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Mar 112011
 

Recently (well – a little over a year ago, if I’m being accurate) I tried to run a Burning Wheel game for some friends. These are friends that I’ve been roleplaying with for the best part of 10 years now, so we know one another fairly well, so I thought it would be relatively easy, but it was an utter failure. So why? I’ve thought about this, and have some ideas, which I list below

We’re all too used to GM-driven games. The games that we normally play are very much railroaded. In fact it was one of my biggest gripes – one of the others there ran a game that went on for some time where the railroading tried to be subtle, but still very much there. There was one path to the “end” and if we couldn’t find it, nothing happened. This annoyed me no end – any alternate ideas that we came up with were derided, set difficulties so high that they were nearly impossible or simply failed, and things that the GM thought would make the game cooler simply worked, with the PCs having no chance to spot them coming or act to mitigate them. Burning wheel on the other hand makes the players take the reins to a large extent. This goes for me too – the game started with a cool premise, but nothing urgent that needed to be done, so the players went off and wondered around a hidden underground city. Not for any real reason, but because I thought it made sense – and as such they didn’t really push any beliefs. I should have looked at the beliefs and gamed based on that.

We’re a little too accepting. Sometimes people just want to have fun, right? So when one of the players says that they want to play something a bit different, we just shrugged and pulled out the rules. An orc in a party with two elves and a human – in a world where orcs are the big enemy and hated by everyone? Well, we tried it… It really didn’t work… We should have just said at the beginning: “I’m sorry, but I don’t think that’s going to work.”

Lack of urgency. I mentioned this above, but I think it’s worth having a point of it’s own. Burning wheel works great when you have something that you want or need to do, and you want or need to do it now. Normally this will evolve in play as the players choose beliefs that drive them to do things and push themselves, but to start with I think it would probably help a lot to have some big threat that the players can build beliefs around if need be, to get them out there and doing stuff. I think this would kickstart the game, and once it’s going you’d be golden.

Complicated rules. One player wanted to be a wizard, but didn’t have too much interest in how exactly the rules worked. Sounds great in principle – lots of opportunity to have interesting failures as they bite off more than they can chew? In practise though, it meant lots of questions and a big distraction from the actual storytelling.

Aversion to failure.
We’re all used to games where failing is a really really bad thing. That’s simply not the case in BW, but I know some of the players were not at all happy with having to take hard tests that they’d probably fail in order to advance. I’m not sure how to get around this, other than by having some fun failures happen at the table…

Anyway – that game is long over, and unlikely to get resurrected, but I’m keen to run another, and wanted to put down why I thought that one failed, so that I can bear it in mind and make the next one better.

Comments, thoughts, etc all welcomed.

  5 Responses to “Burning Wheel – where did it go wrong last time?”

  1. A few thoughts, apologies if they sound abrupt, they’re not intended to, it’s just that I haven’t got much time:

    Sometimes people just want to have fun, right?

    You make it sound like there’s another reason people might be playing a game. I think I get what you mean, but I got the impression that you think people aren’t serious enough about their fun. The problem with this particular orc was that it got in the way of everyone else’s fun.

    In practise though, it meant lots of questions and a big distraction from the actual storytelling.

    While the system wasn’t new to you, it was to the players. Yes, having to explain the rules as you go along takes things away from the story, but it’s also essential to get new players in to the game. In theory it gets less as more game sessions happen, certainly if it’s something that’s used frequently. If it’s a particularly rules heavy system with a player who’s well known for Not Getting Rules, then you need to step in and point that out during character creation.

    Aversion to failure. We’re all used to games where failing is a really really bad thing. That’s simply not the case in BW, but I know some of the players were not at all happy with having to take hard tests that they’d probably fail in order to advance. I’m not sure how to get around this, other than by having some fun failures happen at the table…

    This goes back to the fun thing in some ways, but it’s not just that. There’s also the lack of a reward, and I know you’re going to counter that with ‘but you get a check against your skill’ – this is the funny thing about players, what counts as a reward differs for each one. For some, simply progressing a skill is enough, others need to feel like they’ve actually accomplished something, or progressed the story in some way. For others it’s roleplaying a cool scene or getting a new sword. Maybe just making failures fun would be enough, but how do you actually do that? Which brings us to the wider point of “what do the players actually want out of a game?” Does it in any way match with the game you’re trying to run?

    Final thing, and not directly inspired by anything specific you’ve said, just an over-arching impression: You always focus on things you dislike about other people’s GM styles. I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard you talk about things you thought were done well. Maybe take a step back and have a look at what you actually like about other people’s styles and try and assimilate that in to your own. (And I’m not just fishing for complements here, I really think you should think about it.) There’s loads of articles on the web too, so I don’t just mean people you’ve played with, and don’t limit it to just things on BW.

