What Burning Wheel Needs

Hi guys,

First let me say that Burning Wheel is one of the coolest roleplaying games on my shelf, which is only possessed of the few roleplaying games I think are cool enough to have in physical form. I love the ideas, the concept and the co-authorship; the character depth is just beautiful. But what does it take to run a successful Burning Wheel game?

I attempted my first BW campaign in the summer, to very little success. Despite much time spent with the rulebook, I was getting caught up all the time, snagging my proverbial storytelling cloak on the proverbial bush that is the rules. There was a lack of fluidity for me, and everything felt as heavy as a ton of bricks. In each session my players, including myself, were yawning heavily within the first hour, and our brains hurt from the intensity of what we were doing. Nobody could come up with a solid enough Belief, Instincts weren’t happening (no fault of my own). I don’t think people were having as much fun playing their characters as they had creating them. It felt like a real slog each week. Eventually the campaign just died out.

Believe me when I say I was deeply disappointed. I knew how wondrous the things inside the BWG pages were – why weren’t they working in play? I asked myself. I have a background running and playing Dungeons & Dragons, as many roleplayers do. I was sure my experience in running that game would transfer over to BW, as I was a preparation minimalist and improvised much of my D&D game, and apparently, BW takes even less prep than other roleplaying games as the players are supposed to drive the story with their Beliefs. But I found when the sessions began, I didn’t know what to do. I felt lost, groping in the dark without a lamp – or my glasses. The ease with which I improvise my D&D games vanished, like a spell from a parallel universe that didn’t even exist in this one. This was nothing like D&D. Maybe I didn’t have what it takes to be a Burning Wheel GM. But my question then came to rest upon my players. Was it their fault that the campaign was a flop? Were they too dependent on the hooks and plot lines that I chose not to dish out? I normally run a pretty open-ended game, with little to no railroading. But how to do this in Burning Wheel?

I have come to the conclusion, after a very successful session of Realm Guard, run with a very small group of very passionate roleplayers, that Burning Wheel is not a game for casual players. While that session of Realm Guard played out in a very linear fashion (which is the nature of Mouse Guard), my small, dedicated group was able to squeeze tons of juice out of their characters and the story I gave them. They didn’t balk or pale at the idea of creating Good Beliefs for their characters. They were willing to explore the intensity of the system with me and approached the game as I did – with hope and interest, seeking a deeper roleplaying experience.

My Belief: It takes a special, passionate, and dedicated group of players to run a successful game of Burning Wheel.

I think Burning Wheel is a game for a very specific kind of player, and those people are rare. But if you can pull them together in one place, I believe that Burning Wheel will be a roleplaying experience that has more depth and meaning than any other system out there. I hope to run another campaign of Burning Wheel in the future, but I will only do so if I am lucky enough to have the players the system deserves.

Nah, BW players aren’t that special, you were just doing it wrong. Don’t get me wrong, there are people for whom BW is definitively not the right game, but I see no evidence that was the case here. What seems more likely is that:

  1. you didn’t play the Sword or another free demo scenario with your players to learn the game in no-pressure situation (i.e., where their own characters weren’t on the line)

  2. you didn’t do campaign setup properly. People burned their characters, sure, but how much were you all on the same page about the setting and most importantly the situation—the central conflict of the game? If people were having trouble writing good Beliefs, then it is unlikely they were really all fully bought-in to the game. How closely tied together were their characters?

  3. Most importantly: BW actually does require some prep. Not a lot! A little goes a long way! But here is what you specifically have to do: Before session, take a look at the PCs’ Beliefs. Think of, roughly, one thing per player that will challenge one of their Beliefs. Introduce one of those things anytime there is a lull. What does it mean to “challenge” a Belief? It means to put the PC in a situation where following through on that Belief is problematic.

So, for example, let’s say a PC has a Belief about his mother, that he must protect her under all circumstances. It’s a little weak, because there’s no specific action attached to it, but we’ll stick with it for now—it’s clear the player really wants something about protecting his character’s mother to be part of the game. You as GM should look at what other elements are in play, and see how you can complicate this guy’s unswerving dedication to his mom. Let’s say there’s a threat of an Orc invasion. The character’s mother is arrested and thrown in jail for treachery! She’s been colluding with the Orcs! They produce witnesses and everything. What do you do? Do you still protect her, possibly at the cost of your own life, or do you join the crowd in castigating her? Or some other approach? (The “some other approach” possibility is where your improvisational instincts will serve you well, by the way.)

Ideally, the PCs’ Beliefs will intersect, so a single introduction of a problem or conflict by the GM will actually spur everyone to action. But the point is that your conception of the GM role in BW, as expressed above, is simply incorrect. It’s true that you don’t have to do loads of detailed statting of encounters compared to most traditional RPG systems! (Though sometimes you’ll want to!) But you do have to be very proactive in introducing problems into the game’s fiction. Don’t railroad (in my example above, make sure the PCs have plenty of chances to intervene before the mother is tried and killed), but do introduce problems that have a number of possible vectors of approach.

