Once upon a time, Phil asked how much people prepare for their games. Here it comes (again).
If you happen to play in the game in question, read at your own responsibility and only if you think it won’t spoil your fun and with the knowledge that if the players don’t officially know it, it is up to change.
I mean that. Don’t read unless you are certain it won’t spoil your fun.
Rules aka crunch
Starting out with the short part. I have statted Nifur the giant once, just to get a feel for what the might be like. I don’t use those stats anymore. Statting out Nifur took some time, mostly because I am not used to monster burning, which stands for bad guy creation, for which there are rules in Monster Burner.
I also have written down the beliefs and instincts of all NPC relationships. This counts as rules-prep, but is a fine reminder of how intertwined rules and everything else really are, when constructed properly. Writing these took around an hour in train from Tampere to Jyväskylä, but it is done now, and they only need refinement in the future.
I might write down full stats for Leif, because there is a significant chance he will be engaged in martial or social systems. Maybe even this Tuesday, if I actually have time. The last lecture ends at six, so not much hope for that.
Story-wise, which means the spoilers
An acute reader might have noticed I don’t particularly enjoy pre-plotting stories or building intricate mysteries. I am assuming you have read my previous post, otherwise this will probably not make much sense.
All of the dispositions and relationships here are part of the relationship map I built. I’d be happy to make it public, but there are a few complications. Namely, I don’t have a scanner here, the map is written mostly in Finnish and it is written in my handwriting, which is not exactly clear. It takes the better part of an A4 sheet. Sketching it took maybe an hour in total.
Originally the giant was supposed to be after his brother Thorvald, but since seeing (as opposed to reading, and entire different, but no less evocative, experience) Beowulf and wgaztari having seen Beowulf, I decided to go another route. Thorvald had killed Nifur’s father sometimes in the past (it is known that Thorvald has adventured in the north and killed a giant or few) and eaten his heart to get his power. Now Nifur can’t do the deed, and decided to eat Thorvald’s heart instead. As a bonus, he gets to fill an oath to slay his father’s killer, which he evidently has sworn. Or maybe he is just bullshitting.
Nifur, in addition to being three times as tall as a man, strong enough to slaughter anyone with a good hit of fist, tree of rock, has nice powers. Inspired by Daniel’s post on game weather, I decided for weather to change according to Nifur’s mood. This gives a few perks:
- I remember to describe the weather.
- Nifur can’t sneak up on anyone, which someone is bound to use against him.
- Angry Nifur is hard to shoot due to raging winds, which prevents slaughter by hitting him with 9 good hits, which would be between 27 and 18 shots that hit, depending on the skill of the archers.
- Smart players will catch on the thing. If one likes solving mysteries or puzzles, this might make him happy. Thalin may be such a person. wgaztari appreciates movies like 6th sense and the Prestige, so he might, too. No idea about ksym.
Nifur is also quite impervious to physical violence. Nifur’s function, design-wise, is to put pressure on the entire situation. Nobody has time to not act with the giant eating all food, leaving none for winter.
Grímr and Gilla
The husband and daughter if Brunhildr, respectively. The ones who have not yet been seen. To be honest, I originally did not include them because I had no idea how to play them. Bad me. No cookie. Now I have, which means they might be encountered.
As currently stands, Leif has effectively separated them into some cellar, which is cold and pretty heavy, hence perfect for storing Thorvald without excessive rotting or munch-fests by random giants. Leif personally bring food to them, accompanied by few loyal guardsmen. Circles roll to find this out is at least obstacle 2 (3 if during particular session, 5 if immediately). Other skills may be useful. Finding one of the guards whose duty is to guard the entrance during Leif’s visits is +1 to previous for Brunhildr, +2 for the others due to differences in social status. Pretty brutal difficulties. Failure might be a warning to not meddle in the event, and someone watching after you (but still getting to know the proceeding; dice bring complications, not roadblocks) or something else. Sneaking to see where Leif goes is okay, but he will have some observation skill, which makes it risky. Complications obvious. Negotiating would likely take a Duel of Wits, which wouldn’t be easy, either, given no PC has true dueling skills.
However Brunhildr gets in contact with her family, they’ll be happy to meet her again. Leif has been bringing gifts to Gilla, which none of the family members are likely to approve. This puts more pressure on the PCs to actually do something about Leif. I want to know what they will do. Grímr is content in keeping the cellar fresh and rats away with relevant herbs. He does want Gilla out of there, though. The cold is not good for her and she is getting delusional, which actually means that she can
see dead people see the auras of people, including that of Thorvald, who is still sticking around. Undead Thorvald is a possibility if the game gets slow and I can’t figure out anything more appropriate.
