The Other End of the Telescope

I wrapped up a Burning Wheel 3-shot for MadJay Brown‘s birthday last week. I recommend it, by the way: running a bespoke game for a friend’s birthday is very satisfying! And it’s something I can afford, regardless of distance.

My takeaway is that years of PbtA play has altered my Burning Wheel style. Maybe for the better? I’m still deciding.

But first, some storytime.

How We Set Up

I wanted to get the game up and running fast but remote setting creation is collaborating in hard mode. And I had players in three different time zones. But my pal Judd Karlman at Daydreaming About Dragons has been doing these neat adventure prompt memes. Jay had reposted this one on Twitter with the comment, “I want to be a desperate necromancer!” We were off to the races.

Judd’s visual prompt. I suggested he do a whole book of these things.

After chewing on the meme’s elements a bit, I doodled up a … I’m not sure what to call it. A vibe document? In-character with lots of evocative setting bits, just to see what folks glommed onto. I didn’t have any specific conflicts laid out, just lots of implications. Kind of a Dark Age-Old West thing. With a little work we turned the meme and the doc into some solid setting and character ideas.

The setting outline:

  • A primitive fantasy setting in decline. There’s a big distant city just called “The City.” The game is set in “the hills,” filled with villages and settlements and ruins. I used Miro and a bunch of free vector art for the map.
  • A strong implication that the decline was not from a golden fantasy age but from something much more advanced. Barely touched on it, not relevant other than for some interesting color when they walked around.
  • It’s in the brutal libertarian apocalypse vein, with self-proclaimed “protectors” clawing their way to the top and taking control of towns. The City has just designated one of two protectors the Protector-General, and she’s come back from The City very weird.
  • There are two magic systems from the Burning Wheel Codex in play: Spirit Binding and Summoning. Spirit Binding is legal and relied on by the Protectors in a weird codependent relationship: the Protector thugs need the Spirit Talkers to maintain control, and the Spirit Talkers grant their powers in return for being left out of their thuggery.
  • Summoning, however, is strictly outlawed. There’s a demon-worshiping cult, and the Protector-General has orders from The City to hunt it down.
  • The three characters are: Bratislav, the apprentice of a “spirit talker”; Troll, a nameless freak of nature with an uncertain past — basically a half-ogre; and Fen, a nervous ranger-problem solver outlaw who killed the Protector-General’s squire.
Export from my Miro board. I could have used any shared whiteboard tool, but I’ve been enjoying this one.

And the setup itself:

  • The apprentice’s spirit talker master has just died. The apprentice isn’t a spirit talker at all, is not Gifted, can’t do magic. But he is a member of the illegal summoning cult. Nobody knows that when we start.
  • Troll was the dead spirit talker’s devoted companion. He’s a former freebooter; Troll’s former freebooter companion has become a Protector competing with the weirdo Protector-General to take over “protection” of the hillfolk.
  • Fen thought he was being protected by the spirit talker in return for dealing with the nearby town, handling hunting, and shaking down the townfolk for protection payments. But now he’s looking for a new patron.

How it played out:

  • The whole game starts with the spirit talker dead at the hands of something inhuman. Bratislav assumes something went catastrophically wrong during a ritual they were performing in the tower’s basement. Since the spirit talker does Spirit Binding magic, the spirit of the basement was his secret weapon: it’s a source of knowledge of the world before it fell. Play started with Brat sitting on the steps down to the basement looking at his dead master’s body. No memory of how any of this happened, or even what the ritual was.
  • Brat has the Possessed trait, so that’s fun. Easy to connect the dots.
  • Troll’s first Belief is to kill his master’s murderer. Fen’s first Belief is to secure new protection. The rest of the beliefs are a tangle of obligations and loyalties, very claustrophobic setup.
  • Brat decides he’s gonna try to pull off the con that he’s the “new spirit talker” using only his summoning, and demands respect from his companions (first Instinct).
  • Then the Protector-General shows up, unaware of the spirit talker’s death, demanding he provide a promised bit of already-paid-for information about a ritual she needs to conduct at midnight on the Winter Equinox. Which is in 3 days. Brat does not have that information. Lies to her about the spirit talker being “gone for a while,” immediately contradicting his initial lies to Troll and Fen that “something went wrong and he’s recovering in the basement.”
  • So yeah, Jay got to answer the “what kind of wizard will you become?” He got to become a fast-talking, one-step-ahead-of-the-authorities hustler.
  • The 3-shot ended with Brat confessing to Fen, through an extraordinary series of rolls, that he killed the spirit talker. Troll overhears that and kills him! But Jay kept back 1 Persona to stay alive. There were some other wild shenanigans as well but most definitely more material for at least another 3-shot.

Now let’s talk about the other end of the telescope.

