Scripting for the fiction in Burning Wheel
Posted Monday June 01, 2009 at 09:26 PM
One of my readers (hi Chad!) submitted a link to my first BW AP report to reddit, which I only discovered when I saw it in the list of referrers for the article. I love these little discoveries. I've seen links to The Seven-Sided Die coming from places I never knew existed, which is admittedly gratifying, but more importantly it introduces me to blogs and sites that are obviously talking about things I already find interesting.
Reddit has a discussion feature for each link. One of the reddit commentors on that link said, essentially, that they love what they've read in Burning Wheel but they're frustrated by how artificial the scripting seems. I shared a bit about my first successful use of scripting in the Duel of Wits, then realised that I'd glossed over it in the AP report. I want to elaborate on the comment I left over there to fill in the bits I skipped in the AP report.
But first, I need to lay some groundwork.
Burning Wheel appears to be a very rules-heavy game, but it feels oddly lighter to me during play than it looks. I'd almost call it a "medium rules" game because the rules handling doesn't feel cumbersome. What makes the difference is that all of BW rules exist to make your fiction really "pop". Luke Crane seems to have tried very hard to make sure that the rules can always support your fiction before demanding mechanical attention.[1. Importantly, the mechanics also make sure to feed back into your fiction in interesting ways, so they "pay back with interest" to your fiction for the control you give them, but that's aside of the point I want to make.] You decide what's happening, use the mechanics to resolve the question, and then let them fade back into the background.
Putting the fiction first is critical to making scripting worthwhile in Burning Wheel. The mechanics are involved and interesting enough that you can just keep manipulating them as an abstraction of conflicts and uncertainties, but this makes for a flat play experience.[1. Abstractly handling the mechanics also makes it very hard to come up with ways to make failure interesting, since that depends so much on being "plugged in" to the fiction.] We did this at times in our second session, which is why parts felt like bookkeeping. Using the mechanics in that way divorces them from their raison d'être, which is to breathe life into the fiction. If there is no or little fiction to hook an invocation of a rule into, it doesn't have anything to make "pop."
To make BW rules sing, particularly the more complex ones like scripting, the mechanics must be consulted only when the fiction demands it.
Fiction in scripts
How can I claim that a rule should only be used when the fiction demands it? Once you've started writing scripts and gotten into one of the three detailed tactical subsystems of Burning Wheel, you've got to use the rules, right?
Yes, but they're still going to be flat. Using any of the scripted subsystems—Duel of Wits for social conflicts, Fight! for combat, or Range and Cover for field manoeuvers and sniping—can seem like a lot of time and work for not much gain. One roll follows the last, until you find yourself at the end asking yourself, "What was the point of that?"
To put fiction first, and to really give the mechanics something to work with, you have to anticipate the rules' needs. You have to feed the beast! Every test in Burning Wheel requires an Intent in order to know what the test is really about, and the tests in scripts are no different. You know that each volley of a script[1. For the uninitiated, a script is broken down into an exchange of three volleys. You secretly write out what your actions will be during all three volleys, then reveal them one at a time so you can compare them and determine the results by rolling. e.g., a Strike against a Feint will be very different than against an Avoid; a Point versus a Rebuttal is going to be different than against a Dismiss.] is going to happen before it does, so generate some appropriate fiction before you have to deal with the mechanic.
If you don't want to generate a lot of close, detailed, move-by-move fiction for a scene, then you don't really want the level of detail that scripting brings to the table. In those cases, set a clear Intent for the entire conflict and use a simple, versus, or Bloody Versus test instead. Save the scripted subsystems for when you really want to play a knock-down, drag-out conflict to the hilt.[1. The climactic confrontation with the King at court is a good use of Duel of Wits. Convincing the guards to open the town gates after curfew so you can sleep safely after a day of travel probably isn't.]
In no part of the rules is this more important than Duels of Wits. You might decide that scripting Point-Rebuttal-Point is the soundest tactic against what you expect your opponent to script, but it's going to stall out badly as soon as you reveal the first volley and don't have a plan for what point you're going to make.
In our first session of Burning Wheel we finished up with a Duel of Wits (DoW) between Basilio and Archdean Rimedio. We really enjoyed it and were impressed with how well the DoW mechanics worked for us. When we set up for it, I made it clear that for every volley scripted, we should have an idea of what the general thrust of our chosen debate actions was going to be when we roleplayed it. Each action represents no more than a sentence or two of argument, so that wasn't too much work to expect on top of the scripting itself.
Our statements of case were:
- Basilio: "Carmino is practicing demonology and must be investigated right this minute."
- Rimedio: "That’s a far-fetched charge, and I am far too busy. You will drop this and not bother me about it again."
(Since it was our first time using the rules we failed to separate the Cases for which we were arguing from our Terms in case of success, but they served us well enough.)
This very much coloured how we prosecuted our cases. We scripted tactically, but more importantly we scripted to suit the things we wanted to say—the actual, spoken points, rebuttals, avoidance tactics, and dismissals that we planned to roleplay before each roll.
Fimmtiu scripted Points, Rebuttals, one Obfuscate, and saved his Dimiss for after he'd clinched the argument. He was aiming for convincing the Archdean that he was right, and chose aggressive debate actions to suit the "on the offense" argument he was trying to make. Rimedio didn't really want to be having this discussion, and to that end I leaned defensive with enough offense to try to shoot down and turn aside Basilio's argument. Hence, I scripted Points, Rebuttals, two Avoids, and an early Dismiss that proved fatal.
Both of us knew while we were choosing actions that we were going to have to speak a coherent argument that would fit the actions, in order, that we had chosen. At one point (the second exchange), I actually found myself without a plan and looking to what I wanted to script for inspiration on what kind of tack Rimedio's argument might take next. This was really interesting because what I eventually came up with to say, though inspired by the mechanical tactical choices I wanted to make, demanded that I choose slightly different actions in order for them to fit the roleplay I was going to do.
A couple of examples are in order. I'm not going to go over the scripts volley by volley, but in consulting my notes I can see that there are a few volleys that are excellent examples of using a fiction-first approach and making the fiction and mechanics dovetail. Both of these examples are from the first exchange.
I anticipated Basilio making a point right away, and I wanted to pursue Rimedio's argument that this is beneath his notice. To that end I chose a Rebuttal, which was putting tactics first. However, to give the Rebuttal mechanics meaning I needed to have something to say before the roll. I was careful to come up with something that would be a statement that would refute the Point I was anticipating from Basilio, since that is the, er, point of scripting a Rebuttal. I decide that I would say, "Carmino is respected; he wouldn't risk his reputation." Although I chose a mechanic first, I made sure that I put some fiction in place before executing that mechanic, and I made sure that the mechanic would back up the fiction.
In a later volley (but in the same exchange), Fimmtiu scripted a Feint. I can't speak to his decision process here, but it's a good example of a debate action that really needs a meaningful bit of roleplaying beforehand to make it work. Feints are designed to mislead a Rebutting opponent into countering a dummy point that sets them up to be more vulnerable to the real point. In his debate notes he had prepared to say, "But surely you admit that these charges are serious enough to merit investigation," which is the misleading argument, followed by, "So why not? He never has to know," which is the real point Basilio wanted to score.
The spoken roleplay gave the Feint meaning and consequence: not only was he arguing for Carmino to be investigated, but that the Archdean could avoid jeopardising Carmino's reputation by just being discreet in case Basilio was wrong. A different dummy point and real point would have given the argument a different impact on later fiction, regardless of the basic mechanical win-or-lose outcome.[1. As it so happens, I scripted an Avoid for Rimedio, against which a Feint has no teeth. Rimedio just ignored the bait of the dummy point and tried to beg off on account of "I don't have time for this nonsense and I really don't want to keep my breakfast guest waiting." C'est la vie, but it's still a good example of choosing the mechanics for the sake of the fiction.]
Hypothetically, Basilio could have used Incite for mechanical advantage, and yet at no point did he go in that direction because of the fiction that would give that action meaning. Basilio had a Belief that required getting the Archdean to investigate Carmino. Insulting him might have won him the argument and furthered that Belief, but would have certainly negatively impacted his other Belief that involved earning the respect of his peers and superiors by making his Engine work. The fiction that justifies using a mechanic has consequences.
