Missing the Roleplaying

So one of my players dropped this bomb before we started in on our second session of Blades in the Dark. I’m going to get it wrong but he basically said this:

“I miss Burning Wheel. I mean I’m enjoying these Apocalypse World games, but you know what I miss? The roleplaying.”

Which I thought was just the most interesting and provocative idea. It’s also complete and unapologetic click-bait.

I’m going to lay out what I think are the issues at play. This is pure speculation. It is absolutely not an invitation to start a flame war, to criticize anyone, to provide “answers” or “fixes.” Don’t be that reader.

It’s interesting that he calls out Burning Wheel specifically but I know exactly why he does: That game, in particular, has a robust economy that interacts with the game’s explicit and player-authored roleplaying flags. Quick recap if you don’t know the game: you’ve got Beliefs, Instincts and Traits (BITs) that are all character bits (which are a kind of “flag” in ye olde theory parlance). Beliefs are your drives, Instincts are your automatic reactions, Traits provide additional play hooks. In BW, the reward cycle goes, when you play toward your flags and doing that actually directs play (by complicating your life or mandating you pursue things), you get a bit of currency. When you have that currency, you can spend it to succeed at the things you’re driving toward. And then you’re out of currency, so you have to engage with your BITs again.

Play in a way that drives play -> get paid -> spend to succeed -> drive play with your problems -> get paid -> spend to succeed.

There are multiple currencies (practically two) and they act a little different and refresh at slightly different speeds. You need both currencies for different reasons so you have an incentive — assuming “I want to succeed at things” is something you care about, which is not universal — to chase your BITs. Again, assuming you’re incentivized at all, the incentives shape play around players allowing their imperfect characters to be imperfect. Because even as you complicate your situation, when it’s time to take on the Stuff You Really Care About the odds are stacked in your favor.

So I think that’s what he’s getting at when he says he “misses the roleplaying.” It’s that authorship-forward approach to play.

In PbtA games, there really aren’t flags per se to play toward, nor are there economies that leverage honest authorship. That’s a lot of highfalutin language so let me unpack that. In good old Apocalypse World, you earn Advances whenever you make moves attached to your highlighted stats: two stats are called out by players who want to see what you do with them. Hey, let’s see what you do with your Cool and your Hard this session. It doesn’t really matter if those are good stats or not; it’s audience-driven, not author-driven.

So, yeah, that is also roleplaying. But it’s different, too, for reasons that I hope are obvious. In BW’s case, most of your flags you chose yourself — your Beliefs and Instincts. Mostly Traits come from character creation, although your play also gains Traits as the game proceeds. There’s a lot of self-actualization happening there. In AW, other players are asking you to put on a show…assuming, again, that you’re incentivized by advancement. There’s obviously some tension sometimes when you have to balance your desire to succeed against your desire to advance: my Hard is my good stat but the players highlighted my Weird, so do I put on a show and Open my Brain, or do I just punch this guy in the face? Good tension, very enjoyable. But different.

Other PbtA games have twiddled this here and there. Urban Shadows wants the players to interact with the setting (and by doing so, probably expand it), so you advance only by touching all the factions in play. That incentivizes interaction with the setting, not your character stuff. At least you also call out a little character stuff during creation, but to be honest the way the game proceeds, my players don’t really ever come back to “what do you seek?” type questions. Events snowball, drama builds, situations change and the players are largely reacting to all that. They have no economic incentive nor fictional reason to go back to their start-of-game stuff.

There are also drama moves that enforce genre tropes: trade around debts or other stuff when your character is intimate with someone, or when they ignore their mortal obligations to deal with the supernatural, whatever. But those tropes are the designer telling you what to play toward. It’s great and fast and it gets you going straight away. It’s a different kind of roleplaying, and ye gawds yes of course it’s still roleplaying, but there are different incentives at play pushing toward stuff the designer cares about. 

