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NOTE: Recently, people have been asking how WFRP3e looks to people now that the game has been around for a couple of years. This is the second part of my response to that question. The first part can be found here.

Even though this post is about Warhammer, I’m going to start with FreeMarket. I finished reading the rules just before I went on vacation, and I have to say that I really liked the system quite a bit. Still, I can’t imagine running the game without seeing it in action first, nor can I much imagine my current gaming group playing it, even if I did know exactly how it should run. I suspect that they simply don’t like to push against the GM enough to make it much fun.

I often think of games in terms of how much they assume you ‘push against the GM.’ These games ask you not just to accept challenges designed for you to overcome, but to challenge the premises set forth by the GM or the gameworld. In games like these, questioning or undermining the plot hook isn’t bad playing–it’s precisely what the games mean to evoke. The extent to which rules allow you to push against the GM works on a spectrum; different games make more or fewer allowances for questioning in that manner. My group has enjoyed WFRP3e so thoroughly because it stands right in the middle of that spectrum.

I’d say something like Pathfinder Society Scenarios fall on the end of Not Welcome to Push. If I take a mission from the lodge to go investigate the Blackrose Museum, I’m supposed to take the cues given and go solve the puzzles as the GM presents them to me. I’m not, for instance, really welcome to go back to my homeland, suggest that the place is way too dangerous to continue to exist, and amass an army to raze it to the ground. That’s partly because PFS games are often designed to be convention scenarios, but it’s also woven into the fabric of many d20 games; listen to the story, follow the cues, solve the puzzles, get a satisfying climax scene. These games will always remain popular because they allow for intricate, long, overarching storylines; the give the same pleasure as reading a good book or watching an intricate movie. You can, of course, create sandbox games within these systems that allow the players some more options for reaching the final climax scene, but generally, those sandbox games give the players the chance to decide in which order they will encounter possible pre-scripted events.

On the other end of my spectrum (indie games offer even farther reaches, but I won’t talk about games I don’t know well here,) lie games like FreeMarket, or, to a lesser extent, Mouse Guard and Burning Wheel. You have to push in these games–that’s the point. Without players challenging the premises, not much happens, and in games like Mouse Guard, many of the scenarios are thin and simple because the spotlight turns on the players’ ideas. The GMs for these games are told to “say yes” to the players’ demands whenever possible, and the storyline takes its shape from the evolution of the characters’ psychologies as much as it does from the external world. The rules focus on having the players describe and shape as much of the game mechanics as possible. Burning Wheel and MG players narrate the outcome of their own dice rolls, while FM PCs play through rounds of a card game to negotiate the successes and failures of their goals. Players of all three games are seldom (if ever) reduced to a simple pass/fail (or even degree of success/failure) mechanic, because most ‘failures’ can be renegotiated in some way.

In all systems, the stories are more important than the individual outcomes; BW, MG, and FM all rely on players to come to the table with their own goals and use their background to shape game play. Sure, the GM might set a straightforward task (get the contents of the chest in the head Guard’s office,) but all three games reward straightforward and non-straightforward responses to that task equally; attacking the guard or sneaking past him works fine, but you might just as easily bore a hole through the wall or construct a thieving monkey robot which you give to the guard as a gift to retrieve it. Mechanics exist for large-scale tactics as well as small-scale tactics; MG’s negotiation rules, for instance, give examples of how to use them to amass and control an army of mice to do your mouse’s bidding. If you have a character with enough resources, creating an army isn’t mechanically much more difficult than finishing the task yourself, so your players needn’t skip it as a realistic solution to a conflict. These systems allow players to feel as though they have infinite paths to changing the world and those possibilities give them the chance to explore their characters extraordinarily carefully. The downside for players comes when they have an off night; they can’t rely on an intricate storyline or hook NPC to keep the story moving, and they can easily stall the game if they don’t have ideas. The downside for a GM, of course, is that a perfectly-planned dramatic moment may easily get sidestepped by your players. Still, if you have managed to put together the ideal set of players for one of these games, their narrative plans are probably every bit as dramatic and creative as yours were, anyway.

