Features of Burning Wheel That I Enjoy(ed?)

  1. Scripted conflict resolution
  2. Helping & FoRKs
  3. Circles
  4. Character burning
  5. Character advancement

Scripted Conflict

For scripted conflict resolution (Duel of Wits, Range & Cover, and Fight!) there are more streamlined options (i.e. AD&D 2E we would declare actions, roll initiative, and see how things fell apart).

The difference is BW locks in three actions and resolves them. So when something unexpected/unplanned happens, there’s more in game segments that pass before any course correction is possible. Hence my gaming group’s love of RoboRally.

Helping & FoRKs

The chances in Burning Wheel of success without assistance are slim. The game encourages you to look around the table and solicit help. It also encourages you to provide help (and thus advance). It is clear that helping someone on a test binds your fate to the test as well (this is a logical thing that I apply to any help provider regardless of system; But BW is clear that this is expected).

In practice, there was a lot more negotiation at the table; Akin to the problem of Fate where players spend excessive game time attempting to leverage every aspect on the table. (Unlike Fate, in BW success is not guaranteed due to the probability curve).

I have found D&D 5E’s Aid Another rule to solve this rather straightforward. And as such, am hesitant to want my RPG experience to include the Helping & FoRKs negotiation (unless I am again playing with my cooperative board game loving group).


I love articulated rules for finding specific or general people. Burning Wheel’s Circle system works quite well for this.

Character Burning

Character Burning is a personal activity. I look at it as akin to building a Magic the Gathering deck. The various character stocks (Elf, Dwarf, Human, and Orc) have a very different feel. And same “level” characters are so very different in their capabilities.

The resulting characters inform the GM what kind of game the players are hoping to see; Its more detailed than I have a Thief with Perform skill. (I have an Auger with Butchering and Astrology).

Character Advancement

Its all about incremental improvements. Eek out small advances that build over time. I enjoy looking ahead to character class features. In Burning Wheel, if I want to improve those features, I need to challenge them. In other games, advancement often doesn’t relate to skill usage. (D&D 5E, I can get better at Stealth even if my whole level was spent fighting).

The observation I’ve had about D&D 3E-5E is that many players at the table are focusing on what they might be getting at the next level. Interested in unlocking those features. And that happens, to some extent, regardless of what they are doing in game to get there.

In Burning Wheel, the players had some incentive to better guide the story. After all, if they want to advance a skill, they need to use it.

Further Observations

In each of the above cases, there are less baroque analogues that are quite adequate for most game play.

Scripted Combat: AD&D 2E combat that we used; Declare actions, roll initiative, resolve actions

Helping & FoRKs: D&D 5E Aid Another, Inspiration, Advantage

Circles: A Charisma check (though some guidelines or a table could help for any given game table)

Character Burning: D&D 5E Backgrounds, Whitehack’s Slots and Groups

Burning Wheel requires a tremendous amount of concentration compared to other RPGs that I’ve played. If the table is prepared for that concentration commitment, then it can shine. The game is tightly integrated with its constituent parts.

It is also a game that I have found resonates with people who enjoy the more involved board games (i.e. Advanced Civilization comes to mind). I also look to Burning Wheel and say “I’d never want to play just a session of it. This is a game that demands campaign play.”

So, when I survey the games that are in my personal library, Burning Wheel has become my white whale. Its not that I want to play Burning Wheel, but that Burning Wheel hints at the type of game I want to play.

A game where the players come with a powerful agenda for their characters. They have the tools to actualize that agenda. They dig deep to work together against long odds. There is a vast tapestry of NPCs that the characters have sought out; Some are friends, some enemies, and others waiting to turn. I want the game to have unpredictable moments, when a plan falls horribly apart and the characters must deal with a major set back.

But my reality is quite different. I struggle to get a regular game together (parenting, growing our personal business, and work are my priority). If my kids are with me, I’m not going to be running a game for my other friends. So my schedule is limited. This means concentration is an uncertainty, and thus Burning Wheel, while tempting, is a bad idea for me to run.

Transitions in Table Top RPGs

Consider a game of Dungeons and Dragons. Your group is conversing with the evil Duke in the Duke’s throne room. It is a role-playing scene, between two groups, and things begin escalating towards a conflict. And someone, usually the thief, says “I’m shooting him in the face.”

The game would then often times abruptly switch into the combat subsystem – maybe from another subsystem, but more likely from free-form role-playing that had occurred. There may even be a need to place characters exactly, precisely, and correctly on the detailed map. A map that didn’t so much matter until the game rules required precision.

And don’t get me started about starting a role-playing scene by drawing on a map the Duke’s throne room, and having the players declare where they are standing. Then you are just asking for the players to attack the Duke.

Now, how would you adjudicate the above in D&D 3E? Would you have everyone roll initiative? Would you give surprise to the aggressor? His team? Would you have them use their initiative modifier? Or perhaps either their Bluff or Sense Motive bonus for initiative? Would you give the aggressor a bonus? What about allowing them to use their Bluff skill opposed by their targets Sense Motive to see if they get the surprise.

Most of my campaigns have a notable number of scenes that start out with swords sheathed only to escalate into either a stand-off or an all out conflict. I would like to think that I’m trying to tease out that moment in a story where things either escalate or cool down. And shame on me for not codifying these transitions, though to not be so hard on myself, I’ve been a player in plenty of these, and I love playing thieves.

I’ve witnessed numerous moments where the character declaring the “I stab him in the face” then rolls a terrible initiative and ends up staring as bloodshed erupts around them.

