[Suffer Not] Battling the Big Picture

So we had a good session of BE last night, wrapping up a manuever and just chatting about the game and it’s direction.

Now I haven’t been balls-to-the-wall mean, and I have been trying to be helpful and supportive of the tasks ahead of the characters, giving them ideas and working together to tell a great story (and thus far I think we have really succeeded). However, several of the players have been a little put off by the competetive nature of the game. They claim I am better at this than they are - being manipulative, I suppose :wink: - and feel really behind the ball.

I tried to explain that we all knew that it was the intent of the game to have a competetive element and that Luke would probably yell at me if I pulled punches much more than I do and finally that they are still in a pretty good position - I have successfully taken over a faction and they have successfully assessed my disposition thus poised to lower it some in the next manuever.

I suggested communicating with each other a little more than they have been, talking about each other’s character goals and story goals and I also pointed out that their characters are going to feel a little more useful since through the successful Assess they are more “in the know” about the Vaylen threat and their characters can be more proactive about it.

Anyone else run into this sentiment? Anyone else have a group that the competetive nature of the game was a downside? How have other GMs handled their side?

Yes, absolutely.

In our game, the Maneuver-level competition proved to be too great a distraction to one player. He began to obsess over how to win the Maneuver roll (he’s a very competitive guy), which led him to obsess over the scene-maneuver disconnect. Despite explaining the Artha economy cycle, the lack of direct causality between scenes and maneuvers and WINNING became a dealbreaker for this particular player.

In another case, I had a particularly lazy player repeatedly claim I was manipulating the rules to “win”. By manipulating, he meant that while I had taken the time to understand the ins and outs and implications of the various interlocking systems, he had not, and therefore was effectively being punished for his lack of knowledge. I gave him the book to read. He did not. I offered to work through various arena-style conflicts so he’d understand how the major systems worked. He declined. And so on.

These two instances were enough to kill my current iteration of the game. When I restart, I won’t be playing with these two players. BE absolutely and non-negotiably requires a) good sportsmanship and b) players who know the rules.

I’d look at both these factors in your own game. IMO the competitive element makes more demands on the players, which can certainly be considered a downside if your players aren’t up to meeting the demand.


Admittedly, I’m one of those players. It’s true I’m on the lazy end of the player spectrum and don’t know the rules terribly well. I HATE reading rules, I think they are boring and would rather learn how to play while playing. BE is probably not the best game to do this in considering the competative nature of the game.

However, another angle to my issues come from my 8+ years of gaming history with Don. As a GM Don is fantastic: he works with players, builds story with players, he’s loose and easy and open to ideas. As a player Don is another beast entirely. He is a numbers crunching rule jockey who can be pretty competative and nasty in character.

So here we are in BE where Don isn’t a GM, he’s a player. My personal experience with what Don is capable of (as a player) is weighing heavily on me and the other complainer is in the same boat.

Funny how the the guy who isn’t complaining in the game is the one who hasn’t played as many games with Don. LOL

Hi Joanna,
Thanks for posting your thoughts!

Now, on the surface, it appears you and your group have some baggage that needs to be aired and processed. No big deal. That’s true for nearly every group coming to a new game.

But let’s look at the reality of Burning Empires’ “competitive” nature.

Yes, there are winners and losers in the story. Yes, you’re trying to knock your opponent’s points down to zero in order to win.

However, there are a few elements that differentiate the game from, say, Monopoly or Risk.

There’s the rule zero for BE: Don’t be a dick. Meaning, you’ve got to be considerate and supportive of everyone’s input at the table. This rule supercedes all others.

But the next most important “rule” is the very composition of the conflict: The players play the protagonists in an epic story. They are the main characters. Their story is the one we will follow. They are whom we will root for!

On the other side of that coin, the GM plays the antagonists. He’s the bad guys, the foils and opposition to the protagonists’ goals. In that role, he must challenge and confront the protagonists. It’s vital that he try to stand in the way of every goal, that he question every thing the players state they believe for their character.

Why? Because that opposition defines the protagonists clearly, and more importantly creates the basis for narrative drama. There must be conflict for narrative drama – for a story as we know it.

Lastly, there’s a trick to the point structure. Yes, there’s winning and losing as I said above. But that’s not the real goal. You see, winning and losing doesn’t really matter in BE, because it’s a roleplaying game. The goal of nearly every roleplaying game is to create a narrative arc – beginning, middle, end – of an indeterminate conclusion. The conclusion is only generated via play. The points structure creates the beginning, middle and end – creates that arc. Winning and losing? Who cares. There’s going to be a story no matter what happens.

And that’s the trick to the entire structure. It seems like a simple, competitive strategy game, but it’s really an exercise in creating a narrative.

Does that help?

This is an awfully hard pill to swallow. “Winning” and “losing” as concepts come with such heavy baggage for many (most?) players that they have to set aside a lifetime of conditioning. If keeping score doesn’t matter, why keep score? This isn’t helped by the fact that you, Luke, like to hype the hell out of your game as:

Ya gotta admit you’ve just set a very different expectation of how the game works to the “who cares who wins, it’s an RPG” message you’re also putting out there. :slight_smile:

Basically you’re looking at a very, very careful and important bit of expectations management with your players, Joanna. Luke’s first explanation of the game, the one in the previous post, is the kind of game BE works best as. IMO it’s to the detriment of the game to push concepts like winning, losing, competitive, and brutal.

