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.