Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Burning Wheel: Declaration of Intent

This is a repost from another blog I contribute to, which I'm pulling all the RPG related stuff from to collect all the material into one place.  It was originally published at Cheapie Theatre on 12/10/13.

Not sure how to write about this subject, but basically it's about how players and game moderators interact in Tabletop RPGs.  Keeping the players engaged with the game is the primary job of the game moderator and we don't always succeed at it.  We'll struggle to analyze what went wrong and how to prevent it from happening again.  Tabletop RPGs are a social medium, so a lot of the problems are ultimately going to stem from social interaction and communication between the players.  Very rarely, there are fundamental problems with the game system, but that kind of problem can be handled if the players communicate and agree on a solution to the problem (this doesn't mean the game isn't broken, it just means the game is broken as written).  But the post title here is The Burning Wheel: Declaration of Intent.  That's because there is a tabletop RPG called The Burning Wheel and today's blogpost is all about declaring your intent.

The Burning Wheel is generally considered an 'indie' game by tabletop RPG standards.  Its 'Gold' edition is a $25 one-volume 600 page hardback about the size of a diary (A4 size, I think?).  It's medieval fantasy in the same way that J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings stories or Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea stories are medieval fantasy.  Heck, you could easily run stories set in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire (also known as A Game of Thrones) using the Burning Wheel.  But I'm going off track here.  What The Burning Wheel goes on about in its mechanics is declaration of intent, in two key ways.

First of all, the task resolution mechanics discuss something people tend to do in RPGs already.  There is the intent of a task (what you are trying to accomplish), and then there is the how.  In my games, at least, there tends to be a lot of "I want to do X." followed by "Okay, how do you plan to accomplish X?".  Then there are additional bits like establishing difficulty and the consequences of failure, which is essentially the GM establishing the stakes and getting the player to evaluate whether or not this is such a good idea and if it's really that important to the character after all.  Declaration of intent initiates a conversation between the player and the GM to accomplish something in-game.

Now here's the really subtle thing, the thing that The Burning Wheel goes into that is crucial for all tabletop RPG campaigns: the things you put on your character sheet are a declaration of intent.

How?  How is that a declaration of intent? (Again with the question of "How?", right?)

Because the things you put on your character sheet are things you feel are important enough to invest with the game's mechanics.  As The Burning Wheel puts it- "Anyone can say his character is hairy, but unless he pays the [point], it's hairy with a lowercase 'h'.  Pay the point and he's the hairiest guy around."  In essence, the things you put on the character sheet are a declaration of the kind of shenanigans that you want your character to get up to.  It is a statement to the GM: This is what I want to do in the game.  This is true in almost every RPG have encountered; everybody needs to be on about the same page with regard to what they're trying to accomplish in-game.

If we remembered that more often as GMs, there'd probably be a lot less incidents of games blowing to little pieces because due to miscommunication of what we want out of the game (our intentions with the game?).  Even though I have never ever played a single session of The Burning Wheel, understanding that a player's character choices are a declaration of intent is something I try to keep in mind in every game I run.