Updated: Sep 25
Not all games can or should be BURNING WHEEL,
but every game can learn from it.
PROLOGUE: The magic of our hobby is an elusive thing. The sessions of legend are memorable and amazing for a combination of factors: social synergy, shared mood, nutrition, timing, setting, story, system, visual aids, GM and player skill, energy levels, and know-how. Let's face it, it's lightning-in-a-bottle. BURNING WHEEL (by Luke Crane and Dan Abram) sets itself apart for many reasons, primarily by having the courage to capture this lightning. The game may be brilliant in its ambition to do so, but it is still only the bottle, not the lightning itself.
The aim of this article to focus on that bottle. Will you catch the lightning? Who knows, but with the right creative attack, the attack employed by BURNING WHEEL's creative core, your chances are sure to improve.
Burning Wheel page from THE MORUT, drawn with brown sharpie while we organized the
session roster at Burning Con 2023. My mind was ready to dive.
THE LIGHTNING: Before we get into the how of things, let's be clear on what it is we're seeking: the lightning-in-a-bottle every RPG hobbyist knows about but gets less than they wish. This is beyond any system choice, any style preference. What we seek is meaningful, gravitational, existential, emotional, memorable sessions that blow our minds, stir our hearts, and satisfy our imaginations. Anyone who has been in the hobby for a few years knows these sessions, and knows there are fewer of them than we'd like.
Those memorable, meaningful, brilliantly role-played sessions are the lightning we seek.
THE BOTTLE: It's easy to agree on what we seek. It's how to get it where paths diverge. A great multitude of GMs and players, sadly, will shrug away our elusive quarry, chalking it up to caffeine, or just 'that was a magical night' and carry on in their general malaise, avoidance of the unknown, or dismal self-perception of luck. Not us, though, we'll use reason, creative horsepower, and technique to vastly improve our chances of epic sessions. These actions, combined, are our bottle, a set of actions so well embodied in BURNING WHEEL.
To put it in terribly short terms, the aspects of BURNING WHEEL I am hinting at are found in the use of character Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits (oft-referred to as B.I.T.s in Burning Wheel circles). These are elements of character building we all know and love, usable in any RPG. What does my character see as immutably true? What does my character tend to do? What are the traits or central elements of my character that make them unique? These questions can be asked and answered in ANY game.
Where BURNING WHEEL departs so many other RPGs is its USE of these answers. The entire game is focused on these aspects, deploying players to embody, deliver, expand, and make-concrete their B.I.T.s through play. While a vast majority of RPGs put their focus on detailed resolution of violence, this approach takes a far more realistic look at what tends to happen in compelling stories: the emotional, complex, interconnected collision of beliefs and instincts between characters.
"I have a belief here that Lord Ryman must be deposed, removed, or worse."
"Well, that might get a bit ugly. My first belief is that, despite his boorish bumbling, Ryman is redeemable, and a good soul."
"Hold on guys, can I read my belief here? I have one that says only I can ascend Ryman's post... the throne of Amber Hall must be mine."
"Well, how does it all begin?"
The detailed and nuanced cast of characters found in George R.R. Martin's 'Game of Thrones'
offers a perfect window into the kind of intricate diversity-of-beliefs at play here.
For those familiar with the books and show, consider the variety, conflict, and complementarity in the
beliefs of the characters shown. No wonder so many of them wind up dead. Spoiler.
Without getting into a full expose of BURNING WHEEL, it is enough to say that the systems there grant players extra dice, progression resources, and other benefits for utilizing, adhering to, invoking, or even being impeded by their beliefs. The rules and values of the game strive to steer games into emotional conflicts, social knots to be untied by checking in with character beliefs again and again. Is there any way to resolve these relationships without the sword? This is the bottle, daring to codify and encourage existential play with gravitas and substance.
Reading this, if you're like me, two questions should arise before the big agreement can be reached on this article: 1: Does BURNING WHEEL achieve its lofty goal? 2: How do I stick this into my game, or any game, without all those system and mechanics?
1: Anyone who has put real table time, in person, into BURNING WHEEL knows that this is a resounding yes to the question above. The constant refocusing of player attention on character beliefs is a radically effective method. There is a secondary effect, too, which is the demotion of detail and mechanics placed on violence resolution. Sure, BURNING WHEEL has combat mechanics, wounds charts, and the like, but in a truly narrative game, if you get shot or run through by a blade, you are dead. No hit points to tally. The social webbing of the scene has killed you with absolute certainty. Dice have been rolled, with long-considered stakes, compounded or hindered by other beliefs, necessities or details have slain you with total certainty. You're toast. Yes, it works. BURNING WHEEL games have gravity many GMs and systems leave to luck.