If this seems like an awful lot of work, that's because it is. So why do it? Ultimately, it's a matter of taste. I really like what comes out of using Burning Wheel like this, and I find the times where I forget (because it does take mindful effort) to be far less enjoyable.
My reading of the Burning Wheel also makes me believe strongly that it was written with the primacy of the fiction as a basic assumption. The core conceit of the system is that the mechanics exist to resolve Fiction That Matters; otherwise, it instructs you to skip the mechanics and continue on with your mechanic-free play.
Simply, the rules are made to be used this way, and anyone who has had their curiosity piqued by what the Burning Wheel promises owes it to themself to try playing it this way, at least once.
Tuesday June 02, 2009 at 06:41 AM
Hey d7, it's me, the guy from reddit to whose comments you responded. If this post is in response to that, thanks for taking them seriously!
I don't think 'fiction first' accurately describes the DoW mechanics, unless I'm interpreting your term incorrectly. In fact, I think DoW reverses that and places story secondary to the framework of the three-volley exchange, and this is part of my distaste for the mechanic.
This is especially so in a contest-of-wills scenario. Think back to the last time you had a disagreement with someone (what movie to see, whether to eat out or dine in, whom to vote for). Did you think, "first I'll rebut whatever he's going to say, then I'll duck the issue by bringing up something irrelevant, and then I'll bring up my point?" I'm willing to bet not. I'm sure one of you brought up a reason, then the other brought up a counter argument or a refutation, then it went back and forth from there. I'll also bet that you did this on the fly, responding to the specific content of the argument.
But DoW requires you to play a guessing game as to what tactic to use, then commit to it. Worse, it requires you to commit to a game-specified tactic, regardless of the actual substance of what your opponent says.
It's like what one of my players said after we tried that with the "Sword" scenario: "Couldn't we have just roleplayed that instead?"
That said, I do agree at least that it's the goal of almost all of the BW rules to make you think about dramatic intent, which is why I'll be pushing for another game with my group sometime in the near future. As you mention, the DoW rules are an optional game mechanic, but I think I'll need to come up with a scenario that doesn't aim for it as clearly as "The Sword" does.
Tuesday June 02, 2009 at 07:35 PM
Hi amp108! Yes, this post was directly inspired by our conversation. I think I might have one brewing about Intent and Bloody Versus as well from that.
Reading over this post and my first AP report, I don't think I mentioned that we did adjust our arguments depending on what the other said. Though we had our notes for the general thrust we wanted to make, we did adapt them to what the other revealed.
If the next volley's roleplay notes became useless, we could still think of something that fit a) our general argument, b) took the last volley's roleplay into account, and c) fit the chosen action. I might have wanted Rimedio to say a Point of "Your well-known rivalry is clouding your judgement" but I ended up using that Point action to react to what Basilio said last volley. I can still get that element of my argument into the roleplay for the next volley where I scripted an Avoid, recasting it as, "I know well the rivalry between you two and I want nothing to do with it." That did take some thinking and time each volley, but I do think it's a muscle that will get stronger with use.
Anyway, the point is that doing that we managed to preserve the goals of our fictional arguments while still having the direction and outcome informed by the mechanics. My spoken roleplay contained mostly what I wanted it to, but it took unexpected directions due to the structure imposed on it by the DoW rules, and I didn't know until the end whether Rimedio would be convinced or not.
That last is something that just roleplaying it out doesn't give me as a GM—I'm left deciding whether I think the NPC should be convinced by the PC's argument.
This use of the rules isn't everyone's cup of tea, but I found it a lot of fun. It's rare that I get to be a GM and still be surprised by things in the game!
Finally, it's worth noting that if an upcoming conflict feels like it should just be roleplayed, you can do that and just say "yes" to the NPC being convinced. If you're not sure and want to engage the mechanics to determine who wins the argument, roleplay the first half of the argument, roll a versus test to see which side will get the upper hand in a compromise or win outright, and then finish out the roleplay by making that outcome happen.
