Earlier this week, I posted on The 25 Player Responsibilities in Burning Wheel Gold, and now I want to do the same for GMs. Except, well, it has to be a little different for GMs. See, I did the same thing for GMs as for Players. I noted down mechanical responsibilities as I read the book, without trying to step on the territory of advice the system already gives about itself and how to play it. Naturally, there’s going to be some blurring – but the GM’s end of the table is where the majority of stark difference between Game Mechanics and Game Fiction exists. Indeed, it’s the GM’s explicit job in near every RPG system – and explicitly so in Burning Wheel – to make sure the mechanics mesh with the game fiction. So, if I pulled some of these patchwork from my head and from Burning Wheel Gold, forgive me. I’m doing this for newcomers to the system, and old timers with bad habits, to get their heads on straight.
Naturally, I forgot to cite page numbers the majority of the time. C’est la vie.
GM Responsibilities in Burning Wheel Gold
- Assign Consistent Obstacle Numbers: If you don’t, you’re cutting into everyone’s suspension of disbelief and the Game Fiction’s verisimilitude. It can be hard. Ask your players to help keep you to it.
- Assess and determine disadvantage: And remember to keep it separate from base obstacle. Seeing the Sigil is Ob 2. Seeing it in the haze of smoke is +1 Ob. This is important because of…
- Double the Base Obstacle, not the modifiers: Remember to do this when a player has said they’re taking a double Obstacle penalty. So the example above, the regular test is Ob 3 total, and the Double Obstacle Penalty test is Ob 5.
- Assess and announce when a series of tests are going to be Linked: This lets players adequately know the consequences of success and failure. That said, if a player asks if this test was linked to the previous, you should probably Say Yes. Players can invoke the mechanics too, GM.
- Hold a player’s Intent and Task as sacrosanct: If you approved the intent “I’m going to get into the keep tonight, so while it’s dark I’ll Stealthy over the walls and in.” You can’t respond with “Ok, you’re over the walls. What do you do now?” No, you let the player all the way into the keep. That’s what you agreed to. And you should probably let the players narrate this sometimes, let them narrate when they succeed. The game assumes you’re letting them, so do it.
- Always inform the players of the consequences of failing a task.
- Present failures as complications, not as total dead ends and flat negatives: Of course, sometimes a brick wall is a complication.
- Remember that, Succeed or Fail, you have to Let it Ride: No re-tests for your NPCs or for the Players – unless the circumstances change dramatically.
- When a player undertakes a long task, break it up by asking what others are doing meanwhile: Time is mutable in the game. Let it pass as it needs to.
- Don’t frame a scene that doesn’t challenge a character’s Beliefs: This is part of your job. You have to do this, because they have to get Artha, and because the PCs demanded the scenes that challenge, break, fold, mold, spindle, and mutilate their precious Beliefs. This is the easiest to lose sight of! If nobody’s Beliefs are challenged by or integral to a game moment, handle it with a roll or a Say Yes (#14) and move on.
- Track moments to nominate PCs for Artha: You’re the only one who can nominate anyone at the table for Artha, so do it. Keep a little notepad or piece of paper handy and note them down as they come up. The raised quality of your after-session discussions, and of the game in general, will thank you. And remember to prompt the players to give your NPCs Artha.
- Track moments for trait nominations, as well: This isn’t only your job, But.
- Track moments for Deeds Artha: This is only your job. Hint: If the word “selfless” ever enters your head at the table, note the moment. It’s probably Deeds Artha.
- Say Yes or Roll the Dice: I noted page for this. Page 72 in The Burning Wheel Gold. This is some of the best advice in gaming. If it’s not a conflict, if nothing’s at stake, say Yes and move on to the good stuff.
- Keep track of the Resources Cycle: This is important, because it’s when you get to call in those pesky lifestyle tests. Keep a little tally in your head of how players narrate their character living, as well. Helps set the Obstacle for lifestyle tests.
- Offer The Gift of Kindness on failed Resources: Especially where liberal doses of Cash or Funds were involved for the players. You might also find that it helps the fiction make more sense where cash and funds are involved. “You found it, but even with all that cash from renting out your country manor, you need to have a servant re-thatch his house. So, you get the armor, and take some tax, or take less tax and you’ve spent that cash in vain.”
- Watch your Players’ Affiliations and Reputations: You’re the one who needs to be able to say that they either increase or decrease, or become infamous at the player’s option. You should probably bring this up at the End-Of-A-Story-Arc-Or-Adventure post-game session.
- Invoke the Enmity Clause on failed Circles Tests: More enemies, or people who vaguely dislike the player characters, are only going to make your world richer and your job easier. This is about making Failure complicated, instead of flat!
- Remember to note down things the players have seen as Steel tests for advancement: You’ll need to bring them up, along with the votes, in the post game meeting.
- Give life to the setting: This is the little stuff. Name everyone. Write down the names. If you want your players to keep notes you have to as well. The best teachers do their assignments along with the students. Describe the houses, the streets, the trees, and fit it all into your Big Picture. It encourages your players to do the same.
That’s them! Especially that last one. It should probably be five or six or an entire post. Most of those are mechanical, though, which is good. Remember that this is important: don’t be afraid to reference the book, and don’t be afraid to make a snap judgment and check the book later. Do whichever is more important to keeping the game flowing. The Burning Wheel Gold book is blessed with a good Index, though. Do try to use it. Of course, you care about getting the mechanics mostly right because you’re as invested in the game and the characters as you want the Players to be.