The Seven-Sided Die

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

Posted Friday May 22, 2009 at 10:28 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.


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.

Comments (2)

Mike Lucas

Wednesday May 27, 2009 at 04:19 AM

Cool stuff. I love how BW (and Burning Empires which I'm currently playing) let you accomplish so much story in a single session. I guess it's because play is always focused on stuff that matters. Actually your first two sessions are a really good example of how you can focus on what matters -- whether it takes one night or four months of "in-game time".

Was the Ditch-Digging test a failure or a success? If a failure you should totally keep Sergio's wife in reserve to use later.

If you're worried about the feeling of "more book-keeping than RPing" definitely post on the BW Fevered Circle forum, as I'm sure people smarter than me would have some suggestions. It sounded like fun though -- a cool story certainly came out of it!


Wednesday May 27, 2009 at 07:11 AM

The Ditch Digging was a failure, so I do want to make Sergio's wife relevant at some point. I'm not sure how yet, but I'm sure an opportunity will present itself.

I think I figured out why it felt like bookkeeping—I spoke to that in my last post on the interaction of skill systems and the fiction. I think we were so caught up in setting up the linked tests from the mechanical side that we didn't do enough narration to give context to the rolls. I don't think we made the Intents explicit enough either, since we "knew" what Basilio wanted to accomplish since it was right there in his Belief about his invention.

I'm starting up a three-player campaign now (we just got through character burning this weekend), and I'll be paying particular attention to those two things. I think that taking the time to ask questions and get a clear and interesting Intent on the table will make the difference for rolls that cover large spans of time.