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Made You Flinch... or not.

In addition to my long running D&D game I am also running a Burning Wheel game. The game is heavily influenced by the Netflix animated series Castlevania. I have absolutely no love or even knowledge of the video game series the show is based on and had been largely ignoring it. When I decided to check it out, I was delighted to discover that it’s a beautiful and brutal Gothic swords & sorcery fantasy series. I highly recommend it with this caveat: season 1 is basically a “proof of concept” movie and functionally a prologue. The real story begins in season 2.

So, what does that mean for my Burning Wheel game? The pitch of the game is: vampires have decided to launch a genocidal war against humanity on the whim of one of their most powerful leaders. Another thematic point that will be relevant to the rest of this post is that The Church is powerful, corrupt and arrogant.

What this game has done is revealed there’s a thing I do, A LOT when running games. As soon as I understand what the character’s goals are I organize the situation with the intent of trying to provoke doubt about those goals. It’s not enough, for some reason, to lay out the challenges and obstacles on the path to those goals, but I always try to set it up so those things will provoke questing about whether the player/character actually WANTS the goal after all. That I do this, regularly, really leapt out at me in this game for two reasons.

The first is that character goals in Burning Wheel are framed as Beliefs. And I notice that my brain really circles the WHY part of the Belief a lot more than the WHAT part. Which is funny, because one of the pieces of advice I give to people new to running Burning Wheel is that they don’t need to get all philosophical about the PC’s Beliefs. It’s perfectly fine to “challenge Beliefs” by just dropping obstacles in their path because the rules are going to introduce all kinds of weird twists and turns for you. And yet, I don’t seem to heed my own advice.

The second reason is that this game involves religious fervor as one of its thematic pillars. So in some ways the nature of the game was primed for this thing I do. But more importantly it revealed to me how incredibly surprised and utterly thrown I am when it doesn’t work. I’ll set up what I think is this philosophically challenging situation and when the player shows unwavering devotion to their goals, I find it really startling. I find myself creatively pin wheeling and am utterly shocked that they didn’t flinch, at all.

Here are the two clearest examples of this happening in this game.

So one character is named Andrie. He’s a blacksmith whose young daughter, Anastasia, was killed and turned into a vampire. He had a Belief about slaying her corrupted body and seeing her soul elevated as a saint.

So what do I do prep Anastasia as an NPC? I make her deeply opposed to the vampire war. She thinks it's madness to provoke a protracted conflict with their food source. So she has an alternative plan: co-opt the human’s religion and gain recognition as a saint among them so that they willingly start making blood sacrifices to her and other vampires. Her phrase to her fellow vampires is, “Why reduce ourselves to farmers when we could be gods?”

To this end, she’s been visiting the poorest sections of the city and rendering aid (food and medicine) to the weak and the suffering. She’s built up a little cult around her of people who call her The Night Saint. There’s even a group of these poor and downtrodden that have organized an occupation of part of the main Cathedral demanding official recognition of The Night Saint from the church.

So, all that comes out in play and what does Andrie do? Immediately, decide that all that is vampire arrogance and heresy and proceeds to track down and kill his vampire daughter with the focus and determination of The Terminator. No doubt. No hesitation. He even killed her in front of a bunch of her followers which then led to wide scale rioting in the city since he murdered the one “person” who was actually paying attention to their plight.

In terms of play it was smooth and great because Burning Wheel has your back, but emotionally I was just stunned. And I’m writing this post because it just happened again! In this same game, but with a different player.

So, this involves The Bishop, the NPC in charge of The Church in the city. His whole response to impending vampire attack has been to organize a large Mass one the eve of the attack. He has been spreading word that when the bells ring that all the city's citizens should gather outside the cathedral to be “saved.”  He has been super cagey about what he thinks this Mass will actually accomplish.

So, here comes the eve of the attack. One PC is actually up in Dragomir’s (the head vampire) castle attempting to sow enough dissent among the other vampire nobility to break unification around launching the attack at all. Another PC has simply decided he’s had enough and flat out fleeing the city. That leaves Father Lukas, a newer PC who was made because that player’s previous character had been so critically injured he didn’t want to take the downtown necessary to heal.

