I’m wondering if anyone has experience or thoughts about running Burning Wheel when players come and go from week to week.
I’m running a Torchbearer campaign online right now, with folks across the US, and it’s been getting harder to find a time for all of us to get together. There are five players, and I try to schedule when everyone can make it, but of course we’re sometimes down a player, and if we’re missing two we usually call it a night. This is okay, but if players are missing there’s 1) the problem of balancing encounters (“Oh, you’re about up to the big baddy room, but your fighter and magician are gone, haha.”) and 2) Torchbearer seems very much a team game so it’s just kind of a bummer if the team is incomplete, even if they could survive.
I’m wondering if Burning Wheel might be a little better suited to having a player or two missing from week to week. I’ve run the Duchy Verdorben adventure, but otherwise most of my impression of BW come from the Roll20 series. There, the players very much kind of did their own thing, and play progressed mostly as a spotlight from one character to the next. This makes it seem like having a missing player or two wouldn’t disrupt things too much.
Has anyone had an experience like this or other advice?
One of the examples mentioned in the rules for practicing is a character not being with the group for a period of time, so BW is potentially better suited than many systems because it has a mechanism for handling that situation rather than leaving it up to the GM to throw together what seems like a fair rule.
The practice rules are also quite abstracted and don’t provide the same pay-offs as actually playing, so mean the first session a player is back after an absence isn’t bogged down by a discussion of the cool things they were doing “off screen”.
However, as you point out, there can be situations where the group is together and about to, for example, go into a room when the session ends. I don’t think a system can ever deal with that smoothly without an explicit, “the GM puppets missing players” rule. But I do think the helping rules and other grouping-up systems in BW can reduce the impact of a missing player somewhat: unlike many systems where each player almost always does their own tests, a big part of BW is to pick the key point of challenge then bundle together possible advantages and support; so, while missing players can’t make tests, there’s the option of ruling if a character was present at the end of the session, they can provide an appropriate advantage die/help die until the scene ends.
For example, the magician is with the other characters when they step into the throne room at the end of the session but misses the next session: so, during the confrontation with the evil sorcerer-king, characters get +1D on Versus tests involving magic; the absence isn’t as severe but the missing player doesn’t gather tests or impact the session as much as those who are present.
That said, my primary approach if I knew the group wouldn’t be the same every week would be to plan session end points to fall at the end of a scene.
We also try to end sessions where it won’t be a problem…but things happen. We do something similar.
When there’s no narrative way for a character to “not be around”, what we have defaulted to is picking a couple key things about the character, and allowing them to be a Helping Die or Advantage for the session, with the idea that the character is bound in the overall outcomes.
In my group (of 4 characters), we play if one person is missing.
It’s generally worked just fine because we play with the beliefs of who is present and then handwaved anything we need as necessary.
There’s been a few instances where the whole group would have been better, but we adjusted well, I think!
Another aspect of BW that is relevant is the system encourages leaning into failure as much as it does succeeding.
Advancing traits, especially once they are higher level, requires making Challenging tests; so, getting better requires players put their characters in situations that are probably too much for them. Given getting out of a jam is an important thing and leaving in victory isn’t, doing things that really are too much is rewarded again with another test for getting out of it.
So, arguably, having a player missing when their character would be really useful benefits those who are there by providing more opportunity for non-Routine tests.
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