The Seven-Sided Die

The odds & ends of roleplaying

Archive for May 2009

microscope

written by d7, on May 31, 2009 12:25:27 PM.

Ben Robbins of ars ludi and lame mage productions is working on a game tentatively called microscope. It sounds entirely awesome.

You start by laying out a brief sketch of an interesting era. You might start with an idea for "the Imperial Dark Age, which began when the wormhole network collapsed, and ended when the fractured civilisations finally reconnected the network after centuries of rediscovery and war"; or it might be "the era of adventure and villainy on the high seas before the Ur-Kingdoms back home declared peace." Once you've got what happened on a large scale, you dive into the history and play out the how, and why, skipping around history to the interesting, pivotal moments in whatever order you like.

Ben has a pile of posts about microscope at the lame mage blog, but the capsule explanation of play that caught my imagination is in an ars ludi post about the implications of microscope for record keeping:

Once you do decide where in the history you’re looking, you focus there and it does become "now" for all intents and purposes of play and excitement. When you are playing out the scene where the civilian cargo ship suicide-rams the alien dreadnought during the last attack on Earth, you are playing in the moment, live or die. But then a minute later, when the scene is done, you step back ten thousand feet, look down on all creation, and decide where to look next. Zooming in and out and then in again. Like, um, a microscope.

That makes me want to play this game. It makes me want to play it so hard.

Needless to say, I'm going to be watching to see where this goes.

Fiction first

written by d7, on May 28, 2009 7:09:30 PM.

This is something I've been kicking around for a while now. I've referenced the idea in a few posts already, but I haven't really developed the idea anywhere yet. I started writing another post and realised that I needed to write this one first.

I realised the importance of how a ruleset positions itself relative to the fiction from playing D&D 4e. (Don't worry, this won't go into rant territory, especially since this subject is what made me realise that my not liking 4e is a matter of my own temperament rather than due to any faults in the game itself.) I didn't like what was happening in that campaign, and my understanding of how we were playing and of how the ruleset interacted with our preferred play styles has been slowly developing since.

4e's attitude to the fiction is that it's interchangeable. The fiction might not be interchangeable to the players, but the rules will smoothly function pretty much regardless of what fictional fluff you dress them up in.[1. This is an advantage of the system to some people. I'm not saying they're playing wrong, only that it's a disadvantage for how I want to play, as we'll see.] I know that many people object to the term "fluff", and I tend to agree with them, but in this case I think the term is accurate. 4e makes a hard distinction between crunch and fluff, and they only intermingle during the design process, whether that is the original design of the class Powers or the process of homebrewing new stuff.

For my own enjoyment I prefer a system that has a constant and fluid exchange between the fiction and the mechanics during play, with fiction getting the first shot at defining the game reality. In order to do that the system has to let me make choices based directly on the fiction rather than on the mechanics. The mechanics of such a system support and help adjudicate those fiction-based decisions. In short, I must be able to make reasonable decisions based on my character's understanding of the world they inhabit, and know that the mechanics will support my choice.

In contrast, there are systems that require rules handling before the player can decide on a course of action. 4e is the nearest example to hand. In combat, you can't say, "I close with the troll and hack off the arm holding its victim!" Actually, you can say that, but I doesn't mean anything yet. You still have mechanical decisions to make after such an announcement: whether that's a normal move, a shift, or a charge; which squares your character will pass through (possibly triggering traps or opportunity attacks); and which Power will be used for the attack. Similarly, drinking a healing potion isn't a decision that can be made absent of mechanical considerations in 4e: you have to have healing surges left for a healing potion to have any effect.

In such a system, there is no direct and unambiguous translation between a fictional declaration and the mechanical implementation of the action. The way the system works, my focus on making a statement of fiction does not move the game forward, but actually slows it down.

Sometimes the mechanics of such systems actually contradict the fiction, such as in the case of the healing potion. At those times my decision cannot be based on the fiction, as the healing surge mechanics have priority over the fictional "truth" that drinking this magic potion will heal wounds.[1. Some of you may have houseruled this already. That's great, but my point still stands: There are systems—4e is one of them—that put mechanics before fiction.] I have to reference the mechanics first in order to make a "good" choice about whether I should use the potion now or later. The fiction is secondary, and possibly irrelevant to making the choice.

