Burning Wheel, in Review

With holiday schedules, an incoming bearcub, and all the other insanity that seems to surround the end of the year (I’m looking at you, NaNoWriMo), the automatic assumption is that no one will get any face to face gaming done in November and December. I was aiming to buck this trend this year, so I talked to the ‘absolute regulars’ for the Wednesday group and we agreed to switch our biweekly schedule to a weekly schedule, the idea being “if we try to play every week, we might get in almost as much gaming as we would if we played biweekly during normal parts of the year.”

On the whole? It basically worked. We managed to pull off four sessions of Burning Wheel during November and December (if you count the session we spent doing character generation and figuring out our setting). I’m reasonably proud of us for squeezing in that much between everything else going on, and I’m really quite happy with Burning Wheel as a game system.

In October, we’d tried out a little two-session test run that included Randy and De, and it went quite well (albeit with some narrator-summation at the end). When we decided to set the new game in the Pratchett-esque “Wiki World” that a group of us had collectively created in 2008, I was pretty jazzed.

The resulting mini-campaign is the introductory story of a group of semi-famous/semi-notorious members of society in Bodea-Lotnikk, the capitol of the Grand Duchy of Kroon, all of whom had agreed to join a newly created “Ducal Guard” that was in charge of investigating any crimes that might somehow involve more than one of the eighty-six burroughs of the city. Such cross-jurisdictional cases were a real nightmare, due to the varying, contradictory, and often incomprehensible laws of each burrough.

Our three protagonists were an elven historian who wanted to spread the order and clarity of elven law to the other areas of the city, a dwarven noblewoman (now outcast) looking to make such a name for herself that she could return to Sniffleheim draped in glory, and a human… ahh… entrepreneur who’d used his… financial gains… to buy a noble title (and who really can’t help but expose all the many weaknesses in the city’s current law enforcement system).

Their first case involved the murder of a famous dwarven full-contact nine-pins player, the investigation of which took us through three sessions of play and brought us in contact with the city’s nobility, sports hooligans, various nine-pins teams (including the Little Sniffleheim Molerats, Bodean Mudferthings, and the Lotnikk Sandmites), and many of the Burning Wheel sub-systems that I’ve been itching to try out. The tone of the sessions ran somewhere between Terry Prachett’s Night Watch books and an episode of Castle, which is pretty much what we were aiming for.

Can Burning Wheel Even Do Funny?
In short, yes. A slightly longer answer is that Burning Wheel takes the setting completely seriously, even if the setting itself involves crooning molerats, an earring-sized battle axe known as the Wee Prick, bar brawls with gangs of nine-pin hooligans, and extra-dimensional brain-tearing missle weapons that can blow holes in buildings.

Another way to put it is that life can be really funny, but falling off your roof still hurts. Burning Wheel is kind of like that.

Was I satisfied with how the story of the investigation came out? Yes. Would I like to do a lot more with those characters in that setting? Yes (and there’s lots of room for new guards to be introduced). Did we get a nice overview of the system? Yes: we got a couple Duel of Wits in, ended things with a short Fight!, and generally touched most of the systems in the game.

Did we really wring the system out? Not by a country mile. First and most importantly, although they pursued them, none of the character achieved any of the goals associated with their Beliefs — I chalk this up to rookie GM and player mistakes and too much time just learning the rules. Also, our characters started out fairly skilled (a mix of four and five lifepath characters) — as such, three sessions wasn’t really enough to see a ton of change with their characters in terms of skills — the stuff they’re quite good at takes a lot of challenge to improve (we didn’t quite get there in three sessions), and the skills they were learning for the first time (three guardsmen, none of whom had Observation!) didn’t quite get enough of a work out in that period of time to graduate to ‘full’ skills, either.

We were really CLOSE though; I expect that a couple more sessions would have seen several skill improvements and new skills opened up for everyone. The Belief thing just takes practice — and belief-goals that the players really can really push toward actively.

So what’s Burning Wheel like?
It’s not a Story Game. Or it’s the quintessential, fully-functional, armed-and-opertational Story Game. In short, it is exactly what it is, with no apologies for being five years old and often updated and evolved via its later texts. Crunchy combat (yet with no battlemat), highly-tactical social conflicts, SUPER-granual character advancement that basically guarantees you’ll won’t have the skill you need every single time and that the player will ALWAYS have some ‘improvement project’ they’re working on for their character… yet for all that the stuff that really matters — the stuff that informs almost every decision you make when the GM asks “what do you do next?” — is on the very first page of the character sheet — the page where there aren’t any numbers at all.

I kinda love it.

It’s not a perfect game, and it absolutely requires buy-in from everyone at the table (I mean literal buy-in — everyone should have their own copy of the core rules), but it is a game that – by turns – scratches almost every itch I get as a player and GM. Tactics, crunchy dice stuff, story-driven play, and the kind of game where you can actually envision playing the same characters for a long, long time (definitely not a design goal for most story-games).

To say it it supplants my need for traditional RPGs like DnD should go entirely without saying, but it also takes care of a lot of the stuff I’m looking for when I want to play something like Dogs in the Vineyard or The Shadow of Yesterday. It’s not for everyone, and it’s not for every type of situation (I can’t see pulling it out for one-shots unless it was a sort of con-game scenario like the Library of Worlds), but if I had an idea for a system-agnostic campaign, I think Burning Wheel would be the system I would have to eliminate from the running first, before I considered something else.

A long time coming.

Back in 2006, I wrote this short post:

You know what I’d like to do?