Out of morbid curiosity, what happens if you try to triangulate these opposing game design goals by reframing the phase “competition” as simply running the clock down on each phase? Sometimes it’s in your interest to run it down, sometimes it’s in your interest to pause it, but never is it relevant or important who “wins” each maneuver.

Just ruminating out loud on ways to reframe the game’s competition. IMO you’re trying to have your cake and eat it too by making the competition important while telling everyone it’s not.


Well Paul, you’ve hit on the dichotomy. There’s the Big Question for an rpg of this type: It’s got a rigid format, so how do we make it exciting and urgent?

Competition, that’s how!

It’s supposed to be intense and brutal. You don’t have to pull punches in the same way you do in trad rpgs where, no matter what happens, you all know that something will save you and the game will carry on. Not in BE. You’ve got to fight for what you believe in, lest you be overwhelmed.

Personally, I don’t want to reframe the game. We play competitively. We push back at each other, cheer victory and hiss at our defeats.

But that doesn’t obviate the truth behind an rpg of this design – win or lose, you’re going to create a story.

Yeah, I get all that. In retrospect I think the best thing I learned from my first go-round with this monster you’ve created is that I have (at least) one poor sport in my group. Poor sportsmanship kills this kind of game dead because you simply cannot use every tool at your disposal to win the game. Being a dick is a viable (if unsportsmanlike) way to win any game ever invented when all that matters is the score – just look at the antics of professional athletes these days. Back when sportsmanship was the highest goal of the sport, the score matter less than the play experience and you had both gracious winners and losers.

BE is probably quaintly old-fashioned in requiring that everyone be playing for the sake of the play experience (the story) and not the points.


Well said!

I could be wrong, but I think Luke is saying that playing competitively is going to create the kind of brutal play that makes for the best stories.

This isn’t M:I 3, where the player decides to bite his tongue and watch his wife die, only to have the GM say, “Oh, uh, actually she was someone else wearing a mask, not your wife.” Lame in the extreme.

Playing competitively means we can avoid the happy Hollywood ending.

Sorry for interrupt your debate, but i must disagree with Violet:

When we have started our campaign i was afraid what about that few hundreds pages, which are full of rules. We have burned our planet (Acheron), then our characters… The day of first session has come - and i decided that i (as a GM) must show my players how BE is working. We have started… and in the beginning we had versus skills test between characters. Ive explained my players how skills works, what is an obstacle and how they can boost their pool of dices (ForKs, artha). After first session we knew how we can use HELP, why Linking is a good thing and whats the Advantages & disadvantages. We walked the same way with DoWs and FF, advancements and other kind of stuff.

I agree with Luke - no matter what GM cant f*** up his players. I help them, sometimes advised - it seems to be stupid, but i want to have enemy who CAN fight against my side, instead pack of players who dont know the game. Harder mean better.

Part of the problem is that my players rarley see a Hollywood Ending.

First it’s rare that we get to see the end of any campaign at all - something always happens. Which means the characters are always in the throws of taking a beating in one form or another.

Second, my endings are all about consequences. Even though the good guys may win they are torn up over the price they have to pay for that win. I actually had a campaign end with a trial of the PCs for “crimes” they unwittingly commited doing what they thought was right.

Now the players get to experience the same sort of adversity and hard decisions but seemingly without the warm-fuzzy die-ignoring GM they had come to know and love. Spring is on target when she notes that now they sit across from someone more well read than they are and able to read what they are going to do next. I the hands of a traditional GM these skills are a boon. Now they think they percieve an imminent loss instead of a hard struggle. Sure they understand that losing bears with it a cool story but it’s still a little disheartening.

Now I don’t think it’s going to be quite as one sided as they think but I think I have created pessimistic players :wink:

I had the same vibe in my game! I’m not sure how to take the sting out of the “competitive and brutal” side of the game without trust from your players. I agree, it’s really hard to be an adversarial GM at the same time as you’re trying to be a teaching/supportive GM.

I even went so far as to say, “If you feel like, for even one second, I’ve done something in the game fundamentally unfair or abusive, call me on it and we’ll end the game.” Nobody ever called me on it, but the game ended anyway. :rolleyes:


Don’t they realise the odds are in their favour by at least three to one?

i feel that part of the point of the competitive aspect of the game is to urge players to ‘learn how to win’

if you’re at least ‘trying’ to win, it’ll make for a better story. the problem with labeling ‘BE’ as a competitive game is that it gives the wrong idea up-front. a game, by nature, is competitive. no need to push that aspect of it with new players. the best aspect to push with new players is the dramatic competition. each player gets to frame his/her own scenes. who frames the most interesting scenes? cheer them on. if someone’s scene is less engaging, help them make it more so. eventually the numbers fall to the way-side. sure, strategizing between manuevers or between scripting volleys is fun, but not if you are obsessing over it.

my favorite part of BE was determining the compromises of the DoW and Firefight mechanics, determining what happened in the sequels to the maneuvers or the psychic duels. the ‘big picture’ is there only to give perspective. don’t let it rule your game. let it inform the development of the story.

if your players feel that they are falling behind with ‘winning the game’, don’t give up on them. help them figure out how to enjoy the game by playing their beliefs, helping each other and earning artha to spend on the maneuver rolls. once everyone realizes that earning artha for good roleplaying is really what wins the ‘game,’ play will be emminently more satisfying. focus on the artha rules, and your issues will hopefully dissapear.

The text on the back of the BE books labeling itself as a competitive game between player and gm is what intrigued me and eventually led me to buy the game. I liked the idea of a story emerging from that struggle, and not being totally depended on me coming up with some crazy dungeon to explore.

You betcha!