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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.

Actual Play


Sam's picture

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.  

noah's picture

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's picture

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 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.

Ron Edwards's picture

@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.

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