I’d like to make up a really rough sketch background against which to play a Lexicon Game. Like: “The Wose War and Scandal of Eddings Barony”, “The Atomic Apotheosis”, or “The Parliamentary Assassinations of 2128″.

Get a group of people together and just… you know. Go to town. Play the game.

Then, when it’s all laid out, set a game in the setting everyone just created.

I think that would be fun.

Nothing came of that post, at least not immediately.

Then, in October of 2008, I had the PHENOMENALLY FOOLISH idea to play exactly that sort of lexicon game from start to finish from October 15th to October 31st, just in time to get everyone’s creative juices primed for NaNoWriMo that year.

Here were the guidelines we used:

  • Basically Fantasy – more low fantasy and sword and sorcery in tone – with other fun bits bolted on. “A fantasy RPG, as GMd by John Cleese.”
  • No specific rules of magic at a macro level, with many insular rules of magic at the micro level.
  • Lots of different races.
  • Anything that might qualify as science-fiction or the like should be of a clockwork/steampunk/Jules Verne bent; this would include any theories about how the world exists in the solar system, the universe, and everything.
  • Other dimensions for weird crap to come from or leak out of.
  • A long and storied history.
  • Puns.
  • At least slightly humorous, in the style of Pratchett/Discworld, keeping in mind that most of the humor of the books comes from wry, pun-loving voice of the NARRATOR and snarky comments by the main characters… not because the entire population is half-knowingly running a Monty Python sketch.

I don’t remember everyone I snagged to participate in the thing, but there were probably at least eight that made it through to the end.

And… unbelievably, it worked. I even set my story for NaNoWriMo in that setting.

But I never ran a game there. Bodea-Lotnikk, the Charnel Road, the Jugular Way, and the Grand Duchy of Kroon have never been the stomping grounds for a group of my players.

That’s all about to change.

I wasn’t sure if we’d meet this week, but last night a couple folks got together and worked out what we’d like to do for a proper Burning Wheel campaign. Close to a dozen possibilities were proposed by yours truly, and as a footnote to one of those ideas, I’d added “we could even set the whole thing in Bodea-Lotnikk”.

Bodea-Lotnikk is the most populous urban area in Grand Duchy Of Kroon, comprised of no less than 86 distinct boroughs, assimilated townships, long-vanished villages, and subsumed hunting grounds. It boasts narrow streets laid out irregularly, clannish neighborhoods, and a vast collection of architecture marking the dying moments of any number of design eras best forgotten.

Oh my, but they liked that idea.

That provided a setting (and WHAT a setting), but it didn’t address the situation. I flipped to page 90 of the Adventure Burner and read this question:

What’s the Big Picture? What’s going on in this setting the makes it ripe for adventure? What’s changing?

What we decided on was this: the Grand Duke, as part of his continual effort to exercise some manner of order over the city, had established a City Guard, meant to investigate any ‘cross-borough’ crimes and enforce the laws of the city.

All of em.

For all 86 boroughs.

Simultaneously.

Complications will include stuff like contradictory laws between boroughs, hopelessly labyrinthine legal messes, questions of jurisdiction, and local law enforcement in each borough that just plain didn’t like the City Guard sticking their noses where they weren’t wanted.

The first session will (of course) open with a very public murder that will threaten the stability of the whole city.

We didn’t entirely finish characters, but we know that Kate’s playing a exiled dwarven noble by the name of Mika Harildsdottir, Tim’s playing an elven legal expert who’s positively thrilled to be out of the elvish Citadels and doing things with real people, and I think Chris is doing some kind of human criminal-turned-courtier. The Grand Duke’s decided they’re the ‘face’ of the City Guard, since they’re so multicultural and… *distracted hand wave* you know… things like that.

One of the other upsides to this concept is that it’s going to be dead simple to bring in other players on either a short- or long-term basis.

Another upside? It should be awesome.

I believe I’m going to call the campaign Burning Molerats.

The Library of Worlds, Part One

[Full disclosure: about 80% of this was designed by Alexander Newman for 10.10.10.  He was a great helped while I worked out how to to run the thing.]

Legends tell of a vast library buried in the shifting sands of al’Wadi al’Aqbar — the Great Desert — where any scroll may be found, where all secrets are revealed, and where knowledge flows free and clear like water from a spring.

Some tall tales tell of prices to be paid that cost too much, some speak of bargains made that should never have been sealed, and some of fools who sought riches and found only death.

But all the tales of this Library of Worlds speak of its librarian: a mighty Prince of the Djinn. The Djinn will grant three wishes, the story goes, but is silent on how he may be compelled to do so.

Still, what matter the tales? You have trekked deep into the desert, and now the Library is before you.


Princess Leisha — Heir Potential to the Empress (She Who is Alm, Bless Her Name) — is on a quest to find a cure for the disease that is killing her mother and, in doing so, become Heir Apparent. Aided by her companion (the preistess Fatima, Imamiyyah of the Faith), her bodyguard Suleiman (a slave, as are all men in the Empire), and Nejat their desert guide, the Princess has arrived at the foot of a minaret, deep in the Great Desert. This must be the entrance to the fabled Library of Libraries, where surely a cure… and much else besides… can be found.


Chris couldn’t make the game, but I asked De and she and Rachel came up. Cool. Here’s who played who.

Tim played Princess Leisha:

Beliefs:

  • I will find a cure for my mother, She Who Is Alm, and become Heir Apparent.
  • There is great knowledge in the Library: I will learn all that I can, for the glory of the Empire.
  • It breaks all the laws of Man and God, but I love Suleiman; I will consummate our love for all time.

