Beliefs and reverse player intent - BW philosophy

Hi, so this is not a situation that I have seen in play so far but I think it is quite important to get a judgement on as part of the game philosophy. To start I wouldn’t like this to become a discussion on what a ‘bad’ player is and does, so lets shelve that as much as possible. Arses shall be arses.

So, supposing Beliefs are a declaration of the player’s intent to play more of a topic, what is the thinking around the crafting of beliefs whilst being aware of this. I know that if I write a belief on something it is going to be challenged and that situation or my character will be changed. Eventually, it seems like there must be a point where you say ‘no I wont do that’ to accomplish a belief. So if I as a player want my character to remain true to what I had created them like (in one way, not in every way) I could simply not ever write a belief about this characterisation. Likewise, by being self-aware it is possible to choose beliefs that are actually the opposite or only partially what we want for our PC - because we know that we will be challenged to stick to a belief but not so much to cave into pressure from the challenge? On a less insidious level, should the player have medium-long term plans for a character and their development - these will obviously shape the beliefs we write and being able to predict what the challenges might be we can effect our plans, even though as a character we have no clue of ‘if I believe something and try to do something for it, something must stand in the way’? It seems like the only way to play the game without being aware of beliefs and how they play out is to be so in character that you do not ever look at the player level of the game. Is this something worth aiming for, even achievable, or would it undermine the collective nature of ttRPGs?

Beliefs are what the game is about. If you don’t make your Beliefs that, you’re going to get a game that isn’t actually what you want to be playing, and you’ll probably have less fun.

The other wrinkle is that pursuing Beliefs is how you get artha, and artha is the fuel to succeed at hard tests and eventually advance skills without constantly failing miserably. If you craft Beliefs you intend not to follow you’re not going to get any artha and your character will be less effective.

Not being aware of Beliefs is the opposite of the goal of BW. You should have your Beliefs in mind and pursue them aggressively, both because you care about them and for sweet, sweet artha. The GM should have them in mind and build the game around them. Other players should have them in mind and try to give you opportunities to pursue or showcase them. It’s a team effort!

It’s easy to think of Beliefs as “stuff the GM challenges” and that’s true, to an extent, but it’s not really what Beliefs are about or for. They’re the signal of what matters to the character and what matters to the player. The game is about seeing what happens when those Beliefs are pursued. The challenges and obstacles are because interesting play requires obstacles; if you just got everything you wanted you’d have a pretty boring story. Adversity is where the fun is! It would be equally unsatisfying in a traditional D&D dungeon crawl to have monsters that didn’t fight back; you could get experience and loot but it’d be quick and not very satisfying.

BWHQ sometimes espouses a particularly gritty, beat the characters down and then punch them while they’re down style of play. You can certainly do that, but I don’t think you have to. A simple way to think of it is that the character has a Belief, and the story is about that Belief. A good story requires a character to overcome problems and grow, so that’ll happen on the way to accomplishing and living up the Belief. Now multiply that by all the Beliefs of all the characters and you have a campaign. If you want a character to stay true to a Belief, great—play the character so that he or she does that, no matter the cost or adversity. And if the cost turns out to be too high, you’ve learned something. That Belief isn’t paramount, there’s something else that matters more, or as much… and you should probably put it in a Belief (as a replacement or as an addition to the previous Belief).

It’s also fine to have long-term character plans. You don’t have to, but you can, and it’s great to share them with the group. “Geor has the Belief ‘Service to the crown is everything’ but I really want to play out having his faith in the kingdom destroyed and have him turn into a die-hard rebel.” That sounds like an interesting character arc, so go for it. The arc isn’t itself a Belief, it’s the evolution and eventual inversion of that Belief, but it’s something everyone at the table can probably have fun with, so be open about it so everyone can take part. It’s interesting, and a challenge, to have Geor find that the king’s a deeply flawed guy, but it’s also interesting to still have reason to be a royalist. Whether Geor turns rebel in the end or not you learn more about him and the world and have fun.

I think any approach to Burning Wheel that focuses on the things you don’t want challenged is likely to result in frustration and consternation. Beliefs are challenged by the GM precisely because they are what drives the character forward. The player is supposed to be focused on their Beliefs too. Starting off with the mindset that there is something so vital to the character concept that it cannot be the focus of a Belief suggests that the player may want to investigate games that aren’t designed to put the character through the mill. That’s not a criticism. I’m not always in the mood for what BW does, and in those cases I reach for a different thing. Fate’s a good example. It is never going to force you to rewrite an aspect. It’s not built to challenge your “Two Fisted Fighter” or “Smuggler With A Heart of Gold.” They can get you into trouble, but the game isn’t likely to destroy everything your character thought he stood for.

Ultimately, as a BW player or GM, I’m interested in your Beliefs. That’s going to be my focus. That’s the lens through which I’m going to view your character.

