Introduction To The Rules
This document is intended as a basic introduction for Burning Wheel players, meant to ease them into the rules and the playing style.
In Burning Wheel, the outcome of most conflict is decided by rolling the dice. It is up to the players which conflict to engage, how to engage it, and the stakes of the conflict resolution. Once the conflict has been determined, the method of engagement decided upon, and the stakes agreed to, the dice are used to resolve the conflict.
Say Yes, or Roll the Dice
Every character talks, works, and travels. Every aspect of a character's interaction with the world can be described with immersive, exciting narrative. A conflict emerges when a character needs or wants something that requires overcoming opposition. Opposition can be anything from convincing someone to give you an item, to an actual fight. A conflict represents a break in the normal flow of narrative. The dice should come out only when a conflict arises. If a player asks to do something that causes no conflict, just say, “Yes,” describe what happens and move on.
Intent and Stakes
When a conflict arises, the first thing a player should do is declare an intent. This can range from, “I stab him with my sword!” to “I scale the walls of the tavern, silently enter through a window, and stab the dwarf in his sleep!” The most important point in declaring intent is that you describe how you are achieving your goal. Thus, “I kill him!” is a lousy intent, but, “I run him through with my spear!” gets to the heart of the matter.
Once you have crystallized your intent, you and the GM will set the stakes. Burning Wheel is built on risk vs. reward; the more you’re willing to risk, the more reward you can earn. The GM explains what happens if the roll succeeds or fails before the dice are rolled. Success always means that the intent you declared succeeds exactly as you described. The player who succeeded describes it just so! Failure is defined by the GM. Failing does not always just mean you do not succeed. The GM may create stakes in which you achieve your intent, but not in the way you wanted. Trying to pick that lock before the guard comes back? If you fail, you might get the door open just as the guard comes around the corner!
When you roll the dice to resolve a conflict, it is a test. In a test, a number of 6-sided dice are rolled, with any coming up as 4-6 being counted as successes, 1-3 are traitors. To succeed at a task or win a conflict, a player must get as many successes as the obstacle. If so, his intent is realized. If not, the stakes of failure the GM described take effect.
Let it Ride
One of the more important rules is the Let it Ride rule. It means that the result of any roll counts. There are no retries, unless the intent or goal of the task changes. This is both for the sake of the player (the GM can not make you repeat a task until it fails) and for a good speed of play.
Consider if you want to spend resources/work carefully (see below) on a task before you roll. You only get one attempt.
Different Kinds of Tests
There are a number of different ways to roll for different situations that arise. These include:
- Standard Test – Declare intent, set the stakes, roll the dice, trying to meet the assigned obstacle. (Examples: climbing a wall, felling a tree, building a wagon)
- Versus Tests – Declare intent, set the stakes. Two players roll against each other. The number of successes for one is the Obstacle of the other and vice versa. If one side is the aggressor, ties go to the defender; if both are aggressive, on a tie neither side gains an edge (but this can be swung wit a Call-On trait). (Examples: sneaking past sentries, positioning for a fight, lunging for an artifact)
- Open Tests – Declare the intent, and roll to see how many successes you can get, the more the merrier. Sometimes there is a minimum obstacle and above that, it just gets better. Your intent should be clearly stated before rolling. (Examples: researching a legend, resisting surprise (Steel), sorcery and magic)
- Linked Tests – Declare intent set the stakes for the overall task. Then, determine what tests are involved in achieving it. Roll for each test in turn, each usually with its own obstacle. If you go above the Obstacle, you gain +1D to the next text; if you tie the Obstacle, there is no bonus/penalty; and if you fail, the next test is at +1 Ob. (Examples: sailing a ship (Rigging, Navigation, Piloting), scouting a region (Stealthy, Foraging, Perception), trade negotiations (Etiquette, Circles, Resources, Haggling))
Advantage and Disadvantage
You can gain up to one advantage per test. It can be an advantageous situation or just good role-playing. An advantage adds +1 die. Maybe +2 dice or (rarely) even +3 dice if it is a really extreme advantage.
Disadvantages add to the Obstacle, making the test harder. Several disadvantages stack.
Advantages and disadvantages do not cancel each other out. In other words, you can gain more dice but also a raised Obstacle.
Working Carefully, Patiently and/or Quickly
Tests can be performed carefully, patiently and quickly. A player can choose to do one, two or all three at once.
- Carefully – This must be declared before the dice are rolled. This increases the time required by 50%, but gives a 1D advantage. If the roll should fail, the stakes usually include a serious timing problem.
- Patiently – Successes above the Obstacle can be used to embellish, adding quality and color to the basic intent.
- Quickly – Successes above the Obstacle can be used to reduce the time of the task by 10% per success.
Player can assist each other in a task. If the helping player has the skill being used, he can hand the other one dice to represent his character’s aid.
If the character has the skill at exponent 4 or lower, he adds 1 die. If 5 or higher, he can add up to 2 dice.