Instincts:

  • Make a decision, then command.
  • Trust my advisor, Fatima.
  • Always study tomes carefully, you never know what lies between the pages.

De played Imamiyyah Fatima

Beliefs:

  • The Djinn in the Library heard the Prophet’s words from her own mouth: I shall obtain a true transcript and thereby rise in the Faith.
  • The social order of the Empire is ordained by God: I will preserve its ways.
  • Leisha’s feelings for her slave are obvious, and must be dealt with; I will expose Suleiman as unfaithful.

Instincts:

  • Let a slave do the labor.
  • Lead prayer at the appointed hours.
  • Always help other through my skill with Astrology.

Kate played Najat

Beliefs:

  • This quest is the opportunity I have been waiting for: I will exploit every advantage these pampered palace women offer.
  • Fool priests should keep their dogma to the palaces: it has no place coming between women and their men.
  • My fortunes change here: The Djinn must free all the Men of Alm, so that no one will suffer as I suffered.

Instincts:

  • Check for tracks.
  • Conserve water.
  • Speak my mind.

Randy played Suleiman the harem-slave/bodyguard

Beliefs:

  • I would live free: if this is truly the Library of Worlds, I shall escape to where I can thrive as a free man.
  • The Princess will be a better Empress than most: I will protect her interests as well as her life.
  • Fatima is more lovely in spirit than any palace woman; I will try to take her with me, if I can.

Instincts:

  • Trust the twitch in my left eye (Sixth Sense)
  • Never surrender my blade.
  • Protect the Princess with my life.

So the four (plus the princess’s drover and a bunch of camels) stood outside the minaret, pondering entrance. Suleiman finally fashioned a hook and line from some traveling gear and got it up through the archway at the top of the minaret. (Beginner’s Luck Throwing test.) Najat scrambled up into the minaret and used a second rope to help Suleiman up (she had climbing, and helped him get up with another beginner’s luck test, this time of climbing).

Fatima and the princes weren’t interested in learning how to climb — they order Suleiman to pull them up, so what would have been climbing checks for them became routine Forte tests for Suleiman.

Once everyone was up in the minaret, they descended the stairs within the tower and into a circular room, the walls covered in glowing script. A crystalline orb about the size of a softball stood on a pedestal in the center of the room. The only exit was an archway ‘curtained’ in golden light.

The text on the walls was legible, but hard to decipher, as it was ancient, verbose, and somewhat poetic. (Think translating Chaucer into modern english.) Eventually, she was able to work out that these verses were the Library rules:

Take no tome, and mark none,
If you would your homeworld see,
Bring no flame, and make none,
Lest you too would burnèd be.

Free in body, free in mind,
Freely share the knowledge ’round.
If you would your fellows bind,
What you seek shall ne’er be found.

The way was opened when you sought,
The way remains for gifts you’ve brought.
Find what you seek and then, begone!
The way will not remain for long.

The inscription above the arch read “That Which is Written Remains”. The veil seemed to be woven from the same soft golden light as the verses on the walls and the inscription above the arch.

Sul and Najat went through the arch, immediately noticing that the air was cooler and more humid (the Library has climate control). When they looked back, they saw the veil over the arch was is utterly black, shot with red — when Sul approached it, his left eye twitched (sixth sense for danger).

The Tower (GM notes)

The center of the tower is a pillar with an interior spiral staircase that leads only down. The N/E/S/W bridges from the center shaft to the outer walkway also lead to other parallel towers that ‘belong’ to other worlds. The NW bridge leads to and from the shaft to archway out. The ‘rim’ walkway gives easy access to a larger collection of scrolls than anyone present has seen, as well as rare bound books like those from the keeps of the recently subjugated Western Lands. There are also arches at NE, SE, and SW that lead outwards into concentric circles of yet more scrolls and books that should–but do not–overlap neighboring world-towers. Farther ‘out’ in those sub-towers, the collection expands to objects that are inscribed in some way (like Suleiman’s sword). Pretty much anything written upon can be found here… the trick is getting it out again.

The pattern of walkways is repeated overhead, apparently inaccessible, and leaning over the side shows that the same structure extends downwards further than anyone can see. At the level of the entrance are roughly contemporary works, below are works from the past, above (theoretically) are works from the future. The collection is not complete, though, for contemporary stuff, and definitely not complete for the future (also, the stairs in the column don’t go upward — you’ve have to use a hook and line (Throwing test) — and climbing tests (with the potential of falling into the infinite past), to get up to a higher level).

The shelves are all made of the same smooth stone as the minaret, and ornately inscribed with strange glyphs that, again, give off a golden light, sufficient to read by.

Need a Map for the walkways? It’s the Burning Wheel logo

A robed and hooded figure waits silently at the entrance to the central pillar and spiral stair.

The other two held back in the entry room, and couldn’t hear what the others were shouting back, which meant that when the princess and priestess finally did go through, Sul and Nejat were already confronting the Servitor.

The Whosiwhatsit?

So Sul and Nejat approached the figure by the stairs. They see that instead of a face it has a smooth mask of something like paper, covered in symbols and text. Its robes and all its visible ‘flesh’ are the same material and similarly marked. It’s basically humanoid, but apart from the text, featureless.

As they approach, the servitor bows and touches where its heart, lips, and forehead once were with its right hand. Then it holds its hand out as if expecting to be given something. The servitor will wait until given something with meaningful writing (Princess and Priestess both have scrolls, Sul has his sword, Nejat’s bow).

