30 Days of The Burning Wheel: It's the Beliefs, Stupid! (with apologies to James Carville)

So, a week ago Friday we finally got to have our character burning session. After a sluggish start, we finally got a world and some characters burned up — more or less. It was an odd session, and I learned a lot about starting a BW game from it.

From the outset, I wanted to put a few artificial limits on the game. The most important of those is that I wanted to plan for a short game, only 4-5 sessions. Part of it is that I wanted to approach this game as a sort of training run for GMing BW since I’m new to GMing it. Also, we have one player in the group who’s a total BW newbie and doesn’t have much experience playing any games outside of D&D and other d20 games. Also, I have RPG ADD something fierce, and I didn’t want to set my sights on a longer game that would fizzle like my recently-ended D&D campaign.

We were also coming off two weeks starting Tim’s Riddle of Steel game — a “world/character burning” session, then the first session of play — which we’ve been having a blast with. So, the bar for a more narrativist and more player-driven style of play was set high.

So we sat down at the table to get started pitching ideas for a world and a story. The first few ideas fizzled without really catching on, but slowly ideas started to stick:

  • a “party” composed of one member of each major “good” race (an acknowledged total “Fellowship of the Rings” ripoff)
  • renewed conflict between the orcs/trolls/monsters and the “good” races
  • a magical barrier that needs to be fixed in order to keep the monsters out (apparently a rip from The Elfstones of Shannara, which I’ve never read)

Not a very inspiring start, but that’s where things went. We ended up with a story that runs more or less (in capsule form) like this:

A thousand years ago, the good races (humans, elves, dwarves, roden?) banded together and used their combined might to push the forces of evil into another dimension. Centuries of fat times ensued. However, without a common enemy to unite against, the races drifted apart. Infighting broke out between races and within races. Now, petty squabbling and politics is the rule of the day.

The portal to the other dimension was sealed with a magical device, an orrey. As long as the orrey runs, the portal stays shut. The orrey is showing signs of slowing. Legend has it that the designers intended the orrey to have to be restarted every thousand years, and it would require the races to come together in peace to do so. The PCs are the representatives from each race. None of the races are really taking the legends at full value and sending their best and brightest.

Boring, right? We didn’t get very far into Beliefs during the session, and I was a little discouraged (and not the only one) as we left the session and during most of this past week.

Thursday, Tim sent me his character, Osric, is the human representative, a minor nobleman who volunteers to go on the mission to restore the orrey in order to amass power and influence to regain his ancestral lands from the corrupt archbishop who has seized most of it under false pretenses. Just reading through Tim’s character, I could see seven or eight conflicts to throw at him that will absolutely ROCK at the table. I can’t WAIT to burn up the archbishop!

A bunch of different BW threads with really good advice point out that the world will come out of the characters’ BITRs, and Tim’s Osric is a great example. You could build an entire game around just the information in his character’s description on the BW forum. The sorta lame world we built at the table ISN’T the point in this game, it’s just backdrop. What matters is the BITRs full of conflict that Tim created. When we add in the other characters’ BITRs, we should be firing on all cylinders.

I think the most imporant thing I’ve learned from this process so far is that BW is ALL ABOUT the Beliefs. In a recent entertaining interview, Luke Crane (BW’s creator) said this in attempting to sum up what BW is all about:

[The Burning Wheel] is about beliefs and convictions and the consequences of holding those beliefs and convictions.

That is the best one-line summary of BW I’ve yet seen. And I think THAT is what I have to focus on to make this game pop. It’s the Beliefs, stupid!

The thing about Tim’s character, though (as he points out in that thread on the BW forum) is that — as written — he doesn’t have much to do with the campaign world.

The problem [NOTE: Tim and I and a couple of the other players in our group talked about this some last night, so I’m not saying anything here about the game that I haven’t already said to the other players, and they’re aware of the blog] isn’t that Tim’s character isn’t a good character with good Beliefs but that the campaign concept we came up with was two things:

  1. Boring as all fuck, and
  2. NOT ABOUT THE CHARACTERS’ BELIEFS.

It’s all about the Beliefs, baby.

I’m currently (after that session and some reflection) of the opinion that the best way to come up with a BW campaign world is to START with basic character concepts (just descriptions — no Lifepaths, really) and BELIEFS. It’s through developing the characters’ Beliefs that you come up with a compelling and powerful (and FUN!) game world to play in.

What Tim whipped up for his character is FAR more interesting and ENGAGING than what we did at the table, because we made the usual mistake: we started world-building (at least we did it more or less as a group — that’s a big step for a lot of groups) but we missed the important thing about BW: Beliefs.

So, we’ve got some re-thinking to do about this game before it kicks off.

Another side point. I mentioned above that the world we created is boring. Who cares? The pseudo-medieval world that Tim cooked up in his backstory and Beliefs is pretty boring on paper, too, but his character is fully charged with potential conflict. THAT is the interesting part!

I feel like hanging my head out the window and shouting “EUREKA!”

Seriously. That and “Luke Crane is a genius,” but I bet he’s getting tired of hearing that.

More soon on this developing situation…

4 thoughts on “30 Days of The Burning Wheel: It's the Beliefs, Stupid! (with apologies to James Carville)”

  1. Sounds cool! I just started reading the BW books. I really need to pick them up again. Thanks for the inspiration.

    I’m curious to learn more about how your new world (based on the character’s Beliefs) evolves or differs from the more typical world you guys initially created.

  2. Looking forward to reading along with your Burning Wheel blog, Steven. Sounds like some intense gaming and I hope it comes together well. The joint character/world building sessions are great.

    I’ve been re-reading through the Duel of Wits mechanics in the main BW book. I really think that’s a piece of inspired gaming.

    Good luck in your game!

    Christopher

  3. Wow. Too funny that I found this blog (somehow ended up here while doing some googling on M. Keith Booker, anyway). I had no idea you were into RPGs, Steven. I’m a bit of a geek myself, though I haven’t done much tabletopping. My RPG addiction mainly took the form of MUDs, the best of which is Armageddon (www.armageddon.org), which I staffed on for a couple of years. Unfortunately I don’t have the time anymore with the new addition to the family. Anyway, take care. I’d love to hear about this BW on the river sometime.

  4. I just wanted to let you know that I’m very much enjoying reading this series, all these three years after you wrote the posts. I’ve linked to the first “30 Days of Burning Wheel” post from my blog: Spinning up the Burning Wheel.

    And now I return to chewing though the 30 Days archive.

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