Roleplaying Is an Emotional Contact Sport

So last night’s Burning Wheel game was a rough, instructive and ultimately rewarding one for me. To explain why (to myself as much as you), I’m going to have to go into some detail about what has happened so far. You can skip to the “Reflections” below if you just want the takeaways.


We’re playing in a sword-and-sorcery setting inspired by the Netflix show Castlevania, me reading Stormbringer for the first time and a couple of pieces of Magic: The Gathering card art.

The concept for the game is: A generation ago, the mighty Champions of Law went out to battle the fearsome Dukes of Hell. No one knows who won the battle, only that the Champions and their demonic foes never returned. Now, Chaos and the mundane world coexist in a motley patchwork. Chaos doesn’t really oppress people, just adds totally bizarre twists to the oppression people already face. You have just come by a magic sword that can harm demons and kill mundane creatures. None of the beliefs or myths about the swords means shit. You wield them now, and it’s up to you what you do with them. [I wanted the Trueswords to break the game: they are Superior Quality longswords that deal Grey Shade damage, grant 2 Grey Shade Balance Dice, and trigger a +3 Ob Steel test for demons when first drawn or brandished in their presence.]

Characters & Events

We’ve had two very different arcs. Sam’s character Gerard started as the brat prince of a decaying backwater, and his story has been moody, psychological and novelistic, very Wizard of Earthsea. Seth’s character Lorias (who I’m going to focus on) started as a penniless desert freebooter. He got his hands on the Truesword during a caravan raid. He’s been carving an unstoppable bloody swathe through the demonic nobility of the desert city of Jenera for five sessions straight, starting with The Thing in the Mines, a serpent-woman the citizens of Jenera make a human sacrifice to every year.

It’s been a blast. Lorias has gone from a scoundrel who slew The Thing in the Mines for her treasure to being adopted by Mother Superior, the only serious worshipper of Law in the city, as a Champion who will cleanse the world of Chaos and provide a model for men to live rightly.

Problem is (in a windfall of serendipity during prep) Lorias’s enemy Tiberius, a fellow freebooter who almost got the Truesword, also happens to be Mother Superior’s disowned son.

Law Saints are not kindly paladins. They are extreme ascetics who valorize sacrificing love and loved ones to their notions of order. Their iconography focuses on physical and psychological torment (think Catholic martyrdom minus the transcendence—for Law Saints, the martyrdom is the transcendence).

Much of Mother Superior’s development as a character focused on her coming to terms with the fact that Lorias is not a righteous man (yet), and struggling with the belief that Law requires her to kill her son Tiberius, so that Lorias’s past remains a secret and he can become the Champion she believes is needed. Lorias has begun to believe that he is the Champion—we held our First Trait vote last night, and Lorias was granted Faith in Mother Superior’s dead gods.

After Lorias emerged from the Mines with the Thing’s severed head (and a bag of treasure) and was hailed as Champion, Tiberius went to the Mine-Priests, demon-worshipping servants of The Thing in the Mines and the Spider-God,  to reveal his true past. The Mine-Priests attempted a Summoning to bring their deity into the world and slay this upstart imposter.

Their Summoning roll failed, and the head priest and primary Summoner Marin was consumed by the Spider-God and used as a physical shell, a broken body suspended between monstrous arachnid legs. It lurched to Mother Superior’s chapel of Law and attacked. After a gruelling fight, Lorias managed to slay the transfigured priest, but not before he mortally wounded Mother Superior. This all happened in just 30 hours of continuous in-game time.

The second-to-last-session ended with Lorias turning the Chapel into a pyre for his dead mentor (and the fire spreading to the surrounding district due to a failed Firestarting roll) and heading for the Temple of the Spider-God for a showdown with Mother Superior’s murderers. The Mine-Priests, in response, attempted a doomed Summoning roll that brought their god back into the physical plane, but cost all their lives save one—an urchin they’d adopted, now the Chaos god’s foothold in the human world.

In between sessions, I spent more time than usual prepping the Spider God. It had cool sustained spells, scary “Special Effects” for its attacks, the works. I was practically rubbing my hands together as we kicked off the session. And of course, when Lorias closed with it a few minutes later, I blew my Engagement roll, blew my Avoid roll on the first volley, and saw my cool deity cut down before it could cast its first spell.

This threw me for a loop. I told my fellow players that I was feeling off-balance, but I definitely wanted to continue. Just sharing where I was at with Seth and Sam made it much easier to keep things in perspective and manage my mood.

A successful Perception check meant Lorias had spotted his enemy Tiberius in the back of the temple, slack-jawed from a failed Steel test at seeing the Spider-God’s defeat. Lorias broke the news of his mother’s death to him while dragging him outside, and Tiberius broke down, first blaming himself (after all, he had allied himself with the Mine-Priests), and then blaming Lorias (for not protecting her).

Lorias did not comfort him. When he started blaming him for Mother Superior’s death, Lorias threw him against the wall and said “Her death is not on my conscience. Will you acknowledge me as the Champion, as your mother believed?” Tiberius spat in his face and said “You are desert scum like me. The sword could as easily have been mine. If I had held the sword, my mother would still be alive.” We went to Fight!

I started scripting actions for Tiberius. I knew he couldn’t win against the Truesword, but he did have twice as much Speed as Lorias and a good shot (or so I thought) at escaping. I dropped my actions into the chat and went to Tiberius’s character sheet (which I hadn’t reviewed since the first session) to start building die pools. To my dismay, I had forgotten that Tiberius was an archer. He didn’t even carry a blade.

I was feeling very incompetent and insecure at this point. I don’t remember if I expressed this to my fellow players. But I did want to see where the scene went. On action 1, Tiberius blew his Disengage roll and failed to escape while Lorias wound up a Great Strike. On Action 2, Lorias scored a monstrous 10 successes on his attack and cut Tiberius in half.

