Teaching the Game – Burning Wheel

In addition to running Revenge of the North (the postmortem of which you can find in my previous post), I also recently ran a pair of Burning Wheel games targeted at new/inexperienced players of the system. I grabbed the Trouble in Hochen scenario (which is part of a trilogy of adventures that is available for free from the creators), and put up an ad in roll20’s LFG section. I gambled a bit, and scheduled a game for only a week out, seeing if I would get any bites. I actually hit the maximum that Hochen can handle in just a few days, and thus decided to open up a second game.

If you are interested in reading a detailed AP report on these games, you can find both in this thread here on the Burning Wheel forums.

I decided to do this because I wanted to get some experience under my belt with the scenario, in case I decided to run it for my buddies or at a convention or something. Playing online with strangers was a good way to practice that since it was low-commitment and a pretty flexible schedule. It was also pretty low pressure since I knew even if I crashed and burned, I might never have to deal with these people again. And finally I just wanted some experience in teaching the game, which is something I haven’t really done aside from trying to sell some reluctant friends on it. Things ended up being a bit different than what I really expected, but it was enjoyable nonetheless.

Pleasant Surprises

The Players: I’ve participated in a number of games, both at conventions and online, with random people.  Quite often there is at least one guy who, for some reason or another, is a poor player or generally poor to be around.  For this game, my only method of vetting was checking the applications to make sure they knew what they were applying for (as I got a small number who didn’t read the listing and assumed I was running D&D 5e), but there were no real precautions against those poor players from joining.  Despite that, I didn’t really get anyone that I wouldn’t play with again. Perhaps it was due to the nature of it being a learning game, as they all showed up excited and ready to learn. Perhaps it is that Burning Wheel attracts a higher quality of player, my anecdotal evidence would back that up, but that is not enough to make a definitive statement on the subject. Perhaps it was simple luck, or some combination of the three. Really, all the best things about this whole experience can be encompassed under the umbrella of “The Players”, but I want to go into a few more specifics below.

Beliefs: For any not familiar with Burning Wheel, Beliefs are what the game is about. Every character has a list of 3 ideological stances (ideally with an attached goal), which are what drive the player characters to action and the focus of the game. Part of the reason I chose ‘The Trouble in Hochen’ over other Burning Wheel intro scenarios like ‘The Gift’ or ‘The Sword’ is that Hochen starts off with a brief workshop where it gets the players to write a few beliefs for their pregen. Writing good beliefs is honestly not very easy, and a lot of discussion on the forums is devoted to best practices for that. While I am hardly an expert on the subject, I was very impressed with what these new players came up with, given the minimal guidance I was able to give them. I did have to help them tighten them up a little bit, but the end result was pretty good and everyone had at least one belief that ended up driving play.

Duels of Wits: One of my goals for these games was to include at least one instance of one of Burning Wheel’s scripted combat systems in each game. Both groups ended up in (very different) situations where I would have called for a Duel of Wits (BW’s social combat system) in a normal game, so it seemed like a good time to demo that system. Social combat is a thing a lot of gamers aren’t really used to, so it took a little bit to get buy in from the players on it, but I am happy that they all were willing to give it a shot. In our first game, two brothers (both PCs) had it out with each other about what was right my their family, which eventually lead to compromise and reconciliation (and made one of their later deaths far the more tragic for it). More interestingly, the brother with the lesser social skills won. In game 2, we had an argument between the party priest and an NPC cult leader for the souls of the whole town! They were both really neat duels, and after they were over most of the players seemed to grok why the system exists.

Role-playing: Every PC in these two games ended up with really strong characterization, and I really got a good feel for who each of these guys were. Not to mention, even though the same pregens were used for both games, they felt district from each other. The priest in the first game was someone who tried to talk things over and come to an understanding with those he disagreed with, while in the second game the priest was much more of the fire & brimstone variety. I’ve been in a good number of games that had less strong roleplaying than these guys had right out of the gate. Another credit to the solid players I had.