The Princess and Priestess both gave over their written works (Fatima, her copy of the Faith; Leisha, a 364 line love poem about Suleiman). Najat pretended ignorance of what the Servitor wanted, and Suleiman understood what was being asked and flat out refused.

The Servitor didn’t press their refusal and bowed to the both of them again, then reached out to touch their cheek in a mirror of a priest’s blessing.

They both accepted the Servitor’s touch. The servitor then bursts into a swirling dervish of paper bits and bears the visitors gifts off into the recesses of the library.

And I called for Forte tests. They both failed.

Both of them get a black symbol on their cheek where they were touched. The skin under and immediately around the mark tingles, and feels dry and… papery. Fatima made a  Symbology roll to figure out that the central character on their cheek meant “Birth” is surrounded by an indication of the date of the character’s birth.

The Forte test determined how fast the ‘blessing’ was spreading. Sul really blew the Forte test, so he had hours — the symbols on his cheek were visibly spreading. Najat barely missed it, so she’s got 22 months.

So Sul’s was growing visibly – Naj’s wasn’t (“obviously: a man is weaker”). Sul immediately whipped out his sword and GOUGED THE TEXT OUT OF HIS CHEEK. Blood everywhere, and the hunk of his face turned entirely to paper and blew away.

However, he DID get the ‘blessing’ out.

While the princess tended to her wounded bodyguard, Fatima went back and snagged the crystal that no one had touched in the entrance (as soon as any character got rid of their printed materials, the veil turned ‘harmless’ for them — Sul still sees the scary black and red veil, and Najat… doesn’t see any veil at all, anymore).

Right when she picked it up, I gave De the chance to either avoid ‘contact’ with the orb or to try to master it. She attempted to master it and REALLY blew the roll, so she mastered it, but it taxed her Will down to 1, almost knocking her unconscious. The orb exposed her to a full, multi-dimensional, fractal map of the infinite library of worlds. Handy for Orienteering, but hell on the sanity.  She came back to their Library looking haggard, and with a crone-like grip on the crystal.

Once Sul was kind-sorta patched up (wounds take a long time to heal in BW compared to stuff like DnD), Orienteering rolls were made to find the princess’s desired knowledge

They got to that part of the Library with the complication of meeting the almost-turned-servitor-but-not-quite male scholar from another world. His near-transformation creeped Najat out (Steel test: passed), but she showed no sign of it. Suleiman was EXTREMELY interested in which tower that man had come through in the first place, because in that world, men weren’t slaves.

Fatima: “Some worlds have more difficult trials than our own.”

The not-quite servitor talked a bit with his ‘sister’ Najat (he still had a mouth, kind of), and said Najat could call on him if she needed help.

For the first Research test, I had Leisha make Ob 3 for compiling obscure knowledge from many sources.

Then I had her making a “learning all this stuff roll” by using the Learning/Teaching rules from the BWR. I gave the Library’s Knowledge an effect Will of 5, so the duration of her Studying was [Days of Study = 5 + (10 – Her Will) + OB of Difficult Apothecary Test = 13 days. She had to succeed at an Ob3 Apothecary test to learn the material, and if she missed it, she’d have to start all over for another 13 days. Tim made the roll by one, and squeezed the time on the test down to 11 and a half days.

While the princess studied, Fatima and Najat decided to go look for the Djinn. (Sul wanted to go to, but wouldn’t leave the princess.) They made the roll, even with a penalty +1 Ob from Fatima’s linked Djinn-wise failure.

GM Notes:

The Prince was trapped the moment he entered the Library: his people were created from smokeless flame, as Man is made from clay, and he inherently breaks the rules of the Library simply by existing; rules formulated by a higher power even than that which governs his wish-granting. Far from being the Librarian, he is a prisoner, now bound to punish those who kindle flame inside its precincts.

He has been granted a huge chamber in the Library, in which he has created over the ages a beautiful ornamental garden of paths and streams, scents and breezes, glades where the rattle of reeds syncopates with the falling of water to whisper lewd secrets to an uncaring universe.

In the middle of the garden is a lake, and in the lake an island. A single tree has been painstakingly trained to arc over the lake in a slender, graceful, thorny bridge leading to a many-layered pavilion of pillars and veils

Once they got there, Fatima and Najat had a pleasant conversation with the Djinn, who offered them both quite a lot in exchange for a favor: for Najat — a cure for the Blessing; for Fatima, the exact words of the Prophet (after he dropped the Bomb that it was a Prophet, not a Prophetess, once upon a time).

He said he’d do both those things for them happily, if only they’d bear him out of this Library that he’d accidentally gotten caught in ages before. Fatima readily agreed. Najat said that she wanted the Men of Alm freed more than she wanted to be cured of the blessing, and the Djinn (though surprised) agreed to that instead.

He told Najat to take his vessel with her back to their ‘camp’ (the princess’s study location), so she could call him if need be, and they said they looked forward to leaving with him in a week or two.

[When they were talking, he’d said “If you need me, simply call my n– call for me.” And De said “Hey, do I know his name?” So I explained how the Djinn had many names and had her roll Djinn-wise. She got a crazy number of successes, so not only does she know that the Djinn can actually be compelled to grant three wishes by invoking any of his ‘unused’ names, she KNOWS she’s got a name of his no one’s used, and that she can MAKE him grant her three wishes, rather than paying him off by taking him out of the Library.

