Best Practices from the Way-Back Machine
Okay! Per Mark Diaz Truman’s request, here’s my can’t-fail always-awesome recipe for perfect Burning Wheel beliefs every time. One pot, quick clean-up, 10 minutes of prep.
Suuuuper quick backgrounder for anyone who doesn’t know how Burning Wheel works: in BW, you earn “artha” in various flavors for interacting with your Beliefs, Instincts and Traits, or BITs. Bs and Is are player-authored; traits start out coming from lifepaths you chose at character creation, and later they’re voted onto your character whether you want them or not because of how you play. But the entire game is built on carrots, not sticks, so even if you end up with a poopy Trait, or wrote bad Beliefs or Instincts, you’re never obligated to play toward them. You just don’t get paid artha.
What comes next is a summation of my best practices from being The World’s Biggest Burning Wheel Superfan many moons ago. I still adore the game but it’s been a while since I was hardcore about it. Anyway, don’t take anything I’m about to write as rules. It’s just ideas for building an efficient artha machine that’s also fun to play.
Beliefs come in two forms: actionable and ongoing. Actionable Beliefs are things you can complete, typically in service to a larger goal. So like…your larger goal might be “I will open the Eastern Shores to trade with my kingdom.” And your first Belief might read, in total:
“I will open the Eastern Shores to trade with my kingdom, but first I must travel there myself and discover what they need of us.”
So you do the traveling thing and ask around about what they need, boom, you’ve completed that Belief. Then you’d update it:
“I will open the Eastern Shores to trade with my kingdom. Now that I know they need seed, I’ll secure a supplier back home.” And then you go working on that.
The other kind of Belief, ongoing, isn’t intended to ever be “done.” You keep it open because you want Fate. Fate is one of the two main kinds of artha you can chase. The other is Persona, and you get that for, among other things, achieving your Beliefs. An ongoing Belief usually sounds more like, you know, things you believe. Like:
“Sir Jerkface cannot be trusted.” Or “I can’t leave town, the gnolls will eat me.” And each time you act on that distrust or that fear, boom, Fate. They might get resolved too! But you haven’t built that Belief for that purpose, because you want a steady income of both Fate and Persona. They’re each useful in their own way.
Instincts also come in a couple flavors: useful and colorful. The best Instincts are both! And you want both, because Instincts that cause trouble for you are the ones that earn you artha. So a purely useful one like “Always scope out an escape route” or “Never be the first one to eat or drink something new,” well, those are just useful. They’re a way to make sure the GM doesn’t trip over your schtick. The tactical genius always has a way out, the paranoiac never gets poisoned.
Straight colorful ones are good too, because they usually get you in trouble or otherwise complicate your life. “Always draw your weapon on a stranger” is a terrible idea, right! It might be useful if you’re getting jumped in a dark alleyway, but the king’s guard won’t like it one bit when you arm yourself before them. Best-best practice is to come up with Instincts that are both useful and colorful: maybe good, maybe complicating.
Traits aren’t up to you at character creation so I’ll skip those, other than to mention they exist, and you get paid when your trait adds context or complication to your situation.
Mark asked about “workshopping” Beliefs. That’s a big and important part to making sure the game starts right. The right Beliefs make sure the GM always has something to grab onto, the players always know what to chase after if they don’t have something in the plot already drawing their attention, and it keeps tone and momentum on the same page. Built correctly, it’s also an energetic artha engine and you’ll have lots of fate and persona at hand.
Anyway! That perfect formula goes like this:
1 Belief or Instinct about the GM’s situation. Usually the GM will pitch the game around one or more core things. Think Fronts from Apocalypse World.
1 Belief or Instinct about another PC.
1 Belief about something in the setting that interests you personally. Your flag to the GM that says “I’m really interested in this thing.” Yes, just a Belief, not an Instinct in this case.
1 Belief or Instinct that’s just totally wrong. Like, you’re just straight up mistaken or incorrect about something.
1 Belief or Instinct that contradicts another of your BITs in some way.
1 Instinct that illustrates an important bias in the character.
That’s six things. Obviously you’ll need to double up on a few of these.
You’ll know if the formula is working because you’ll get paid. Artha is mechanically useful, but it’s also a good canary in the coal mine so to speak. If you’re not getting paid, change your Bs or Is until you do.
Workshopping is where everyone works all this stuff out at the table at the same time. Good BW play means intertwining your Beliefs and Instincts so they trigger each other in obvious ways. Inobvious ways as well! But that’s on the GM to uncover later. You also want to make sure you have about a 50/50 division between internal and external tensions. If it’s all external, you have a very traditional “party” and that’s boring. If it’s all internal, it gets really fraught really fast. Hard for long-term play.
The GM is a biiig part of workshopping because they will want to know early on what “challenging your Belief” looks like. A bad Belief will be hard for the GM to know what to do with. Usually, IME, it’s because the player has come up with something they could have already done. So when I’m GMing and I’m feeling iffy about a Belief, the first thing I will ask is “so why haven’t you done this already?” Particularly when it comes to actionable Beliefs.
Workshopping is also something I found myself doing every three or four sessions during extended play. By then, the players will have seen if their little drama engines were burping up artha or not. If they’re not, then we talk about the stuff that isn’t firing.
I feel like the minimum artha you should be getting off your BIT machine is 2 fate and 1 persona. Personally I feel like it was a successful session if I got 3 fate and 2 persona, but that takes a lot of hustle and a GM who’s paying attention.