Personally, I see WFRP3e as a hybrid of these two types of games. Since the Warhammer universe is so rich with history and its RPGs have so many entrenched traditions, it’s not a good fit for a “say yes,” push against the GM-style of rules. The players would just have the chance to miss way too much good lore. Further, “say yes” games often allow the PCs far more autonomy and power than would really fit the “grim and gritty” feel of Warhammer; while an experienced GM could keep them on track, beginners might have a much more difficult time. So FFG’s official story material for 3e has a kind of d20 determinism to it, much to the chagrin of some players of first and second edition. On the other hand, that has allowed FFG to script some fantastically funny and dramatic moments in the official material–stuff that had my players hooked immediately and had them asking after each game, “What did we miss? What else was there in that chapter?”

On the other hand, many of the mechanics offer momentary negotiations and “say yes” moments to the players on a smaller scale. The dice, for instance, allow PCs to describe the whole a combat action outcomes without having to know any of the monster’s stats. Fortune points allow them to shift the game in their favor or direction; they’re essentially chits that invite players to negotiate with the GM. The party tension meter, while flawed in some ways, encourages players to focus on the evolving psychology of their group. Finally, mechanics like corruptions allow PCs to move outside a GM’s or a party’s morality comfort zone without breaking the system, letting each player develop his character’s psychology without allowing him to run rampant over the game world.

I find that my players negotiate with me on a more regular basis while playing WFRP3e than I’ve seen with most d20 systems, where the focus lies on solving the puzzles in the most efficient, least deadly manner possible. They feel supported enough by the game world and the rules to try creative or bizarre approaches to the problems in front of them. (For our group, these approaches often involve fire.) They will take risks, although they aren’t reckless, either, because they want to live to see what’s around the next corner.

WFRP3e isn’t the perfect system, by any means. Many of the complaints arise because the system doesn’t commit fully to a single traditional style of play, irritating players who come from both d20 and “say yes” types of games. Still, I think the rules and the pregen material do two things exceedingly well: they tell an interesting story and allow for PCs to develop their own interesting stories at the same time. Most systems err on the side of emphasizing one set of goals or the other; if WFRP3e has proven anything to me and my group in the past year and a half or so, it’s that it allows for nice a balance of both world story and player goals.

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Like many people, I’m terrible at doing things I find boring. Like a true tech geek, though, I’ll do a lot of those things if I get to track them on a gadget. That’s true even if tracking them on a gadget is FAR more work than just not tracking them at all. For me, those activities include a whole host of things: keeping track of my meeting schedule, recording my running mileage, and…ahem…remembering to blog.

In terms of RPGs, I will exhaustively take notes about the adventure, recording details of flora and fauna just in case a PC asks me. I create charts about the contacts the PCs have made in different adventures, and I sometimes practice NPC accents days before the session. I keep calendars of what the PCs did on which days of the in-game month. What makes my eyes cross with boredom, though, is the nitpicky recording of stats during a battle. I’m just awful at it. I can set up exhaustive or simple tracking systems ahead of time, but halfway through, I’ll realize that I forgot to record the last four hits on the Orc because I was too busy describing the blows or amusing myself (and occasionally the players) with his funny voice. Although I like to complicate my GMing with Stuff, I’m better off with something simple in this arena. Many programmers of the initiative/fight trackers had the specifics of d20 systems in mind, so much so that they won’t work well for someone running WFRP or Burning Wheel games. And if there are too many buttons, there’s a slight chance I’ll get more interested in the gadget than in the encounter.

I was therefore rather pleased by the straightforwardness of the aptly-named Hit Point for RPG. You type in character names and hit point values, group PCs and NPCs into encounters ahead of time, and tell the program if you need duplicates of a particular monster in a given scene. In the heat of battle, you add or subtract points with the keypad. “Kill” and “heal” buttons bring the creature’s hit points to zero or full respectively. Best of all, the program works on both iPad or iPhone, so if your iPad is tracking something else during combat, you can use this on your phone without having to switch between programs.