And De claims she has a “Horrible” way to get a complete, perfect, accurate copy of the Prophet’s words out of the Library, on paper.

We’ll find out if she’s right on Wednesday.]

That was the end. Leisha and Sul’s players are VERY interested in the fact that the Djinn’s vessel is coming back to their camp — they both want to talk to him too.

Burning Wheel (finally)

I got a copy of The Burning Wheel… hmm. My first mention of it on the blog was early 2004, and I know it was the first edition of the rules, so that probably means sometime in 2003.

I read some of it. It intimidated the hell out of me (and turned me off — I was NOT in a good place to read about a super-crunchy rules system back then). I let the pair of books accumulate dust for a long time.

Sometime around 2006 or 2007, I started reading a lot of good things about the revised version of the rules (BW-R), so I ordered the shiny new version.

And tried to read it.

Too much. I let that pair of books accumulate dust alongside their older brothers.

But I kept reading those interesting actual play posts while I ran other games. If it came up in conversation, I mentioned that I really wanted to play the game with some people that understood it before I tried to run it myself. My gaming was taken up with other things — limited gaming time and ever-shrinking schedules meant I was more likely to choose games with a lower level of required brain-investment than BW. The thing with Burning Wheel is that it really requires system familiarity — it is through system knowledge that one achieves nominal – rather than exceptional – performance from one’s character. That’s a little daunting.

I never quite abandoned my interest in the game. Everything I heard about the game sounded – to my tactical-loving side – quite cool, and the raves and praise heaped on the “story” elements of the game (Beliefs and Instincts especially) were just as effusive. But despite all that, it was still a game that took too much time to learn, too much time to prep.

Then came Mouse Guard. A streamlined version of the Burning Wheel engine. The sparest, most elegant iteration of the rules, to date. It was, by all accounts:

  • Accessible to new players.
  • Still a true and excellent representation of the Good Things That Are Burning Wheel.
  • As with BW, strong player-centered focus of play that’s built directly into the rules in numerous ways.
  • As with BW, lots of situation-generating hooks built right into the characters, making running the game easy.
  • Several procedural innovations that make the elements of play that are problematic in other games (high crunch = high prep time) very fast and easy.

I’ve since run MG quite a bit. I’ve enjoyed almost every session immensely, but it’s been hard for me to get my ‘regulars’ to dive into an MG game, basically because of the setting.

But I really wanted to get into that system with them.

So…

Burning Wheel. I felt like MG had been a good primer on the system — I felt like maybe I was ready to understand Burning Wheel. Thus emboldened, I dove into the system. Once the main books were read and grokked, I ordered the rest of the Burning Wheel books: Monster Burner, Magic Burner, and finally the new Adventure Burner, which is basically a 350 page collection of engaging epistles on running Burning Wheel, compiling years of experience and discussion.

On the second page, I read this (paraphrased):

Burning Wheel asks only for an open, honest desire to try it out and see how it works. You may be reluctant, or you may be skeptical — that’s natural, but for the game to have a hope of working, everyone at the table has to say “Let’s give this a fair shot.”

Last night, we finally got to give it a fair shot.

Burning Wheel is a weird critter

On one hand, it is far more character focused and player-driven than a traditional fantasy game, but it uses FAR more intense rules than the nontraditional, “lighter” RPGs I’ve played before, like In a Wicked Age or Shadow of Yesterday or Heroquest or… hell, anything. I’ve mentioned that the rules are crunchy, but they’re crunchy in odd places. For example, there’s no battlemat or miniature rules (honestly, I think they’d confuse things), but there is SUPER HIGHLY DETAILED rules for positioning in combat, weapon length, weapon speed, armor penetration, and all that stuff.

And of course all the major conflicts are resolved through double-blind action scripting, which can be… harrowing.

My Impressions

I loved the way Beliefs and instincts worked. We played a one-shot (that we decided to stretch into a second session next week) with pre-gen characters lacking only a few player-selected items to be finished, but given the Beliefs and Instincts right at the front of the (seven page!) character sheet, everyone had an immediate grasp on their character and started moving things toward the stuff their guy wanted.

Implied Details. Burning Wheel characters are like the game itself — detailed through hints. Burning Wheel has no setting, but the lifepaths (NONE of which have actual descriptions or explanations) very strongly imply a culture and perspective through the skills that are available and the Traits that one gets. The characters are like that — you look at three Instincts like “Always lead prayer at the appropriate hours” and “Always speak my mind” and “Let the slave do the work”, and you have a pretty clear picture of a character — a picture you’ve deduced only via the things they do.

Modular Rules. Burning Wheel rules and the Characters are alike in other ways. The system itself is modular; whole chunks of it can be ignored or simply kept on the side until needed. Likewise, I mentioned the seven page character sheets, but in play we only really looked at the first page (Beliefs and Instincts and Traits (and stats)), and the fourth (skills). Randy had to look at the combat and injury page once, and De had to look at the page where her Faith stuff was at, but they’re outliers: yeah, it’s seven pages. The rules are thousands of pages in total… but most of the time you only need the first chapter.

Color through mechanics. There is very little ‘color fiction’ in the books — almost none, actually. The culture and setting is conveyed through the skills and traits. Likewise, there is very little space on the character sheet for the ‘character concept’ (and that little entry is largely ignored once play starts), but the character’s Beliefs and Instincts and Traits and skills speak volumes  — they are vitally important to play and constantly referenced. Like all good characters in fiction, Burning Wheel characters are best understood by what they do and why.