I hope this is helpful.


P.S. Please tell me you weren’t trying to do Fight, R&C, and DoW right out of the gate. Please? Because the book specifically says not to, but just to master the Hub together, and only then move on to the Rim.

The sooner someone takes this old sawhorse behind the barn and shoots it the better. It’s killed countless of campaigns in the womb. The players do not drive the story with their beliefs. They drive the story by pushing and risking their characters to resolve conflicts and create new ones (look at page 552). Where do these conflicts come from? The GM. The GM "has the power to begin and end scenes, to present challenges and instigate conflicts (Page 551). When the players choose to do something, it’s the GM’s job to “meaningfully inject resonant ramifications into play.”

Sure, proactive players are important. But the game needs a proactive GM. Beliefs don’t drive stories by themselves, their big ol’ targets that need to be hit.

EDIT: Or, +1 what Matt said.

from reading through burning wheel and having ran the demo a few times and played a few as well I can say that there are a few things that will help you be successful with burning wheel.

  1. expect failure, through failure you will create conflict and complications. also breaking that mindset of just because you failed doesn’t mean you actually failed.
  2. beliefs drive the actions of the players and will also drive the story. this is important, the main things to prep is 3 - 6 locations or reasons that the players are at the table. with this a group of 3 has given you 9 - 12 different reasons they are at the table. take a swing at them and if something is targetting a belief, make it really target that belief,tell them that you are specifically targetting it.
  3. for a secret to be successful in the group, the group has to know it. that is player to player, as the gm keep yours that is the fun of it.

Ups - wrong user :frowning: (By Vanadis)

Those annoying girlfriends :slight_smile: :slight_smile: :slight_smile: (By Voidhawk)

I am fortunate to have a very good GM. He has started two different campaigns in the same setting. This is what he does: First we get together to create characters. He has a basic idea about the world and some of the NPCs in it, and he tells us about his ideas. Then he has one NPC that ties all our characters together. When we create our characters, we either pay for a relationship with the NPC or we have the person in our background. The first time the NPC was a female elf who had an agenda of her own. The ties we had with her prevented some of the more bloodthirsty players from killing her on first sight (!) (They’re not quite that bad but…) The second time the NPC was a now dead man that everybody had been working for at some point.

As we create our characters, we introduce new things to the world through our occupation, station, relationships etc. So it does feel like we help build the world (at least to me). But the GMs ideas give us something to focus on.

Next, he creates a ‘kicker’ opening. In the first scene of the campaign some or all of the characters in the player group is under threat, and it is tied to the NPC in some way. The unconscious lady has been brought into our secret society, against the rules. The game begins as we stand looking down at her. Do we tell the elders?
An inquisitor has been sent to ask a few questions of the dead man’s widow. What is his true agenda?

As the story unfolds, more often than not our characters’ beliefs are made relevant to the situation at hand as well. The unconscious lady wakes up and informs the group that she has kidnapped a child that happens to be a player character’s son, assumed to be safe with his father.
The inquisitor wants to know if the dead man had a mistress, and the widow becomes obsessed with finding out who started such vile rumors - he was the love of her life and still is!

There definitely is some planning involved from the GM’s side to achieve this. To me, one of the most interesting things that happens is when I have to choose between two beliefs. I don’t necessarily let go of a belief, but I discover which ones are more important. I’ve had a chance to be a BW GM myself lately. I did this to one of my players. He/she (character/player) wanted to become a dragon rider and a knight. In one session he got the option to become a knight, but he would have to leave the country and go to the holy land. That meant he would have to leave behind the known possibilities of catching a dragon and learning the dragon rider secrets. It was fun to watch the player’s reaction. She was frustrated, obviously being used to trying to figure out what the GM wanted her to do!

It was more than a test of her beliefs however. By giving them the choice, I was asking them: In what direction do you want to take this story? Ultimately I want her to reach both her character’s beliefs, but which is more important? I explained to them that it was truly their choice at that point. Giving them an option made it easier for me to prepare the next session. It seems to be a nice flow to the campaign when I do it that way. It does not feel like I’m railroading, since I’m preparing for a choice they have already made. Then I try to make sure that in the next session they get enough information and opportunities to make new choices.

It seems to me that one of the most important things in a good rpg story (in any system) is enabling the players to make qualified choices. Burning Wheel gives the GM a lot of good tools in that regard.

Great post and examples, Vanadis!

Nah, we weren’t. I was following the book’s guidance pretty closely.

Thanks for the advice, everyone, very encouraging. :slight_smile: