I have been experiencing something pretty great in play lately, across two games. I want to talk about it.
I’m playing in a one-on-one Burning Wheel game. I’m not GMing. The GM was inspired by the Morrowind video game (which I’m unfamiliar with), and we have a political-religious war going on where the traditionalist side is trying to quash a heretical sect that worships saints of the religion. Then there’s an ultra-heretical sect within that sect that uses the bones of saints for enchantments and demon summoning. My character, Amparo, a 19-year-old former slave and bannerman, has become embroiled with the demon-summoning crew.
The game is pretty focused and I experience it intensely, since it’s almost always my turn to talk and because of the nature of the scenario and some of the rules of Burning Wheel, when it is my turn to talk I really have to drive the action. I’m a bit of a hesitant player by nature and it has been a powerful experience to have to rise to the occasion. My past play of Burning Wheel has pretty rigidly focused on Beliefs and either hitting them hard as the GM or going after them in a fairly narrow (and often unsatisfying) manner.
In this game, in contrast to how I have typically played Burning Wheel, I have been cavalier about my Beliefs, changing them often—after most sessions I’ve changed a Belief or two. This hasn’t been jarring or made Amparo feel fickle; it’s actually been simply the byproduct of driving play, being willing to go where I want to go in the moment (which requires paying attention to what we’re actually doing as opposed to staring at my Beliefs and planning what I could be doing). The GM has also taken the Beliefs with a light hand, not trying to ham-fistedly smash at them at every opportunity. As a result the characters in the game have felt more real and honest than they have usually felt in my Burning Wheel games.
Okay, an example: Amparo has recovered the bones of Bolast of Brinehark, a saint, and lied to Grakkos, a somewhat shifty sage who wants to use the bones to potentially nefarious purposes. Amparo has told Grakkos that totally, he can use the bones. However, he intends to follow Grakkos down this rabbit hole until Grakkos incriminates himself, at which point he’s going to bring Grakkos to the saint-worshipping army encampment so he can face justice (Amparo has an instinct about trusting priests and a belief about the saint-worshippers being on the right side of the war and how he’s going to have to take Grakkos out to help the right side).
As Grakkos is taking him to see his master, there’s a discussion about what Grakkos actually intends. Grakkos knows that Amparo has lied to him (failed roll earlier in the game), and so he lays it all out: I’m going to bring you to my master and we’re going to use those bones to summon a demon. And you’ll get whatever reward you want.
I have a Belief about ending the war, and Grakkos just promised me that I can get whatever I want in exchange for these bones. Amparo asks him if this means even the power to end the war, and Grakkos says yes. So, of course Amparo gives him the bones.
It was a beautiful moment in play, because it didn’t involve obvious conflict, and it was a quiet moment, but it absolutely changed the situation immediately and ongoing. It’s weird to say but it felt empowering. No hemming and hawing with other PCs about what to do, not getting stuck in approaching the moment tactically (which can be fine but can be a tic), just making a decision and seeing the game change.
Along those lines, I’m also playing Sorcerer. I’m not GMing. There are three PCs, all of whom are Adept Play posters, so it’s likely we’ll see more discussion of this game at some point. The Two Statements:
Environment: Silicon Valley, the heart of technocracy. Year: Now.
Sorcery/Demons: Sentient AIs, cybernetics, secret tech that should not exist. Integration of human and machine.
We have a burned-out tech CEO whose demon is a bouncy-happy AI who just wants to make things (for the Pentagon), and a slick up-and-comer whose entire life is regulated by his smart glasses.
My character is Paulina, a Mexican-Russian-American who has a metallic-wafer-demon named Lud in her blood that gives her the knowledge of how to hack into banking systems and skim money off the top (among other things). She’s on the pushed-out working-class side of the San Francisco divide, and the Kicker was her parents and younger brother coming to live with her because they can’t make rent anymore. This is a problem because even as she has become more than financially secure with the help of her demon, she’s become damaged through the relationship (-2 Price: spooky) and has basically withdrawn from society. The family’s gonna worry, they’re gonna pry, and maybe she’s not going to be able to handle this all while keeping her cover.
Which is kinda what the first couple sessions were about—seeing this new situation develop, scaring her brother, then placating him, trying to keep her family from getting entangled with nosy neighbors…
And I realized that I was trying to manage the Kicker. I thought back to the previous game of Sorcerer I played, where I just kinda got pinballed all around because I never stood up and made my character drive toward something. Paulina is Mad and Spooky and she’s NOT going to fucking let that happen. The Kicker has occurred. The family is here.
I called a scene where she brings them out to dinner just lays it out straightforwardly—everything except the demon. She’s been able to afford her digs because she works illegally. Dad is worried it’s dangerous but she assures him its not. She says they can stay with her indefinitely, but they have to know this and they have to not pry. She will take care of them. They’re a family. They agree. As the scene ends Paulina has a nosebleed (thanks, GM), revealing Lud’s Telltale of glittery blood to the family.
Again, empowering as a player. I took charge of the situation instead of playing to it, if that makes sense. The situation not simply as something to be navigated but raw material to DO something with.
Things to notice: I’m not GMing either game. I’m playing in two ongoing games at once, which is a very rare occurrence for me, and this may be the first time I’ve ever played in two or more games at once and not been a GM in at least one of them.
What’s the connection here? The experience of real protagonism in play. It’s not as if I’ve never experienced this before, but lately it has come naturally, with little anxiety and no fraught management of my own play (“What SHOULD I do here? What does X want me to do? If I do Y will it throw people off?”).