[Burning Empires] Grinding Gears on Beliefs

Started by Bret Gillan, January 23, 2008, 09:00:23 PM

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Bret Gillan

So we did world burning for Burning Empires. We can up with a cool world where civilization grew out of a crashed spaceship fleet. This is a strict society, and a criminal city sprouted up like a mushroom on the edge of it. One player, Josh, is playing a crime lord. I kept tossing out ideas, but they fell flat and he stayed silent. Josh can get frustrated really easy, so I didn't push it.

He just came crashing to a halt when it came to coming up with his character's beliefs. Everyone else was nearly halfway done with their characters by the time he came up with two out of three. By the time the character creation session ended, he was halfway done with his character.

So is there a way that I could help him come up with beliefs? I gave suggestions of things that work for me, like imagining my character doing something awesome and then writing a Belief based on that. Is this something that you can even help a player with, or do you just need to let them grind through it?

I see this thing happen in other games - this paralysis. Coming up with Kickers in Sorcerer, for example.


Hi Bret,

One of my friends also gets chargen paralysis. 

Did Josh begin with doing the life paths and number crunching or did he begin with a character concept?  Sometimes people get into the numbers and they have this thing in front of them which they have no real connection to.  You might be best off having him back up, come up with a whole new concept (unless that breaks everyone else's character concept) and then build around that.

Alternately, sometimes I've seen people go into paralysis because they can't "latch" into the setting.  Usually I try to toss them more situation stuff first, then let them figure out something they're into and hook into it. 

Obviously, though both of these require talking with Josh, and being sure -not- to pressure him on it, just see if there's something he's not digging on that might be working as a handbrake on the whole affair, or if there's something he's wishing he could do, but somehow feels railed by the chargen system.


Bret Gillan


We were going by the book so he come up with a concept, and then went on to Beliefs. It may have been difficulty latching into the setting, which is why I was batting ideas at him ("How about battles with rival crime lords in the streets? How about establishing the independence of your city by dragging military patrols into back alleys and beating them senseless? How about political negotations at a big table with... etc.")

I try to be totally open to any ideas that get tossed out there. He just clammed up completely and wouldn't respond to questions. "Is there something you want to see?" "I don't know." I mean, maybe this is his personality and I just need to be patient and let him work through it.

Per Fischer

After reading your second post, Bret, it does sound like a particular problem for the player in question. I wonder if he has bought into your collaborative world building at all? Was he active in world building, and then clammed up before the world was done, or? Is he generally jazzed about your cool world, its possibilities and its characters?

I find creating Beliefs one of the hardest things in character generation in BE - you really have to be creative. One of my Danish friends, Peter, uses this approach for (BW) Beliefs: one shortterm goal that can accomplished pretty quickly, maybe even in one or few scenes, certainly within the first session. One midterm goal to go for over more sessions, and lastly a longterm goal that won't be accomplished for a while. (I now understand this is originally Thor Olavsrud's suggestion)

This helps me coming up with Beliefs. I use it in other games that have similar traits as well - Kickers are similarly hard, so are Muses in Nine Worlds etc etc. Because it's where you really start to disclose to the other players what you want from the game.

I sometimes do chargen in this order: concept (this MUST come first), then lifepaths either forwards or reverse to accomodate concept, then Beliefs. Because sometimes there's a lifepath or LP change that triggers your imagination. Why did he leave the Theocracy after so many/few years? Born free but now slave - what is happening? Etc.

But I can see the problem if he is not responding at all. Is there any chance that he is mostly there to hang out with the other guys? I've seen that so many times. In that case I would politely ask if he wants to play and explain he needs to create Beliefs if so. Or if he would like to maybe skip this one and come back when you've played BE.

I think a lot about this, and I hope I've managed to convey some of my thoughts.

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


Hi Bret,

It sounds like it could be him not really "feeling" how the setting works.  Has he checked out any of the comics? (comics are a great source material in general, just because they're both visual and a quick read).

I'd probably have him scrap the character until he gets something that excites him.  If you don't even have buy in from the start, it's unlikely to develop later in the game, especially since BE is a game with really high stakes along the way.

