More than perhaps any other game I’ve encountered, Burning Wheel really needs a common buy-in from players in order to make it viable. This realization forms the theme of my reaction to the game, which I’ll describe here in support of Ben’s postgame breakdown from last week.
He pointed out that our party sort of self-destructed because Burning Wheel’s beliefs system tends to force players into antagonistic roles. This is especially true in a “burned world” – that is, a setting created on the spot by the players and the GM. Because Burning Wheel encourages players to create a unique game setting just prior to character creation, there’s relatively little shared knowledge out there for players to draw upon. When one character seizes upon a bit of backstory or history, the other players tend to leap aboard as well, sometimes crafting opposing beliefs.
In our game, this happened once we sketched out the concept of the Tome of Architecture. We agreed it was a big, powerful book of Dwarven lore, and each of the characters then created beliefs involving the Tome. It turned out that they were all some variation of “I want the Tome for myself, and I’ll do anything to get it.” As you can imagine, this led to inter-party conflict and ultimately brought the party to a premature end (with my character fleeing with the book and then falling, pierced with arrows, into a lava river, still clutching the Tome). It's very telling that our GenCon demo also ended this way, with players competing to seize a bit of treasure in a dungeon.
So what’s the solution? I think it involves having some sort of macro-level buy-in that all the players can agree to, something that artificially removes the temptation of crafting adversarial beliefs, at least initially. This can be as simple as the good old “you were sent by the king to investigate X” or as complex as the feuding members of a royal family willing to put aside their bickering in order to achieve some shared goal.
It also helps if the players are all more or less heroes; we played a “morally ambiguous” group in our Burning Wheel experience, and I think it helped escalate our downward spiral.
Anyway. All the other game elements were a lot of fun – the social encounters, the “scripted” combat, as well as the FORK mechanism, which is the designers’ term for loading your die pool with relevant traits and abilities. My biggest regret (in retrospect) is that we completed our campaign meltdown having barely scratched the surface of Ben’s overarching story. Bummer!