Father Lukas is busy trying to deal with a demon cult when the call to Mass is heard throughout the city. Lukas’ player seriously botches a series of rolls and ends up setting fire to the warehouse district and being buried under a pile of rubble. So, this means The Bishop’s Mass happens uninterrupted. I’m glad this happened at the end of a session because I needed to take some time to think about what that actually means.

The Bishop is working from an ancient and heretical ritual that was an attempt to purge mortal sin from people’s physical form and turn their blood holy. The Bishop thinks that if he does this when the vampires attack they’ll kill everyone but die in the process because the blood of their victims will be sanctified.  It had already come out that the last (and only time) this ritual was performed it actually created vampires by accident. So, did I now have a city full of vampires?

I didn’t like that. Since Father Lukas was the PC that was going to be confronted with this when he wakes up, I looked to his Beliefs which are all about doing God’s will. So I decided to take a page out of Circle of Hands and it’s depiction of Amboriyon. I decide that holy energy is flowing through the Bishop unchecked and is “purifying” the citizens turning them into kind of angelic zombies seeking out those who didn’t attend the mass and bringing them into the “holy choir” divine hive mind.

Father Lukas witnesses this happening and what does he do? He goes straight to the cathedral and speaks to the glowing ball of divine energy flowing into what is left of The Bishop. The energy tells him that it doesn’t understand why the people are afraid and hiding. It wants Father Lukas to go among the people and speak to them as himself and “bring the flock home to the divine choir.” 

And with absolutely NO hesitancy Father Lukas agrees. He not only agrees his first order of business is to enter (and win!) a Duel of Wits with another PC convincing them that this is the path of true salvation. The city must be brought into the fold and ascend into divine light.

And, I couldn’t help but notice that I’d done it again! Again, I set up a situation designed to invoke maximum doubt and again it was met with maximum conviction and again I found myself emotionally reeling in utter shock and amazement. This isn’t a complaint. None of my players are doing anything wrong. For that matter I don’t think I’m doing anything wrong. It’s just this deep pattern in my games has been revealed to me and I’m not quite sure what to make of it.
 

Department: 
Actual Play
Tags: 
Bangs

Comments

Ron Edwards's picture

I like this topic because it’s not about specific procedures or any kind of mismatch or hassle. It’s one of those moments of saying, “Given that I’m a practitioner, and a very active one, well, what do I do? How do I, personally, do this thing? What is it like to play with me, what is it like to be me, when I’m playing?”

Since I always think schematically, I guess there are two variables:

  • You as GM adding or contextualizing features of the situation so that the characters’ stated or apparent goals are more nuanced. (yes or no, in a particular instance)
  • The players playing their characters, sooner or later, as reflective upon their goals due to these nuance. (also yes or no, in this instance)

Obviously, any combination of yes/no for each as a feature of play is fine, just as you say. The topic is your response when it’s yes for you and, then, no for them. You’re pretty clear:

... incredibly surprised and utterly thrown ... really startling ... creatively pin wheeling ... utterly shocked that they didn’t flinch, at all ... emotionally reeling in utter shock and amazement.

My first thought: it sounds pretty cool, actually – moral Bounce, to the extent that “creatively pinwheeling” is a straightforward positive. That is, if I’m understanding correctly that none of this makes play fall apart, and I’m pretty sure you’re saying it doesn’t. Therefore I’d like to know more about the creative pinwheeling as procedure – what do you do, in that state? How does play go from there?

I guess the next thing is the most trivial and probably shouldn’t be answered by you, as it’s more of my own reflection on your reflection: why so shocked? I know that you are long past the notion that you as GM would shape, mold, prepare, and instill emotions into the other people playing with you. It’s a given that they will have their own responses and input into play as whole persons in their own right. To continue this line of reflection, there’s also the fact that you didn’t go through this just once, but that it’s occurred many times, and each time it’s a surprise. But – again – never mind, I’m not looking for responses regarding this paragraph.

Finally, specific to Burning Wheel, have you seen players change their Beliefs? I don’t mean directly in the midst of these kind of situations (you’re pretty clear that they don’t), I mean ever, and if so, when relative to the events of play, and from what to what.

Jesse Burneko's picture

You are correct that the "creative pinwheeling" does not make play fall apart. It's mostly a result of the fact that while I don't "pre-plan" per se, I do a lot of daydreaming and hypothesizing about what they might do and for some reason "they lean into it" is just never on the that daydreaming list.

As for recovering from the pin-wheeling the answer for Burning Wheel is simple: I just open up their Beliefs and find something to lean on for "what now?" Andrie had one about being prepared for the vampire threat and so I gave his vampire daughter a much stronger heavily armored body guard and we had a sword fight. With Father Lukas he had a Belief about "doing God's will" and so that became the divine energy asking direcly to help it.

As for changing Beliefs, here's how it has evolved over the game:

I started with 5 players but lost one almost immediately.  After Adrie successfully slayed his vampire daughter, he was in the process of rewriting his Beliefs to reflect the fallout of that but unfortuantely also had to drop out of the game shortly after that.

Of the three remaining players, two are expert Burning Wheel players and are good at tuning their Beliefs to reflect their immediate priorities. They certainly revise their Beliefs, if not rewrite them, on an almost session by session basis but always to reflect their priorties as they shift around in the evolving situation. The have rarely felt like moral or ideological shifts with one excpetion: both players treat the outcome of a Duel of Wits like a blood pact. So when Father Lukas had his Duel of Wits with Zarya about this new divine force and won, Zarya's player rewrote their Beliefs to bring them into alignnment; not in a creepy mind control feeling way but rather all of that character's priorities have now shifted to incoporate this new divine revelation into account as Father Lukas has covinced them that this is indeed a holy miricle to be treated as such.

That leaves the third player has been a much more reactive player. Boriska (the character) had Beliefs about things they wanted but very quickly found themselves buckling under pressures of power players, mostly vampires and demon summoning sorcerers.  And after a session or two rewrote their Beliefs less from a perspective of "this is what I want" and more from a perspective of, "Well, this is clearly how I'm playing this character."  In particular, that player ended up with a Belief about positioning themselves for survival in the greater conflict.

The player had two other Beliefs but routinely eschewed acting on them in favor of the survival based one. This basically reached a head last session when one of the dissenting vampires decided that they had enough of war and poltics and was planning to leave.  The vampire straight up offered to take Boriska with them as a kind of "human pet" and after mulling it over the player decided that , "Yup, that's what Boriska does." So that moment represeted a total abandoment of two Beliefs in favor of total fullment of the third.  This player may make up a new character starting next session.

This isn't something you can answer, Jesse, but I'm very interested in how Boriska's player experienced the pressures of play and the subsequent pursuit of the survival Belief. It's a cool story but from the outside hard to tell if the player was sort of beleaguered and shrugging (as I have somehow found myself in similar instances of play, unable to act strongly even though not doing so isn't particularly fun) or if they were jamming with it.

Jesse Burneko's picture

Hans, I can't speak to why but I have played with this player before and it's very common for them to end up in servile positions. They end up getting batted around like a pinball by powerful NPCs. I think I even remarked on that pattern emerging at the begining of this game. I think, perhaps, they are reflecting on it.

Jerry D. Grayson's picture

I’m not sure if I’m adding anything productive, but I’ve been in the same situation.

I to provide story elements and choices for the players in the games I run. I sometimes really poke the bear and go hard on their Beliefs and Disadvantages in-game. I try to present choices that aren’t always pretty. Sometimes the players lean into it, while others shy away. I get it, and when I realize that a player doesn’t want to engage in that element of play, I back off.

Sometimes, people are just there to loot bodies and take their stuff, while others are there to tackle in-character existential threats to their psyche.