...

Having written all that, I saved it and left it alone to simmer before I wrote the conclusion only to quite serendipitously discover a post of Joshua's from two months back on the very same subject. In RPG Rules and the Direction of Causality he describes how causality can flow either from the game world to the rules, or from the rules to the game world. It can never be both at the same time, although play styles may switch back and forth and a single system can contain both rules that respect the game world and rules that insist on superseding it.

As usual, Joshua cuts right to the heart of things while I beat around the bush, so go read his post. Essentially, I'm saying here that I prefer that causality flow from the fiction to the rules, and that I prefer systems that have a majority of rules that support that style of play.

There's no pithy term that I can extract from that article, unfortunately. Scott of A Butterfly Dreaming wrote a post entitled The Rules Gap in response to Joshua's post, in which he coined the terms "game fits the rules" and "rules fit the game" to describe the distinction. I find that ambiguous, and I think that ambiguity is why I disagree with where he goes from there. I suppose I'll stick with "fiction first", or just addressing causality explicitly.

Skill systems are sometimes a good idea

written by d7, on May 25, 2009 4:12:01 PM.

Last year I wrote that skill systems aren't always a good idea. That piece primarily advocates the old-school approach to handling character interaction with the environment, in which the players' descriptions of what their characters try to do determines what they find, rather than the result of a roll. Since I wrote that I've left behind the D&D ghetto[1. "D&D ghetto" isn't supposed to be derogatory in this use, just descriptive. mxyzplk describes the D&D ghetto well and fairly: "It’s the only game they know, or the only game they’ve played, or the only game they can find a group to play. ... As a result, many different groups try to get their favorite jones – deep immersion, or gritty realism, or cinematic cool, or gamist challenge – using it." The upshot is that many people "know" that D&D does their play style just fine and can't imagine it being flawed, or that there could be any point to using any other system. I know—I speak from experience!] and have used different systems, most of which include skill systems. Many of these I've enjoyed, and I've found that the inclusion of perception- or search-type skills haven't harmed the immersion I aim for or dissuaded players from creatively interacting with the environment. I wasn't able to put my finger on the difference between "bad" uses of skill systems and "good" uses, and it's been nagging at me for a while.

Randall's post Old School Gaming and Skills at the RetroRoleplaying Blog made me realise what the difference is. The key is what I call a "fiction first"[1. The term "fiction first" is clumsy. Coming up with pithy names has never been my strength, but I haven't been able to find an established term for it. If anyone knows of a good set of terms for games that use the mechanics to represent the fiction, and games that treat the mechanics as the "physics" that determines the fiction, I'd love to read about it.] approach to gameplay: the player describes what their character is doing in ficitonal terms, and only then does the GM call for an appropriate check. The difference between old-school play with and without skills is just in how the GM follows-up the player's narration. In a system with skills, a skill roll can be used to decide where the game goes next; in a system without skills, the GM follows up with additional information, and questions that refine how the character proceeds in their intent.

What made it click for me is that defining the fictional actions first, and only then figuring out what skill(s) to use and how hard it will be, is a central and system-critical feature of how the Burning Wheel's skill system functions. I realise now that much of the "bookkeeping" feel of my last session of Burning Wheel was due to my missing this point. We didn't tend to describe the really high-level events of that session that spanned months, instead just figuring out what the next step in the plan was and sorting out the mechanics to get it done. It felt like bookkeeping sometimes because at those points we were just handling mechanics without any related narration. Although it's not an old-school system, the danger that skipping narrative opportunities presents is the same in that it relies on the narrative just as much—if in a different way—than old-school play does.

Academic Rivalry (or, the second Burning Wheel AP report)

written by d7, on May 22, 2009 3:28:48 PM.

We played the second session of the game I introduced in First Burning Wheel AP report, which I've since dubbed "Academic Rivalry" since that seems to be the campaign's focus. It was almost two weeks ago and I've been busy since, so this will be a less-detailed actual play report than the last.

The session itself ended up dealing with events at a relatively high level, actually. In the first session linked above we played through two scenes that spanned a few hours of time between the dark of night and morning devotions. In the second session we had more play time—about five hours—and got through over four months of game time.

