Campaign, Rulings, Descriptions, and Questing

Favor Campaign over Characters

In most games, characters start fragile. A dead character should not end the campaign. Players are busy. An absent player should not scuttle the session.

Ensure that the game can handle drop-outs. Also, ensure it can handle drop-ins. Someone has intermittent availability. Work so the game would be fun for them as well as the regular players.

Let’s call this Martin’s Law. George R. R. Martin “Song of Fire and Ice” is a testimony to ensemble stories.

Favor Rulings over Rules

I don’t want to remember a wide variety of rules. I want a light framework to help me adjudicate in a consistent manner. I want to avoid time spent looking up rules, but instead want to keep moving in a consistent manner. I want the players to get back to the adventure/story.

I also want to make sure players have tools that they can use to counter the sting of some of my rulings; Either giving them a bonus, re-roll, advantage, or way of buying it off:

  • Fate Core has Fate points
  • Burning Wheel and Torchbearer have Artha
  • Dungeon Crawl Classics has Luck
  • D&D has Inspiration.
  • Eberron has Hero Points

Favor Description over Prescription

This is an extension of Rulings over Rules, but merits further discussion.

When presented with a problem, are do players limit their response to they have on their character sheet? Or do they start narrating how they respond and look to you for adjudication? Are the players engaging with the adventure or their character sheet?

For clever or amusing ideas, don’t require a role. They described how they were looking for traps and how they would disarm it. Give it to them. Broadcast that you will be rewarding player skill. This is a core tenant of avoiding the grind in Torchbearer, and what the OSR builds on.

Also, throw them some Inspiration, Luck points, Hero points, or Fate tokens. Given them currency to further engage in the story.

In a DCC funnel I ran, one of the characters had a pound of clay and fashioned a terra cotta helmet in hopes of blending in with a bunch of terra cotta warrior automatons. Instead of requiring a Personality roll, I said it worked. If I had to do it over again, I’d also have awarded +1 Luck to the character.

Mighty Deed Die vs. Feat Trees

The Warrior in Dungeon Crawl Classics has a Mighty Deed Die. The Might Deed Die replaces your static bonus to hit. At 1st level, you get a 1d3 Mighty Deed Die. (2nd level it becomes d4, 3rd a d5, etc).

When you attack, you declare your Mighty Deed – trip the monster, blind it, dive between it’s legs slash its underside etc. You then roll your attack add your Mighty Deed roll and your strength (or dexterity) bonus. If you hit the armor class and get a 3 or higher on your Mighty Deed die, your deed happens. The rules suggest the Referee to scale the degree of success based on the Mighty Deed result.

The Mighty Deed Die subsumes 3E and Pathfinder combat maneuvers: trip, disarm, sunder, improved grapple, etc. It guides play from the character sheet back to the table and story.

Favor Questing over Railroading

Put decisions on where to go adventuring into the players’ hands. Let them know if they want it, they can quest for it. Lost a limb? Give them clues about the promises of the Regenerating Muds of Lazul. Ask the players what their characters want. Let them pursue those desires by engaging in the world. But make sure the world is not remaining static.

Set larger events in motion. Create rumor tables. Think off screen. In other words, favor a sandbox world over adventure paths. The campaign is more than the actions of the characters.


I recommend three resources:

Building a Set of D&D House Rules

I have very fond memories of D&D 2E combats:

* Firing into melee
* Declare actions, roll initiative, then resolve; Repeat each round
* Spell casting disruption
* House ruled exploding criticals
* System shock
* Limited healing

Combat in 2E was chaotic and dangerous – not Rolemaster dangerous – but more so than later incarnations. And 4E was an unmitigated slog fest of predictability.

This is one reason I love the Burning Wheel combat system; Shit goes sour fast. And diving into Fight! or Range & Cover is something to carefully consider. But Burning Wheel is not in the running for the game I’d run.

So as I prepare for my next campaign short-lived multi-session game, I’m looking towards the 2E rules for inspiration and how they would map to a 5E game. I am also looking around for other things I want to add to the game.

