This is long and meandery and is mostly my thoughts on approaches to playing role-playing games. Part of the purpose here is that playing RPG’s is very important to designing them. I hope to improve my playing skills as well as explore some of the more nuanced qualities of games I enjoy as a primer for my own game design choices, which I’ll post soon.
Naturally, a lot of what has influenced my design choices is how I react to other role-playing games, especially ones that have played important parts in my perspective about storytelling in general and the specific art form of role-playing.
One of those important RPG’s is Burning Wheel (BW), which is a gritty, Tolkienesque game that focuses on the dangers of pursuing personal goals. I love the game and I will continue to play it, but, now, several years after I played it for the first time, the new game smell has finally faded. It took a long time with BW for a variety of reasons, the primary of which is that it’s incredibly detailed. The core game is simple as hell and rewards many kinds of play, so I’ve had surprisingly varied experiences among the groups with whom I’ve played. And beyond that, there are some modular and stunningly crunchy conflict resolution rules. My thoughts about the game in general could fill a tome, but a big part of losing the new game smell is realizing that the usefulness of certain rules are relative to what kind of experience you’re attempting to have. In a game that’s highly constrained and doesn’t reward such a wide range of play, you don’t run into such an issue, but those games obviously have their own issues as a result.
Anyway, I repeatedly find myself approaching the conclusion that if your goal is to get to and feature those crunchy subsystems, the basic rules lay out that path amazingly well. However, if your goal instead revolves around that basic, core experience, and you wish to occasionally use the heftier subsystems to highlight critical moments, the path becomes rocky. The subsystems don’t tend to improve the core game nearly as well as the core game enables you to play with the subsystems as main course.
And while I have enjoyed those fiddly rule sets, I ultimately don’t desire a game in which those are the necessary evolution of play.
There is one exception, and that’s the Duel of Wits mechanic. On its face, it seems like a conflict resolution mechanic – the verbal version of a physical fight scene. It has taken me far longer than it should have to realize this, but DoW is not about resolving conflicts, it’s about creating them. When was the last time you encountered a story in a book, on a screen, or otherwise, in which a significant conflict is resolved by a discussion, argument, or plea? I can imagine a scenario in which a crucial DoW overcomes a threat of violence in order to produce a treaty, but that’s a narrow strip of storytelling. Instead, head-to-head arguments are almost always about establishing expectations, consequences, and interpersonal dispositions.
By the game’s design, you’re supposed to delve deeper and use DoW when a character’s core belief is on the line. Why would you wait? Why not have a DoW early and possibly often in order to set the tone of the game? Then, when beliefs are on the line, resolve them with action.
The great equalizer here is that players can write their beliefs to emulate more effective story beats via DoW. A good example is the scene in Star Wars: A New Hope in which Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin attempt to coax the location of the rebel base from Princess Leia by threatening to destroy her home planet. From the Empire’s perspective, Leia is an important figure, but she’s not sharing anything and they pretty well know it. They’re so arrogant that they go ahead and keep her alive in case she proves useful and this comes back to bite them in the ass. But the important thing is that if you imagine Vader and Tarkin as player characters and Leia as either a player character or a non-player character, she would never even engage them in a Duel of Wits. There’s nothing she could want from them that would make sense. Convince them to let her go? Seems like a stretch. It would likely just be some dialogue and an interrogation and/or torture test.
So, if Vader’s belief is that he will find the rebel base, unless some elaborate fiction has been established that Leia is the only way to find the base, interrogating her is just one path here. Not only is a DoW potentially odd here in the first place, the belief is not fully on the line. Vader could execute Leia and continue on his merry way, digging up new options for finding the rebels. And in my experience, this kind of thing happens pretty frequently. It can be due to the fact that the Leia-analog came along after the belief was written, possibly after the most recent session has begun. However, it’s also because the game allows a Vader-player to invent outs and pursue a belief in other ways. I think that’s a good thing, but I frequently find that the best players are ones who willingly close off future/potential options in order to make current ones more important and interesting.
Such a player might decide that no matter how his beliefs read right now, it’s important for him to convince Leia to join his cause. This is when a good game master plays the, “Yes, but…” card instead of flat-out rejecting the idea. Drilling an NPC for information is one thing (as it simply makes the players’ jobs easier), so that’s a legit “say no” circumstance, but planting the seeds for a defector is another, entirely. It’s now on the GM to figure out what Leia could want that the players have to offer. If a player has a good idea, awesome, it’s not entirely on the GM, but it usually requires a receptive game master to break the seal.
Anyway, if Vader has the opportunity to write this up as a belief, by the rules of the game, it has to be possible. It could be very difficult, and it’s on the GM to place obstacles in Vader’s path. Vader’s belief could read: “I will turn Leia into an agent for the Empire,” leaving it up to the GM and fate, but he could also write: “At heart, Leia craves power just like any other politician. I will manipulate this to turn her into an agent for the Empire.” Now there’s an argument! A Duel of Wits is primed because Leia might be willing to defect in exchange for a position in the Emperor’s cabinet. Not only is a belief legitimately on the line, a compromise here is oh so sweet because it could result in another adventure. Perhaps Vader will give her some small, orchestrated freedom aboard the Deathstar, allow her to escape, and track her.
This is all possible without such a belief, but when the GM is building the game around beliefs and the players are acting in pursuit of them, that can cause you to overlook things outside of beliefs. Being aware of when to rewrite your beliefs to allow for or encourage the coolest possible situation is critical to Burning Wheel. One easy scene from a nearly ubiquitous piece of media shows how easy it is to use belief writing to dodge or invite a Duel of Wits and consequences that are far more interesting than a simple interrogation roll.
So, a new GMing approach with which I intend to experiment is to spark DoW’s early in a story arc. And in lieu of transcendent belief-writing by my players, I’m going to reinterpret their beliefs, myself. Not to change them, but to imagine interesting ways they could fulfill their beliefs and give them that option way up front. Now, this is what all decent GM’s do in the first place, but I’m going to try an actual exercise of writing many different “Leia Craves Power” style interpretations of the players’ beliefs and see what happens.