30 Days of The Burning Wheel: characters vs. players

Historically, in discussing roleplaying games, we tend to talk in depth about our characters and not so much about the players. There’s a certain roleplaying creative agenda that emphasizes in-character roleplaying as the be-all and end-all of a great roleplayer or a great roleplaying session. The legendary: “we played for twelve hours and NEVER ONCE ROLLED THE DICE!” (and its variations) elicits hush and wide-eyed awe amongst a great number of roleplayers. But very few roleplaying groups ever manage that sort of play, and I’d wager that there are more of us that really have no desire for that sort of play, especially since it often contains (in my experience) lots of in-character interaction with NPCs that contains little or no interesting conflict, such as haggling at the store, telling stories in the tavern, etc. I’m not saying that intense in-character roleplaying and simulationism isn’t sometimes rewarding or that it doesn’t have its place, even at our table, but, for me, it’s not the shortest path to fun in roleplaying.

It’s perhaps most indicative of games, groups, or sessions where players tend toward director or author stance, and it probably comes up more often in narrativist sorts of games and groups, but the player advocacy of Burning Wheel is one of its most appealing aspects for me. I very much like this quote from the beginning of the book:

Burning Wheel is played by people sitting around a table in a group — face to face with your friends. It is, inherently, a social game. The players interact with one another to come to decisions and have the characters undertake actions. [p.13]

That, in many ways, sums up the approach quite succinctly, for me, as it openly endorses the sort of out-of-character discussion and manipulation of story that is most often described as “metagaming” but it does so in a way that brings about supercharged conflict, which is a blast for the players who are looking to create a great story at the table.

A Burning Wheel example: the Duel of Wits mechanic (the “verbal warfare” mechanic) is openly and explicitly about resolving conflicts between PLAYERS. To wit:

“The Duel of Wits is an extended conflict mechanic used to resolve debat and argument in the game (and at the table). [p.95]

Players (or a player and the GM) come to a significant disagreement in the game. The GM stops play, and asks if the players wish to resolve it with a Duel of Wits. [p.107]

There’s still a huge roleplaying aspect to the DoW mechanic in that you have to construct/write and deliver your argument, but the conflict established for the characters is there because the players (including the GM) put them in that situation.

Burning Wheel specifically — and explicitly — addresses the concerns of the PLAYERS, and not the characters, and I heartily approve its approach. There are roleplayers who would cry “That’s metagaming! Metagaming is like cheating!” My response to them is: “Feh!” The PLAYERS are the actual PEOPLE at the table. THEY are the ones to whom it is important whether they’re having fun or not. For me, the most important consideration at the roleplaying table is “Are we having fun?” And the shortest path to roleplaying fun for me is to take some interesting characters with supercharged BITs and throw them in situations bursting at the seams with conflict. BW has the system mechanics to really back up and reward that sort of play.