I will admit that sometimes when I GM, I come into the game a little too “Hot.” I mean that sometimes I present the world element as immutable and unstoppable when all I’m attempting to do is state of the world. The players sometimes take this as gospel and react accordingly when really what I am attempting is creating situation. In a way, they are trying to accommodate me and make my experience fun. I’m fishing without a string or hook on the pole, but they are just leaping into the boat. I may want them to rail against the game world, but the communication is getting mixed up, and they believe I want them to conform.

Mind you; this isn’t a bad thing, just a choice --> I <-- didn’t think they should make. They aren’t wrong in their choice, but I assume they will take the Blue Pill instead of the Red one. In essence, I played myself.

Actual play is nothing more than a string of choices and events that eventually make the story. Whether their player knows it or not, they are creating content with every choice they make. Sometimes these choices lead to a more exciting story, while others lead down dead-end streets with no productive way forward. Mostly, they lead down avenues of escapism that are rewarding for everyone at the table, even when the ending isn’t a happy one.

I applaud you for engaging with the player’s character sheets, but not everyone is gonna bite.

Some people just think a cucumber tastes better pickled.

noah's picture

Jesse, this post caught my eye because it sounds like a fun game and because, believe it or not, I’m in the midst of playing a Castlevania-inspired BW game with the Champions Now Wichita crew!

What you and Hans said in our conversation over Discord several weeks ago made me realize that my approach to Beliefs in play is different than yours. However, I didn’t really have a language to ask the questions I wanted to until the Situation: case study seminar. I am curious to learn how you do it.

In GM prep, I tend to consider these factors in this order:

  1. Locations, social structures & weirdness I am excited to see, hear and feel in the fiction (might be as simple as one illustration)
  2. GM player characters (GMPCS)/NPCs I am passionate about playing
  3. Constraints/material resulting from the character creation process
  4. Answering fundamental situational questions - Where is here? Who is here? What are they doing and why?

As soon as I understand what the character’s goals are I organize the situation with the intent of trying to provoke doubt about those goals.

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but I’d place this creative priority under (1) in my flimsy four-part taxonomy.

What you’re excited to see, hear and feel in the fiction are situations that have the potential to call the characters’ fundamental motivations and beliefs about themselves into question.

Now, where I think our approaches differ the most is here:

It had already come out that the last (and only time) this ritual was performed it actually created vampires by accident. So, did I now have a city full of vampires?

I didn’t like that. Since Father Lukas was the PC that was going to be confronted with this when he wakes up, I looked to his Beliefs which are all about doing God’s will. So I decided to take a page out of Circle of Hands and it’s depiction of Amboriyon.

I’m going to trace the difference as I see it. When it’s my job to say what happens next, but “what happens next” isn’t immediately obvious from the previous events, I look at the elements of the situation that I’m responsible for: Does a character, faction, location, item, etc. “volunteer itself” as the next thing, based on the events of the last scene? Bog standard stuff.

I will ask the other players “What do you do now?” but I don’t look at the contents of their characters to answer this question -- the players have authority over those elements, and they will bring them in as they are creatively inspired by the events of play.

Also, I avoid consulting Beliefs in prep and play because, as a fellow player, I want the pleasure of playing a rich landscape of characters and locations. I trust that if the other players are leveraging the instrumentation of the Beliefs, and I am playing my GMPCs as authentic and complicated individuals, and if we listen and take what everyone else says in play seriously, Beliefs are going to be challenged, deepened and changed.

In fact, I worry that organizing my play exclusively around Beliefs would mean treating my GMPCs as mere props to challenge the PCs’ motivations (or, put another way, as dishes “cooked to order” for the players’ priorities).

Now, I bring it up my worry because you are very clearly not doing this. Instead (and again, correct me if I’m wrong), it looks like the characters’ Beliefs function something like situation elements. Sometimes, when you ‘glance up’ at the situation to determine what happens next, a Belief volunteers itself, instead of a character, location, etc. This is really cool to me and not a way I'd considered using Beliefs. (I'd generally seen them as intended for situation creation & prep).

If I’m right in my conjecture, I’d be curious to see examples of you using Beliefs like this. Do you only turn to the Beliefs when what happens next isn’t at all clear? Do they “volunteer themselves” more actively, like other situational elements?

