We had to shift last week’s Burning Wheel session to yesterday evening because last week Thursday just didn’t really work for everybody’s schedule. For me, it’s important that every player can attend the session because we’re running such a tightly-focused campaign. This time, I was extremely pleased that everybody was in, as our session really tied everybody together in an interesting manner. Last time, we’d set up our new story arc of our troupe returning to the city of Sompteux and discovering that Gerard, the de facto leader of their former insurrectionist group had started regular executions in the public square. Our team just managed to save Bernard, Benoit’s cousin, from the chopping block and escaped towards Bertrand’s villa outside the city walls.
As our trio settles down in PC Bertrand’s villa, they call Bernard & Cousin Bertrand, twin cousins of Benoit (minor relationship, other family) into the parlor to try to make some sense of things and find out what they’ve missed this past half year.
“I need to keep my head attached to my body, so I need to find out why Bernard was executed.”Benoit’s Belief
Bernard proceeds to tell the team all about what’s been happening: after they left, the people of the city took to repairs and for a while everything seemed fine. It didn’t take too long, however, for factions to divide everybody once more, as arguments started about who should be in charge: the Collectivists favoring democratic state control, the Loyalists seeking to instate a royal heir to the throne, the Moderates seeking to establish parliamentary elections or, as the Anarchists would have it, for there to be no state power at all? Bernard started working for coin for one of these groups. Later on, Gerard started rising to power and prominence, and what started slowly with a person disappearing here or there slowly devolved into regular public executions where Gerard argued they kept the peace and fought the rot within. Bernard believes that is why he was grabbed and sentenced to death.
Geoffrey suspects there is more to this story, and digs in. Bernard avoid the topic with B0 Falsehood (BL B4 Will) as Geoffrey presses him to tell the whole truth with B2 Persuasion +1 help but sadly deflects the conversation to his cousin Benoit (3s vs 1s +1s fate reroll). He admits to Benoit that the reason he didn’t tell everything is that he feels ashamed to be working as a common thug for a local magistrate, Michel. The name sparks some memories for our group, as Geoffrey remembers he has dirt on the man (minor relationship, hateful/rival): Michel got a venereal disease from poxy Polly—something that Michel didn’t want his spouse to know about. Michel went to Geoffrey for help, and Geoffrey wisely kept all the paperwork for the healing ointment that he got the man.
PC Bertrand dug through his brain for rumors he heard about the man via a B2 Family Secret-wise, +3 Persona, +2 Help to find out what the noble gossip is about his true motivations (Ob 4). With 5s, Bertrand remembers Michel as a petty manipulator, who once tried to get Bertrand’s family estate condemned as a fire hazard in a power play. Bertrand knows him to be a powermonger; with the new information added, pieces start to fall into place and Bertrand realizes Michel is playing kingmaker: he’s actually working for the Loyalists trying to get an heir back on the throne!
As this comes out, the discussion gets heated. Benoit realizes that Gerard was right: Bernard was being executed as a Loyalist sympathizer! Bernard explains that the surrounding countries won’t sit still, and they need a monarchist ruler if Occitania is to remain free—he intends to head back out on the streets and fight for that! Geoffrey sees this for the bad plan it is, and says he will keep them there by force if necessary.
My companions are a liability for me. I must act in their best interests, even if they disagree.Geoffrey’s Belief
Cousin Bertrand is highly offended, gets up from the sofa, and loudly tells Geoffrey he has no right to do this. If they wish to walk out, they will. At this point, PC Bertrand also shoots up from the sofa and gets in Cousin Bertrand’s face about it.
Bertrand’s actions will result in chaos, strife, and discontent; he and his must be stoppedBertrand’s Belief
Benoit, seeing this escalation, realizes something must be done. He doesn’t want to see his cousins come to harm but he also cannot stand for them to put themselves in harm’s way. He feels they should move up north to Avignon-sur-Chantre for a while and lay low.
I must keep my allies safe.Benoit’s Belief
With the debate running on a knife’s edge, we turn towards a Duel of Wits. Stating Their Case, Geoffrey proclaims: “You will do as I say, or I will hurt you!” (in harsh, graphic detail); the cousins, equally filled with vitriol, rebuke him: “We will walk out of here and do what we please—you have no say over me!”. Both end with a Body of Argument of 5 as they square up for the first exchange.
