Burning Wheel

Burning Wheel
Best Practices from the Way-Back Machine

Okay! Per Mark Diaz Truman’s request, here’s my can’t-fail always-awesome recipe for perfect Burning Wheel beliefs every time. One pot, quick clean-up, 10 minutes of prep.

Suuuuper quick backgrounder for anyone who doesn’t know how Burning Wheel works: in BW, you earn “artha” in various flavors for interacting with your Beliefs, Instincts and Traits, or BITs. Bs and Is are player-authored; traits start out coming from lifepaths you chose at character creation, and later they’re voted onto your character whether you want them or not because of how you play. But the entire game is built on carrots, not sticks, so even if you end up with a poopy Trait, or wrote bad Beliefs or Instincts, you’re never obligated to play toward them. You just don’t get paid artha.

What comes next is a summation of my best practices from being The World’s Biggest Burning Wheel Superfan many moons ago. I still adore the game but it’s been a while since I was hardcore about it. Anyway, don’t take anything I’m about to write as rules. It’s just ideas for building an efficient artha machine that’s also fun to play.

Beliefs come in two forms: actionable and ongoing. Actionable Beliefs are things you can complete, typically in service to a larger goal. So like…your larger goal might be “I will open the Eastern Shores to trade with my kingdom.” And your first Belief might read, in total:

“I will open the Eastern Shores to trade with my kingdom, but first I must travel there myself and discover what they need of us.”

So you do the traveling thing and ask around about what they need, boom, you’ve completed that Belief. Then you’d update it:

“I will open the Eastern Shores to trade with my kingdom. Now that I know they need seed, I’ll secure a supplier back home.” And then you go working on that.

The other kind of Belief, ongoing, isn’t intended to ever be “done.” You keep it open because you want Fate. Fate is one of the two main kinds of artha you can chase. The other is Persona, and you get that for, among other things, achieving your Beliefs. An ongoing Belief usually sounds more like, you know, things you believe. Like:

“Sir Jerkface cannot be trusted.” Or “I can’t leave town, the gnolls will eat me.” And each time you act on that distrust or that fear, boom, Fate. They might get resolved too! But you haven’t built that Belief for that purpose, because you want a steady income of both Fate and Persona. They’re each useful in their own way.

Instincts also come in a couple flavors: useful and colorful. The best Instincts are both! And you want both, because Instincts that cause trouble for you are the ones that earn you artha. So a purely useful one like “Always scope out an escape route” or “Never be the first one to eat or drink something new,” well, those are just useful. They’re a way to make sure the GM doesn’t trip over your schtick. The tactical genius always has a way out, the paranoiac never gets poisoned.

Straight colorful ones are good too, because they usually get you in trouble or otherwise complicate your life. “Always draw your weapon on a stranger” is a terrible idea, right! It might be useful if you’re getting jumped in a dark alleyway, but the king’s guard won’t like it one bit when you arm yourself before them. Best-best practice is to come up with Instincts that are both useful and colorful: maybe good, maybe complicating.

Traits aren’t up to you at character creation so I’ll skip those, other than to mention they exist, and you get paid when your trait adds context or complication to your situation.

Mark asked about “workshopping” Beliefs. That’s a big and important part to making sure the game starts right. The right Beliefs make sure the GM always has something to grab onto, the players always know what to chase after if they don’t have something in the plot already drawing their attention, and it keeps tone and momentum on the same page. Built correctly, it’s also an energetic artha engine and you’ll have lots of fate and persona at hand.

Anyway! That perfect formula goes like this:

1 Belief or Instinct about the GM’s situation. Usually the GM will pitch the game around one or more core things. Think Fronts from Apocalypse World.

1 Belief or Instinct about another PC.

1 Belief about something in the setting that interests you personally. Your flag to the GM that says “I’m really interested in this thing.” Yes, just a Belief, not an Instinct in this case.

1 Belief or Instinct that’s just totally wrong. Like, you’re just straight up mistaken or incorrect about something.

1 Belief or Instinct that contradicts another of your BITs in some way.

1 Instinct that illustrates an important bias in the character.

That’s six things. Obviously you’ll need to double up on a few of these.

You’ll know if the formula is working because you’ll get paid. Artha is mechanically useful, but it’s also a good canary in the coal mine so to speak. If you’re not getting paid, change your Bs or Is until you do.

Workshopping is where everyone works all this stuff out at the table at the same time. Good BW play means intertwining your Beliefs and Instincts so they trigger each other in obvious ways. Inobvious ways as well! But that’s on the GM to uncover later. You also want to make sure you have about a 50/50 division between internal and external tensions. If it’s all external, you have a very traditional “party” and that’s boring. If it’s all internal, it gets really fraught really fast. Hard for long-term play.

The GM is a biiig part of workshopping because they will want to know early on what “challenging your Belief” looks like. A bad Belief will be hard for the GM to know what to do with. Usually, IME, it’s because the player has come up with something they could have already done. So when I’m GMing and I’m feeling iffy about a Belief, the first thing I will ask is “so why haven’t you done this already?” Particularly when it comes to actionable Beliefs.

Workshopping is also something I found myself doing every three or four sessions during extended play. By then, the players will have seen if their little drama engines were burping up artha or not. If they’re not, then we talk about the stuff that isn’t firing.

I feel like the minimum artha you should be getting off your BIT machine is 2 fate and 1 persona. Personally I feel like it was a successful session if I got 3 fate and 2 persona, but that takes a lot of hustle and a GM who’s paying attention.

38 thoughts on “Burning Wheel

  1. Man, you’re almost making me want to play BW. (No shade, it’s just not historically been the game for me, but this might be part of what I was missing?)

