Who Needs Circles?

Hello all! I’ve been playing Burning Wheel haltingly for about a year and a half now, and I’ve slowly built up issues that my players have with the system. It’s a very short list (overall, we’re in love with the mechanics), but I’d like some advice on how to deal with one particular problem: circles.

As a GM (I’ve yet to be a player for more than one or two sessions), I love the idea of circles. I like that it gives PCs the option to create NPCs of their choosing, essentially giving them more control over where they get their information/resources/manpower/etc and it empowers them to affect the larger world. My players don’t see it the same way, though.

The prevailing notion for them seems to be that circles is not only a waste of time, but a dangerous waste of time. They are far more comfortable either a) trying to solve problems on their own without any help; or b) waiting for me to introduce NPCs rather than creating their own. In addition, they hate the fact that trying to find a little bit of help from an NPC could result in creating an enemy (due to the enmity clause) that they just would rather not have.

I admit that part of this is my fault: the first time anyone rolled circles was back when I consider myself to have been an inexperienced GM, and I in essence forced a character to roll a circles he didn’t need to, which he promptly failed and received a nice little wound for his trouble. Terrible, TERRIBLE GMing. This happened months ago, but I think it has had a profoundly scarring effect on the players themselves.

It really comes down to expected gains vs. potential losses. The PCs can either try it themselves, or try to get some help. If they try themselves, they either fail or succeed, and if they fail the story still goes somewhere fun. If they try to get help, they have a slightly higher chance of success, but if they roll poorly on circles then they’ve landed a new enemy, or at least have new problems that have to be overcome before they can get back to the “good stuff”. They don’t see this as a profitable enterprise.

I think a lot of it can be traced to the Obs that circles tends to have. The characters start out with low circles. In order to get even remotely helpful NPCs, they face high obstacles, where low obstacles land only mediocre NPCs. Meanwhile, they see spending artha on circles as spending money on the middleman – why don’t they just save it for the difficult test they’re trying to overcome?

That was a long message (sorry!). The real question is: how can I get my players more invested in circles? Just telling them to use it more isn’t going to work, for the above-stated reasons. Is there a way I can encourage circles-use through play? Is there a way to make it more rewarding, at least for newer characters?

Thanks in advance!

Off the cuff, I have one thought: Make your Enmity Clause guys useful. Incredibly, awesomely useful. Indispensible, even.

Keep the Clause in your back pocket. Nothing says you need to hit your players hard, fast and often when they invoke the Enmity Clause. But at some point down the road, this indispensibly useful dude is going to make their life hard.

Also, enmity does not mean “enemy!” Some of my very best Enmity Clause results have been well-meaning, friendly, helpful folks whose actions just end up causing complications (which can be way more involved than just an angry guy who wants to stab them).

Absolutely this. One of my favorite failed circles rolls was with my Dwarf who was all about walling the clans off from all of the humans and elves and everything else in the world. So I circled a guy up (and failed the roll) that agreed with me. Agreed with me so much that he was scheming to kill my brother that thought our only chance of surviving was by allying with humans and elves instead of shutting ourselves away.

Also, you mentioned high circles obs. I don’t know if you are doing this, but a lot of people think that because there’s multiple tables of modifiers that they should choose one from each table and even if you choose the lowest penalty option you still get a pretty fat obstacle to meet. That’s not the case. Only choose the modifiers that really matter to what’s going on. It’s not that difficult to frame a circles roll in such a way as to get some of those lower ob tests.

I’m with Paul.

I love enmity clause characters that are big trouble but also very useful. Players can turn them into allies with hard work and sacrifices, but they also cringe a bit when they come on “stage.” My current favorite is a character named Sergeant-Brother Munio, a polite and urbane member of an order of religious knights who tortures heretics and potential heretics to stamp out witchcraft. Two of the player characters have suffered his attentions. I can see the players visibly wince every time I bring him on. But they’ve also managed, through a duel of wits, to make him more open to their cause.

The key is that he didn’t hate them personally. Instead, he was convinced that they represented something he’s sworn to stamp out. Now it appears they may actually be on the same side.

This is a very good point. If you set your intent skillfully, you can keep the Obstacle of a Circles test at Ob 1 - Ob 3.

