direct and indirect—to challenge this belief. The first and most direct challenge regards the duke himself: What type of opponent is he? Powerful? Cunning? Cowardly? Licentious? Creating the character of the antagonist is the game master’s responsibility. But the game master must go further and provide answers to the following questions:

  • If the duke is deposed, what happens? Will chaos erupt?
  • How does his overthrow affect his duchy? Will his people be liberated or will someone or something worse flow in?
  • How do the people of the duchy view their overlord? Do they want him overthrown or do they merely want justice for their hurts?
  • How does this change in his duchy affect the kingdom/empire? Is the duke sitting on valuable trade routes? Fertile agriculture? Important border fortresses? Mineral resources?
  • And, by far the most important question: How does the duke’s ouster affect the character’s relationship with his or her parents?

With these answers, the web begins to take form. Yet, the game master must go further in this investigation:

  • Who also wants to see the duke overthrown? Why are they so motivated?
  • Who wants to keep the duke in power? And why are they so motivated?

And now, after spending a few minutes inventing answers to these questions, the game master is adequately equipped to engage in the first campaign of play. They can challenge the belief directly from the beginning and, here is the real answer to your question, the game master has ammunition to provide challenges that lead the player deeper into the consequences of their actions and, subsequently, deeper into the world. Without these answers, it’s simply not possible to challenge this Belief in a meaningful way.

Because The Big Picture is merely an encapsulation of the consequences of pursuing Beliefs and depth of immersion those actions create—or in plainer language, the shared world of the game.

And to address your question about management: I hope you can see that I am suggesting that the game master use a light touch here. Visualize the web that surrounds the player’s goals and priorities. Build an interconnecting web of consequences around those priorities that also honor and sketch the boundaries of the world you’ve agreed to play in. When the players push to accomplish their goals, incorporate the elements you’ve imagined in order to demonstrate the effects of their actions as well as the richness of the world.

Hope that helps. Happy to clarify if I haven’t addressed your concerns.

-L

*To clarify that while this process does focus on the game master’s primary role, I must acknowledge that the players do also play their role. Creating the Big Picture is collaborative in that the players contribute to world burning and they create our protagonists, many antagonists and supporting cast through their choices in character burning.

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I was going to write something up after I finished my shift, but it looks like Luke has said most of what I was going to say far better, and more authoritatively.

What I will instead say is firstly that you element missing from “the GM shouldn’t be making anything up beyond the scope of player beliefs” is that the gameworld is the medium through which the player’s beliefs are brought to life. Without the world “existing” and Beliefs being challenged despite the presence of the characters, the Beliefs are meaningless, and the players are tilting at windmills. The opposite extreme is just as bad: the world needs to feel like it can exist without the characters, but the world also needs to be responsive to the players, otherwise things just will not work.

The overcorrection here is, I think, because the “common knowledge” of many RPGs is that you can write a module, adventure, or entire campaign and you might not even have to change the serial numbers as you run it for the characters your players bring to the table. Burning Wheel abhors that idea; you cannot run Burning Wheel without the world customising itself to the characters to a degree, via the process Luke describes and in other ways. Hence the advice most people coming from other games to BWG need to hear is not “here’s how you build an entire world in your head” but “here’s how you make sure you and your players are building a world that challenges their characters and creates a game where the pivotal question is not what you fight, but what you fight for” which often involves doing less.

As for what might have been your question, “how do you mechanise or use that”, I have tried so many different methods over the years.
My three favourites are:

Telling the players that their characters know “X will achieve Y aim by Z if not prevented” and then waiting to see how the characters react. That’s how I manage groups, usually, but can mean that I know an event will happen at Z or X can be a person.

Keeping a list of NPCs jotted down and trying to reintroduce them. You want to overthrow your uncle, the Duke? You’ve seen his physician before, and when you need a physician quickly after a duel, it’s the same person! Groups work similarly. It comes across as really prepared instead of super lazy, which is a plus.

“X thing would be really mean” I think whilst driving in the car. Then, next session, when they ask me what the failure consequence is, knowing I’m honour-bound to give them success if I can’t come up with something interesting, I tell them that thing I thought would be heartlessly cruel and see them scrabble for every die to avoid it. The meanest things I think of end up as failure consequences.

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Those are excellent clarifications and further points, my friend!

I hope I didn’t seem like I was throwing shade on the lack of response. I meant that rather than me squatting in every thread and bloviating, I try to create a space here for you all to discuss and interpret the rules. I learn quite a bit about the game by reading the discussions here!

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This is a great question! You’ve given me an opportunity to analize my process, what I do when GM.

What I usually do is pitch a very vague big picture, a type of campaign as categorized in the AdBu/Codex (Quest, struggle, Intrigue), and what stocks, settings, and magic systems I’m interested in exploring. Sometimes its the players who come to me with a request or desire to explore some aspect of the game e.g.‘We want to play wolves!’, ‘I want to do spirit binding’, ‘I want to play a ranger wielding two swords’.
Once this is established, the players think up concepts and we do a bjack and forth between characters and setting, and define a situation. They burn their characters, and I incorporate their relationships and affiliations, and also their beliefs into the setting, in a manner similar to what Luke describes above, i.e. I ask what are the necessary elements for those aspects of their characters to feel real. “A man cannot defend himself with chains on his arms” necessitates slavery. Is it endemic, institutional, confined to a small place?
A hated close family relationship of a priest suggests many diff avenues. We tend to discuss these things with the players. Once there’s critical mass in the setting, you can create without so much consulting, as those items you add are usually logical extrapolations of what the group has already defined.
Once in play, I like to think worldbuilding is my almost exclusive prerogative with the exception of wises. I give players lots of power to form the setting through wises, and only veto something when not only contradicts an established fact, but absolutely negates it.

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Thank you everyone for the detailed replies. I appreciate it. (it’s taken me a few days to finally have time to go over everything)

@luke: What you mention in your first post - i think - reinforces how I’ve been handling worldbuilding. My group is all pretty new to role playing in general, and we kind of fumbled through our session 0’s situation burning. We ended up with two rather vague factions, no specific NPC’s created, and our PCs. But, I was able to set up and establish the fiction of the factions between sessions to give the players something that was concrete, and that directly challenged their beliefs.

The questions you mention - especially the third set about motivations - are useful and similar to the questions I asked myself when diving a little into the worldbuilding. Looking at the agreed upon situation + the player beliefs I was able to come up with a sort of “motivation matrix” and use that as the basis to create different opposing and allied groups. I believe the factions are essentially extrapolations of the the player’s beliefs (or the opposite thereof). It’s all still very vague and lite, just single sentence motivations, goals, and possible future Bangs.

One thing I’m looking for is to what extent should I have background forces be active? What I mean is that I want to: 1) create pressure by adding mobile forces of opposition - urgency. The big bad is trying to accomplish his goal which is antithetical to the players beliefs. Should I set up calendars? Play it completely by ear? Make every failed roll advance the Big bad’s agenda? Is there a middle ground? 2) I want the world to feel dynamic and alive. I know I could just improvise and start making stuff up, but I’m wondering if there is a good way to manage/develop events/groups in the background organically and consistently. (EDIT: I just realized the word I was looking for was “mechanically”. Is there a way to “mechanize” the mounting pressure of background forces, and to mechanize dynamic world forces/events. Even in a simple, abstract way.)

Not sure if what I’m trying to convey makes sense or not. I have very little actual experience with ttrpgs. If you have any advice (even if it’s just “No, that’s not how you play this game”) it would be helpful. Thank you!

@Why: What you said about the gameworld being the medium through which the player’s beliefs are brought to life hit home for me. I’ve seen so much advice about how important improv is in this game and gotten advice that sounded rather extreme regarding how directly any individual element should tie into PC beliefs that I was hesitant to do anything which didn’t directly attack player beliefs.

I feel this explains the confusion I’ve had regarding BW worldbuilding advice in the past. Burning Wheel is the first RPG book I’ve ever actually read. I’ve played a bit of someone’s d20 homebrew 10 years ago, but that’s the extent of my experience. So my mindset going into this isn’t very skewed by other games. Maybe the advice others gave me (in other forums) about dampening how much worldbuilding to do is mainly meant for those with a different background than me.

Your XYZ approach sounds like a good idea. While looking for answers to my question I had come across the PbtA concept of “Progress Clocks” and “Faction Clocks”. Seems like something that could be incorporated into a BW campaign pretty seamlessly: A new force comes into play, display a segmented countdown and tell everyone what will happen at the end of the count down. Anytime players fail important, relevant tests (or otherwise push this part of the story forward) the clock ticks forward causing visible change till eventually a large belief-related, setting-related event happens that the players failed to prevent or simply allowed to happen. Maybe that’s not in the spirit of BW, I’m not sure.

This is nice and simple. I like it. It makes me realize there are a few NPC’s that players encountered that I didn’t bother naming or taking a note of but could certainly reappear later. I’ll go ahead and do that.

