Timiro Nights Goes Burning Wheel: Success! (and some musings)

This past weekend, I finally made the official complete switch, fully translating the events, characters, and setting from my KnownWorld “Timiro Nights” campaign into the Burning Wheel game system. This particular campaign is relatively new (only a handful of sessions so far since inception), but it has been a consistent source of gaming joy for me since getting the group together. It’s been a while since I’ve had a group this responsive, and this eager to extend the game talk well into our downtime. I’m glad to say that so far, the conversion to the new rules has been a success. I’d like to take a few here and talk about the juicy technical bits behind that conversion, and my own ideas of how the Burning Wheel system should work.

First, I want to talk about my feelings on Burning Wheel. If you know me at all, then you know of my curious obsession with this game. I own most of the major books of the system, sometimes multiple copies (for loaning and fan-conversion!), and have even had them all custom spiral-bound for ease of frequent use at the table (one of the most useful things I’ve ever done with a game book, and I recommend it to everyone). I’ve read them all multiple times through, and have burned up hundreds of random never-to-be-played characters in my idle time. And yet, if there’s any system that I would call my “White Whale” of gaming, that system is Burning Wheel. Despite many attempts to either run or play in Burning Wheel games, all my efforts mysteriously fail, either days before the games are to begin, or after only one or two sessions of actual play. I frequently get the feeling that Karma is working against me, and just doesn’t want me to play and enjoy this game system, no matter how many hours and dollars of devotion to its secrets.

Another problem is that I believe that the Burning Wheel that I have read and come to understand is a very different Burning Wheel than the game that its official forum-goers seem to enjoy. I only truly came to realize that recently, while working on translating this very campaign. When I started working on the conversion, I had multiple people refer me to the Burning THAC0 fan rules, telling me that those would do exactly what I wanted. Problem is, all that document really does is re-emphasize the core rules of Burning Wheel itself, with no real changes at all towards accommodating a more adventurous focus of play. The same people who referred me to the document intoned that the best way to run an “old-school” style of adventure in Burning Wheel is to get the characters into the dungeon and then turn them against each other, and then just sit back and watch the chaos. Wait… what? I was under the impression we were adventuring, and not playing Diplomacy (a game I have come through experience to now refuse to play with actual friends).

During the course of the conversion process, there was a great amount of discussion between the players and myself about their opinions on the (crucial) Beliefs subsystem of the game rules. There were a few rather vocal objections towards aspects of that subsystem – aspects which appeared to exist primarily to stir inner-party conflict, and to more deeply dig the trenches that separate the players from the GM. One player expressed his specific distaste for that kind of conflict, preferring instead a more heroic style of gameplay. He was not alone in this, and managed to find a few really heinous examples from the BW forums of GMs receiving advice to take the player characters’ beliefs, twist them into vicious scabby whips, and use them to cause strife and turmoil. Apparently, the consensus there is that such kinds of conflict are key to a good game of Burning Wheel.

I don’t entirely agree with this consensus. This discussion led me to ask the System itself two pretty big questions: is there room in a Burning Wheel game for a character who never questions his Beliefs, who always sticks with his guns? And can the Burning Wheel system accommodate a classic adventure campaign with such heroes, who go forth, fight evil, and save the day, without the GM antagonizing them and trying to make the players cry tears of anguish?

Absolutely. While it is true that a look through the official BW forums shows many examples of GMs being given praise for antagonizing the characters’ chosen beliefs and using them as weapons of Story War against the players, I personally believe that the game can be just as fun for a less heavy-hearted adventure, using the Beliefs primarily as guidelines towards that adventure, and goals to be fulfilled. It is my belief that not every game has to be “Big Choices All the Time,” and after our last session of the game, I’m glad to see that this belief has been justified. Character Beliefs don’t have to be pushed all the time, nor do they have to cause major conflicts of morality. Beliefs can instead be seen as Arrows Towards Adventure, and the system won’t lose any functionality at all. Sure, Hard Choices and Major Life Conflicts can be fun, but I’m glad to see that with just a little bit of perspective re-tooling, Simple Choices and Grand Adventure are just as enjoyable using the Burning Wheel game rules.

On to the mechanics of the conversion. While the setting and the characters of this campaign have been very enjoyable, KnownWorld just wasn’t doing it for us. I don’t believe this is a fault with the KnownWorld rules as much as it is with the core Palladium system that I wrote them to enhance. Despite my love for the setting and my nostalgia for the books, my own experiences have repeatedly proven how terrible the Palladium rules system is, and sadly, this very campaign has shown to us that no level of retooling outside of a complete system conversion will make that game any better. When I finally made the decision to go forth with the conversion, Burning Wheel was the obvious choice for me. We’d already been incorporating simple Beliefs and Instincts into our play, and the dice mechanics of KnownWorld ported with little tooling at all directly into Burning Wheel. The primary Stats were an almost perfect translation, and even the Lifepaths were pretty simple to reverse-engineer.