I haven’t had a chance to try this in a session yet; it’s possible that the clicking back and forth between individual screens will prove more trouble than its worth. Still, I know myself, and I know that I’m more likely to keep track of hit points on a screen than on a piece of paper. Perhaps this program will prevent future occurrences of The Orc who Never Dies or The PC With Some Number of Hit Points between Five and One Hundred Million, both of which have might have haunted my table once or twice.

Here are some pictures of its screens in all their simple goodness:

Time passes.

My husband and I raced in the Run for your Lives zombie 5k this weekend. It was largely a good experience, except for the terrible waiting at the parking lot. The race producers had decided to set up a shuttle bus to take people from there to the main site. Cars got stuck in the mud on the way to park, the race had too few buses, there were long lines, and people had time to get grumpy–and to let that grumpiness bounce off of the grumpiness of others and multiply– before they got to the part of the race that had been done well. Unfortunately, the same experience on the way back out meant that a largely positive race experience was bookended by two unpleasant experiences. The result? A lot of needlessly unhappy racers.

As most things do, it got me thinking about games. I’ve generally been most unhappy at gaming tables where the GM forced us to sit through lots of downtime. Everyone needs to look up a rule or adjust a scene at some point, but some GMs do that much more gracefully than others. The right group will chat through downtime and have a good time–but even that will often be out of character and detract from the game. At my own table, moments of forced downtime tend to mean that everyone checks Facebook on his iPhone; God help me if someone has posted a funny internet meme, because then the players pass the phone around the table and talk about the hilarious duck dressed as a fire hydrant for the next ten minutes. Even at conventions, though, where people tend not to feel comfortable enough to check phones, downtime leads to some weird staring at one another.

What to do, then?

First, see if you can’t look through the scenario before you run it and find the places that will require downtime. Will you need to change the scenery on the table? Is there a big battle that will require you to set out lists of NPC stats behind your screen? Is there a moment in town that’s likely to split the party so that some players are sitting with nothing to do while others are going about their PCs’ personal business? Does a scene highlight the skills of one or two characters for an extended amount of time, leaving the others with nothing to do?

I’ve already handled some ideas for what to do while changing scenery, but if you can always give the players some long-term tasks to work on in moments when they’re not directly engaged with the GM or the plot. Here are some ideas for things they can work on during downtime:

  • Make a code for them to work out. You might work your code into the story so they must solve it when you hand it out, but you can also have the code remain a task in the background. They can pull out and decode it when you’re setting up or others are taking their turns in town. The easiest codes are made just by typing something into your word processor, selecting all, and then choosing one of those picture fonts on your computer, like Wingdings; players can figure out how the substitution works from the letter patterns. If you want more challenging types of codes, you can use internet code makers like this one.
  • Ask them to map the area through which they’re traveling, then have them do it. Other ‘produce it during downtime’ moments might be asking them to write and sing a song or draw a commissioned portrait of a particular NPC. Not all groups will go for this type of interaction, but you might try it–you’d be surprised at what your players might enjoy.
  • If in town, have PCs work on individual character development by planning any letters they might send to acquaintances, key contacts, family members, etc., while waiting on the others to take their interactive turns. They can either describe these to the group, or just jot down the ideas and give them to you as future plot hooks.
  • Ask those not in the spotlight to plan actively for the upcoming battle/negotiation. Sometimes players will sit and wait until things are “in the moment” to decide what to do, but if you don’t mind a bit of meta table chatter, you can listen and get a sense of what they’d like to see in an upcoming scene.