About Gilla; if she gets in contact with Mori and I am bored, there is the possibility that she falls madly in love with him. Take that, ambivalent and uncaring poisoner dedicated to Loki. The seeds of a fine tragedy, especially given the distrust Brunhildr has towards Mori.
Nässla, of whom more next, also wants Gilla as an apprentice to replace Mori, who is a lost case, in Nässla’s opinion.
Nässla, also known as Nokkonen, Nettle in English. Male (I should confirm, but won’t due to laziness; I’ll check before the game.) witch, Mori’s mentor, knows his poisons and a few other tricks. Nässla was defined as hateful/rival relationship, which translates to him not appreciating Mori’s adventures on high seas, into which he was forced. Doesn’t matter. Nässla thinks of him as a failure, but intends to make maximum use out of him before the eventual discarding. Fetching Gilla, who has shown promise, would be such a task.
Halvard’s and Leif’s mother (who needs a name) was cursed (probably poisoned) by Nässla due to the village not showing him the respect that is his right. They dared to use another witch, the pathetic [Grímr/Grímr’s dead mother], to cure Thorvald. Of course the mere meddler failed for reasons totally unrelated to whatever Nässla definitely did not do to him. Not a chance of that having happened. Not the slightest. Anyway, Nässla made the woman pay for her disrespect. Framing Mori for the deed would be far too great an opportunity to pass, though it is made a bit more difficult by the fact that Mori was not present when the lady entered her stupor. Maybe Nässla will come up with something clever.
You just read most of what I have planned that might happen. Note the lack of specific plotline. If players fail or succeed at some stuff, they will get some consequences. I feel the situation surrounding Gilla and Grímr may be even too tight. Game will show.
BBEG, mandatory random encounters
Nifur may be taken as a BBEG, as may Leif and Nässla. Mori has potential to become one, as does Halvard, and even Brunhildr, to lesser extent. Heroic sword skill and the belief that one is better at using it than any man may end up in blood.
I might throw some happiless animals as random encounters due to failed foraging, tracking, etc. rolls. Probably not, but I do have stats in the Monster Burner, if using them becomes an absolute necessity. I don’t foresee that many battles in this game, but maybe the players will surprise me.
That ended up being a rant. I am getting tired. Good night. Good something else for those who live elsewhere.
First session report. Yay. It gathered a bit of length.
Originally I intended for the people to have forgotten the returning party, but decided against it, because everyone has a relationship or two in the village, and everyone having forgotten the PCs and others would feel awfully contrived.
Overall, I am satisfied with the fiction and very rusty with applying the rules. The problem is not knowing the rules, but rather being in the right mindset to apply them. BW works best when the rules are used a lot and becomes dead weight if they are avoided.
What follows is is a scene-by-scene overview of the game events. Scenes are not actually mechanically intertwined in BW, but they are an easy way of recalling the session.
Brunhildr (ksym’s char) and Halvard (wgaztari’s char) have some potentially interesting beliefs: Brunhildr wants to have her daughter Gilla to marry someone worthy (Halvard Thorvaldsson qualifies) while Halvard doesn’t want a dishonourable wife, and Gilla Brunhildrsdottir is the daughter of a woman who has gone raiding, which is forbidden, and of a man who can’t take care of himself, which is dishonourable, and whose parent was a witch, which does not help the situation any. I wanted to know how the situation starts.
Scene: The ship is approaching the village where everyone has lived in. Brunhildr and Halvard are discussing the matter. Mostly Halvard stalls, so nothing conclusive is achieved.
Soon enough, a fishing boat is seen. The village itself is located in the far end of a fjord (the game happens either in Norway or an analogy thereof), but few families live close to the sea proper. They can alert in case of incoming attacks and fish in the open seas, as long as weather allows it. The longship approaches and fishermen tell them to get away while they can due to a giant. Doesn’t work.
Not to self: What if they had decided to get away? I kinda trusted them not to, because they knew what the game was about, all their relationships and some beliefs are tied to the village, and the ship doesn’t have that much supplies left. I should probably more clear on this not even being a choice.