However, I’ve always felt that while BW’s Lifepaths were theoretically a pretty nifty way to create realistic characters, in reality the final results always left me wanting just a little more. Then one day a pal of mine, and a fellow BW aficionado, gave me the best advice I’ve yet to receive regarding this game system: Just give the characters the numbers you want them to have, and then go play. Use the lifepaths as a guideline, and then add to the results liberally to fill out the spots you feel are empty. Does this break the rules? Hell yeah it does, and it rocks too.

After hearing that, I was surprised I had never thought of it myself. Back when I was still running D20-based campaigns, that was exactly how I would handle character creation (screw your random rolls!). Players were usually too surprised when I offered that method to actually abuse it, and the end results tended to be more enjoyable for everyone at the table. After all players tend to be much happier when they are playing the characters as they actually exist in their mental conceptions.

So when tooling over the KW characters, I used the lifepaths to create close approximations, and then added extra skills and traits as I felt were necessary. While the party consists of a human, and elf, a dwarf, and a changeling, I found that the easiest way to port them over would be as human stock characters with traits to transform them into their respective races. I was quite satisfied with the results, and glad to see them play effectively (and more important: enjoyably) during this past session.

We’ve added a few system tweaks to fit our style of play, and we are all far more excited about the coming sessions now that we’ve adapted to a more functional and enjoyable game system.

6 thoughts on “Timiro Nights Goes Burning Wheel: Success! (and some musings)

  1. Hello fellow BW aficionado,

    way to bitch-slap BW and make it do what you want!

    I confess, I play BW WRONG! WRONG! So WRONG that I’m a little afraid to post on the forums about it.

    In addition to not Burning characters, I sometimes ignore scripting and disregard the Fight! and DoW maneuvers in favor of a more freeform Versus Test based system. Essentially, handling fights the way I did in D&D: ask the player what they want the character to try, and if it’s not fitting in the maneuvers in the book, I make up a Versus Test to resolve it (with a little inspiration from how opposed/asymmetrical actions work in RAW).

    This gets rid of one of my pet peeves in RPGs: the player declaring what rule they’d like to engage (“I make a spot check”) instead of describing what the character’s doing. Roll Dice or Say Yes cures this in most situations; the player says what they want and sometimes the GM gets in the way. But then, you engage Fight!, and we’re back to “I take the Strike and Lock action this Exchange and the Avoid action next exchange” while the player’s reaching for the dice, which bores the living shit out of me when I’m GMing.

    (Reflexes are handled like this: “You’ve got one double-action in the next three exchanges… do you want to use it now?”)

    And I also ran Fight! with repeating firearms, which Luke Crane specifically called out as never a good idea. Does make fights really short, I admit.

    Anyway: drift, it\’s what\’s for dinner.

    I was interested to read the Known World rules, and I\’d be interested to see your houserules doc for Palladium/Burning Wheel too, if it\’s postable.

  2. Red: Here’s some House Rules you might appreciate (copied from a Google Wave we use to talk game stuff):

    I have an idea for a fast and exciting way to handle “quick” combats, such as the random goblins example. I want to handle such things quickly, but NOT as quick as the “single roll resolves everything” method of the standard Bloody Versus. This new method should hopefully allow quick resolution of these “lesser” combat scenes, without restricting the fun of dice-rolling and strategizing. Additionally, I think some of these ideas will help keep it more in line with the “sets of three” mechanics of Burning Wheel. Heavy inspirations are drawn from old-school DnD’s handling of Mass Battles, and a little from that old “stages” flow of battle I remember – arrows, then spells, then combat, etc.

    Lemme know what you think.

    I call it the Bloody Skirmishes house rule:

    Using Bloody Skirmishes, these minor combat encounters are divided into exactly three volleys of action, with the goal of resolving all possible actions via the final dice roll in the third volley. During each volley, each side of the skirmish declares a Leader, who handles the dice rolling during that volley. Leaders can change from volley to volley (in fact, I would like to possibly even make this a requirement, just to give each playera moment in the spotlight). In the volley, both sides narrate their actions, determine their dice pools, and roll off to determine winner.

    VOLLEY #1

    1.1 Determine Leader, set stakes: Both sides determine who shall lead the first volley. Choose highest Perception or Speed, as it matters. Leaders set Stakes; EX: “If we win this volley, we gain the superior position and drive our foes into a dangerous corner.”

