DISCLAIMER: This post may make my players sound psychotic. They are lovely people when not egged on by a demented GM, and in fact usually play upright citizens of the Empire who work in good faith for the people.
Nobody in our gaming group has long stretches of free time over the summer. Scheduling long, campaign-oriented sessions is out of the question. On the other hand, I hate having the PCs do the in-game equivalent of busywork just so you can get a session to come in under four hours. I also hate not playing.
So I decided to have us switch things up and have an orc adventure.
I didn’t tell the players this, of course. I told them we’d run a session with convention premades instead of their regular characters. A background website described a farmers’ festival that was happening on the edge of the woods, complete with distracting tidbits of background: you’ll get to see the unveiling of a new statue of Sigmar!, you’ll get to eat pancakes so good you won’t be able to believe it!, you’ll get to stay at the cozy and wonderful Hospitable Hovel! My players have been so immersed in the Warhammer universe that they immediately suspect that anything that sounds good and comforting will be hiding a chaos beast of some sort, so they were prepared to jump at shadows. They were just sure that the poor festival was going to get attacked and arrived on Saturday all ready to defend it.
The PCs watched a short video about all the fun they were going to have at the festival. Wandering entertainers! Music made by exotic instruments! Dancing at the maypole! Actors from the city! Prizewinning animals! A joke about having sex with the prizewinning animals because I wanted to make it before they did! The positive, happy excitement promised by the video left them jittery because they just knew it couldn’t last. “Damn it,” one of them grumbled. “Why don’t we ever just get to go to the Faire? Make a roll to see if the fried dough burns your mouth. I wish we’d play that game instead of the one where the chaos monsters eat us.” “We are going to die horribly,” another one said.
The new player at our table looked very nervous.
I told them that it was now time to divvy up the premade characters. I put character sheets for the orcs Grok Buzzkilla, Gruk, Snok, Grobs, and Squit on the table. They shuffled them around for a moment in complete silence. Then one of them looked up at me and said, “Wait…we’re playing the orcs?” The joy at the table was palpable as they realized that they were about to go to the Faire to destroy instead of protect.
THE CRUNCHY BITS/SESSION REPORT
I had designed five PC greenskins, each with a set of likes, secret likes, and dislikes, each identified by a characterizing catchphase: Da Boss, the Warband’s leader; Da Finker, the (relatively) philosophical orc; Da Handsome One, who thought his shiny armor made him beautiful; Da Artist, who enjoyed large-scale sculpture and painting with blood; and Da Help, the poor snotling. Each orc’s secret likes were in direct contradiction to another orc’s overt dislikes, so each player had incentive to object to someone else’s RP over the course of the session.
From there, each player wrote Mouse Guard/Burning Wheel-style Beliefs, Goals, and Instincts for his/her orc. We’d never done this before, but the gang seemed to have fun with it and came up with some great stuff: the snotling’s Goal was finally to taste a human baby, while the handsome orc chose the Instinct that whenever someone looked at him, he would stop to pose–even in the middle of battle. I was really happy with their choices, because they took RP risks and choose things that were more delightful and background-appropriate than useful.
From there, we played a largely usual game of WFRP, but without some of the obvious goals and missions of premade scenarios. The characters knew that their orcish leader was shrinking, likely a sign of the Warband’s overall recent failures, and they knew that their Warband should make its mark on the countryside in order to secure its eminence again. Other than those slight hints, though, they were simply presented with a Faire map full of townspeople and a bunch of props designed to trigger their secret likes and overt dislikes (flowers, pancakes, children, and farm animals, to name a few.)