Another possible idea might be to have his character "piggyback" on another player's character.  Perhaps an ally or follower or best friend or lover or something.  If the player can't buy into the setting, he might buy into another player's character idea and use that as a jumping off point.   During play, it gives him someone's lead to follow, and later, diverge from if he wants.


Bret Gillan


In any collaborative process like this, I always try to check in with anyone before decisions are made. It goes like this:

"Okay, so the world is going to be alien life supporting? Everyone cool with that?"
I look around for nods of assent and wait a few beats for someone to disagree. If not?
"Okay, cool."

However, I also know that Josh's brother, Jere, and I can really dominate discussions like this because we're both enthusiastic and full of ideas. Josh, not so much. So I'm going to try and stay aware of that in future sessions of any kind and make sure he's not getting talked on.

But then, on the other end of the spectrum, I try to stay in tune with what's going on in the table. If someone's clamming up, I generally notice and stop to be like, "Dude, is everything cool? It seems like this sucks for you." Josh's reaction to me doing that is to just shrug and say, "Yeah, I'm fine," in that way that most people mean, "No, I'm not fine, I'm just being passive-aggressive." But more badgering doesn't do any good and maybe I'm just reading him totally wrong. So long ago, I've just accepted that that's Josh and have left it alone.

I think he's definitely there to play and not just to hang out. Josh and I have roleplayed since high school, and he's really grown a lot. He's always on board for whatever game I throw out there. He played Shooting the Moon and The Shab Al-Hiri Roach and enjoyed them both. He's definitely into gaming.


He hasn't checked out the comics, but you're probably onto something. He might be floundering in a setting that isn't totally well-defined for him. I know for me I love that kind of setup because I can just spin all sorts of ideas out of the nothing. It could just be that it's too unstructured for him and he doesn't know what to latch onto.

He was and still is excited by the character. Tying the character to the world through Beliefs was the hard part. I mean, Beliefs marry the character and the player to the setting, and if you don't know the setting that well you might get cold feet. World Burning is supposed to help with that, but I think we still left things way more nebulous than most groups might.



Ok, then it sounds like it's mostly about making things concrete.  I usually would help flesh out some more details and situation- then the Beliefs become easy to figure out.  Stuff like:

- What's his big money making criminal enterprise?
- Who's his competition?
- Who has he stepped on along the way?
- Who's his allies- who is bought in the government, the church, etc.?
- Who would he protect from his criminal side- friends, family, lovers, etc?

Pretty much the usual set up for a good crime/mafia story, once you lay out some ideas like that, people start to get direction on what's going on- "The new magistrate has been cracking down, trying to make a name for himself.  He's the Lord's nephew, a goldenboy, so no one is willing to stop him... yet.   And he's got his sights on me..."  etc.

See if that helps generate Beliefs.


Callan S.

Hi Bret,

Your probably overlooking how you enjoy making up beliefs - it's just so natural to enjoy it, you don't feel it. It's kind of like how after you put your clothes on, you don't feel yourself wearing them.

Does Josh actually enjoy making beliefs? Have you asked him if there's anything he thinks he might enjoy about it? I'm suspecting he couldn't think of anything he might enjoy.

Bam, that's it - some activites exclude people by the very nature of the activity. If someone wasn't able to taste wine, then a wine tasting excludes them. He just lacks a taste for it. He may develop a taste for it at some point in life, but if it's not in him right now, he's excluded. If you like being with him, perhaps set up a DVD watching session or something, to make up for the roleplay time your unable to spend with him.

Ron Edwards

Whew - I am glad you wrote that, Callan. Neither you nor I know these folks directly, or role-play with them, so it can't be 100% ... but that said, I'm not getting any impression at all that the guy wants to use the Beliefs technique. What I'm seeing is Bret wanting Josh to play (or prep) in a particular way, and Josh saying no. Not "no but," or "yes if I only understood it," or "yes if you inspire me," but no.

Bret, you're the only one who can really assess the situation, but Callan's point shouldn't be overlooked. At some point in time, you'll have to decide whether this is about you helping Josh do something he wants (albeit a bit baffled by), or whether it's about you shoehorning him into something that you like and he doesn't.

