This last week I ran a demo scenario (The Sword) for burning wheel and failed horribly, not least because no-one could understand the combat mechanics.

Can someone provide a script which can demonstrate to players how to engage and enjoy a burning wheel melee? The example in the end of the books was so frustrating to explore that my players gave up trying to understand after the first volley's explanations.


7 Answers 7


The Burning Wiki has a good outline of Fight!

However, I would not use them in a one-shot of Burning Wheel unless everyone has read the rules and is familiar with Burning Wheel, or if you as the GM want to walk each party through it. Use Bloody Versus instead.

If you were starting a campaign of Burning Wheel, you would still want to ease into the rules in the Rim. Start with the Hub and Spokes for a few sessions. Then introduce Duel of Wits when an appropriate situation arises. Once they're comfortable with DoW, introduce them to Fight!

Also, the scripting sheets are immensely useful for Duel of Wits and Fight! Use them.

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    \$\begingroup\$ For your first Fight!, I'd also just plain ignore positioning tests and stances. But Fight! definitely builds off of mechanics that Duel of Wits introduces, so start there. \$\endgroup\$
    – okeefe
    Jan 10, 2011 at 17:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ For what it's worth, Luke (author of BW) uses Fight! when he runs one-shots at cons. But I am pretty sure he handwaves bits and pieces of it and doesn't worry too much about it. You could do the same. \$\endgroup\$
    – Adam Dray
    Jan 11, 2011 at 23:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Adam Luke is also quite familiar with the system. Handwaving bits is very useful, but it still requires the GM to know the system and subsystem inside and out. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 12, 2011 at 17:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ Note that this answer is with respect to the then-current edition, Burning Wheel Revised. \$\endgroup\$
    – okeefe
    Jan 8, 2012 at 1:25

Burning wheel actually has three combat systems:

  • Bloody Versus: which is a simple extension of the core one conflict/one roll system.
  • Range and Cover: which is a cat & mouse system modeling hit & run, stalking, and other missile weapon-only conflicts.
  • Fight!: which is a blow-by-blow subsystem for melees, which is quite detailed.

Range and Cover and Fight! are optional.

To run a full-on fight in Burning Wheel you have to understand the Fight! system thoroughly, as a GM. To understand Fight! you have to deeply grasp the basic task/intent system, which is much deeper than it appear from reading. To fully grasp the task/intent basics, you need quite a bit of hands-on experience with the system.

It's easy to miss, but Burning Wheel is a game that everyone needs a lot of time to learn, including the GM. There's no way to jump into the deep end of the system and swim on the first try, or even the tenth. The system has enough subtle interactions that new players really need the GM to be on top of, for them to have a chance to grasp the game themselves. The only way for a game to go well with a novice Burning Wheel GM is to take the rules very slowly.


Have I got just the link for you! A Guide to Burning Wheel Fight! Strategy. Chock full of tips and strategy.

Edit: Really I probably wouldn't pull out the Fight! mechanics with new players until I'm really fluent at them myself. But that's a bit of a cop out isn't it?

Besides making sure that the players have a good grasp of Burning Wheel's Core Mechanics before using Fight! mechanics..

Perhaps you can start by abandoning some options of Fight! matrix and add some options back in at a later time.

Also don't forget that most modifiers only come into play only if they really matter, so no need to go on a modifier binge.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Interesting note about the "Fight! matrix": it's not really a closed matrix since the options aren't restricted to the included moves. They're merely codifications of things players have tried in the past, for reader convenience. Players are free to try anything in a fight, and it gets resolved in the usual task/intent paradigm of the core resolution mechanic. \$\endgroup\$ May 31, 2011 at 16:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ Sad panda: the link 404-d. If you can incorporate some of the key points from the strategy book into your post, it will stand up to link rot. \$\endgroup\$
    – user1861
    Oct 8, 2013 at 13:14

I played in the Sword one-shot, and we did end up using Fight! But then again, I had a coach who wasn't playing to help me suss it out (only fair, it was three against one!) and keep things moving.

When I played a longer game, we used Fight! a grand total of two times. Both times, it was me against NPCs, so the other players didn't have to worry about it at all. Here's what I did to keep things straight for myself; I'd probably do something similar to teach it to others:

First, I wrote out all the options for scripted actions on index cards. Then I grouped them into levels: Strike, Avoid and Block for the "basic" moves; Charge, Disarm and Great Strike as "intermediate"; and all the other weird little options as "advanced." This was a bit arbitrary — you can tweak which moves were in which level. This felt the most intuitive for me: attack and defense first, then some fancy tricks, then some even fancier tricks.

