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.

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30 Days of The Burning Wheel: pre character burning

After two weekends of a kickass Riddle of Steel game, the Burning Wheel game I’m GMing will kick off next Friday (2006.01.27) with a character burning session. We talked a tiny bit after last week’s great TRoS session, and the only things that were discussed were:

  1. One player expressed a desire to play it “stock” (elves, dwarves, orcs, etc. in a Tolkien-esque gritty fantasy setting) and the others (including myself) were totally down with that. After the TRoS game’s sorta wacky setting (think “Arabian Nights”-ish with Gothic/Roman Sorceror King fascist/racist overloads — but totally kickass!), I think I’ll be happy with something more “usual,” anyway, but who knows until we get at the table and start letting the ideas fly. We’ll see how it goes Friday night; and
  2. I said I’d like to come up with an idea that has a pretty set end-game and that we can get through in 4-5 sessions. Short, sweet, hit it and get out. In my experience, knowing that things don’t really have the option of lasting for that mythical open-ended “campaign” frees the players — especially those conditioned by years of D&D and its careful resource management — to do some BIG, powerful stuff from the get go. That’s the theory, anyway.

With the game kicking off this coming weekend, I’ll be spending a lot more time thinking about BW and therefore a lot more time post about it here. I’ll have the “usual” sort of posts coming as well as Actual Play posts from the game itself. I may do those over at The Burning Wheel forums but I’ll link to them from here and probably expound a little on them as well. I should have at least one BW post up before Friday’s session.

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.

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30 Days of The Burning Wheel: character burning session

THE MOST IMPORTANT SESSION OF YOUR GAME IS THE CHARACTER BURNING SESSION. The players (GM included in that) HAVE TO — HAVE TO — create their characters together as a group. Doing chargen as a group is really NICE in other games, but it’s essential in Burning Wheel.

A Burning Wheel game is driven by the characters’ BITRs: Beliefs, Instincts, Traits, and Relationships. Those things define the characters, and the characters define the game. If the group has done its job in the character burning session, all the GM has to do is throw a match on the fuel at the beginning of the first session of play, then sit back and watch it blaze.

The characters’ every BITR for every character needs to be packed full of explosive potential. This thread at the BW forums is a great example of working up some beliefs to where they really sing. But, more on Beliefs later… this post is about that crucial first session.

While, as a GM, you can have a general idea about the sort of game you might like to run, doing character burning is really also world burning, especially for Burning Wheel. Creating the characters and fleshing out the setting as a group really empowers the players and gets them invested in the game. As a side benefit for GMs, it also takes a lot of the burden of coming up with a campaign setting off the GM and spreads it around the group. For those of us who are more “old school” in our approach to GMing, it can be unnerving and a little scary to give up that power. But, the amount of player buy-in you get from such a setting far more than outweighs that loss of “creative control.”

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30 Days of The Burning Wheel: the books

BW Books

This may seem like something of a non-starter, but the first thing I want to say about BW is that the books — the physical things you hold in your hands — are just beautiful. Instead of the usual slick-backed hard or softcover 9×11 (or whatever those dimensions are) things with the (usually) lame artwork, the BW books are digest size softcovers with tone-on-tone covers in muted brick red (Character Burner) or red-brown (The Burning Wheel) or dark-grey (Monster Burner). The insides are black and white with nice illustrations (some fantastic and only a couple of clunkers). The typography is exceptional. Even putting aside the amazing content, I really love the experience of reading these books. They feel old school and revolutionary at the same time. I’m not embarrassed to say that it’s the books themselves that first seduced me.

Beyond the physique, the books are arranged pretty logically. The main book (BW) has all the rules and advice in it. The Character Burner (CB) has all the character generation stuff. The Monster Burner (MonBu) has monsters (of course) but also the building blocks of Burning Wheel itself: how to create beings (not just monsters) from the molecules up. It explains how the various systems (attributes, traits, etc.) all work together. It also presents four kickass races that can be used as PCs or NPCs: Roden, Trolls, Great Wolves, and Spiders. The Spiders are just horrifically badass, and the Wolves are amazing. One of my first BW experiences was playing a Great Wolf in an Orc hunting party in a one-shot. Anyway, the MonBu is full of amazing stuff.

Beyond the “core” books, there are a number of PDF supplements available, too. The beginnings of the Magic Burner are available in two chapters: Abstractions and Summoning. The basic BW magic system is really cool, but the Abstractions and Summoning chapters really rock. There are rumored updates to them, and of course the eventual publication of the updated and complete Magic Burner itself sometime in the next year or so. There are also rules for Dark Elves that are very interesting, but I haven’t really gotten to that yet.

In addition to the rules supplements, there are two alternate settings for BW: Under a Serpent Sun (depressing dark deathmetal post-apocalyptic) and Jihad: Burning Sands (Dune-esque SF setting). I’ve only skimmed them and read some Actual Play posts, but both sound very interesting.

Beyond the books and PDFs, the community at the Burning Wheel forums (burningwheel.org/forum) is fantastic and full of great ideas and discussions. BW is also discussed regularly at RPGnet and The Forge.

Oh yeah, I completely forgot: the books are a freakin’ bargain, too: $25 for the CB and the BW and $20 for the MonBu. Everything else is FREE (as in beer). EVERYTHING you need and want for under $50.