Burning Wheel’s spell mishap is crazy awesome; My character summoned imps on a few occassions. We would kill the imp and extract the essence to make baked goods that never went stale.

I like the idea that spells are predictable if you cast them “by the book”; But you want to remove or reduce a somatic or verbal component, you need a casting check. If you cast a spell while an enemy is threatening you, you are tempting fate.

I’m also balancing the idea of Torchbearer‘s resource management, Brandon S’s Hazard System, and 1E DMG advice; “YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT” (1E DMG page 37). Jeff Rient’s Timeliness is next to Godliness has an insightful perspective on this topic.

All of this is to say, I am after a game in which combat is a viable option. However, its unpredictability encourages players to find alternate solutions. What I am after is hinted at in Torchbearer:

If you think the players have come up with a good idea—a smart use of their gear, spells or even bodies—then there is no need to roll the dice for test, no need to spend a check and it doesn’t cost a turn.

In other words. Make time important. Make conflicts cost more time. Make the cost salient. All of which is there to encourage players to solve problems without resorting to combat and to a lesser extent direct conflict.

And there-in lies the game design. What about the game do I want to make important. And shape the subsystems to hammer on what is import.

But as with any system, if you change something, pay attention to the ripple effect. For example, since I’m discouraging direct conflict, I’ll need to review the expectations of combat; And one of those is encounter XP.

Torchbearer with the kids

On Monday, bitter cold and snowfall closed both both school and work. So I asked the kids what RPG they wanted to play. Rather quickly they all said Torchbearer (they had played before and it apparently had captured their attention).

We sat down and started creating characters. I again encouraged them to avoid the Elf and Wizard, focusing on the more mundane classes.

Torchbearer’s character creation is a fantastic blend of base class competencies modified by a handful of questions. Choose where you were born; this gives you a skill and a trait. Choose how you get others to do what you want. Maybe in another post I’ll go into more details.

I decided to run Under the House of the Three Squires – the example adventure in the Torchbearer book. Without spoiling the adventure, I’m going to make a conjecture about why they all specifically wanted to play Torchbearer. It is hard!

I’m not referring to the rules, which take some getting used to. But to the style of play that is hard. Very early they got kicked in the face for not asking questions – they charged in assuming that their Fresh condition would save them.

It didn’t. I felt bad for not providing enough guidance and asked if they wanted to start over. They were willing to soldier on, but I was soft and encouraged them to start over.

They did, and immediately they began asking questions. And from my answers good ideas started flowing. And kept flowing – it was infectious. They were still making tests, but managed to avoid a few of the more treacherous tests.

As they were interacting, asking questions, gently prodding, I found myself gaining greater clarity of the environment that they were exploring; The aappropriate twists or complications were right in front of me.

And this is hard because it is different from much of what they have typically played. Many of the games that they’ve played – some of which I’ve run – have very quickly went to the dice. For example:

GM – Debris is strewn…

Player – I roll to Search. I got an 18.

GM – Um.

In Torcbearer it is likely doing their best to avoid rolling the dice. Not only are the odds not overly in their favor, but every roll depletes one of the parties precious resources – time and the march towards a new condition.

In other words, Torchbearer mechanically encourages “Starting with the Fiction.” Which is likely something that makes complete sense to those that started with the earlier editions of the old school. And has been lost in the translation.

Burning Wheel or Dungeon World

An astute reader of this blog will have seen my transition from Burning Wheel to Dungeon World. It is also possible that they would infer my love affair with Burning Wheel is over. But  I assure you that it is not.

What follows is a modified response to an RPGGeek users question:

I have a question, since you seem well versed in both systems: what do you think now of Burning Wheel after having read and played Dungeon World (or for that matter any Apocalypse World hack)?

Picking the System to Run

If I had to pick the game, either Dungeon World or Burning Wheel I would ask one question: How many sessions will this game really last?

If I know there will be 20 sessions or more for a campaign, I would instantly pick Burning Wheel. If I knew there would be less than 5, I would pick Dungeon World.