I was running on fumes at this point, so I was playing slow, letting Lorias take the lead. As Lorias gazed down at his enemy’s corpse, my brother looked up from the list of Faith Obs and said “I want to pray for Tiberius, that his mother’s soul accept him back in the afterlife.” That gave me a jolt of inspiration. We agreed that Ob 5 (Guidance/Minor Miracle) was appropriate, my brother rolled, and came up with 0 successes.

As the dawn broke across the tunnel, I narrated Lorias witnessing Tiberius’s spirit approaching his mother’s where she sat, in the posture of a sacred icon, among the Law Saints in the void. As he drew close, she raised her hand in a gesture of renunciation and Tiberius’s spirit was driven back into the Temple of the Spider-God. Mother Superior’s spirit returned to contemplation, not touching and untouched for eternity.

It was a heartbreaking conclusion to Lorias’s arc, and a really powerful moment for all of us.


Frankly, it took some after-game debriefing for me to get out of my own head and see how much this session contained. Again, this game of Burning Wheel has been a blast, but it has also confronted us with multiple moments where negative emotions threatened to overwhelm play: The near-demise of Sam’s character Gerard in session 1, the gutting death of Mother Superior in Session 3, and my own bumbling mismanagement of Tiberius’ final moments in Session 5.

However, these events prompted our group to start communicating about our emotional states at the table. A conversation we had in-chat after Mother Superior’s death prompted me to share how off-balance I was feeling during the final session. It also generated some really good discussion of how our group can deal with these experiences.

Sam had helpful thoughts around this topic: Something happens that bleeds but doesn’t cross a line. I would argue that these are some of the most profound moments of roleplaying, and that we must not avoid them. Instead, we need to be ready to say how we feel. No amount of “that didn’t happen” is going to take that away (again, this isn’t line crossing we are talking about, in which case “that didn’t happen” is the way to go). These moments are (at least for me) impossible to predict. And the thing is, they can feel terrible, or they can feel great because of how terrible they feel, and it can be hard in the moment to know which is which. My argument is that veils [also: taking a break and calling a time-out to talk about it] can be effective in these moments, when emotion is becoming overwhelming.

My personal distillation of this conversation was: Roleplaying is an emotional contact sport. But that doesn’t mean we’re out to hurt each other. I remember Seth told me that in rugby you have to learn how to get hit and how to hit someone else. We practice safety so that we can play unarmored.

Reflecting on the session today, I’m seeing that it really forced me to really internalize the principle that the GM is “just another player.”

If I was solely responsible for ensuring cool, affecting events occured, the game would have sucked. Instead, I find myself thinking about Ron’s rock band analogy. I didn’t play particularly well. But I played in time and on key (i.e., I did my job of tracking where we are, who is there, and what they’re doing). I didn’t get in the way of my fellow players, and Seth laid down a fucking awesome solo.


29 responses to “Roleplaying Is an Emotional Contact Sport”

  1. Our Burning Wheel

    I'll have more to say when I'm not tired as hell, but I wanted to leave something here about why Burning Wheel worked for us…and I would argue that it didn't work for us, instead, we (especially Noah) did a lot of good game design at the table to make the game do something that it just doesn't do by default. The most shocking change (to Burning Wheel lovers) might be that Noah got rid of the idea of challenging Beliefs as a way to prep (this is something I have always disliked about Burning Wheel, it stinks of intuitive continuity and subtle GM control to me), and instead had a roster of strongheaded and motivated NPCs and took our actions to heart when he played them. He will correct me if I'm wrong, but the only time the Beliefs influences prep was for the first session, when a Belief could create backstory, like my character's Belief about renewing glory to his swamp palace (which was a real shithole). 

    Noah also wisely discarded the idea of balance and polish as a thing to strive for, which Burning Wheel as a text fetishizes to the point of making the dice feel deterministic when you don't have Fate, which I will say without caring Is Bad. He pointed out how our characters started with the swords, but he didn't mention how he applied new Traits, Affiliations and Reputations proactively and often to our characters when they made sense. That isn't in the text, but its a part of our Burning Wheel, which, I will flatly say, is better than what's in the text. 

    Noah and I are planning on going through the way our Burning Wheel works, either in text or maybe in video form, for people here to check out. The last step for me is tearing out the Artha system and sticking in something smaller and slicker, that makes the game more fun rather than a grind towards getting to the fun dice (give me the fucking fun dice NOW!)…oh…and adding a way to order actions outside of a Fight!/Duel of Wits/Range and Cover. But I don't know if I have the stamina/will to do this at this point, so we'll see.  

    • Thanks for the kind words Sam

      Thanks for the kind words Sam. You observation about "discarding the idea of balance and polish" made me realize something about how I've been prepping demons. It also connects up with this conversation about GMing powerful NPCs.

      I know that for both of us "balance" isn't much of a priority. However, in statting out the Spider God, I was thinking a lot about what would be fun for me, as the GM, to play. Playing a mook would be boring, but playing a White-Shade, 10-Forte deity would be even more boring. I wanted a beast that I would have to play intelligently and creatively if it were to achieve its goals. For me, this is a more productive way to think about "balance" in games that have lots of tactical concerns in their conflict resolution.

    • Sam and I recently recorded a

      Sam and I recently recorded a conversation about the specific procedures we had to invent and implement to get to successful Burning Wheel play, available for viewing here. I think it's a good breakdown of how we made it Our Burning Wheel, as well as a snapshot of where we're at in our current understanding and critique of the game.

    • It is a nice video. It gives

      It is a nice video. It gives me hope for Burning wheel; it might not be the plodding game of talking about failure consequences and asking if this and that fork are okay, given a proper intention for playing it.