Blades in the Dark works mightily to bridge this gap, but I think it fails (for this player at least) for interesting reasons. There is only one economy incentivizing play, and that is XPs. You get XPs for trying crazy shit, and to my eyes that looks more like simmy advancement, i.e. you get better at the stuff you use. You get XPs for fulfilling your playbook’s “thing,” so that’s a PbtA type incentive. And then you get XPs for playing toward your traumas, vice, heritage and background. Those all come off a short list, but there’s quite a lot of room for player interpretation there.

But all that stuff just gives you XPs! And that, I think, is where the feeling is so different that it’s leaving the player(s) dissatisfied. Permanent character growth via punchlisting a short list of actions is a different experience than authoring suffering now to get a benefit later, which means suffering more after that so you can get ready to benefit again later.

Now, I’ve often felt more intensely connected to my PbtA characters than my BW characters. There really aren’t any player-authored flags in PbtA type games (and for our purposes, I’m folding BitD into that space), so if I’m chasing PbtA incentives, I’m allowing the designer to shape my play toward the things they care about. Which is fine and good. I almost always start playing my PbtA characters “as myself,” you know? Then as I chase advancement and strive to succeed, my feelings about the character and how I express them get shaped by the limitations.

That said, distinctive characterizations certainly arise every time I run Sagas of the Icelanders, for example, and I’m sure everyone who’s played in my sessions will attest to the really focused intensity of the experience. But SotI is “about” the gender roles, right? You don’t get to, or need to, write your own flags related to how you feel about your own gender. The feeling of connection comes from working within the confines of the game, rather than the satisfaction of overcoming obstacles to achieve the things I’ve told the table I care about. They’re different and non-interchangeable experiences.

Phew, that’s a lot of words. Naturally this all has to do with systems that explicitly incentivize play. Lots of games dispense with that entirely. Different conversation for another day.

0 thoughts on “Missing the Roleplaying”

  1. I’ve rather felt that PbtA games feel like TV dramas, while Burning Wheel games hew closer to sprawling novels. And I think that does have a lot to do with the differences you highlighted. Burning Wheel is also an immensely self-reflective game. You spend an entire part of the session’s conclusion (the artha awards) going back and meditating on your character’s actions!

  2. It’s interesting that, despite being among the chorus of voices asking for you to expand on this idea in your BitD post, I actually knew exactly what your player meant. BW is one of the most character-focused RPGs in existence IMO, and it accomplishes this within a very “trad” context. I don’t think it feels nearly as “mechanical” as some other 21st-century games. It’s more like having a D&D character sheet in front of you, except all of that data a typical character-focused player includes on the sheet actually matters.

    I need to get more PbtA games under my belt before I can compare and contrast, though. I will say that your description of starting from “as myself” does jibe with my limited experience.

    Aside: I love that BW incentivizes making tests, not just succeeding at them, since failure is so key to the game. In our current game my PC has a lowly B2 Spirit Binding, and failing or succeeding at that skill has heavy consequences. Yet, I love to test it, because you need tests, pass or fail_ in order to advance. Plus, tests are so damn meaningful in BW; they always make the session more interesting.

  3. Dungeon World actually gives you XP when you “explore a Bond” with another character. It’s not a flag, per se, but a connection on a relationship map. It could be a flag. (Edit: Alignment is definitely a flag, though)

    Quick question: I assumed Blades used The Shadow of Yesterday style Keys/Secrets like Lady B does. Is this not the case? I’m not a backer.

  4. Paul Beakley: Not necessarily! I plussed for the “familiarity” half, plus the wryness of “it probably didn’t need to be this long”. Not a comment on it being too long; I think the length was rather good.

  5. I was under the impression that Crew Advancement is what would drive Blades the most. You have this cool list with all the territory you can take on your crew sheet and you want to archieve higher rank. At least that is what I thought the most about when reading that stuff. 

    That said: sub

  6. Tim Franzke but that only works if those are actually incentivizing. I ran for a group that didn’t want henchmen, or turf, or side gigs. They just wanted to run four-man heists

  7. Hm. That is completely different than what I expected was meant. So that’s cool.

    I absolutely agree that the “play to chase the things you flagged as important” and “play to chase the things someone else flagged as important” produce wildly different tablefeels, especially if you’re used to one over the other. In fact, even though I love PbtA, one of the things that bugs me is I can see my super-creative and enthusastic friends who really wanted to just seduce and manipulate all session long struggling with ways to force a Weird roll because someone marked it.

