Burning France: Session 1

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.

The Story

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.

Figure 1: the initial map for the campaign, made in Wonderdraft. It’s empty by design, as my intention is for it to be filled out during play. It’s based on a Roman map of the provinces of Gallia.

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?

The Session

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.

Overall Impression

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!

Wonderdraft and Dungeondraft

Yesterday, I went ahead and bought both Wonderdraft and Dungeondraft as well. I’ve mostly played around with Wonderdraft right now, because it will be more immediately useful to my Burning Wheel campaign. I can tell you, it is tremendous fun to be playing around with it! My first experiences are really positive, as just in the first ten minutes of figuring out what options and settings are, I already managed to make a map that looks fairly decent. And that’s just with ten minutes of messing around!

While I’m not running any battlemat-focused games right now, I was thinking of using Dungeondraft to make some set pieces to spark people’s imagination. After all, a general inn or a house image, or depiction of a wilderness scene can help spark as many roleplaying ideas as a solid description could. On top of that, the visual storytelling as well can serve to be evocative for players as well.

Installing the two made me fix some things I’d been sleeping on for a while too regarding my laptop; for a while now, my Bumblebee service was bugging out (pun intended), which means that my discrete videocard (an NVIDIA card) wasn’t being used and my laptop ran purely on the Intel integrated videocard. That meant that both Wonderdraft and Dungeondraft would not run well at all, so that gave me an impetus to finally fix that as well. Now, I have some flexibility on where I can start mapping!

Purchased Foundry VTT

The other day I went and purchased Foundry VTT, the virtual tabletop software I wrote about in my last post. I can tell you that already it’s as cool as I figured it would be. For one, its most frequently promoted advantage over Roll20.net is no exaggeration: I’m finding its interface much more accessible to use. That may just be an availability bias—after all, I haven’t GMed in Roll20.net much and I’m approaching Foundry VTT with the assumption that I need to learn how to use it—yet the entire interface is also just more modern, which makes it more comparable to other contemporary tools.

I’m finding quite a few features which are, understandably, focused on minis and battlemats, such as grids, tokens, stat trackers, and so on. But already for Burning Wheel the automation features in the Foundry VTT module are well worth it to me. The automatic tracking of rolls for advancement, the automatic filling of weaponry in character sheets after the item has been added, and features like that are wonderful. The big downside I’ve found is that the person who made the module has made the explicit choice not to include any of the skills, traits, and so on. They argue this is problematic because it’s an unofficial module, as well as being free. Well, fair enough—they made the effort to make the module, and I’m already grateful enough for that. So, I’ve spent quite some time this weekend entering in all the common skills, and I’m on to adding the other elements of Burning Wheel to the compendium (as those Foundry VTT databases are called).

The more I’ve been playing around with the features of Foundry VTT, the more I’m thinking about how to use even the more battlemat-focused ones for Burning Wheel experiences to help set the mood. I’m looking forward to experimenting with it!

Cool Tools I Want To Get

Over the past weeks, with the repeated delays in starting up my Burning Wheel campaign due to personal situations of various people, I’ve been looking around more and more to prepping tools for tabletop RPG sessions. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by just how much has been developed in recent years, and the sheer quality of what’s been put out there. There are three products in particular that I’m looking forward to getting, once we have some spare disposable cash earmarked for hobby expenses.

Wonderdraft

The first is Wonderdraft, which is a mapmaking software package that is less complex and expensive than something like Campaign Cartographer 3+ but more full-featured than something like Inkarnate. I enjoy an evocative worldmap that helps focus players’ imaginations at the table. Or, alternatively, validates it retroactively by starting with an empty map that gets filled in as the players’ progress in a game. While I’ve been enjoying slowly learning to draw, for one my skills are nowhere near the point where I can confidently create handmade maps nor would it be possible at a pace that is practical even if I did have the ability to do so. This software looks like a great solution to more quickly create regional maps. I’ve seen some interesting examples of people using it to make maps of entire regions, such as this video:

The creator of this video recreates a 20-hour Photoshop map in Wonderdraft in the span of about two hours.