:rofl: I love this advice. I’ve been casually taking notes of possible situations to really ramp up the pressure for characters and their beliefs. That’s actually what made me start thinking about opposing faction motivations and how to “mechanize” that. “The players believe in a revolution. They also believe in punishing criminals. What if I make a faction who’s willing and able to help the revolution in a meaningful way, but their a bunch of ruthless, wicked crime lords?” Then I got on thinking more deeply about our world’s different factions, and how I need to be handling/developing them.

@krinnen Thanks for the good thoughts on worldbuilding. I’ve always been a bit confused on the difference between “Big Picture” and “Situation”. I’ve read through them a few times and each time I come away a little confused about the semantics of it all.

Anyways, what we ended up doing was everyone pitching different plot ideas in a document, one-three sentences for each idea - 20 or so. Basically movie tag-lines. Then we voted on our favorites. Tallied them up and burned up characters for the winner (after an hour or so of fleshing out what the game would be like). That still left a lot of gaps - we didn’t even name the setting. My players didn’t make any personal antagonists, or buy any relationships, so I had a lot of wiggle room and not a lot to build off besides their lifepaths and beliefs.

This is something I would have liked to have heard between my session 0 and 1. It sounds like very good advice and clarifies a lot for me.

Awesome response. Glad to hear you’re on board :smiley:

Faction Clocks to me are “OK” in Burning Wheel. They really work in Blades in the Dark, a game where you don’t want the players to ‘break stealth’ or otherwise raise the alarm too early or it shatters everything. I’ll try and explain why I to be wary, but I can’t reference page numbers properly because we’re getting into a bit of philosophy that I’m not sure is addressed in the books themselves.

In Burning Wheel, they feel like they can be nicked, but they turn a base assumptions on their head and therefore need explanation to the players if you’re using them: they incrementalise consequences, and because of how BWG works they do that in a foreseeable way. They do not let you succeed or fail utterly. They are OOC (which is a minor point).

In Blades and PbtA, you don’t know your consequences until you fail. Consequences happen even on success most of the time (mixed success is default in those games). That adds tension because you don’t know which clock will tick, if any, or how much, until you’ve failed and been told. On the other hand, in Burning Wheel you’re honour-bound to tell players the consequences before they roll. (I have a longstanding agreement that if my players ask me and I can’t give an answer they can automatically succeed at their Intent to help keep me honest). That removes tension, because the clock loses its immediacy and mystique for the roll. Each roll becomes a little less meaningful if it’s not the last.

Normally, I’d fulfil the same function in Burning Wheel by making the whole hog a failure consequence or an unavoidable event, or I’d incrementalise it as a failure consequence in an in-universe manner: if it’s a long-term project then the players know they are working for it, then I’d make a concrete step towards it. Say the Bookburners want to bring down the Library, a consequence might be “this person you’re upsetting will tell the Bookburners about the Occult section so they have a Witness to Witchcraft for the Court”. Getting enemies together, leaving evidence, and introducing badness is all good for consequences.

That said, if you’re going to benefit from having a handy and quick set of clocks per faction to remind you of both the immediacy of their goals and their specific current priorities, then I would never tell you it’s a bad idea. I do it myself from time to time, especially when there are enough organisations at a distance from the players that I’ll forget what they were trying to do if I don’t. I just don’t give them to the players and every step must have justification, including steps backwards.


Your specific criminal faction to support their aims but undermine their ethics? Absolutely perfect. Write it down, and if you don’t find a better way to introduce it, then a failed Circles Test sounds like a good bet. If no-one gets Mouldbreaker that session, then explain why and how they could have (assuming they have a little less knowledge of the rules than yourself).

No relationships at character burning? I’d honestly (I know it’s too late) have stomped my foot and insisted at least one person buys someone. Hopefully it’s mostly sorted out now, but relationships are not only powerful in terms of story agency, but even hateful ones can be useful for a player because they’re reliable. I’d probably also look to their Instincts to see what type of adversity they are implying the will face.

Make sure they know they can find friends and allies with Circles (but then show them enemies and fair weather friends when they fail).


I showed this thread to my long running group, and the following was added:
In Luke’s example, you should also ask:
“What is the Duke currently up to? If the player does nothing about the Duke (maybe because they’re involved in other Beliefs) what does the Duke do?”
I’d also add some thoughts like that for the people working for and against the Duke, in Luke’s example. In this game, one PC spent Winter reconnecting with his wife instead of preparing for an upcoming battle against his enemies, and they spent that whole time knowing that the enemy would be spending the Winter marshalling their forces, but he failed a Resources test and could not stand having a broken roof; it was a higher priority than building palisades or training, and it was an exceptional session.

