How does roleplaying work again?

9 September, 2008 at 5:24 pm (Burning Wheel, game mastering, roleplaying) ()

I’ll be introducing a new player to the wonderful world of roleplaying games and specifically my game mastering style and Burning Wheel rules. Two other players are likely not used to my style. Here’s a rough outlay of what I’m going to say, subject to change without notice (and the paragraph about beliefs will be discussed before or as beliefs are created). Heavily inspired by Levi Kornelsen’s post on the subject.

Add examples to the text as appropriate.

The content

Most play is casual or freeform play; I, or sometimes someone else, provides a situation and you, and often other people, tell what their characters do there. You say “My character blah blah” or “I blah blah”, whichever feels more natural. So: I give a situation, you act, I react, you react, so on.

I might skip between several characters or groups of characters if you are not in the same place. I might even ask some of you to play an NPC if your character is not present. You can decline, if you don’t want to do so, or play an NPC without any prompting. I’ll keep big important NPCs unless otherwise mentioned, though.

Evidently there will be tension in the game; maybe threat of violence, maybe an argument, maybe a risky financial move. Play will be slightly more regulated then. I explain the situation, if it is not already explained, and ask each player who is playing a character in that scene to tell what they are doing. You’ll say, or if you don’t know what to do, I will give a few suggestions. Others can, too. Sometimes it is appropriate to change your actions after hearing what others do, sometimes not.

The actions you tell are resolved in some order, typically from the least important to the most important. It is important that you always tell what you are trying to achieve and how you are going to do that. I have veto power over both, but will try to not use it; generally, almost all intentions are okay, the exceptions being genre-breaking stuff or general absurdity or dadaism. The action may also be inappropriate due to the rules, as many abilities in the game have limited scope. I’ll also ask for confirmation if you are doing something that sounds profoundly stupid and further make explicit why it seems so. We probably are seeing the game world in different ways.

So, once you have an appropriate action and intention, I have two answers I can give. First is to say “Okay. Go ahead.” The second is to use the mechanics; we’ll determine what you are rolling and I’ll tell the difficulty. You can also get more dice from elsewhere, but more on this later. You can choose to abort your action at this point if the difficulty is, say, too high. If you make the roll, you achieve your intention as specified in your action. If you fail, the intention may or may not be fulfilled, but either way it will not be pleasant. Sometimes I tell what will happen before you roll, sometimes after. Be that as it may, the results will stand; there is no retrying until circumstances change in a radical way.

Some parts of the game have more complicated subsystems, but I’ll explain those if and when necessary. In almost all rolls you can get more dice by spending artha or naming other relevant skills or getting help. Help means that another character with some relevant numbers on the character sheet lends a hand, giving you one or two dice, if you want them. You can also fork, which stands for field of related knowledge, skills by saying how you are using them or how they are of benefit to get one or rarely two dice. Some traits also give dice in particular situations.

There’s also the matter of artha, beliefs and instincts. Beliefs indicate what you want, as a player, to see in game and what your character wants to achieve. They generally should have two parts; an ideological principle or personal belief and a concrete action the other part fuels. Instincts also tell what you want to see in play and maybe what you want to avoid in play, of which you should notify me. If you don’t know what your character would do in game, consult your beliefs and instincts and traits and sense of the dramatic. Note that your beliefs and decisions will greatly shape the play; I don’t have a pre-designed story for you to play through.

A bit on character loss and lethality: Burning Wheel is not a lethal game. Characters rarely die. BW is a pretty gritty game, and getting hurt sucks. Don’t do it. Once the game starts, I won’t be protecting you from the consequences of your actions. I won’t try to kill you characters, either, beyond the extent of what is necessary to make an interesting game. If you do manage to get your character killed, it hopefully happens in a climatic encounter, in which game the game is about to end. I’ll give you an NPC to play where possible or you can play in other groups or just spectate. If there is still significant play time, I’ll give you an NPC for the session and then we can make a new character for further play if you are still interested.

A bit about squick factor. If there is something you really, really, don’t want to see in game, like graphic violence or rape, say so now or in game. We’ll fade to black or not have it happen or whatever is appropriate. There probably will not be anything excessive, at least as introduced by me.

7 Comments

  1. Brent P. Newhall said,

    Good overview. I do this as well. I’ve had great success in telling my players what frustrates me.

    I explain that I can get “testy” or “frustrated” when I get a lot of questions at once, or when we’re dealing with a confusing rule. In the first case, I ask that they hold off on a question if I’m already answering one or two others. In the second case, I explain that if we’re spending too much time investigating one rule, I’ll often make a reasonable ruling for the moment and continue, and we can look up the rule later.

    This has eliminated players dog-piling on me for rules clarifications, and calmed down folks’ reactions when I move on instead of finding the “right” rule in the book.

  2. Callan said,

    You know I come from a fairly different perspective, so this might be useful: Describe thirty seconds of play, with a mock up of actual play as you’d imagine it. Then describe what is the fun thing about that account – the sort of fun that will keep happening in the game.

    Also, avoid an actual play account which isn’t really representative of play – if you have an account which has two characters sword fighting on the edge of a cliff during a storm, that’s okay if the whole game is like that. But if it isn’t what the whole game is like, it’s not very representative of the game.

    Indeed, several thirty second accounts might be useful, with the fun of each one described afterward.

  3. Tommi said,

    Brent,
    I might have to mention that I don’t like using the books in actual play. Good one. Thanks for mentioning it.

    Callan,
    An interesting idea, but there are two reasons I won’t implement it. The first is that I don’t know where the players will take the game. There may be rebellions or rabble-rousing or assassinations or skulking in the shadows or running from angry mobs or whatnot.

    The second reason is that I have no idea what those people will fun in this game. I’ll let them define their own fun as they see fit. If someone looks disinterested, I’ll ask after a session if something is wrong or if he can’t grasp the game or some other relevant question.

  4. Callan said,

    Do they know they are to define their own fun in gameplay? That’d be something to write a paragraph on.

  5. Tommi said,

    Callan,
    That is a very good point. Thanks.

  6. the_blunderbuss said,

    Hello my good lad (and of course hello to the rest of the people commenting), let me share a few things with you…

    “If you make the roll, you achieve your intention as specified in your action. If you fail, the intention may or may not be fulfilled, but either way it *will not be pleasant.* ”

    Dangerous choice of words in my opinion, it gives the idea that the result of a failed roll is a penalty on the player rather than a penalty on the character. I know that this is not the case (because I’ve talked to you) but people that are new to roleplaying and that have a very limited framework to work with might not.

    “Note that your beliefs and decisions will greatly shape the play; I don’t have a pre-designed story for you to play through.”

    This is a good up front comment, the idea that they are sitting down to play an interactive “Choose your Own Adventure” book could be problematic and cause players to be overly passive. On the other hand, you do not want to make it look like everyone’s fun will be in their hands and they better not screw up.

    … Alright, everyone’s fun is (in a way) in their hands and it would be highly desirable for them to not do something un-fun. Regardless I would go to great lengths to ensure that everyone does not get fear of failure regarding the game. I liked this approach much better…

    “Most play is casual or freeform play; I, or sometimes someone else, provides a situation and you, and often other people, tell what their characters do there. You say “My character blah blah” or “I blah blah”, whichever feels more natural. So: I give a situation, you act, I react, you react, so on.”

    Which is pretty much all that roleplaying is about. Other than that nice read, I want to hear how the actual talks go so keep me (us) posted.

    Fred

  7. Tommi said,

    Hello Fred.

    Note that the choice of words here is characteristic of my writing style, not the way I speak (though there are similarities, like the excessive use of parenthetical notes). Further, there is a language barrier.

    I’ll be pretty explicit about what the player and the character are. I have already been, to some extent, especially when it comes to IC and OOC knowledge. Thanks for bringing this to fore.

    I also know that Opusinsania, who is a player in the game, is likely to drive play and if there is doubting others can follow along (and given the mad prophet Opusinsania is playing, it will work alright). I also have reasons to assume that Halliz will be an active player. I can live with two active players and two reactive ones, if need be. The actual style of play of the others is unknown, but unless they are excessively disruptive, they can just hang on and enjoy the ride provided by the two more active players. This is my plan B, so to speak.

    (On parenthetical note: The wiki for persistent fantasy is at fantasyrpg.wiki-site.com; I won’t properly link it so as to dodge spam.)

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