A short experiment

Art by Crowy.

I continue grappling with Burning wheel, it seems. Recruitment text:

Vikings sack a monastery: A Burning wheel one-shot. Year eight hundred and something, a bunch of vikings have sailed to close to a monastery and are about to rob and pillage it. Everyone makes a character in the situation: a viking, a villager, someone living in or visiting the monastery. Then we play to see what happens. Players are responsible for making an interesting character with beliefs that drive them to action. Experimenting with: freedom in character burning; use an existent character or make a new one, with as many or few lifepaths as you deem interesting. Experimenting with: lots of fast dice rolls; failure consequences might not be declared ahead of time, but let it ride is certainly on. And, who knows, maybe we will get to see a duel of wits, a fight or a range and cover, too.

Eventually I got two players, both strangers, one new to the game and one with good knowledge of it. Here are observations from the experiment:

  1. The players played a corrupt abbot and a devoted custodian. Both had just a couple of days for character generation and even the new player managed it independently, though we adjusted one of their skills before play started to better capture what they were going for and to give some primary social skill to the character.
  2. No limits on the number of lifepaths or exponents or such. One of the characters was more powerful than the other and the characters were against one another. My impression is that it worked out fine regardless.
  3. I aimed for frequent and possibly low-stakes dice rolling; task and intent were made clear, but I did not stress about always declaring failure consequences. This worked out great. The pace of the game was perceivably faster than I had the last time I ran BW.
  4. Similarly, we went for not fishing after forks after the roll, but rather checking which ones were part of the thing when one declared the task. A short game with strangers was not an extensive enough an experiment to be sure; I suspect this requires more de-training to get away from the established habits. I should also aim for this with bonus and penalty dice.
  5. I really want to be strict with skills, and especially forking wises (I think they should only give a bonus die when that knowledge would actually be helpful, not simply because the test touches on the concept the wise is about). I did not enforce or experiment with this during this game.
  6. The situation was specified according to beliefs and relationships, but I did not stress at all about taking the beliefs into account when running the game. This worked out fine, but the conclusions do not transfer to longer games without further experimentation.
  7. I was pretty aggressive in going for duel of wits whenever it seemed relevant. We got two of those done; first was fast and punchy, lots of points, while the in the second the player who knew the game, playing the more competent character, went defensive, which made that duel longer than it should have been. Duel of wits is my least favourite part of BW, but overall I was okay with these outcomes. Also the new player seemed to survive being thrown off the pier and asked to swim right away, even if he scripted pretty much only points. A crash course on duel of wits.
  8. An artha experiment: before going through the trait list and seeing what got pinged, we discussed what kind of potential traits we saw in play. The idea is to get some trait pinged for the artha reward, or at least get suggestions for future trait votes. We did check what the character had afterwards. This is worth more experimentation.

The monks argued about whether they should use their relics for paying off the vikings (nope), the custodian hid and buried them (ditch digging!), there was a big prayer to see if God would so kind as to shipwreck the vikings with a terrible storm (nope) and later an argument about whether the corrupt abbot was fit to rule (probably yes, but ended up going with the custodian to meet the vikings). Bribery failed, some spears were cast and we ended play there, leaving the fate of the player characters undetermined (dead, thrall, left alive?), but it is pretty clear the abbey was burning, but relics remained hidden.

We did the artha check-up at the end with the variation discussed above. I am still uncertain about it as a process.

I think the game was good in the sense that I did not know what was going to happen; the characters and the situation were there, but there were decisions and dice rolls both that could have gone the other way. The monkish intrigue could also have affected the viking situation. In this sense this game felt as real play, even though it was a short PvP thing. There was some player coordination involved before play to set up the PvP situation, but that was on them and seemed fairly minimal to me.

Earlier Adept play stuff that might be relevant: Emotional contact sport, Brennandi vikingar og sosiale ferdigheter. Also my blog posts: Oiled wheel, Two Burning wheels

No particular subject I want to emphasize; I hope this can be useful to fellow travellers working on Burning wheel.

6 responses to “A short experiment”

  1. Vincent’s Admonition vs. Ob 1

    Hi Tommi,

    I'd like to hear more about this, if you got more:

    I aimed for frequent and possibly low-stakes dice rolling

    I have always found in Burning Wheel a tension between "Vincent's Admonition" that is slotted into the text whole-cloth from Dogs in the Vineyard ("Roll the dice or say yes") and some of the mechanisms of the game that want low-stakes rolls, i.e., not only do we need to have the ability to roll for some relatively easy things (so that those B2 skills can advance), but also I think the game plays better when there are frequent rolls, and to have frequent rolls some of them must be low-stakes.

    Most groups I've played with have defaulted to or drifted to a play situation that tends to revolve around hard-framed scenes that wrap up with one die roll, bam, onto next scene. However, I don't think BW is well-served by using it in this way, and I think some of the advice in the text pushes play toward this way of playing at the cost of what the game wants to do (I'm echoing some of what was said in that "Emotional Contact Sport" thread you linked).

    Anyway, how did you stay on the lookout for low-stakes rolls? Did the players drive them, or did you? How did it effect the session?