Approaching the village, a large shape can be seen walking towards it. Ship’s navigator/captain spots it (none of the PCs can navigate, Brunhildr has some skill in seamanship). This is where I should have asked for steel tests all around, but didn’t, for some peculiar reason. My bad. It is decided that the ship will not be brought near the village. Few men are left to guard it and the rest take a hike (in armour, naturally) towards the village. Mori (played by Thalin) snuck away a bit earlier (instinct: always inconspicuous), but the rest catch up on him due to his low speed (not a roll, I didn’t feel it was important enough). Mori decides to hide and manages to do so with his B1 stealthy +1D from darkness versus the perception B4 of Halvard. I gave Halvard a bonus die for help, which is a breach of the rules, but a shipful of people are worth a bonus die in this situation, IMO. Mori got a routine test for stealthy, Halvard and Brunhildr one towards evidently opening observation.
At the village. Weather becomes windy and there is sleet raining. Gotta love autumn. The giant is seen (another opportunity for steel missed), probably drinking something from a barrel. PC’s go forth (Mori joins the party) and leave their men to wait. They get to the giant, who is discussing with Halvard’s brother, now named Leif, but unnamed in the game. Giant notices Mori, who pretends to fail at sneaking (this would have been a fine opportunity to roll for acting or such, but, alas). The other PCs are likewise noticed. When talking as Nifur the giant, I stand so as to look down on the players. I also try talking more slowly than usual. My first attempt at this theatrics stuff. Hope it somewhat works.
Nifur is straightforward at making his demands: Dead Thorvald’s body due to a blood oath, the treasure the vikings got from their raid and a good meal’s worth of meat, which amounts to a couple of cows. The cows are brought immediately and the rest promised tomorrow. The giant leaves.
Halvard gets the door open via communication. Inside there is some conflicting and sharing news with Leif, Halvard’s brother, who has taken power in the village. Mori mingles with the crowd. Brunhildr seeks her husband and daughter to little effect (should have been a circles roll, dammit), but does find out they are guarding or taking care of the dead Thorvald. Halvard meets her mother, who stares into nowhere and recognises nobody. I make a point of staring past the players when playing her.
Brunhildr send some men to unload the ship and carry two chests (out of five) to the village for the giant’s ransom. This might actually have happened before he went looking for his family, but that is a minor problem. Leif holds a “feast” in Halvard’s honour, mostly to showcase they have preciously little food for the winter. He insults Halvard pretty severely. Halvard walks away, as do his men.
Halvard orders his men back to the feast. Mori goes wandering. Halvard goes to sleep a short while thereafter. Brunhildr asks Leif about her family, hearing that they are not to defend against the giant, but rather keep the corpse in good condition. Leif also insults Brunhildr, IIRC. Brunhildr organises watches for Halvard and then goes to sleep.
Mori goes to his small hut, which incidentally is not located in the village proper. Someone’s been using it, probably as a hunting cabin, but also kept it in fair condition.
Next post: Preparation, spoilers, secrets.
We actually managed to create the characters and write them down on character sheets (which have far too little space for beliefs and instincts, which is a huge shame). They are all linked from my BW wiki profile.
We also played for a session’s worth, on which I will write a more comprehensive post when I am not taking a break between a lecture and a demo. In addition, I have built a mental relationship map, which I should sketch on paper and maybe even put online. A great way of preparing, it is.
This Wednesday I had the pleasure of actually getting the Burning Wheel campaign going. Sort of. BW is an excellent game, but it does have the problem of involved character generation, especially with only one copy of both core books (and one Monster Burner which was not used).
I am the GM. Players are Thalin, wgaztari and ksym. Thalin has played around one con game of BW and is somewhat familiar with the basic mechanics and knows what combat is about. wgaztari is new to roleplaying and has only played in Thalin’s Like umbrella. ksym has played some Warhammer fantasy roleplay (and is somewhat familiar with lifepaths), as well as the aforemention Mage game.
Thalin had a concept and started burning it, adjusting pretty well to the system, which was not surprising. ksym took to it pretty quickly, too, and at the end of the session told that the chargen was pretty inspiring. I agree. wgaztari had problems. BW is not the game for beginning roleplayers. He had similar problems in the Mage game, too, so it may be he does not enjoy building characters. Maybe it is due to the huge amount of choices one can make and inexperience at building character concepts and translating them to mechanics. Or maybe he just doesn’t see the relevance: The chargen choices don’t matter. Note to self: Ask about this later.
The session ended after midnight (University starts at 8.15 on Thursdays and I would rather not go there without at least four hours of sleep) and all the rules-stuff was dealt with. The actual meat of the game, beliefs and instincts, we did not have time for. Some ideas were thrown around, so it should be a breeze. BW has handy character burning worksheets. By “handy”, I mean absolutely invaluable. I am pretty happy at printing them. I can do chargen with pen and graph paper, but I doubt the others could have achieved the same.