    • Hey Tommi, thanks so much for

      Hey Tommi, thanks so much for the kind comment. I hope you can have a good time with the game by using some of our design! I'm not sure how worth it it really is, but we had a bunch of fun. 

    • I watched the discussion

      I watched the discussion between Sam and Noah when it was new but I wanted to get past the honeymoon stage with the game before commenting. I am very interested in trying some of Noah's changes because I see some of the same rough edges in the ~30 sessions that I have played (including GMing).

      I played in a Fight! once, it was harrowing and mentally exhausting. My character was unscathed, but I actually felt bad for the NPC we were beating to death, it was a two hour death spiral for them. The day after, I told myself that I didn't want to do Fight! for awhile, but I think that was just due to how mentally taxing it was to run through it. As it was one of the most memorable experiences I have had in the game, I think I should just bite the bullet and learn how to run through it smoothly.

      The grocery list version of Beliefs is bugged, for certain. New players always have a problem with the grocery list because it is counterintuitive and it seems like busywork to have to micromanage it. At the request of new players in one game, we have decided not to do that version and focus more on longer term Beliefs. Like as in, something should happen to motivate changing the Belief rather than tweaking them all of the time to receive Artha. There is also the general problem that Beliefs can kill spontaneity. Play can become too fixated on fulfilling the Beliefs, non-Beliefs play can get cut out entirely, and once Beliefs are fulfilled, play can stop.

      As a GM, I have gotten more traction focusing on the PCs/NPCs and how they connect to each other. Stuff does happen when there are conflicts of interest with Beliefs and the connections. However, without those connections in the first place, I haven't found Beliefs to be very impactful.

      My NPCs haven't been strong headed, I am still figuring some of them out, but they move with what is happening in the game, and I am finding that approach to work. 

      The discussion about stakes setting is quite interesting to me. I don't know the context or history of stakes setting in general, as my only experience with it is from Burning Wheel. I'd like to learn more about it. I will say that in Burning Wheel, the corners of the system that produce the most interesting results are the ones where the setting of stakes have the least influence. For example, Fight!, Duel of Wits, Steel tests but also cascading failures where the player character ends up in a very different place than where they intended to be based on the first test. As a player, I just say "yes" to the stakes and Obstacle, unless someone suggests something funner or worse as a consequence, in which case I say "fuck yes!". It makes both success and failure more exciting if I play that way.

      The next time I run Burning Wheel, I will look at integrating Noah's changes. I also want to see how weird I can get with what is in the text. Burning Empires, Blossoms are Falling, and Under a Serpent Sun are also things I would like to try.

  2. What Are Beliefs Doing Here Anyway?

    Reflecting on playing Burning Wheel, I am struck by how little I cared about my Beliefs, or the idea of working towards them. And believe me, my character was driven. The discourse surrounding Burning Wheel online, and in the text itself, all seems to suggest that the Artha gaining cycle, and the cycle of writing Beliefs and working to complete them drive the game forward, and without them the game wouldn't work. The thing is, I have no problem knowing what my character wants in almost any context, as long as I have a situation I can understand and that my character is a part of, not simply being grafted to.

    I think its telling that when prepping for a Burning Wheel game, you are told to only introduce and roll for (!) events that are directly related to challenging a Belief. Who needs a vivid, striking situation the characters can interface with when the GM can bend everything that is happening to somehow strike at Beliefs? Why not just have a vivid and fraught situation to start with and get rid of all this weird machinery? 

    Anyways…I think the best part of Burning Wheel is the nice big skill and trait lists, as well as the various combats. I almost like character creation, though I am starting to develop some ideas on how to make it less balanced, and more fun. I think its time for people to think a bit more realistically about what Beliefs are really doing. 

    • I have been running Burning

      I have been running Burning wheel pretty much by the book and have come to similar conclusions. Next time, if there is a next time, I figure out I'll try something like this:

      Some people in the community seem to look at beliefs as a path the character will come to follow, and the game supports this well: pre-announced failure effects give a fine opportunity to discuss and massage the failure into something that is a complication, but does not threaten the character concept, if one is so inclined to do. The persona complications optional rule is another nice feature; avoid the worst of consequences with that.

      Other people in the community are going for more of the type of play you seem to be aiming towards and which seems to be favoured at Adept play in general.

      It seems to be a game that tends to be used in two different ways and seems to suit both of these okay, with little interpretations and modifications here and there.

    • @Sam: totally. Here’s my

      @Sam: totally. Here’s my reflection on my experiences with the game during its early years and my observations of its development.

      The very first version, appearing at GenCon 2003, was almost immediately revised. The revised version removed some language about letting the system “die out” so you can get to the real role-playing, cleaned up combat and damage effects, adjusted the point structure, and other good things. Either here or as printings continued, the Duel of Wits and other useful parts were included. One core feature of the design was the Emotional Attribute system, which was present in the original and I think was developed in this second writing into four rather strong sets per character race (Faith, Grief, Greed, Hate).

      These changes also, however, introduced a much more complicated Artha infrastructure tied to the Beliefs, Instincts, and Goals which functioned as a bread-crumbs-for-playing accounting system, and which also undercut the Emotional Attributes’ presence. These two sets of behavioral mechanics didn’t co-exist well. I’m not sure whether a version of Burning Wheel as such has dropped the latter entirely, but they’ve diminished in play and discussions of it, and they’re absent from related systems like Burning Empires. I found them to be essential features of my experience of the game in its early days.

      Side note: That prompted me to look up the threads for that game: Questions in prepping my BW game, Bad-ass elves in action, Bat-things, Spite, love, and God.

      Side note 2: I really liked the excessive, balls-to-the-wall Under the Serpent Sun setting, which relied heavily on the Emotional Atrributes, in this case, Need, Despair, and Answered. I wouldn’t mind busting all the way back to the original (even with its minor early issues which were improved in revision) in order to play that again exactly as written.