Through The Looking Glass

I’ve run a lot of Burning Wheel on and off for a decade. And then put it away. I felt like the game had taught me everything it was going to. For some folks, Burning Wheel fixes trad-style play. For others, it breaks trad play once and for all (because you can’t readily port its best practices into any other game). I was in the latter camp, and it opened indie gaming up for me. Honestly, the reason there is an Indie Game Reading Club at all is because of Burning Wheel.

In most ways, Burning Wheel runs like any other trad game: the GM runs the world while the players manage their characters. Players roll to “do things” (with caveats about radical transparency, see last week’s piece for more on that). And so on. And like every trad game I can think of, the GM preps by assigning mechanical weight to their assets: stats, skills, spells, abilities, and so on. Top-tier NPCs get fully built out, incidental NPCs might just get eyeballed (3 to 5 dice, maybe an advantage die in situ). The GM is constrained by the same rules as the players and has the same affordances.

PbtA style games like Apocalypse World or Urban Shadows diverge from that style. Nearly all PbtA games really do run in a traditional way because AW is a deconstructed direct descendent of B/X D&D. But one very powerful way it’s different is that the facilitator doesn’t roll dice. They invent whatever they want, either in advance as part of their prep or resulting from making a move. But there’s nearly no mechanical weight to their inventions. It’s pure description and reasonable MC moves emerging from that description. You might eyeball how much damage an NPC does if it’s that kind of game. As often as not, though, “harm levels” aren’t even part of a PbtA game’s design.

That lack of mechanical documentation in PbtA games can be a showstopper for lots of gamers! I get it, I do. It can feel like cheating if you just make shit up on the spot. The whole system relies on trust, fairness and consistency in applying MC moves.

So that’s how I turned the telescope around. When I ran this Burning Wheel game I mostly just made shit up and made best guesses as to dice and systems as it became necessary. The result was a lot different than if I’d started from strict fidelity to what the game says is possible. Because starting there, with assumptions about what’s possible, would have left me feeling beholden to the rules (even while feeling more mechanically secure).

Choices Have Consequences

Just like literally every other system choice made by every game, there are upsides and downsides to PbtA-style Burning Wheel. After three sessions of this approach, here’s what I observed.

Upsides

  • I felt like I could run a much looser, more reactive game by improvising descriptive stuff. For example, a looming shadow guarded my demon summoning NPC wherever he went. If I’d started with a fully built out NPC I may have not thought of that imagery (bodyguarding is probably a “lesser corporeal” thing in the summoning rules, which would leave me thinking about literal, physical imps and such). At another point, a spirit talker was calling down a vicious weather attack on the characters. Is that something you can do with the Spirit Binding system? Maybe!
  • Saved a ton of time on mechanical prep. This is a nontrivial benefit and one of my favorite things about running PbtA games. I did end up pre-writing at least one, and more often all three, Beliefs for every NPC I knew would be appearing. That all by itself did 90% of the creative lifting.

Downsides

  • I was never sure whether I could reconcile my inventions with The Rules. If it became important to deal with the lurking shadow demon, where would I have gone in the book to figure that out? No idea. I’d probably just improvise something again. Happily, the entire game devolves down to a very simple die-pool system wrapped up in a very clear negotiation ritual.
  • Burning Wheel, to its credit, generates much of its interesting material out of the constraints of the system, and unexpected results when the GM is held to the same standards as the players (although GM authority in BW is, I think, virtually identical to the MC just making moves when it’s the GM Saying Yes to their own choices). Maybe I know the game well enough to have internalized those constraints? Doubtful. I have no idea what lifepaths the Protector NPCs might have had. And that could have made for more interesting, unexpected set of motivations.
  • If I had broken the trust required to make this work, I think it’d have felt cheaty and unreliable to everyone involved. They may in fact feel that once they read this piece. Or they’ll wonder why I was such a stickler for strict by-the-book play in my past!

Conclusions

It was super interesting to combine the creative traditions of two such different games. I spent years wishing there were crunchier rules and constraints for MCs in Apocalypse World. And now I find myself wishing there was a fairer, more consistent way to improvise, PbtA-style, in Burning Wheel. Or at least engage with the rules text as a source of interesting creative constraints. I’m not sure how to convey that approach to other people. I’m not even sure I’d recommend it!

For our game, I ended up dipping into Burning Wheel’s formalism when I wanted an oracle-like input: what lifepaths could one actually use to produce a dangerous demon summoning NPC? What payments might a demon have demanded by the book for services I’ve narrated?

Our game came out great, honestly. Can’t wait to get back into it down the road, if we can remember where we left off. Nobody seemed to mind or probably even know where I had done the prep and where I was just making shit up. But we always had the fallback position of clearly and transparently negotiating rolls, and playing with folks who knew we weren’t there to screw each other over with legalistic arguments and aggressive dice-grubbing.

Kind of interesting how few rules you actually need when you stop being confrontational with each other. I’m sure the very thought of Burning Wheel World hurts both the Bakers’ and Crane’s heads!

Also: run birthday games for your friends. It’s like giving a gift to yourself. (Mine is October 18, so you still have time to plan something nice.)

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