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[Burning Wheel] A call to Arms

Started by Kaare Berg, February 28, 2005, 03:33:19 PM

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Kaare Berg

It has been over a year since I began my Miranna campaign and inspired by threads here on playing Epics and so forth I began with ambitions of multiple story arcs, interweaved with greater story arcs, all boiling down to a grand finale where the players own goals would be concluded at the same time as mine.

It turned out to be quite an impossible breakfast.

Despite this, and helped along by advise gleamed from these hallowed forums I've achieved my goal, I've created an epic tale.

So how do I define an epic, and what have I done.

My definition of an epic in this case is a story that has evoked the same grandiose feel as the LotR films and books. A battle for the world, where heroes rise and fall, with their faults and virtues determining the outcome.

To achieve this grandiose ambition I have kept a few elements in mind.

I told my players they would be the Heroes of the Third Age, the champions of good in the battle against evil. No scheming backstabbers would do, the players and the characters should trust each other. Our social contract established this.

I created a sense of history and place. There are always references to the past ages and the heroes that have gone before. Everything plays on actions set in motion ages ago. A town does not exsist without having been built there for a reason, a wall has not been in ruins for the past hundred years, if it didn't first hold of an invasion at the end of the last age. And so forth.

I let the characters become heroes, and to reap the recognition as such. As a side effect of this they have become movers and shakers, but this can all boil down to one very important point. The story is about them, and how they influence the final battle between good and evil.

I also began small, and spent quite a few session establishing the setting to the extent that the players began to care about it. So no matter how great the conflict becomes, what it really is about is the future of the little people of Shiring Vale.

As my grasp of narrativism and the difference between character and player motivation has grown I have been further been able to use this to enhance the mood and feel I have been aiming for.

So what happened last time?

There has been some changes in the line up over time, with one character fatality and two characters retiring. Those present last session where:

Tengel, a knight who has found redemption in the late stages of his life (he is pushing 40) and now is a champion in the battle against the shadow.
PM: Christian wants Tengel to marry and have a son, so that he can play his offspring in the next segment of our campaign. He'd also like to lead an army into battle.

Calem, Master of the Druids, nascent leader of the broken mages guild and one of the principal power figures in Miranna.
PM: Espen wants to fortify magic as a defense against the shadow. He wants to bring back the old magic (Abstractions from the Long Awaited Magic Burner) and see the druid and mage orderwalk hand in hand. He is torn whether to retire Calem and play a future son, or let the old mage continue.

Prince Yari, dwarven prince who has pledged himself to the Heroes' quest. Seeking glory for his own sake, Yari has not yet been "converted" to the cause.
PM: Play a straight opposite of his previous gloomy character, and to try something different although in the long run he wishes to see Yari lead an army in battle.

Ole Morten:
Bregor, the servant, a member of a secret order dedicated to fight the Shadow. The sharp edge of this order he has brought his blade to the group's service. Has yet to prove his worth.
PM: To find weapons to use against the shadow.

Joshua of many titles. Our favourite in-joke. Joshua is probably the character that has had the most growth. From being singulary without ambition he now seeks to restore the shrines and the Roadwardens in honour of the fallen Locklear.
PM: Peri likes to play Joshua with his cards close to his chest, and this works for this character: Strangely enough it works for the group as well. This might be because it often is Joshua's small side tracks that seem to propel everything forward. Unfortunately I forgot to ask him in private, so I do not know what he wants.

This session marked the transition from pre-war to the drawing of the deep breath before the plunge. A silent war has so far been waged, but now the shadow has begun moving openly.

Unfortunately I was, despite my best intentions, woefully unprepared, and when we sat down to play I dreaded the first roll of the die. I had planned to begin with a Bang, but my players requested some summary time after the last session and we half narrated, half kibitzed what had happened since last time and now.

Quote from: In the Authoeglain, KornsworthRecuperating from their ordeal at the hands of Duldagnir, Calem oversaw the transport of the Library of Baruin Angol to Candle Keep, not daring to let such magical might lie unguarded so close to the island Umedelhron. A division arose among the surviving mages and a group apprentices fled with some books claiming ancient rights of independence. Calem ordered them to return what they had stolen or their lives would be forfeit. No ships returned to Molnglaw.