    • Abrupt is good 🙂

      Regarding fun, you made the point that I was trying to. Everyone is there to have fun – but part of that relies on not preventing other people from having fun – and the Orc definitely did that.

      Yes, having to explain the rules as you go along takes things away from the story, but it’s also essential to get new players in to the game. In theory it gets less as more game sessions happen, certainly if it’s something that’s used frequently. If it’s a particularly rules heavy system with a player who’s well known for Not Getting Rules, then you need to step in and point that out during character creation.

      To be honest, I think this was another case of being too accepting. I felt that if I said it was really hard and that the player would have to pay attention, I’d lose even more of their focus (which wasn’t particularly strong to start with). In an ideal world, I’d have prepared a cheat sheet, lots of guides and lists of things that they could do with their magic, or alternately just said no. Of course, just saying no would have had repercussions.

      I’m not sure I get your point about reward. I’ve read up a lot of stuff on the BW forums and the like, to try and figure out how BW is meant to play. There’s a wonderful reward -> Artha -> advancement vibe going on, that pushes people to play their characters beliefs. You have to make challenging and difficult rolls to increase your stats and skills, and the only realistic way you’re going to pass them is by spending Artha, and you only get Artha from going after beliefs and playing up your instincts. So you play your character, and your reward is that it’s easier to pass your rolls when you really really need to. That said, you’re still not going to pass every roll – and that can be a hard thing for some people to accept, when coupled with the BW mantra that you only roll the dice when the stakes are really important.

      You do always have the option of only making routine rolls. Your skills won’t improve, but at least you’ll pass just about all of your rolls – but if you want to do the cool heroic funky stuff, you have to risk something. This is where I think fun (or at least interesting) failure results come into it. In an ideal world, each and every failure would hit your beliefs, one way or another. That way they drive you into further action, rather than bringing you to a halt. A failure should always progress the story in one way or another, should sometimes progress the player’s beliefs and should just about always help with advancement. They should also sometimes lead to cool scenes.

      The fact of the matter is that in BW if you want to progress your skill, you just go out and do it – find some way to test it that’s relevant to your beliefs – if necessary make one of your beliefs about it, and then you get rewarded when you achieve it. If no obvious beliefs come to mind, you can always just practise it – take a little bit of downtime and earn a check. Easy peasy.

      If you want to accomplish something or advance the story, write it into your beliefs. You can introduce new things in beliefs, with no cost to you. For example. “I will find the evil Wizard’s weakness by finding his mother” is perfectly valid. Gives you a nice little bit of research, you find the mother and maybe you find a weakness as a result (depending on how your tests go to persuade her to tell you stuff/hold her as a hostage/raise her as a ghost/use her blood as a ritual ingredient to work mojo on the evil wizard/whatever else you can think of). If you fail, you’ll at least have learned more, and you still get a persona for resolving the belief (doesn’t necessarily have to be successfully).

      If you want to roleplay a cool scene, just say so: “Wouldn’t it be neat if some of the villagers we saved held a feast in our honour?” or “I want a scene where I try to track down the hunter that laid the trail to lead the beast to my parents’ house.”

      If you want a new sword, you can go out and buy it, or make it a belief, “I will seek the lost blade of St Augustus, rumoured to be able to strike incorporeal foes, that we may better fight the invaders from beyond the veil.”

      In a lot of cases, failure doesn’t automatically mean you don’t get what you wanted – quite often you do get it, but there are strings attached – hopefully strings that make it more interesting or drive the story forward.

      (this is getting somewhat longer than planned…)

      What do the players actually want out of a game?

      This is the key question. If players absolutely refuse to put down beliefs, BW is probably not for them – but even then, burning THAC0 would work, and could be very fun (DnD style BW – with dungeons and everything).

      As to the final point, I think that warrants a post of it’s own…

  2. Not got time to read the whole thing properly, but just wanted to stick this in because I’m curious about the answer. You say with BW if we want to do something we just have to ask for it, be it a scene, or working things in to story via beliefs, etc. How about this one:

    “I want to explore the story and be surprised by plot twists.”

    • You can still have plot twists without railroading. Exploring the story is fine, but you need to do more than that – say where you want it to go.

      As I said, Burning THAC0 might be a better fit – in THAC0 everyone plays a 3 lifepath character somewhat based on a class from DnD, and then you get hired to clear out dungeons and the like. You build beliefs around how you want your character to grow and what you want to do in this particular dungeon. (There’s more to it than that, but that’s the start, ish).

    • @Plib: That’s fun, because nobody knows what will happen, not you, not the GM. When I GMing Burning Wheel I’m always surprised by the “plots” twists, and my friends too. There is a plot, but no a pre-plot. There is not pre-game here. Nobody plays the game before you can do it.

      But maybe you can try to play BW in the BW style. You can play a lot of differents videogames, and differents card games, and differents board games. Why to play just one type of RPG?

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