Yesterday, I ran the first session of my Burning Wheel game, “Burning France” (traditionally, all Burning Wheel campaigns are named “Burning [noun]”). I was quite happy to get started after some unfortunate but unavoidable delays, though I have to admit I was also fairly nervous for the game. I haven’t GMed anything in years, and I hold my players in high regard for their RPG knowledge and experience. Fortunately, I think the session went reasonably well and helped set a tone and direction for the next session in two weeks.
Our setting is Occitania, a medieval France-like country, and the date is May 6th 1312—one day after the success of the glorious revolution of the people against the nobles. Each of our players (initial description in this post) had played a crucial role in one of the activist groups that have made this possible. Now, however, the time has come to settle into the new life, and we discover that while there’s been much talk of how to revolution should go, there’s not been as much talk of what the world looks like after and what the new power structures would be.
The characters, Bernard, Benoit, and Geoffrey, started off being called to oversee an unruly mob in a square of Sompteux, the capital city of Occitania. The activist group is concerned that if the revolution turns too bloody, they will lose the support of the people, leaving them weak to a counter-revolution or returning power to the ancien régime. The players approach to see a well-coiffed, powdered, and made-up dwarf, the compte d’chantilly, carried on the back of a mob to a makeshift gallows set up nearby. Scanning the mob, they see they’re heavily ambivalent about the affair: there are a minority of bloodthirsty insurrectionists at the head, surrounded by a significant group of people going along with the flow, along with a reasonable amount of people on the margins disgusted by the entire affair. The players are in prime position to swing this mob one way or another.
Our characters decide to interpose themselves in the affair, helped by Bertrand The Bastard’s reputation as the insurrection’s Golden Boy and Benoit’s imposing stature. Seeing the moment as a tool, Bertrand addresses the crowd to convince them of the justness of the revolution and to not murder the man in cold blood like animals but to execute him as a result of careful and cold calculation—the undertone clearly aimed at those hesitant in the back: work with us or meet a grisly fate. He manages to bring parts of the crowd to his side, and a gruesome scene folds out.
A few days after, the trio meets Gerard, the first-among-equals of the insurrectionist group. Gerard tells them of Avignon-sur-Chantre, a nearby farming village that supplies much of the food to Sompteux, that is causing some trouble. There too, the proletariat has overthrown the bourgeoisie, but now they have chosen to keep all their produce rather than ship some off to Sompteux. While the group agrees to this plan, they also eye Gerard with suspicion as he moves off from table-to-table, apparently giving out orders with the same type of power-moves he pulled on the group. A first character has gotten a target painted on their back.
The trio travel to Avignon-sur-Chantre, where they immediately march up to the manor house to find a local nobody, Eustice, living their, having proclaimed himself the new lord of the manner. After a brief and forceful discussion (“You’re a lord, huh? Do you know what we do to lords?”), they take over the place and decide that the solution to the problem of these uppity villagers is to make them understand what the new world is like. Geoffrey, the former conman and barkeep, sends out his husband and wife to carouse among the villagers, spreading the gospel of how good city life is and how it’s a precious ideal to be protected. Meanwhile, Benoit and Bernard extract a list of big players and local gossip from Eutstice. The next day, the trio visits the most troublesome villagers, and runs their protection racket: there’ll be rewards for those who ship food to Sompteux again and if they’re not interested, well, they know who’s had an affair with whom, and it’d just be a shame if that got out somehow, right?
At the end of the day, the trio settles in to the manor house (after all, it belongs to the people, and they’re people, right?) and broadly consider that it might be nice to settle down in this village for a while. While exploring whom they could thrust into a position of power here, they learn from Eustice that the villagers just banished all the bourgeoisie into the outlying forests, leaving mostly the workers in the village. A group of intelligent nobles, socially savvy, out near a place where mercenaries are known to rob trade-lines—what’s the worst that can happen?
I was quite nervous, as this was the first tabletop RPG I have GMed in what is probably years. Fortunately, the friends I’m running it for are quite understanding and kindly helped me along during the session as well. As is the general recommendation in Burning Wheel, I wanted to start with a conflict right off the bat. I was quite rusty in starting off sessions (I’ve only recently started playing again, and as a player you can at least hang back and be passive), but fortunately with some player questions I got my feet back under me. One of the players also is quite familiar with Burning Wheel, so he also fell quite naturally into the role that the game asks of players, which helped me along.
The player beliefs are starting to get a little more focused, now that we’re also narrowing down on an actual Situation. I’m also happy how quickly and naturally through play we’re creating a bunch of loose ends already that are now giving me much more to work with for the next session. It’s certainly a lesson for me that I should have been far more explicit about an actionable Situation in Session 0, so that we could hit the ground running. I’m sure as we move on we’ll start working on specifying and fine-tuning our beliefs as well.
I was happy that we managed to do a few different skill checks during the session. We started off with a simple Oratory, and worked on ForKs and helping dice, and seeing how that works in fiction. I made sure to get Intent and Task clear by asking onwards for each test, which really helped in making sure that failure was never a block but always a case of failing forward. Near the end of the session, in the large protection racket being run in the farming village, we tested out using an extended test, with two separate rolls and a lot of helping dice. I am very pleased with how Foundry VTT automates most of the work. That helped me focus on the narrative, and reduce the rules-referencing at the table.
We did run into some small rules questions, which I adjudicated on the spot with the intention of reading up more later. One was the question of whether a character with grift-wise could use that skill to actively grift. One player argued that while in Torchbearer you indeed cannot use wises actively, in Burning Wheel you can. I figured to just run with it at the time, though in looking it up afterwards I couldn’t find a clear statement either way in the book. The description of Wises in BWG p. 309 states that wises are “a skill through which a character can call upon the knowldge of various details of the game world”, which to me suggests it’s purely passive. This post on the blog Take On Rules references Mouse Guard RPG (a Burning Wheel-style game), which more strictly defines wises as a means to either supplement another skill or to call up knowledge. So, next time, I think I’ll have to disallow the active use of Wises and rather suggest that a grift is run through Haggling, Persuasion, or Falsehood.
The other question I was left with was what to do with player-created items for future skill tests. Specifically, Bertrand started writing down the first draft of his pamphlet manifesto. His intention is to mass produce these and hand them out. I would imagine that would add helping dice to future Persuasion or Oratory roles but I’ll have to research a bit to find out what would be reasonable. My current feeling is that it should probably be a 1D advantage to roles.
While I’ve run better sessions for sure, I was pleasantly surprised how quickly I could get back into GM mode. I want to work a little more on my mood-setting descriptions, and particularly I want to remember to call on multiple senses to evoke the imagery. I still want to make sure to hold back and let players keep the reigns in their hands, but I want to be able to help their imaginations and initiative by providing them with enough information for them to imagine where they want the story to go. One player mentioned how he did enjoy the open nature of world exploration, as I figured he would, so hopefully I can encourage all of them to take ownership of more of this creation.
Lastly, it was also just good to hang out with friends again and play something like this together. Two of my players had run the first RPGs I’ve played in since a few years back, and I’m happy I got to run a first session for something for them (so they don’t have to be the Forever GM, either!). Oh, and it’s amazing that I now feel so inspired to create/write a load of things for the game again! Two weeks from now is the next session, and I’m already looking forward to it!