They had their questions answered and future plot hooks planned. I wanted this to go start with the next part, but because of the need to underscore the "this story is about you" effect mentioned over I had to play this. Besides they're the players, me I am just the stage.

Quote from: Further heThe morning following their arrival in Skara Brae was grey and miserable. Seeing smoke by the coast they investigated with cautious haste. To their horror they found a village razed to the ground and both women and children that had been put to the sword. On the beach they spotted the longboats of the culprits. From east of the ruins five riders approached.
After a brief parley and having sworn to respect the laws of hospitality, the heroes joined the riders and were brought before their commander Lord Harfstad, and his advisor Vrunam, both of Jehlom. Harsh words were exchanged and the Candle Keep emissaries were escorted from the newly occupied lands.

This was where I had hoped to begin, by jumping straight to this scene and beginning with a bang. I had half expected my players to extract bloody vengeance on these riders, but instead they chose to parley, fine with me as this worked better for the story. It also let me set up the conflict by introducing two main villains. Incidentally as it turned out I also brought into play a third and more immediate foil, the noble Eoad, Swordthane of Jehlom.

Following this I got to introduce yet a third enemy, the Ragged Prophet, an man spreading lies and a malady of the soul. The players got to deal with the broken baron Haldfast, who expected to fight a hopeless battle against the invaders. He saw no hope, but would resist out of duty. My players set about trying to bolster his defenses and Joshua, who carries the title Spymaster, among others, was sent to do just that.

Using Luke's let it ride rule we quickly played out Joshua's infiltration of the Jehlom camp. Up until his discovery.

Quote from: In Bawdy Tales of Derring Do, Tafter the Bard
Only his quick blade sawed him from the Jehlom Wolfhound's teeth. With a handful of maps and plans, the Spymaster beat a hasty retreat between swords and spears. Alas a guard caught the elusive hero and only by tumbling through a tent door could Joshua escape impalement. To his horror he looked upon the noble Eoad who was rising to the alarm. Only speed born from avoiding dragon flame allowed Joshua to escape the tent unharmed and to swim to safety.

We were plying with the Revised rules and the new movement rules (aka positioning tests) gave us a fluid combat that escalated from mook to villain level when Peri had to use the Persona for Complication rule to avoid a good skewering. The amazing thing was that the other players were watching this solo adventure and were enjoying it. I think there were two reasons for this.
One, they all had a stake in Joshua's success and two, the more fluid nature of physical conflict in the revised edition prevented this flight through the camp from being a "lets count paces exercise".

Upon Joshua's return the players learned that the invaders had no plans for attacking Baron Haldfast's Lands, that they instead were going north to a town where the Ragged Prophet was residing. An advance party was sent up, and the rest (led by the dwarf who saw no reason to ride, undignified) followed suit.

They came upon a walled town with its gates unbarred and open. The Ragged Prophet spoke of the fallacy of resistance and a duel of wits erupted.
Again I couldn't quite get the players fired up about this. The funny thing about this is that when we play DitV the back and forth of raising and seeing isn't stumbled over at all. In my BW game, a mere two weeks later the same players were lost for words and arguments.

I do not think the fault lies within the Duel of Wits rules, but more of genre expectations. My players have so far had to argue their cases IC expecting their arguments to carry the conflict, not the dice, where as in DitV it has always been the dice. I may in future BW games implement this system, but for the Miranna campaign it will be shelved.
Oh they won the conflict and had preparations were made for war with a few concessions. I really like this part of the Duel of Wits Rules.

The Ragged Prophet remained a poisonous thorn in their side, and as the Black Longboats of Jehlom pulled up my players finally overcame his arguments. And war began. Here fate conspired to pull a trick on me. Calem sent a whispered warning (a spell) to the Lord Harfstad, and recived a challenge in return.
Espen assumed this was the Ragged Prophet and ignored it. And assumptions are the mother of all fuck ups. Espen was at this stage struggling with his conscience which kept nagging him that he had to get up and go to work in the wee hours of the morning.