The Not So Good

Internet Issues/Roll20: I have been part of a group that meets on roll20 for just over 6 months, and aside from a few sound quality issues that are all easily rectified with a quick refresh, have had absolutely no issues with its built in voice chat interface. For the first game, my home internet was out, and a pair of good friends of mine graciously allowed me to use their apartment late into the night to run the game. While I cannot tell what part of it was my friend’s Wi-Fi, and what part of it was the connection to others, there were a good number of connection issues (including odd ones like some people being able to hear everyone while others were missing certain others), that slowed down the game and brought us out of the zone. The second game (on my home Wi-Fi) started to have the same issues, but it was suggested we switch over from Roll20 to Discord, and once we did it was (mostly) smooth sailing!

Going Long: I expected both games to run about 4.5 hours counting waiting for latecomers and rules explanations, both times I ran significantly over that. Now, playing a fun session of an RPG for a good chunk of your waking hours certainly isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but the length of time things took tells me I could have tightened things up a bit more. Because of how late we ran in the first game, I lost two of my four players. Plus as I mentioned for that first game, I was at a friend’s place, and I felt really bad hanging out and making noise late into the night. The second game started in the morning on a day where I was the only one home, but despite not having as much connection issues, managed to last even LONGER than the first game. I suspect that being at home instead of imposing on my friends reduced the pressure on me to speed things along. The fight at the end of game 2 didn’t help either.

The Drawn-out Fight!: I only ran a ‘Fight!’ (BW’s blow-by-blow combat system) for one of the groups. For most of the violent situations in the two games, I chose to resolve them with either simple vs tests or the almost as simple Bloody Vs tests, quick and easy. Near the end of game 2, the party lost vs the ‘boss’ of the scenario, which resulted in the main combat character in the party being injured and in a bad spot, and the other PCs wanted to save him. It was very close to a ‘try again’ situation which in Burning Wheel you are not supposed to do, but I decide that things have gotten important enough to zoom into the action with the full combat system. What ended up happening is that most of the fighters got some minor wounds inflicted on them, which made it hard for them to do serious damage, and then everyone, on both sides, had their dice go cold. The combat dragged on for at least over an hour, until FINALLY the PCs inflicted enough minor wounds on the boss to take it down in a death by a thousand cuts. I don’t think it was a particularly fun or exciting combat, which really sucks for a system demo, but I think the players understood it was kinda abnormal, and I don’t think it soured them on the system too badly.

Other Thoughts

I came into this little experiment of mine hoping for the best but honestly expecting the worst. Luckily for me, things ended up going very well! The dynamic of this sort of teaching game was markedly different than those games I’ve tried when you are trying to convince your D&D/Pathfinder/Whatever only playing friends to try your new pet system. That it was for people who actually WANTED to learn vs those who were being coerced helped a lot, I think. Overall though it is just pretty nice to share something you enjoy with others!

I don’t have any specific plans for doing any more teaching games like this one, but I definitely want to. My roll20 recruiting efforts started to fizzle out when I was recruiting for the second game, so I do not think that the roll20 community has the critical mass for this to become a regular thing (at least for Burning Wheel). I might wait a while and try again, and/or try running at a local con. Either way, neat one-shots like this are something I am going to keep in mind for when my current game situation isn’t enough to scratch my itch, but I can’t quite fit in another recurring game into my schedule.

Speaking of, as I probably made it pretty clear above, I really liked the folks I played with. I’m definitely going to consider if I can’t pull together a recurring group out of them. The main sticking point will likely be the scheduling. I currently have an active group for Sunday nights, and really don’t like the idea of having another recurring game on Saturday since, as much as I love gaming, I don’t like the inflexibility of having a scheduled game time both days of my weekend. And work nights are pretty tricky as well, especially with time zones involved. I’ll mull it over a bit more and if I come up with some ideas on how to make it work I’ll put out the feelers.

Overall this turned out to be way more rewarding than I expected it to be, certainly something worth doing and definitely something I would recommend!

Campagin Postmortom: Revenge of the North

There is something ironic about my first real post on this blog being about the end of the game, but things can work out funny that way.