The Reliquary monk and the demonist professor

Picking up where we left off last session, Basilio and Archdean Rimedio met Brother Bartolio on the steps of the Archdean's residence. I took to heart Chatty's advice for introducing characters: provide two distinctive details and let the rest rot. Bartolio was therefore a "small man with a pinched face, rather reminicent of a crow". He didn't mind not having post-devotional breakfast with the Archdean—it turns out that Brother Bartolio just wanted to chance to ask free run of the University's library in his research on the lama misèria ("Blade of Misery", roughly), which had been stolen from the museum of Tramontare earlier that year. Quelle coincidence! Fimmtiu caught the connection right away and I could almost see him mentally filing it away for later.

Off to the offices of Carmino they went. The scene at the office began with the Archdean noting the open door with broken lock as they advanced up the hall, and on reaching the doorway they could clearly see the ransacked state of the office. Carmino had been robbed! And what's more, there's blood on the floor! Basilio quickly checked for the book and the knife, and they were gone. He corrected the Archdean's impression and convinced him that Carmino was indeed trafficking with demons and that he must have been informed and fled in a hurry with the evidence.

Here I leaned on Let it Ride to maintain the result of the Duel of Wits in the last session, to keep the game on track. The Archdean's reaction was realistic and reasonable, but I didn't want to derail things.

Basilio and the Archdean agree that this should be kept quiet, and the caretaker is ordered to clean up this mess and "keep his mouth shut". Nobody wanted the Church to involve itself in this. As a further wrinkle they soon learn that a student of Carmino's considered to be particularly promising had also disappeared.

Basilio returns to his home, but he still wants Carmino exposed. He'd exposed him to the Archdean and hence got a Persona point for completing that goal in his Belief, but he wanted Carmino stopped and changed his Belief to reflect that. First was trying to find someone who knows where Carmino went using a Circles test. This failed, so I invoked the Enmity Clause: Basilio did find someone who knew where Carmino was, but it was Emilia, the student who had disappeared with him. A chase ensues. It was a Speed tests, with Emillia benefitting from Inconspicuous as a FoRK.

That was an interesting mechanical wrinkle, because we immediately thought that Basilio should therefore also get to FoRK his Inconspicuous. We realised that it wouldn't work, though, if we thought about why Basilio should get the fork: Emilia got it because Inconspicuous would help her evade Basilio, while going unnoticed in the crowd wouldn't help Basilio run her down. I do remember considering that knowing how to be inconspicuous might be helpful in defeating the "usual" tricks in giving someone the slip, but I can't actually remember if I let Fimmtiu FoRK it into the Speed test on those grounds or not. In any case, it was a moment of realisation: Burning Wheel skill tests may be heavy on the mechanics, but they only make sense and run smoothly if you make sure their justification flows from the fiction instead of trying to shoehorn something in with a post facto justification.

Basilio lost the Speed test anyway, with Emilia giving him the slip when she darted from the back street into a busy main thoroughfare. However, before she did she shouted at Basilio, "Leave me alone! He'll kill me if he sees me with you!" This also all went down in the streets where the Docks district merges into the Church ward. He had a bit more information now. Since I'd invoked the Enmity Clause I had to give him something toward his Intent of finding Basilio, and I figured that bit of development, plus the location where he'd spotted her on some unknown errand, would be good enough. In hindsight I was too stingy. I'm still getting used to the BW philosophy of moving the story as quickly as possible without unnecessary barriers.

With Circles test not panning out (remember Let it Ride), he penned an anonymous letter to Bartolio—a Writing test with some FoRKs for Demonology, Rhetoric, and Ancient History, though I could have suggested Beginner's Luck with Composition to work on opening that instead—tipping off him and the Church to Carmino's disappearance and the reason for it. A week later he hears about Inquisitors on campus, but that seems to be the end of it. The Church has been alerted, which was Fimmtiu's Intent behind the letter, but they have not had any more success in tracking down Carmino than Basilio has, mostly because that wasn't Fimmtiu's Intent with the action of writing the letter. So, now they're interested. This might not have been wise, and to that end, I think I forgot to give Basilio a point of Fate for doing something that was Belief-driven.

