We had our first session of our new Burning Wheel game yesterday. Felt pretty great to be a player. Mostly it’s a much-needed reminder of what all the uncertainties of being a player feel like.
Two of us are old-time BW superfans so it was like slipping back into an old favorite pair of shoes. Shoes we had forgotten to air out, kind of forgot that there’s that spot that rubs on your heel, oh jeez these are kind of heavy, why were these favorite shoes? I’ll never forget the big picture of how the Wheel turns but the details, oh lord the details. Particularly since we’re on Gold, and the vast majority of my time is in Revised, and things are different.
Our newest player has ramped up just fine, because the big picture of BW (building die pools, versus and scripted tests, chasing BITs) is quite similar to Mouse Guard and Torchbearer. The big difference, I think, is how elaborate the Artha machine is in BW compared to the others. And it’s that complexity that really drives the game.
The big player-facing uncertainty I was reminded of was the quiet, totally unspoken negotiation between player and GM to buy into each other’s contributions. There’s so much player authorship early on (and in our case, very little GM authorship to start other than a map and a few locations, no driving premise per se) that it really does feel different than, say, the first shake-out session of Apocalypse World or a more GM-driven experience like Mutant Year Zero. Or a campaign-driven setup like King Arthur Pendragon, where everyone’s already aware of the “right” things to focus on.
It’s an interesting dance! I’d try a thing and feel if it was “fun” or at least interesting. The GM would toss out a thing and wait to see if we’d take the bait. The players aimed at each other (per my always-awesome BIT recipe: click here for reference) and felt out what was interesting about each other’s starting bit of authorship. There’s so, so much more cross-negotiating. I think it’s good! But it’s hard. Harder than everyone looking to the GM for cues as to what’s important. It’s stealthily non-trad in a way I think a lot of folks overlook.
Our three characters are weird and very low-scale, given we constrained ourselves to three lifepaths and only the peasant, villager, and outcast settings. (Religion was open but nobody went after it.) One of us is ummm born villager -> village guard -> shopkeep or something, at the ripe old age of 19. Another is born villager -> groom -> hunter, another 19yo I believe. Because I could and it seemed fun, I’m born peasant -> augur -> mad summoner. Building a guaranteed fail machine is so freeing! It also reflects kind of the worst side of star player behavior: the boredom-avoidance urge. Trying hard to be the ringer, but my girl is so, so broken and strange. It’s hard to be a wallflower.
In the end, we did the artha payout checklist and everyone got a really healthy dose for the second session. I don’t know about the other players, but I feel like our BITs are claustrophobically interwoven. It’s good for tension! And I think at some point very soon we’ll need to start resolving some of the most immediate mutually-incompatible drives.