Downtime at the beginning and end of the game remains the most crucial. If you want your players to take the narrative space of the world seriously, easing them into and out of the game helps them focus and get ready for the tasks to come. Personally, I like Burning Wheel’s Beliefs, Goals, and Instincts for this purpose. (Yes, I know! I sound like a broken record on this one. But they’re really good mechanically.) If you don’t want to focus that heavily on individual characters, though, you can still start by having one player recap the last session; it’s a good idea to tie a reward to the recap or to require that a different player recap the session at the beginning of each game. Otherwise, the task can fall to the same note-taking player over and over again. You might also want to give the players a moment to lay out some group goals for the game ahead. (If you’re playing WFRP3e, this might be a time to review the standings of Party Tension with the group.) You might even just start with a check-in: “How does your character feel right now as we begin the day? What do the others see as they look at him/her?”

At the end of the game, you’ll benefit by doing much the same. Ask how each character feels now, and get a sense of what his/her goals will be in the upcoming play session. That way, you’ll be able to consider each player’s hopes for the next session as you plan it.

Most importantly, each player will feel as though his time at the table has been used well, and will remember that he had the spotlight at least once or twice during the game. If you can manage that, you’ll  generally have players who feel as though their pastime has been a good use of their day.

Today I’m going to do a post about visual depictions of women in the RPG hobby. If you just want to go to my usual ramblings about my rampant consumerism, skip to the next post.

Although I often find myself advocating for the rights of other women at work and in my hobbies, I don’t often consciously think of myself as a feminist. Perhaps that’s because I don’t have much in common with women when they tend to be doing the things that women do when they get together. I don’t like to shop for clothes, go to the spa, or receive chocolates/flowers/ diamonds. Even the most fleeting thought of becoming a mommy makes me nauseous. Engaging with ‘adorable’ small children bores me to tears. I don’t find the majority of television, films, or books targeted towards women interesting. Not surprisingly, I find the vast majority of blogs about the female experience profoundly alienating, because while most feminists argue that we shouldn’t stereotype women, many feminist bloggers use those same stereotypes to engage with a of “sisterhood” of readers whose preferences exclude me.

Not too long ago when someone on my Twitter feed pointed to a post on Wundergeek’s blog, Go Make Me a Sandwich, I was surprised to find myself entirely engaged by her arguments. The post in question was about Shelly Mazzanoble, whose writing I generally find abhorrent because she glorifies a type of anti-intellectual, attention-seeking gamer that I wouldn’t want in my game regardless of his/her gender. After I finished Wundergeek’s spot-on critique of Mazzanoble, I sat for a few hours reading Wundergeek’s previous entries. She catalogs and critiques the implicit sexism in the video game and board game industries with wit and nuance. She’s dedicated much of her blog to making us see what’s right in front of our eyes. We see so many distorted and sexualized images of the female body in our hobby that they start to look normal after awhile, even to a woman like me who not only knows that her own body doesn’t look like those images, but who also does quite a bit of media studies scholarship during her daily life. When I started reading Wundergeek’s blog, I didn’t think I was as bothered by most of the sexist imagery she was seeing as she was…and that rather bothered me.

Back in my teens and early twenties when I used to play D&D because it was the only thing widely available, I used to joke about wanting to see “a few female miniatures with their clothes on.” Generally speaking, miniature companies have accommodated me a bit more each year; it’s easier and easier to find women who aren’t in fur bikinis on the rack at my FLGS with each passing season, although boobs do still tend to be these tiny figures’ main feature. Overall, though, I wouldn’t have said that the body images of the women in RPGs mattered to me that much. Then I started thinking about the four games I find the most engaging.

