Yesterday, we ran the fifth session of my “Burning France” Burning Wheel campaign. Last time, we ended the first story arc, and so this time we ended up doing a sort of re-Session 0 for the next arc, and a little bit of play in the new Situation. It was a little tricky for me this time, as I’d had a pretty draining week and, creatively speaking I was just empty. Fortunately, my players are a really good bunch and we brainstormed a bit before diving in.
After finishing our last story arc set in the village of Avignon-sur-Chantre in the north of post-revolution Occitania, the players decided that they wanted to return to the Occitanian capital of Sompteux. We also decided to do handwave a bit of a timeskip to 6 months later; I skipped over doing a Resources cycle, because we’re not really using that system as it doesn’t really fit with the story we’re trying to tell. I realized afterwards that we also neglected to look at possiblities for Practice, but I let the players know afterwards to have a look as they can certainly advance a Social skill or two that they have at a low exponent.
We wanted to tweak or Setting a little bit as well. We’d started this campaign off really broadly: Occitania is a post worker’s revolution fantasy France-like country where the nobility has been deposed. Roughly speaking, the players wanted to be itinerant lawspeakers: people who would be sent out to troubleshoot after the new revolution. Now, having skipped forward 6 months, the players suggested we bring a little more faction discord into this. The revolution worked out but now there are about three or four main factions that disagree on exactly what the new political structure should be.
The Situation was the next thing to get some new life. We’d decided that a character from the start of the campaign, Girard, the de facto primus inter pares among their particular revolutionary group, had manoeuvred himself into a crucial leadership figure and, as such things tend to go, started being corrupted by the power. While he’s now executing enemies, imagined or real, he’s also the only one that’s keeping this tenuous relationship between factions working. Our trio didn’t work for a revolution only to replace one tyrant with another, so now they seek to solve this problem without destabilising everything.
As the characters return to Sompteux, they see crowds milling towards the central market square and, curiosity peaked, follow along to see what’s going on. In stark contrast to the start of the campaign, where a violent mob raucously cheered at the public execution of a noble, they are now faced with a crowd browbeaten into watching yet another person brought to the guillotine for vague reasons. Lo and behold, when the hood is removed from this doomed captive, it turns out that this is none other than Bernard, one of the twin cousins of Benoit! Meanwhile, the other twin, Bertrand, is seen at the edge of the stage, anxiously preparing for action.
Having primed the action, the players have decided on some new Beliefs:
“I need to keep my head attacked to my body, so I need to find out why Bernard was executed.”
“I must keep my allies safe”Benoit’s Beliefs
“Girard’s silly antics have gotten out of control, so I will attempt to sway him to the right path”
“Bertrand’s actions will result in chaos, strife, and discontent; he and his must be stopped.”Bertrand’s Beliefs
“Oppression wears many masks, and miserable people are bad for business. I must stop this, subtly.”
“If a maniac is in power, I’d rather have a merry maniac in power, like Bertrand.”Geoffrey’s Beliefs
They’re getting pretty good at writing Beliefs, and there’s some nicely evocative stuff in there that I can use. Moreover, I enjoy that these are getting more and more tied in together, which will make them function so much better in play.
At the reveal of Bernard, Benoit’s cousin, on the way to the guillotine, our trio tries to get set up for whatever may come next. Benoit spots a handful of people spread out through the crowd ready to spring into action, so he moves up to the stage to get ready to help intervene. Meanwhile, Bertrand, the PC, moves to the side of the crowd to where Bertrand, the cousin, is standing. During this, Geoffrey moves to stand to the side of the crowd, ready to create a distraction.
The action pops off between the two Bertrands, as a quick nod of the head is given as a go-signal, and people start rushing the stage. Bertrand the PC tries to lay an B0 Ugly Truth (Ob 1, doubled to Ob 2 because of Beginner’s Luck) on Bertrand the Cousin, reminding him that rushing up there ends up with two cousins dead rather than just the one. His words fall on deaf ears (o successes) and Bertrand the Cousin starts for the stage. Bertrand the PC, however, chooses to escalate by all-out blocking his path and taking him down to the ground if necessary. We choose for an opposed B4 Power test, since the two won’t actually be fighting, and Bertrand the PC manages to stop Bertrand the Cousin long enough for him to miss his opening (5s vs. 2s).
As a result, with one half of the action on stage now disappearing, the guards have ample space to focus purely on the other activitists who served purely as the distraction and quickly overwhelm them. On the side, Geoffrey sees his moment to add to the confusion and gets his husband to fake a medical emergency, as he loudly calls for a doctor. With a Beginner’s Luck B0 Conspicuous test with a base Ob4 for a large crowd, though, he has no chance of success (1s vs Ob8). The guards are not attracted to the medical emergency but rather by this suspicious character drawing attention at this exact moment. With nerves of steel, however, Geoffrey doesn’t run away but fully doubles down: a B3 Falsehood against Ob 4, putting in a Persona and forking in Guard-wise, sees him almost fail (2s), were it not for the fact that Geoffrey has an Aura of Innocence! His Call-On reroll nets him +3s, deftly meeting his Ob4. After a doctor in the crowd reprimands all there for wasting his time on a mere fainting, Geoffrey rides off in his cart while giving all there a nasty looks for disbelieving his pleas for help.
In the midst of all this bedlam, Benoit sees his opening to help his cousin Bernard. A quick whistle, a nod of the head, and an opposed B5 Speed test with +1 Advantage later (2s vs 1s), Benoit barrels through the crowd, opening up the path for Bernard to follow him as they easily lose the guard. They turn down alley after alley until they can no longer hear footsteps behind him, and a truly overjoyed Bernard embraces Benoit in thanks. Having done the impossible in saving his cousin (though condemning his three conspirators), Benoit heads towards Bertrand the PC’s villa in the city in order to reconnect with the others in the group.
As I said above, this one was a rough start for me. The previous session was a week before and I’m used to having some more time to prep ideas for the next session. I have had a rough week at work and felt creatively drained. I literally had no ideas laying around when starting the session. I’m happy that the players were willing to explore the options and throw the ball around a little to see where we wanted to take this. Fortunately, they had some ideas on where to go next, and we ended up with two or three options to choose from.
What I think really helped this time was that it prompted a very clear idea for a Situation for me. So far, I hadn’t brought in the players’ relationships into the game yet. Benoit had twin cousins lying around, Bernard and Bertrand, and what better way to immediately prime the action by putting one of them at risk? What was really good to see was that the players started intertwining their Beliefs around this as well. For Benoit, this is a family affair; for Bertrand, this is about stopping Girard; for Geoffrey, this is about self-protection.
With the help of the players, I now have a Situation, Beliefs, and characters that are all primed to go, and I can see a few avenues to go down. The one thing that I’ll need to work on is the Setting in the background: while the players are engaging in their own dramatic story, I’d like the backdrop to be alive and moving as well.
Despite the rough start and the brief session, I’m really pleased with how this went. There was clarity, focus, and direction. I feel that, with the practice we’ve had so far, we’re getting a solid grip on the essence of the system and are making it work for us. Based on the happenings in each session, I’m going back to the books to either re-read rules, review the Codex commentary on it, or exploring some optional or currently unused rules for the same situations.
Meanwhile, the game has also sparked my creativity in Wonderdraft, as I make little maps for this or that to show in the game. The main map of Occitania has been getting incremental upgrades as well, as I learn more and more about using the software. I’m quite happy with the current look of the map, though I have no illusions that I won’t be changing more things as we go along.