I’m a little bit late to this party, but I wanted to pitch in anyway. This a crucial topic for understanding why The Burning Wheel is such a marvelous game and I think I have some insight to add.
When I sit down to make new characters with my players, especially new players, I always tell them to come up with concepts for people who want things. That’s what BW is about. Conceive of the sort of person who has the most to want. Macbeth is an easy Burning Wheel character:
Belief: I’m going to kill Duncan to become the king.
Macbeth plays himself. Throw in some characterization and you have an easy, probably not especially long, intrigue campaign.
Hamlet, on the other hand, is a very, very hard Burning Wheel character to get right:
Belief: Should I or shouldn’t I kill Claudius?
One belief begets action. The other begets inaction. A man who doesn’t know what he wants is going to be challenging to play in a game about pursuing what you want. Hamlet is confused. He doesn’t know whether or not the ghost is really his father. He doesn’t know if he wants to be an actor or a warrior. He’s depressed. He’s self-loathing. He’s sexually frustrated. He also acts impulsively, and his instinct to “Stab first and ask questions later” is going to earn him an awful lot of fate in the third session.
Make no mistake about it. Hamlet is a BW character. He might be the ultimate BW archetype, alongside Luke Skywalker. But how on Earth could you play him in this game?
Here’s the rub: when a player writes a belief along the lines of, “I want to become king,” you know your course as a GM. You can see clearly into his heart. Challenging that is easy. It’s like preparing for your next Torchbearer session. But when a player writes a belief that’s more psychologically complicated, such as “Am I going mad?” what he’s usually asking for you to do as a GM is to challenge that assertion. He’s asking you to let him prove to the table that he isn’t mad.
In this way Burning Wheel becomes a very complicated game. Your players are going to write beliefs that are the opposite of what they want, because what they want is to be challenged on the things they find interesting. Therefore if what a player really wants is to demonstrate his sanity, he will almost certainly be forced to write the belief questioning that sanity. If a player really wants to demonstrate how deeply his character is tied to a specific place, the chances are he’s going to write a belief about how much he needs to leave. It then comes down to you as the GM to challenge that assertion. This is by no means a general point, but rather something that will come up when dealing with characters that are particularly psychologically driven.
Here I’d like to give an example from the days of yore when I actually was allowed to play BW instead of GM it. I had just finished an arc of a character who was very much a Macbeth, and I decided to play his now-adult daughter who was hell-bent on revenge. Her name was Elizabeth Fox, but she had assumed a fake FantasyIrish identity as Cordelia Byrne, along with a fake Irish accent. Her goal was to become a brutal killer and avenge her parents.
She didn’t have it in her. For five or six sessions I wrote beliefs out of Sweeney Todd about being imbittered, angry, angsty (she was 18), and murderous, and every time Cordelia went to go murder someone, she would be rebuked. The GM would use the scene to demonstrate that this wasn’t the right path for this character, until eventually it all slipped away. She realized her whole identity was a fraud and that she was actually just a normal, decent, moral person.
Cordelia didn’t know what she wanted. She thought she knew, but she was wrong, and it’s only in retrospect that I realize how masterfully the GM led me toward where the character needed to go. What I really wanted was for Cordelia to be rescued from the dark path she was set down, and to get there I had to write beliefs that would lure her toward violence.
To bring things back around to Chris, the question is to find out what he really wants as a player. This might not be the right way of looking at it, because he may not even know: a better way to phrase it could be what he really needs. If I were you, looking at those beliefs in this way, I would come to the following conclusions:
1. I am shaken! I hate House Feketes but cannot believe that they would forge alliances with…with, Rat men! Am I going mad?
The Knight wants to be reassured that he isn’t going mad. It might be challenging to technically earn persona for the way this is written, but I can easily see resolving this in a single session in a way that I would be inclined to be generous toward re: rewards. I don’t know much about the setting, but as the GM I would introduce some sort of new piece of intrigue and information revealing the reason why the Feketeses would make such a vile alliance with Roden.
2. My family have supported the elves for generations. They will pursue the rat men with terrifying vengeance. How can I as a mere human contribute amongst these Fey people?
You might be able to encourage Chris here to find more active paths out of character to tackle this problem–but with the presumption that he wants the Knight to be lost, there seem to be a number of ways to go about resolving this. Maybe there are ancient treaties between Humanity and the Elves about giving Humans in the Elves’ midst a certain amount of authority, or there’s something to do with the plague that the Elves need his help with. Maybe there’s a tournament between Sword Singers and knights where he can prove his valor. None of these factors would resolve his existential crisis, but they’d give him an opportunity to demonstrate that crisis, and decide whether or not his inferiority complex to the Eldar is so crushing that it will define him. If the former it would resolve the belief, and if the latter it would at least transition the belief from a question into a positive statement of despair (from which point future statements of action might be written).
When a player asks a question, you can answer it.
3. I am Sworn to protect the nation and the Sorcerer King. But I have no power.
He’s down on his luck, but if he’s a Knight he must have some power. Remind him of that fact. Impower him, literally. Get him into a fight with a peasant, haul him before a court, and have him win the trial be default because he’s a knight. Challenge his sense of powerlessness. Even if it’s a small thing like having someone run away from him when they realize he’s a knight of the realm.
This is all to say that there’s nothing wrong with writing beliefs that lack strong goals, especially if your player doesn’t mind missing out on persona occasionally. All three of these could easily lead to Moldbreaker and Embodiment. They can still be challenged in interesting ways. I would still encourage Chris to find more active ways to embody his character’s helplessness and despair, though. Within all of Hamlet’s bellyflopping around killing Claudius he contrives a huge number of smaller goals that contribute to the ultimate resolution: write a scene for the murder of Gonzago, have the players put it on, fool Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, dick around with the players, write poetry, make out with Ophelia, harass mom, etc. For this character I can easily see that being, for the first belief, something along the lines of: “Am I going mad? I must speak to my sister to find out if she’s as possessed with this insanity as all others!”
Unless the belief is, “What a rogue and peasant slave am I!” there’s almost always going to be some external goal that can be attached, even a weak one. I don’t think any of these three are past that threshold. And if Chris does want to take his Knight in that Hamlet direction, I wouldn’t stop him. It’ll probably lead to some awesome stuff. It’s just going to be way harder than the alternative. The problem with that sort of thing is that it’s more or less impossible to challenge, so it shifts the entire balance onto the player to externalize it. That’s why concrete goals are easier to play to–but there’s a reason why beliefs without concrete goals are not against the rules.