The Mist and the Wheel: Learning One RPG Through Another

As I’ve learned more about the hobby of roleplaying games, I’ve started to develop a hunger for understanding a large number of systems. This is partly just because I want to be able to play as many different games as I can, but it also has to do with mastery of my craft. When I first branched out and began to play new-to-me roleplaying games, I discovered that understanding one game could inform my performance in another. Expanding my skillset and knowledge of game mechanics and design helped to make me a better GM much faster than I had grown when just playing the same game over and over again. Once I realized that, I made it my mission to study up on other roleplaying games.

Currently I’m learning the ins and outs of two different RPGs through two different methods. The first you probably know about if you’ve been following Adventure Rules much at all in the last few months: I’m currently the Master of Cities for a game of City of Mist, an excellent tabletop RPG that’s somewhat new to the scene. I’m loving the game so far and each time I play, I find something new that I need to study up on. Now the other game I’m learning right now is The Burning Wheel. I don’t have the ability currently to play this one directly, so instead I’m binge-watching playthroughs by Roll20 Presents and listening to their GM do talks about the game’s mechanisms and rules (primarily through his show Office Hours). As I learn about how these two games work, I’ve begun to notice something interesting: the skills that make a strong Burning Wheel GM translate very well to the MC role in City of Mist.

Having had this realization, today I thought it would be fun to talk about exactly what aspects of The Burning Wheel translate to City of Mist, and how using my understanding of both is helping to sharpen my skills. I’ll be comparing three main rules from each: Intent and Task compared to Core Moves; Fields of Related Knowledge compared to Power Tags; and Beliefs compared to Mysteries and Identities. If you don’t know what any of that means, fear not – I’ll do my best to explain the relevant rules in each section so you can see what I believe are the clear connections between them.

Burning Wheel

City of Mist, like all of the Powered by the Apocalypse games that I have played, features a set of core moves that capture most of the actions a player character will typically make during the game. The basic makeup of each move is a trigger (the fictional action that causes the move to happen), which is then generally followed by a roll, the result of which defines what happens next in the fiction. For example, looking at the Convince move, the trigger is when the character talks, seduces, or threatens someone into doing something. This requires a roll + Power, a term here which means all of the relevant tags that the character can apply to the action. If the player rolls a success, the character’s target either does what the character wants to a degree or otherwise must suffer a status.

The thing that makes moves in City of Mist unique compared to similar moves in Dungeon World or Apocalypse World is that the triggers have a broader scope. Let’s compare what we might call the basic “attacking move” from each game for reference:

AW Single Combat
Single Combat from Apocalypse World
DW Hack and Slash
Hack and Slash from Dungeon World
CoM Go Toe to Toe
Go Toe to Toe from City of Mist

In the first two examples, the move is clearly intended to describe an action which entails physical harm. Single Combat references Apocalypse World’s harm mechanics, while Hack and Slash states that it is triggered specifically by an attack in melee. Conversely, Go Toe to Toe could describe a social conflict, a footrace, a chess match, or the more traditional “two dudes fighting each other.” All City of Mist moves work like this – the move works the same way despite being applied to different contexts. This can get really tricky when you’re trying to figure out which move to use in a given situation.

Is Mitosis punching K-9 a use of the Go Toe to Toe move? Or Hit With All You’ve Got? It depends totally on the context within the fiction. There are even situations where this punch could actually be Convince or Investigate. This can be simple enough to resolve with Mitosis and his punch. Is he punching K-9 as part of an interrogation? Then he’s probably Investigating in his own unique way. Are he and K-9 exchanging blows in a heated brawl? Then that’s Go Toe to Toe. Things get trickier, though, when the actions move away from combat to situations that are more mental or social.

This is where Burning Wheel’s Intent and Task mechanisms can help. When taking an action in The Burning Wheel, the player first states their intent. What is the result that I want from this action? Based on the player’s stated intent, the game master then sets the Task, which is the skill that must be tested and the obstacle of that test (read: how hard it is). Stating the intent first is important because it can drastically change what the task actually is. It could make the skill test easier or harder (compare “I want to kill her with my sword” to “I want to disarm her with my sword”), or it could mean the difference between one skill or the other (telling the king “I always get what I want” might be Seduction in one context but Intimidation in another). The player doesn’t roll based on what action they want to take – they roll based on what they want their action to accomplish.

City of Mist 7

Applying this logic to City of Mist can help give clarity to choosing which move is most appropriate in a given situation. One particularly difficult action to translate directly into a move in City of Mist is lying. What move best encompasses what a character is doing when they lie? At this point, it might be helpful to you as the MC to ask the player what they intend to do. If they’re trying to avoid trouble, they might be Taking the Risk or Facing Danger (depending on the urgency of the trouble). If they’re lying to get information under false pretenses, then the most appropriate move would be Investigate. If the intent of the lie is to hurt someone’s feelings, you might be Hitting With All You’ve Got. Because the action in City of Mist is defined by its context, understanding what the player intends to accomplish can help you as the MC to put the appropriate task before them.

“Uh, why are we talking about silverware?” Not that kind of fork, adventurers! FoRK in The Burning Wheel is an acronym meaning Fields of Related Knowledge. FoRKs help the player to roll better when testing a skill, and an important skill for the GM to have is knowing when a FoRK makes sense and when it doesn’t.