And I’ve also seen somebody use the software to create a detailed village:

This video is a little odd, as it’s an unedited, no-commentary example of using Wonderdraft to make a village map, but I’m impressed at how much the artist achieves in just one hour with the software.

Dungeondraft

Relatively recently, the creator of Wonderdraft, Megasploot, has released a companion piece of software to Wonderdraft called Dungeondraft. Apparently, the software itself is reminiscent of Wonderdraft in operation but is focused on creation battlemaps or more localized, zoomed-in maps. For me, there were always two major blocks to running a Pathfinder style game, which were balancing encounters and providing the detailed maps needed for miniature battling. This software seems to make basic map creation almost trivial, and with practice could even allow for the creation of beautifully intricate maps. The creator’s trailer provides a lovely overview of some maps:

This is the trailer made by the creator of Dungeondraft

Foundry VTT

Lastly, as far as a Virtual Tabletop System goes, I discovered Foundry VTT recently. Roll20 has long-since been the staple of my online tabletop RPG experience, but it’s always felt very dated and clunky in its controls. Foundry is a much-needed update to this type of experience. However, what I appreciate more than anything is that it’s a self-hosted, one-time payment solution to tabletop hosting. On top of that, it’s modular, so it’s easily expandable; apparently, people have created many modules for the system, so there’s a lovely open market of expansions out there. To be honest, I’m just astounded by how many options there are:

The anniversary overview of Foundry VTT

Conclusion

I’m quite excited to get some of these pieces of software, but I’ll have to do this in steps for sure. Foundry VTT runs at $50; Wonderdraft at $30; and Dungeondraft at $20. So, all in all, it’s a $100 pricetag (or €87 for us). While that seems like a pretty reasonable price for everything included in each piece of software, I’m not willing to spend €87 on a hobby right now. So, I’ll have to see if we can pick up some extra money through our company that justifies such a luxury expenditure, so that I can start playing around with it. I figure it may make the most sense to purchase Foundry first, followed by Wonderdraft, and finally Dungeondraft. The latter two are great additions to a VTT experience, but you’d want to have a good VTT experience to begin with. While I could import Wonderdraft and Dungeondraft images into Roll20, of course, it does seem like putting the cart in front of the horse.

Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous

For a few weeks now, I’ve been absolutely absorbed in Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous on PC. I’d backed the Kickstarter, after having loved playing through their first game, Pathfinder: Kingmaker. Initially, I was a little frustrated, as originally there was a promise in the Kickstarter for a Linux version of the game, as there had been of the first, yet later on in the process they had to renege on that promise. By that time, I had already backed, so I was already committed. Even though, then, initially, I felt frustrated and reluctant to play it, I did decide that my money had already been spent even though in hindsight I wouldn’t have wanted to, so I may as well enjoy my purchased product. While I’m still displeased by the lack of a Linux version, I do have to say that the game was quite enjoyable.

As far as cRPGs go, they are usually of the kick-in-the-door adventure style (apparently, Disco Elysium is a rare exception, and I look forward to playing that one day), and Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous is no exception to that. However, to a greater degree than I’ve seen before, there are quite a few possible choices in the game that did make me feel as though I could play a character beyond a murderhobo. Many of the choices presented in the game fall under the main question of “what kind of person do you want to be?”. There is an interesting parallel between the public role the main character is thrust into as well as the personal choices about their own life that must be made. And while the ending credits may not have gone into as much depth as some other cRPGs have done in the past (even Kingmaker was more detailed), I did get the feeling that there were a variety of ways to solve most quests I was presented with. Even some things that I had viewed purely as little sidequests at times presented me with choices that would be impacting, even if just from an RP standpoint.

On a personal level as well, though, sometimes a game just comes by at just the right time. Tracy and I have been heavily hit by some illness the past weeks—multiple COVID-19 home tests were negative, and the symptoms didn’t really match COVID either, so we weren’t worried about that—to the point where in the first week we were both absolutely drained. The weeks after we’ve still been really low-energy and achy, and haven’t felt up to much. Wrath of the Righteous came by at just the right moment to be a real comfort game that allowed me to engage with something and yet still be wrapped in blankets with a cup of tea and not much else on my mind. Thankfully, both me and Tracy were pretty much on the same page at the time, and we both kind of huddled in our parallel comfort zones, and didn’t mind the other delving deep into our personal projects.

