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Scripting for the fiction in Burning Wheel

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.

Fiction first

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'ętre, 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.]

Practicals

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:

(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.

Brass tacks

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.

But why?

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.