In play, I began the fight sticking to the first set of moves. Each new volley, I'd evaluate whether I was ready to try a trickier move based on the in-game circumstances, how fluent I was with the actions I was already using, and so forth. My limber Irish Kern was a devil at Positioning, so I as able to dance in and out of range at a whim, but my hits didn't pack much punch. This meant Charge and Great Strike came in quite handy as the duel went on. I think I used Push a couple times, and maybe Disarm once. Feint, Lock and the rest? Never used 'em; there was no need, and I was happy to leave them alone. To this day I have no idea how they work, which is fine!

To teach others this way, I would hand out the basic actions on cards and let them volley with that a bit. If they fight NPCs, then make sure you stick to just those actions, too! No cheating! Introduce a new move, or level of moves, whenever someone's wanting a new tactic — "How 'bout if I just rush the guy and tackle him to the ground?" — or when everyone seems ready. That is, they're really comfortable with the basics. And, again, don't introduce a move yourself as an NPC action; let the players have that advantage. It might be good, though, if the players are stuck ("Man, all we can do is hit and block, we're getting nowhere") to suggest a new tactic and provide the appropriate action.

That all said, moving up to Fight! in a one-shot will usually be a stretch, as folks have pointed out. Whatever you try, good luck!


Step 1: Ensure your players are comfortable with the use of

  • Obstacle-based Rolls
  • Versus rolls
  • Artha, especially Fate and Persona
  • FoRKs
  • Help

Step 2: Get them comfortable with Duel of Wits, first.

Step 3: Make use of the handouts.

Step 4: Make the following points:

  • Damage isn't cumulative (though the penalties are)
  • Combat continues until one side or the other is eliminated by:
    • Attrition (Dead or unconscious)
    • Surrender
    • Flight from battle
    • Magic
    • Some combination of the above
  • Combat is brutal:
    • There is a serious death spiral when a character is overmatched.
    • One good hit with dice open-ended by use of a point of Fate is potentially lethal.

Keep it small: 2–3 players and an equal number of opponents.
Start with just a variation on bloody versus: Script three volleys of simple always-optimal hack. Just who and whether attacking or defending, one action per volley.
Then add positioning.
Then add the whole range issue, and the full number of actions.
Then add the use of the whole range of action types.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Wait, but all the guides note that damage is cumulative. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 10, 2011 at 6:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ Effects of damage are cumulative; only the lightest category, Superficial or Su, actually cumulate to a higher category of wound. 10 Li is still 10 Li - it will slow you down more than one Traumatic (Tr), but you'll be fine in few days or so with 10 Li, while the Tr will be with you for months of character time. And a dozen B2 hits won't even hurt most characters at all. If your Su threshold is B4 (i've seen it done) no number of B1-B3 hits will ever hurt you. \$\endgroup\$
    – aramis
    Jan 10, 2011 at 11:37


Make sure the group understands the basic dice rules - FORKs, Help, Advantage Dice, Artha, etc. Usually, you can just start playing and get people going into a session and learning that before you want to touch the advanced mechanics. Just about every time I read about someone's game failing is because they ignore the instructions in the book to play with the basic rules and get comfortable before digging into Fight!, Duel of Wits, etc.

Scripting 101

"No plan survives contact with the enemy". This is pretty much the theory that describes scripting. To be sure, in "real fights" no one is locking themselves into a set plan and then carrying them out. What scripting does is create situations where you get the chaos of a fight - sometimes you both end up on the ground under the table and honestly you wouldn't have planned for this to happen, but it did somehow.

Burning Wheel does this by having you pick your actions in 3 Volleys. So does the enemy. You reveal them at the same time and some actions work better against others - which is where it helps to strategize and consider what the enemy is likely to do. Good choices can allow you to win even though you may have weaker combat stats all around. Player skill in tactics matters.


Weapon reach matters - if you have a longer weapon and keep the opponent at a distance, they're going to have a much harder time hurting you, if you have a short weapon and get up close on the opponent, they can't hit you as well. This also means being willing to kick or push someone if they get into your guard might be useful, or pulling out a dagger for close in work, or throwing an object to win a reach situation.

Basic Actions

The most obvious moves are Strike, Block and Avoid. They basically do what's on the tin. Block is useful because it can give you advantage dice or force the enemy to lose an action if you roll well enough. Avoid defends against ALL attacks, and it uses your Speed, which is usually going to be pretty decent. Strike doesn't just have to be with the weapon - it can be with a punch or kick, or your hilt of your weapon for close in work.