Here’s how it works. Chauncy the Brave declares that he wishes to stab Burg the Horrible in the face with his sword. He describes himself as grabbing Burg’s weapon with his free hand, pushing it out of the way to create an opening for his stab. The GM declares that the skill being tested here is the Sword skill. However, because Chauncy’s player described using his bare hand to disarm his opponent, he may FoRK in his Brawling skill in order to give him an advantage on the roll. If Chauncy has an appropriate knowledge skill that helps him fight Burg (Bandit-wise, perhaps?), he can FoRK that in too. Now instead of just rolling his level 4 Sword skill, he gets a +2 that pushes him up to six dice. He’s a lot more likely to do some damage this way!

Burning Wheel 2

Because FoRKs are so helpful, players will naturally want to lobby for as many as possible. You better believe that every time Chauncy’s player uses the Sword skill, he’s gonna try to FoRK-in Brawling. But the fictional description of what’s happening won’t always allow that. And should Chauncy get to FoRK in his Axe skill because his opponent is wielding an axe, even though he himself is using a sword? It’s important for the GM to fairly adjudicate what situations are appropriate for a FoRK and which ones are not.

City of Mist’s power tags work in a very similar way. Whenever a player makes a move, the Power of that move is based on the number of tags they are able to apply. For example, if Declan Le’Strange is in a firefight with a couple of thugs, he’ll have to see which of his tags are relevant to Going Toe to Toe. He’ll probably want to choose the tags a good shot and gunslinging stunts, and he might even lobby for subconscious reaction speed because he’s dodging bullets as he fires at his opponent. Are all of these tags appropriate? It’s up to the fiction to define that, and understanding Burning Wheel’s FoRKs makes this decision that much clearer.

Just as Chauncy’s player was able to FoRK Brawling because he described himself fighting hand-to-hand during his sword fight, Declan’s player probably needs to describe Declan performing some pretty risky gunslinging stunts in order to add that tag to his Power. I’ve found myself applying this philosophy to my own players in City of Mist pretty frequently. This is particularly true when it comes to the character’s broad tags. “Listen Kitty, you’re gonna need to escalate this situation a little more to use any means necessary. Your action isn’t extreme enough for that yet.” Understanding FoRKs and which situations they are acceptable can help a City of Mist MC gain confidence in their decisions about when different power tags are appropriate.

City of Mist Mission

Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of The Burning Wheel (and the games based upon it like Mouse Guard) is its focus on the beliefs of the characters. While the game is mechanically “crunchy,” it is primarily focused on character development because the core mechanics of the game are driven by what each character wants. Every character in The Burning Wheel has three beliefs which push them to take action in order to get what they want. As a Burning Wheel GM, your primary role is to look at the beliefs of each character and to press them as hard as you can.

“Oh, you believe that only your god has the authority to decide who lives and dies? Okay, but what if you have the opportunity to kill this man who has murdered a dozen people? Or you have the magical power to save your daughter from dying, but the church fathers are telling you that it’s God’s will that she die? What are you gonna do THEN, Karen?!”

What pushes The Burning Wheel forward is that the characters have opportunities to put their beliefs to the test. Sometimes they’ll hold fast to their beliefs and earn points for that, other times they’ll realize they’ve been wrong about everything and make a complete turn-around. Either way, the game master and the player are creating an interesting narrative together because they are fully exploring the beliefs of the character in question.

City of Mist Aguilar

City of Mist is a similarly character-driven game. Characters are made up of four themes, which feature either a Mystery or an Identity that is significant to the character. Mysteries are questions about the character’s life, abilities, or existence that the character seeks answers to. Identities are strong statements about who the character is or what they believe. The tension between these things is what drives character growth in City of Mist – characters choose some aspects of their life over others, strengthening some themes while the rejected ones are lost. These lost themes open the door for moments of evolution that push the characters to even greater levels.

When I first started playing City of Mist, I struggled with how to create opportunities to engage the themes of the different characters. Some identities felt totally disconnected from the overall arc of the game. Some mysteries seemed so specific to a single character that it would be possible to address it in a group of five people. But as I watch The Burning Wheel in action, I’m learning that my role as MC is actually pretty simple – all I have to do is give my players opportunities to question what they know, or what they think they want to know.

“Oh, you want to know how to get ‘home,’ eh? Okay, Sylvia, but you also are sure that you can survive on your own. What if getting home means having to rely on other people? Which one would you pick? And you want to know who you are? What if who you are means you don’t belong in the home that you find? What if who you are is someone who must always be attached to someone else? Can you accept that person then? What’s it gonna be, Sylvia?”

Burning Wheel Cover

What beliefs in Burning Wheel taught me is that putting pressure on a character’s themes in City of Mist is actually really easy. All you have to do is ask the natural follow-up questions to any concrete statement about the character. Take the things that the player says their character cares about and put that to the test. If they do what their themes say they’ll do, great – they get to mark Attention, which will push them towards getting more power tags and special moves. If they fight against their themes because the circumstances change their mind, great – they get to mark Fade or Crack, which opens up opportunities for brand new themes and pushes the character towards Moments of Evolution. Either way they choose, everyone wins – your job as the MC is simply to give them the choice in the first place.

So there you have it, adventurers! The Burning Wheel is an excellent game that is mechanically rich and contains a lot of teaching – I highly recommend checking out either the book itself, or a campaign of the game played online. You can learn some valuable GM skills from it, and in my case I’ve seen that many of these skills apply in a very direct way to City of Mist. If you’ve played either game, or both, and wish to share some of your thoughts about the connections between the two, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Thanks for reading, and I hope this helps you strengthen your understanding of just how helpful it can be to have a working knowledge of multiple RPGs. Each one makes you a little better at what you do, so take every opportunity that you can to expand your knowledge!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Website Powered by

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: