In the workshop, we play with game mechanics. Hacks, add-ons, modules, subsystems, and house rules.
So Savage Worlds has this funny little divide in the mechanics: There are two types of entities in the entire world. There are Wild Cards, and there are Extras. Extras go down in one wound, Wild Cards go down in three. Three or One. There’s nothing else. Adding wounds beyond three, or giving an Extra more wounds, is a cardinal sin of Savage Worlds hacking because it mucks with the mechanics so much. You’re going to significantly slow down the speed of play – which is one of Savage Worlds’ primary strengths.
So how, then, do you deal with a creature so vast, so immense, or so vicious that representing it as a Wild Card with a titanic size bonus just isn’t going to cut it? How do you even begin to challenge Legendary Characters? I’ve got what I think is the easiest solution for that.
Recently, while playing, I had the unfortunate feeling that the situation I’d dropped the PCs into was going to take a lot longer than I had suspected to resolve. I was right, what was originally supposed to be a single, four hour session of rollicking adventure quickly became a three session slugfest between the players and their adversaries.
It was terrible. Or, at least, it was from my side of the table. The adventure was taking too long! We were way off schedule! It had been three weeks and we were only supposed to take one! Disaster of disasters, I could only see that we were taking far too long with the whole thing, getting caught up on minutiae, and that the players were using an approach to the situation that was really time consuming. I spent the entirety of the second session improvising details, and the entirety of the third session trying to compute the world’s reaction to the PCs’ shenanigans, and the insanity it caused.
In retrospect, everybody but me was having fun through the second session, but by the third session it had become the slog I’d imagined it to be. So, what does one do when the adventure, story arc, or what have you runs overtime? I’m gonna talk about this, but first get a couple things out of your head:
Earlier this week, I posted on The 25 Player Responsibilities in Burning Wheel Gold, and now I want to do the same for GMs. Except, well, it has to be a little different for GMs. See, I did the same thing for GMs as for Players. I noted down mechanical responsibilities as I read the book, without trying to step on the territory of advice the system already gives about itself and how to play it. Naturally, there’s going to be some blurring – but the GM’s end of the table is where the majority of stark difference between Game Mechanics and Game Fiction exists. Indeed, it’s the GM’s explicit job in near every RPG system – and explicitly so in Burning Wheel – to make sure the mechanics mesh with the game fiction. So, if I pulled some of these patchwork from my head and from Burning Wheel Gold, forgive me. I’m doing this for newcomers to the system, and old timers with bad habits, to get their heads on straight.
As I’ve read through Burning Wheel Gold, I’ve been compiling a list of what different players are explicitly responsible for in the rules. That is, what the game itself tells players or GMs they should be doing in order to play the game right. That’s an idea I have no problem with – I think one should play a game on its own terms, and on its designers’ terms, before you play it any other way. Burning Wheel especially seems to beg that you play it on its own terms. So, to help my players and myself do so: the list.
I’ve focused in on the idea of responsibilities because I’m trying to help us understand. Great. I’ve tried to stick close to what the book says, provide a bit of commentary where appropriate. No, I didn’t think to cite pages well. The Index in Burning Wheel Gold is good enough that you won’t fret to find where the text supports me. Most of this stuff is from the Hub and Spokes of the book. The final few are ones I came up with myself, they’re thoughts that occurred to me in the course of reading.
The book already contains advice on how to play, and what the GM and Players should be doing differently from each other, but most of that is about the fiction of the game world – not about the mechanics and how to play them “Properly” for your first few times, and for learning the system. I’m only going to repeat one piece of advice from there, and I’ll tell you when I do it.
This review is a First Look. First looks are deeply opinionated reviews based on my first one or two readings of the system – usually before I’ve even played the game. The good part of that is that I’ll give you an unfiltered opinion. The bad part is that I’ll get stuff wrong about mechanics, how to play, and in general make a mess of the game. I trust you’ll enjoy yourself as much as I do.
The Burning Wheel Gold is the newest version of The Burning Wheel RPG, by Luke Crane, published in 2011. It’s a fantasy adventure game with a heavy character and story focus, and the game’s implied setting draws heavily on Tolkein and Medieval Realism. The core idea of The Burning Wheel is Intent and Task: You, as a player, declare what you want to happen in the game world, and then say how your character goes about it. Then you and your GM decide what skill or attribute you should roll to see how it happens. It’s a wonderful book, and I think you should know:
The second page convinced me I’d have no choice but to give Luke Crane’s game a try.
I’d skipped the foreward, as I usually do, forewards being things given to lofty exhalations convincing you of the merits of something you just want to start reading instead of start reading about. So my first two pages were Nine and Ten. Crane takes his time just after introducing the game for one special thing that, I think, makes him not just a game designer but a writer and a gentleman: he explains the voice of his text. The voice is the rules voice, that of the game explaining itself to you. Throughout are presented three imps, however, at the heads of paragraphs. They introduce Luke’s voice to you, instructing you in the game, warning you against styles of play incompatible with the rules, and being amazed at the good stories you’re going to tell with the rules. It’s the subtle combination of good writing, jokes, and thoughtfulness that makes The Burning Wheel Gold (BWG) an eminently readable game book – not just a rules reference.
This is Luke leveraging the power of the indie production. He’s making his games a real product of their creator’s mind, so the system doesn’t present itself as a bland composite, but instead as a pure dilution of ideas. Simultaneously, this is good editorial sense. We’ve got a clear line between the opinion and the must-do. Those little imps prevent the text from devolving into a morass where the ill-defined opinions and warnings of the creator might as well be rules, and the rules may as well be opinions and warnings. They prevent the desperate need for reams of advice on how to play the game that end up separated from the text of the game itself. They’re also damn amusing.
I’m not going to offer an opinion on whether or not RPG books should contain advice on how to play the RPG itself. That’s another post for another time, and I’m of two minds on it. Suffice to say: The Burning Wheel Gold does it, and does it well.
The system itself is a D6 dice pool system where a 4-6 is a success towards the target number set by the GM (which BWG calls an Obstacle), pretty standard, and no fancy dice tricks. You gather up your pool based on the “Exponent” of your skill, ranging from One (Rank amateur) to Ten (Unparalleled Mastery.) Players are encouraged to narrate for an extra die in their pool. The book itself calls this lobbying for advantage, and I think that sounds about right. Interestingly, there’s a sharp distinction in the player’s domain and the GM’s domain here. The GM gets to set everything to do with the target number for the test, but the system doesn’t often remove dice from a player’s pool. The system only makes the test harder by increasing the Obstacle. It’s a fail-it-forward system, so the GM isn’t providing flat failures. You don’t fail to pick the lock; you fail to pick the lock before the guards come. Sure, the door is open, but since you failed the test you get a complication.
The Fancy Tricks: Burning wheel provides detailed rules for advancement, which is prompted by the use of your skills in varied circumstances. I like this – it may be the most detailed and interesting presentation of the “Use it to advance it” system I’ve ever seen, and incorporates simple rules for natural learning, self-taught training, and being taught by another character. Burning wheel also presents the idea of “Fields of Related Knowledge” (called FoRKs) that allow a character to “FoRK” a die from, say, his Cave-wise skill into his Spear skill when fighting a great spider in cramped environments. Your blacksmith could FoRK a die from her Sword skill when making a new type of basket hilt for her weapons, because she has a more than theoretical knowledge of sword design. It’s a mechanical idea that sees traction in a lot of systems, but rarely does showing how your character’s skills form a coherent whole really become part of play. Similarly elegant are the helping rules, simple and pleasing. Crane assumes you’re going to use them a lot and so they fit seamlessly into Intent and Task: Say how you’re helping and hand over a die. You’ll want every player to have “their” color of D6 so that when helping they can physically hand dice to the other player. That way, you’ll be able to see exactly who helped make a success (or failure!) possible.
Characters have Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits too. These are the things you see in contemporary RPG design: A facet of your sheet that’s a phrase with mechanical impact instead of a number with mechanical impact. Beliefs drive play, they’re what your character is fighting for and what your character wants to see done. Instincts are if/then and always/never statements that are macros for your character. They exist in a space outside the rules, before dice are rolled. Luke’s imps call them “GM Insurance” for players. Traits are things about your character, little descriptive phrases like Hairy, Hopeful, Misanthropic, Drunk, Seen Not Heard, or maybe even Secretly Worships The Black Sea God.
These Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits fuel the system’s metagame point economy, called Artha (pronounced ar-tuh.). There are three orders of Artha, Fate, Persona, and Deeds. Each order is received for different roleplaying actions, and each can be spent for different mechanical effects. You need to accumulate Artha so that you can advance your character towards being more and more of a hero over time. They’re roleplaying rewards at heart, though. Rewards for sticking to your character and what you’ve said your character believes in. They’re pleasant, and don’t seem overtly obtrusive because they’re awarded at the close of each play session so that awarding won’t stop the flow of play. On the surface, they’re like FATE’s Fate Points mated with Primetime Adventures’ Fanmail. Below that, they’ve got a rich system purpose that works alongside roleplaying rather than on a purely mechanical level. I give Artha my wholehearted approval. It’s rare you find such a complete reward mechanic married to a game.