Jesse Burneko's picture

First, I’m glad to see someone else watched Castlevania and thought, “This is a Burning Wheel game waiting to be played!”

Okay, I had to really give this some thought because you’re right, I don’t feel like I’m artificially or inauthentically moving the pieces around to serve as props for the PC’s Beliefs. On the other hand, I’m having trouble thinking of a time an NPC made a “move” that wasn’t at least tangentially related to at least one PCs Beliefs but I think the reason for that is because of the way I derived the whole situation to begin with. So let me illuminate some deeper details on how things work in my game.

One thing that’s critical (and may be different from your group) is that my players word (most) of their Beliefs like this:

Because <ideological statement> I will <personal goal>.

That “personal goal” part is something the player believes is achievable within 1 to 2 sessions. That means they re-write that portion of their Belief every 1-3 sessions or so.  The “ideological statement” tends to stay pretty solid unless something major happens like losing a key Duel of Wits or some upset in the situation. So that part usually only changes every 4-6 sessions, if ever.

It’s how they break larger goals into smaller goals so they can pick up Persona points along the way. So, something that might be “Because I blame myself for the vampire lord’s impending attack, I will see that he is stopped.” gets broken down into small bits by doing this: “Because I blame myself for the vampire lord’s impending attack, I will first convince the captain of the militia to lend me his aid.” 

See how the player can do that relatively quickly? It’s basically a Circles test and then maybe a Duel of Wits or something. Sure, it might not work but the players are prepared for that. If it doesn’t work or the situation gets more complicated they just cross out the goal and write in a new one based on whatever they plan to do next. (On a session by session basis since you can’t rewrite a Belief in the middle of a session).

In practice this means the players set the agenda for the game on a session by session basis. It means that at the start of every session, I know roughly what direction their first steps of that session will be. So, it's a little hard for me not to be thinking, “Well, what trouble lies in that direction?”  Assuming the player finds the captain of the militia, what does he want? And since the captain of the militia wasn’t even on my mind until the player decided they needed to go looking for them, the easiest thing to do is to go looking through ALL the PCs Beliefs and see if the captain might want something that complicates or troubles ANY of them.

Okay, now re-wind that thinking all the way back to the very beginning of the game. I started the game pretty much with just this: “You are in a city that is both a religious center and a river trading port at the foot of some mountains. In the mountains is a vast labyrinthine castle inhabited by vampire nobility. Rumors on the street are that their lord is raising a demon army and mustering the vampire guards to wage a genocidal attack on the city and rounding up survivors to be raised and bred like cattle as a food source.”

And that’s it. The players created characters with just that bit.  And also, I didn’t have anything more than that either. So, you can see how with Goal Worded Beliefs plus Purchased Relationships, the majority of the actual concrete situation comes directly from THAT. I mean, one player decided they were the half-vampire ex-wife of the vampire lord who through some rare confluence of events gave birth to a fully human son. That right there, provided the motive for the vampire lord’s rage which I didn’t have anything in mind for until that sparked it. That player even named the vampire lord for me.

So you can see that if every NPC is either directly a purchased relationship or is birthed either directly or indirectly from a PC’s Belief and then from that point forward, I play them authentically it’s pretty hard for them NOT to tread all over those Beliefs in the process. Let’s look at a particularly interesting example: my NPC Vesna.

Vesna was not a purchased relationship nor was she mentioned directly in anyone’s Beliefs but she was born at the intersection of a few Beliefs. I already mentioned the PC Andrie and his goal of slaying his turned vampire daughter Anastasia who  is helping out the poor to prop herself up as the Night Saint. So, first Vesna was created to be the human advocate for the Night Saint. She’s a community organizer who believes the Night Saint will actually help people.

There was another PC, Verasha (who sadly had to bail on the game early on) but she had a Belief about vampires being fallen angels who need their souls restored. So, I made Vesna utterly bought in on Anastasia’s claims to saintliness. For Vesna, this isn’t just helping the poor, it’s a divine miracle on earth; the Night Saint, truly the earthly patron saint of beggars and vagabonds.