I also didn't realise that the stated Intent didn't encompass what Fimmtiu really wanted to result from the letter until afterwards, so that was a lesson in making sure Intents are accurate. He could have said, "I want the Church to investigate and uncover Carmino's location," and a Writing test, in that context, would have been fine to accomplish that Intent. I might have set the Obstacle fairly high (maybe... Ob 5?) to reflect that there was going to be a heck of a lot of luck involved in order to find Carmino through the act of penning an anonymous letter. Still, I think that's more in line with what Fimmtiu was going for, and it's certainly within the philosophy of tests in Burning Wheel to achieve large effects via indirect means, so long as there is a plausible connection between the success at that skill and the desired Intent.

And... that was the first few minutes of play. I should step this up and work on the brevity.

The aetheric harmoniser and the Demon

Carmino obviously wasn't showing his face easily. Basilio turned to his other project: build a working aetheric harmoniser and finish his Engine.

This is where time really started to pass. It took a bit of gear shifting and prompting, but Fimmtiu decided that the first step was gathering everything that might be about aetherism or aetheric harmonisers from the University's library of old-empire texts. Basilio combed through the texts and combined what he knew with the obscure material to recognise drawings and descriptions in fragments of text that nobody had before understood. This was one research test with some FoRKs, which resulted in a month's passing and the creation of what amounted to a workbook for building an aetheric harmoniser.

He turned to the task of building a prototype. This would let him sort out the design principles of the harmoniser on a larger scale at which he could see what was going on. The production harmoniser would have to be smaller to reasonably fit into an Engine that would even fit inside his workshop, and it only needed to open a small dimensional breach anyway. This was an Enchanting test linked with Engineering (and a pile of FoRKs each), which I figured would model how successes (or failure) in echanting the sorcerously-engineered components of the harmoniser would impact the overall engineering challenge of designing the thing. Two successful tests resulted in a prototype that could open a dimensional breach about a foot square. Basilio poked a stick through to make sure that the breach was actually opening properly and not just a square foot of opaque nastiness existing in only this dimension.

I figured no more tests were necessary to build the "production" aetheric harmoniser, and a month later Basilio had completed his Device. It wasn't up and running yet, but he suddenly had more pressing concerns than beginning the laborious process of spinning it up and maintaining what was in effect the first-ever power generator.

All during the months he'd been building the prototype Basilio had also been hearing rumours of... things... in the night. Things that ate dogs, scared people out for an evening stroll, and destroyed shopkeeper's inventories while they slept. Bad things, whose night-shrouded profiles looked unlike anything that had any right to exist. In short, demons. They were beginning to plague Tramontare, and it was progressively getting worse. Then Basilio received a visitor.

Late one night while working on the engine, something sneaking about very quietly in the open rafters of Basilio's workshop caught his attention. Poking his head up, he saw movement but couldn't make out what it was. (A failed Observation test vs a good Stealthy roll that was doubled because Basilio was using Observation with Beginner's Luck.) Whaling on a steel drum with a wrench (which the neighbourhood dogs didn't like) didn't prompt any reaction, nor did pretending to ignore it, but he eventually heard it mumbling to itself. Talking to it got a response, and eventually it sidled halfway into the light. It was a horrible little demon, maybe two feet tall, hunched over, and looking like a dessicated monkey with a scorpion's sting for a tail and hollow pits for eyes. Basilio didn't recognise it. (I didn't have him roll for it and just told him, deciding that this knowledge was not a point of contention and hence not worthy of a test that would count toward advancing the skill.)

Fimmtiu hadn't yet declared any Intents, and I was content to let it just be creepy if he didn't force the issue. They conversed, with the creature ending up sounding something like Gollum in its simpleness and its lack of concept for "I". It called the engine the "nice, nice machine" and offered to help with it, which Basilio quickly rejected. Eventually Fimmtiu stated the Intent to drive it off, which he succeeded at with a simple versus test of Rhetoric vs the demon's Will. The demon left and hasn't returned.

Demon lenses

Basilio went out rumour-gathering. Chatting with the bartender of his regular haunt The Speckled Frog, he got an idea for tracking down Carmino. If he could see where the demons were most concentrated, he would have the vicinity of Carmino's hiding place. Rumours weren't going to do that—he needed to see firsthand to uncover the pattern.