It’s been nice to have a game come by that can really be this engaging, as that doesn’t happen to often for me.

Homesteading, Permaculture, and American Houses

Tracy and I are intending to use our garden to start growing some crops sustainably. The long planning is to put some raised beds in there, a nice greenhouse, and a chicken coop. It’s a bit of a permaculture, homesteading, or sustainable living type of idea that we’re going for. Back when we lived in Groningen, we had an allotment garden for two or so years, though that was difficult to maintain given my travel times and the accessibility issues for Tracy. Now that we finally have some garden space to ourselves, we can do it in a convenient way, particularly now that we are more financially stable as well.

The interesting thing when researching this is that, like so much of contemporary culture, Americans are quite dominant voices in the space. This, as you can imagine, brings along some interesting cultural differences. For instance, a book that I saw recommended for small gardens was The Half-Acre Homestead. A half-acre—small! Over here, in one of the cheaper places to buy property in the Netherlands, a half-acre plot (about 2km2) would cost at least half a million Euro up to a million Euro, depending on where you buy (about $580k–$1.16m). You’d be buying up an old farmhouse with farmland, and on the cheaper side of things it’d be a delapidated farmhouse at that. The authors of The Half-Acre Homestead apparently found an acre of unused land and settled on it, building their own house and starting to farm on it. The book claims that they have never paid rent or had a mortgage. In the Netherlands, it’d be almost impossible to find 10cm2 that isn’t owned by somebody somewhere. Let alone, of course, that the premise of the book is that they started this somewhere in the ’70s. Now, potentially, this might be deceptive (really, they never had any trouble over seizing land with a municipal government, a landowner, or the federal government?), but whether it’s true or false, I am convinced that the same could not be done today in the Netherlands.

The main points of it, though, are still usable. There are many updated and modernized variants of the book, and adapted versions for more specific living. However, the most relevant informational source we’ve found on home gardening for food production in our growing zone is Spicy Moustache on YouTube. His videos are really realistic as to what can be done in a small growing space in a European and urban environment, and his garden is something I’d aspire to have as well. For an example, check out his latest video:

I love the focus on practical, realistic, and affordable garden solutions.

Slowly and surely, through these kinds of sources, we are learning new ways of food production in more urban settings than we’ve had with our farmplot before. On a more general note, I can really recommend listening to podcasts like The Poor Prole’s Almanac, Live Like The World is Dying, and It Could Happen Here for good information on how to become more self-sustainable. The first focuses more directly on urban food growing, while the second is more about independent living and anarchist theory, and the third is about the potential realities of life moving forward from here.

Both from an economic, cultural, and environmental perspective, we’ve really been prompted to think more about sustainable ways of living. From something as simple as mending holes in clothing and wearing them longer even though it may look a little weird, Tracy wanting to custom make clothing, I wanting to learn how to repair and maintain electronics, to the two of us farming our own food in our front and back yards, the both of us have started to become more and more convinced we need to be more autonomous in our lifestyles. Aside from all the benefits, it’s also just nice to be able to take pride in the things that we are doing.

Clever Enemies in RPGs

I’m happy to have discovered the blog The Monsters Know What They’re Doing today. The author, Keith Ammann, voices something which I’d been trying to do when running games, which is using common sense in encounters. I’m currently playing the cRPG version of Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous, and one thing which is very noticable in PC RPGs is that hardly any NPCs—if any at all—will operate based on common sense rules. Most of the enemies will just move directly towards the players and use whatever features or abilities they have until these bags of hitpoints are depleted. When I just started running tabletop RPGs, I did the same thing with my enemies, because that’s what I’d read. There’s a much better way of handling this, though.

