Today’s RPGaDay2021 prompt is “Weapon.” The first thing that popped into my head when I saw this word is “Oof, how about the other words?”; the second thing was “to a person with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”
There are so many tabletop RPGs that have the characters carry around weaponry. When you think about that, isn’t that quite strange? Think about your daily life—how many people do you see actively carrying weaponry around? Unless you’re in the U.S.A., I would imagine hardly anybody beyond police officers. Around here, even then I don’t often see much beyond pepper spray. The closest I would come myself is a little swiss army knife I keep in a pocket in my backpack, which I would see as a tool that could potentially be used as a weapon, rather than the other way around. Yet, in our tabletop RPGs, quite often, our characters walk around in full battle gear constantly.
A setup like that predisposes players to think of violence as a reasonable solution to problems, which is something I don’t like. As I wrote yesterday, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a tactical combat game if that’s what you’re going for. Conan The Barbarian is still one of my guilty pleasures, both the novels and the movies (but not the 1997 show that was edited into a movie . . .), and sometimes it’s fun to play out a power fantasy like that. I’ve been meaning to look into it, but I suspect much of the enjoyment in that comes from the representation of a post-capitalist world: a world where you are beholden to no one but yourself where you can self-actualize and provide for yourself on your own terms. Incidentally, post-capitalist does not necessitate post-market economics, so there’d be no incongruency in buying and selling items and so on. Anyway, that’s an idea I’ve been meaning to work out properly, but I fear a project like that would turn into a whole PhD thesis!
Coming back around to the point of this post, I’m charmed by RPGs that don’t frontline physical violence, like Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, or Ryuutama. Physical violence may happen in the games, but it wouldn’t be the natural and unavoidable end-point of a situation. It’s similar to why I thoroughly enjoy Burning Wheel, as the main terms used there is “conflict” rather than “combat”. While physical altercations are more to be expected in Burning Wheel than the other examples, the game isn’t orientated towards it. Rather, it’s a game about passion, drive, and goals, and what people will do in pursuit of those goals. It acknowledges that words are also weapons whether they are wielded in a political arena or in a personal relationship. Much like that swiss army knife I carry, though, those words can be used either as a tool or a weapon.
What makes Burning Wheel so poignant to me is how all its various mechanics click together. Verbal conflict via its Duel of Wits system has little to no risk of direct physical harm (assuming the Dual of Wits is not your character’s defense during their murder trial, or somesuch thing). The Fight! mechanic, however, carries a high risk. While character death is relatively difficult to achieve (but not outlandish), severe injury is quite close by whenever swords are drawn. Any hit from any weapon can result in a severe wound that will drastically and dramatically change a character. So, as a result, Fight! mechanics are high-stakes affairs that players are encouraged to treat similarly to violence in real life. What makes this click so nicely is how it ties in with the Let It Ride principle in Burning Wheel: once the dice are rolled and a test is made, that’s it. No re-rolls. The matter has been decided. No testing again for the same thing. Of course, you don’t have to test for the same thing. If your character couldn’t win a debate in the pub, you could always resort to throwing fists. However, you’d be upping the stakes (and getting yourself thrown out of the pub).
Of course, you could do this narratively in most games but what Burning Wheel does well, in my opinion, is that it mechanically encourages these considerations. Character advancement in Burning Wheel comes from Artha, which are points awarded for acting on your Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits (BITs) (roughly said: statements made about what your character wants, does, and is). The host’s job is to challenge those BITs and confront the players with the question: “how far will you go for what you believe in?”. It’s always a question of what weapon your character will take up to fight for their beliefs, but it’s not a question of what physical violence they will enact on others. Rather, the question is what values weigh against each other, and how to navigate these safely.
I’m planning to host a game of Burning Wheel soon, and I hope I can show these amzing parts of the game to the players well enough. Burning Wheel is a tricky beast, but once it really clicks, it can be amazing.