      Super-blunt now: from this point in part, but much more so going forward, Luke uncritically mined fashionable phrasings at the Forge for his development of the game, in two ways. Part of it was mechanics: the Artha system mis-read a lot of work people were doing with behavior and emotions, specifically as a pigeons-and-levers idea to “reward play.” The Keys in The Shadow of Yesterday were not, themselves, entirely successful in design, and the new Artha fastened upon exactly the unsuccessful part, as Fate Aspects would soon do as well. Another part was phrasings: the perversion of the term "stakes” has a fascinating history but I think Luke’s adoption of it as well as his aggressive mentoring contributed a lot to it getting nailed down.

      Jon has generously allowed me to quote from our recent conversation at Discord. It is very blunt and will probably instigate some kerfuffle which, I promise you now, I will not take seriously and will blowtorch if it comes near me. I stand by every word.

      Jon: The Burning Wheel issue related to stakes is tricky/fascinating: as it is presented in forums (and during many con demos by Luke) it definitely does follow the pre-narrations and outcome-control model, though that’s not how the text reads and that’s not how anyone was playing when I first started playing with people in Luke’s circle in 2005.

      Me: Exactly my experience. I have very specific history with this issue, including an extensive in-person conversation at GenCon 2006 with a roomful of people that included John Harper, Jason Morningstar, and Luke, in which I laid out all the problems with overly pre-narrating outomes. People were blending Primetime Adventures, Polaris, and Capes at the tables and arriving at a very bizarre, power-bullying, who-GMs-whom competition which they thought were the "rules" and as it happened, "the new way to play." At the time, this discussion reached a lot of agreement – but the whole trend took on a life of its own at Story Games, and ultimately it's too good a control technique for theatrically-inclined, one-shot-wow GMs like those exact three people to give up.

      It was horribly enthusiastically promoted in Europe as super-indie, which successfully turned me into a hate target across Europe and in any online venue, including for the jackals of the secondary, branded OSR

      Jon: That all matches what I saw in NYC during that period: that kind of stakes-setting being adopted by anyone playing an “indie game” such that Primetime Adventures (among others) became (for me) something to avoid in any convention or meet-up adjacent setting.

      Me: It really is a crime and shame. PTA is an excellent design, which I actually think has been diminished via its edition changes rather than improved. Shock is also excellent despite being badly written. Polaris is not, I think, as amazing as it was billed to be, but it does work and doesn't fall apart. Capes is the only genuinely bad game of that set, but it's not uniquely to blame in whatever confluence of strange table-hysteria produced the "stakes game" that everyone glommed onto.

      Jon: “Hysteria” is right, I think. I’m not sure how much I can trust my memory at this far of a remove, but I recall thinking that embracing this kind of stakes-setting was related to the near irrational fear of “GM fiat”, with many people who I was playing with declaring that almost any GM decision that wasn’t explicitly and legalistically allowed by the rules was “GM fiat”. “Stakes-setting” then acted as a response to the accurate observation that sometimes GMs would exert control through manipulation of resolution narration in many “task based” systems. But, as I think you’ve suggested in prior discussions, the “solution” merely dispersed and/or shifted where that “control” occurred, rather than introducing genuine bounce.

      I have been looking back at some of the texts from that period, and my take on the differences between BW Classic and BW Revised is that the text on stakes and conflict resolution from Dogs in the Vineyard was very influential — to the point that Luke (and he wasn’t alone I think) didn’t stop to think if that influence was really appropriate/necessary for his game.

      Ron: I think you are exactly right. The phrasing in Dogs is perfectly sound but somehow gets read to be what it isn’t, due to the hysteria or euphoria, especially surrounding Vincent at that time. For Burning Wheel, I'm not quite sure where the transition is, and also what the right terminology for the versions is. There was kind of a hazy rush due to Burning Empires and releasing all sorts of things like the new Magic Burner and Adventure Burner. I don't know if the next one was the Gold or if there was another one before that.

      Anyway, I think Luke mined the Forge – especially Sorcerer and Dogs in the Vineyard – for all the useful phrasing he could, without understanding it particularly, or probably, not caring as much as he should have. The game texts' promises became pretty extravagant whereas his promotion of play seemed to focus only on tight, highly-focused, effectively play-the-climax presentations, driven mainly by GM-energy.

      Jon: I can attest to that last part. I played in the first public convention presentation of his “Inheritance” scenario (the Viking funeral one). It was notable for not only featuring “stakes game” play as we’ve been discussing, but also Luke would feed both sides of the stakes to the player, so that there was essentially no player agency involved at all. And since he was selling BW as a very “player driven” game it seemed dubious.

      Me: I remember the Viking funeral one – we're thinking about the same time period for sure. I am not sure when I'd place my "enough" moment regarding Luke's opportunism or cynicism regarding these issues. I think he was initially authentic about play but didn't grasp player-agency well enough to employ it (and I have a Sorcerer game anecdote to illustrate this perfectly), and as of now I'm unfortunately certain that he has gone pretty much Dark Side for a few years in the sense that his sole criterion is good for the brand, but when this transition occurred, and over how long, I can't say.

      While looking up those old threads, I ran across this from Past Me at the Forge, 2007 (regarding Sorcerer):

      About the love-conflict example, I think you may be missing the point. I am saying that if the game is about love-conflicts, and if you do have such a "bring in the interest, get a point" mechanism, that there may be a serious flaw. I realize that sounds counter-intuitive. But consider: if you have a game in which fighting with monsters, using medieval weapons, is the point, and you put in a rule that "every time you say you draw your weapon, get a point!" … you're fuckin' up your game design.

