Reframing BW for Lower Stakes or “Slice of Life” Storytelling

I’ve been kicking this idea around in my head for at least a year now; while BW might have a target level of tension it’s typically aiming for, there is so much freedom in terms of actual subject matter. You will engage with the Hub & Spokes no matter what kind of character you make. Mechanically, a carpenter is no different from a warrior or a monarch.

So with how many mundane skills there are in the game, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the prospects of a campaign with a more “slice of life” focus. Allow me to provide an example:

Situation: The annual Winter festivities are just a couple of months away, but your home town of Leafwind has been low on morale all year as they grieve the many losses from the recent war.

Characters: Anyone really. A baker who tries to feed families who lost land or crops, a young soldier from a rival clan who abandoned their heritage to start anew, the town mayor who is currently struggling to take care of their sick spouse.

With a setup like this, you can pretty easily use the typical BW flow of play. Set a goal like “Find a home for the post-war refugees before winter” or “Find the perfect pie recipe to lift people’s spirits” and you’re off to the races.

In terms of earning a deeds point, given that the characters would already be performing selfless acts as they heal their community, you’d just use the pretty common house rule of providing deeds points at the end of an “arc” in the campaign.

And in terms of long-form campaigns, perhaps the baker wants to bake a pie for the monarch that’s so good it changes their mind about going war again. Perhaps the mayor’s spouse passes away and the mayor decides to go on a pilgrim’s journey to honor them. The sky’s the limit.

I know BW draws players in for its promise of higher stakes, constant escalation, and exciting/tragic tales, but was curious to see folks’ thoughts on my reframing of the game’s motifs and tones.

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This doesn’t seem much outside my usual conceptual framework of the game (or range of play experiences). I’m not sure what I could add here.

I’m running a game set in medieval Venice where the player is iust trying to be an honest(ish) businessman. It’s pretty chill.

:person_shrugging:

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I love it when people approach the game this way.

However, every Burning Wheel campaign needs high stakes - the castle doesn’t need to be under seige, but the emotional buy-in - and the numerous potential consequences of failure - should make your party anxious to see resolution.

Go hard on relationships - require your players to come up with interesting and fraught relationships to buy from session 0. Generally, the smaller the campaign, the more relationships the group should have.

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“HIgh stakes” is very relative. Surviving winter was pretty high stakes for lots of people.

At BWHQ, we’ve done plenty of tightly focused games where the stakes aren’t saving the whole world.

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Yeah, I was thinking “personal stakes” is maybe better terminology than “low stakes…”

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“It’s not what you fight, it’s what you fight for.”

My most satisfying Burning Wheel moments have included family arguments, and reconciliation, as well as climactic clashes between deific entities.

To push back somewhat on the idea that your game is not ‘high stakes’ as you’ve suggested it…
Housing many people after a war is a terrifying proposition, and the stakes at least as great as many wars in general: The Harrowing of the North of England and the Thirty Years War both famously caused famines and diseases that killed orders of magnitude more people than were killed in actual fighting.

If one really could convince a monarch to not wage war with a well-placed cake, then the world would be a wonderful place.

But to agree wholeheartedly with your premise: the game is what you make of it. I doubt you’ll manage to stop escalation and exciting/tragic tales just by starting from humbler beginnings and couching things in the mundane: Failure being Interesting, Challenging Beliefs, and players being invested will make any story exciting and tragic at parts. The stakes may be lower at times, the happiness of a marriage and the safety of a village as opposed to cities or nations, but that doesn’t mean that the game will be any less gripping. I’d love to see more stories about characters with skills like Chandler and Waiting Tables.

I will finish off with the pedant in me saying that slice of life play will be nigh-impossible inside Burning Wheel, in the most archetypal literary sense, as Burning Wheel’s rules for driving play, developing characters, and telling stories are somewhat at odds with the literary genre’s lack of development or change, and arbitrary sequencing.

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Glad this thread came up and love the discussion. I’m a newcomer also wondering whether BW was the right system for some stuff I wanted.

I heard from another forum that there were people who focused on business (gags, bartenders, farm, knights with their fortresses) and ways to challenge their business-focused beliefs (tax collectors, competitors, bandits, gangs, monsters).

Actually… I wanna try starting up a charity or orphanage in BW now. I’ve been wanting to work in nonprofit sector in real life, and it’s often rife with corruption, politics, naivity, strong-willed people, etc.

And in terms of long-form campaigns, perhaps the baker wants to bake a pie for the monarch that’s so good it changes their mind about going war again.

I was also encouraged to get BW because the game doesn’t necessarily discourage comedy or levity or similar, as long as failure is a looming thread and the consequences are stuff players care about.

Again, I’m a newcomer and reporting what I heard from actual players. I realized the thread was a little too optimistic about what BW can do out-of-the-box so I wanna hear from veteran players.

Does anyone have any other interesting examples of “low-stakes” premises that can shine in BW, with BW’s philosophy that life is hard and characters fight hard for their beliefs?

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What stuff is that? :innocent:

Why do you say this?