Warhammer 3e, Fantasy Flight Games

As most of you know, I’ve GMed Warhammer FRP 3e for the past year or so, and I’ve spent quite a bit of time contributing to its fan communities in various ways. I’ve found the people there engaging, friendly, scholarly, and not willing to take much BS (all traits I appreciate.) You won’t find many vocal women in the WFRP fan community because it’s not a community that prizes sharing one’s personal history; they may be there, but I’m not sure I’d know it. On the company side, WFRP does have a female art director, Zoe Robinson.  Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that iconographically, WFRP is one of the best mainstream RPGs on the market for varied and non-sexualized images of women. A good chunk of the career cards (the depictions of WFRP’s equivalent of “classes”) include pictures of women, and the women are surprisingly fully clad, dressed in clothing that makes sense for their particular lot in life. Best of all, they’ve been posed in ways that represent their personalities and attitudes, not in ways calculated to show off their T&A. Check out some of these depictions from the Core Set:

Even the images that do show more skin seem to do so for the sake of emphasizing grace and athleticism rather than overt sexuality; this woman’s legs, arms, and midriff seem on display to show her agility rather than to highlight her boobs:

Fortune’s Fool, Pantheon Press

Classical paintings or modifications of classical paintings grace many of the pages of Fortune’s Fool, but the company does produce some of its own art. Take a look at this image, in which the woman’s clothing and body language underscore her regal authority:

Although this rulebook makes a distinction between the stats for men and women, both genders get a different kind of bonus, and the fact that the designers saw fit to talk about those differences seems welcoming rather than punitive.

Burning Wheel, Luke Crane

I adore the BW system because it manages to be simultaneously more gamist and narrativist than most other games I play. (That alone may suggest the flawed nature of those distinctions, but I generally find them helpful when talking about the kind of games I like, which tend towards the narrativist.) BW’s open system allows the GM to create his own world, so perhaps the rulebook is automatically less likely to put women in one box or the other–it leaves that task up to the GM. Still, BW’s graphics go out of their way to feature sensibly clad, non-sexualized women whose clothing and gestures that emphasize their personalities and jobs, like this one:

Mouse Guard, Archaia Entertainment

Okay, so you may laugh at me about this one, but I have to mention it.  David Petersen, the creator of the Mouse Guard comic, has made sure to include lots of positive female role mice, including Gwendolyn, who runs the Guard wisely and garners the respect of mice from throughout the land, so the RPG begins with an advantage because of its inclusive setting. In the early pages of the rulebook for the RPG, Crane points out that he’s going to use the masculine pronoun for continuity throughout the text, but makes sure to remark that there “are just as many girl players as boy players of Mouse Guard,” and discusses his reasons for choosing the male pronoun, partly because “the main character of the series, Lieam, is a boy mouse” (Crane 14). The author both considers his pronouns carefully and walks his reader through his reasoning for choosing the pronoun; most RPG books are seldom so overtly welcoming to female players!

The mice in the images in this game have no clothes on and yet manage to be less sexualized than the partly clad women in most RPGs! Okay, yes, that’s a little silly, but first, check out the heroic pose of Sadie, one of the Guard Mice included in the Sample Mission section of the text:

She stands in a heroic and commanding pose, ready for action with her sling and double-dagger belt. Only her pink cloak gives her away as a girl at all.

You may argue that the whole point is silly–how could you sexualize mice in the first place? Well, there are certainly anthropomorphized animals in games that go out of their way to emphasize the sexual parts of the female form; think about the ridiculous boobs and narrow waist of a WoW Tauren, for instance. Yet you don’t even have to morph the body to make the depiction problematic. Take a look at this image of Minnie Mouse:

Here, Minnie poses in a traditional pinup girl pose, exposing her leg and rounding her rump for the viewer, while wearing a bow and high heels to mark her femininity. Absurd as it is, this is a sexualized image of a freaking female mouse–a mouse that you may have around your home as a role model for your children. Parents of children, please go gather up all the Disney junk you have lying around, put it in a box, use it as fire starters this winter, and replace it with Mouse Guard comics. Petersen’s guardmice are much better role models.

