Strategy, roleplaying, and the scene economy

In an earlier thread, Luke nailed my problem GM’ing Burning Empires in our newborn Fire & Ice game as being the scene economy. I think he’s right, but I’m not sure how he’s right. Having had extensive discussions with my players, however, I think I have enough thoughts to be wrong in a useful way.

I see two extreme approaches to the whole metagame structure of Burning Empires:

You roleplay the way a “normal” group (if such exists…) “normally” roleplays: Your characters do things because they’d plausibly want to do those things and it’s interesting to see them try; you call for conflicts large or small, or “say yes” and move on, depending on everyone’s interest in the matter at hand. The GM keeps the Color-Interstitial-Builder-Conflict scene economy in his peripheral vision to make sure the group doesn’t break it. When the maneuver ends, the GM assesses what the principal player-character did to earn the right to roll a particular skill and what the other PCs did to earn the right to provide helping dice, and people roll, and then the group adjusts disposition accordingly and hands out artha.
In this approach, the whole metagame structure is there “by the way.” It’s one more thing you do in the “step back from the roleplaying and award XP” phase at the end of playing, you just do it a little more often (maybe twice a session instead of once). People guide their actions towards a good outcome in the Infection to the same degree they might steer their actions towards XP awards, but it’s not a primary focus.

The scene currency is explicit and up front. Each player knows he or she has one Color, one Interstitial, and one Builder or Conflict scene to achieve both personal and strategic goals for this Maneuver. Everyone calls for scenes by type and states their objectives: “I want a Builder to seduce the Duke so I can get my Seduction skill in there for a linked test to your Conflict and helping dice on the Infection roll.” Everyone is acutely aware that calling for a conflict now, over the current issue, means giving up being able to call for a conflict on something else later in the maneuver. Whenever someone does something in a scene that earns the right to affect the Infection roll – e.g. to provide Helping dice – it’s explicitly noted and recorded.
In this approach, the metagame structure is constantly in view. Everyone steers scenes explicitly towards character advancement, artha, and affecting the Infection roll. Roleplaying, in the sense of “let’s describe/act out what our characters are doing,” is something you dip into for a given scene and then come back up out of when that scene’s done its work, reenaging with the scene economy.

Obviously these are extremes – theoretically playable, but I doubt anyone ever actually plays perfectly in either mode.

Here’s the thing, though: Two years of playing a lot of Forge games, especially Capes, have trained me to lean hard towards the “Tight” model. I actually wrote up a cheat sheet of “what you can do in each kind of scene” and handed one out to each player. Shorn of fancy formatting, it looks like this:

Lots of dice rolls to make someone else do something they really don’t want to.
Choose one:

  • Duel of Wits to convince someone to do what you want
  • Psychic Duel to mess with their mind (Psychologists only!)
  • Firefight to do some serious killin’
    Feel free to invite other players to help!

One, two, or three dice rolls to do something with “hard,” game-mechanical effects in preparation for later Conflict scenes:

  • roll Resources to buy weapons, ships, or other technology
  • roll Circles to introduce minor characters
  • roll appropriate skills to set up spy networks, ambushes, court balls, etc.
  • kill or convince one person with one roll –if that roll fails, give up or go to a Conflict!
    Feel free to invite other players to help!

Roleplay with one or more other players to have your characters interact:

  • Chat
  • Plot
  • Fornicate
    But if they don’t want to do what you ask, either give up, go to a Build-Up scene, or go to a Conflict!

Roleplay solo to cool details to your character and the world – they have no game-mechanical effect (yet) but help prepare for Build-Up scenes later:

  • describe technology you’ll roll Resources for later
  • explain your evil plan to your minions
  • have a flashback
  • give a soliloquy
    If you need to interact with someone else’s character(s), go to a Facetime scene!

This was the only handout I gave to my players for our first Maneuver – that’s how intently I was focused on the scene economy as a critical issue. I think it’s also the reason I muffed the scene economy. I kept expecting, and leading my players to expect, that each scene, and Building Scenes in particular, would produce a definite, discrete mechanical effect towards the bigger picture, and when the impact of the scenes was murkier, we got confused and frustrated.

I’m definitely reading your actual play reports with interest and appreciate your willingness to identify things that didn’t go as well as you wanted. I was tempted to try something like your ‘tight’ scene economy, despite the advice not to do so in the BE book. Your experience has me reconsidering. I’ll probably keep it more loose, and identify the type of scene after the scene is complete…

Isn’t it interesting what habits get transferred from one roleplaying game to the next? You don’t get this kind of problem when you switch from say… Monopoly to Scrabble. But try playing D&D for several years and then try playing Burning Wheel. There’s a lot of retraining needed, mentally speaking.

