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In Burning wheel gold character traits have little mechanical effect - they may give an artha reward in some situations.

The obvious effect of character traits is to inspire and remind players to play according to the trait. They might also inspire GM to present a situation where the trait might cause trouble or interesting choices for players.

Is there more? How have character traits significantly affected your play? As a game master, how should I advise players to think about character traits in order to have them select or come up with suitable ones in character burning?

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The Purpose of Character Traits

So, you've addressed some of the major ones:

  • Character traits guide roleplaying: both the way you play your character and the way NPCs and other PCs react to him.

    In particular, I find Character traits are great for coming up with bynames and reputations. History is full of people called stuff like "Curly," "Quarrelsome," and "Forkbeard."

  • Character traits can be a source of Fate points, via the "invoke a trait to send the story in an unforeseen direction" award.

A few other ways in which traits matter:

  • Character traits can be a source of Persona points, via the "Moldbreaker" award. Traits like Desperate, Thug, Superstitious, and Humble Before My Master can all contribute to "the inner turmoil, the conflict within his own guts" just like Beliefs and Instincts do.

  • Character traits can grow into Call-On and Die traits. The trait vote includes changing traits. One common way to change traits — heartily endorsed by BWHQ — is to "promote" them to bigger, more mechanically meaty traits. Here's a rather extreme example: your character might start with Devout (Char trait), then have it voted up to Believer (minor Dt) because you've hammered it consistently; then, sometime later, the combination of roleplaying, Beliefs, and deeds drives a momentous trait vote where we decide she's earned the Faithful trait (major, game-changing Dt).

    You can, in theory, just assign big traits out of nowhere in the trait vote, but in practice it's often more satisfying to go incremental. This creates a sense of story progression and "earning" the trait, and gives the group as a whole more time to figure out what this aspect of a character is really about — sometimes it turns out that the path we though a PC was on leads somewhere surprising, after all!

    Note that BWHQ cautions that shouldn't treat this like the inevitable purpose of every Character trait. Some traits work best when they just stay character traits. Others actually shine most when they're voted off (spotlighting character growth).

Character Creation Advice

In general, my advice to players during character creation is:

  1. Choose initial Character traits that you think represent something interesting about your characters and let the trait vote process sort out the details later.

  2. Usually, it's better to embrace lifepath traits than to ignore them, even if they don't quite fit the character you initially envisioned. Try playing up the trait a bit and the result might surprise you; worst case it'll be be good fodder for a Moldbreaker moment later.

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Here's an example from my actual play:

One player had a character with the "merciless" trait. As GM, I decided to poke at that trait: I sent a group of peasants to the gate of the castle that was under siege and had them demand to be let in. As captain of the guard, he had the authority to decide what was to happen to them. He had a Belief about finding food for the castle's current inhabitants and knew full well that there wasn't room for more mouths to feed. Would be be merciless and turn them away? I think I explicitly pointed out that he had the trait. In the end, he did, but explained that he wasn't entirely being merciless, since he felt they'd have a better chance in the forest to the east than if they were penned up in the castle with everyone else.

Later in the game, there was a situation where the players were trying to decide whether they should kill a man who'd seen something they'd done that they wanted to keep secret. I goaded the merciless character's player: "Well, are you merciless? Will you kill this man to keep the secret? ...this poor, innocent man who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time? Or will you spare his life, even though he'll almost certainly reveal what you did, with all the severe issues of diplomacy that would cause between you and the dwarves." It definitely caused some internal struggle - if I recall correctly, he earned Moldbreaker that session.

Beliefs should generally take precedence, but character traits are another good source of compelling situations to put your players in, either by themselves or as flavoring for the Belief challenges. Don't leave it up to the players' initiative, find out for yourself what those adjectives written on their sheet really mean, and just how far they go!

(If your players are like my players, and tend to forget they have traits most of the time, my experience is that there is nothing wrong with giving them some explicit reminders until they start to get the hang of it themselves, or to be a bit ham-handed at first. Don't give them their Artha for them or force them to do anything, but don't shy away from leading them right up to the brink and gesturing suggestively forward. If they repeatedly decline to play the trait, that's fine - it'll be reflected in the trait vote, most likely, but better to vote a trait off because the player actively rejected it in play than because everyone kept forgetting it existed and so it lay fallow for the whole adventure.)

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