    To contrast, you’re absolutely right that chasing those flags will tell you cool shit about your character that you might not have discovered otherwise. It makes the shared fiction more of a thing, instead of these tight-focused, personally-driven characters. Which is not to say that you can’t play PbtA that way! If you have a really clear vision of your AW character, you don’t actually have to chase XP; in fact, sometimes it’s better not to, because while new moves are fun and all, failure cascades in AW result in characters who are seriously damaged, physically and emotionally. I’ve spent the last 7 or 8 weeks between 6:00 and 10:00 in Harm, and every time I blow a roll, it snowballs into more trouble. If I had played Monsoon the way I had originally envisioned her, I bet she wouldn’t have so many advances, but neither would she be trying to stay one step ahead of the Reaper every session.

    What I was sorta expecting was an analysis about how the moves in PbtA can subsume in-fiction action if you “do it wrong”, ie, allow moves to be triggered without the appropriate fictional actions first. I’m really happy it didn’t go that way, because I think that’s well-trodden ground.

    I think you’re right that BitD’s advancement system has a limited number of outputs, but I also think that’s intentional: your options don’t necessarily broaden, because you’re still running a character who is part of a gang of Thieves or Smugglers or whatever. Instead, as the game develops, your stakes change/escalate, because running jobs as a Tier 0 gang is a different thing than running them as a Tier 3 gang. Also, your fictional positioning changes, both because your rank increases and because as you do jobs, your relationship to the other factions changes (which is also impacted by rank). Pulling a jewel heist from the Red Sashes for the Lampblacks at Tier 0, you’re not expected to accomplish much. Pulling a jewel heist from City Hall at the behest of the Cult of Ecstasy is going to feel different, even if it’s mechanically similar. It’s like an old-school game in that way, in that challenge and competence are in a locked arm’s race, Red Queen-style.

    Clearly, I did not think you went on too long!

  8. I wonder if it’s even that complicated.  I have only played a couple PbTA games and never burning wheel.  But in my limited experience I’ve always felt that in PbTA I was never really playing my character, in the traditional sense.

    Most of the time I felt more like I was shaping the game around my character.  Sure part of that was acting in character through dialogue but that only felt like maybe half the time.  My character, all the characters really in that system feel like water and I was shaping the path they followed and not the water itself

    Maybe he just wants to get back to the more standard flow of being more of a player level view of the story and not actually shaping the events around him.

  9. I agree with Chris Groff: PbtA games are all about what triggers your character decides to pull, and you shape characterization around that. It’s characterizing through plot and action.

  10. Chris Groff I can’t stop thinking about your comment! It’s been on my mind all day.

    A couple things come to mind as I try to reconcile what you’re saying. One has to do with “stance,” which is an interesting concept I don’t totally buy but can be useful to invoke. Like, when you’re holding your Burning Wheel character out at arms’ length and considering what awful things you’d enjoy seeing them go through, that’s totally authorial. Nobody who is trying to “be” Horgrav the Stern wants to see Horgrav suffer, right? That’s pretty masochistic. But if he’s not “you,” well then cool, rock on. That’s the “honest authorship” stuff I was talking about in the OP.

    The other thing that comes to mind, and tbh the player who made the comment in the OP is probably coming more from this place, is that there’s a fine line between play being mechanized and play being overmechanized. I think as PbtA games, in particular, advance, I’m seeing games where procedures beget procedures. You’re constantly propelled down a track based mostly on how dice turned out.

    Cartel features that kind of thing, for example: your character has someone tied up because he wants answers, so he slaps the victim around. And then because of the dice, he ends up hurting his victim and invoking enough Stress that now he has to really hurt the guy tied up in that chair. And then he beats the guy nearly to death or maybe even kills him. Which, you know, in a you-are-there kind of immersive moment, it’s thrilling and devastating to watch your character tick-tock out of your control and proceed to do terrible things. And you might miss roleplaying while that happens, because now the game is playing you.