To sum up, I think that for all the frustration that women might feel about the hobby, there are a handful of dedicated, thoughtful writers and publishers who actively seek to include women in their games. Every time a game makes a series of inclusive gestures, it takes a step towards normalizing those gestures within the hobby. Perhaps one day, we’ll play in a hobby where we find it odd if there aren’t as many images of women as men on the pages of our rulebooks. Better yet, we might play in a hobby one day where men and women both laugh openly at a publisher who chooses to include an overwhelming number of improbably sexualized images of women. Until then, though, what we can do is support those publishers who choose to depict a range of powerful and interesting female characters and buy miniatures whose boobs, midriffs, and legs won’t freeze off during the winter from overexposure.

Work ramps up today for the first time in several months, so I’m pleased to report that this will be the first blog post of the year drafted during a meeting! (I won’t get around to posting it during the meeting, but I will have started it then.)

Since acquiring the Mouse Guard Box Set, I’ve naturally put Mouse Guard on the table as a fall RPG option for my players. I now had an excuse to scoop up Reaper’s Mouslings Set, which I’ve been eyeing for a long time but had no reason to purchase. If you’ve just purchased the Set and are eager to play, you might want to know that the Mouslings seem to be in Reaper’s boneyard; it isn’t clear how much longer they’ll be on offer. On the other hand, MG is a fairly abstract game, so you certainly don’t need them to play. (In fact, I’m thinking of not using scenery at all. I know. It’s hard to believe I would ever write such a thing. Still, things change so fast in MG, and in the test game I ran, I found it so much more fun to go with what the players suggested than with what I had in mind that I don’t want to end up limiting my options with too much premade scenery.)

The Mouslings are a great set, and the tiny minis are delightfully detailed casts, although they represent quite a few ‘types’ of characters you’re not likely to play in the game. There aren’t Gandalf-like wizard mice in the Crane/Petersen game, for instance. Still, the Mouslings are a fun set to own, and they come in a handy carrying case with a handle, so you can…um..I don’t know. Carry them somewhere. Like on vacation. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been in a foreign country and had a sudden and desperate need for a variety of anthropomorphic mice miniatures. It’s been at least…hmm…no times. But if it does come, I’ll be set, and let’s face it–peace of mind is invaluable.

This seems to be the week to freak out about the awesomeness of the Mouse Guard Box Set, and it is awesome, so I don’t want to be late in my freaking out about it lest I seem either unenthusiastic or unfashionable. In fact, I’ll go so far as to admit that I drove five hours to pick up my set when one of my players found out that it was available at a not-so-local friendly gaming store. It was worth it. (Thanks to DH for giving me the heads-up the second this came into view!)

I played the Mouse Guard RPG a little over a year ago at a convention and loved it immediately. Seldom had I seen a convention game with premade characters pull such thoughtful and deep roleplaying out of participants, and I was impressed by how easy it was to use the rules in innovative ways without knowing the whole system well. I’d picked up the rulebook then, and I loved its lush illustrations and clear, welcoming, and intelligent instructions. Mouse Guard’s streamlined Burning Wheel rules have removed everything extraneous about the parent system and left GMs with the perfect toolkit for running adventures that feel as though they’re straight from the pages of Petersen’s comic. Given the comic’s “It matters not what you fight, but what you fight for” tagline and Burning Wheel’s “Fight for what you believe” motto, the two are a perfect thematic match for one another.

When I heard that there was going to be a Box Set, I was pleased, as you can imagine. Stuff for a game for a game I like? Really pretty stuff for a game I like?! Let’s do it! NOW!

One of the first things I noticed is that Crane and Petersen haven’t included a lot of extraneous stuff. There’s beautiful, well-made, useful stuff, and a bit of fun fluff, but not a whole overwhelming host of table-filling junk that you don’t really need. (And here, I’m looking at you, my beloved WFRP3e. You might have overdone it just the slightest shade of a notch on your stuff quotient.) For instance, the Mouse Guard Box Set comes with a bunch of cards, but instead of the overwhelming array of skill cards you get in WFRP, you have a set of condition cards that remind you of each condition’s effects, a set of weapon cards to remind you of how a particular weapon changes each scripted volley of a fight, and set of common action cards to play instead of scripting your volleys on paper. That’s it. Players won’t sit behind a towering stack of skill cards, and they won’t spend twenty minutes shuffling through their deck to find the right skill for the job.

