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One Hour Roleplaying with Burning Wheel

March 18, 2012

I just ran a super-light version of Burning Wheel to demo roleplaying to a friend of one of my group. This came at the end of a boardgaming night without a lot of prep time, but I went ahead and it worked great. I’m going to talk about the techniques I used.

Here’s what I did and how it worked:

Start with a Genre

“What kinds of movies or books are you into?” is what I started with. I refined it a bit more, “Any kind of action movies you like?” and basically found out that everyone had seen, and enjoyed Kurosawa and similar samurai fiction.

I start with a genre because if everyone knows the tropes, it’s easier to tell a common story. It seems like a lot of the time when there’s a disconnect between “what fits within this game”, it comes from lack of a common genre expectation or knowledge of what outcomes the rules typically produce.

From Genre, Situations

While we ate dinner, I quickly thought up a couple of 1-sentence scenarios that might be interesting. When we sat down to play, I tossed them around and kept my ears open if anyone had suggestions. We ended up going with, “The night before battle, the daimyo is assassinated – his generals must protect the heir and decide what to do next.” (Cheat: this is almost exactly the starting situation of Poison’d except modified to samurai genre)

The scenarios were pretty easy to do, because if you know the genre, you know the tropes. Don’t worry if the starting situation sounds too hackneyed or unoriginal, the characters, and the play, will make things interesting and unique – just focus on something that has conflict and that is exciting to the group.

From Situation, Characters

Next, I asked three questions that outlined the characters:

1. What’s your name, age, and what are you best known for?
2. What is your ambition, personal or grand?
3. You’ve failed your lord in some way. How?

Obviously, these 3 questions would be different if the game was focused on superheroes, a diamond-heist, a grim war story, whatever. But basically it boils down to a basic outline of the character, a “positive” or active thing to aim for in the situation, and a negative/haunting thing that can be another source of problems. I thought up these 3 questions during dinner, which maybe took 10 minutes to do, but mostly it deals with genre familiarity to know what things will create room for conflict.

We also made suggestions and played off each others’ ideas. The players being familiar with the genre knew to differentiate the characters based on stereotypical character types – the cool tactician, the mighty yet brash war-general, the old schemer with his own ambitions and a spy network…

From Characters, Conflict

With the three questions above, we had: a general who had been skimming off crucial funds to pay off gambling debts, leaving them under-supplied, one who was sleeping with the Daimyo’s wife, and one who was hoping to take the heir as his puppet while he ruled the clan. I asked the players to suggest an important NPC – they came up with the Daimyo’s brother who was charismatic, but disgraced years ago, and therefore not entirely fit to rule.

Rules, briefly

Notice I hadn’t spoken anything about mechanics until this point. The questions that hang in the players’ heads are, “Will the clan survive the battle? Will I fulfill my ambitions? Will I make up for my past?” – the players really want to know the answers to these things. The players are invested.

Now it’s time for rules. I explain:

“You’re going to roll a bunch of dice. You want a 4 or higher. Each die that comes up 4 or higher is a success, and more successes is better. When you spend an orange token, you get an extra die to roll. When you roll a 6 and spend a blue token, you get extra dice. Going after your Ambition, or dealing with your Failure can get you extra orange or blue tokens.”

I give each player 2 orange and 1 blue to start.

For each player, after hearing their description of what their character is best known for, I give them a 1-word description to write down on their character sheet, rated at 5 – “Courage 5″, “Tactician 5″, “Cunning 5″

Demonstrated during play, not before it

What I don’t say at the beginning, but have happen during play is this: if it’s their specialty, they get 5 dice, otherwise they get 4 dice. If they make an excellent description/dialogue that goes with the action, they get an advantage die (which I do announce- “you get an extra die for awesome dialogue”) and if they get a major NPC to side with them, they also get an extra die (“Toshiro-sama finds your plan reasonable and gives his approval – here’s an extra die”).

I would prompt players, “Tell me what your argument is. Tell me how you’re doing this.” and that would help me figure out if it was worth an advantage die or not.

During play, I made sure each scene gets 1, and only 1, conflict roll. This makes each roll every important as it determines which way the events will swing.

Scenes

I knew we were getting to the end of the night, so I aimed for trying to get 3 scenes out of this. (In the end, I think we had 5, but basically 3 scenes were major, and 2 scenes were minor.)

1. Start your first scene with all the characters present and a reason to interact. A debate/argument/discussion is always a good one. It allows the players a chance to show off their characters and develop their relationships to each other. In this case, I used the initial strategy meeting as the place to do things.

The nice thing about this kind of debate scene is that it immediately points to the next scenes- people have made decisions about what to do, or have stepped on each others’ toes enough that it’s easy to figure out the next interesting events.

2. The second major scene should focus on the attempt of any plans or actions which have been decided from the first scene- and the consequences for good or ill from them. You can, and should, skip ahead to where the critical actions are going down, in terms of time. If this were a movie, think of the next BIG scene that would be a major focus of the story. Skip everything else in-between.

3. Finally, the last major scene should be some kind of resolution of the goals you’ve gotten for the characters- set up a do-or-die moment for everyone and get them to figure out what happens or not. It ended up being a final argument/discussion scene followed by everyone rolling dice to carry out their decisions.

Theory Stuff

Think of new ideas like food you eat with your hands – you can only hold so much at one time, and you can only digest so much at a time. Too much new ideas at once, and you start dropping them. So everything I did here was based on that logic.

Start with story genres people are familiar with so they have grounding. Start fiction first – ask fiction based questions which get them oriented and excited. Explain rules in a jargon-free fashion. If you can, always point to a physical object rather than a game term (“Dice”, “Orange Tokens”, “Blue tokens”, not “Exponents”, “Artha”, “Persona” – the abstraction becomes yet another idea the player has to hold in their head).

Minimize character stats- assume you, not the new players, will be the one having to handle every number on their sheet, likewise, assume every stat you put on their sheet becomes yet another thing they have navigate. You want to be able to have a functional game even if the player’s only frame of reference for making decisions is answering the question, “What do you do and how do you do it?” – which means it has to be simple enough you can make the translations between the math of the game and the imaginary events.

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