That’s the basics of The Burning Wheel. There are a whole lot more rules, too, which the system calls “The Rim of the Wheel.” I’ll write about them individually in a full review once I’ve played the game to satisfaction. They mostly consist of who your character knows, how much money your character can scrape together, and various conflict rules. At first glance, they seem inspired. The “Duel of Wits” mechanics especially. They’re very intriguing, consisting of a simultaneous resolution mechanic where you script out a few actions – such as dodge, parry, or strike – and then resolve against your opponent’s secretly scripted actions. Interestingly enough, they’re modular subsystems, and you can play the game fine without them.
The Last Thoughts:
That Burning Sensation: I can’t stop thinking about playing this game… I’ve conned my gaming group into playing it, even, as our next campaign. That means expect a full review soon.
Those Good Ideas: The game gives you a checklist for the end of each session. That’s great! It supports the game’s mechanics, helps players get recognized for their contributions, promotes you talking about your game (which heads of interpersonal conflicts), and helps detox from such a high tension play environment as the one this game promotes.
The Art: The pastiches of olde-schoole fighting plates from European manuals of arms instruction, re-imagined with fantasy warriors, are some of the most inspired and inspiring game artwork I’ve seen in a while. Blending modern clean-line design with an old category of picture. Great stuff. Didn’t actually know what these were until a friend pointed them out to me, loved them even more when I knew what they were referencing.
Worth it? Yes. I’d pick this book up just to read it, Crane’s got great things to say about RPGs, and even if you’re not planning on playing the game you can’t go wrong.
I Need Stars: Fine. Four and a half out of five stars – the only thing holding this game back is the complexity of some of the systems. If you don’t mind complexity, like me, then this game is probably five stars.
In Actual Play, I write a bit about a game recently played. These posts are part reflection on the session, part system commentary, and part recounting of the events that happened ‘in-game.’ In my Apocalypse World actual plays, I draw back the veil a bit and try to let you in on my meta-commentary on how the game sessions go, and what I think the system is doing for us while we play. Sometimes I bold phrases, and that’s because I’m trying to point out something the game tells us to, usually using a ‘move’ that the game book encapsulates in that exact phrase.
Just joining us? Read up on Session One and the characters here.
Unity gets interrupted by Tao, again, who always interrupts him while he’s meditating to announce future badness , and Tao says there’s literal smoke on the horizon towards Kree. Some jerk named Roark who smells like smoke tries to start a fight with Lars in the bar. Lars pawns off the fight on one of his gang members. Unity goes hunting for his gang members, and Vigilance acts like it’s a bad idea. Anyway, Unity tracks down a bunch of his guys at Waystation bar, and there’s Roark beating the snot out of two of Lars’ guys. Unity makes them back down by shooting into the air, to great effect. Roark decides to chat with unity, who quickly figures out that Roark was the one who burned down the nearby farm. So, Unity tells him to head out from Purpose and go burn down Caryard or Boilin, and to not come back. Then Unity gets his guys together and starts the walk towards Kree. Back in Waystation, this weedy guy called Pierre sidles up to Lars and says he knows some sweet salvage. Lars tells him to go die, but wheedles the location of the salvage out of him anyways. Salvage is this recently burned down farm, so Lars and his boys grab their bikes and go roaring off to Kree (past Unity’s boys) and run off (nearly run over) a couple early defenders of the burned farm. They scavenge everything they can find, knives, food, and bounce before the cavalry show up. One of Lars’ guys thinks it’d be a hoot to run down and kill the defenders, but Lars puts his foot down on that particular idea before it can take root.
In Actual Play, I write a bit about a game recently played. These posts are part reflection on the session, part system commentary, and part recounting of the events that happened ‘in-game.’
Apocalypse World is a clever game by Indie game designer D. Vincent Baker. Since this is an actual play post, I’m mostly going to lean away from various commentary on the system and its merits or disadvantages. Suffice to say, it’s smart, nontraditional, highly narrative, collaborative, and begged to be played. Not to mention that as someone who appreciates a nice turn of phrase and clever use of tone, Vincent Baker can carry both off with admirable aplomb.
Apocalypse World has a very specific set of interestingly collaborative rules based around the first session. So, with a bit of fiddling about and very little preparation (per the book’s instruction), I set off and gathered players for the game. Probably not the ideal players, in fact. I got some of my oldest friends, guys who usually stick to straightforward, non-narrative games. Because A) You go to war with the army you have, and B) I want to know if anyone who has played an RPG can pick up this type of system, run with it, and have fun.