Playing Capes, for example, I was struck by how much the mechanics are front and center. They are pretty much everything. You can do anything in the game, but you can’t achieve the things you want without a fight.

This is an interesting side note from an earlier comment in another thread, about “say yes or roll the dice”. This was taken from Dogs in the Vineyard, where you absolutely must follow that axiom.

That term can’t work in Capes, because if someone wants something, that’s an opportunity to gain resources from them by trying to make them fight for it. Saying “yes” and giving someone what they want is like flushing potential resources down the toilet, and not what the economy in Capes is about.

If you go from Dogs to Capes, there’s a lot of mental retraining required. You have to literally think differently to enjoy those two games to their fullest, and not just because Capes has no GM. The whole mindset is different.

Here’s what I’m thinking. Going from Capes to Burning Empires, you have enough similarity to cause some problems. Capes has a strict scene economy, Burning Empires has a scene economy as well. Capes has resources to influence the story (influences, story tokens) and Burning Empires has Artha to do something similar, but not the same.

You can’t play this game like you play Capes. They aren’t the same game. But you’ve had a specific kind of training, and that’s a hard thing to let go of.

I mean, take a look at anyone who goes from playing White Wolf/D&D3.5/Palladium/GURPS to something like Capes, or Dogs, or Burning Wheel. There’s a pile of years of training that has to be set aside before they do much more than blink in confusion. Now, once that is set aside I’ve seen people take to these games like they’re old friends, but there’s a moment or two of alignment that has to happen first. That is what I think is happening here.

The book says not to take the scene economy too stringently. So don’t! (pg 291-292 - the angry Kerrn face spells it out) And then it’s just a question of getting the players to do the same.

I’ve spent the last three months of my life at the Luke Crane Clinic for Recovering Railroading DMs.

Sydney, thanks for the card. I’m going to use it as my mental outline for the scenes (but still keep it fast and loose).

Hey, I’m glad it helps someone. The irony is that it was probably a trap for me, because (as Glendower said) I’m coming from the opposite direction. My problem as a GM, pre-Forge, was that I basically let the players loose in a complex world and then said, “Okay, what do you do?” Which sounds like a dream come true for victims of severe railroading, until you realize that the GM has become completely reactive: I was very rarely able to give my players anything that wasn’t a direct result of their input into the system.

My big lesson from Forge-school games is the ability to push hard without railroading, in the confidence that the system restrains GM fiat and channels play towards interesting conflicts. And I definitely think Burning Wheel can work this way; it’s just complex enough, and sufficiently “tradional” in some of its assumptions, that I’m struggling.

Simple, small example, page 428:

Each maneuver consists of two to four conflicts. The players’ side is
guaranteed one conflict scene per maneuver. The players may take an
optional second conflict if it is necessary for the flow of the story…If time
and circumstance allow, and it’s appropriate or necessary, the GM may
initiate a second conflict for the maneuver.

I suspect this passage is a “Yeah, of course” for most readers. But it remains a “what the hell?” for me: What, we can double the number of Conflict scenes in the economy based on what we feel like? Next you’ll be telling me that the dealer can declare new wild cards in the middle of a Poker hand, based on what he feels is “appropriate or necessary” to make the cards dealt more interesting!

Here’s how I think the scene economy works best (and perhaps provides some insight into how to make it work better for you):

  • Mechanically, you have to have conflict to fuel the Artha cycle, which in turn is absolutely necessary to make character progression and Infection work properly. However, both sides of any scene have an equal number of chances to earn Artha. You have beliefs, I have beliefs. You have character traits, as do I. And so on. So neither side can really take advantage of getting a second conflict scene (you gain a far greater mechanical advantage via any mechanic that gives you a fourth Belief, a la Loyal). Everyone gets an opportunity to get paid. IMO the only reason there’s a limit of 2x conflicts/side/maneuver is so the Maneuver can come to a close.

  • Narratively, it forces the players and GM to declare without ambiguity, “This is what we feel is most important right now.” This is part of the game’s sense of urgency: You are mechanically required to come together as a group and say, “This fight is the centerpiece; everyone else’s stuff is setting up for future fights.”

  • Socially, the scene economy ensures everyone gets something approaching similar spotlight time. Obviously the player with the conflict scene gets a bit more time than anyone else.

All that said, I think the scene economy works best when a) everyone’s charging up their Artha with it, b) it’s clarifying the centerpiece of each maneuver and c) everyone gets a chance to be the center of attention. If the scenes aren’t doing all that at once, then IMO your focus is misplaced.