A Bit of Background

A little over 6 months ago, I responded to a post on the Burning Wheel forums (where I go by the nom de plume novaniv), where one user was looking for a group to play some Burning Wheel. Things happened to work out schedule and interest wise, and we eventually came up a cold northern setting with a Kingdom on the edge of monster infested lands, on the verge of a succession crisis, stoked by religious tensions between the old faith, and a new up and coming religion.

It was a pretty fun game, and ran for 18 sessions, after which we reached a very solid end of an arc, and decided to step back and take a break from these characters. I offered to take a shift as GM, and we decided that we would keep playing in the same world, but from the perspective of the monsters just beyond the boarder. This game, was, at least in my opinion, still a lot of fun, but after some brutal beat-downs in sessions 5 and 6, the players were no longer feeling it, and we got to a good stopping point in session 7 and decided to shelve the game there.

The principle cast of this game:

  • Bokk: An orc clan chief and a subordinate to the ‘Greatest One’, Bokk wants to usurp the greatest one’s throne and unite the orcs under him.
  • Tessia: A dark-elf (which in burning wheel is a normal elf whose heart has turned to spite), whose homeland has fallen to ruin. She’s come to the orc lands to hunt down
  • He-who-Fells-From-Afar: A nameless goblin (low born Orc) whose reach often exceeded his grasp.  He had Bokk’s favor, and sought to use that to (litterally) make a name for himself.

You should be perfectly fine for the rest of this blog post without reading the actual play reports of these games, but if you are interested you can find the two games on the Burning Wheel forums with the following tags:
BHWS for Burning Holy War of Succession, the first game in that world, in which the party tries to prevent their kingdom from succumbing to Civil War. Note that Sessions 1 and 2’s write up are both in the same thread, so once you’ve read the “Burning Holy War of Succession” thread, you can go right to session 3 without missing anything.
RotN for Revenge of the North, the group takes on the roles of an Orc clan trying to usurp power from a unifying orc warlord. This is the game that we just finished and this blog post is mostly about.

The Good

The Group: This is a really solid group of guys. None of us, myself CERTAINLY included, are the greatest role-players in the world, but I wouldn’t still be playing with them after 6 months if it wasn’t fun. They are also very reliable, with the only skipped session in 8 weeks being because my internet crapped out on me one weekend. While I will admit that it is hard to find, having a reliable group of people hat you like to play with will make even games that don’t work so well a lot more enjoyable.

The Life of a Goblin, Starring Fells: He-who-fells-from-afar (or Fells, as we called him) was quite a character, he was not particularly important to the clan, and his main importance to the overall arc was that he was a PC, and that meant that he both got his share of screen time, and the other PCs considered him important as well. What I loved about Fells, is that his arc, as short as it was, felt like a story that was perfectly representative of every goblin in Burning Wheel. Things just never quite worked out for Fells, ability-wise he was the weakest character in the group (Born great orcs get much better LPs than Born Chattel, and elves are just cheaters in Burning Wheel), and the dice would betray him, at the worst possible moment. He was brutal and violent to the point of self-destruction, and almost all of his grand plans failed or twisted in some way. In the end, he was able to be named, but the failed naming ritual gave him an (unintentionally) insulting name. And he died a violent, early death, having spent his last persona earlier in the session on an act of petty revenge. More than anyone else, Fells tapped into the self-destructive nature of the emotional attributes that were in play, and, while I know the failures were a bit frustrating for his player, I think his arc was amazing to watch for all involved.

The Goblins in General: In Burning Wheel, when you are making an Orc, you have to answer a series of questions about your character’s history to determined how high your starting Hatred attribute is. One of the questions asks if your character has ever ‘attempted to command a unit of goblins in battle’. If the answer is yes, your Orc’s hatred goes up by 1. I tried to play them along those lines. They were lazy, selfish, cowardly jerks, who were just a lot of fun to play, and they generally lead to some interesting situations as the PCs had to rely on them as their source of labor. The players seemed to enjoy them as well, as the Goblins got awarded the only NPC artha of the game, so all in all they were a good group of NPCs. Shame that at the end almost all of them got absorbed into the enemy forces, but they were still fun.

