It’s no small secret that I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about Burning Wheel. More importantly, I have lately been playing and running lots of Burning Wheel.
At this point, I feel as though I’m getting a better understanding of the interplay of the various system components. My intention with this post and with those to come is to look at various components from a player and GM* perspective.
Often times referred to as BITs* , a character’s beliefs, instincts, and traits provide a mechanical means of tying the “who and why” of the character into the rules system. By codifying the BITs, Burning Wheel gives mechanical value to the “role-playing” aspect of an RPG* .
From the Player Perspective
In our Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker campaign, I am playing Margaret Whiteguard. She is a disturbed dreamer who has seen horrible visions regarding the fate/actions of each of her newborn daughters. In fact, she killed her first daughter shortly after birth, hoping to stop the future she saw. When Margaret’s second daughter was born, Margaret again had the same vision and this time opted to leave the child with her older brother, knowing that this horrific fate was destined to occur.
Margaret’s beliefs reflect a guilt for killing/abandoning her children and a strong desire to protect her family; Made stronger by the demands placed on her by a seraph. Margaret knows she is not yet up for the task of confronting Julia’s captors, so I have made sure Margaret’s beliefs are about self-improvement.
From the GM Perspective
In our Bloodstone campaign, I am the Game Master. While I haven’t written up any session reports yet, I have spent quite a bit of time preparing for the campaign. I haven’t made lots of maps or planned out lots of specific encounters. Instead, my planning focuses on thinking about things within and beyond the characters' immediate horizons and how all of that might challenge the characters' beliefs.
My session planning is a lot more free-form stream of consciousness as I look for moods and themes that I want to impress upon the players.
So as I’ve sat down to prepare for the third session, I’ve looked at a couple of beliefs and have a few moments in the session that I want to see:
- Menas is in a skirmish and can take command or not.
- Holden must choose between using destructive magic, or some other tact.
- Remy is faced with abandoning a companion or hiding from some marauding orcs.
- Lady Gwen can aid in the recovery of someone who knows her secret or let him slip away
- Krooder should witness Menas in action during the skirmish.
With the size of the Bloodstone group, not all of these moments may occur.
With the Artha cycle, however, it is mechanically important that the character’s BITs are challenged. If I as the GM am not challenging the BITs of a character, then the player needs to be proactive and work on beliefs that are more easily challenged. They can also discuss with me how they would like to connect to the story.
Bringing it All Together
Burning Wheel rewards proactive and engaged players far more than reactive and aloof players.
The Adventure Burner goes so far as to say write a belief that includes another player’s character. That way, you can lean on the other player, and not just the GM, for challenging your beliefs.
Another way of thinking about the Artha reward cycle is if your task and intent is directly informed by your BITs, then your character will be rewarded. As a case in point, Margaret has had well defined beliefs, whereas Peter has not – in fact I don’t know if Matt has any beliefs recorded for Peter.
Over the course of 3 sessions Margaret has burned 9 Fate points, 6 Persona points and 2 Deed points (as a 3 LP* character the GM granted her 6 Fate, 6 Persona and 2 Deeds). Almost all of those expenditures were for tasks with an intent congruent with her beliefs. Even after all of the Artha expeditures, Margaret is sitting on 8 Fate and 3 Persona points (I haven’t rolled that many 6s).
As Margaret’s player, when I spend Artha on a Belief related test, I’m almost certain that I will be able to get some of that Artha back later on. So Margaret is able to push harder, especially as it relates to her beliefs.
Mechanically, Margaret has raised Astrology from B2 to B4, Butchery from B2 to B3, Sorcery from B4 to B5, and Forte from B4 to B5. She is also very close to raising Butchery, Ugly Truth, Omen-wise, and Falsehood (each one needs a test). She has gained the “Family First” character trait – and with a bit more pushing her Character traits might well become Call Ons.
Contrast this with Peter who began as a 5 LP character (3 Fate, 2 Persona) and has raised his Forte from B3 to B4; I don’t know if there are other skills he’s raised. He is still looking for a handhold into the story.
All of this may sound like I’m grabbing control of the spotlight, but I don’t believe that to be the case. Instead, by having a well defined character, I’m able to engage the story and the story takes shape around my character. And because I know what my character wants, I can spend my Artha more liberally on those tests, as I should be able to get some of that Artha back.