I quite like the apprentice plot. Just some neophyte sorcerer or squire or blacksmith tryin’ to make ends meet and convince people to actually spare some instruction time on you. All while balancing relationships, of course.

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So, no game I run in Burning Wheel will ever be low-stakes, but here’s an examples of a time where the remit wasn’t combat, where the difficulty was difficult life, not dungeons or dragons, and where the system shone as a way of telling tales about it:

Taft, the Hunter, failed a Resources test going into Winter. His roof showed a crack, something which exposed his family to the cold, and which his wife, the village midwife, was absolutely distraught by. She insisted the issue was that he didn’t care enough to have kept it up as he’d spent so much time in the forest (pursuing Beliefs) and she slept in their son-in-law’s house (to survive).
Taft had the Foul-Smelling trait, and the Winter involved him being told how much he smelled by his Wolf-friend, then begging tools from the blacksmith, fixing up the roof and doing a Winter-Time hunt at great personal peril to get food and a rare pelt as symbols of apology, before making a public apology/ceremony. (Village-wise did the heavy lifting for that last part, otherwise skills should be fairly obvious).

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One campaign took an unanticipated turn when the party became enamored with an unrequited crush that one NPC had for another (it was just supposed to be color). They spent an entire session conspiring to get the two to spend more time together.

Another campaign really doubled down on focusing on a single village with its own relational history that the PCs were caught up in. There were a lot of scenes where PCs would just come to visit NPCs in order to gossip, build trust, and even at one point to indirectly sue out the GM’s opinion on a course of action they were thinking of taking. One of the PCs owned the local tavern, and a huge falling out between them and the other PC occurred when an escalation to violence within the tavern challenged their belief about protecting all within. The result was a two-day long period of cold-shouldering.

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Thanks everyone who’s posted and thanks in advance to those who will, makes me excited for my first session with friends.

Hey Quincy! To be honest, I can’t remember that much.

I think I fancied playing a young, bright-eyed character, before realizing that almost no preteen can have more than two lifepaths, kids are incompetent, and many campaigns can’t have them. But it’s no deal breaker.

Hell, it’s kinda hilarious converting YA/cartoon minor-aged characters into BW with no homebrew. When I burned Avatar’s firebending banished prince and swordmaster Zuko, while still being younger than 18, he sucked at the sword and can’t read (made him a Catalyst & Born Peasant like his mom). Gives a nice feeling of groundedness and realism. I kinda wish the youngsters could afford one or more character traits, but I guess they’ll eventually be voted the traits they’re roleplayed with.

(And some other stuff I wanted but wasn’t supported by BW: an android-flavored golem whose beliefs is the Three Laws of Robotics but denied his personhood. And a newly-turned vampire/demon/werewolf? struggling with their strong sense of morality and their new emotional attribute - losing humanity, desire to kill. I don’t think BW’s system discourages them, except possibly the mental overpowered-ness of the android-golem. But these need hacks, I’m just a beginner, and also that’s away from the “slice of life” thread topic.)

In terms of setting, I mean. BW deals with low-tech settings and a medieval era, so anything far outside of that requires good hacks or getting old BWHQ material. Again, just reporting what I’ve heard.

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THIS SOUNDS SO CUTE! Exactly the sort of silly stuff I love; I was considering using another TRPG system for this.

As great as Burning Wheel is, it’s not like people can’t love more than one TRPG system or genre. Do you think it’s a good idea to make a Burning Wheel campaign with this as the core idea, or were your village stories just a long respite from the main adventure?

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If you consider the span of fiction, there are many different scopes: Tolstoy writes about myriad nobles and the entire Napoleonic War; Solzhenitsyn writes about a single day in a prisoner’s life; both are critically acclaimed because they capture a powerful human experience.

BW is the same: it doesn’t matter how big the stakes are or how broad the canvas; it matters that the character’s have Beliefs that their players care about actively chasing.

So, if all your players want to do small town life in a fictional world. then it might be the greatest idea ever; if most of your players do but one wants to be a vigilante hero fighting the injustices of a corrupt noble who is secretly a necromancer, then it will probably crash and burn.

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I think it really depends on your group. The first group would have gotten antsy if we’d lingered too long in one place - but that’s also because we agreed from session 0 that we were doing classic Good v. Evil Sword’n’Sorcery.

The second group was super on-board for slow-burning character-driven interpersonal drama, but I think this is really a temperamental thing that we all had in common. Also, we were there to solve a mystery, and getting the know the ‘major players’ is a part of that.

I’d personally recommend you use what you know of your players to direct the experience; if you don’t think they’d be on-board from the get-go, then maybe cast some nets around this forum. But I think where the difficulty will lie is in selling your Big Picture.

You entire world needs to be a small space - a parish, a valley, a village, a mountain. Nations become households or extended families, guilds become small businesses, monarchs become elders, tax collectors or village guards. Gossip needs to be potentially devastating, yet violence should be as possible in a home as on a battlefield. All of the highs and lows of human experience need to be not only possible, but likely to occur in the context of whatever the conflict is within your Stardew Valley. The failure of one crop is a famine, and the drying up of one well is a drought.

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