I like the way Ammann phrased it, which is that every creature tries to stay alive as a basic principle. Any creature will try to use its main advantages in conflict situations to get the best possible outcome. Wolves, when in a pack, will try to coordinate and surround prey. While a single bee would sting, if there’s multiple bees, they’ll swarm. Human beings, well, we’re intelligent, so we’ll use tools and tactics to try and get the best of things. I’ve roughly used a similar type of principle as Ammann argues in his blog while running games. Basic animal enemies will use elementary tactics: I’d have a wild boar rush at a player, then disengage to set up another rush. By comparison, while I’d have a common thug try to beat up whoever looked like a threat, I’d have a bandit leader call out commands to take out the wizard first, or to have archers focus on the fighter from afar.

For one, playing like that would give me something to spice up fight scenes a little bit. Instead of the old “it rolls a 5, that’s a miss. Your turn. Okay, you do 7 damage on that hit. Okay, it rolls a 17. It does 4 damage”, now, intelligent enemies shouted out quick commands to each other. Goblins would look around in shock, or kobolds would dive behind rocks before unleashing arrows. On top of that, it turned fights from the standard slog-fest between two bags of hitpoints into something a little more dramatic. Most interestingly, though, it started making combats more threatening. The wizard who always cast fly on himself and bombarded everybody with fireballs suddenly found that if people expected the party to drop by, that they’d prepare their own wizard with dispel magic scrolls. The fighter who’d loaded up on armor and always just wanted to stand in front to tank would suddenly find himself running to and fro as enemies used guerilla tactics to take out the cleric rather than the fighter.

Funnily enough, this didn’t start out of a desire to up the challenge for my players, but rather to make the combats more interesting to play to begin with. Simply by assuming that every enemy has its own world and life behind the bag of hit points would naturally lead to a more dynamic conflict experience. Funnily enough, I never figured to phrase it so eloquently as Amman has done: “The monsters know what they’re doing”. When I’m done with the current books I’m reading, I think I’ll be putting that one on the pile as well.

Burning France: Additional Thoughts

As I’ve been reading more about running different types of Burning Wheel games, I’ve come to some realizations about my Burning France setup that I should have done differently, in retrospect. In particular, reading about Burning Thac0, an attempt to model old-school D&D with Burning Wheel, was quite an eye-opener for me. I think it’s the meta-system discussion that really highlights what is specific about the system itself, and brought some ideas to the fore.

The first thing that I realized I should have done differently, in retrospect, is work more on the specific situation in Session 0. The start as of Burning France as of now is based just after interesting things happened (the burgeouisie has just overthrown the feudal opressors); however, that leaves us with a big open questionmark as to what should happen next. Now, I had an overall idea lying around, where the characters were Dogs in the Vineyard-style justices being sent out to troubleshoot problems in this nascent political structure, but that’s more the context rather than the immediate situation.

My second realization flows directly from the first, in that I should have focused more on what the individual characters are here for. Now, we’ve agreed that they’ve somehow have been involved in the uprising to the degree that they’ve been selected to do this itinerant justice thing but we hadn’t explored much of the why and how. I realize that what I should have done is ask all the players why their characters bothered to join the uprising and what they are intending to get out of it from hereon out. Moreover, the largest problem, I realize, is that we didn’t get to creating our beliefs together as a group at the same time.

That last issue, I realize now, is the largest one that ties the first two together. Making beliefs together at the same time should have been the moment for all four of us to brainstorm what game we were going to play. The players should have written their beliefs, I should have worked with them to see how they intertwine, and together we would have made the initial story out of this. Ideally, we should have played out a single quick scene just after the first creation of beliefs, and then immediately after adjusted beliefs again to create a direction.

It’s funny, we haven’t even played our first session yet, and already I’m learning how to do better.

Nobilis: Session 3

Yesterday evening, we had the third session of Nobilis; and, as usual, I took a night’s sleep to let things settle and gather my thoughts before writing something up.