      This is going to be a problem for those who've learned, superficially, that Forge-ish games are based on operant conditioning. They're not. You can't get someone to accept treats for performing aspects of X, when they don't bloody fucking want to do X. However, if they do, then treats that help generate X are a lot of fun.

      Golly, Past Me was potty-mouthed, but definitely on point even all the way back then.



      Ron, regarding: 

      "This is going to be a problem for those who've learned, superficially, that Forge-ish games are based on operant conditioning. They're not. You can't get someone to accept treats for performing aspects of X, when they don't bloody fucking want to do X. However, if they do, then treats that help generate X are a lot of fun."

      I appreciate very much your mentioning this explicitly, as I admit that I've naively held the operant conditioning model for some time, and I've felt intuitively that it was off but didn't get why. I mean, at first glance, the reverse seemed to be clearly true: there were games that promised cinematic action, but if you wanted to actually do anything cinematic you were punished for it by negative modifiers which made you less likely to succeed, and/or triggered subsystems with complicated rules that slowed things down and weren't fun – like trying to grapple in AD&D for example. So I just assumed that if instead of penalizing people for doing things they wanted to do, if you gave bonuses instead that would be better. Now I guess I'm confused, I don't completely get why this is a bad thing.

    • That’s definitely a Seminar

      That's definitely a Seminar discussion that needs to happen, probably beginning with some Patreon musing and brainstorming next month.

  3. To Noah, Sam, and Ron: I’m

    To Noah, Sam, and Ron: I'm curious about your observations and I have a few questions.

    Do you feel that the game has some kind of obsession with roll/test failure, with striving to overcome difficult tests (mechanically) turning into a facile way of "challenging" Beliefs? (Almost like misery tourism?) A big part of the gameplay seems to revolve about a quasi-obsessive preoccupation with opening new skills and advancing existing skills, which in this game is byzantine in procedure. Do you feel tempted into contriving situations just to deliver a test of a specific obstacle level so that a player can log a test of appropriate difficulty for skill advancement, as opposed to creating situations with actual interesting choices/consequences/content as the way to challenge Beliefs? The Codex acknowledges that some players turn into "test mongers", wanting more and more tests of the right difficulty for the sake of advancement, and the system does seem to promote that behaviour. Do you feel these are issues for you?

    A different question: do you feel that Beliefs would be more relevant as a mechanic if Artha was awarded like the Spiritual Attributes in The Riddle of Steel, i.e. if you would get Artha for a roll right-there-and-then if a Belief was relevant to the Conflict at hand? (Beliefs have some overlap, from what I remember of TRoS, with Drives and Goals.)




    • Thoughts in progress, for

      Thoughts in progress, for your reading pleasure:

      I think the Beliefs and Artha "cycle" reflect a specific goal the author has in terms of GM control. It seems to me that, if a Burning Wheel GM wants to, they can infinitely delay the achieving of Beliefs by sticking more and more obstacles in front of the character, calling for harder tests, etc. Anything can turn into a challenge for a Belief, and the text never tells you to play your NPCs faithfully, it simply says that challenging Beliefs is your job…so NPCs become tools to that end rather than characters. When an NPC is a tool…thats a huge red flag to me in any game.

      The players get to point their characters…but the GM has complete control in determining where things go from that point on. Yes, you have rules like Let it Ride (which literally means honor dice rolls)…but it is pretty easy for progress a character has made to be torn apart by a decision to "challenge" them.

      There is a section of the text that is pretty terrible, about a player whose character wanted to revive his dead wife, and how the GM made a mistake by "allowing" the character's wife to be revived, because it ruined the whole point of his character. This kind of GM "advice" is no good…except at revealing the intentions behind the author, to create a game where the GM gets to entertain and control the players (with a whole lot of fucking architecture I might add).   

      The only way the author can imagine Situations developing and changing in an interesting way for more than one session is to do away with organic changes in Situation and make it all up to the GM's whim–whatever will challenge Beliefs is fine…so there is always something for the characters to do. What this really means is that there is always something in the character's way. Its like the Situation has an edge, and past that point there is a void. If the character moves too fast in any direction, the author seems to imagine, they will be swallowed into this nothingness, and everything will fall apart. The void exists because the Situations that are conceived by a GM who is following the rules in the text are extremely contrived and, if poked, will collapse. So…slow it all down! The characters can't move too fast, can't change too much stuff…if we always know what they want to change and put a bunch of fucking roadblocks in front of them. This is why the text tells you that Burning Wheel takes 12 sessions to kick in. 

      This is the same logic, I think, that leads GMs to deny players good information. Because once all the backstory is out there and the players are informed, they start making choices, and pushing towards that void. 

      The way to avoid the void in Burning Wheel is to do away with the idea of challenging Beliefs completely. Don't ever do that. Instead, have a bunch of NPCs who are people and aren't tools, and who want things. Have a general idea of what is going on in the location each of the characters are in. Then the world has some substance. And, even better, you aren't worried about if the players are bored. Fuck the players, you aren't here to entertain them (by challenging Beliefs). Play your guys, is what needs to happen. 

    • I can’t reply to these

      I can't reply to these questions as framed by how I may feel. If someone were to tell me how they felt about these or any other aspects of the game, I would shut off instantly, or say, "come back when you're prepared to tell me what you think." Especially regarding Burning Wheel, for which rhetoric and reference have long outstripped any sensible discussion of play, and for which the risk of internet backlash is savage and personal. Putting any dialogue into a battle of feelings plays into that trap, of which Luke is both a victim and a master.

      I'm willing to accept that you used "feel" in a rhetorical rather than literal sense, and that you really are interested in what I know about the game and what is observably the case for its rules and presentation. You don't have to assure me or to explain it. I'll reply from knowledge and observation when I'm past the weekend's obligations.