“Eventually, it seems like there must be a point where you say ‘no I wont do that’ to accomplish a belief. So if I as a player want my character to remain true to what I had created them like (in one way, not in every way) I could simply not ever write a belief about this characterization.”

I’m not sure what you mean by this statement. There is nothing is Burning Wheel that compels a player to take actions that the character would not do. The GM may dangle a really hard choice in front of you to tempt you to betray one part of your character to fulfill a belief. Whether you stay true to the original character concept and ride out the consequences, decide that this forces a changes of heart and rewrite your beliefs, or whether you cave in a moment of weakness and redouble your commitment to the challenged belief, that is all great stuff. So putting up a Belief doesn’t come with an expectation of that Belief being changed though it certainly can.

I think a lot of my original thoughts were actually covered in the Codex when I dug a little further into it (p18-21). One point I drew in particular they seem happy to advise that players write beliefs with the challenges and reverse (moldbreaker) options in mind. I also agree with wayfarers assessment that the authors have more of a “punch them while they’re down” attitude, which I was getting at with my "“no I wont do that’ to accomplish a belief” point. I do think that there is wiggle-room to allow for games that aren’t so harsh with their challenges, but this isn’t particularly covered in the BWG book.

In conclusion, I didn’t exactly ask clear questions to begin and that has made it very difficult to answer or even discuss. If I were to have another shot, I would ask: how can we as players and GMs be better at allowing the fiction to drive our Beliefs rather than ‘metagame’ goals?

Can you give me an example of a metagame goal that might be problematic?

If I were to have another shot, I would ask: how can we as players and GMs be better at allowing the fiction to drive our Beliefs rather than ‘metagame’ goals?

I am finding this question difficult to answer because I think of Burning Wheel as a game designed to have the Beliefs drive the fiction so the reverse feels odd. Having said that, I think the main thing to remember is that Beliefs are not straitjackets. They can be changed pretty regularly and it is expected that they do so as goals are accomplished and priorities shift.

So as a GM, don’t forget to salt your stories with interesting happenings and background events that may or may not tie into the main plot line or the players beliefs. Make you world feel a little bigger than your characters. Drop some intriguing stuff here and there that might catch their attention.

As a player, don’t be afraid to change a Belief that isn’t working for you. If something happens in the game that you want to dig into and focus on, it is perfectly fine to write a Belief about it and make it a new focus.

Something I brushed with as a time as a player with one of my characters: I really wanted an arc of falling to deprivation/evil and then rising again to morality. With this I would have a belief like ‘I will rise to the top, no matter who’s corpse I must stand on’. The problem arose when I was trying to force my character towards this goal where it broke verisimilitude (spelling?) and where I was almost disregarding the Belief just to try and hit that rock bottom. Thankfully, I learned as I was going along that I shouldn’t force a player goal so much and hopefully am now presenting a less stupid evil character. I would like to add that I was in communication with my fellow players/GM about what I was aiming for and we all agreed it was fine, so the problem wasn’t just me being a poor player.

To summarise; an example might be where a metagame goal is pursued over character Beliefs or game mechanics.

I agree that Beliefs do drive gameplay, but I would hazard that the fiction/setting/situation (however you might call it) is necessary for Beliefs to be developed. It seems like that premise is reflected in your GM advice.

BW definitely breaks down if Beliefs aren’t actually what the game is about. It’s probably the most common thing that makes games flame out quickly and messily, especially with new players/GMs, at least going by my experience (guilty!) and what I’ve read on forums. That usually comes in the form of Beliefs that are fine but not actually pursued. Beliefs that are fine but actively undermined by some metagame goal is just an extension of that.

If you want the game to be about something, you have to find a way to put it in Beliefs. “I’ll do anything and pay any price to get ahead” is a fine Belief (needs a specific next step, but there are lots of places you can take that). The GM can present you chances to double down on evil and see just how far you’ll go. Fun stuff! But whether you’re going to be stupid about it is up to you, the player. No rules can prevent bad player behavior. (BW is relatively good about censuring bad player behavior justified by bad character behavior, but the reverse can’t be baked into a game in any way I can conceive.)

The two are intertwined and they will both influence each other as a game unfolds.

As far as your metagame issue, the Burning Wheel answer really is to put as much of the story arc that you want to play into your Beliefs and Instincts as possible and to be upfront with the GM as to the kind of thing you want to see in play. Give yourself character traits that point to your fall and later redemption. Choose a Belief that leads you into darkness but keep an instinct like Always honor a bargain or Prevent children from coming to harm to have a path back into the Light.

Of course, it is always good advice to be open to your character traveling paths and making choices that you did not expect from the beginning but that feel right in the moment. We are playing an RPG not writing a novel after all. Characters and GMs have a way of pleasantly surprising us.