Best, Ron

Sydney Freedberg

My group had a fair bit of trouble with Beliefs, and they're all pretty hard-core new-wave/story-gamer/Indie/Narrativist types (our previous three systems used had been Capes, Prime Time Adventures, and the The Shadow of Yesterday). The thing about the whole Burning Empires/Burning Wheel system is that you do a TON of definition up front, and at least for some people that's premature -- "destructive pre-play," even" -- because they need to play the character for a while to figure out what they're really about. I ended up letting people keep some Beliefs vague, or even keep one blank, and refine them in play.

Now my group also crashed and burned after four sessions (three, if you don't count world-burning) -- we ended up porting the entire campaign over to TSOY because the BE system was just too complex for us -- so I'm hardly the expert how to make Burning Empires actually work, but at least I know painfully well some of the ways to have problems with it.


Besides the things that other people have mentioned, I wonder if part of the problem could be that Josh has ego bound up in making his own character himself.  If you feel like you can't come up with anything cool on your own (thus proving that you're an inadequate human being), or if you feel like other people might think you can't come up with anything cool on your own, then you get defensive when people try to help.  Furthermore, approaching character creation as if your worth as a gamer were on the line makes it unfun and harder to finish quickly, so sometimes you do go all passive aggressive about it and buy out of the process where you can. 

I got twinges of that when my group started Burning Empires this Fall after we'd been playing mechanically lighter indie games for about a year.  It's old baggage: For several years after I first started gaming, I felt like I had to make my own character and do it well in order to prove that I was a player in my own right and not just somebody's girlfriend.  I suppose that last part probably isn't relevant to Josh, but there might be something analogous going on if he feels like people think he rode his brother's coat-tails into the game or if he feels like he's competing with his brother on some level, whether due to sibling rivalry or a past full of gamism. 

Let me know if any of this actually sounds relevant, and I'll tell you about how I talked myself out of that headspace when I caught myself getting defensive during BE character creation.


Bret Gillan

Hey guys, I really appreciate the point on Josh perhaps not wanting to play in a game using Beliefs. He and I have gamed together for a long time now. Thinking about it now, if I had to guess I think Christina has the right of it. I think he's struggling with Beliefs because, well, my group has struggled with Beliefs with every Burning game we've run though we're improving, and I think he's sensitive to attempts to help. Just in case, though, I'll be sure to check in with him away from the group and make sure he's cool with playing and that he's clear on the system.


If Josh might be sensitive about being slower than the rest of the group, then when you have that conversation, you want to avoid talking as if slowness itself were a problem.  I don't see you saying slow = bad, but some of your phrasing seems to be edging in that direction, so I figure I'd mention it, just in case.  As someone who's chronically slow on creating characters, I'd say that it doesn't matter unless it's a symptom of something else that's making the process unpleasant or unless it has specific negative effects.   

So let's suppose Josh's slowness here bugs him.  Let's also say one of the reasons it bugs him is because he sees it as part of a larger pattern in character creation, and because he's giving that pattern a negative meaning of some sort that's also giving him personal stakes in how character creation goes.  I suspect it may be hard to talk about problems specific to BE without defusing the overarching narrative first.  If he interprets everything you're saying about BE in light of the general pattern, then you'll be talking at cross-purposes.  There are three ways to get around that -- attack the existence of the pattern, bracket the pattern as irrelevant to the current conversation, or change what the pattern means -- but the third one strikes me as the best bet. 

Here's how I interpret my slowness:  I know that one reason I'm slow coming up with beliefs is that there are factors important to me in character creation that are less important to other players, so I am potentially engaged in a more complicated activity than they are.  Plus the other players in my group have GMed more, so even though I've spent as much time gaming as most of them, they have vastly more experience creating characters than I do.  So I tell myself that of course they'll take less time at it, and that doesn't reflect on me in any meaningful way.  When I'm in Josh's position, I also feel happier soliciting suggestions from other people if I know they value my input on their characters, too. (it defuses the narrative that I'm less cool or less equal than the other people at the table)  I don't suppose any of that's useful to you directly.  My point is that if the topic of slowness comes up, it might help further communication if the two of you decide on a safe, non-negative general explanation for it.  Once there's nothing else at stake, it'll be easier to bring up anything that's causing particular problems.

Oh the speculation,