Because of the disconnect between the Maneuver and the scenes – and I’m slowly becoming a strong proponent of that design decision – you really can’t look at scenes as “building blocks” for Maneuvers. Despite the hype, the Maneuver isn’t how you win; it’s just the countdown for the narrative. Trying to “win” the game via the Maneuver is like trying to win a football game by running the clock down. The team has to be scoring touchdowns within the constraints of the clock, right?


i agree completely. this is the real key to the scene economy. they are simply the sound of the clock ticking towards setting off the time-bomb of the macro-manuever’s end-game scenario. yes, you have to stick to them to keep the fervor of the pace, but let them develope organically.

instead of ‘i want to spend my interstitial scene…’ the player should say, ‘i call up duke pericles on the comm and tell him he’s a bastard.’

if it evolves into a DoW, great. if it’s just an intimidation roll, fine, if it’s just a simple discussion for the sake of color, that’s cool, too. but the key is, after the scene, decide what kind of scene it was, and mark it off (just like after rolling a test, you decide if it was challenging, difficult or routine and mark it off). that ritual sets the pacing. don’t allow extra scenes, (barring an organically entered conflict) just say, ‘wait for the next maneuver.’ once you get used to the pacing of this, you’ll never turn back.

Paul, could you explain this to me again? I’m not sure I understand how having more than one conflict keeps you from getting artha. :confused: And what’s the reference to the 4th belief?:confused:

Bam! Nailed it! Thanks for this thought. My mind suddenly went “GROK!” I had a bunch of stuff planned out for my characters to do to “win” the manuever, but I realize now that that’s like fighting shadow puppets. I need to get them in the faces of my players and racking up artha. Cool! Thanks!:cool:

I can field the fourth belief. Look up the trait “Disciplined” on page 256 of Burning Empires, or “life under a different code” on page 264, or “Loyal” also on page 264, or “Zealot” on page 279.

Yeah. They’re awesome traits.

Yeah, okay. Let’s look at how you can gain Artha:

  • Pursuing a Belief
  • Dealing with conflicting Beliefs
  • Completing a Belief (yummy, yummy Persona)
  • Ignoring a useful Instinct and getting in trouble for it
  • Fulfilling a Trait and getting in trouble for it
  • Being the MVP
  • Being the Workhorse
  • Kickass roleplaying/scene setting
  • A bunch of Traits that pay you for acting a certain way

Well, to do any of those things you need a scene to do them in. Doesn’t matter, really, what kinds of scenes they are but conflict scenes give you the greatest opportunity, in my experience, to make them happen. In maneuvers where we had two conflicts on a side, we were easily pulling on 2-3 Persona and 4-6 Fate per character per side. In maneuvers where we didn’t have the focus to have any conflicts, there might be 1 or 2 persona handed out on a side and 2-3 Fate per character.

What I’m saying is, if the players want another conflict in a maneuver that doesn’t in and of itself benefit their Artha – we’re both going to be at the conflict; we both get a chance to earn more Artha. I guess it is unbalancing if the players are busy building conflicts with each other, but that’s not how normal game play works out. At any given conflict, one or more of your folks are there, and one or more of my folks are there. We all get a chance to earn Artha. Yay conflict!

Re. 4th Beliefs: There are several ways to acquire a 4th Belief for your character. The one that comes to mind, because I really love it (it licks the Chinese Gun Ballet spot in my brain), is Loyal. A character with Loyal gets a 4th Belief that is explicitly a loyalty to another character in the game. I make mad bank when I take this one, because damn near every single scene I’m going to be in conflict with someone to whom I’ve declared undying loyalty. IIRC Lives Under a Different Code is another one, as is the more specialized Loyal to the Family.

If I have a fourth Belief that means I have yet another way to earn Artha. If you’re willing to let yourself get torn apart by your Beliefs – and believe me, it requires a lot of shall-we-say suboptimal play to carry it off – you can gain a substantial Artha advantage into the Maneuvers.


Ah, you’re saying more conflict doesn’t benefit one side to the disadvantage of the other. Conflict means more artha for everyone. Got it. Srain blow today.:rolleyes:

I’ve realized that, in addition to “tight” vs. “loose,” there’s another spectrum I probably landed on the wrong side of:

Top Down
The focus of play starts with the Infection mechanics and the grand strategic situation; then you move down to look at the current maneuver and how it will serve the Infection strategy; then you move down to figure out how the GM and player conflict scenes will serve that maneuver; then you move down to figure out how the Building scenes will serve those conflict scenes.

Bottom Up
The focus of play starts with what the players want their characters to do, right now, embodied in their Beliefs primarily, and secondarily in Instincts and Traits – all of which they get Artha for. If players can do what they want just by having their character scheme or soliloquize, cool, that’s a Color scene; if they need to roleplay interactions with another player, great, that’s an Interstitial; if they actually need to roll dice to make a “hard” mechanical effect, that’s either a Building Scene or, if all the stops are really pulled out, a Conflict.
The GM keeps an eye on how many scenes of what type everyone’s using, what skills they’re using in them, and who’s providing helping dice to whom. At the end of the maneuver, everyone stops for a moment, rolls the Infection dice, adjusts Disposition, and hands out Artha. “Oh, okay,” you say to each other, “so all that cool stuff we were doing had this effect on the big picture. Neat. Next scene!”