    So, overmechanized? Maybe? Totally a matter of taste of course. Folks say the same thing about lots of Burning Wheel procedures too, like how you resolve social conflicts with scripted verbal combat rather than “just talking.” There may be some game design event horizon we’ll reach where we literally wind up our characters, let them go, and watch what happens like deist storynerds.

  11. Paul Beakley: That is a really interesting point about escalation in PbtA! The “snowball” approach is pretty much default there, where it really isn’t in Burning Wheel. I’ve been learning this the hard way, trying to use Burning Wheel failures like misses in PbtA games, and it kinda falls flat because it fails to come back to Beliefs.

  12. “There may be some game design event horizon we’ll reach where we literally wind up our characters, let them go, and watch what happens like deist storynerds.”

    This sounds like heaven to me.

  13. Paul Beakley over mechanized is a good way of describing my (limited) experience of PbTA. Events kick off more events because the mechanics push them and the story is generated along with it and sucks characters into it. Mechanics pull the story and based on what I’ve played and read of Play sessions its like a snowball rolling down hill. This is the opposite to what I think of in the traditional RPG model.

    In the traditional RPG model the story calls for action/reaction and these are all hard stops. The GM describes an event, the players react to it and then resolve the event. You may have a series of back to back events but each one is basically isolated from the other. Even in combat one round of combat really has no forced impact on the next. The GM/Players naturally progress the story in a logical progression of events to make the fiction work. But really there is no mechanic that compels the next action. You are, for most purposes, in control of your character at all times and basically only your character. The mechanics don’t tell you what to do the mechanics are there to resolve what you do.

    There are games that bridge this gap like Fate, Cortex and Feng Shui. In those games you can pull story elements in and shape them around your character but still the mechanics resolve your actions and don’t dictate them. I don’t know where BW fits in this spectrum I suspect it’s in the middle as well and currently that’s my preferred spot to play and run games in. As a player I like to be in control of my actions. As a GM I’d rather present the story and then adapt and react to the players input and not pushed in one direction buy the mechanics. I guess I’m a bit of a control freak in my gaming.

    I’m of course speaking for myself more and only guessing on what your friend means by Roleplaying.

    On a side note this thread is full of win. Your topics often bring about great discussions.

  14. On the strength of your comment about mechanization and escalation, I suspect there’s something to be said about Vincent’s interest in escalation (see, obviously, Dogs) versus BW’s interest in… Not exactly in de-escalation, but specifically in whether and when and why you’ll step back.

    They’re obviously kindred interests, and I definitely don’t mean to suggest that Vincent and Luke are at any kind of opposite poles here (if anything, the reverse: they’re interested in the same thing, but looking at it from somewhat different directions with different results).

  15. I’ve always found this very interesting. I don’t care for the model in PbtA. BW suffer cycle don’t do it for me either. I’ll call out FATE here too. Why? They are all far too mechanistic.

    I don’t know why there is a fondness for what I call “dice-mini-games” at this moment in rpg design. The inelegance of these cumbersome subsystems actually seems to deride good Roleplaying. IMHO. Moreover they focus on a single players vision/enjoyment and not on a collaborative shared experience of if so only by extension.

    The mechanisms in e.g. Leverage, 3:16 ( flashbacks and storylines ) are really interesting. Even Sorcerer. Why? For the story/world building they do, focused on a collaborative shared experience. Even on the experience/reward side of the equation and in relation to the player character they achieve a cohesive and incrementing story supporting framework for exposition advancing the shared narative.

    I’ll even side with OWoD:VtM for its willpower/humanity as a more complementary, suffer cycle, specifically for horror ( not being in control is right at the core of horror imo).

    My main issue is the suffer cycle economy puts burden on the GM to know every players characters foibles inside out, inorder to activate and achieve the players wishes. This is not very realistic and is seldom achieved.

    The the story/world building hooks in these other games (qv) actively reduce the workload and increase story development for the GM and players hence they get more of my love.

  16. I’m not sure how this thread became an advocacy opportunity for your preferred method of play, but I’m done now. That’s not what my Collection is about. Please respect that.

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