The Circles Subsystem of “Burning Wheel Gold”

A Higher Order Reaction Roll

Note: This post has content disclaimers.

In my last Burning Wheel Gold 🔍 session——the game play again reminded me how much I love the Circles subsystem.

Quick Introduction

Circles allows characters to reach into the campaign setting and draw forth an Non-Player Character (NPC 🔍). By making this a player facing test, the Game Master (GM 🔍) responds to the interests of the Player Character (PC 🔍). And the GM can reference their cast of NPCs or craft one on the spot. And let’s be honest, as a GM, I’m often called upon to create NPCs on the fly.

Circles Overview

In Burning Wheel Gold when a player wants to find someone—a cobbler, a doctor, someone that knows someone else, or someone that has something or knows where it’s at—they use the Circles subsystem.

As with all tests, the player states their character’s task and intent. How are they trying to connect with the person and why. The GM assesses the situation, and either says yes or calls for a Circles test.

Important is that the desired target of the Circles test must be part of the character’s lifepaths. So, if your character only has Noble lifepaths, they won’t be able to Circle up someone from the Outcast sub-setting. They could instead Circle up a noble who could introduce them to someone from the Outcast sub-setting. Which leads to an interesting question, how does this noble have connections to the underworld?

Each character has a Circles attribute. This is the base number of dice they roll for a Circles test. Their reputations and affiliations may also add to the dice pool. Likewise help from other characters or even linked tests.

The GM, with possible input from the group, then establishes the Obstacle (Ob 🔍). The base obstacle is Ob1. You increase the Ob based on the following criteria:

What is the role of the person you are looking for?
What is the person's rank relative to yours?
Disposition and Knowledge
What specific knowledge do they have?
Time and Place
How time and place sensitive is this?

Burning Wheel Gold recommends that you don’t apply all of the criteria, just the ones most relevant to the task at hand.

The player rolls their Circle dice pool. On a success, they get their intent. If they exceed the Ob they may name the character, which helps them Circle them up in the future.

If they fail, the GM may either say “You’re unable to find someone” or they may invoke the Enmity Clause. The Enmity Clause means that the character is prejudiced against the character’s stated intent. All social interactions with that character have a +2 Ob penalty; it’s super tough to convince someone predisposed against you.

With the option of the Enmity Clause, the GM has in essence an Old School Renaissance (OSR 🔍) reaction roll. Let’s take a look at two different approaches from some other systems.

Subsystems from Other Games

I want to look at two different subsystems for other games. The Worlds without Number (WWN 🔍) and Stars without Number: Revised Edition (SWN 🔍) siblings and Urban Shadows (First Edition) 🔍.

Stars and/or Worlds without Number

SWN has the Connect skill and the ubiquitous OSR Reaction Roll.

First the Connect skill:

Connect: Find people who can be helpful to your purposes and get them to cooperate with you. Roll it to make useful connections with others, find people you know, know where to get illicit goods and services, and be familiar with foreign cultures and languages. You can use it in place of Talk for persuading people you find via this skill.

Then the Reaction Roll:

One of the GM’s most important tools for managing encounters with NPCs is the reaction roll. Whenever the PCs first meet with a creature or NPC, the GM should roll 2d6 and consult [Table 140: Stars without Number reaction table].
Stars without Number: Revised Edition p193

These two mechanisms provide ample narrative space for the GM. Does a successful Connect roll pre-dispose the NPC to be helpful? Should I also call for a Reaction Roll once found? Maybe with a bonus on the dice?

When I’m running New Vistas in the Thel Sector, on a failed Connect, I invoke the Enmity Clause from Burning Wheel Gold. The players find someone that can be helpful but the PCs would need to work at resolving the complication; maybe it’s animosity or maybe the NPC has an unmet need and won’t help until someone meets that need.

Urban Shadows

Urban Shadows (First Edition) is a Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA 🔍) game that makes heavy use of tracking down NPCs.

The hit the streets and put a face to a name moves are most related to the Circles subsystem of Burning Wheel Gold.

First we have hit the streets. This is how you track someone down whom can help you with something.

When you hit the streets to get what you need, name who you’re going to and roll with their Faction. On a hit, they’re available and have the stuff. On a 7–9, choose 1:

  • Whoever you’re going to is juggling their own priorities.
  • Whatever you need is more costly than anticipated.
Urban Shadows (First Edition) p60

And the put a face to a name establishes PC relationships with GM created NPCs.

When you put a face to a name or vice versa, roll with their Faction. On a hit, you know their reputation; the GM tells you what most people know about them. On a 10+, you’ve dealt with them before; learn something interesting and useful about them or they owe you a Debt. On a miss, you don’t know them or you owe them; the GM will tell you which.
Urban Shadows (First Edition) p61

In the hit the streets move, you can track someone down who can help. There’s an assumption that on a success they’re willing to help. On a close read, available is not the same as willing.

It’s All About Task and Intent

As Burning Wheel Gold emphasizes, establish the Task and Intent of each test. In other words answer how you’re doing it and what you are hoping to accomplish. And there’s a bit of an assumption that the “why are you doing it” maps to your Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits (BITs 🔍).

When Circling someone up describe what your doing and what you want of them. From that you leave ample space for the GM to respond both in success and failure.

What’s fantastic about the Circles test is that not only do you find someone, it provides guidance into their disposition. I’ve found that it is far more interesting to have failure for a Circles test always invoke the Enmity Clause; but temper that response based on the degree of failure. If you come close, maybe you find them but their juggling their own priorities or getting it from them is more costly than anticipated.

There are times on a failure that instead of invoking the Enmity Clause I’d have the PCs not find someone. Trying to find the Duke to warn them of a traitor in their court? First, I’d look at how the players describe the task. Are they trying to “bump” into the Duke? Or are they trying to get the steward to place them on day’s agenda for the Duke?

In the case of “bumping” into the Duke, you better believe I’m going with the Enmity Clause. But going by way of the steward? No, that’s just a failure as the steward brushes you off.

Of course, you could instead Circle up the steward, which is likely a lower Ob. And then have a bit of dialogue as you work to convince the steward to put you on the Duke’s agenda. Perhaps that’s a Duel of Wits or a persuasion test?

Regardless, the Circles subsystem provides mechanisms to work your way through the layers of relationships. It also allows you to craft a montage sequence (e.g., we’ll circle up the Duke by way of the steward putting us on the agenda) or to create a sequence of scenes.

Which highlights another aspect that I love about Burning Wheel Gold: the system supports zooming in and out on the granularity of the fictional narration.


As I’ve thought more on the subject of the Circles subsystem, I also began realizing that one of the things that draws me to RPGs 🔍 is the chance to act and improvise. The Circles subsystem provides a place for me as a player to guarantee a moment of in-character dialogue. And with the framing of task and intent and consequences, there’s at a minimum implicit bounds for the scene.