Beautiful design marks everything about this set, from the shiny box to the illustrated individual cards. Rules on the card are easy to read and understand, and each one includes just the right amount of information. Instead of regular d6s, the themed dice in the set now include snakes, swords, and axes. Although there are only a handful of dice, the basic dice mechanic hasn’t changed, so players (or the GM) can continue to use their own d6s if there aren’t enough themed dice at the table.

Perhaps most charming are the “carved” mouse pawns that look like those that Gwendolyn uses to mark the Guard Patrols on her own map. You get five (red, blue, yellow, green, and purple) and a map of the Mouse Territories with your game. I swooned over these when I saw them in the MTV unboxing post, but that picture didn’t indicate the heft and size of the pawns. I thought they were the size of a regular RPG miniature, but one easily fills the palm of my hand:

Still, you haven’t really lived until you’ve placed them on your own map of the territories:

I particularly like the map/pawn addition; even though it doesn’t technically add much to the gameplay, it does visually represent the role of the GM (who plays Gwendolyn and assigns missions) as an integral part of the game.

One last thing about the set: the included sheets keep up the high production value and thoughtful design of the rest of the materials. The GM sheets let the GM record all the pertinent information about a whole host of NPCs on one handy page. The character sheets do what character sheets usually do, but in a much more stylish way than usual. Petersen even includes a delightful pencil sketch of a bare-bones mouse that you can “fill in” with visual details to represent your own character.

Although the theme of Mouse Guard may not appeal to everyone, the Mouse Guard RPG makes great use of the BW rules for an exciting and interesting gaming experience evocative of the comic. The Box Set enhances that play with visually appealing gaming aids that will streamline your session and will allow your players to focus on the story and its puzzles rather than on the system. I do hope that the publisher will issue extra sets of themed dice, because my players love to have their own sets of dice. We spend 15 minutes at the end of each session trying to figure out which dice belong to whom; it’s our exit ritual, and I’m hoping it can be preserved.

Now get out there, Guards, and ride a rabbit across the snow in search of a dangerous snake! (Although you’re going to have to get a whole heap of successes to do those things, you know.)

I actually made some concrete progress on The Great Rogue Trader Conversion Project yesterday. I had to make some early design decisions, but I found the process (thus far) relatively easy, although time consuming. Of course, the scary thing about making decisions at this point is that I can’t be certain they’ll work until I try them out, hundreds of steps later. Ah, well. C’est la vie.

I first decided that I’d use the Origin Path table character construction method (RT p.16) as a hard and fast rule. Later in the book, the author says that any Home World can lead to any Career, but I decided that I didn’t want that much chaos in character creation, at least not in my game. (Not while you live under my roof, mister!) Right now I’m in the process of converting each of the boxes on the Origin Path table to a Burning Wheel Lifepath. Since the RT table forces you to choose between just a few Paths at each stage, each Lifepath can only lead into 2-3 others; this cuts down on the number of repeated skills and traits shared between Lifepaths. (You’ll see why that’s important in a minute.)

Converting the first two rows (Home World and Birthright) into BW Lifepaths only took a few tweaks to make existing BW Lifepaths more Warhammery. Rather than just making the players take the first assigned skill/trait on the Lifepath list and then picking and choosing as in normal BW character creation, I’m making my players take the whole set of skills and traits associated with each Lifepath, but I think that’s in the spirit of the Rogue Trader rules. After all, the RT character creation process is much more limiting than the BW one; it emphasizes the things you can’t do because of a particular background and starting location just as much as it emphasizes the things that you can do. Ultimately, 40K games are about place as much as character, while pure BW is about character far more than place. I’ve decided to honor 40K as much (if not a bit more) than BW by having locale determine character, although we’ll see if that causes any playability issues later on.

