Burning France: Session 0

Yesterday, I ran Session 0 for the Burning Wheel campaign that I will be hosting. Session 0 is the name typically given to the first session where the group works out what to play and how, setting the stage, characters, and working out the story. It’s the first RPG I’ll be hosting in quite a while, so I am a bit nervous about doing so. Nevertheless, yesterday’s session has me excited, and thanks to the group I have a number of ideas for the game now that we can work with.

The World

The first step was establishing what we wanted to play. After going around the table, we settled on a number of characteristics: we’ll be playing in a dark, gritty neomedieval world. I distinctly call it “neomedieval” in the sense of medievalism and Eco’s definition of it: a world that’s reminiscent or referential to medieval life, but is starkly colored by modern sensibilities and perceptions of it. So, as we joked around the table, it’s not a historical middle ages, but one where a balding elf with a beer belly might be chugging a coffee at his desk while complaining about having to do clerical work on a Monday morning.

To further broadly describe our world, we settled on the idea that the group will be playing low-born, low-status characters. It’ll be a world of low fantasy, where the gods and magic may or may not exist; if either does, their effects are probably very subtle or very rare. The magic we may run into will be Folklore magic, defined in the Codex on pp. 363–366. Whether or not gods are real, religion will be, though our setting will be polytheistic. All stocks will be in play, though monsters will be folklore-based and relatively uncommon; in my mind, it’ll be similar to wolves in The Netherlands today: sure, there are a handful around, but you’re unlikely to see some unless you venture into the wild. Perhaps every now and then one might roam near settlements.

The Setting

After exploring a few possible ideas, we settled on a setting just after a revolution. We’ll be taking our cues from revolutions like The French Revolution, the Khmer Rouge, or the Russian Civil War: in short, in this 14th-century French-like small country, the proletariat has had enough of being oppressed by the bourgeoisie, and has rebelled against its masters. The revolution was a smashing success, and the entirety of the previous ruling class has been killed or run off, leaving the former peasantry finally in control of their fate. Freedom at last! The big problem is, in the great purge, nobody was left alive with experience of running the large apparatus of state, and the insurrectionists planned no further than “once the oppressive regime is gone, we will be free”. Power vacuums abound. What is left of “us versus them” when you’ve beaten “them”?

We decided that our little corner of the world will be a small province of this as-of-yet-unnamed French-like country; I think we may want to rethink that into a Luxembourgh-sized country, however—after all, what country would just accept an uprising in its demesne and not do anything about it? In any case, our capital will be a medievalist Paris-like city: a large hub of commerce and culture that’s pretty on the outside, but the dunnyman comes to collect your waste each morning just like any other village. While all Burning Wheel stocks are in play, our players decided to go for all Mannish stock. We decided that each character would have three cultural traits: Love Of Wining And Dining, Distrust of Formality, and Class Solidarity. They may be poor, but camaraderie is best done at a full dinner table; ettiquette is just one more tool of the oppressors to heap disdain on the commoners; and commoners have all bled the same, so we all share the same.

The Story

For the sake of making our first experience as a group with Burning Wheel a little easier, we kept to one of the three general situations from the Situation Commentary in the Codex (pp.59–62): Quest, Struggle, or Intrigue. The players had a fondness for Intrigue over Quest, though wouldn’t mind a story of Struggle either. One of the players enjoyed stories involved leaving a home village, and that sounded like an interesting path to take for me as well.

I had a few plot ideas lying around (I have a small notebook that I write down a plot idea in whenever they come to me), and after listing a couple, there was one that the players zoomed in on. It involved being appointed to a position of legal power and responsibility without much experience. Something similar to the now out-of-print Dogs in the Vineyard (sidenote: apparently, KN Obaugh has been allowed to do a retooling of the game, which resulted in DOGS). A core feature of this story, to me, is empowerment. The trappings of class have been removed from the world, and now the people are to reshape it. The big question will be: how do you reshape it? How do you determine what’s permissible? I suspect we may soon be needing anarchist theory to work out some conflicts in the game. Time to brush up on Kropotkin!

We decided that what we wanted out of the game was a bit of fun escapism, so we’ll be avoiding centralizing topics of racism, sexism, pandemics or plagues, or world-ending climate change. Similarly, we wanted to enjoy exploring a world of anarchist equality, so we’ll ignore some of the sexism by design in the game. For clarity, by default, Burning Wheel is meant to mimic a medieval world if Lord of the Rings was a historical record, so there are gender divides such as all dwarves who travel are male and all the female dwarves stay home. Fortunately, the game is quite explicit about this, and also recommends just ignoring that if you aren’t interested in it. Similarly, we’ll use the Burning Wheel terminology of “Stock” what in many other games would be called “race”, and we’ll work to avoid colonialist themes. Anarchism means inclusivity.

The Characters

As to be expected, each of our players has crafted a character. We’re still finalizing some of the details, so more specific descriptions will have to wait, but we’ve settled on the following characters for the group:

The Farmer

A Village Born child, who spent his early teens as a Kid causing trouble in the Village, before being put to work as a Farmer. At the last, however, he got swept up as a Conscript, and as such has played his role in the uprising.

The Bastard

A Born Noble, this character had the unfortunate luck of being a Bastard and therefore never really a big player in the noble scene. However, he’s taken his fate in his own hands, and became a Blackmailer to improve his lot in life. Over the past three years, however, he’s seen his opportunity to create real change and became an Insurrectionist.

The Bawdyhouse Operator

This character was City Born, and started out life as a Confidence Man. After that, she found good money in the field of being a Sex Worker Facilitator (we have chosen to rename “Whoremonger” on p. 194). For the past five years, however, she’s settled down as a Barkeep, to create a more steady and public-facing income.

Next Up: Session Planning

After writing this up, I’ve been noticing some interesting themes that may come into play. For one, our setting is quite anarchist. I think the story will likely start revolving around the ideals versus the reality of anarcist theory. Secondly, I didn’t notice it while we were making characters, but it’s quite interesting to see we have characters starting in the Village Lifepath, the Noble Lifepath, and the City Lifepath. The village character so far seems to be the most ethical, judging by the traits, whereas the city and noble characters are more corrupted and ethically troubled. This may end up serving an interesting theme, depending on where we land with the story. Lastly, based on this I’m not quite sure what the larger story will end up being about, but it’s open enough to quite a few minor conflicts. I think the way we deal with those conflicts will guide us towards a larger story.

The next challenge will be a far more practical one of logistics: when and how do we play?

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