    • Hi Ron. I noticed that you

      Hi Ron. I noticed that you made a post earlier. I also messed up by not putting my previous reply in the correct place in the thread. Sorry for that.

      Yes, you got my intent right with what I meant by "feel" in your last paragraph.  Thank you for taking your time with this, it's an interesting discussion. 

    • Hi Pedro, just wanted to say

      Hi Pedro, just wanted to say that my current thinking about Burning Wheel is still pretty well captured in the conversation Jesse and I had here. I haven't been playing the game recently, so I don't have much new to add, but I am following the conversation here and will post if anything occurs to me.

    • Hi Noah and thanks!

      Hi Noah and thanks!

      It's good to have these links across the two threads, to the benefit of everyone interested in the discussion.

  4. Hi, Sam. Thanks for the input

    Hi, Sam. Thanks for the input.

    I'm not sure I'd say Beliefs reflect an author desire for GM control. There are other games that use Beliefs or similar concepts (TRoS, The Veil, etc) that do not feel problematic (or at least overly problematic) to me, in my somewhat limited play experience with them. My concerns with BW proper have more to do with the Artha Cycle and what it *seems* to me to promote in terms of gameplay. Luke says either in the main book or the Codex that "if your players have accumulated too much Artha then you haven't been challenging their Beliefs enough". There's a preoccupation with having too much Artha (for whatever reason; I presume it boils down again to conflating "challenging beliefs" with trying to overcome mechanical tests using Artha), and Luke's solution to that is forcing its expenditure. All that this seems to mean in practice is to force more tests of appropriate difficulty. You can see what my concern is: instead of letting Conflict arise naturally from the back and forth of PC and NPC interaction in a naturalistic, dynamic, non-forced way based on Situation (thus delivering *meaningful* capital C Conflicts), the facile, default solution is to contrive adversity/conflict that allows you to "throw more shit in the way of the characters" i.e. tests tests and more tests of difficulty X, Z, Y. And of course, this is ALSO what you need to do to advance skills, which turns out to be central to gameplay (seemingly to the point of obsession). This is all wrapped up in the somewhat hyperbolic/highfalutin language of "challenging Beliefs", but such challenges seem like weak sauce to me and don't really promote the confrontation of characters (and players!) with though moral choices of meaningful emotional and dramatic consequence, but instead seems to easily boil down to the facile "just throw more (mechanical) tests their way".

    I don't know to what extent my "concerns" are valid, since my limited practical experience with Beliefs and similar mechanics were not with BW itself. I may be far off the mark here. But years of BW reading, watching streamed and written APs, blog posts, etc do make me "concerned" (for lack of a better expression" about what BW is *really* doing, despite whatever Luke says or the "fans" say or, more importantly, what people *wish* the game did.

    Anyway, thanks for your input, this has been an interesting series of posts. 

    • Pedro, did you see my earlier

      Pedro, did you see my earlier post about my BW game:  It goes into some of these issues, especially the discuession between me and Noah in the comments.

      More specifically to your questions about Beliefs and Tests and whether one is authentically playing through Situation or whether one is Test-seeking in service to the Beliefs. I can tell you that in my group it's kind of weird hybrid of both?

      My players LOVE the whole Artha cycle and game it somewhat mercilessly. They tune their Beliefs tightly session-to-session.  But they do that so they CAN play authentically through the situation. They want their Beliefs to match their current character's agenda to maintain the Artha flow.  If they change course because of a conflict outcome, or in light of new information then they re-write the Beliefs to match.

      I do think there's a common confusion that Beliefs are like Kickers in Sorcerer and that they set the course for the whole scenario.  You play through to resolve Beliefs.  But that's not how they work.  They represent your character's immediate priorities and change ALL THE TIME.

      I have also observed my players tackle a problem with an eye toward tests they need weighed against how much fictional risk in the current situation they are willing to take on.  "I could try to Persuade him which I'm good at, but I only need one more test on Ugly Truth but then he'll probably try to knife me."

      As for Artha pooling up and lack of its expediture, my read of that has never been about "challenge" in the sense of difficult tests. But "challenge" in the sense that the players clearly don't care enough about the immediate situation to want to spend Artha on it. It's a matter of relevance, not difficulty.  The pressure is not on what they care about as expressed in their Beliefs.

      On the GM side, the link I provided goes into that in some detail. You can see there that I, personally, am using a preped sitaution with motivated NPCs. However, it was entirely constructed out the initial Beliefs of the PCs. But I am a bit concerned about Sam's assertion which seems to suggest that a known situation with motivated NPCs is the ONLY way authentic play happens free from control.  Surely, there are "make it up as you go along" techniques that are NOT control techniques?

      Concretely, for Burning Wheel, I can point to the Circles rules and the Enmity Clause. This is probably the biggest source of new situation in my game.  A player fails a Circles and now I'm in the position of (a) making up a new NPC along the lines of what the PC was originally looking for and (b) has some difficult agenda the player will have to naviage upon speaking to them. This happens mid-session and effectively conjurs a new significant NPC out of thin air.  The simplest, quickest, and most relevant way to "prep" this NPC on the spot is look at the players Beliefs are give them an agenda that threatens or at least complicates one of them.

      However, I was really thinking about this a lot last night after reading Sam's post because it troubled me. What I'm about to say might get a little too far out into "thought experiment" land since it is not how I have played Burning Wheel in the past. So, consider it in that light.

      I was watching some of the videos on Intuitive Continuity recently and it seemed to me that a key component is that the GM is slowly backing toward a known destination.  But what if you're not doing that bit.  What if you're just coming up with the next bit based on previous outcomes + current Beliefs.  And you play through THAT bit authentically with no control.  Then you look at what happened, how things have changed, and invent a bit more.  And then you just end up…. somewhere.