The game is deep. Not like water is deep, or a philosopher is deep, but like a cave is deep. There are rules in there that won’t get touched for months if not in fact years of continual play. You can do one-shots in Burning Wheel, and short-arc adventures, but this is a game optimally designed for long term play. In fact, I think it would play *best* as a weekly, weeknight game (two and a half to three focused hours) that went on for at least six months.

I also think it would play as well with six players as with one player and one GM. Differently, but just as well. That’s pretty remarkable in itself.

How did the game go?

I’m going to recount the game itself in a second post, but in short I thought it went well. There was a lot of page flipping, and I wussed out on damaging a character at one point, and I feel like Tim was kind of thumb-twiddling for too long during the session, but on the whole it was good, and there was a lot of interesting stuff.

At the end of the night we could have called it complete: we had the shape of the thing in our minds, though no one’s Beliefs/Goals had been resolved.

But the players unanimously decided to come back next week and find out what happens. Plans are being planned — I can see it in their eyes — stuff is going to happen; beliefs are going to be fought for.

I think we have a winner.

(Took me long enough.)

Wasting time playing DnD

No, I’m not saying that playing DnD is a waste of my time, settle down. Breathe.

I ran into a pretty interesting thing I wanted to talk briefly about, though.

This week, I have a lot of gaming going on, which is kind of exciting; after months of pretty much nothing in the way of RPG play, I’m playing DnD, running Dragon Age, and then playing Burning Wheel — all in about five days.

Pretty heady stuff.

Last night we played the DnD game; that gave rise to this post. (Which should have probably been called ‘Wasting my time while playing DnD’, but who’d read that?)

Anyway, to my point.

For the last over-a-year, I’ve been lucky enough to have a pretty regular game going on weeknights. We’ve played quite a few games, most notably (in my mind) Don’t Rest Your Head, Diaspora, Primetime Adventures, and other stuff like that. Games in which, speaking broadly, there are a lot of ‘flags’ attached to your characters — things where you’ve said “this is something that interests me about this guy: I’d like to play around with that in the game, please.”

For instance, in the Diaspora game, Kate’s ‘flags’ (read: Aspects) had to do with being a bit of a lapsed pirate, something of a swashbuckler, a ship’s captain, and having some unfriendly family members looking for her. This was the stuff that was interesting to her, and as the GM I usually felt pretty safe if I planned for something or someone to come along and hit one of those elements of her character.

I could list many more examples, but they’re all pretty obviously along this line, and they all have a few things in common: “hitting” those things in an interesting way is what the players want, so it’s socially rewarding in the game, and most of the time it’s also mechanically rewarding.

Also, if I’m doing something as the GM that doesn’t touch on anyone’s flags in any way… well, the question to ask at that point is “What the hell are you doing, dude? I trust you, but get back on task.”

And that would be fair.

So. DnD.

No flags.

Now, Tim and I have been hammering on his Return to Northmoor campaign for awhile (him for QUITE awhile — I’m Johnny-come-lately), and for the ‘first arc’ of the game I think we’ve done a good job of creating a ‘flag and reward’ system for play that isn’t much of a rules hack.

This short game we’re doing right now isn’t that, though — it’s the mid-arc part of the Northmoor saga, and as such the original ‘secrets’ stuff doesn’t work, exactly. We did some in-character secrets-to-be-revealed, but they didn’t really work in the same way, and they made things a little wonky at the table.

(We’re addressing that by cribbing from Dragon Age and setting up Goals, rather than Secrets-to-be-Revealed, and I think that’ll work better for this arc, but I digress.)

How wonky? Well, when I answered Tim’s ‘secrets questions’ for my character, some of my answers were pointed at Kate’s character. I was all enthusiastic about this ‘what if Beren and Luthien hadn’t hit it off right away’ idea, and went with that — didn’t check with Kate on it (should have), and rattled it all off.

Kate didn’t finish her questions. Chris couldn’t make the first game.

So… guess which were the only “flags” flying for that first session? Guess what every scene seemed to center on?

Yeah.

Which is fine, except those weren’t Kate’s flags for her character. At all. So it wasn’t much fun for her. I think the quote was “it was fine for the first scene, but it’s every scene.”

For her, every scene was wasting time on stuff she wasn’t that interested in.

Second session, everyone else has had time to fill stuff in. I was trying not to play up my flags, because I felt like I’d got enough time on them the first session, so I played extra hard on whatever anyone else provided.

One of those ‘provided things’ was this kid I’d known in the past who was now all grown up. I’d introduced him to the game, Tim brought him in, so I felt obliged to play up whatever he was potentially doing in the story…

… which was trying to propose to Kate’s character. Oops. More time spent on a thing Kate was already tired of.

Then there was a kind of echo chamber thing with the Mysterious Bog Avenger that Tim introduced, who was some kind of vigilante who — inexplicably — dresses up like my character.

He gets introduced, so I play to it… then some NPCs react to my reaction, so I react to their reaction, so they react to …

Yeah. You see where that went. Or didn’t. I couldn’t drop it, though, cuz the only other thing I had going on was the thing with Kate’s character that I didn’t want to mess with at all.

And I couldn’t play to the flags on the other characters, because we hadn’t done the “Goals” yet — we just had Secrets, and I didn’t KNOW them because… yeah. Duh. SECRETS.

I finally fell back on a half-mentioned obsession with the MacGuffin we’re hunting down, just for something to talk about.

So what do I mean about wasting time?