Then there was the PC Boriska who had a Belief about the cathedral being a safe haven for mortals. So what’s Vesna up to, right at the start of play? She’s organized an occupation of the cathedral calling for the immediate recognition and canonization of the Night Saint.

Okay, so then we play a bit. Verasha went to talk to Vesna but lost a persuasion roll to convince her to set up a meeting with the Night Saint. Vesna made it clear that she would only do that for a church official with the power to recognize the Night Saint’s canonization.

And then Andrie goes and hunts down Anastasia with focus and determination and kills her right in front of some of the people she was helping. And so that leads to rioting among the poor. So, I hope you can see that the riots are a natural consequence of Andrie’s actions. No one had Belief about protecting the city’s infrastructure or keeping the poor in their place or even helping the poor out. It was all me going, “Yeah, they’re going to lose their shit over this.”

But what does that mean for Vesna specifically? Well, she’s gonna escalate right along with them but in what way? Well, with the death of the Night Saint, the only person who was treating her people with care, she’s going to make damn sure the city’s government starts paying attention to their suffering. So she’s going to destroy the cathedral as an act of terrorism.

So you can see that this is kind of a 50/50 decision on my part when it comes to Beliefs. Her escalation is part of the rioting consequences but why the Cathedral? Well, (a) any public building would do and (b) it was the church’s unwillingness to hear her demands sooner that failed to help protect the Night Saint BUT (c) it’s still in Boriska’s Beliefs. So why NOT the Cathedral?

But here’s the thing, Vesna doesn’t have the tools to pull that kind of thing off. So she tracks down a PC I haven’t mentioned here yet: Radek. Radek is a smuggler. Now, Radek does have a Belief about the church being corrupt but I wasn’t actually thinking about that much at this moment.  I was just thinking Vesna needs supplies, Radek is a guy who gets supplies. A bit surprisingly Radek turns her down. I think we did a persuasion roll here and Vesna lost.

Now Radek ends up mentioning this interaction to Zarya (the PC half-vampire ex-wife with the human son). Zarya has a Belief about trying to gain a position on the city council which, again, I wasn’t thinking about specifically when Vesna switched tracts from religious to political. So, Zarya tracks down Vesna (Circles test) and makes a bid for her loyalty. Zarya basically asserts that she will be the voice of the downtrodden and poor and carry on the vision of the Night Saint.  I believe Vesna lost a Duel of Wits here, so now she’s bought in on backing Zarya.

The point is that although Vesna was created at the intersection of three particular PCs’ Beliefs she actually ended up interacting with the OTHER two PCs quite a bit more. Although even there she kind of drove over one of their Beliefs and indirectly triggered the other one's Belief.

A legit question might be, so what’s Vesna up to now? And the answer is: I don’t know. One of my weaknesses as a GM is that I’m not very good at “thinking off screen.” It’s something I'm very aware of and have yet to develop an effective creative strategy for addressing it. Once Vesna was kind of folded into Zarya’s agenda she sort of fell off my emotional radar and has been “out of sight, out of mind” ever since.

I hope that answered your question.

noah's picture

Jesse, thank you for the detail you brought to this response -- it helps me understand how the player characters’ Beliefs can provide infrastructure for situation and events in Burning Wheel without over-programming play. 

So you can see that if every NPC is either directly a purchased relationship or is birthed either directly or indirectly from a PC’s Belief and then from that point forward, I play them authentically it’s pretty hard for them NOT to tread all over those Beliefs in the process.

I’d like to try playing Burning Wheel in the mode you’re describing at some point. It’s also really cool to compare it with my very different experience of the game and see how a system that is often touted as a “Swiss watch,” one that must be played just so to yield successful results, is actually “just” another set of instrumentation - instrumentation that can be used in very different, very fun ways.

I really enjoyed reading about your play of Vesna. Her decisions and development are as compelling as the PCs’. Again, really helpful for seeing the Beliefs being applied in concert with other situational elements like your creative vision of a character and what is obvious to you about the world. But it also made me realize that the topic of ‘favorite NPCs’ is not one I have seen discussed much, though it is so core to my own fun when GMing. 

