Some thoughts on The Burning Wheel

Recently my Tuesday night Role-playing group played a nine-episode campaign of Luke Crane’s Fantasy RPG system The Burning Wheel. The current edition is Burning Wheel Gold.

It’s safe to say the experience was divisive. We started with (I think) 6 or 7 players, and in the end-game had two. But that end-game… wow.

It’s a fascinating system, and to say that it’s not for everyone is an understatement of the highest order. But its weird mechanics have produced hands-down some of the greatest story moments I’ve seen in an RPG system. I’m going to try to tease some of the reasons for that out here.

First up, the presentation. The books are written in a first-person style and insist that there’s Only One Way To Do It. Some people find the style irritating, but I think a much larger problem here is the lack of coherent editing. It’s difficult to find where things are, and no PDFs are available for easy searching. The rules in one book also contain references to rules in other books (some of which are out of print), with no cross-referencing. It’s very much the author’s home system, published as-is, with all that implies.

But how does it play?

Character Creation

Characters are created (burned, in the parlance) by using a life-path system. The GM tells you how many life paths you can take, and you travel through them picking up skills and traits as you go.

The life-path system has no pretensions to balance. At all. Want to just win at everything? Elves are the way to go. Want your character to be pretty incapable? Orc. Despite having no licence, Burning Wheel is perhaps the most Tolkienesque of games that I’ve ever seen. And this implied setting is heavily baked into character creation. Want to play an Orc? (Two of my players did.) Then you start out with the Cannibal trait. And everyone who’s not an Orc hates you. Your life paths, like you, are nasty, brutish, and short. And your skills suck.

Other than this implied setting – you get nothing.

And here’s where it starts to get interesting – the world is created in play by the players. It’s a no-prep system. Instead, the world is formed by their actions.

The Core Mechanic

The basic gameplay mechanics are available free from DriveThruRPG but I’ll try and explain how it works:

Every skill that you have is rated from 1 to 10 next to it, with 1 being “You’ve seen a sword before,” through to “You’re the most legendary sword-wielder on the planet.”

Similarly, everything that you might want to do has a difficulty from 1 to 10 with one being “You don’t even need to think about it” and 10 being “A miracle.”

To do something, you roll a number of dice equal to your skill. Less than three on a die is a failure, four or more is a success. If your successes are equal to or greater than the difficulty, it happens.

And here’s where it takes a sudden left-turn from other RPGs. The world is not an objective reality which the game interrogates; instead, it is defined by your roll.

Before rolling dice, you establish these things:

  • What do you want to happen if you succeed?
  • What’s the difficulty?
  • What happens if you fail?

The difficulty’s a flat number based on the 1 to 10 scale. Let’s say you’re facing off against a dragon with your sword and you want to kill it with one thrust.

What do I want to happen? I want to kill the dragon.
What’s the skill I use? Sword, axe, bow. Any of those would work.
What’s the difficulty?  Let’s face it, that’s going to be a miracle. 10.
What happens if I failWell, as GM I can only see one option here, which is that you get eaten.

And then you roll the dice. And if you make the number, the thing you want to happen, happens. And if you don’t then the other thing happens.

And whatever happens stays true. Forever, unless the state of the world changes.

What do I want to happen? I want to pick the lock on this door and get through before the monsters arrive.
What’s the skill? Locksmith would do the trick.
What’s the difficulty? It’s an act that requires expertise, so that’s a 5.
What happens if I fail? You fail to pick the lock.

Make the roll, and you’ve picked the lock. So far so ordinary.

But here’s the interesting thing – you failed to pick the lock. And that’s true forever. Neither you nor any other member of your party will ever be able to pick that lock unless the state of the world changes (eg someone replaces the lock with a different one).

This takes a lot of time to get your head around. Here’s an example from our game.

What do I want to happen? I want my friend to impress the King by dressing smartly. I’ll use my Court-wise skill to outfit him in the latest fashions.
What’s the difficulty? This will require expertise: 5.
What happens if I fail? Everyone at court thinks he’s a rube.

