The Seven-Sided Die

Essential reading on Beliefs in Burning Wheel

Posted Monday April 27, 2009 at 07:08 PM

Players and game masters new to the Burning Wheel always seem to struggle with Beliefs. The core books don't do enough to emphasise how central Beliefs are to the system, I think, and there isn't enough ink devoted to impressing their importance on the reader or on explaining how to write good Beliefs. It's too easy to miss the point and use of Beliefs.

We had just got to Beliefs in the character burning session yesterday when we ran out of time. I knew better than to leave it entirely until last, so we'd already established two Beliefs in what I would consider draft quality. (Aside, the game has ended up being a one-on-one campaign, which should be interesting. Fewer people to creatively influence the plot, but also fewer people to teach the system to.) We were still struggling with a way to make the character really "pop", though, so when we broke for the day I promised to dig up some of the resources that really helped me gain a deeper understanding of Beliefs. (Clearly I could use the review, too!)

The first place to go for help on Beliefs is the wiki page devoted to it at the Burning Wiki: Belief workshop. That's the distillation of advice people have given on the forums and others have found useful.

That page is a great reference, but it doesn't really convey the breadth and depth of the role of Beliefs in the Burning Wheel. For that, I found some of the original threads to be very enlightening. The best of these starts with a GM presenting his four players' characters' Beliefs and people jumping in with not only advice for how to refine those beliefs, but actual side-by-side examples. Seeing a Belief go from the original, sort of watery version to the final, explosive version really impressed upon me how powerful Beliefs are as a mechanic. Luke Crane (the author) and one of his players (Thor) chime in and give some really useful insights. I find Thor's principle-goal-means technique for creating Beliefs particularly compelling.

This thread highlights how players can use Beliefs to encourage certain kinds of play over others, such as solving conflicts via political dealings rather than frontal assault, or vice-versa. It also has two examples of Beliefs refined from a weak draft to a strong final version, which set off at least one lightbulb for me. It's a short thread too, which makes it a good read.

Finally, and not least, is forumer Paul B's Beliefs Workshop. This really breaks down some of the things that could be packed into a Belief to make it fire on all cylinders, and steps the player through how to build tight Beliefs from them. Like the thread above it emphasises the way players can use their Beliefs as flags for the GM to deliver certain kinds of game play. As-written part of it is setting-specific, but those parts are obvious and you can just substitute (for example) "The New Faith, and its threat to the Old Ways" with the disruption/decay/change element particular to your own campaign.

The emphasis on making Beliefs for what the player cares about rather than what the character "should" care about is really good, since it gets at a core element of what makes the Burning Wheel work: The characters are there to do what the players are interested in seeing happen in the story, not to be a faithfully-simulated person in an alternate reality. The character should be created to best serve the player's story goals.

Story-centric games seem to suffer from a creeping simulationism, especially with new players and GMs (hi!), who get it in their heads that the point is to create a realistic person and play out the logical steps of their life. There are games where that is the point (such as Hârnmaster), but it's not the point of the Burning Wheel. As Paul B says in his Workshop linked above:

When you’re setting up Beliefs, think like your character’s author and not your character himself. Your character probably wants to live a quiet, long, safe life. Tales of quiet, long safe lives are booooooring. Dream up ways to put your own character into hot water, and make sure the GM knows what kinds of hot water interest you.

Have I missed any excellent resources? Share your favourites in the comments!

Comments (2)


Monday April 27, 2009 at 08:17 PM

For one-on-one play: Consider that lone BW characters are prone to failing, often and hard. Keep that in mind. Be generous with artha.


Monday April 27, 2009 at 08:23 PM

Thanks. That had vaguely occurred to me, but not clearly enough to realise that keeping the Artha flowing is a good remedy.

Failure should be entertaining and interesting, especially when we're hitting the character's Humiliation character trait. Oh, how it sucks to be a side-lined professor of applied sorcery...