Another player said “When Why tells us that thing Why thought would be heartlessly cruel and watches us scrabble for every die to avoid it. I resemble this comment!” So at least you know the failure consequence method has fans>

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Honestly, I love calendars. I’ve been using them for years in our Orphans campaign. For each day, I keep a tiny journal of actions/tests, plotting the results time-based tests into the future days/weeks/months. I will also log notable NPC events, “M 1, D 2: General So&So’s army arrives at the capital.” Or “M 3, D23: The Emperor is due to arrive at the front.” Or “M 6, D13: The Baron presents the forged writ to the emperor.”

These are not doom-clocks like in Blades! I keep a journal so I don’t forget (because our campaigns can grow ridiculously complex).

So how do I decide on which pieces to move and how long it takes them to develop? Well, each of those three examples are based on the results of PC actions or opportunities to challenge PC beliefs.

The campaign is gearing up for war!

  • The players hate General So&So, therefore he is the obvious pick to lead the emperor’s forces in the field.
  • The players do not expect the emperor, therefore he makes a nice twist once they get too comfortable. But I can also use failed tests at court to bring his attention to the front.
  • The players forge an imperial writ that forces an antagonistic baron under their command! They pass this test to create the writ and impose it on the baron. But even so, that thing is now a ticking time-bomb. At some point, during a break in the fighting, the players KNOW the baron is going to verify with the imperial court. It’s a clock ticking in a crocodile, dogging their steps.

For the timing of these, I try to make them as inconvenient as possible—but also fully credible. I never want the players feeling that I’ve screwed them. I want them to hear what’s happening as a result of their actions and think “of course that terrible thing happens now!”

The other tool at your disposal as a game master is failure. I will re-emphasize that the set up described in my initial post has two key purposes:

  1. to set the frame of initial challenges
  2. to provide context for creating credible failures

Without this light world burning process, it’s not possible to develop meaningful failure results.

As noted in Why’s response, this second point gets at why the doom-clock mechanic doesn’t work in Burning Wheel. The game master must have the freedom to be responsive to the player’s beliefs and to be able to react to their tasks with stark failure results that in turn challenge their beliefs.

Thus, a BW game master must be of two minds regarding the world. The first mind is the present one: What failure result will intensify this situation (but not destroy the campaign)? The second mind: What off-stage, behind-the-scenes forces are moving forward with their own plans to intersect with the players’ Beliefs?

The first mind is fairly well covered in the system and the commentary, but I admit that the second mind is a meta shadow that is difficult to systemize. The game master must use the answers to my questions to “burn the world” (as we used to say) and then bend each aspect of that world back in on the characters. Some of the bends in those arcs are short and immediate. Others need more time to complete their parabola. And, most important, as the Beliefs shift due to success and failure, some of those arcs may change or simply fade away unused. The game master must feel this out using the world burning answers, PC beliefs and the failure results (and compromises) that emerge from play.

The subtlety of the second mind requires that the game master have a vision for the world and its conflicts—and they must love it more than the other players. Because they must hold the image of the world, its inhabitants and their inevitable destruction in their hearts throughout the life of the game.

Lastly, the game master must hold onto another ephemeral quality—finality. For any Burning Wheel campaign to function, there must exist a fundamental contradiction between the faces of the end and eternity. The far-reaching face: This world will end no matter what the characters accomplish—yet if they gather enough power into themselves, they might preserve it. And the intimate face: If the characters do nothing, their enemies will destroy their world and triumph tomorrow; if they act, they might fail but it’s their only chance to live to another day.

The atmosphere of Burning Wheel campaign should feel like the world is crumbling at the edges, but there is a slim ray of hope that it could survive if only for the tireless efforts of a few heroic individuals.

Thanks for the discussion. Hope this all helps!
-L

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Have you ever heard of Hitchcock’s Bomb Theory? Rather than have a restaurant randomly explode, show the bomb that’s supposed to go off as the characters dilly dally and focus in on the timer ticking down. “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”

It seems to me that some sort of “clock”/“timer” or other mechanism would serve this purpose. Ooc or in character, tell the players what’s at stake if antagonistic forces continue unopposed, then make a publicly visible countdown. For some failure consequences, do your regular failure, but add “you’ll also tick this clock forward.” Of course what the clock is ticking forward to must be important to some beliefs at the time you make it. That way - I’d imagine - that would start ramping up tension because they know what horrors failure & laziness will bring them.

I’m largely forming these thoughts as I’m replying, and this sounds like what I was thinking.

Brilliant idea. Circles is one of my favorite mechanics, but we haven’t had much use of it yet. I’ll start recommending my players use it more when they’re in a jam.

