Hello! I’m new to this forum and new to Burning Wheel. I’m excited to try this game (going to hopefully be a play by post style thing with just me as the 1 player and my friend GMing and playing more or less a second PC). I don’t think this should matter, but yes I have picked up copies of the BWGR and the Codex already.
As the title implies, this topic is more of a First Impressions about a particular element of the game than it is a mechanical question, though I am interested in what experienced players think. I want to be clear up front that I am speaking only about my own play style preference, and I understand that the rules, as they exist, serve the desires of many long time BW players. I don’t think it’s useful to speak about a game in absolutes (“this game is good” or “this game is not for you” and so on). Secondly, the purpose of this thread is not that I want my mind changed. I’m confident I know what I want out of an RPG experience, and if I do change that Belief I will do it on my own time (this isn’t a BW session I don’t need a GM to provide a point of antagonism here ).
My Preference for Player Control
When I’m playing an RPG, I’m there to roll dice, see my character perform mechanically based on how they’re built, and experience (or build if you prefer) a story with my friends. Burning Wheel is more collaborative in the way it creates a story than other games I’ve played, with the system of setting Task and Intent, and the stakes of Success and Failure. This seems pretty interesting to me now that I think I have my head wrapped around the idea. However, when this design philosophy carries over into social tests (and Duel of Wits), it runs into some territory I’m not interested in as a player:
The Player’s control of their character’s conscious mind (what they say, what they freely agree to, and so on) is sacrosanct as far as I’m concerned. Violating this condition simply bypasses what I want out of a game: to really get into the head of my character, think like they would think, and make decisions like I think they would. To be clear, this does not mean I am upset when a character misses an attack (they chose to make the attack, the dice decide how good their control of their body was), is made to cower in fear after a failed Steel test (the instinctual fear response is beyond the purview of the conscious mind), or says something under extreme duress (torture has predictable results that are, again, outside conscious control). This paragraph is the part I meant when I said the purpose of this thread is not to change my mind. I’m not interested in arguing the merits of the above preference, I am only stating that I hold it so that I can talk about my impression of Duel of Wits and other social skills in BW.
Social Skill tests in BW
I’ll just point out how my preference applies to a few common situations:
PC vs NPC (NPC wants nothing specific): Player rolls a social skill vs Ob = NPC’s Will, no problem for me we’re just rolling dice to see how the PC impacts an NPC.
NPC vs PC: as far as I’m aware, if the PC has no interest in the NPC, the NPC isn’t supposed to initiate a roll. Fine by me.
PC vs NPC (NPC wants to persuade the PC): This would be a versus roll, and here’s the first case I’m not ok with. The NPC’s dice should not, in my preference, be able to dictate the PC’s conscious reaction. Note I say persuade: I’d be fine with an NPC rolling Falsehood to trick the PC into thinking something they’re saying is true (this is a measure of the PC’s ability to interpret nonverbal cues), or Intimidate the PC (the fear response is often beyond conscious control).
PC vs PC: Aside from Falsehood to make another PC think you’re not lying when you are, or Intimidate to scare the other PC, any test like this is fundamentally counter to my preferences for RPGs.
Duel of Wits
Duel of Wits was of particular interest to me since I’d never learned a “social combat” system like it (I know others exist, I’ve just never read them). Now that I’ve read the general rules and commentary in the Codex, and seen a (rather old) demo of Luke Crane running The Sword that included a Duel of Wits, I think that, in and of itself, it looks like fun! The idea of setting up a series of talking points, RPing them out, then rolling dice to assault your opponent’s argument is pretty neat, as is the idea of using the winner’s remaining Body of Argument points to determine the level of compromise reached.
I think Duel of Wits would be ideal for me if my PC is in front of a crowd arguing with another character (PC or otherwise) and both of our Purposes involve swaying the crowd in a particular direction. All the dice and the compromise mechanic allow for a nuanced resolution of what the crowd takes away from the debate.
However, from what I’ve seen and read, a lot of the time a Duel of Wits is about getting a PC to agree to something. This is really not something I’m interested in at all. If my PC is going to agree to a compromise, state it to me the player and I will decide if my PC will agree. I have no interest in entering a Duel of Wits where I will end up agreeing in character to some course of action that is not specifically defined from the outset. That would remove my agency over my PC’s mind. It requires the player to remove themselves from their PC’s mind and let the dice decide what they end up thinking to a degree, and that’s just not something I want to do in an RPG.
For example, in the demo I watched, the Elf and the Dwarf (I don’t know their names) entered into a Duel of Wits where the Elf’s Purpose was “Leave and take the sword to my father” while the Dwarf’s was along the lines of “The elf will recognize the sword is mine and belongs to my clan and is clearly not of elven make.” The Major Compromise (in favor of the elf) that they arrived at was that the Elf would take the sword to his father, but the dwarf and several master craftsmen from his clan would follow the elf and examine the sword once there. That sounds like a fun compromise to me, and one that I might agree to if I were playing one of the two characters. However, what I would not agree to is going into a debate already having locked myself in to a decision that has not even been made.
Well, fortunately my friend and I are in agreement in terms of disliking social skill tests dictating a PC’s conscious decisions. So the easiest thing to do is just to use the social skills that exist on NPCs only like you would in any number of other RPGs, and leave any situation where PCs are having a debate or an NPC wants to convince a PC of something up to non-mechanical RP. We could still use Duel of Wits in the situation that a PC is trying to sway a crowd and is opposed by another character (as I mentioned above). I know that cutting out most of the uses of Duel of Wits has the potential to lead to Artha bloat, but I hope we will have enough Range and Cover and Fight scenarios to make up for it!
Why Did I Write All This?
As I said at the outset, this is just about my playstyle preferences, and from what I’ve seen most BW players love Duel of Wits in all its manifestations (and I see the appeal). I’ve even seen a couple threads that might have been by a GM trying to deal with a player with a similar mindset to myself. However, what I didn’t see was any real commentary by someone who both wanted to play BW, but also was opposed to social tests being used in the ways I described above. I wanted to offer what seems like a slightly different perspective in what I hope is a nuanced-enough fashion.
Also, I would love to hear the thoughts of veteran players on what I’ve said here! Like I said, not on the merits of caring about what I care about, but how you think the rest of the system will be affected by removing duel of wits, if you have thoughts on my suggested solution, or if you think I’ve made a mistake in my interpretation of the rules. Or just whatever’s on your mind really .
What I don’t expect to do is change anyone’s mind on how they play BW. I want everyone to play every RPG exactly how they want to play it, and love the games they love for exactly the reasons they love them.
I tried to keep this from getting too long-winded, but I don’t know that I succeeded. Thanks to anyone who read all this; I hope you’re having a fantastic day!