The next easy to understand actions are Push, Lock, Charge, and Throw. These usually either knock down an opponent, knock them down and do damage, reduce the dice they can use, etc. These give you advantages to follow up with, though clever use can involve pushing someone over the edge of a balcony, down some stairs, or into a bonfire. You know, fun things.

Physical Action usually takes 2 Actions, and it's the catch all for doing a lot of things - slamming the door halfway on the enemy's arm, grabbing the curtain and wrapping around their head, pulling off their helmet so their head is unprotected, etc.

Other actions are more advanced and we can deal with them later when you've got those down.

Strategy and teaching

As the GM, script your character's choices before the players do anything. You may want to have a couple of common scripts on hand you can just pick ("Oh, this dude is sort of aggressive and stupid - Charge, Strike, Push, Strike" etc.)

Then you can help the players with picking out their script choices - since yours are already picked, it doesn't matter if you know what they're choosing at this point.

Start by pointing out obvious considerations - like reach. "If you win the positioning test, they'll be at +3 Ob to hit you, which means you can go all out with little worry of getting hit. On the other hand, if you fail it, then you're going to have a hard time hitting them..."

"Why not Strike-Strike-Strike?" will be a question. Point out what happens if a) someone gets a good Block in and then you're left open, or b) both sides Strike simultaneously. "You probably won't get killed, but you can get laid out for a month recovering from your wounds... can you afford that?" If their armor is good, maybe that's a worthwhile risk, if not... well.

After they're chosen, run through the first Exchange. With each roll, ask them if there's a FORK that can be applied or check for Advantage dice. If some particular combination of maneuvers leaves someone open, point that out. If anyone fails a Steel Test, point out what that means for the next X number of rounds.

Explain why you chose the Maneuvers you did for the NPC(s). This can be "Well, this guy's not too bright, he's going to choose straight forward things." "This is a predator, it pounces (charge), pins you down (lock) then goes for the throat (great strike)." "He's a cautious guy, he's going to defend and see what kind of fighter you are before deciding how to take you out." etc.

Exchange 2, considerations

Now you can bring up other things to consider:

The Fourth Action

Most characters will be working with 4 Actions. That means the "2nd action" on one of the Volleys is more likely to score a hit - the opposition will probably have a 1 in 3 chance of guessing the correct volley to defend on if they're going to try to defend against it. It makes it an excellent place to put an attack in, or a setup for an attack.

Disadvantage for Big Success

Disadvantage adds successes to the opposing side. So if you get the opponent stacked up with disadvantage, you get free successes to throw on your action. That's a good reason to knock folks down, tangle them up, etc.

Tests for everything

Each skill/stat can only get one advancement test from this whole Fight! If you want to game it to get the most from it, you'll want to use as many different skills/stats as possible to each get them one.

Steel Tests win the Fight!

Getting the opponent stunned is where you go in and mop them up. The most common way to do this is to score a Light Wound or better. But some things like magic, or pulling off something very surprising can also trigger a Steel Test.

Specific Advantages

If a PC has a shield - explain Block and Strike. If someone has really high Power, let them know a little more about what Lock and Throw can do for them. Etc.

End the Fight Early

If the enemies take wounds, they'll probably bow out/run/surrender pretty quickly. Don't start with a life/death battle, start with something where being driven off/captured on either side makes more sense. If the heroes take wounds, it might simply be "And don't come here again or we WILL kill you!" threats.

Tally up the Advancement tests, don't forget to add situation based Steel Advancement as well. Take a look at the wounds, figure out what kind of medical care is needed. Take note of any choices people could have done differently or worked really well. Acknowledge if someone had a good plan but a bad roll - "Wow, that would have been great but the dice were crappy this time."

If the enemies are still around, consider a social test or Duel of Wits - naturally with a large advantage to the victors.


It's very important that you, the GM understand fight. If you don't yet, don't use it.

I've GM'd a few players through their first BW Fight!, including The Sword with friends, and a longer campaign. The best experience I had was in a 1-on-1 game with my 11 year old son.

I was really nervous about fight. I didn't know how to explain it to him, so I didn't. Instead I just asked him what he wanted to do, then what he thought he'd do after that. I wrote his script based on this discussion. I talked him through the steps. When it came time to execute the scripts, he rolled the dice.

It went so smoothly and quickly, it was fun, and led to a surprising win. His char was a 3 life-path nobody with no weapons and no armor, and he beat a nasty sword-wielding dwarf slave catcher with leather armor by closing with him and putting him in a headlock.

After that, he got interested and read the fight rules on his own.


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