Setting and Style

The game is getting a little more settled for me now; there’s more grounding as we’re establishing more of the world. The characters themselves are also getting more settled, which is helping me find some handholds to engage with the game. My character, the noble of Fantasy, has taken on an otherworldly, only half-there half the time kind of attitude towards the fiction, which I’m enjoying to play. I’m glad to see that the GM is taken a bit of a Gaiman-esque approach to it as well, and the world he’s establishing is reminding me somewhat of American Gods. We went into the realm of another Noble by virtue of some manner of diner in the regular world, where somehow a 2.5m-tall figure could stride in without a problem. I’m enjoying this unheimlich aspect of the world, where everything is just a bit off somehow. I also appreciate that the GM leaned into what my character has been bringing into the fiction as well, but having the Lady of Mercury also hint at being a little odd. It’s always good when the GM understands where you’re trying to go with a character.

Comparatively, I’ve had some trouble communicating the same to the other players. I’ve been trying in-character to convey setting and narrative in a bit of that odd, fantastical manner, but I’ll need to work how on how to do that, as it hasn’t seem to have given the other players enough to latch on to yet. For example, there was a point where my character had knowledge of an NPC being connected to our murder suspect. While my character had mentioned it to one other character in-game, he didn’t act on that further; the other characters came in later, so they were as of yet unaware in-fiction. Sadly, dropping a hint to another character didn’t work to prompt that onwards. Later, whispering about a familiarity in the NPC to our suspect to a third character was sadly misinterpreted as assuming a familial connection rather than a metaphysical one, so again it fell flat. I just had to resort to outright mentioning it, after the scene had already exploded. I’m not sure yet how to rework my character’s interactions with the others to retain the otherwordly feeling while also offering more clarity for them.

Aside from being otherworldly and odd, I’ve been trying to have my character be nice, caring, and playful. In a sense, at its best, childlike, as some fantasy may be. At its worst, they’ve been playfully mean, teasing the Lord of Anxiety with fears of the unknown, as fantasy can equally show you things you don’t want to have happen. I’m trying to have the character just be very accepting. After all, fantasy comes in many shapes and forms, and the most important thing is to be welcoming of whatever may be presented. I’ve tried to put in small gestures like this here and there, such as sending out a random act of kindness in the second session, or letting an NPC go when they want to in the third.

Game experience

The pace of this session was, sadly, a little frustrating to me, to be honest. We ended the last session at such an interesting point: the characters had just received a formal invitation (with potentially a veiled threat? The GM did point out how in the phrase “cordially invited”, the word “cordially” was emphasized in italics) to a ceremony where the new noble of Coal would be instated, after the last one was murdered on our grounds. I remember the GM previously saying that, since everybody was a near-godlike being, most of the conflict in the game was diplomatic rather than physical. So, great! This emphasis-on-the-cordial invite must be the start of some interesting plot developments, and I was ready to get going. Personally, I would have wanted the session to pretty much start off with “so, you walk through the grand doors to the reception hall of the Chancel of Asphalt, Mercury, and Coal”.

The first forty minutes of the game, though, we’re spent in a long discussion on possible risks and threats. Do we need to wear formal clothing to this event? Can we get out safely if we go in? Would we be aware of the etiquette that we should observe? Should we scout out the place before we head in? To me, these seem like very gamist or adversarial GM concerns—ways to ensure that we don’t get penalized because we didn’t remember to bring a ten-foot pole, as it were. My reasoning, rather, was as follows: what happens if, in going to the ceremony of the new noble of Coal, we leave the murder weapon of the old Lord of Coal behind and it gets stolen? Well, the story clearly has moved in an interesting direction. What happens if, in taking the murder weapon to the ceremony, somebody spots it and makes a scene? Well, more interesting things happen.

Sadly, a similar thing happened soon after. The GM threw in what, to me, seemed like a small and interesting new lead to our mystery. A new character associated with our possible murderer dropped by our domain to give us a gift to smoothe some wrinkles. I initially tried to have my character push her towards the group as a whole, but the NPC desperately needed to get out and refused. My character had already been rude enough, so I saw no problem letting the NPC go. The way I figured it, either the gift that was given would provide us some clues; we also had the character’s name to follow up on; and, if there was more to find out, we could always schmooze at the reception later to try and find some more information. It really seemed like the GM just wanted to introduce a small new lead to help us along. Plus, if we solved the mystery from this one NPC already, that’d be no fun either, right? The rest of the party, though, was intent to latch on to the event and to interrogate this new character. The end result after half an hour was no more information bar the name of the associate, and one highly offended NPC out the door.