Yeah, like I said previously, we’re all very new at this so there are bumps in the process. Like, they were on board with the idea of world burning together, but once we started it got a bit overwhelming. We’ve also had players that were supposed to be there, that didn’t show up, so we just had to start without them. Now some of them have joined in later sessions. Suffice to say, we did NOT have the ideal BW session 0 haha. But we’ve brute forced and improvised our way through that and have some recurring characters to form relationships with.

I think this kind of distills down what I’m looking for into a single question. Thank you. I’ll add that to my notes for session prep!

:rofl: “Fans” or “victims?”

What you said reminds me of my player’s comment: “JcraftW, this game is SO HARD. You keep on putting us in the WORST situations!” I had a good laugh and they scrambled for dice.

Thanks for the great response. I think I’ll have to mull over it a little more to fully grasp it. But one thing you said immediately brings up a question:

I’ve been wondering about the balance between long-term consequences and changed beliefs. If, in the pursuit of their beliefs, they anger some thug, but later their beliefs all become about something completely unrelated “They want to move to a new land,” it would seem wrong to drop the previously established/implied consequences just because they no longer have beliefs tied to these issues.

Sure, in the bad example I just gave, their new belief could be challenged by the thug. But when you say be willing to drop arcs as beliefs shift, I wonder what a good example of that would be. Unless you’re simply talking about background elements I’ve invented in my head, but not yet implemented in game. I could see dropping that if there’s no concrete reason to keep it.

Don’t let them skate the consequences of their actions just by changing their Beliefs. Let them know that those consequences are coming back to bite them; prevent them from changing Beliefs if you need to (Pages 54 and 55 of BWGR)

I think the key to this is good faith from all sides. If the arc is a consequence of player decision, but the game naturally drifts away from that – enforcing the consequence isn’t necessary for maintaining your theme or tone for the game, isn’t called for by the rules, and/or everyone’s priorities in the game (yours included) focus on other things – then there’s no reason to be beholden to that arc. Do what best serves the game (short and long-term).

Ideally players change their Beliefs beacause they’re gungho about some new endeavor or they’re reacting to some new twist that’s come their way. That means they’re engaging with the game and its world and their characters. Everyone’s excited about the game and the game naturally follows that excitement. It’s a good faith play.

If the players are changing their Beliefs for no good reason – to weasel out of the the consequences of their actions, for instance, or to subvert your tonal and thematic priorities – then you should stick to your guns for sure.

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So, the first and most obvious example is something you’ve absolutely hit on: background elements. But they’re not always background elements to you. My longest running game, Channeling The Wheel, had an initial pitch which included details about Elves, and that the Great Wolves had taught them to sing; I had ideas putting this gradual handover of powers, and an ancient unity of races since dissolved, into the world as a key theme. But no-one played an Elf, or had Beliefs about Elves, and the Great Wolf PC was very tied to the Humans. So I pushed back the border and elves lived further and further away in my head. Its now been 3 years of game or more, and elves haven’t come up as they won’t challenge any beliefs, the only reason they haven’t fully popped out of existence is the player of the Great Wolf mentioned them off-hand once.

On the flip side: I’ve talked about the game I ran that had a bunch of family and village stuff going on. The characters were all about their family for a season or two, but now they’re away from home for an extended period. I’m no longer keeping track in the same way. It doesn’t matter to me if the drunkard knows that the Hunter’s wife was unhappy, because it doesn’t matter to the players. Several small threads were ready to be pulled, but they’ll be swamped by Big Things changing on the way home, so I’m ignoring them. There’s no point in the Swineherd’s age being played up. Maybe he’ll die before they return, but I’m not going to make that a failure consequence when their Beliefs are about the immediate stuff far away!

For a you example: you write this a bunch of criminals with hearts of gold. They want the same thing as the party, but they’re from poor backgrounds and want to get their hands dirty. You plan to introduce them at some point. Then, boom, the party suddenly 180 and don’t care about ethics. They have their own duel of wits and end up on the side of “the ends justify the means”. Suddenly the idea of these criminals agitating beliefs becomes a little less important, so you do your own 180: you have some Extremely Principled Revolutionaries who are going to slow down the party’s plans by insisting everything is done properly and with as little civil disobedience as possible.

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Wow, fun topic!

One of the dangers of going to far with tailoring a Burning Wheel campaign to your player’s BITs is that the campaign can feel too neat and tidy…that everything that is happening is happening to hit the player’s BITs. They are always bumping into their antogonist’s, enemies, allies, etc. Every scene is framed to tickle a fate point.

Don’t do that. Make sure to push some the elements of the setting that you want that don’t hit the BITs specifically. This will help your world feel more real and expand the scope.

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Just here to echo this sentiment. Everyone at the table shpuld have their priorities engaged in play, the GM ain’t exceptional in that.

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