For me, Dungeon World is an immediately accessible system in which I can get going fast. It has what I would consider a standard shelf life for campaign play – the advancements are traditional; though you can construct  narratively rewarding advancements (i.e. Compendium Classes that offer character variation based on what happened in the fiction.)

Contrast this with Burning Wheel which has a pretty hefty initial investment. But I look and see such fantastic options for campaign play – advancing my character requires advancing my understanding of the rules. It rewards pushing yourself as a player and your character.

To use an analogy,

Dungeon World is Neil Gaiman’s “Graveyard Book”; I find it easy to read, extremely accessible, and altogether enjoyable. I would also have a hard time subsisting on only this.

Burning Wheel is John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” or Dante’s “Inferno”; I find those hard to read but in the reading not only does my reading skill improve, but my understanding of the literary world and references increase as well.

Diving Deeper

Dungeon World, for me, is so very easy to pick up and run with. The Move structure of “fiction -> mechanics -> fiction” is such an amazing refinement on what many of us have internalized.

At Origins last year I ran three distinctly different adventures off the cuff for three distinctly different groups. And each 4 hour session was spectacular for me and the other players.

I have found the loose rules structure extremely liberating in regards to the fiction; Letting the events at the table – both in the fiction and in the questions I ask the players – form much of the game.

Burning Wheel for me is very rewarding game to read and digest. It is a finely crafted system with numerous parts moving in harmony. It rewards both character and player for long-term engagement with the system.

The sweet spot for Burning Wheel is that it provides numerous mechanisms for focusing the game on things extremely close to the characters (Relationships, Beliefs, and Instincts to name a few). The scope of Burning Wheel can feel so much more intimate.

I haven’t run Burning Wheel since running Dungeon World, but that is not because I don’t want to. I have entered a cycle of minimal time for commitment. So Dungeon World’s quick startup time is a boon.

I would highly recommend, if you can find a copy, picking up the Adventure Burner. It is Burning Wheel Headquarters break down of the nuances of Burning Wheel and helps to convey how they think about games.

And while you are at it, I would consider getting a copy of Torchbearer. It is Burning Wheel Headquarter’s love letter to the earlier versions of D&D. It uses the Mouseguard and Burning Wheel engine for a dungeon crawl game.

I am a huge fan of Torchbearer’s conditions. Instead of the wounds of Burning Wheel, which rightly condition a player to say “Am I willing to fight for this?”, conditions are an easier pill for the player to swallow. But conditions are a potential death spiral just as injuries in Burning  Wheel.

Another experiment I would strongly consider, though haven’t done myself, is to take the lessons you’ve internalized from Dungeon World and apply them to the hub of Burning Wheel (the first 70 or so pages).

Also make sure to check out my blog posts for Burning Wheel and Dungeon World for comparing and contrasting.

Torchbearer: An Inaugural Run

GM: Jeremy
Players: Mark, Aidan, Ellie

For those following along at home, Torchbearer is available in PDF form at RPGNow or Torchbearer in hardback form via the Burning Wheel Store.

Character Creation

Since this was our first run of things, I told the players that they could choose from Dwarf adventurer, Halfling burglar, and Human warrior. We ended up with one of each.

I handed each of the players a character sheet and worked through character creation with them. It was a rather quick affair to get their skills, nature, and traits.

Then came the point where they started choosing gear. It was fantastic to hear them fret about what to bring.

I helped guide them through it, though I may have encouraged them to bring more food and water than was perhaps necessary.

The Characters

  • Jimmy Cooks – A halfling burglar, played by Aidan
  • Daukree – A dwarf adventurer, played by Mark
  • Autumn Kinder – A human warrior, played by Ellie

The Adventure

They were on their way to Gymnasium of Kaus to find the Font of Life – a relic with healing powers. The party had learned of the lost gymnasium through the help of Jimmy Cooks’ parents.

They had traveled from the remote village of Waldheim through the foothills and into a small vale that had been overrun with vegetation.