In reading Eon Fontes-May and Sean Dunstan‘s Dungeon World Guide, I had a “Yes that! I should blog about that!” moment. Consider the following text and its paired commentary:

Text: You dig around in the metal eyesocket [of the seemingly inert automaton] and the ruby comes loose, rolling into your hand. As soon as it does, though, the clockwork springs to life with startling speed, it’s hand is shooting for your neck like it’s going to grab you. What do you do?

Commentary:  Here it is, this is the beginning of combat, here. But there’s no initiative, we just slide into it. I describe the beginning of the monster’s attack and wait for the response.

It is that simple moment where things are in motion, and the character must decide.

Any GM, in any system, could follow the above script, but I would wager many GMs would not ask the question and instead look to the various subsystems to attempt to adjudicate this event: saving throw, an attack roll, or initiative.

After all, a GM in most other systems has a pool of dice, just like the players. And I know that when I have dice as a player or GM, I want to roll them.

And why is this different in Dungeon World than in most other games? Because of the structure of moves. To resolve something unknown, a character must trigger a move via the in-game fiction. Once the character triggers a move, the player rolls the dice then adjudicate the results. The adjudication is part mechanical and part narrative, and thus transitions back to the in-game fiction.

In other words, as a GM, I can easily push a character to a decision point, knowing that there will be a move that the character can use to respond – but I don’t necessarily know what move they will choose.

In that move, there is a chance that I, as a GM, will have permission to hit them hard. And more importantly, there is a chance that the character’s player to avoid my trap. But more importantly, the player character responds as they see fit.

Post Script

I still love the scripted actions of Burning Wheel as I feel interesting narratives emerge – it is impossible to predict what will happen after a handful of scripted actions are all adjudicated into a singular narrative.

However, I don’t want to see scripted actions with every interaction. Which is why I feel as though Dungeon World does things very right. Let the characters declare actions, and have most of the GMs moves be “shit is about to happen, what do you do?”

Discussing Layers of a Role-Playing Game

Discussing Layers of a Role-Playing Game

Proposed Layers

Narration: The story that is being told. A person not familiar with the system would understand what is happening.

Interface: How elements of the story are fed into the mechanical layer and likewise how elements of the mechanical layer influence the narrative layer.

Mechanics: Responsible for defining the interfaces used to access the underlying model. The mechanics layer implements the interface to the narrative layer through the use of sub-systems and abstraction.



Artorax took a hasty breath and expelled a fiery gout of ashen rage, bathing the mighty paladin Alexandar, but not before he had brought his shield up for protection.  The withering attack was quickly sapping Alexandar’s strength, but he fought on…through excruciating pain…desperately trying to extinguish the flames while still trying to deliver a mortal wound to the ancient wyrm.

Interface via Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition

The above could be modeled by the following: The dragon uses a standard action to use his “breath weapon” attack on Alexander. The dragon successfully hits Alexandar, so after damage is rolled, Alexandar takes 75 points of damage, and an “Ongoing 20 fire damage (save ends)”. That is a lot of damage, and the ongoing fire damage is going to make quick work of Alexandar.

Mechanics of Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition

Hit points are a resource that can be depleted. If you take damage beyond your hit points, you are taken out of play. Ongoing damage is sustained each round unless you succeed at a saving throw.

Interface via Fate system, as per Diaspora

The above narration could be modeled by the following: The dragon makes a Health attack on Alexandar for 6 shifts. Alexandar only has 5 health boxes that can be checked off, so without a consequence, Alexandar will be taken out. Pete, Alexandar’s player character, doesn’t want Alexandar to be taken out of the fight just yet, so he elects to reduce the shift by one by taking a minor Consequence “My clothing’s on fire!”. Alexandar is certainly in serious trouble, but he’s not given up yet.

Mechanics of Fate system, as per Diaspora

The Health track is a resource that can be depleted. If you sustain shifts beyond your Health track, you are taken out of play. Shifts can be reduced by assuming Consequences; Those consequences will make future actions against you more dangerous.

Further Exploration

There are two common elements being described in the Narrative and Interface layer. First there is the initial pain/injury from the blast of fire. Second there is the ongoing affect of being on fire. In both system examples, the initial pain is represented by taking damage. The ongoing effect is modeled differently.

In the 4th Edition example, Alexander will continue to take damage each round until he successfully makes a save. In the Fate example, Alexandar opted to reduce some of the initial damage by adding a consequence of being his clothes being on fire. The dragon can, and most certainly will, take advantage of that in future rounds.

Obviously Diaspora’s incarnation of the Fate system and Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition are very different systems. Dungeons and Dragons models the “My clothing’s on fire!” as something that happens to your character, and keeps the narrative details vague. Fate models “My clothing’s on fire!” as something that you choose to happen, and the narrative details are quite explicit. Note, in Diaspora’s Fate, there are other ways for the dragon to set someones clothes on fire, but not also do damage in the same action.

Purely Academic Conjecture

Having played Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition, and not having played a Fate system game, what follows is purely speculation.

Compared to D&D 4E, the Fate system interface to the mechanics can more accurately reflect the ongoing narrative. This is due to the fact that the underlying mechanics of Fate knows how to handle descriptive text. “My clothing’s on fire!” has it’s own meaning in Fate, whereas Dungeons and Dragons requires translation of the narrative statement.

I suspect that the ability to provide english phrases to a situation will also help in recalling story aspects. Compare the following:

“Remember that time your clothes caught on fire. You barely survived that nasty dragon.”


“Remember that time you took 75 points of fire and damage AND were taking 20 points of fire damage a round. You barely survived that nasty dragon.”

Certainly if you are well versed in the language of the mechanics you can remember the story just as vibrantly. But there is certainly something lost in the translation.