Don’t like the failure mode? Fine, don’t make the roll. (Obviously if the PC being dressed looks at the failure possibility and says no thanks, I don’t want to take that risk and will do something else instead rather than dress up in the finery you select, then no roll would be made in that case either.)

But if they agree to dress up, and you fail the roll, both of you are stuck with the result. The world has crystallised around this choice, which will remain true. You’ve got a bad rep with the court or an in with the King. You can’t look at the roll and go “Ah, I’ve failed, let’s try a different outfit.”

Once you start to get your head around this, the possibilities are endless, because you make the world.

Another example from the game. The King is dead (a terrible accident, or so the party like to tell everyone) and they are now temporarily in change of the Capital City.

What do you want to happen?  I want to organise a Constitutional Convention to completely reform the governance of the Kingdom, introducing civil rights for LGBT folk and setting myself up as the Regent.
What skill do I use? Persuasion.
What’s the difficulty? Ha ha ha. 10.
What happens if I fail? You’re in the dungeon, and the exiled leader of the opposition has returned and is now running the country.

And you successfully make the roll, and whatever you asked for is now true. There you are, running the country.

So storytelling works completely differently in this system to any other. You choose the thing you want to see in the world, and (providing you make the roll) narrate straight to it.

World-changing events become commonplace based on the beliefs of the characters – which is very different to taking a wander into a dungeon to get  some pie and experience points.

Character Advancement

Character advancement is by testing skills – whenever you make a roll you compare the difficulty to your skill, and need a certain number of tests in each category to advance. If you don’t have a skill, you can test against it anyway, but difficulties are doubled – so you’re likely to fail anything but the simplest tasks.

It doesn’t matter if you succeed or fail, you still get the test. So it’s good to start using skills, even if the failure mode is bad for you.


Your character has three Beliefs, which define the game they want to play. So if a character has a Belief “I will kill the last dragon” then they’ve defined a couple of things about the world:

  • There is only one dragon left
  • A lot of the story that we’ll tell will be about finding and attempting to kill it

A character gains Artha points by acting on their beliefs, which can be spent on things like getting extra dice for rolls.

Interestingly, you gain the Artha by acting either with or against the belief, as long as it comes into play. So if you have the Belief “All Wizards Must Die”, then  if you come across a wizard, then no matter whether you kill them or spare them, you still get the money.

Artha is spent to make amazing things happen – like adding extra dice to your roll, or shifting the roll so it becomes a lot easier. With Artha and a friend or two to help out, suddenly those impossible 10s become a lot more likely.

The extra subsystems

Outside of these basic rules, there are other subsystems for fighting and convincing other characters to do what you say – but when we tried them (especially in the early stages when attempting to get our heads around the very different way in which the core mechanic forced us to engage with the game) we found them to be un-necessarily complicated, and I ended up rolling back the system so that everything was run from the core mechanic – which worked very well, once we’d figured out how it worked.

Final Thoughts

All in all a fascinating experience, and definitely one I’d like to try again. But it may be difficult to find others who’ll give it the time and space to become its own thing. If your idea of fun is just going out and murdering monsters rather than creating a world and inhabiting it, perhaps this isn’t for you. It certainly wasn’t for five out of seven of my players.

The emphasis on learning-by-doing and use of Artha to make the impossible possible means that it’s perfectly doable to create a character who can change the world through the awesomeness of their crafting skills; a knitter or basketmaker with the power of kings.

I can completely understand why this system is beloved by game designers and unpopular with those looking for a “normal” RPG; the way that the core mechanic creates a living world on the fly rather than helping you interact with one which already exists results in a completely different style of gaming, where instead of making your character try against a world that already exists, your success or failure alters the fabric of the world itself.

Hacking D&D 5e for a more cinematic experience

Is the name of an impromptu talk I gave at this year’s GameCamp. If you’re at all interested in games and their creation,  you should make sure to come along to the next one.

As it seemed to go down quite well, I thought I’d write it up here in case anyone else finds it useful.