Basilio began work on designing a pair of lenses that would make demons appear as bright beacons to the wearer. That is to say, we cracked open the chapter on Enchanting in the Magic Burner.[1. The Enchanting chapter of the Magic Burner is available online from the author.] Enchanted objects in Burning Wheel are created by selecting the effect, which gives an Obstacle penalty to a base Obstacle of 1, and any other modifiers. We decided that these demon-seeing glasses would be implemented by a device that gave +3 dice to Observation[1. The lenses could have instead given the bonus dice to Perception tests involving demons. I argued that Observation was the more sensible skill for the effect though, especially if the wearer had the skill and wouldn't be using Perception for Beginner's Luck. Too, using them would be a good way for Basilio to earn tests toward finally opening Observation.] tests to spot demons (+3 Ob). They had a verbal activation (+1D to the test), had to be touching the bearer (+1 Ob, odd that it makes the enchantment test harder, but it makes sense if you don't want anyone else using it while you've got the item on you), hold their enchantment until the end of the session (+1D), and are rechargeable (+1 Ob), for a total of Obstacle 6 and +3 dice for the test. With an Enchanting skill of exponent 4, that means he'll have to roll 6 successes on 7 dice, which is going to be tough even with Artha spent.

Having worked that out we still couldn't proceed with the roll, since an enchantment requirese the extraction of an essence from something related, called the Antecedent in the Enchanting rules. I figured demon blood would be reasonable, no? So not only did Basilio have to get his hands on a demon, but he had to first identify the Trait of the dead demon to extract using an Alchemy Ob 1 test, then extract the Antecedent from its corpse, which is an Alchemy Ob 3 test. That might not seem to be much of a hitch beside smuggling home a demon in a Church-riddled city, but Basilio doesn't even have the Alchemy skill, so those tests were goint to be Ob 2 and Ob 6, respectively, and rolled against with Perception of 5. That makes three increasingly tough tests to make to get these demon-seeing glasses made.

But first, demon's blood.

The cobbler and the Demon

Again, I was thrilled by how smoothly the system supports this kind of play. Fimmtiu asked for a Circles test to find someone who knew of a dead demon, and succeeded with three extra successes. So, yes, he found a cobbler who desperately needed to get rid of the demon he'd buried in his backyard, after killing it with a hammer one night while it was making a mess of his workshop. He named the cobbler Sergio (which means he's easier to Circle up in the future), and they went to go exhume the corpse. Basilio tested Ditch Digging (which he, unsurprisingly, didn't have) and we debated FoRKing in Inconspicuous, but it didn't really apply—it's only relevant for avoiding notice in a crowd, not avoiding drawing attention in general. Again, this was just us getting used to the details of the system.

They drew the attention of the cobbler's wife, who gave Sergio a good shouting-at[1. Sergio was happy in the face of this harangue, since the dead demon killing his garden and giving him nightmares was finally gone.] while Basilio snuck away with his prize. It was something like a squat, heavy-built small dog, except it was hairless, ugly as sin, and had six stumpy legs protruding from its squat body/head. I was picturing a really distorted pug mixed with that pig from the Simpson's movie.

Denoument

That's all that we got through. Four months and a week of in-game time, the creation of a world-changing energy device, a plague of demons, and the design and acquisition of the necessary components of a custom magical item. It was very high-level at parts, so in some ways it felt more like a session of bookkeeping interspersed with connective roleplaying scenes, and in a way I suppose it was. It was pretty cool though, and I was impressed that we could go from inspiration to having a useful magical device ready to be enchanted in the last hour of the game. Although we were only three rolls away from actually having it made, we didn't want to rush that part. Given the difficulty of the tests involved, there are going to be some hard choices for Fimmtiu at the beginning of the next session.

Burning Wheel resources

written by d7, on May 22, 2009 8:55:37 AM.

MJ Harnish over at Gaming Brouhaha has put together a great collection of resources on the Burning Wheel for new players and the curious.[1. And I'm not just saying that because he linked to The Seven-Sided Die, either.] I found the link to the discussion of BW's skill list particularly useful—BW has a huge number of skills, about 180 by one person's count, and this is somewhat unusual and hard to comprehend for most gamers, myself included. That link helped put it in perspective and confirmed some of my own thoughts on it.

