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I've lately been having some troubles with players feeling somewhat directionless in my long-running Pathfinder campaign (and have received some excellent advice from rpg.SE on that front). When talking to one of my players about the lack of engagement, he suggested that we borrow the idea of character beliefs from Burning Wheel, as a way of giving players reasons to care about the campaign goal and about each other's characters. I'm a little dubious, as he seems to be fresh out of learning Burning Wheel and a little enamored with a system he just learned, but I'm not familiar enough with BW myself to know whether what he's suggesting will contribute to the campaign.

Is anyone familiar enough with BW beliefs to say whether they'd help in a system agnostic way (i.e. as a roleplaying tool) players to engage with the campaign more? Is the core gameplay philosophy of BW different enough from Pathfinder that trying to do this would substantially change the way players had to approach the game? And is there any merit in trying to add mechanical incentives to acting in accordance with beliefs, as BW does?

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Beliefs in Burning wheel are of the following form: I believe in A, and the next thing I will do about it is B. When the belief is seen in play the player gets fate artha (metagame points that improve rolls) and if the character accomplishes B, they get persona artha (stronger metagame points). There is also more, but let us stick with this simplified model for now.

Pathfinder, as it is usually played, is a game where the player characters act as a party that either has goals and tries to accomplish them within a relatively free sandbox environment or is driven by the game master's more-or-less explicit railroad. In both of these situations, the party is the entity that usually takes action; in Burning wheel, characters having their own goals, acting by themselves and maybe even conflicting is assumed and usual.

Direction to Pathfinder play

Supposing you are playing Pathfinder in a fairly usual manner but the party is floundering, you may want to institute a party-wide goal or several and make them explicit. If the setting is a sandbox with lots of player choice, allow the players to set their goal. Choose an explicit story experience award to make the goal concrete and tell it to the players. Allow them to negotiate the reward, but make sure it remains in proportion to the challenges involved. (You may even want to only use such player-set goal experience, giving nothing on merely fighting enemies.)

The experience, and the game master participating in the process, makes it explicit that the goal is suitable for the game and possible to accomplish. It gives players the permission to focus on that goal or those goals and make them the point of play. I think the Pavlovian reward is secondary here.

If you driving a train with the players as passangers, then it is up to you to make the group goal explicit and helpful in moving to the next station. Maybe level the entire party up, once the goal is accomplished?

More character-driven Pathfinder play

If you institute personal beliefs, as in Burning wheel, then you move the game a little towards character-driven play. If the entire group is not enthusiastic, I would be very careful with this maneuver.

You should discuss the role of the beliefs with the entire group. Maybe they would mostly be used to inspire banter and discussions; this would not be disruptive. But if they are seen to drive play, then you risk party splitting and inter-character conflict. These are completely valid components of interesting roleplaying, but do make sure all the players agree and are prepared for this. Also, if you do railroad, then keeping the characters on rails will require work (that I consider unpleasant; YMMV) or excellent planning.

Summary

Discuss, with the entire group, what your (plural) goals in roleplaying are and what kind of play you (plural) want. Tailor the system accordingly.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ wait... Pathfinder is normally Party driven? \$\endgroup\$ – Please stop being evil Oct 21 '15 at 19:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ @thedarkwanderer Yes, I would say it often is. It can of course be played in other ways, and my claim is based on personal experience and internet rumours, so I may be wrong. Please let me know of evidence to the opposite direction. \$\endgroup\$ – Tommi Oct 22 '15 at 7:20
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At their simplest, Beliefs in Burning Wheel are statements about things that are true from that character's perspective:

"All dwarves are filthy liars." "I must overthrow my brother, the Duke."

By themselves, they represent a sort of 'mission statement' for the character, explaining how he will approach the game world - Beliefs need to be actionable. "Love will always triumph" is a pretty bad belief, because it's hard to act on, a lot of time.

That's part one of what makes Beliefs important. Part 2 is that they are wired into the game's reward system. Burning Wheel doesn't give out "XP" for killing stuff, overcoming challenges, or anything like that. In Burning Wheel, skills advance through use, but characters who act on their Beliefs are rewarded with "Artha" which allows rerolls and various other heroic feats, depending on the type.

It is possible to incorporate these sorts of behaviors and to a lesser extent, rewards, into a game like Pathfinder, but the result tends to be somewhat watered down, because the game is putting other pressures on the party (Follow the plot! Get XP! Play as part of a team!); However, if your game is currently feeling directionless, these pressures may not be very strong.

I think it is worth have a conversation with your players about what they would like out of the game, and whether a system that provides bonuses for acting on character Beliefs would have any interest for them, because without player buy-in, Beliefs go nowhere.

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