The cool bits
Lifepaths are the way BW goes. The orcish lifepaths are available as a free sample (and I recommend reading them for pure inspiration; they positively radiate inspiration). Each life path gives skills, skill points, traits, trait point (or not), resources, years and sometimes stats, physical or mental. Pretty standard fare, but it does create character history with little extra effort. Also: The first skill and trait (if any) are always mandatory for each LP. This gives nice colour to characters.
The truly brilliant part are resource points. It is a pool of points that can be used to buy gear (equipment, stuff), property (house, workshop, cattle), affiliations (membership in a group), reputations and relationships. Usually there are a few extra points left after the expensive things are bought. Minor relationship is five points base, but can be modified: -2 for close family, -1 for extended family, -2 for romantic love, -2 for hatred or rivalry, -1 for a forbidden relationship. The minimum cost is 1. This means that almost every PC will have a minor relationship that is rivalry or forbidden, both of which are great story fuel, especially when combined with love or family relationships. Players get to create a number of NPCs that I must make relevant in play, which goes a long way towards building player investment.
The lifepaths for Thalin’s char, whose concept is “cheater”: Village born – village peddler – lead to outcast setting – itinerant performer – poisoner – conscript – pilgrim
Those do tell a story, sort of. The pilgrimage was just an excuse to get a few more skill points. The story explanation is a bit hazy as of yet, but it’ll clear up.
Stats: Will 5 (good), perception 4 (normal), power, forte, speed all 3 (poor), agility 6 (excellent). The character is quite likely to be very wounded if ever engaged in combat, melee or ranged.
Skills: Poisons is grey, or heroic, 5 (very good), cooking 5, inconspicuous, falsheood and herbalism 4 (professional), mending and sleight of hand 3 (trained), and big heap of skills 2 (nominally trained). Stealth is 1, which ought to be amusing, unless he wants to increase it.
Traits: Odd, off-kilter, hide before battle, collector, scheming (edge in social conflicts), chronologue (always knows the time of day, which means Thalin will keep track of time or impro it; less work for me), tidy aspect (the character is always tidy, no matter the circumstances), unlucky (arbitrary decisions are always wrong; can be bought off by having the character screw up at the moment of total victory, which removes the trait and gives artha [hero points]), plain-faced (call-on for inconspicuous).
Gear is not interesting, but notably includes a pet and no weaponry, not even knives. Relationships: Forbidden relationship with the giant, forbidden and hateful relationship with the village witch, his aunt.
Resources ability, which is actually used in game and derived from resource points used on affiliations, reputations and property, is zero. Nada. No money, no favours owned, no nothing. This’ll be fun.
Concept: Warrior and the wife of a loser (ksym is male; I hope this turns out fine). LP: Son of a Gun (born at sea, in other words), sailor, marine, lead to village, village guard, village sergeant.
Stats: Good power and forte, others average. Steel attribute, used to resist pain, fear, surprise and shock, is notably 7, which is not bad at all.
Skills: Sword grey 6 (expert and heroic skill; ouch), command, bow and field dressing 4 (professional), intimidate 3 (practiced), seamanship 2 (nominally practiced), plus shield and armour training. Pretty focused combatant, all in all.
Traits: Sea legs (no sea sickness, call-on for speed on deck), sailor’s oath: I vow to drink to excess at every opportunity I get (this will be fun trait to poke at), bruiser, thug, cold-blooded (reduces hesitation; that is, makes steel tests easier).
Relationships are romantic family: husband (this may be liberal interpretation of “close family”, but let it be so) and hateful family: child. Fleshing these out ought to create some great story fuel. Also has a local reputation, the details of which were not written down. This must be done.
Oh, yeah: Resources 0.
Concept: The son of the village king/leader/ruler/whatever title I will be using. LP: Village born – village guard – village sergeant – lead to soldier setting – bannerman – lead to village – captain of the guard (technically, guard captain is a city lifepath, but it was a good fit for the character and the lifepaths are not built for vikings, so I tweaked it a bit).
Stats: Good will and agility, others normal. Notable attribute is steel at 8. When combined with will 5 that gives hesitation 5, this character can actually succeed at steel tests, which is rare enough.
Skills, which may be revised significantly: Spear 6 (expert), command 4, conspicuous, brawling, sword and tactics 3, few at 2, plus shield and armour training.
Traits: Thug, honoured, exasperated, gloryhound. The last on is interesting, but requires some explanation. Generally, when a character fails a steel test, there are following options, of which player selects one: Run screaming, stand and drool, swoon, beg for mercy. The game has a bit of a gritty edge. Gloryhound adds another possible reaction: For glory! In melee, this means charging the opponent. In ranged, this implies a steel close, which basically means charging the opponent. In both cases, it has a significant chance of being suicidal. Cool trait.
