Monday, 16 July 2012

Burning Wheel

For the record, my favourite role-playing game is Burning Wheel, hands down, mostly because it changed the way I look at RPGs.


The reason for this is that 'the plot' emerges, much of the time, from the players seizing the initiative and pushing towards their characters' written goals (termed 'Beliefs'). Instead of taking a psychologically (and literally) armored, 'survive the adventure' stance, PCs take risks, go out on a limb, pursue their gauche obsessions to accomplish these goals.


The GM's task is to push the central conflict, while at the same time producing character-specific challenges that reveal the characters more fully, giving them hard moral decisions, catch-22 sacrifices, and stirring up deep inner turmoil.


You can do this in any game, of course, but in BW, the reward and advancement mechanics are built around this. There's no XP for the adventure, only for driving toward your characters' goals, and for embodying your character's personal flaws and development in ways that enhance the story.


BW games start with out-of-character collaboration at the table - the group hones in on a central conflict that gets everyone fired up, and then character concepts are hammered out. Off-theme oddballs who are just along for the ride aren't welcome.


Creativity & Spontaneity
Because of this, you do need the right group. Players who want to sit back and be entertained, having their dark and taciturn ranger take potshots from the back - whether because they just can't be bothered or because they're creatively inhibited - will tend to drag things down.


Apart from their goals, the players are given additional tools to have creative input - a Circles ability, which lets them drum up useful contacts from their past (in the way that Han Solo looks up Lando Calrissian), and "wises", which lets them propose world facts.


The GM needs a lot of spontaneity to be able to roll with whatever players come up with, but on the other hand, planning is much simpler since you don't need to produce any more content than interests you (with its accompanying stat blocks, etc.). Preparing 'plot' is counter-productive, and hinders the game.


Apart from pushing the central challenge, the GM's job is to keep the spotlight on the really interesting aspects of the story. Whole months of grinding, travel time, practice montages, investing, keeping up with the bills, all are blinked away neatly.


Shaped by the Story
As I said, you can of course do this sort of thing in any game - the real advantage is that BW is trying to steer you there. One of the clever things about D&D's XP and classes is the way that they insulate the characters from the story. As long as you show up and get your XP from your cousin's mediocre adventure, you get to advance along your pre-chosen archetypal hero's journey - new feats, powers, etc.


In BW, the characters and the story develop in response to one another much more tightly. If you want your paladin steed, wizard's tower, or crazy chain-fighting ability, you're going to have to get it yourself! Characters are profoundly shaped by their experiences.


Social Conflict
The other thing that must be mentioned is Duel of Wits. BW expressly puts the dynamics between characters, PCs included, within the scope of the mechanics. Just as physical combat has detailed mechanics for important conflicts, so does social/verbal conflict.


This gives some people an allergic reaction, because it means that the other people at the table can shape things as intimate as your character's pecking order in the group. Like the other aspects of collaboration in BW, this requires trust and open communication OOC - some people might not enjoy being the group's toady, others might relish it, and this makes all the difference.


What it does do, however, is vastly expand the scope of interesting conflict in the game. You can now have parties that bicker violently but yet never get stalled - they have the conflict and move on (perhaps grumbling resentfully or simmering for a chance to turn the tables, but moving on nevertheless). You can have low-combat games where the grand conflict is a debate with the domineering village priest, who is refusing to authorize badly needed funds from Rome on the grounds that the village isn't pious enough.