In previous scenarios, my players have sometimes had a difficult time figuring out what to do without directive story hooks, but with their own Beliefs, Goals, and Instincts, each of them found something to do immediately: one rushed bloodthirstily into battle, while another wanted to smash a dog to bits, and a third went to find some blood to paint her shield. When the fighting got started (as we all knew it would,) I added an additional complication: for every five, then seven, then nine banes rolled by the party, we would roll on the Fantasy Battles Orc Animosity Table, and the players would take one round to attack each other, squabble back and forth, or madly rush an opponent as dictated by the Table. The player who rolled the “final” bane had to roll a d6 for the Animosity Table, and if the roll was either a player-on-player attack or a squabble, s/he rolled the d6 again to decide which other orc or orcs at the table were involved. Although I had understatted the opponents, the Animosity checks led to some great in-battle complications and some hilarious roleplaying as the orcs fought back and forth over who was going to chop off a dog’s head or over who got to carry the shiny axe. Further, one of the more bloodthirsty orcs took exception when his teammate attacked him, and spent the rest of the scenario smashing him in the face whenever he came close. The player who had chosen the leader of the Warband struggled to get the others focused on the task of destroying the humans, but spent most of his play time just shaking his head as he watched his Warband ignore foes in favor of eating rotten fish or bickering with each other. “Now you see why I’m shrinking!” he kept saying. The poor snotling got knocked out, but after being revived, managed to hand a “present” to a little girl–a bomb that went off the next round and scattered pieces of the unlucky waif all over the maypole. Much to his delight, this meant he finally got to taste human baby! (One player objected that the kid wasn’t really a baby, to which the snotling player responded, “Like I’m smart enough to know the difference.”)
I had mostly just wanted to test the tweaks I had made for the system, so the scenario didn’t have a lot of meat to it, but in some ways, the PCs had more satisfying interaction with the environment than in much richer scenarios. They killed as many people as they could at the Faire, including a Witch Hunter and a crazy woman who believed she was an Orc Whisperer. The handsome orc liked her a lot because she thought he was pretty, so he followed her around the Faire for awhile, but eventually he got distracted by something else and forgot to protect her while one of his teammates cut her head off.
They finished the battle pretty tidily, and then had the run of the now empty festival grounds. They joyfully roleplayed smashing up the maypole, setting the tents and stalls on fire, making a huge “artwork” out of the corpses of their fallen foes, eating all of the pancakes, and filling the animal pens full of hay and lighting the trapped animals. The last place that remained for them to explore was the only permanent structure in the area, the Hospitable Hovel, a tiny nearby hotel. They desperately wanted to set the Hovel on fire, but I refused to let them, because a) it was stone, and b) fire had already been overdone. Grudgingly, they opened the door only to find several small children inside. One of the kids threw a rock at the handsome orc, and he failed a willpower test and was overcome with flashbacks of the recent rock slide that killed a good number of his Warband. But once he’d opened the door, the others rushed up, and were delighted to see a room full of captive children.
We argued back and forth about whether or not they could torch the place. I stuck to my guns and refused.
Finally, the snotling player said, “Hey! Don’t I still have some of those bombs left?”
“Great! I’m going to throw in a bomb and close the door.” This was met with delighted approval.
…and the resulting moist explosion and the orc Artist collecting some of the “fluid” to make “paint” wrapped up our session.
Afterwards, we went through the Burning Wheel ritual of re-sharing our Beliefs, Goals, and Instincts and talking about which the players had fulfilled and which they hadn’t. We then voted as a team on the Workhorse (the character who stayed on task the most,) and the Best Roleplayer, which went to the Artist orc and the Handsome orc respectively. I adore that particular part of BW, as it requires the players to reflect on what they did well during the game and appreciate the particularly good work of others. I’m awarding them xp for their regular campaign characters, but I’m going to do it according to the extent to which they RPed their B/G/Is instead of the extent to which they fulfilled the expectations set up by the scenario.
Overall, I’m pretty happy about the outcome of this experiment. It got some new and different types of roleplay out of my players and got them much less focused on “doing everything right” and trying to guess what was in the scenario writer’s pocket. (That’s a good thing, as my pockets were largely empty.) I plan on running another monster adventure, this time with more storyline, and I think I will be using the Burning Wheel Beliefs, Goals, and Instincts for all of our Warhammer games from here on out.
I have to give a shout-out to my patient and long-suffering players, who are always willing to try any dumb idea I have and go out of their way to make it fun.
PIX OR IT DIDN’T HAPPEN!
Despite my other bad qualities, I am not obnoxious enough to take pictures during the game, so these are ‘reenactments.’ Think of them as a Lifetime special about something sordid that once happened, only without any boring scenes where women sit around crying or making toast.