My current Burning Wheel campaign is wrapping up, and so we’re discussing what to play afterwards. We still want to play BW, and it was suggested that we could do a ‘Burning OSR’, and take the traditional starting premise of dungeon-delving knaves out for treasure as a springboard for a campaign. This, in a sense, is very much the idea of Torchbearer, which I sadly haven’t played.
All this got me thinking about ways to inject some OSR into Burning Wheel and vice versa. A quixotic task. The two systems exist in vastly different spaces, and operate on vastly different mechanical chassis. Creating a character for B/X D&D can be done in minutes; burning a character for BW can take all afternoon. OSR wants you to accept that your character can die any moment; BW tends to make death rare and dramatic. We can compare and contrast until the end of time easily enough.
Yet what both systems share is a sense of struggle. A sense that every decision can and will matter, that consequences (good or bad) will appear based on player agency, and that no reward comes without a cost. We can do a couple of gross simplifications here.
Burning Wheel is a highly character-centric game, and so rewards and obstacles tend to be structured around the emotional lives of the PC’s. They believe Thing A, which is at odds with their loyalty to Thing B, while they are instinctively driven to do Thing C, and so on. The inner struggle is often the most powerful in Burning Wheel. BW is Luke and Vader in the lift before entering the Emperor’s throne room; it is Aragorn agonizing over his shame about his heritage.
OSR gaming tends to be more focused on the physical space and on physical rewards and obstacles. You delve for physical treasure, and while there is obvious psychological elements (and sometimes codified rules) to the whole affair, the drama of OSR stems from how spatial and physical problems are dealt with by the characters. OSR is Indiana Jones running from the rolling boulder; it is Conan attempting to infiltrate the orgiastic rituals of Thulsa Doom.
These two kinds of struggle could, and should, cross-pollinate and inform each other. They do so a bit by default, of course. But can they do so even more, without becoming an awkward attempt to hybridize two systems with very different design intents? No one wants to show up to play Old School Essentials and then be told we’re actually playing Burning Wheel in disguise – and I strongly suspect the reverse to be true as well.
For OSR, I think the answer might lie in emergent context. Whenever there’s a goal reached, or a sacrifice made, or some other powerful decision point, it’s a spotlight on the character(s) making that decision. Ask them about what drove them here. Questions are good, leading questions even better. When the 1st level party returns from their first delve, ask them what keeps them from retiring on the spot with the loot they got. When the fighter almost died and was saved by the last cure spell, what thoughts allowed him to grip unto life? Contextualize the inner life of the character through their physical hardship, and empower the seat-gripping moments with just a bit of extra spice. Hitch unto the dramatic moments rather than the downtime moments for revelation and exploration of characters. It might reveal something cool.
For Burning Wheel, physical obstacles disconnected from the character’s story feel awkward and arbitrary. In the words of one of my players, “There are no random encounter tables in this game”. There aren’t, and that’s for a reason. The opposition to PC’s in Burning Wheel is less interested in the interactive physical specifics, and more in the opposition’s relationship to the PC’s character. But, and this is an important but, a lot of the inspirations for Burning Wheel strongly emphasize the physical hardships as well. BW games can too often over-focus on the inner struggle and emotional sacrifices. The resource management of OSR gaming is enlightening here. Torches are sparse. Food is running low. The rocks are slippery, leading to a great chasm. These are all challenges the heroes of the great tales must face, and there is no reason our BW protagonists shouldn’t either. Do not handwave their rations when they go on an expedition; do not skip over climbing the cliffs so we can get heart-wrenching inner drama; do not let them go through mud and blood without getting their clothes real damned dirty. The struggle should be fair, but it should be a struggle.