Player initiative versus GM initiative

From time to time your story hits a pause point where, perhaps for just a couple of minutes or maybe longer, there are no tests that need to be resolved, no one’s asking questions about training, it’s not time for a trait vote, the player characters aren’t en route to somewhere, etc. Often this is the state at the beginning of a play session.

I’m curious to hear from y’all what happens next? When the game starts moving again how often is it due to GM initiative or player initiative? By GM initiative I’m thinking of times when you as GM frame a scene and throw something at your players that isn’t really what your players were asking for. It’s something you just came up with out of the blue as a fun vignette or hook, it’s logical or perhaps somewhat random, and let’s assume of course that it challenges the beliefs of one or more of the characters. “You’re hanging out at the bar when the best friend of the man you’ve sworn to kill enters, walks up to the counter, and orders a drink.” Or, “The Earl wants to chat with you. Do you go? Do you take anyone with you?” “While you’re counting the loot from the last heist a dragon rips the roof off the bar. Grab scripting sheets, we’re in Fight!”

By player initiative I mean that the action keeps moving forward because your players are so proactive about using Circles and Wises that you never feel the need to do anything more than react.

Where on this spectrum are your games?

Where would you like to be on this spectrum?


Its definitely up to the GM to break those kind of awkward moments but sometimes I do ask the player flat-out if there are any beliefs they want to chase down. I try not to ask, “What next?” too often but it happens.

I look at the beliefs and instincts, see if there is anything I can poke at. Next up are the relationships and affiliations for scene ideas. If nothing on the character sheet is inspiring a scene after all that, something needs to be changed.

My group is still adapting to Burning Wheel-only 1 session in! - so I still have a lot more authorial control than I would ideally have. In a perfect world, momentum, creativity, and the mechanics would allow players to continue creating creating scenes, but realistically, I expect to at least set the situation at the start of each session. We’ll see, though. I’ll only need to set the scene for the player who missed last session this time, as the players’ courses of action have been determined in play.

As I player I let the GM get the ball rolling, but if things have gone from comfortable silence to 'so, here we all are then", I look at our beliefs and get something going. Especially if there is a belief that is not getting ‘the love’, and if there is something I want to chase I have no problem being proactive about it either. I am also happy with the GM saying “what next”, so long as he is willing to see where we take it and engage us from there.

These pauses stopped happening in our last BW game once we realized that if we weren’t doing something proactive the GM was definitely going to find something to hit us with. I know I had an epiphany one day looking at my beliefs when I realized I had spent the last two sessions reacting and not really pushing forward. I resolved to always come to the game with an agenda for the session. Whenever there was a lull, I was ready to jump in with something I wanted to do.

That is the purpose of the Beliefs. Every Belief has a goal built in it. If you want something to happen, write a Belief about it.

As a GM, you can put a situation in front of the players (in accordance to the characters’ Beliefs for example) or you can begin to ask questions. A lot, lot of question, in the John Harper way. Sometimes, the players can ask questions each other, so you don’t have to do much. Those moments are great. xD

“So, what do you do?”. I say it a lot when I’m GMeing. In character creation I urge my players to write Beliefs that have a stated goal (at least one Belief, sometimes two). Then we start the adventure, and I dedicate myself to complicate their goals. By the time of the awkward silence the characters “lives” are so twisted and problematic that I can go with “You lost your father consent, your thieves guild and your lover is far, far away… what do you do about it?”.

Stay cool :cool:

For a four hour BW session I try to come to the table armed with a grabby situation to kick things off and 4 to 8 beats (what Ron Edwards’ game Sorcerer calls “Bangs”) to introduce over the course of the session to step things up. There are always at least a few more that I come up with on the fly based on the players’ actions and run with.

Here’s an ancient thread that goes into a bit more detail.


The game never runs itself. I’d say that the better I’ve gotten at setting games up and leading the chargen process the more inspired I am to make GM-ful decision once play starts.

Don’t ask just that. Ask specific questions:

[i]"How long do you travel?

“What is the size of the cell? Do you have a bed where you rest? Any window?”

“Do you heard what she said? That was pretty insulting, wasn’t it?”

“Your brother is going to escape with the treasure. Do you inform your superiors?”

“Damn elves. You always say they are so arrogant. How can you really like this pointy-eared moron?”[/i]

Play the devil and the angel on the player shoulders. You don’t need to do this, but I find it very rewarding.

My first response would be: I don’t know. Really. There are too much options there. I think it’s better to be very specific. Specific situations require specific responses.

Well, of course, “What you do” is just the one I use the most.

Then you are giving me “permission” to focus my attention in other player as you think about it :wink:

Anyway, every gaming group has it’s own customs, ways of interacting and unwritten rules. In my opinion the only “wrong” way to handle things like these is when the adventure (and hence the fun) comes to a halt.

Stay cool :cool:

For a six year old thread, that’s got some good stuff in it, Thor. That’s how I’m striving to run my game - except for the massive preparation that combat demanded, it was even how I ran my old 4e game. For this campaign, I had extensive knowledge of the setting and major players, but I basically had lists of NPCs and individual conflict situations for each player ready to line up and send into action, with a few tests and obstacles written out for almost-inevitable situations.

Judd: I know, I think I communicated my point poorly. I like playing the most when I’m reacting to them just as much as they’re reacting to me. I love the impromptu element of coming up with a character based on a Circles roll, of setting a scene that a player called for that I never expected to happen, and so on. If the game really ran itself, I would be sad; I just like it when it’s Bang-Reaction-Reaction-Reaction-Reaction etc. rather than Bang-Reaction Bang-Reaction, where the DM has to intervene an awful lot to keep the action moving. I prefer simply being “one of the players” in maintaining the flow and egging each other on, albeit a player with greater responsibilities.

I’m still not sure I’m saying that quite right. Hopefully my meaning is clear.

When the game comes to one of those lulls, it usually means that the PCs have a bit of freedom to choose their own actions, rather than being forced to react to external influences. So, when this happens, and I have no pre-prepared bang I can use, here’s what I do:

  1. I say “What do you want to do next?”
  2. I then list off a few options I could see the PCs taking. (Suggesting options is important! It gets the ball rolling.)
  3. I add a final option of “Or whatever else you’d like to do.” (This let’s the players know they have a choice, and are allowed to be creative about it.)
  4. I then finish up with, “Or, if there’s nothing you have in mind, I have an idea I could set in motion…” I grin evilly, as if I have a truly nefarious bang up my sleeve.
  5. I sit back and watch the players scramble to quickly come up with a plan of action, and I use this time to think of a bang I could hit them with if they take too long discussing shit.

Works a charm. ^^

Your lull quashing methodology hereby has my stamp of approval.

Wow. Maybe I should add that this is not only my lull quashing methodology, but pretty much how I run my games. Lol… I’m a lazy GM. I usually only prepare a single bang to kickstart each session with, and then just improv from there, constantly reacting to players’ reactions. It works well for me. Most of the time, at least.

Do I still get a stamp? Haha!

Wow. I’m worst. I never prepare anything, except to play Gumshoe (and not always). I maybe think a situation, but most of the time only in the very moment. I think Thor bangs idea sounds pretty well.

I tend to keep a bunch of different “types” of challenges around, and look for ways to shoehorn them into the situation as I’m challenging BIT’s. My planning is really more of a sketch, and I fill in details with my players’ Beliefs.

I’m terrible at poking Instincts.

Also, when in doubt: blow something up.