Geoffrey, in no uncertain terms, accuses them of being fools, as going out now while they just publicly embarassed the person who tried to execute them is the same as putting your own head on the chopping block (Incite B2 Intimitation, +2 FoRKs Knives & Extortion), with PC Bertrand laying out the facts (+1 Help Ugly Truth) and Benoit pleading them to listen as they’ve done so in the past (+1 Help Trouble-wise). The argument doesn’t land (4s vs Ob 4 Will), as the cousins insist this time it’s different. In fact, they follow up by calling the group hypocrits, as they argue for freedom while tyranically restricting that of the cousins (Incite BL B4 Will, +1 Help) but their clumsy argument falls flat (1s vs Ob 8 from BL B4 Will).
While Bernard & Cousin Bertrand try to appeal to Benoit’s family ties, arguing that blood should stick with blood (Avoid B4 Will, +1 Help), Benoit calmly and rationally lays out the facts for them (Stoic Trait): getting yourself killed helps nobody, no matter what your views. Being a Loyalist is downright wrong and nullifies everything they’ve worked for. He will not see them hurt, so the only thing to do is to hide away for a while to cool down (Point, B3 Will, +7 Advantage from failed Incite, +2 Help). Here, we mess up the rules (more on that in the next section) and conclude that Benoit’s roll (4s +1s Fate reroll) wins against the Cousins’ roll (2s). As a result, the Cousins are furious but have to cede defeat: they may not agree with our group but they can’t say that they’re wrong either. They stomp off to the servant’s quarters of the estate where they’ve agreed they will lay low for a few days until arrangements can be made.
Based on this, some of our characters have some new Beliefs:
“Michel’s silly antrics have gotten out of control, I will attempt to sway him to the right path.”
“Bertrand has threatened my life, I will nip this in the bud.”Bertrand’s new Beliefs
“I must determine in Bertrand is able to manage to stress of power”Geoffrey’s new Belief.
Mechanically, this session was a little tougher than before. I’m still not too comfortable with the Duel of Wits system, so we bungled things at times there. I suspect that also made things a little less enjoyable for one of my players, who prefers rules-light systems in any case, as we didn’t consistently apply the right methods. Furthermore, me and one of my players (who also has a copy of the books and has some experience as well) needed to reference some rules to get things going. The session also started off with some bookkeeping, as we realized we’d forgotten to account for Practice in the time we skipped before the previous session.
One thing that we messed up rules-wise was the end of the Duel of Wits. We had to roll Point vs Avoid but we accidentally applied the rules for Obfuscate and Incite to the roll; normally, the outcome of Point vs Avoid should be deducting— (Point successes – Avoid successes) from the Body of Argument of the other. We misread the special exception for Obfuscate and Incite, where the full roll applies, as applying to everything. So, in effect, we reduced the Cousins’ Body of Argument to 0 where we should have reduced it to 2. Given that both parties had a Dismiss action scheduled for the next Volley, we would certainly have ended up with a compromise rather than an all-out win for one side. Live and learn for the next one, however! We’ll let this one stand, and move on from here.
Aside from those mechanical issues, however, I was really pleased with this session. It felt like we really went into what Burning Wheel attempts to highlight. Every single one of the characters was tied into the scene in various ways: a family relationship, a sense of self-preservation, a personal gripe against the character—so much came into play at once! Every character had a Belief at stake in the argument, and we roleplayed to where we got to an important conflict that would significantly affect future events. At the same time, we set up more context for the world in future settings as well. Moreover, Artha was absolutely flowing in that session: the players poured in Fate and Persona to ensure their important rolls worked out, and equally so many of their actions were based on Beliefs, Traits, or Instincts, so got them back Fate and Persona as well.
On the one hand, the session was intensely zoomed-in as we spent two hours working out that one scene with the Cousins, yet at the same time there was a lot of world building happening because of it. Despite the struggles with the mechanics of Duel of Wits, the roleplaying of the encounter worked out and made sense as well. All the arguments flowed naturally, and the dice helped to determine the actual impact for the characters.
In general, I’m really happy with how this session went. It was quite intense, and afterwards I felt a weird mix of being both pumped as well as drained from the experience. I would like to see if I can get a firmer grip of the mechanics on-the-spot, so I can help facilitate the experience for my players a bit better. I’d like that to be as smooth as possible so my players don’t have to worry about the rules as much and can keep focusing on the fiction. Nevertheless, as I wrote above, the session itself was quite interesting and engaging.
An aspect I really enjoyed from the GM’s side is how much our collaborative fiction is starting to write itself at this point. I didn’t need too much prep to work out what was going to happen here. Based no our previous sessions and our last session, I’d worked out some rough ideas of who’s around in the world and what they want, and that’s about it. The rest of the fiction comes out of the players working along in the world and seeing how all these things would clash.
Next week Thursday we already have our next regular session, so I look forward to seeing what that will end up giving us!