      Like a player could have the Belief, "Family is everything, I will cross the Forest of Doom to rescue my sister from her aranged marriaged with the evil Count." Now, I don't prep anything about the sister or the Count because wer're not there yet. I do however see that the player is planning to cross the Forest of Doom which sounds like a pretty cool place.  So I look and I see that player also has a Belief about finding a cure for the mysterious disease that inflicts his mother.  Okay, so for right now, I don't worry about the source of the illness because the player has made it clear that they're pretty set on going into the Forest of Doom as their top priority.

      Okay, so for the next session I decide, that there's an Entrantress that lives in the forest and she has a cure for the disease.  BUT! she's only willing to give it to the player on the condition that he stays here in the Forest with her forever.

      Now we can play through THAT authentically, yes?  The player could kill her, or try to steal the cure, or Duel of Wits her into some other type of arrangement. We don't know what's going to happen with this little piece.

      But once we DO know what happens, we can play with that in the next bit of prep, right?  Let's say the player decides the Enchantress is an evil witch, kills her and takes the cure. He then carries on to the Count.  Okay, so now it's time to prep the sister and the Count.  So, first I decide that the sister has changed her mind and wants to stay with the Count this (a) challenges the player's Belief about rescuing her and (b) mirrors the choice the player just made about the Entranchess for himself (i.e. she's done the opposite).  I then look at another player's Beliefs who until now has just been kind of tagging along and notice they have a Belief about "being an instrument of justice" or something like that.  So I decide that the Entrantress was actually the Count's sister and that if he finds out she was killed he will want satisfaction.  This will put the two PCs' Beliefs at odds and nicely reflects this whole thing with protecting sisters.

      And then we play through THAT and take the fallout from THAT and weave it into the next bit and so on.  I don't really see much "control" here.  I see development of consequential action and hightening of relevancy to the players' Beliefs.  I'm not trying to make things "go" anywhere specific, I'm just maximizing the impact of each piece as I go along.

      But again, I've never done this with Burning Wheel. (It is kind of how I play Ten Candles, if you're familiar with that game). So, it's just a thought experiment I dreamed up as a gut reaction to Sam's comment.

    • Hi, Jesse. Indeed I saw your

      Hi, Jesse. 
      Indeed I saw your posts before in the earlier thread, and I was hoping you would pop into this one too. Good, insightful answers all around, I'm gonna digest them for now.

    • Maybe I shouldn’t do this,

      Maybe I shouldn't do this, but I feel the what I really said in my comment is getting lost here a little, or maybe I need to state what I thought I was saying in a clearer way. I tried to word my statement about how I think Burning Wheel should be played very specifically–this is pertaining only to Burning Wheel, and all of my thoughts come from actually playing that way and having it work, in contrast to playing the rules as they are written, which has always fallen apart/felt a little fake to me in the past. 

      The idea of "making it up as you go along" is fine! If a character wanders into a new place they have never been, or goes to meet someone you have never thought about, or whatever else, that forces you to make up new characters and think of what they are doing, that is normal and fine. I wouldn't consider that as outside of my description of playing motivated NPCs at all. All it means is that, instead of making this person up last week, I made them up right now. There's no difference. 

    • Ah!  Okay, cool.  So then

      Ah!  Okay, cool.  So then maybe it's a different interpretation of the text. Honestly, I've never read the rules of the game as saying anything other than: "The stitutaion should be relevant to the PC's Beliefs." Like, that's it!  That's the game.

      Maybe you read it a different way.  Which is fine and pretty minor.  It kind of seems like we've both landed in similar places in terms of play, however we got there.

    • This is to Jesse, and very

      This is to Jesse, and very blunt. I don't think it's a different interpretation of the text. I think you're rewriting the text.

      I'm tired of Sorcerer carrying Luke's water. I get why you or others would do it. Burning Wheel as I knew it best (the transition from the little-known original to the first revision) could play very well using a Sorcerer-esque view toward situations and story. Coming from familiarity with Sorcerer, when reading through that lens, the text may even seem as if it were conceived and written toward that end, especially after Luke joined the Forge and revised the text to be friendly to that community.

      But, blunt-squared, it's not. Luke never played that way and doesn't do so now. The fandom and discourse of playing Burning Wheel doesn't support it at all. In playing as you describe, my game is doing all the work, or rather, providing the context that makes it work. Which is fine for play, as anyone can play as they please, but for discussion and analysis, fifteen years of parasitism is a lot, and I've had enough. "It can do this, if you play this way," is a great celebration of what you do, but it is no sound description of the game's text or play-culture.

  5. My direct answers to Pedro

    The comments above managed to tangle up the reply-nesting so thoroughly that I'm just leaving them as is and starting here. You can hunt through them to find what was asked.

    Pedro, regarding your first paragraph: no to all, in the sense that I don’t like playing games which are built, as far as I can tell, as operant conditioning experiments. When I realized that I’d have to revise Burning Wheel in a very pointed, purpose-altering way – I have a short, easy list for how – in order to enjoy playing, I stopped being inclined to play at all. I'm under no obligation to fix people's games for them.

    This disappointed me a lot. I enjoyed considering Sorcerer, The Riddle of Steel, and Burning Wheel as a trio, and I still do in many ways. They were developed over the same period, they are all phenomenal efforts of creative love and independent publishing, they all favor individualized and driven characters, they all have a keen grasp of culture as the foundation for any situation, they all have distinctive oppositional combat procedures, they all embrace character behavior/development, and they all reject “gamer” versions of their inspirational material, favoring literacy instead. They are not identical in system or even very alike, but they share many points of overlap or, perhaps, opportunity for comparison in “X,” where “X” is something other games don’t do well.

    But I don’t have to revise The Riddle of Steel in order to play. Even if I did tweak this or that mechanic – for example, just running a mental Sharpie line to cross out the combat maneuvers, which I am inclined to do – that’s revision only in a minor sense. “How I do it,” without “it” being any different in meaning or purpose.