I’ve gotten in the habit of playing to the flags on the characters at the table, trusting that doing so will (a) please and entertain the player of said character and (b) reward everyone involved in some mechanical way. Playing to those themes is, in fact, part of the game.

Well, no: it’s part of those games — the one’s I’ve been playing. It’s not part of DnD, and even though we’re in the middle of hacking that, we didn’t have the hack up to date last night, so it wasn’t doing what it’s supposed to do — give people indications of what everyone wanted play to be about and reward them for it. Without that, the whole hack is just a cool ‘power up’ chip we get for free each session.

(And in any case the hack will always and only ever be something extraneous to the Original Game — like having a battery mounted DVD player mounted in your car — nice, but easily forgotten and unused, unless you keep giving it power.)

In DnD, if you’re just playing to your own flags (or, as with the Bog Avenger, to no flags at all), it feels like you’re wasting time.

Why?

Well, A, you’re not hitting interesting elements of play for anyone (or only for yourself); and B, you aren’t engaging DnD itself by doing the stuff it’s good at doing (combat).

Which means you’re just spinning your cogs, not interacting with any of the machinery — you might as well be chatting about the most recent Dancing with the Stars, because you aren’t playing any part of the game, (even the part you added).

(Yes, you might be roleplaying… but about what? And who cares? Improv is great, but the audience needs to give a shit, y’know?)

I’m not sure where I’m going with this, except to note that it’s given me a lot to think about with regards to what I’ve started thinking of as ‘the Northmoor Hack’.

That, and I’m looking forward to all the games happening this week.

My thoughts on the Mouse Guard RPG

I’m very excited about the first play session of our new Primetime Adventures game this Wednesday, and while I’m putting a lot of mental effort into it, another game is on my radar, and I really had to share.

There are a few games that I think of as the touchstones in independently published roleplaying ‘story’ games. Sorcerer. Inspectres. Dogs in the Vineyard. Primetime Adventures. The Shadow of Yesterday. The Burning Wheel. My heart wants to add Spirit of the Century to the list, or Don’t Rest Your Head, but while they’re some of my favorite games, they also came along later, and they were built with a somewhat different priority in mind than that first list.

Those who know my gaming habits know that I’ve played or run (or both) most of the games on that list — usually a number of times (usually not as much as I’d have liked) — with good reason. Each one brings something special to the table that either isn’t available elsewhere, or which became an element copied numerous times in other games. They’re seminal, as well as being fun.

The one exception on that list  of seminal, inventive games is The Burning Wheel — I’ve never played Burning Wheel.

Now, that isn’t to say I didn’t OWN the game — I had the very first edition of the game, hand-numbered, in pencil, with a little thank-you note from Luke Crane.

But play it? No, I did not.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s a good game – many many people will say a great game – but it’s very very crunchy.

And I don’t mean it’s “Crunchy for a Story Game,” the way Agon is; I mean it makes games like DnD, Warhammer, and GURPS look like diceless freeform.

Those other games reward players with better ‘performance’ once the players have achieved a degree of system familiarity. Burning Wheel goes a bit other other direction: it punishes the absence of system familiarity – it is through system knowledge that one achieves nominal – rather than exceptional – performance from one’s character.

At the time that I got Burning Wheel, I was already doing a very long-running DnD game, and frankly I didn’t *want* to run another crunchy, high-GM-prep system; I just didn’t feel as though people wanted to dive in and learn a whole new system with that much detail. Hell, *I* didn’t; the game sat on my shelves for several years – skimmed, but unread. If it came up in conversation, I mentioned that I really wanted to play the game with some people that understood it before I tried to run it myself. In the meantime, I ran other games — with DnD handling our/my need for crunchy tactical games, our indie gaming was taken up with other things — with limited gaming time and ever-shrinking schedules, the folks I play with are just more likely to choose games with a lower level of required investment than BW.

But I never quite abandoned my interest in the game. Everything I heard about the game sounded – to my tactical-loving side – quite cool, and the raves and praise heaped on the “Story” elements of the game (character Beliefs, Instincts, Traits, and Goals) were just as effusive. When the Revised version of the game came out, I picked it up; when Burning Empires came out, I read and re-read information on the game and its setting. But it was still a game that took too much time to learn, too much time to prep.

Then came Mouse Guard.

mouse_guard_rpg_cover

Mouse Guard is a roleplaying game where players assume the role of the titular Guard from the comic books by David Petersen: bipedal, intelligent mice who protect their communities from a variety of threats in a semi-medieval setting. There is no magic in the setting, nor are there any humans; the threats to those precarious communities are the seasons, the weather, the wild animals, and (sadly) the very mice the Guard are sworn to protect. Their goal is simple: to keep the roads open within the Territories – to keep from becoming prisoners in their own cities – mice in gilded cages, if you like.

To me, the idea that the creators behind Mouse Guard (who were also RP gamers of a more classic sort) wanted to have an RPG for their product didn’t surprise me – nor did the fact that they wanted a more story-driven game. What surprised me was that they were going to get the Burning Wheel crew to do the game. What surprised me the most was what I started to hear about the Mouse Guard RPG:

  • A streamlined version of the game. The sparest, most elegant iteration of the rules, to date.
  • Accessible to new players – not just new-to-BW, but new to Roleplaying.
  • Still a true and excellent representation of the Good Things That Are Burning Wheel.
  • Strong player-centered focus of play that’s built directly into the rules in numerous ways.
  • Lots of situation-generating hooks built right into the characters, making running the game easy.
  • Several procedural innovations that make elements of play that are problematic in other games (high crunch = high prep time) very fast and easy.
  • There are already a number of ‘hacks’ to port the game to settings that I find very interesting. (Such as “Realm Guard”, which involves playing Dunedain in the 4th Age of Middle Earth. Mmmm good.)

