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.