I’m a bit worried about the ways that the RT Origin Path ends up shaping basic stats; there’s not really a similar mechanic in BW except for the +1M or +1P for each Lifepath, and RT seems to rely on screwing with basic stats quite a bit. Ultimately, though, I’d like the game to run far more on traits/skills than on basic stats, so I’m not going to worry about it for the time being. I’m adding M or P to lifepaths as it makes sense to me, and the rest of it be damned. (Note: I will undoubtedly regret this later.)

Using the Origin Path table as a Lifepath generator will mean that our characters will start at 6 Lifepaths, which isn’t the recommended start. Still, that’s because 6 Lifepath characters are more powerful than your average person–which is exactly what Rogue Traders should be. The caveat in the BW book is that 6 Lifepath characters don’t progress very quickly, but again, that’s in fitting with the 40K universe, anyway, so I’m happy with that ‘restriction.’ I think.

And just in case you were concerned about my shopping trip to Staples, I did find a new notebook–it’s one of those great Arc spirals from which you can pull and rearrange pages. Also, it matches the one I use for work, so I can kind of pretend I’m “working” when I’m converting RT to BW.

Every once in awhile, someone will suggest I run WFRP at a convention. If that someone is one of my players, we then share a hearty laugh. You see, the problem with buying all this stuff to help you GM is that you have to justify all this stuff you’ve bought by using it. My GMing station generally takes up one whole side of our gaming table. Here’s what it looks like:

What’s sad is that these pictures were taken from a scaled-down game in which we weren’t using all of Fantasy Flight’s components.

Some comments:
1 ) I like to have out the miniatures I need, plus three or four that I choose randomly that I can throw in at the last minute.
2 ) I finally got a Paizo Combat Pad! It’s as good as everyone says.
3 ) Extra markers are imperative, not because they tend to run out of ink, but because I tend to drop them under the table when I get excited during battles, and I don’t want to retrieve them mid-game.
4 ) I need two GM screens because I cheat twice as much as a normal GM.
5 ) I never consult these during game; I’m not even sure why I bother to get them out. Our group tends to roll with whatever and check the rule before the next game. We do this in boardgaming, too, which ends up making for some interesting play sessions. Still, I feel like I should pretend that I care about the rules, so I get the rulebooks out.
6 ) Plenty of counters and cards thanks to Fantasy Flight! I daresay that if FFG put out a version of tic-tac-toe, it would include a deck of 134 cards, sixty-seven tracking tokens, three playing boards, and a limited-edition whiffleball.
7 ) I usually don’t have these out, actually, so you can ignore them.
8 ) My players all have their own sets of these, and I have about five sets of them. There’s never a shortage of dice at the table.
9 ) My speakers. We usually spend about five minutes per session discussing the sound effects when someone says, “Wait. Are those sound effects? Or is that happening outside?” Then we proceed to talk about where I got the sound effects, whether there’s a sound effect with thing X in it, and how weird it is that sound effect X exists on iTunes.
10 ) My precious. If I’m going to look up a rule, it tends to be on the iPad. Mostly, though, I use it to manipulate sound effects and music and/or to show images to the players.
11 ) This is my book of non-official scenarios, my own work, and our overarching campaign story. It takes up a lot of room. I tend to forget to consult it and end up making up stuff on the fly that I actually thought about ahead of time.

I just also realized that my monster cards weren’t out yet before I took this picture. So there are those, too.

Some of the more perceptive among you will quickly point out that nobody needs this stuff to GM and that I could just use the streamlined system in the books at a convention and not worry about all the other junk. I appreciate the advice of those good, kind, sane people. I just can’t quite hear them over the sound of my shuffling the stuff around on my table.

I might run Burning Wheel at a con sometime, though. Oh! Or the awesome Fortune’s Fool!  I’ll just need to pick up a few props and whatnots first…

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?”

I nodded.

“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.

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