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.
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?