I'm still reading through the links, but they're an excellent selection. For an indie system there is a lot of material online for and about the Burning Wheel, so finding the really useful discussion and advice is actually non-trivial. MJ has pulled together some really great pieces.

First Burning Wheel AP report

written by d7, on May 5, 2009 5:36:52 PM.

Sunday we sat down to play our first one-on-one session of Burning Wheel.

The first half or more of our time was spent refining Fimmtiu's character's Beliefs and getting all the details filled out on the character sheet. We used the excellent online character burner so that all the point allocations and stat calculations were fast, but we still had to write out aptitude numbers and figure out how to use the test and Artha-logging features that the sheet offers. It was still really slow going because we're still getting acquainted with the system, but we did finally get down to playing.

We only had a couple hours to play once we had sorted out Beliefs and taken care of all the set-up bookkeeping, but we got a lot out of those two hours and had a blast. I found that there were a few things I really liked about the system in-play:

  • Events unfold quickly because the system encourages you to move quickly from interesting choice to interesting dilemma. All the slogging stuff in between is taken care of by the question "Is this interesting to play out, or to turn into a challenge? No? Then say 'yes' and get on with it." You can smoothly shift from playing out really high-level events to getting down into the moment-to-moment roleplaying between characters.
  • Failure is interesting. I still have to get used to this part of the game's philosophy, but I think we used it well. There were a few times when he failed a test where I first thought "well that sucks", before doing as the rules encourage and considering just giving it to him, but with complications. That not only kept the action moving, but it made me stop and think at critical junctures, which led to some inspirations that ended up making the game much more interesting.
  • We didn't have a single combat, yet dice were rolling all the time. I have said in the past that I really enjoy those games were we don't even touch the dice, but the Burning Wheel made me realise that it's not a matter of dice or no dice. Those games where not a single die is rolled are fun because they're pure roleplaying action. The Burning Wheel does have ways to use dice (i.e., inject interesting uncertainty) into everything, whether combat or not, so we were not only having fun doing non-combat roleplay, but we had interesting mechanical decisions to make that arose from and fed directly back into the events we were roleplaying. This is a huge win for the system in my eyes.
  • The dice didn't compete with the roleplaying for attention, but instead prompted us to think of avenues of roleplay that we otherwise might not have considered.
  • Player empowerment is awesome. I did not expect the game to start the way it did.

And with that last point, I guess I really should get on with the actual play report, shouldn't I?

Character and world

The setting is a sovereign city-state, Tramontare, embedded within a larger province or country that is loosely modelled on late medieval Italy. The surrounding lands have a mutated version of the religion of the city, and the religion in general is at its height yet in major decline and corruption, so they're sort of doing a glacial "retreat" into the city and tensions are increasing. The city is run by the rich (a plutocracy), who get social standing by working up the ranks of the Church, much like 18th-century English nobles worked up through the military. Sorcery was rediscovered a century or so ago from the artefacts and writings of an older empire, but that more ritualistic, tradition-bound sorcery is meeting competition from a more science-y, investigative, natural-philosophy approach to sorcery. There is potential for conflict with the Church there too because they have their own traditional view of the proper relationship between nature and sorcery.

Our PC, Basilio, is a 49-year-old professor of this new "applied sorcery" at the University of Tramontare. He's an engineer and sorceror, a rival of Carmino the professor of traditional sorcery, and considered something of a nutbar. He's working on a Device in his private workshop that melds engineering and sorcery according to the principles of this new understanding. When it's finished it will be an engine that derives its energy from a dimensional breach, demonstrating the usefulness of this discipline and achieving renown and esteem for Basilio.

Basilio's Beliefs are:

  • I'll show the deans that I'm not crazy by completing my invention... once I can manufacture a working aetheric harmonizer.
  • Carmino is trafficking with demons. For the good of the University I must expose his activities to the Archdean.
  • Taking human life, even for a good reason, is a terrible thing.

The first and second have built-in goals and immediate actions, so we were off to a good start. The third is vague, but I figure that's OK so long as there are two explosive Beliefs already.

Basilio's Instincts are:

  • Always say what you mean, as frankly as possible.
  • If in imminent physical danger, cast The Fear upon the aggressors.
  • Don't trust people in positions of power, especially if they didn't work to get there.