First things first; it’s really more about a dramatic experience rather than a cinematic one. It’s about some of the techniques and house rules I used to make the experience of playing D&D align more closely to the dramatic experience of watching a TV series.

The game played was a level 1-20 D&D campaign using the 5e ruleset. I’d never run a 1-20 campaign before in any version of D&D and wanted to give the rules a thorough working out. The Obsidian Portal record of the campaign can be found here, in case anyone is interested, but it isn’t in any way necessary to read that to get some use out of this post.

As well as a decent dramatic experience the other thing I wanted from the campaign was to play through some of the classic modules. I wanted my players and I to experience the Tomb of Horrors, the Village of Hommlet, and the Red Hand of Doom. These are part of the shared experience of D&D, and I wanted to give that experience to all of us round the table.

The Campaign Setting

We started in the Village of Hommlet, and I had prepped (by which I mean written two paragraphs about each) half a dozen storylines about what was going on in the world – a civil war, an invasion from the north by goblins, an undead army, the rise of a lich, the exploration of a new land, and a power struggle among the Great Powers (The One, Asmodeus, and the Kings and Queens of the Feywild).

I also had a couple of themes I wanted to explore – what is it like to live in a world where the dead can be resurrected, and how do the Great Powers interact with a world in which there is incontrovertible proof of their existence.

Because I’d set these themes and storylines up, I could then present stories to the characters, and see where their explorations led them. And because I had various set-pieces and dungeons ready to roll (the classic modules), then wherever the PCs wanted to go I knew that I could have some story and a dungeon waiting for them.

So it’s sort of branching-story with a bit of sandbox.

It turns out no-one cared about the Civil War or the Exploration stories, so we ended up playing in the other areas; but that’s OK. The whole point of having several areas of story was that the players could choose the ones they wanted.


The game was constructed like a TV series, broken into several seasons, and generally ending on a big story beat. After about 8 or so weeks of play we’d take a break and play something else as a palate-cleanser for a few weeks before returning to the main campaign.

The vocabulary of television also bled through into the way that we described the game at table. We would cut to a new scene, or montage a journey, or fade to black. If I was describing a city I might mention the aerial tracking shot, or the huge pull-back.

This soon reached a point where the players would use the vocabulary too, talking about blowing the CGI budget and occasionally casting famous actors in bit parts. In one memorably plot-heavy and character-centred episode of the story we decided that it must have been sweeps week due to the intense violence and tastefully-shot nudity.

If nothing was happening I’d say “Who wants a scene?” and one of the players would say where they wanted to be and with which character (willing PCs or NPCs). When it looked like a dramatic scene was revealing nothing new, I’d ask the players if the scene was done. Usually it was, but sometimes they’d ask for a few more moments to finish the scene.

Because we were using the tropes of TV, we even had a Christmas Special.

As I knew I wanted to hit the Tomb of Horrors – famously one of the most deadly dungeons created – I wanted the characters and players to be aware of its reputation in-game long before reaching it, so I made sure to drop many hints throughout the story via many NPCs about how deadly it was.

When it came to the Tomb itself I allowed them to take in any of their characters, so they needn’t necessarily take in their beloved main. About half did so anyway. Because both characters and players were aware in and out of game about the Tomb, they were extremely careful and only one character died – even that was at the very end.


I had a laptop and some small speakers, so I played music during the session. Soundtrack albums, mostly . At the beginning of each session I would start the music by playing a particular track – The Accidental Sea, by Michael Picton, which acted as theme music and a cue for the players to settle down from the pre-game chat and know that the game was about to begin.

Towards the end of the game, it had become obvious that some tracks were played more often than others, so I gathered them together into a soundtrack album on Spotify which captures the theme of the game.

Two seasons used a slightly different soundtrack. Because I knew I wanted the Tomb of Horrors to feel different to the rest of the game, the soundtrack to that section consisted purely of the Person of Interest soundtracks, and the opening music was the Person of Interest theme tune.