Fields of Related Knowledge (FoRKs)
When a character has a skill that is useful in a situation, but is not the one being tested, it can be called on for support.
For example, a player must test Power to carry another character through the woods quickly. Forest-Wise is not the skill being tested, but knowing how to move well in woods might help.
When a skill is used as a FoRK, it adds +1D to the test if exponent 6 or lower, or +2D if exponent 7 or higher.
Advancement is essential in BW. The advancement system is built to allow events and the way you react to them to shape the character’s skills and abilities, reinforcing the fact that what you do really does matter. You might be a teenage street urchin, but you’re still the hero of your story!
Everything on your character advances through use: skills, stats, circles, resources, everything. In order to advance something, the player must earn a number of Routine, Difficult and Challenging tests. The higher exponent, the more tests are required and the harder they are.
Routine, Difficult and Challenging
The number of dice rolled (and not the exponent of the stat being tested) is compared to the Obstacle. Advantages, FoRKs and helping dice generally slow advancement down. You can always choose not to take the dice offered by helpers, advantages or FoRKs. You must roll your entire skill though.
Remember to log earned tests on your sheet. It is ok to ask for a time-out after a big conflict, so you can tally tests.
As a rule, a test is:
- Challenging if the obstacle is higher than the number of dice rolled.
- Difficult if the obstacle is equal to or one lower than the number of dice.
- Routine if it is easier than a difficult test.
Artha is the most important resource you have control over as a player. It allows you to manipulate the dice being rolled and can help you accomplish amazing things… or just survive.
There are 3 types of artha:
- Fate is earned often, often multiple times per session, usually for portraying BITs in ways that make for good story. The most common uses for Fate are making a roll open-ended (6’s are rolled again to try for more successes) and to ignore the +1 Ob penalty from a superficial wound for a scene.
- Persona is earned by fulfilling a step in a goal or breaking out in a totally different direction, which is usually possible once ever 3-6 sessions. Common uses for Persona are adding one die to a roll (up to 3 points for +3D), ignore a -1D wound penalty, or bringing yourself back from death’s door.
- Deeds is earned by going above and beyond in completing a long-term goal, which can take many steps and phases over the course of a saga. Common uses for Deeds are doubling dice for one test or rerolling all failed dice on a test.
Lastly, by spending 5 Fate, 3 Persona and 2 Deeds a character can enter Aristeia, temporarily shade-shifting a stat or ignoring all wound penalties for one scene.
In BW there are 3 different systems of detailed conflict resolution. Duel of Wits is social combat and is used to resolve intellectual arguments, discussions and petty fights. Range & Cover is ranged combat, where bowmen, gunners etc. strive for superior position, trying to shoot while not being shot. Fight! takes care of those martial conflicts where you are close enough to see the light go out in your opponent’s eyes.
All three systems use scripting. When we script, we plan a few moves (called volleys) ahead. The actions we choose are locked in place, and resolved one at a time. Three volleys create one exchange, during which we strive to put ourselves in a better position than our opponent and strike telling blows to their arguments or their bodies! It is a way of keeping the game moving and making conflict interesting and dramatic. It also makes your characters mortal and fallible, by ensuring they will sometimes make mistakes, but it also rewards lucky and skillful maneuvering.
Duel of Wits
The basic goal in DoW is to reduce the opponent’s Body of Argument (BoA) to zero, before he/she reduces yours to zero, through a series of verbal jabs and parries. By doing so, you prove your argument was the correct one, and your opponent has no idea what he’s talking about. A DoW is not about who is telling the truth; it’s about convincing everyone within earshot that you are.
Before a DoW, both players should state clearly their case and what is at stake. This is mostly a meta-game issue, to avoid confusion later. The stakes here are a social contract between the players that basically says, “My character will do this if I win and this if I lose.” It does not necessarily mean that both characters suddenly stop discussing and clearly state their case.
However, DoW is not mind control. If you cannot agree to the stakes being offered, you are free to walk away. A glib peasant couldn’t talk a king out of his kingdom, because no king would enter into such a deal! On the other hand, remember that BW conflicts are built on how much you’re willing to risk against what you hope to get out of them. Don’t be scared of big risks and desperate acts, because that’s the road to fortune and glory!
Pacing & Mood
Here are a few tips to help keep DoW fast-paced and interesting:
- Preserve the mood. Make the arguments consistent with the rest of the discussion. Don’t make it silly unless it’s supposed to.
- Speak the part. Stay in character. You don’t have to say it perfectly, but say it like your character would. A good performance is as likely to earn advantage dice as an airtight argument. After speaking the part, dice are rolled.
- Draw on FoRKs. Include the skills in speaking the part, and it must make at least a little sense. If FoRKing Falsehood, lie a little; if calling on Obscure History, make up some details. And remember to preserve the mood.
From here, the DoW proceeds as follows:
- Choose Dueling Skills: At the beginning of a DoW, each player chooses his dueling skill, which he will be using for most of the DoW. Almost all other social skills can see use in a DoW, but only the following can be used as dueling skills: Oratory, Rhetoric, Persuasion, Interrogation, Stentorious Debate, or Haggling.