Mechanics

I’ve learned that I’ll need to engage with the mechanics more explicitly. As another player mentioned yesterday during the after talk, it’s fine to sit around chatting together but we’re also here to play a game, so that means interacting with the rule system as well. I’ve been unsure of exactly how to engage with it, due to my ignorance and unfamiliarity with the system. So, I’ve been low-key acting on the theme of imagination, fantasy, and the fantastical with my character, but I don’t think that’s led me to where I need to be. In one instance, I was trying to get my character to somewhat daze another character into a dreamlike state, so as to move them towards the rest of the party, but that didn’t work out much.

Another player, later, ran into that same character (quite literally), and showed me an example of what I could have done, as he explicitly stated “I want to create a sense of anxiety in her”. The characters in Nobilis have powers to do miracles, and I see I may need to use some of these more triggering verbs in what I’m doing: “I evoke”, “I create”, “I preserve” and so on. I think that will also help my GM latch on to what I’m doing and guide me around the mechanics of how whatever I’m trying is supposed to work. Later on, I had another moment of dissonance, as we needed to overcome a small challenge (walking a tightrope), which I assumed would be no problem for a near godlike being. However, the GM kindly reminded me that my character’s Aspect statistics was 0, which meant that they would not be able to properly walk that rope—a good lesson on what that stat actually does.

Overall, I’m enjoying that the mechanics are coming into play a little more. I understand that the GM has a difficult task here: one of the players is not a fan of systems at all, feeling that rules only need to be implemented when there’s some conflict, whereas I enjoy seeing systems at work and enjoy how restrictions encourages my creativity. That’s a hard set of extremes to balance! I think the GM did really well in this session, though, to gently introduce some mechanics in there while also keeping it light. A particular point that I appreciated in the system is that there was something of a gamble involved when one player wanted to impose their powers over another NPC: every character has something of a resistance to influence, and the player just had to guess what that NPC’s resistance would be. He’d either guess right and win out, or guess wrong and likely be exposed for what he was doing.

Overall

It’s still been a lot of setup so far, so it’s still too early to come to any conclusions about the game as of yet. I’m eager to get into Act II of this story to see about getting into some conflict points, which is where I’m assuming the system will start showing off its strengths. It does seem like the rest of the group is looking for a different experience than what I’m looking for, though, which is somewhat disheartening.

The characters also seem like five separate characters related purely by chance but little else, so there seems to be something of a lack of cohesion. I wonder if a more explicitly defined hierarchy in character creation could have helped; for instance, we could have had two players play more senior Nobles in the Chancel, with three other characters being newly appointed Nobles subordinate to the two. Alternatively, a more pressing unifying concept might have worked as well. For example, if the murder weapon was discovered, and all five of us were now being investigated as a band of suspects, we would all have a clear motivation to work together to overcome this challenge.

Having said that, as I mentioned before, while the pacing may be slower than I enjoy, the world-building is setting up an interesting cast right now. In particular I’m looking forward to what can happen in the next session, as we start off at the formal reception. Our characters have literally just discovered that they were invited to the ceremony privately, which is already mysterious enough—why them? Why now? Moreover, there’ll now be a whole cadre of Nobles around to interact with. So far, our supposedly noble characters have aggressively harangued everybody who’s dropped by, which seems at odds with surviving in a society hinged on mutual toleration. We may encounter a slew of new enemies or allies at this reception, or build some bridges here or there.

The next session is on the 30th, so we’ll see what the GM has come up with by that time.

Burning Wheel Coming

On the 28th, we’ll finally play out first session of Burning Wheel. We’ve had to move it so many times that I was worried it’d die before we get started. Granted, this last session was moved on my accord, given that I wanted to attend an event on that night (which I didn’t end up attending after all, because I was sick). Either way, I’m pretty excited to get started. I’ve been reading various RPG related blogs, articles, and so on to get back into the mindset of DMing, and the more I’m doing that the more ideas I’ve been getting again.