Chatty Plays, Part 3: Burning Wheel, Monstrous Power Play

Don’t miss parts 1 and 2 of this story of my first foray as a Burning Wheel RPG Game Master.

Quick review of who plays who:

Brechtanz dwarven adventurer (Franky)

Fidhean elven bard (Eric)

Robard, human thief (Math)

Ssisz Roden cultist (Mike)

Mah Dhusah, Ophidian Hunter (Yan)


When Yan’s PC came out of the shadows, hissing at the PCs about to deface the walls of the ruined temple, all players, Yan included, gleefully got ready to test Burning Wheel’s simplified combat system called “bloody versus”.  I had read enough of the combat rules to apply it and even go a little bit further.  I’ll spare the details, but this simplified system is a bit like if you resolved a D&D fight with an opposed weapons check, modified by armour.

Just so Yan’s PC didn’t get assassinated, I ruled that the fight would focus on one main opponent for the Ophidian, helped by the others, at least for the first exchange of blows. As it happened, the dwarf attacked with his shoddy sword while the Ophidian closed in with claws, fangs and snake head.    The elf grabbed the ophidian’s tail and the thief moved in to backstab her, dividing her attention.  The Roden stayed out of it, biding its time…

A few heartbeats later, the Ophidian reeled from a light scalp wound and ran away screaming, having lost a Steel check (Burning Wheel’s morale/will mechanic). The fight was already over…

I did bristle a few players expectations here. Yan was surprised to discover how easy it had been to hurt his PC. Also, the other players expected the fight to go on as I’d described the elf holding on to her tail and the thief was getting ready to stab her… we smoothed things out pretty rapidly and moved on.

The piece of valuable art was successfully removed from the wall and thus was the Roden PC paid.

Score 1 for Ssisz!


As the remaining started discussing what to do with the Sword, the Ophidian stealthily approached the Roden and whispered a proposition, which was rapidly agreed too (the roden had a belief to seek out new allies for the cult).  Instead of leading the group back to the surface, the Rat Man cultist would lead the group deeper in the structure, right into a trap.

(All right!  Trouble!)

Of course, when the other players heard us discussing that, they became all suspicious of the Roden…

Eric: Hey, why didn’t you help us during the fight?

Math: Yeah, are you a traitor?

Mike: Pfff, like you needed my help…

Chatty: Come on guys, it’s too late to become suspicious, you’ll need to detect the Roden’s subterfuge with a perception check vs his inconspicuous skill to detect his leading you somewhere you never went.

Burning Wheel has a lot of that: Roll X skill/ability vs Y skill/ability.  You roll a ton of dice and you roll them all the time.  It does add a lot of excitement, something I’m not used to with skill checks, probably because the results of such checks are so much more important than how I used to do it with Gurps and D&D.

The Roden led the group right into a trapped landing between 2 flights of stairs which, after a failed check, sent the Dwarf (and the Sword) plummeting head first into faintly glowing muck, breaking a few ribs on the way down.  As the Elf and the Rat cultist were arguing about it, Yan’s Ophidian approached Math’s Thief and whispered a very generous offer for the Sword.  While Math considered it, it was eventually rejected (i.e. he refused to go into a Duel of Wits) because he interpreted Robbard’s belief about Snake people (they enslaved his father) as too hateful to consider discussing anything with “them snake varmint”.

At this point, while I had abandoned the idea that we would have one Duel of Wits in this scenario, I still wanted to drive home one final point.

Chatty: You know Math, your “enslaved father” belief is vague enough that you could use that in a Duel of Wits to convince the Ophidian to free him in exchange for the sword (or at least get his whereabouts).  Nothing says that your father is dead unless we agree that it makes for a more powerful story

Aside: even there, nothing is stopping me as a GM from disregarding this “death” if it better serves the fiction later in a potential campaign.

Math: Okay, I get what you mean, but I’ll stick to my guns.

Chatty: Way cool.

Franky: Poor Phil, we keep screwing with your plans eh?

Chatty: Don’t sweat it, I can take it…

Act 3: Snake Eyes!

After the thief’s last refusal, Yan considered that he had one last objective: his PC had a belief that the elf’s father had killed an Ophidian ambassador to include her scales in the Sword, so if she could not get the sword, she would get the elf.  The Ophidian and Roden ran away together, leaving the 3 adventurers to fend for themselves, lost in the depths of the dungeon.

Chatty: So your lost guys…

Eric: Hey! I have this magical song that tells me all about elven history… can’t just sing back the last stances I’ve been composing to go back to the surface?

Chatty: Roll for it (he got it!)

And thus, as the dwarf was extricated from the pit trap, the elven bard used his song and retraced their steps…

Eric (in a pretty decent, folksy reel): And then we climbed the stairs and walked for 100 paces and turned at the crevice shaped like a giant’s trideeeeeeent!

… and made their way to the exit.

The Ophidian offered one last deal to the Roden, gave it a piece of ancient jewelry (worth a LOT!) and both agreed to set up one last ambush to kill the elf.  As the adventurers made their way to the exit, the Snake sister drew a bead on the elf and the last exchange of dice rolls was made.

I had the elf and the Ophidian roll Perception vs Stealth.  If the elf failed to spot the Ophidian, he’d get an arrow in the face with no chance of diving for cover. Of course, Math spent all his Artha (Action points) and won, spotting the Ophidian hunter.

Aside: One of the “mistakes” I did was not giving Yan’s PC any Artha (Burning Wheel’s action points), which he should have had.  In that sense, his PC was underpowered vs the others.   I fixed that with the last die-roll, but knowing Yan, he would have spent the Artha with the Stealth check to increase his number of successes and shoot the elf with no cover.

Chatty: You spot the Ophidian trying to shoot you, what do you do? Dive for cover?

Eric: Hell no!  I run as fast as I can out the dungeon’s door!

Mike: I try to trip him…

Chatty: Okay, Mike’s trip will help Yan’s…

I had the Elf roll a Speed check vs the Ophidian’s Shooting skill.   The elf won with a good margin.

Chatty: Okay Yan, Math’s PC runs like hell and weaves in the corridor, you keeping a bead on him from your gallery over the exit isin’t easy, you need to beat an Ob 4 to hit him (Math’s success made Yan’s obstacle higher).

Yan eventually hit the elf by spending his point of Artha I finally granted him…

…but the elf’s armour made the barbed arrow bounce.

Both the Roden and the Ophidian slinked away.  The Roden having been paid way more than it expected for little risk, the Ophidian planning to strike for the sword at a better time.

The Elf, Dwarf and Thief still hadn’t decided what to do with the sword, or the Thief’s price on its head… but that was for another day right?


We never got around to do a Duel of Wits, but it’s partly because none of the issues of the adventure appeared critical enough to the PCs to risk losing the Duel over it. Franky came close to do one early in the game but backed out when all the other PCs started siding against his.  Yan tried later but Math invoked his PC’s right not to engage in one, and that’s all right too.

Truth be told, I’m glad we stuck with the basic rules of opposed checks and focused on creating a dynamic dungeon adventure.  We managed to fill a whole evening where a lot of things happened and we experienced part of what a complex new system can do without getting too bogged down with rules.

Hell, that 45 min scenario turned into a fun 2h30 dungeon crawl!  What more could I ask for.

The greatest sign that the game was a success was that I got a strong sense from my players that they all were ready to start burning characters (i.e. make new PCs) and start a new campaign.  Hell, Yan has read the rules and has already made his PC.

So expect to hear more about this soon!

Thanks for reading!


  1. Martin Richard says:

    “…Yan’s Ophidian approached Math’s Thief and whispered a very generous offer for the Sword. While Math considered it, it was eventually rejected (i.e. he refused to go into a Duel of Wits)…”

    I think that’s looking at the DoW wrong…. Ref: top of the 2nd page:

    “Argument not Mind Control — The Duel of Wits is designed to simulate debate and argument: A speaker convinces an audience of the merits of his point. It is not designed to change a single character’s or player’s opinion. While this is possible, of course, it is not the goal.”

    A good use of DoW would have been if Math had been interested in the deal, and then Math and Yan would have used DoW against of the rest of the group for the gain of the Sword…

    We had the same type of situation last week with Maze @ Roludothon – all 4 PCs had to compete to be elected on a council, and recommend a decision to the council about a prophecy. 3 out of 4 PCs wanted to vote one way about the prophecy (with different agendas), Maze wanted the other. Maze won the DoW, and to all concerned (different parts of the council) appeared correct, won the argument, and his point of view was the one considered by the council.. But that didn’t change the opinion of the 3 others…

    Argument, not mind control.

  2. Excellent point Martin. In that sense, a DoW would not have been well suited for that, not unless the other PCs would have participated… which could have happened.

    I agree that you can’t force someone’s mind about anything. My argument about the PC’s dad stays though, a DoW could have been fought over the Sword and Robbard’s enslaved father, with the rest of the PCs as witnesses (given that they accepted that Robbard could decide the Sword’s fate”

    From what I’ve seen of the scenario. Either someone (Thief or Roden) run away with the sword… either the Elf/dwarf make the others agree that it belongs to one of the two and the DoW pits them both.

  3. Cool stuff, Phil. Glad to hear it all worked out well! It’s amazing how The Sword can either go very quickly… or become a full-blown session.

  4. I’m really happy it went the way it did. It showed what I realize is what the players needed to see of the game at first glance, irrespective of what I wanted them to see initially.

    Win Win really. And we did have a TON of fun.

  5. You might not have gotten a DoW but you’re right that the ending made sense how the game was played so it’s all good. If you really want a game with DoW, don’t be afraid to put conflicting agendas in the beliefs and put them on a situation where they won’t have a choice to butt heads. I know I did and it worked beautifully.

  6. How did you handle the Bloody Versus, by the way? I see there were no intents, so did you guys treat the rolls like D&D damage? I’m asking because a Bloody Versus is usually resolved like any BW test: intent vs intent with the winner achieving his/her intent. So if Yan’s was “drive the vile interlopers away,” they’d have been driven off by the fury of his attack. If Franky’s was “kill this damned reptile wench!”, Yan would (should) be dead.

    That’s the one reason I don’t often use Bloody Versus and instead use Fight! : There’s no room for a grey area with a Bloody Versus, only black and white results (and those are often “dead” / “not dead”).

  7. I hacked the basic combat system to get something in between BW and D&D so that we’d all be familiar with the shift. I basically used the Versus test to establish who hit who. Then used the margin of success of the winner to establish damage using IMS and then rolled armour if applicable.

    So intents weren’t used here. I used them much more in the various opposed checks of the adventure,

  8. Awesome stuff. Glad you’re trying out new games. Please do more!

  9. Cool! Nice transition mechanics idea. (and your players got to see Steel in action, too, which is fun)

    I’m curious… what would you say the top three things were that your players really seemed to dig and get excited aobut, and what were the three things that chafed them the most, or that they got hung up on? (If you don’t mind my asking)

  10. @Dale: Thanks! Will do!

    @Rafe: That’s too hard to answer now. I know Franky LOVED the game’s pace (that may change when we tackle/learn the crunchier conflict mechanics) and loved how story evolved from the choices and the rolls.

    Yan and myself want to explore the game further before answering you. We’ll need a few more games and I’ll need to put on my GM analyst hat some more… I also know I’ll have to deal with BW enthusiast that may try to speed my way toward “the right way” to play the game… but I already sense that I’ll hack the game to make it my own… and I’m sure you, a known Burning Hacker,I will have awesome discussions on that.

  11. Sounds wonderfully fun! Burn away!

  12. The right way to play is to enjoy it. If people are having fun, you’re doing it right. 🙂 No one can argue with that! … well, I’m sure some people could. On that note…

    I don’t hack BW, though. It’s way too complex a system to mess around with. Toss a stone in that pool and the ripple effect can be quite extreme. Best advice I can give (and which every BW player would tell you) is to play the game as written first before considering any tweaks. Some things don’t seem to make perfect sense on paper but work out perfectly in play, which is the only place it matters.

    Have fun!

  13. I agree 100%, I need to see the game play out before touching it’s engine. I did the same with Gurps, D&D 3 and 4.

    Can’t wait to try it again!

  14. All I can say at this point is that the character creation is brilliant… I absolutely love how you choose life paths to create the character background story and determine his/her starting assets.