The Enjoyable Chaos of Scripted Actions

Back in the early days of my gaming career, I played a lot of AD&D 2nd Edition.  I had an extensive collection of books, and was frequently the Dungeon Master.  One of the things that stuck with me early on was that we declared actions before rolling initiative.

This idea of declaring actions before executing the actions has led to absolutely sublime moments: the stone giant smoothy, the memorable Irv the Mole session, and convincing a gnome to join us with only the promise of adventure.

Burning Wheel implements three subsystems for declaring actions before determining resolution.  The scripted systems of Duel of Wits, Fight, and Range & Cover.  Each time we break out one of these systems, which has predominately been Duel of Wits, I must plan my steps to victory.

As I’m writing the script, I am also subconsciously constructing a narrative of the resolution.  I’m hoping and almost expecting to get that lucky jab in against my opponent, without sustaining a wound, and victory will be mine.  And in the planning there is also the specter of failure raising the tension level.

As each player reveals their script, I watch as my well laid plans are either brought to ruin or succeed against all odds.  And thus the story I thought would come to pass does not, but is instead a story built by all participants.

And, if you are judicious about keeping the scripts, you may very well be able to reconstruct the conflict at a later date.

A Note on Player Engagement During Conflict

I’ve sat through plenty of conflict where the characters take turns as per their initiative order.  When a player’s turn pops up, they act, then when it’s not their turn they wait to record damage and adjudicate forced movement.  In short, a player is only active for a fraction of the total conflict.

Contrast this with a character involved in Fight.  Everyone in the Fight scripts their actions.  Then everyone reveals and resolves their actions.  There is engagement during the entire Fight.  That is to say, characters involved in Fight, experience less downtime than in D&D 3E+.

Modeling the Chaos of Conflict

When I first looked into Burning Wheel, I found references and interested in its scripted conflict.  I had long been engaged in the initiative system of 3E and 4E, where conflict began with a single action and every action there after was a response.

Contrast this with Burning Wheel where conflict doesn’t begin at a single point, but is instead joined by all participants.  In this chaos, there is an uncertainty, and inability to predict the conflicts outcome. The chain of events is more akin to a web of events.

There is tension as you look to your scripted sheet and realized you have an unavoidable strike coming your way, but know if you can survive you’ll deliver a great strike against an exposed opponent.

Wrapping It Up

Not being much of a poker player, I have to wonder how the scripted conflict of Fight relates to a hand of Texas Hold’em.  Engaged in the conflict, you work to outwit your opponent, but a bad flop can have devastating effects.

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Irv the Mole

Nowadays, there is very little note passing in our campaigns.  It used to be after a session there would be a handful of notes.  But this practice has fallen out of favor in our group.

At one point, I had a large poster tube that stored all of the crumpled passed notes.  At the end of the session, since I typically played host, I would go around the game area, pick up all of the notes and without reading them, put them in the note tube.  Slowly this collection built up.

No other session in my gaming history has generated more pieces of notes than the one-shot Rolemaster game that involved Irv the Mole and a motley of other characters.

The session started with a myopic pick-pocket (Irv the Mole), a greedy halfling ex-cultist, a wrongly accused bard, a highwayman (of the non-Waylan Jennings variety), a duelist, a rough and tumble brawler, and perhaps another character, all being sprung from jail and tasked with fetching a cart that was out of town.

A simple quest for a one-shot session.  The characters quickly arrived at the cart, and there was a bit of role-playing.  The group had found some item of interest in the cargo of the wagon, but Irv had found a secret compartment under the wagon containing a bag of jewels.

Irv’s player sent me a note saying he wanted to keep this discovery a secret, and made a pick pockets roll.  At this, I broke the session a bit, looked at everyone’s character sheet, and rolled their opposing perception checks and passed each other player a note saying what they saw (most everyone saw Irv’s pick pocketing).

At this point, the scene tension grew, and the disagreements started flying as fingers were being pointed and an argument was being made about how to split the wealth.  There were notes being passed, concerning weapons and looking around for exists.  But gasoline was thrown onto the situation when the crossbow happy highwayman said to no one in particular:

You know, we could split this two ways.

At this point, everyone immediately went to writing notes about their character’s actions.  Frantic decisions.  The halfling realized the highwayman was not talking to him.  Mind control spells were cast. Irv knew he had to run. Swords were drawn.  Crossbows nocked.  All kinds of chaos was afoot.  For a good hour or so everyone scripted their actions and we resolved them.

And because this was Rolemaster, everyone knew the crossbow was likely an instant kill (or at least an incapacitation).  Also, everyone knew that once that bolt was fired, the person would be relatively defenseless.  Casting times were important.  Single cuts from the sword could kill.

Ultimately, Irv died as he couldn’t run fast enough. The other details of the conflict are very fuzzy as it has been 10+ years since, yet I continue to look fondly and favorably on that session.

That evening, I believe our gaming group generated over 150 individual notes that we then fed into the note tube.

A year or so later, with a rather full tube, we spent an evening reading through all of the notes from the year or so of gaming.  It was a magical evening, as we reconstituted actions from numerous unrelated campaigns and adventures.  The notes were both from the GM but also from the player, and often times there was not just the action but the rational and the contingencies.  We were able to so easily reconstruct that magical evening when sill Irv decided to take a bit more than he was entitled to.

And to my shame, I have since lost those notes. Those bits of memories that connected me to gamers who no longer game at my table.  In fact, I would surrender my game collection to have the Irv the Mole notes again.