- Determine BoA: Roll your Dueling Skill, and add your Will Exponent. This is your BoA, the overall strength of your argument. Traits may affect this, or the BoA can be double if the topic is a big deal or cut in half if it’s a small deal. Let your GM take care of this.
- Script Exchange: Each player secretly scripts three volleys, one action per volley. Actions are revealed one volley at a time, with each person speaking their part. Once both sides have said their piece, advantages and disadvantages are given, and the dice are rolled. The GM describes how the audience perceives the results of the volley.
- Victory & Compromise: The Duel ends when one participant’s BoA is reduced to 0. If your BoA has been reduced by any amount, you still win, but you will have to compromise. The lower your BoA ends, compared to how it was originally, the more you will have to compromise. If both sides find their BoA reduced to 0 in the same volley, then an entirely new set of stakes must be agreed on in which neither side gets precisely what it wanted.
Assuming one person has a positive BoA, at this point, the stakes the players set out before the DoW began take effect: the character who lost must abide by them. Again, this is a meta-game issue. The players have agreed on one of two ways the situation will end, and to renege is cheating, plain and simple.
However, if a player feels his character’s honor has been besmirched, he can escalate the dispute by demanding satisfaction! It doesn't change anyone’s opinion about who was right, but sometimes a sharp sword can counter a sharp tongue. For that, we'll need…
Like the DoW, Fight! uses scripting to create dramatic, gritty conflicts. Unlike DoW, you’re not trying to make your opponent look like a fool – you’re trying to make him dead. To accomplish your murderous intent, we’ll use a few concepts.
BW does not bog itself down with visual aids. Instead, we make a Versus Test of our Speed stats, plus bonuses for length of weapon you’ll attack with, highest Reflexes and highest Speed multiplier. The winner decides how far apart the opponents are to start, based on the length of his weapon. Subsequent positioning tests are made at the beginning of each volley, reflecting the push and pull of combat.
The distances in positioning are:
- Outside – Not even in range to engage in combat. Where fighting ends and fleeing begins.
- Lunging – Close enough to dart in for a quick swipe. Increases the difficulty of the attack by +2 Ob.
- Optimal – Where you want to be. No bonus/penalty.
- Inside – Face to face. The range for grappling, throwing and pushing. Big weapons suffer penalties at this range.
These distances are relative to the length of your weapon. Optimal range for a spear is different than optimal range for a dagger.
As volleys are revealed, actions are compared and happen in the same moment. My first action and your first action in Volley 1 are simultaneous. If we both have second actions, those are also simultaneous. If only one of us has a second action that volley, it happens unopposed! Once all actions in a volley are resolved, we move on to the next volley.
The tools of the warrior’s trade, weapons have a number of factors to consider.
- Weapon length factors into positioning and is rated on the scale: Longest, Longer, Long, Shorter and Shortest.
- Weapon Speed determines how often you can strike. Fast weapons can strike every action. Slow weapons can strike every other action. Unwieldy weapons can strike every three actions (and require a Set action first).
- Versus Armor (VA) is an obstacle penalty to an opponent’s armor roll (e.g., VA 2 increases the armor roll from Ob 1 to Ob 3).
- Power is added to your Power stat to factor the three severities of hits: Incidental, Mark, Superb.
- Add is the number of dice you need above the to-hit obstacle to increase the severity of the hit.
BW thinks of damage in thresholds, not hit points. In essence this means the higher your pain tolerance, the more of a beating you can take. Wounds come in six levels:
- Superficial – Sudden but brief pain. (NOTE: Three superficial wounds will become one Light wound. This is a special case and happens only with superficial wounds!)
- Light – Painful and slightly debilitating.
- Midi – Debilitating, but not deadly.
- Severe – Life-threatening, and possibly crippling.
- Traumatic – Guts everywhere!
- Mortal – On the verge of death.
It is possible to take multiple wounds of the same type, compounding penalties as you go. If those penalties exceed your skill exponent, you’re too addled to use it. If they exceed a stat, your character succumbs to the pain and passes out.
A good way to stay intact through a fight is by wearing armor. Armor grants more dice the heavier it is. If you take a hit, you make an armor roll, modified by the weapon’s VA. Success means the armor has deflected the blow! However, armor also imposes penalties due to its bulk and clumsy weight. Speed, Perception, Stealthy and Agility are typically affected.
Flow of Fight!
Combat breaks down to these steps:
- Initial positioning. Winner declares starting position.
- Script actions – 1 positioning volley, in addition to a number of actions equal to your Reflex stat, divided evenly across the exchange.
- Reveal the first volley.
- Resolve actions simultaneously – First actions happen together first, then second, then third.
- If a hit occurs:
- Defender declares where he is open
- Attacker can spend dice to improve the hit or move the location
- Roll Armor if applicable; if successful, hit is negated
- Record damage. Note wound penalty and make a Steel test if necessary
- Move on to next action/volley/exchange and repeat!