    A different question: do you feel that Beliefs would be more relevant as a mechanic if Artha was awarded like the Spiritual Attributes in The Riddle of Steel, i.e. if you would get Artha for a roll right-there-and-then if a Belief was relevant to the Conflict at hand? (Beliefs have some overlap, from what I remember of TRoS, with Drives and Goals.)

    My position is exactly the opposite. Beliefs would be a better mechanic if they were busted back to their original form: focused on relatively local or current opinions, subject to change without much formality or stress, and disconnected from Artha.

    Beliefs are better in this rather unconstructed, opinion-at-this-time form. They are badly suited to operate as Spiritual Attributes from The Riddle of Steel or Keys from The Shadow of Yesterday. As I wrote above, the Emotional Attributes are already in place regarding characters’ depth, and the game’s improvement system develops them well, and at a pace consistent with other changes rather than popping on and off constantly throughout play.

    The original rules to gain Artha are mostly good and understandable – e.g., role-playing is stated generally, not “accords with Belief” or “challenges Belief” as categories. You could tweak them slightly – for example, I’d abandon the part about voting for the most valuable player of the session – but there’s no need to revise them philosophically. Also, once you have Artha, it’s spent during play for any of several easy and understandable options, with no cyclical aspect.

    The version of Artha that most people know is simply not very good design. It reminds me of everything I dislike about Lady Blackbird: fiddly specific points, bathos and showy spit-spraying, and pretending it’s drama. Very nice for slick Actual Play ™ productions, but not actual play.

    • Ron, thank you for your reply

      Ron, thank you for your reply and taking your time with this. This is insightful material and I'm going to take my time digesting them. I'd also like to thank everyone else again for their contributions to this thread, and specially for their replies to my questions.

  6. Contrasting Experiences with Beliefs and NPCs

    From the Discord –

    In my experience, Beliefs and strong-headed npcs go hand-in-hand. I was looking over what  prep notes I have access to and it looks to be quite the opposite of what folks in the video were doing.

    Firstly let's get "how I use Beliefs" stated, since I have a different read of the text. Beliefs don't give players authorial control to change The Big Picture and Situation. Rather these beliefs reflect what's interesting to the players about the situation and the character's ethics, goals and motivations in relation to it. I am not saying anyone is wrong but I have a different read [see Beliefs in Play page 54 in BWG, BWGR & page 56 BWR. The text is partly rewritten and re-organized between Revised and Gold].  

    Here is how I went about challenging beliefs and using npcs.

    [I will note: Burning Wheel Core Rules offers no real procedural guidance for GMs on how to challenge beliefs or prepare a game. This has always been an issue with the text. If you have access to either the Codex or Adventure Burniner, check Practical Advice on Challenging Beliefs page 88 in the Codex, 217 in the AdBu. I refer to this page every time I prepare a session.]

    I list out the Beliefs, Instincts, Traits and Relationships on a page, at least one page per character. I have a list of general list NPCs from relationships, circles, demanded by the situation and setting.

    I then look at each Belief, look where we left off and write a note under each belief. These notes are mainly prompts with NPC motivations. Some NPCs are obstacles in the path of a goal. Others have more subtle motivations that can undermine a belief, put two players' beliefs in contrast, or even confirm a belief and show possible consequences.


    I can, actually, see how the text can be read in either-way. I think what background you have heavily informs how one applies the rules in Burning Wheel. I came to the game from traditional games (d20, BRP, HackMaster) looking for a game with representational mechanics with consequential outcomes. Getting stabbed should always suck – no matter how many people you’ve killed! So I took the authority of the GM over the setting and situation as a given. I feel the guidance on using Wises (knowledge skills) under Establishing Setting as a Player on page 208 of the Codex and 303 of the AdBu, underline the way I approach the Authorities in Burning Wheel.

    This conversation has given me a lot to chew on. I haven’t given Burning Wheel, what I usually call my favorite rpg (the other being The Riddle of Steel), a real critical look in years. I really appreciate the articulate explanations of your experiencesy.

    I honestly think Burning Wheel could use a rewrite. The issues that have been pointed out with the text are numerous, and I feel less apparent in the later BWHQ designs. It needs more procedural clarity (like how one can apply the mechanics, see Practical Success & Practical Failure page 119 of the Codex and page 254 of the AdBu) and ease off the advice except where strictly needed. As it stands, the text is unsuccessful at teaching How to play the game well.

    • Hi JC, sorry about the delay

      Hi JC, sorry about the delay in replying.

      It's not much of a reply anyway – merely to say that like Jesse, you've effectively rewritten, or focused what is written, into distinctive rules design. It may not seem that way, as in my experience it feels merely like "reading it right," but especially after a hell of a lot of D&D play and talk over the past few years, I've found that the grey area between reading-it-right and design-it-over is a lot less grey, and a lot more of the latter, then anyone thought.

      Whether the version or direction that you've made or taken really stems from what you're calling "traditional games" is open to debate, possibly even challenging or hot debate. The very things critiqued by Sam and Noah, and which you're acknowledging are at least arguably present in the BW text, are deeply embedded in the titles you cite (d20, BRP, Hackmaster), and I don't see a distinction in priority, between you and them, in terms of representational or consequential mechanics. Having played with both people, I can say that they're jammed pretty far at the high end of valuing those same things.

      So I don't know whether you'd like to investigate farther, especially since I'm giving fair warning that I'd start with directly challenging your analysis (not of BW, but of, well, you). This post has probably borne all the weight it can carry, so a discussion along those lines might do better as a post of its own. Let me know if you're interested.

    • Let’s challenge my bias

      Let's challenge my bias

      Sounds good to me. Let's take this to another post.

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