    • Hi Hans,

      Hi Hans,

      I see the tension between "say yes" and the rest of the game more with all the craftsman skills and other such, which are fairly rarely used in opposed situations. There can only be so many smithing contests, so in my experience the dice get rolled if we can find or negotiate "interesting" failure consequences. Vincent's admonition does not really apply to BW as I have usually seen it played. I have also seen a tendency to seek the die roll in the scene, and once that is done, move to the next scene, and some tendency towards the one roll per scene phenomenon.

      Here, instead of stress if there would be interesting failure conditions, which just rolled ditch digging to bury and hide the relics, for example. We established task and intent carefully: the task is to bury the relics, the intent is to hide them. Thus, on a success, the relics are hidden, and on failure either there is an immediate problem (if something occurs to us), or otherwise you do not manage to dig them down or hide them.

      But what I tried to avoid was stressing over whether there is an "interesting" failure looming right over the dice roll, and what it might be. Instead we would trust that the game survives some rolls that turn out to be inconsequential in hindsight, also trust in our ability to be inspired by very poor rolls or almost successful rolls.

      Here in short form play with a fair deal of PvP conflict it worked out ok.

      One related phenomena in the community is fate bloat; that people have a lot more fate artha than they can get used. I guess this is related to only having few and high-stakes rolls.

    • But what I tried to avoid was

      But what I tried to avoid was stressing over whether there is an "interesting" failure looming right over the dice roll, and what it might be. Instead we would trust that the game survives some rolls that turn out to be inconsequential in hindsight, also trust in our ability to be inspired by very poor rolls or almost successful rolls.

      This is key. All the hand-wringing that I have seen and done in BW play regarding whether we should roll for this thing a character is doing (that according to the skill entry and the basic rules should have a set Obstacle) because we are cranking the mental gears over whether we can come up with an interesting failure consequence really enervates play. We're not even trying to figure out how to adjudicate a moment of the fiction, we're mired in trying to figure out whether the moment could be potentially interesting enough to adjudicate. We're like five steps ahead of ourselves. 

      It seems to me that the text is trying to do that old role-playing text thing of saying "don't make a character roll to walk down the street." Like, yeah, we know that. And it can be good practice in extremely consequential or surprising situations to state up-front what the failure consequence is, but to try to enforce this process onto every roll makes the game tiring (especially to GM) and I think takes some of the excitement out of moments of conflict by too much pre-narration. Plus, in Burning Wheel, it tends to drift the play into that arena of few high-stakes rolls, since agonizing over whether we can make an Ob1 test to chop enough wood in time to start a fire before it gets dark super dramatic is something we quickly learn to avoid because, well, it's agonizing. Which creates the fate bloat, etc.

      All this processing is making me excited to play Burning Wheel again. The play and discussion on the site has helped my understanding of the game greatly and I feel more equipped than ever to use its instrumentation in a fun and functional way.

    • Fate and Burning Wheel share

      Fate and Burning Wheel share a common problem in that their fanbase is their own worst enemy. With regards to Burning Wheel there's the over fetishization of knowing the failure condition. The player has a right to know what they are gambling by their chosen course of action. In practice this can be quite minimal and doesn't require exact details on what is going to happen explicitly. A player is making a Persuasion roll in a tense situation and asks me what happens on failure.  I say, "He's going to get angry, maybe violently so." Also, the failure condition is non-negotiable so this isn't a place for the player to object or offer an alternative; it's an opportunity to back down. In practice, I have had players offer revisions and accepted them because I liked them better.  But this is conversation, not negotiation.

      This applies to low Ob tests in two ways.  When Obs are low players often don't bother to ask what the failure condition is because they're pretty confident they are going to make it. If they don't make it, THEN you can take a step back and think on what it means. Low Obs often mean low stakes (though not always) so ANY kind of set back that alters the situation in any way is sufficient. Frequently, what happens is that it shifts the situation from one the player was trying to tackle with a good skill, to now forcing them to try again with a weak skill, one that usually caries more obvious failure results.

      But more often small Obs result in taking baby steps toward a larger goal. In which case I remined players about Linked Tests. If thing A is prepatory work for thing B you can gain a bonus die on thing B if you exceed the Ob for thing A which is most likely to happen if the Ob is low in the first place. In this case the failure condition is built into the rule: The Ob of Thing B increase by 1. So you need only think of how a flaw in the outcome of A complicates B.


    • Hello Hans,

      Hello Hans,

      Yeah, I agree with the points in your latest response.

      Hi Jesse,

      I conjecture that using straightforward failure consequences is useful. Typically, if you fail to make a fire in a wet forest, you will be cold. If you fail to make a fire in a dry forest, there might be a forest fire (but this is sufficiently serious that the player should be reminded of the consequence). If the failure consequence is instead that a troll finds you on a failed roll, this is far less straightforward and probably should be communicated in some way. Unless, of course, you are specifically trying to make a hidden fire in known troll territory.

      This might relate to explicitly tying in beliefs; if every dice roll and situation has to explicitly challenge beliefs or other BITs, then less straightforward outcomes are more tempting.

    • I completely agree with you. 

      I completely agree with you.  The notion that every consequence has to strike at the heart of a Belief is another one of those overly fetishy things the fans talk about.  Beliefs are context.  Assuming we are here dealing with this forest because some PC's Belief lead us here then, of course, every consequence that happens here is because of that Belief whether that's you might freeze to death or your attempts to prevent that could start a forest fire. No need for weird orthogonal disonnected consequences from the actions of the character.

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