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!