Also, it didn’t hurt that the book itself — 8″x8″, hardbound, 300+ pages, but with a ruleset that can be completely summarized on the backside of the official character sheet, and thus chock full of setting material, advice, and artwork rather than charts — is f’in gorgeous.

So I got it.

I read it. Cover to cover, like a good book. I annoyed Kate by reading sections out loud, explaining rules she didn’t care about, and recounting examples from the source material she’d never read. Hell, I’m still doing it.

Here are some of my thoughts.

Rewards

In short:

  • The player defines the character via their Beliefs, Goals, Instincts, and Traits, and it is ONLY through bringing those elements to light during roleplay, in the game, that you are rewarded with Fate and Persona points (which probably do pretty much what you expect).
  • Skills improve through active use. Period. Through play. Period.

The Mechanics of Success and Failure

Basic tests in Mouse Guard are simple RPG fare: either unopposed or “versus” checks – in either case, the player needs X number of successes to achieve Unmitigated success. Your skills are numerically rated (usually from 1 to 6), and when tested, you roll a number of d6s equal to the skill rating, count those rolling 4 or higher as successes and discarding the “cowards” that came up 3 or less. If you’ve played Shadowrun or Vampire, you’ll recognize this.

The innovation here is that there is no failure result in the game. What’s that? A crunchy-tactical game where you can’t lose?

Kinda. If you fail to get success outright, success is achieved at the cost of “Conditions” or a “Twist.” With conditions, you win, but you acquire (or more) conditions, such as Tired, Sick, Hungry, Angry, Injured, and so forth.

So you can save your wounded companion, even if you blew the roll, but now you’re Tired.

You can escape from the Owl, but you’re Injured… and Hungry… and Tired. Ouch.

Sometimes, you're not trying to escape...
Sometimes, you're not trying to escape...

Twists work similarly, but instead of taking a condition, your conflict is interrupted by (or leads to) a twist that takes the story in a new direction… and which very likely leads to ANOTHER conflict.

In other words, that bedrock concept of Indie Gaming GMing – “Failure should make things more interesting.” – is hardwired into the game.

Scripting

Scripting is a core concept of extended Burning Wheel conflicts — the “big” conflicts in BW use this kind of conflict, where opposing sides pick a short series of actions without knowing what the other side is going to do — potentially leaving themselves wide open at the worst possible moment, or tactically outguessing the other side at the perfect time.

I love the concept of scripting – it has that kind of immersive realism I sometimes enjoy – but in practice, I know the BW implementation leaves some people cold.

In Mouse Guard, the scripting is a far more streamlined version of the basic BW scripting… simpler, but with powerful choices — perhaps the best implementationof the mechanic. Far from being just a guessing game, you have to weigh which actions your character is good at, which your partners are good at, which your “weapons” are helpful for (scripting works in any kind of conflict, from weapons to survival to chases to oration debates), compare each of them to the actions the opponent might do taking into account what he and his weapons are good at… and then realize your opponent is doing all that too, at which point it becomes very much like a strategic board game mechanic, in terms of the mental gymnastics required to use limited information to outwit the other guy.

And, like the basic skill tests, Failure and Success has many many shades — it’s only by utterly defeating your opponent without letting them get a paw on you that you get exactly what you wanted, exactly how you wanted it.

Even if he wins, things will probably not go perfectly.
Even if he wins, things will probably not go perfectly.

Teamwork
Teamwork is vital. That’s one of the fundamentals of this game. You are little mice in a great big world, and quite frankly you will be ultimately unable to complete your missions if you don’t work together – eventually, even with the skill system having “outs” for failed rolls, you’ll hit a Full Conflict with scripting that simply blows you away, with no way out but death. The prey are bigger than you (hell, the herbivores are bigger than you, and they’re eating all the food!) the seasons are bigger than you, the weather is bigger than you… you need to help each other.

mouseguard-patrol

“Call it what you like, but I’m still failing”
Now yes: failure isn’t “failure” in Mouse Guard, but it stings to play a game and lose the first conflict – maybe the first several – but the way the game is set up, all that means is that a new, unexpected situation crops up. (And in other way, reminiscent of With Great Power, such struggles feed you the resources you need to Kick Ass later.)

There are a lot of games out there that are basically mission completion games. The point of those games is to use your resources well in order to successfully complete a mission. In those games failing the mission is failing; it isn’t game-destroying, but it is a failure. You had a chance to step on up, and you didn’t step, as it were.

Mouse Guard looks a lot like a mission-completion games. Mouse Guard feels a lot like a mission-completion game. But I don’t think Mouse Guard actually is a mission-completion game.
Mouse Guard is a game where you tell a story about heroes who go on a mission (little heroes, but still). That’s a close thing, but its also a sharp and important divide.

One of the most excellent things about that difference is that it might teach everyone at the table to let go a little bit and try something heroic rather than spend ten minutes figuring out a safer plan.

To act, rather than deliberate.
To act, rather than deliberate.

Conclusion
I don’t care if it’s mice (though I like the other settings people are porting the system into) — the simple fact of the matter is that I think this is one of the best tactical, crunchy, story-driven games out there — maybe the only one that’s all three.

I can’t wait to play.