Relationship: Rivalry with a brother (about the leadership of the village), 1D affiliation with the crew of the ship, 1D reputation as fearless. Resources 1, which means the character might, with good luck, actually be able to get a bread to eat.
All of them have good story potential. BW is good at that. I can barely wait for generation of the beliefs and instincts.
I’ll post the characters on BW wiki, once they are finished.
What follows is three broad ways of preparing for play. They are basically refined and slightly more narrow versions of a post I made before this blog at Theory decides. The versions written here have slightly different naming schema and extensively use Montola’s theory.
Disclaimer: I find scripted play generally distasteful, pointless or alien. That might influence something.
When game master and the group builds a setting and the players characters (with varying amounts of input from players and GM on the different aspects) and then the characters are placed in the setting, do stuff, and the setting responds, game is sandbox play. A setting generated by improvisation in play based on “what would really be there” can also be sandbox play.
In terms of the model discussed, a sandbox has accidental attractors in that a given group of characters might or might not care about them. Maybe the want to slay the slumbering dragon, maybe awaken it, maybe take its stuff, maybe they ignore it completely. There are things happening in the setting, but they go on independently of the player characters, who are free to go and do as they will.
Sandbox play is hit-and-miss: If the characters don’t have agendas of their own or happen to bump into something that engages the players, the gaming will be dull. There usually is a slow start where players get used to their characters and the setting and have little time to start doing something interesting. On the other hand, given characters with strong principles and goals, sandbox play can create wonderful organic stories and experiences. If characters are of the sort who always get offended by something or always are scheming to the over the world, at least something will happen.
There is a strong starting cost, or need to be good at impro, to run a sandbox game well.
There are strong attractors the player characters are expected to follow. The expection may be tacit (that is what roleplaying is) or explicit. It may be part of the game rules (Rune). There usually is a setting where things that don’t directly touch the player characters happens, but they are on the background. Often there is a particular story that is being told. It may have been designed by all participants (the crazy Swedes are up to no good with that kind of stuff, I’m certain) or by the GM in solitude. There certainly are other methods.
Strong attractors are the key here. If all the player characters are united in purpose (save the world), share similar values (alignment and interpretation of it) and have well-defined solution to most problems (fighting), the game should go along just fine. GM knows what kind of hooks and rewards to use, players know what they are supposed to do. GM can plan excellent events while the players have fun dealing with those.
The great strength of scripted play is that preparation is both useful and efficient. What is prepared is often also used. If not, it can be recycled to some later situation. The great flaw is the tendency to stick with what one has prepared. Some games make this near mandatory. The myth of impro being somehow difficult (more difficult than using prepared material, at least) is a result of relying on preparation. Railroading happens when GM creates more and more attractors that actually lead to the same place when players diverge.
Scripted game (as in a series of sessions) is built so that attractors draw the PCs together. Avoiding bifurcation points is important. An alternative is to place them so that one has time to prepare, whichever attractor is followed after the brief chaos.
Players create characters. Game master builds or tweaks everything else so that characters are engaged, but the direction they move to is unknown. Essentially, volatile play means that GM constructs bifurcation points the players will bump into. The Forge people call a specific sort of bifurcation point a bang. More generally, there are two sorts (not dichotomous) of volatile situations that can be prepared: Those which rely on player making a decision and those which rely on dice making a decision. Generally speaking, the first are more enjoyable, at least in my opinion. Combinations, such as the player deciding which dice get to make the decision, are possibly. See for example many combat systems.
There is room for using attractors, too. They should be used to keep the player characters interacting and the game as a whole coherent. Otherwise all the characters might end up doing their own thing separate from the other PCs, which is generally not as fun as players interacting. It is also more work for the game master.
Good rules are things that don’t require much preparation, or at least much preparation for specific occasions. Improvisation is practically necessary technique, so rules that make it possible or easier are always nice. Rules which make resolution unexpected but not overtly random are another good tool: Stuff like action points that give a significant bonus to rolls, for example, allow success at unexpected situations that the player finds important.
Problems include the aforementioned bubble play, where PCs don’t significantly interact, and inconsistencies. When much detail is generated on fly to drive PCs towards a given bifurcation point, there is significant risk of an inconsistency or three appearing. Usually they don’t matter because they are not noticed. Sometimes things do go messy.
And the lesson is…
Play the way you do, but know that there are alternatives which can look totally alien. Experimentation is a good thing; some techniques transfer well between gaming styles.