Burning Gold – The Resource Cycle

Burning Wheel is a game filled with grand concepts and impressive names for mechanics that sometimes obfuscate their importance to the game.  Where other games have alignments, BW has beliefs.  Where some games use class and race combinations for character creation, BW takes you on a journey through your character’s past with lifepaths.  And where some games use the gold piece, BW uses Resources.  It doesn’t have a coinage system, it has an economy. 

Like many of the moving parts of BW, the resource system doesn’t come into focus until one takes a step back and looks at it over the course of a long term game.  The core of the system uses the same mechanics as the rest of BWG: find what you want to buy (state intent), gather your funds (collect the die pool), establish value (set Ob), and see if you can afford it (roll).  But BWG is less about managing petty cash, whether that cash is measured in copper, silver, or stacks of gold, and more about managing assets.  Each character has a Resource stat, determined by how you spend your character’s starting resource points. If you outfit yourself like an adventurer, with all the gear you can carry on your person, your starting resource stat will be 1, or even 0, thereby making you live like an adventurer.  Most of my previous player’s resources were at 0 due to this and I ignorantly bumped them to 1, which I now believe was a mistake (more on that later).  But, if you buy land, reputations, and affiliations with organizations, the character will see a larger starting Resource stat.

As previously stated, I often bumped starting characters in my game to Resources 1, even if they were nowhere close to this.  I felt like with a 0 in resources, they would have been ridiculously hampered.  In all honesty, Resources was the least used mechanic in my previous Zemlya game.  I didn’t get it.  It seemed too hard for players to generate enough dice for even the simplest roll, and if they failed they lost what resources they had.

After reading through BWG and the Adventure Burner, I see how this is intentional by design.  Being poor in this game (Resources 2 or less) is brutal.  It is designed to drive the players to try and break the cycle of poverty that is implied by BWG’s setting, that of a Middle Ages Europe.  Players need to scheme and adventure to get the cash dice (one shot die bumps to Resources) to succeed at early Resource checks and earn the upward mobility needed to gain more funds from titles and affiliations.  It all strongly encourages (perhaps even forces) the players to work together to buy what they need.  Remember if a character gives a helping die to a check, they earn a test for that check as well.  With Resources increasing through tests, loaning cash to other players can help boost your Resources.  Like the man says, you have to spend money to make money.

Resources, like practice or the advancement mechanic is long term focused.  It advances through use, and as you make tests, subsequent tests become easier.  Making money is not the only component to this in-game economic system.  The second piece is the Maintenance Cycle.  If the Resource pool is the character’s personal economy, the Maintenance Cycle represents the natural periods of economic resolution in your game world.  It may seem like a complicated concept, but like most of BWG they have created an elegant mechanic for handling this. 

Maintenance Cycle works as follows.  At the start of the game the GM sets the time frame for the cycle.  Fast paced urban lifestyle has a cycle of about a month, whereas a more traditional medieval game would have a cycle set for six to twelve months.  This cycle represents when lifestyle maintenance comes to plague the characters.  When the Maintenance Cycle ends, the players must make Resource rolls to maintain their current lifestyle, basically paying for any amenities they have been enjoying for the last cycle.  The brilliance of this system is twofold.  It removes the penny pinching and accounting necessary to track lifestyle expenses inherent to most fantasy rpgs (which in my experience are usually ignored) while still making the lifestyle choices a vital part of the game. And, like most things in BWG, it drives story.  Has your character been living far beyond his Resource 3 means?  You better go raid a tomb or rob a baron to get some cash dice to make that looming maintenance check.  Roll poorly on said maintenance check?  Now he has to go out and adventure to gain new resources. 

As mentioned above, when you fail a Resources check you lose a die from the pool.  This Tax represents that your resources are hampered for the time being.  Recovering these dice requires getting a job.  Not an adventuring job either.  It needs something stable, something mundane.  And it takes a whole Maintenance Cycle.  At first blush this seemed brutal to me.  Pulling my characters out of the story for anywhere from a month to a year?  Why would I do that?  Again, it helped me to take a step back and view the game as a whole and with a long term view.

The system creates natural breaks in the story by forcing some down time.  And while active time is at a premium in BWG, downtime is very important.  It allows players the time to heal from wounds, to practices abilities, and to recover resources.   BWG handles each of these situations with time based mechanics that are very different from more traditional d20 mechanics.  But they are vital to the system.  Enforcing downtime enables players to recover and improve, all so you can throw them back into the fires of challenged beliefs.  It also allows their antagonists the realistic time needed to recover and adapt behind the scenes.

So what does this mean for the Outlands?  Well first I means I want to start uses Resources as written.  If the players start with a Resources of 0, so be it.  It means that many of our knights will be poor mendicants that rely on the strength of their arms and wits to maintain their armor and lives.  It also means the group will have to pull tighter together right off the bat.  If most things the group wants is outside the purview of one character, it is time to gang up.

Also, I have been debating on what to set my Maintenance Cycle to.  I want the pace to be somewhat more intense than a half-year cycle, but slower than a monthly rotation.  So I am going to set it at a seasonal cycle, every three months Maintenance will show up.  My hope is that this will be long enough to allow substantial story to happen, but still short enough for the downtime actions not to take characters out of the story for a year.

 

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