Trepidation and Intimidation

So, I’ve been looking at starting a new fantasy campaign, and, in querying people on Twitter (@markmeredith, BTW), came the suggestion for Burning Wheel. Now, I’ve owned Burning Wheel for a long time. I got the Revised edition when it was first released, and demanded my brother pick up the Gold edition for me at GenCon when it came out last year.

But I’ve never played it.

I love the game. I do. I look over all the pages, absorbing the rules, loving the lifepaths. I’ve played and loved Mouseguard.

But I can’t seem to build up the courage to run Burning Wheel.

What is it about it? I don’t know. Fear of screwing it up? Sure. The game is so elegant, I’m afraid I won’t do it justice. Fear of not being clever enough? Definitely. The Duel of Wits seems to really require a bit of thinking and planning. The fact that I feel like I’d have to design each and every monster with the Monster Burner? Definitely.

I need your help. What is the best way to play this thing? Should I run a one-shot with just the Hub? Work out to the spokes form there? Any help is appreciated.

Can’t stress this one enough - Use The Hub Only to begin with.

There are a number of other tips you’ll get, such as running the Sword first, and I will not disagree with this, but that’s my main one.

After having played for almost a year now, I can say that it’s actually pretty hard to get it wrong. Sure, you might regret some decisions and you might fiddle with the nuances, but basically a BWG session for me is a lot of riff and interaction between everyone at the table, now and then interrupted by some really high stakes die rolling (usually involving most people around the table as well) to decide where the story heads next. That’s the heart of it, to me.

Storapan speaks the truth. Play the first few sessions only using rules from the hub and spokes sections only (that would be everything in the free Hub and Spokes PDF in the store). You can get a lot of mileage using only the Hub and Spokes, the sample Obs in the skills list, plus a few bits from the Rim (Circles mostly, Resources and Injury will come up occasionally but are more for reference when you’re teaching/learning the game). Anyway, once everyone is comfortable with the core of the game, start bringing in stuff from the Rim slowly and not introducing new stuff until everyone gets comfortable with what they have just been given. You also shouldn’t feel like you need to do a one-shot with the Hub and then restart with all the rules, the “bringing in parts of the game” process works just as well at the start of a full campaign and won’t feel awkward like a hard reset three or four sessions in will.

In short, don’t cheat the players (don’t reduce Obs, don’t let everyone start out super powerful, etc…), don’t hack the game so that it players differently. Instead, play the game as written and only use the core part of the game until everyone knows how it works.

Oh, one other thing. Start your game simple. Give a nice big issue for them to write their beliefs against, directly confront those beliefs, and let the players push the game forward. Don’t worry about being clever, or a badass in a Duel of Wits, or having every opponent fully burned from day one; there’s plenty of time down the road for that. In the end it’s a pretty forgiving game as long as you follow the rules and only bring in new stuff when people are ready for it.

Good luck, enjoy learning the game!

Another bit of advice: try to avoid giving out too much cash-on-hand early in the game. My experience is that this leads to Beliefs about what the PC’s are going to do with their new found wealth, which leads to the Resources System getting brought in in a big way, probably before the player’s are ready for it. If you do end up having to dole out the CoH early (for example, like in my game, because the party took down the cultists faster than expected, and had previously rolled very well on the Haggling roll to establish what their reward for that was going to be), try bringing in NPC relationships who demand part or all of the money be spent on them, thus preventing the PCs from getting to big for their britches in terms of using the money to fund long term enterprises.

Some more tips:

  1. Convince yourself that mistakes are your best friend. It’s how you learn. I tell my kids this all the time and its true.
  2. Keep it simple. The rules themselves recommend using simple human emotions: love, loyalty, jealousy, greed. Make your game about human emotions that you understand.
  3. Regarding the Monster Burner, it seems a lot easier after some mileage, but don’t even use it at first. Just using the stocks in BWG and MonBu and the pre-made ones in Monster Burner is plenty.

I get the issue of game “stage fright”. BW is one of those games that tends to sell/unsell players a lot based on what they first see of it - which means some groups will be unforgiving and unwilling to give a little learning space for everyone involved.

Luckily, you’ve got some Mouse Guard under your belt, so it’s not all brand new.

Start with a set scenario and pregens, that covers the intimidation to players and time consumption. Then play. Start with the basic rules, add complexities another time.

I had folks have a great time with a ultra-stripped down Burning Wheel in just an hour:


That is an inspirational example Yeloson. I did something similar with an improvised Ancient Egyptian game, mid con, to illustrate that BITS were really all you needed to run a BW setting. Even though it worked, my approach was not as well thought out as your execution.

Well done, and a good read as well.


Fantastic! If you don’t mind, I’ll be talking a bit about this on my blog.

Go ahead! The last year I’ve been introducing a lot of folks to roleplaying for the first time, and while this ultra-slim BW is one I can run pretty easy, I did a super stripped down D&D last month as well.

It always comes down to how do you get players playing the HEART of whatever the game has to offer as quickly as possible? We need to shift gears from “play gets good by the 3rd session” to “play gets good in 10-15 minutes” otherwise, most people will default to another brand of fun they already prefer (whether that’s an existing rpg system they already know, or Angry Birds on their phone…).

If I wanted to do something not as stripped down as that, I’d give the players pre-gens with: core stats, 5-8 skills, and have them work around Beliefs and Instincts, perhaps with 1 set for each character to fit the scenario already.

When folks see the flow of Artha, FORKs, Help, and Linked tests, and if they like that, then you can talk about the more detailed resolutions and what they offer.