2: Here's the pay-dirt of this article. Most of us can't just toss long-running games or trusted systems. We have limited player pools, deep investment. So how can we catch lightning in a bottle without just tossing it all and handing our friends copies of BURNING WHEEL? The answer is simple to understand, but take real creative grit to deliver: integrate relationship mapping and B.I.T.s into your games, situations, and characters.
To finish this thesis off, here's how you do it:
THE CAPTURE: Lightning, meet bottle. Here are three methods to get the magic of BURNING WHEEL's approach in your game, no matter what it may be.
I: Map Relationships with Intent
The characters in your group need to have shared relevance. All-too-often are groups of characters clumsily or lazily assembled, focusing on equipment or combat ability and completely forgetting deeper beliefs, shared history, family conflicts or yet-to-be-revealed goals in opposition. Take time with characters to map their relationships. Create this map with interconnected beliefs. Be aggressive with the 'tightness' of the conceptual webbing here.
"My character believes that no frog-kin can be allowed to live!"
"My character's primary belief is that frog-kin are fundamentally good, and we must set them free to see their good side."
"Interesting. Well, my character believes that Javan, the man aiding frog-kin refugees, must be protected at all costs, so whatever you two decide, I can't let Javan be harmed."
Directly relevant belief conflicts like the example above load a relationship map with impending action. Opposite truths vector toward one another. Outfit the characters in your group with 3 beliefs each, making sure that every one of these interconnects, in some way, with every other. It doesn't sound easy, does it? It's not! A nuanced and mature sense of setting and story is required to nail this task. Take the time to craft it with care, no matter what stage your game or campaign may be in.
II: Reinforce Relationships Again and Again
To press the magic of this method, both GM and player must endeavor to reframe the gravity and importance of beliefs over and over again. Almost every turn or scene should see these foundational motivators be brought back into the light. If taking action outside the realm of character beliefs, why bother with any action at all? With this mindset, sleepily stabbing a goblin, looting a corpse, or asking if dark-vision helps become emotionally empty moments. The focus is misplaced if beliefs and relationships are moot.
At first, this won't be easy. The burden is, initially, on the GM to 'move the camera' back to emotionally and socially charged aspects of everything 'on screen.' In time, though, players will embrace the poetry of this re-focus, and join the madness.
III: Build Massive, Compound Stakes on Dice Rolls
Finally, take more time when dice are about to roll. Far too often are attacks and checks rolled with little stakes besides bland 'nope, didn't do it' failure conditions. Too often are characters attempting things with little or no relevance, assistance, or hindrance from other characters. Take time before dice tumble to deeply consider vastly higher stakes.
Instead of a failed attack being a miss, it sends weapons and heroes sprawling, utterly vulnerable, revealed, betrayed or wasting precious time to deadly effect. Likewise, successful attacks grant instant, terrible kills. Concoct deeply considered opposing rolls or stacked factors to compound the excitement on a single, penultimate roll before any bones fall.
Use beliefs and relationships to offer ally assistance or hindrance when rolls are being prepared. Consider as many factors as possible to make a single roll carry the weight of a narrative 'beat' in the story.
Compress entire scenes into a single roll, building and building the complexity and stakes of that dice roll to unbearable heights.
Use the invincible 'let it ride' rule: a thing rolled for can never be rolled for again. The narrative moves forward. Failed a scouting check? You make noticeable noise. Failed an investigation check on an ancient book? It crumbles in your hands. Never, ever repeat the stakes of a roll... this practice cheapens everything you do.
Openly state the relevance or application of a character belief on an action or roll every time it is in play. Make eye contact with everyone at the table, offering a chance to help or hinder, and being heard for the narrative relevance, and consequence of applying beliefs with tenacity, risk, and faith.
Compounding multiple skills, abilities, ally assistance and circumstances in every roll is a huge
part of BURNING WHEEL's flow. No dice fall until decisive, immense stakes of failure are determined.
In the session pictured above, I was two hours in play before these brutal dice were thrown, and the
failure of this result turned the tide of the entire session.
Of course, nothing you can do can ever guarantee that you'll catch lightning in a bottle. The glory of a memorable session relies on multiple people living complex lives of their own, coming together to dream and imagine.
Applying the methods above takes intellectual attention, nuanced consideration, creative writing skills, collaborative investment, and a sense for story. Rally all your RPG tools to these goals, no matter what system you may be playing. There are few game ambitions more noble than lending gravity to play. Maybe, just maybe, learning from the brilliance of BURNING WHEEL can give you the edge you need to make it happen, though... at least more often than it used to.