Exploring the Setting: Honestly, it was actually super fun to see the setting from another point of view. When we eventually switch back to the characters from BHWS, I think we’ll have a new appreciation for our enemies instead of just having them be a faceless horde. This game also managed to answer some mysteries left over from BHWS. When we went to the borderlands in the last game, we encountered a raiding party of orcs, and later found a mysterious egg in an abandoned keep. In this game, we got to play as the orcs taking over that keep, killing the people who had arrived just before the party did (and hid the egg there in the process), then the players left behind the small raiding party that the old PCs faced before. Filling in details like that felt really cool!

Giant Spiders!: The Great Spider stock is a really neat thing that was included in the Monster Burner, they didn’t make the transition to Burning Wheel Gold as a playable stock in the codex, but I really like them as NPCs. I donno if I actually did a good job playing them

Lessons Learned

Flat GMing: I will be the first to admit I am not the greatest GM, especially when it comes to descriptions. I often will get caught up in the mechanics and actions, and simply describe the effects without embellishment, or set scenes with just the minimum of information and no flavor to them. It’s something I am working on, and I am also currently working on a bit of a reference guide for me to consult while running to help with that (I’ll post about that in detail once I have given it a shakedown and seen if it is helping and what worked/what didn’t). But there were certainly some instances where it definitely hurt the game. In particular, there was a big battle scene in the second to last session, which SHOULD have been really coo, but I spent too much time figuring out how to run a big battle and not enough time giving them enough to actually work and play with. It ended up being a boring scene to ME, and I am sure that the fact that it wasn’t a very interesting scene just compounded the PC’s frustrations when they ended up losing.

Tighter Situation Building: This is a very critical step in EVERY game, but especially a character driven on like Burning Wheel. There were a number of factors involved here, but ultimately the situation (beyond the first session where we started on a mission) wasn’t pressing enough, and lacked urgency, and I think the PCs were directionless as a result. There is also the issue of Tessia not QUITE fitting into the game we ended up playing. She was specced out to be a good number 2 for Bokk, as a diplomat and a schemer, but ultimately Bokk was very hands on in his diplomacy and as an Elf, Tessia was not really a good person to send on such missions among the orcs anyway. These were issues I had an inkling of when we first set this game up, but at the time I didn’t have the words to properly voice them, I will have to take that feeling more seriously in the future.
Honestly, I think we have a much better situation at the END of the game, than we did at the beginning. If we ever return to these characters, I think with the right tuning things could work. But putting them away for now I think is the right call.

Setting proper stakes: I am a very failure-agnostic GM, in that, when we bust out the dice, I honestly don’t care too much on if the player characters succeed or fail. This philosophy has its pros and cons, but one of the things I need to be mindful of as a part of that is that I am setting my stakes such that the game can keep going on a failure. For the most part I think I did okay with this, but, in a notable exception, I did end up mortally wounding two PCs during a single session during a range and cover and subsequent fight! that ultimately were probably not worth putting death on the table. Those humans that they were fighting were doomed to die (due to things established in the previous campaign) and ultimately were not that important.
Related, I also didn’t give them enough room to breathe, and part of the reasons that we put this game aside is that the failures had compounded until we were in a completely different situation than we started in. The proper stakes also should be more mindful of the context surrounding the roll, and I really need to take it easy on the PCs with the complications when they are already down and low on Artha.

Final Thoughts

This was a fun game, but we had a run of tough sessions, and so I can see why the players wanted to step back from it. It also didn’t help that there are plenty of other things we were eager to try (next up is trying out Blades in the Dark). There are certainly a few things I both have to personally reflect on as a GM, and keep an eye out for next time I step up to the plate. But ultimately I don’t consider this a bad game, or even a failure of a game (and trust me, I have been in and run both), but this is just a game where as a group, we knew we could do better by stepping away from it.