  2. It’s not for everyone! Hell, it’s not even for me any more, mostly. But we’re starting a run of it and I’m feeling nostalgic.

    I’ve always kept a tiny thought at the back of my mind of creating a version of Burning Wheel that highlighted all the best stuff (like a beautifully crafted BIT machine, which is still an amazing model for certain kinds of adventure drama) while streamlining the hard stuff, like scripting and advancement.

    But in some important ways, the difficulty of the game as written is a part of the experience. It forces you to conform to its demands.

  3. I’m pretty sure I learned this from you, O sensei, about 8 years ago, after scouring the now-defunct Burning Wheel forums, like the obsessive-compulsive maniac that I am. It served me well in the many games and sessions I’ve played and ran over the last couple of years… and I, too am taking a break from the Wheel. It is a VERY intense game, I find, so I’m looking to less intense games these days. Great summary here!

  4. Paolo Greco Fate is for opening/exploding 6es after you roll, mostly. And Persona is for buying dice before you roll, mostly. They all have secondary uses that nobody remembers as well. Like Persona can protect you from death, iirc.

    Deeds is a special rare economy, like once per arc, where you can roll twice your pool or shade-shift your dice. I can’t remember, honestly, Deeds hardly ever comes up.

  5. Paul Beakley​​ interesting! Those “uses nobody remembers” seem more interesting than perking up dice rolls (also because I already have mana to do that). I do not have bw but I’ll see if there’s anything in Mouse Guard (which iirc is a mini bw) (sorry I was wrong)

  6. I love BITs. They are awesome game tech. But the 3 different flavors of Artha are a fiddly too far for me.

    If I were going to hack BW I’d condense to 2. 1 the equivalent of Persona that you’d get the way you get Fate. 1 the equivalent of Deeds that you’d get like Persona.

    As it stands now, I’m one of those people that stare at BW and am like…no way am I dancing that hard for Bennie’s that do almost nothing.

    Fate* has almost made me rage quit in the frustration of unfulfilled expectations.

    *The BW Artha not the game.

  7. I really want to play Burning Wheel with a group of people all happy to take time to learn the rules and a GM who knows what they’re doing.

    The “table of people who take time to learn the rules and a GM who knows what they’re doing” is one reason I’m hesitant to run Burning Wheel though, even though on a read it has so much potential for teh awesome.

  8. Paul Mitchener any system is better in that mode though. Players who are just like “yeah, what do I roll?” tend to wreck things for me.

    BW might also have the added benefit of being so dense to learn that it leaves more casual readers behind

  9. Aaron Griffin that’s true, but some systems can better survive a lower degree of mechanical involvement as long as there’s other involvement and players know what their character does, or there’s not much to the mechanical aspect and anyone will quickly pick up the mechanics without having to consciously learn them (for example, Over the Edge).

  10. Paul Mitchener BW definitely needs dedicated players. As a novice BW GM, I ran three mini campaigns over the last two years and the wheel refuses to turn (pun intended) if your players don’t want to help carry the load.

    The Artha/BITs system requires players (at least occasionally) chase the carrot. If they don’t act on their BITs, they don’t get Artha. Aside from the game’s mechanical benefits (increases in stat numbers, more/better roll bonuses, etc.), this also means the players aren’t engaging with the story they said they wanted to take part in.

    It’s a difficult game, but I agree: you need dedicated players more so than most other systems. Half-assing Burning Wheel isn’t really an option.

  11. Love this, Paul. I gave this a scan and compared it to how I remember explaining all this to my players last month, and I think I more or less said all of this to then. I can say that they whizzed through belief pitching, workshopping, and finalizing with evocative results and very few hiccups along the way. Going to keep this post in mind as we go forward.

  12. The first 70 pages of BW is “BW-lite”. Works peachy.

    EDIT: I hope I’m not coming off as snarky here; if so, I apologize. I’m just saying, the lightweight version is built into the game, and has been since Revised, iirc. It’s a great way to start.

  13. Oh yes! You can totally play with versus tests and artha and leave out scripting. Mostly how I run it at cons anyway. Kind of can’t leave out advancement in campaign play, which is a huge pea under the mattress. So’s Resources and lifestyle tests and taxation, all of which you can also ignore at a con.

    Convention BW is almost its own game!

  14. You can grab the Hub and Spokes doc for free and totally run with just that for a goodly number of sessions. I mean the first time Adam Koebel ran BW on Roll20 Presents I think they went like 14ish sessions before breaking out any of the scripted stuff (Duel of Wits). They did use Circles and Resources, but that stuff is pretty easy to grok. (Though is not in the Hub and Spokes doc.)

  15. I forgot about the Hub and Spokes separation. I’ve started a run with just that before, and then brought more rules in over time.

    I suspect I tend to forget the Hub & Spokes version because as well as “lite” I want “open licence”. Without that, I’m reluctant to put serious effort into a game system.

  16. (I’ve also heard Crane express doubts, in a podcast interview, about whether the Artha cycle works properly without the extended conflict subsystems to burn it.)

  17. Rob Alexander no doubts. We know it doesn’t work properly for long-term play without using extended conflicts. The game is designed to make use of them regularly.

    If players are sitting on a stack of more than 3 or 4 Fate points and/or 2 or 3 Persona points, it’s usually a sign the GM needs to push for more conflicts.

  18. Re: your OP, you nailed it, Paul. That’s been my BITs template.

    And after running 60+ sessions and being a player for 10+, there’s no game I look forward to GMing more. Still. New campaign starting with four great players on March 1.

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