The other soundtrack deviation was the Christmas Special, which used the soundtracks to Doctor Who Christmas Specials and Westworld, which fitted thematically. It was bookended with the opening theme to begin and the Carol of the Bells at the end, which I cued up when I knew we’d hit the last 10 minutes of play. That soundtrack’s on Spotify too.

Rules Hacking

Necromancy Restrictions

Because I wanted the game to explore issues of life, death, and resurrection, no spells with the Necromancy descriptor were available at the beginning of the game; later on they were allowed as Necromancy was discovered by the world.

Multiple Characters

Players were allowed to play as many characters through the campaign as they liked, with the proviso that generally they could only play one character in any particular session. All characters started at first level, but whenever a character died in action or was otherwise removed permanently from play, half of their accumulated experience could be applied to any other character either in-play or new. This rule meant that a new character would generally come into play about two levels beneath the level of the deceased. It also allowed players to remove characters from play at a dramatically appropriate moment, or where they felt that the character’s story had reached its natural end, without feeling penalised about losing all their hard-earned XP.

Hacking the Experience System

Because I wanted the game to be concentrated on storytelling rather than about killing monsters and taking their stuff, I hacked the experience system to encourage this using the experience threshold chart on page 82 of the DMG to provide a baseline. At the beginning of the session I’d work out the average party level, and that’d be my basis for story XP.

At the end of each session after giving out XP for any monsters defeated I’d first give a generic story XP. An Easy award for every character in the session if nothing of note had happened, and a Deadly award if the session had moved the overall story on hugely, with the others awarded on a scale between.

We’d then go around the table and I’d ask each player how well their characters had achieved their goals – if they’d killed their mortal enemy, that would be worth the highest amount of XP,  while just turning up gets you the lowest amount.

After that, I’d ask the table to vote on best scene – each player with a character in that scene would then receive a Hard XP award.

Collectively, these two hacks meant that player focus was usually on roleplaying great moments, both with each other and with NPCs. The individual award means that they’re encouraged to pursue their own storylines while the best scene rewards them for style.

The other XP hack was to encourage posting on the wiki, which acted as a shared repository of knowledge about the game. If you had edited the wiki at all between sessions – even something as simple as a spelling correction – you’d receive an Easy award. At the end of every session each player and I also had two Medium awards which we could grant to what we thought was the best post that a player had posted on the wiki that week. You couldn’t award both to the same person though.

This encouraged all sorts of creative writing and art on the wiki to the point where it was a joy to read each week as players would post art or stories giving depth to the world.

Occasionally a player would write something which was untrue about the world – for example they might write something creative about gnoll society. In this case, rather than removing it or asking for an edit I marked it with an Alt-U tag standing for Alternative Universe – the creativity could still stand, but anyone reading it would know that it wasn’t the truth about the world.

Wiki XP could be applied to any character the player had, so it wasn’t unusual to save it up in order to give a new character a big boost when they entered the game.


Anyway, hopefully some of this might be useful to some other DMs.

Games I lovingly ripped these ideas from:

  • Dungeon and Apocalypse World for Fronts.
  • Hillfolk for calling a scene.
  • Dark Sun for alt characters.

FATE Combat Cheat Sheet

My Tuesday Night RPG group has been playing Zeitgeist for the last couple of years. It’s a steampunk fantasy game, and it’s got a great story. Strong recommend here.

We started off playing it in 4th Edition D&D, but after a while it became clear that the system wasn’t supporting the cinematic playstyle that we were using. And every time a combat happened, the whole thing just ground to a halt. So we switched to FATE – a fast-moving pulp-inspired system that was exactly what we needed.

The only problem was while the game is actually great, the rulebook keeps all of the rules for combat scattered throughout it. So we always ended up having to look things up using one of the half-a-dozen post-its and bookmarks scattered throughout the book. Which was a bugger.

So, if you’re playing FATE and have the same problem, here’s a helpful cheat sheet that I created for combat.

FATE Combat Cheat Sheet

Feel free to use, copy, share, print, pass on, and adapt for your own games.