These should get our dear friend in a lot of trouble! The last is verging on a Belief, but we'll see how it works in play.

To round out the BITRs of the character, he has the Character Traits Batshit, Bitter, Humiliation, It Just Might Work!, and Extremely Respectful of One's Betters. He also has Driven as a Call-On for Sorcery, and of course the Relationship with his rival, Carmino Baldessare.

Actual play

As I said, we only had two hours of actual play after futzing around. That included a lot of looking things up and puzzling out how to apply the system, so we got two good scenes, including one Duel of Wits, into the first session.

The session opened with me asking what he wanted to accomplish.

"I want to break into Carmino's office tonight to find evidence of research into demonology that will convince the Archdean."

Woah! I didn't expect that right out of the gate. Maybe some mooching around for spare parts, researching the ancients' knowledge of "aetherism", maybe jumping right into some Engineering tests to deconstruct the broken aetheric harmonizer that Basilio manage to get from an archaeological site... Instead, bang! right into a tightly-framed scene with decent stakes. I was enjoying myself and the system already.

Scene 1: Breaking in

So, we break in. We roleplayed the set-up, with Basilio having the janitor/nightwatchman let him in because he "forgot something in the office". Right. So he shakes the janitor as his office door, grabs a lantern from inside, then heads off to Carmino's office. It's locked. He wants to disintegrate the bolt barring the door. We're using the Abstractions and Distillations system from the Magic Burner to represent this more natural-philosophy approach to sorcery, so he has Basilio combine the Earth noun with the Tax verb, Single Target, Instant duration, and Presence range. There was a lot of page flipping at this point, obviously. The great thing about the session was that we still enjoyed it despite wrestling with an unfamiliar system and taking a lot of time out looking things up.

That spell is an Obstacle of 5, and his combined Will of B7 and Sorcery of B6 gives him 13 dice to roll to make it. Easy, right? He gets a single success, and we wonder what to do next. We figured out the spell tax test in the meantime (after some misunderstandings on my part), which he also failed, but his Forte was taxed down to 1 so he didn't fall unconscious. The way spell failures work in this magic system is to roll some dice to find out which facets vary and by how much, then consult a wheel of rings representing each facet: each step of variance is counted around the ring, indicating what facet actually ended up manifesting. The way he rolled, the "variations" ended up going right around and landing where they started, so the spell didn't actually vary at all. I narrated this unlikely event as Basilio losing control of the spell, but somehow ending up managing to channel the unleashed forces into what he wanted anyway.

Bolt disintegrated, he pushes open the door and scans the room. But wait, he failed the spell test, right? His intent was to break into the room, but failure means you don't get your intent. Well, I gave it to him anyway as the rules suggest, and added a future complication related to the failure. I introduced that right away as Basilio notices Carmino in the office, snoring softely, having fallen asleep while studying a large text. Basilio scans the room (a Perception test to find obvious incriminating evicence, which failed). He crept over to get a look at the book in the moonlight.

At this point we knew we had another test: Stealth versus Observation, with significant bonus dice to Basilio since Carmino was fast asleep. We weren't quite sure how to do this, tough, as neither professor had those skills. The Beginner's Luck rules state that you double the base Obstacle in such a case, but doubling it for both of them doesn't make any mathematical sense. (Again, much page-flipping here.) We decided that neither would suffer a penalty since they were equally unskilled and just got on with the test, but I'm still not sure what the right answer is, and I'm pretty sure I read something about Beginner's Luck and versus tests in my first ready-through of the system. I think we did it right, but I don't know how we would have done it if one had the right skill and the other didn't.

Basilio won with two successes. This meant that he had free run of the office under the Let it Ride rules, unless he tried to do something that had an Obstacle higher than 2, such as Stealthily playing the slide whistle or trying to take the book from under Carmino's head (at which point, under Let it Ride, he would have failed and woken Carmino). That was interesting because Fimmtiu had a good idea of what Basilio could and couldn't get away with. Not sure what implications this has, but I'll be looking at how Let it Ride affects player choices in future sessions. The one thing that I know it did was make the scene move more smoothly, as I didn't (wasn't allowed to, actually) ask for more fiddly tests as he moved around and searched the room.