    1.2 Initiative: The beginning of the process is kicked off with a single Initiative roll. This roll only happens at the beginning of the first Volley; in subsequent volleys, initiative is determined by the results of the previous volley’s dice rolls. The test is opposed Speed or Perception (or Observation skill) of the leaders (their choice). Winner gets to choose to either declare their side’s actions first, or wait and declare reactions to the opposing side’s actions. If successes more-than-doubled the opponent’s, the victor gets a one die bonus to the following dice roll.

    1.3 Determine Dice Pools: Now the Leaders of each side establish their dice pools. Base pool is set by the weapon skill the leader is bringing to bear in the fray. FoRKs can include tactics. Bonus die if the Initiative test was spectacular. Bonus die if your side has longest weapons (in comparison). Bonus die if your side has more combatants, two if your side more than doubles the enemy. Bonus die for awesome armor. Helping dice can be added from teammates.

    1.4 Roll for the Assault: Both sides roll the dice! Determine the mechanical results as per standard Bloody Versus.

    1.5 Victor! The victor now describes the outcome of the first wave of the tide of battle, based upon the stakes they set when accepting the role of Volley Leader.

    VOLLEY #2

    The flow is similar

    2.1 Leader and Stakes: Leaders can change from round to round. It’s up to the players, really, although I encourage it simply for the sake of switching things up, character spotlights, and dramatic representation of the flow of battle. Each volley requires new appropriate stakes; EX: “If we win, we seriously thin out their numbers,” “If we win, we take out their heaviest hitters and leave the rest for final clean-up,” and so on.

    2.2 Initiative: There is no initiative test. If the winner of the previous volley’s actual combat test more than double the opponent’s successes, they get to make the initiative choice (declare now, or wait and react). Otherwise, the loser of that test makes the choice.

    2.3 – 2.5 These steps are identical to those in Volley 1. Winner of the previous Volley’s combat test gets a bonus die.

    VOLLEY #3 is identical to volley #2. The results of the final test determine the overall outcome of the battle. Stakes should likewise emphasize finality: “If we win, we slaughter all but one, to be kept as prisoner for interrogation,” or “If we win, we chase them off scared back into the hills from whence they came,” and so on.

    I’m eager to see this in play. I can already foresee a few issues that might arise:

    * What if the combat tests tie? If so, it’s a stalemate. If the whole process is a tie, that means that the overall aggressing side has withdrawn somehow, and just might make an appearance later in the game, seeking a second assault, potentially with enhanced numbers and better tactics.

    * What if we kill everyone in the first volley? Well, against groups of multiple opponents, this might not be possible. With a single roll, the outcomes will be applied as best makes sense. Perhaps additional successes can be “spent” to cause additional wounds, etc. But with a focus more on “stakes” than on actual damage, I don’t foresee this being a big issue.

    * What if it’s just one pidding enemy? Don’t bother with Bloody Skirmishes or Fight, and just use a single Bloody Versus test. Chances are you’ll kill him in a single roll of the dice as your arrow penetrates his eye sicket.

  3. Ha! I’m working on something similar, based on my own Burning Wheel mass combat drift. Interesting we both mixed some D&D back into our BW. I’m going with the BE style allocating successes to shot/strike oppertunities and unit actions.

    Have you considered using the “individual action” mechanic for tiebreakers a la BE? I’ve found my players (and me, too) like the idea of the hard-fought stalemate that just needs their character to tip the balance. Great chance to for heroic stuff to happen; might specify that the volley leader can’t take the individual action, as a spotlight-passing mechanic.

  4. I admit that I haven’t read much of Burning Empires. I bought it and love to look at its pretty, pretty cover on my shelf, but my ability to actually sit and just read it is pretty dismal.

    I shall now have to check it out again. Can you give me more details on the bits you mention above? I want to know more.

  5. Sure! Basically, when you tie for opposed maneuvers in Firefight, it’s kind of boring. Nobody moves (in case of Advance/Withdraw), nobody loses Disposition, no shot opportunities or unit actions are generated since there’s no successes left over to be allocated.

    So you break the tie with a test between two individuals. The skills you can use depend on what you were trying to do. For Suppressive Fire, you have to use a weapon skill; for Withdraw, you can use stealth or movement skills. This new test not only breaks the tie, it COUNTS AS the maneuver test; you can allocate the successes from it, it reduces Disposition, etc.

    You narrate it as somebody from the fireteam stepping up and making the difference between defeat and victory (although it doesn’t have to be a direct conflict between the two individuals). It works well in BE because the Firefight rolls are almost all Command, Tactics or Strategy; just having Squad Support Weapons 8 doesn’t win maneuver rolls… UNLESS you have to break the tie. Then some of those miscellaneous combat skills, such as Signals, Infiltration and Physical Training win the day.

    For Bloody Skirmish, you might disallow whatever skill (or character?) that made the Assault roll; some other factor has to tip the balance.

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