Adventure Phase 1

  • Check 1: Sneaking (vs. 5D) up to the vegetation choked entrance. Failure Twist – Two figures hidden behind the rock pile have seen them. One of them is heard leaving.
  • Check 2: Hunting (vs. 6D) – Autumn quickly burst over the barricade, with a heart of battle giving blind chase after the creatures creatures; It is a versus test against Nature 4+1D+1D for slipper scales. Failure Twist – one guard gets away and the other guard draws them into a Kill conflict; in hindsight this should’ve been either a Drive Off or Capture conflict.
  • Check 3: Kill Conflict – Things go remarkably well as the party dispatches the Ichtha-Gog without losing a point of disposition.
  • Check 4: Scouting (Ob 2) for a good campsite; Ellie’s attentiveness was waning so we agreed that we would move to a Camp phase. I assigned an Ob 2 for finding a suitable campsight. Success

Camp Phase 1

  • Camp Event: Lucky break; They found a trail (+2D to next Pathfinder or Scout)
  • Check 1: Armorer (Ob 1) to repair a helmet. Success
  • Check 2: Hunter (Ob 1) to track down a rabbit for the meal; Jimmy helped the effort by explaining how to use salt to lure a rabbit (“Needs a little Salt-wise” for the win!). Success
  • Check 3: Survivalist (Ob 1) to fashion up some torches. Success
  • Instinct: “Always cook a meal at camp” was triggered and everyone enjoyed a fine bowl of rabbit stew. Hungry and Thirsty was alleviated.

Ellie opts to stay at camp. Jimmy and Daukree adventure onward!

Adventure Phase 2

  • Check 1: Scouting (Ob 2) out the newly discovered trail. Jimmy tests, Daukree helps via Mountain-wise; Failure Condition – Jimmy, being the hungry hungry halfling, gains the Hungry & Thirsty condition.
  • Check 2: Sneaking (vs. 5D) into the Dormitory. Failure Twist unbeknownest to them, they’ve been spotted.
  • Check 3: Heading up the stairs they enter into a Drive Off Conflict with the giant spider; The party wants to chase the spider out of the room and the spider wants to ensnare them. Success Compromise – they manage to drive the spider out of the tower and into the room immedately below.
  • Check 4: Scavenging (Ob 2) for any loot in the tower; Success They find a Jug of Wine.

At this point, I needed to wrap things up. So I suggested that they camp; The Camp phase leaves a cleaner starting point. Since I was pressuring them to camp I didn’t ask how they were securing the room (and possibly call for a test).

Camp Phase 2

  • Check 1: Armorer (Ob 1) to repair Jimmy’s helmet. Success The helmet is repaired.
  • Check 2: Cartographer (Ob 2) to map the explored locations. Success They have a useful map.

Observations and Oversights

  • During the second camp phase that Mark’s character should only have been able to spend one of the two checks. Not a big deal and frankly two player parties need a few lucky breaks.
  • I believe I’m reading this correctly, that the Hungry & Condition can be alleviated either by eating OR drinking. Which means I likely encouraged the PCs to take more rations than needed.
  • Instead of holding the twist in my pocket, I should’ve narrated their advance and draw them into a Capture conflict with the spider.
  • I love how armor is implemented in Torchbearer. I especially like how very useful a helmet is. Please wear a helmet.
  • The implementation of Traits in Torchbearer is fantastic, a more actionable and engaging implementation than Burning Wheel’s counterparts.
  • The abstract conflict system is fantastic for drawing everyone in. Our table’s challenge, as with the other scripted actions of Burning Wheel, was remembering to narrate what was happening.


  • In the camp phase, if someone succeeds on a Hunting check to get one portion of food, does that provide a +1D to Cooking. Or is that the rations?
  • If a creature doesn’t have an instinct related to “being alert”, should I use their Nature raw? Or should I use Beginner’s Luck.
  • In hindsight the first Kill conflict should’ve either been Capture or Drive Off.
  • I’m not entirely certain what skill should be used for creating torches.
  • There was a bit of player dissonance on how to use the Loner trait to your detriment while still receiving help.