So, the book turns out to be open to a page discussing the customs of summoning "pliant spirits" for favours, which modern Tramontareans know is the old empire's way of talking about demons. Evidence! This was garnered by an Ancient and Obscure History test FoRKed with Demonology and Summoning, where "FoRK" means "Fields of Related Knowledge", and gives +1D per related field to the dice pool.

He slid a few drawers open looking for more evidence. I didn't have anything planned, so I resorted to the Die of Fate. On a 1 (the DoF is a d6, like all Burning Wheel dice), there was something incriminating, on a 2-6 there wasn't anything more than the book. I rolled a 1, so there was a ceremonial sacrificial knife in the drawer. Another Ancient and Obscure History check (FoRKed with sorcery, Tramontare History, and something else that I forget) told him that it was an old-empire blood magic sacrificial knife, which is related to their demon-summoning practices. Furthermore the knife was most recently in the city museaum's collection before it was stolen six months ago and never recovered. Damning evidence!

Basilio got out while the getting was good, stowed the lantern back in his office, and cheerfully bade goodnight to the janitor.

Scene 2: Let's get the Archdean

Basilio returned home, got a couple hours of sleep (I forgot to get him to roll his Health check for the taxed Forte dice, but they ended up not being relevant in this scene), after which he went to find Archdean Rimedio near the University's temple during morning devotions. He snagged him coming out and convinced him (I just gave this one to him) to step aside a moment for a few words.

"Carmino is practicing demonology and must be investigated right this minute."

Those were Fimmtiu/Basilio's stakes, which sounded like a perfect chance to get into a Duel of Wits to resolve whether the Archdean investigated Carmino or ignored the charges. He wanted to catch Carmino still in his office, with the evidence right there. The Archdean's stakes were:

"That's a far-fetched charge. You will drop this and not bother me about it again."

Considering that Basilio is the crazy guy down the hall to most of the faculty, he was putting what little reputation he had left on the line to bother the dean of deans like this.

Bodies of Argument were rolled, with Basilio at the advantage with a Will B7 and Rhetoric B3 against Rimedio's Will B4 and Oratory B5. Basilio netted a BoA of 8 to Rimedio's BoA of 5.

We scripted the Duel, which I won't repeat here for the sake of keeping this from being longer than it already is. I was concerned that the structured argument rules would make for a stilted and unnatural scene, but it actually worked really well. We made sure to present our actual points and rebuttals before dealing with the mechanics. We also made sure that our statements were relevant to whatever was just said, so it actually flowed like an argument, and we made sure to choose argument manoeuvers that made sense for what we were going to say. This was actually a pleasant side-effect of the system, in that I actually had to think strategically about not only what manoeuvers would be best, but what ones Rimedio would actually use given his mood and perspective. (I scripted a couple Avoids of the "I really don't have time for this..." sort, following that.)

Despite scripting according to what tacks I thought were sensible for the Archdean to take rather than according to what manoeuvers I thought would most likely get a win, the DoW was uncertain right up to the penultimate volley. (First volley of the third exchange, to be exact.) Basilio won with half his BoA depleted, so the consession was that Archdean Rimedio would go almost immediately—but first he had to personally give his regrets to "this fellow from the Reliquary that I was to have post-devotional breakfast with" and expects Basilio to accompany him on this diversion.

Session wrap up

And that's where we broke. We'd played only two scenes, but already the plot was unfolding in interesting ways. There were twists neither of us had anticipated, even in such a brief couple of scenes. There are implications for Basilio's failed rolls and DoW compromise that I'm already cooking up with glee.

Basilio earned (and spent) two Fate points for driving the game forward with his Beliefs. We only really hit "Carmino is trafficking in demons...", but that's not too surprising given the limited timeframe we had. I'm going to encourage Fimmtiu to push his Instincts and Traits more for more Artha next time, since that will give us even more story convolutions and give Basilio some more advancement momentum. Myself, I need to look at those more when I'm cooking up complications, for the same reasons.

Everything in the Burning Wheel is on fire, metaphorically. You burn characters and worlds, people tend to name their campaigns "Burning [noun]", and the rules talk about setting figurative fire to things. The metaphor is appropriate, I think, because it set alight our imaginations. I mean, really, how many game systems not only let you create a 49-year-old pacifist University professor, but also makes him interesting to play? Without mugging him in a dark alley?