Even the way I ordered the scene types in my cribsheet – Conflict first, then Builder, then Interstitial, then Color – shows I was thinking very much top-down. But it’s pretty clear the mechanics don’t support a top-down style of play, because the linkage from level to level simply isn’t tight enough. What I needed to be fostering was bottom-up play, where the players have their characters fiercely pursue individual objectives, and the whole scene structure rests loosely on top of that pursuit, and the infection structure rests loosely on top of the scenes. Each layer affects the next layer up, but not in a deterministic way (occasionally in an outright random way), and making an impact at the next level up isn’t the primary purpose of play.

My best-guess (still being very much the beginner at this) is that the best way to foster bottom-up play is to not think of the Vaylen as the enemy.

The Vaylen aren’t the force that saves or damns a planet. The planet is saved or damned depending upon what we do. The Vaylen are just the test that sums it all up at the end of the day with a passing or failing grade.

It’s not that they aren’t there, actively maneuvering to destroy us. It’s that, if we’ve got what it takes as humans to be human then that will show through by way of the Artha economy and give the world the strength to resist infection.

Does that sound right?

I think that’s right, Tony.

From a practical POV I’m of a mind that says there’s really no place for Vaylen at the beginning of the Infection. The players need to be invested in their characters and the setting, and have some narrative momentum, before the “pursue my own agenda versus joining forces to save the world” decision has any weight.

I’m not sure if you caught my other post(s) about how to handle the Infiltration phase, but the biggest mistake I made in my first game was to build a Vaylen FON whose job it was to set up the Infiltration. That GMFON had relationships with the other characters, but nothing he was doing was opposing the PCFONs – setting up secret warehouses and retrofitting mercators for Naiven smuggling was what he was “supposed” to be doing, but it had nothing to do with the PCs so we never had any conflict. The problem is, if the Vaylen are doing their job right they won’t be giving the humans a reason to stop them. Nobody has any narrative traction. Game grinds to a halt.

This time around, I’m planning on introducing the Vaylen threat only at the end of the Infiltration. None of my GMFONs are Vaylen, or even know anything about the Vaylen (although the entire planet is gripped with hysterical fear about them).


That’s pretty much how I set up our Grozny Infil playtest (that, alas, didn’t conclude, but served its purpose!) The FoNs were human, but going to be responsible for getting the Vaylen on the planet - unwittingly. The Vaylen in question was a scary-ass 9LP princess in a child’s body, arriving as a prodigy musician on an Imperial tour, with one of the PC’s dads as her chaperone and back-up body and a couple of tubs full of Naiven in her priceless - and obviously untouchable - musical instrument. She might have paid for a Mukhadish to slip into as well, I can’t remember. Everyone else was human - at the start.

Yah, I too was thinking TOP down (kinda natural for a long time traditional DM), but everything in the rules/posts screams, “Characters! Beliefs! Characters! Beliefs!” A better mind than mine posted on the board about the whole Star Wars thing: throwaway line about the Emperor disbanding the Senate in Ep. IV…(yawn)…but the story…the story…the fucking STORY…is about, dum de de dah!, Fathers and Sons.

So yah Sydney, I think ya totally nailed it with the BOTTOM up approach. Do that!

[Btw: I’ve got a player who’s obsessing over the Infection right now. He wants to write beliefs like, “I will discover the stop the Valyen.” I think I’ve noticed on the boards that people who obsess over winning the Infection (gm or player) get kind of frustrated as play progresses.

For my guy, I’m trying to think of a way to get him to re-hone those beliefs so he can get some artha. Tie it into some faction/FoN, etc.]

I said it before and I’ll say it again, Paul B.'s analogy about winning the Infection by letting the clock tick down was brilliant. Get out there and score some points for your team!

Question for Sydney, Z-Dog, and some others: have you played With Great Power… ?

This is why Darth Vader is a GMFoN (who cashes in his Loyalty belief at the end of Return) in A New Hope, and Grand Moff Tarkin is a mere relationship.

Shoot…I’m not even sure who the GMFoNs are in the old series: Darth, the Emperor, probably Yoda (per David Brin’s excellent analysis) is about it. Boba Fett, Jabba, all the other minor crooks, Anvil and mercenaries were just Circled up.


No. Does it have beliefs tied into characters too?

Sort of, but that wasn’t what I was getting at. The game is meant to model a comic book story arc, and has a scene and story arc mechanic meant to pace the story. It’s looser and stricter than BE’s, though, but it also is “bottom up.” You have building scenes that prime your characters abilities for the conflict scenes, which are what advance the story arc.