What Jeremiah said. If you’re not specifically looking for someone of higher or lower station (you don’t need the Royal Weaponsmith, any guy willing to sell you a sword will do) don’t add that modifier. If you don’t mind traveling or waiting, no penalty for that. Etc.

Some of my favorite Enmity Clause results:

  • Dangerously incompetent
  • Unrevealed enemy of a friend
  • Misinformed about something vital
  • Needs a favor (and the PCs suck at Persuasion)
  • Turncoat
  • Loudmouth
  • Lazy/slow
  • Naive or trusting
  • Mutually incompatible ideologies

I’ve used all these at one time or another as Enmity Clause results.

Those are great. I’m also a big fan of the guy who is friendly and is able to do exactly what you need. But he has dangerous enemies who now see you as a problem.

I’m wondering what sort of scenario you’re playing through if your players never need to find anyone. In urban intrigue or political games, where players are navigating a social setting, it’s used every other test. It’s the equivalent of travel.

I notice that in wilderness quest games, the rate of circling drops to very low levels. It’s also a lot riskier when players are out of their element - the Obs are higher for practically anyone they might want to circle up. So when faced with a way of cracking into Eggbert’s tomb, it makes much more sense to try to do it yourself than to try to make an Ob 5 circles test to find a nearby moor witch who knows the way in.

Could it be that your players have stage fright in terms of contributing creatively?

Everyone else’s suggestions are great, but I would pair it with another decision: stop dropping NPCs in their lap. If they want an NPC, they need a Circles test. And the Obstacles are achievable, as others have said.

Love the list of Enmity Clause complications, Paul. I’m totally stealing it. I’d thought about “turncoat” and “mutually incompatible ideologies,” but all those others will sing when one of my players starts Circling using his Spy Ring affiliation.

If you’re looking to maintain a feeling of forward progress, it also helps to make 'em enemies the players have already got. There’s little functional difference between whether Renaldo the Sage got kidnapped by the Evil Duke’s minions or some random pirates, but the former makes rescuing him feel like much less of a detour.

The other thing to think about with enmity clause NPC’s is that they should be tied in to the situation at hand and ping off the PC’s beliefs. These NPC’s shouldn’t send the PC’s into a side-quests but should be lined up with what is going on at the table. Sometimes getting rid of that enmity is just a Duel of Wits away.

My favorite example from movies and literature for a failed circles test is Lando Calrissian.

If you fail Circles, you can get someone who’s helpful and comes with issues. I like the Lando as well: someone who helps immediately and is disastrous beyond the very, very short term—even if they mean well! But I also use characters who are useful, indispensable, and insufferable. One of my favorites was a corrupt captain with his finger in every pot. He could help with everything and knew everyone, and the players gritted their teeth every time he showed up because they would be giving him bribes, favors, and flattery to get the minor help they wanted.

The other major issue is that Circles aren’t just used to create new NPCs. Need to talk to the apothecary you know? Succeed and you find him. Fail and you find him in a foul mood at the worst possible time. Or you find him and he’s roaring drunk. Or you find him, he helps, and then you find out he then brags to everyone about his role in helping you poison Enzo.

Maybe you’re introducing too many NPCs.

We do this kind of thing a lot. Especially if one PC has a belief you can use. Offer them exactly what they want at a price they may not want to pay, or one which another PC hopes they don’t pay.

Don’t forget you can always Say Yes.

If it’s not something that would be interesting, say yes and be done with it.

It it could be interesting, then all the advice folks have given (use 1 table to pull Obstacles, not all of them, friendly complicated people, really helpful people, etc.) all apply. Also, different motivations make for different antagonists - a fun thing to do is take the Enmity clause, and make an NPC who’s belief or goals are counter or cross purposes to another player’s Beliefs.


One more complication result into the mix: Exorbitantly expensive! Sure, he’ll help you out, but first an Ob4 resources test.

So you think the OP has gotten sufficiently dogpiled with good ideas? :slight_smile:

I think I might’ve picked something up!

One thing that didn’t get touched on is when you said in your OP that success on a circles test nets them a slightly increased chance of success. This might be why your players see it as a waste of time - might as well just do a linked test if that’s all you’re going to get out of it. Circles successes should net them NPCs who can do what they need and who can do things that the players themselves can’t do.