I can see a few reasons for this. In the ‘chef’ model of GMing, the GM isn’t really supposed to enjoy play for itself -- their success is based on the customer’s reception of the meal. In fact (as in professional cooking), suffering over the preparation of the product might be seen as romantic and valorous.  On the other hand, people might associate such talk with dysfunctional play where the GM is the only one who gets to play in any real sense - the players are just there as an audience for the GM’s brilliant storytelling. It is fun to read about Vesna because your joy in playing the character comes through so clearly. 

I was just thinking Vesna needs supplies, Radek is a guy who gets supplies. A bit surprisingly Radek turns her down. I think we did a persuasion roll here and Vesna lost.

This small moment jumped out at me because it’s a great example of both GMPCs and PCs being subject to the same degree of Bounce.

A legit question might be, so what’s Vesna up to now? And the answer is: I don’t know. One of my weaknesses as a GM is that I’m not very good at “thinking off screen.” It’s something I'm very aware of and have yet to develop an effective creative strategy for addressing it. Once Vesna was kind of folded into Zarya’s agenda she sort of fell off my emotional radar and has been “out of sight, out of mind” ever since.

This is interesting! I think it’s natural that this ‘falling off of the players’ emotional radar’ would occur, particularly in a game where there are a bunch of dynamic NPCs. I don’t want to present my own practices related to this topic as advice, because again, I guess I see this as something that’s just gonna happen. But it is a topic I’ve thought about a lot, particularly through the lens of Champions Now, and I will share what I do for comparison.   

I try to be attentive to where NPCs are, who they’re with, and what they’re doing, even when they’re off-screen. Between sessions, I check each NPC/faction, consider their motivations and priorities, and update their location and status (a practice I learned from Champions Now). For me, this is important because I don’t want to make decisions (particularly scene-framing ones) based on thematic coherence or narrative coincidence unless I have to. Nothing is better than a player saying “My character goes here” and me knowing (not deciding) what awaits them based only on previous actions and events.

With that being said, there always seem to be NPCs that are floating in states of indeterminacy. I didn’t know where Hastur, an essential NPC in my Runequest duet, was or what he was up to for a majority of the game. It wasn’t until I created a cult and realized “Hastur would certainly join this reglious sect!” that I had the material to answer these questions. For these floating characters, I try to situate them at the earliest opportunity, or just let them drift out of the game entirely.

noah's picture

Jesse, I remembered that I actually used Beliefs a bit more formally in prepping for session 1 in our Burning Wheel game. Just wanted to clarify.

I knew I wanted to start in media res. I told the other players that their PCs had just come by magical swords (Superior Quality longswords that dealt Grey Shade damage, granted 2 Grey Shade Balance Dice, and triggered a +3 Ob Steel test for demons when first drawn or brandished in their presence.) Their PCs had to have at least one Belief pointed at their sword. Every NPC I prepped for the first session also had at least one Belief about the swords as well.

By session 2 we had enough momentum that these constraints fell away, but we did start with a more constraints around Beliefs and how they intersected with the situation than I implied above.

Jesse Burneko's picture

My understanding is that's what's supposed to happen!  Like you start with situation and people have Beliefs pointed at that situation but after a session or two everything's all different.  So, you re-write the Beliefs to adjust your positioning relative to the new normal.

I don't know where the idea (that some poeple seem to have) that Beliefs are supposed to function like Kickers in Sorcerer where you play through to their resolution and that's the end.  They're much more like the Diagram in Sorcerer.  You re-arrange them session-to-session to orient yourself to your evolving situation.

That's how you get long term play and avoid the "skit play" Ron keeps talking about.  "Skit play" only happens if you treat the Belief as immutable things you play out to resolve in full and then are done.  So, sure, if you write your Beliefs as these ultra immediate highly finalizable states, then, yes, you hit "go" Blood Opera enuses and the game ends.

But if you start even 5 steps back and ride the outcomes moment to moment, then you HAVE to rewrite the Beliefs to orient yourself to the new normal.  At least that has been my experience.

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