RPGaDay 2022 #7

System Sunday: Describe a cool part of a system that you love.

RPGaDay prompt #7, from The Autocratik Blog

I really enjoy the Duel of Wits system of Burning Wheel, which is the advanced conflict resolution system for social situations. While on the one hand I do enjoy the idea that is prevalent in OSR systems that a focus should be on player skill versus character skill (cf, for instance, Tom van Winkle, Milton & Lumpkin p. 22, or Finch p.5), I also believe that system matters, to use The Alexandrian’s phrasing. I find the Duel of Wits system to be a very interesting means of combining roleplaying abilities with character abilities in a way that makes sense to me.

I forget where I once read this but I seem to recall that Crane, the designer of Burning Wheel, had mentioned in the past that its conflict system was referential to samurai duels in Kurosawa films: two combatants square up, rush at each other and exchange a few blows, then separate again to reassess. The Duel of Wits system (much like the game’s other advanced conflict systems) does the same: players pick three volleys of actions in a single exchange ahead of time. Then, one by one, you play out the interactions by briefly describing or roleplaying out what happens, followed by rolling the dice for associated stats. There’s more details as to how each of these actions can interact (an attack versus a defense is different from a feint versus a defense, for example) but overall this is the structure of the mechanics.

My first interactions with the system, and those of people I’ve seen get to grips with the system as well, tend to be a little stilted, as I’ve not often seen mechanics and roleplaying mixed so explicitly. However, with a little familiarity, it’s always felt like a quick way to guide an interaction. I also enjoy that it provides a little randomness to the interaction by having dice adjudicate the reactions of characters. I do see how this can be jarring to some, however, as this does remove a little agency from a player in a way: their character may, in losing a Duel of Wits, have to agree to a demand from another character, despite the player not specifically wanting to. In that way, Burning Wheel puts a player in the seat of a storyteller with a little more ownership over one of the characters in a story rather than a player embodying a single character in a simulation.

The way that it really helps spark creativity for me, though, is in the aftermath of Burning Wheel‘s conflict system: if one side dominates the other by taking no damage at all (social, physical, or otherwise), then they get to call all the shots. However, far more likely than that is that both sides take some damage. Depending on the extent of that damage, compromises are mandatory on a scale of minor, medium, or major compromises. What a wonderful way to drive a story forward! Knowing that your character is absolutely right, yet having to compromise with somebody you know to be wrong because you also care for them is such a dramatic turning point.

From how I understand Burning Wheel, this resolution system is a crucial part of the game, as it ties into the balance for the reward system (Artha), the advancement system, and the Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits system—they’re all intertwined. To me, any good session of Burning Wheel moves towards using the advanced conflict system to resolve an important moment in the story.

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