Wednesday June 03, 2009 at 02:42 PM
I think that the strength of BW extended systems is that they can be played either way, by looking at the rules of the fiction. (Combining them is also possible.)
Nowadays I find the rules to be a bit too involved for my taste, but the philosophy that they pushed forward is something I keep in my toolbox and usually use.
Tommi’s last blog post: Basics of dice probabilities
Thursday June 04, 2009 at 05:27 PM
@amp108 - Regarding your real life "contest of wills" examples and how they translate to DoW: just because you script Point, Avoid, Rebuttal and make brief notes about what you might say for each, does not mean that your character is actually thinking that ahead of time. Rather, as a player you are taking an authorial point of view each time you script an exchange. In DoW, Fight! or any of the script-based mechanics in BW, what is important is the outcome. In real-life arguments and fights people do get thrown off-balance and that is one of the things these mechanics model.
@d7 - This is an awesome post. It reminds me of something Paul Tevis said on one of his old podcasts about his BW campaign, about how he loves mechanics that, through their use, "add to the fiction" in some way. (I think this is the feedback you speak of in your first footnote.) Paul talked about how the mechanics of DoW (especially compromise) injected something tangible to the thought-processes of the players involved, so that they would end up coming up with ideas and interacting with the fiction in ways that never would have been possible through straight role-play alone. As you say that may be tangential to the main topic of your post. But I think what you're saying about making sure you're always putting the fiction ahead of the mechanics, is necessary in order to get the full cycle of feed back that Paul talks about.
Thursday June 04, 2009 at 06:10 PM
@Tommi: I think you're talking about the same thing as Mike. The rules do generate a lot of fiction that, if you're receptive to it, can greatly add to the game. I'm not sure that would happen if the invocation of the rules weren't well-rooted in prior fiction, though that's just my intuition talking. I do love that outcome of the rules, though!
@Mike: You're right, and I didn't mean to imply it was minor or unimportant by sidelining it. It's really a big part of why I enjoy Burning Wheel. Especially as a GM, it's great to have a game that actively encourages and supports players coming up with things that surprise the GM. I don't know if it's necessary to have a firm fictional foundation to get that feedback loop going, but it certainly gives the rules much, much more "traction" on the fiction to get the feedback loop moving in high gear.
I'll have to think about that more. I wonder if there are any games out there with rules designed to generate solid fiction and kick-start a good feedback loop without having any initial fiction?
Sunday June 07, 2009 at 07:24 PM
Just wanted to say "nice post". Very interesting and useful points regarding how to use the BW mechanics to best support/enhance the fiction.
I've taken note because I reckon this is pretty good advice not just for BW but for roleplaying in general.
Bruce’s last blog post: Support for Situation Generation
Friday June 12, 2009 at 08:46 PM
Great info: You manage to sum up what I've been experiencing with BW too and why so far we've had some really satisfying play experiences: It's as if the mechanics and the actual roleplay are working together rather than being at odds with one another.
MJ Harnish’s last blog post: An excellent blog article on scripting in Burning Wheel
Monday June 29, 2009 at 07:44 PM
@Bruce: Thanks! You're right about it being useful for roleplaying in general. One thing that I hear repeated by people trying Burning Wheel is that it changed how they understand and play other games. MJ's got a good post about how the Let it Ride rule solves a lot of problems in roleplaying games, and it's portable enough to be used in most traditional roleplaying games.
@MJ: Thanks for the link-love! I've actually run into an interesting side-effect of that design feature of the rules, which is that I can slip into rules-only mode and have it still feel, superficially, like I'm engaging the fiction because the rules have the same "shape" as the fiction. I think this has something to do with the "bookkeeping" feeling I've written about, and I think I can blame it on reading too much about BW before eventually playing. Something I'm still pondering.
If I can fix that tendency, though, the games are going to be even more awesome.
Rollin’ Rollin’ Rollin’, Keep those links a rollin’… - Gnome Stew, the Game Mastering Blog
Wednesday April 28, 2010 at 01:24 PM
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