Quote from: In the Lament of Tengel, GrimboldResolutely Calem began to chant his mighty spell to rain fire upon the thousand men arrayed outside. In a hail of arrows he held fast, they black shafts washing of him like rain of a castle wall. Then, among the enemy, a man grabbed an archer and spoke an incantation on his arrow. The shaft struck true and with a thunderous display of light Calem lost his spell. Furious at such interruption he shot White Fire at the offending Mage. His opponent's Eldritch Shield held the energies at bay and the ray he shot back knocked Calem from the wall.

Like I said, Espen, who have always been so careful, made an assumption, lost his army-killer spell, a few dice of Forte and had to pay a Persona point to survive. He protested when I told him he'd be knocked out until I explained it was his out and he could leave. He went home to sleep.

The rest had a hundred men to face a thousand and no mage to fight the enemy mage.

I had no mass combat system and two players who have stated they'd like to see their characters lead armies into battle.

So I made one up.

It worked to some extent, and we had a real flow back and forth, with the players (noticeably prince Yari with G6 leadership) scoring high enough to lead a raid into the enemy's ranks and kill their sorcerer, before retreating. Unfortunately this was a system of diminishing return (it involved a series of rolls that would eventually lead to their failure due to the sheer weight of statistics.)
After the game I resurrected an old thread on the BW forum.

While the battle lasted Joshua snuck of and intercepted the Ragged Prophet as he tried to leave the town, harsh words led harsh blows, with the Prophet striking Joshua with Black Rust as the thief struck the prophet with his dagger, repeatedly. The Dragonslayer was wounded by the prophets hatred. The prophet died.

Joshua returned to the battle which fared poorly. Lord Harfstad left the field with the cavalry, pursuing a goal hinted at in the maps, leaving the battle to Eoad. He eventually drove the players back to the Central Keep, at great cost. With less than twenty men left, and the heroes facing nearly five hundred, we ended the game.

In conclusion it was a great game despite the slow start. I am wondering if not these slow rumbling starts of ours are a part of the same packages of techniques outlined above, that give this vaunted epic feel. I for one would love to start in media res as this fires my creative juices much more, but if the above is true, then I have trapped myself.

Though as long as we have fun this might not be a bad thing.

I think one of the things that saved me through the unprepared phase, was the few "rules of epicness" I suggested above. By falling back on flavourful descritions and historic facts cooked up on the fly I kept the immersion alive throught the session.
The battle, although featuring many great moments, really did not appeal to my players because of the rule of dimminishing returns. They felt it unfair that they had to roll and roll again,  being subjected to the vagracys of luck while the enemy did not have to.

Otherwise the new revision looks good, works great and comes heartedly recommended.

Bill Cook

Yea, Tolkein-esque! This was fun to read.

I'm also trying to grapple with the need for a mass combat procedure. At this point, I'm divided between making something up (haven't read yours closely) or using the one in TFOB. The latter option could address Luke's concerns about not losing the characters in the mob. For me, the need of such a procedure arises from the source material, or epic scale.

I know that rolling moment-to-moment exchanges just sucks up session time. And making one roll for a unit of 200, for example, isn't properly middled out; so it's a disaster times 200 or a stunning blow times 200. I think using arbitrary limits of exchanges (e.g. "You've got five exchanges. Winnings resolve.") or blocks of session time (e.g. 15 minutes of real time) could be useful. I also think there needs to be a telescope and a microscope view; a mix of (1) waves of bodies and (2) blows of important characters.

I was thumbing through a Middle Earth encyclopedia at Barnes and Noble that recounted the major battles depicted in the Lord of the Rings. There were maps of each setting with sub-locations numbered to correspond to a battle plan. I think that's a good way to chart macro progress: write out a sequence of escalation, both for seiging the fortress and repeling the invaders. The progress of sin in the town rules for DitV is a good model.

I'll have to put something together soon. My group is playing again next  Saturday.



that's two Duel of Wits that have really flopped for you. Can you give me some more details about the actual instance of play? Who was dueling (players and characters) what the situation was and what you think went wrong?

Thanks again for your excellent posts.

Kaare Berg

Quote from: LukeCan you give me some more details about the actual instance of play?

Problem: The Ragged Prophet has convinced the Lord (whose name escapes me) that resistance is futile and only prolongs the suffering of his people.
The players try to convince the Lord otherwise, and the Ragged Prophet opposes them.
We roll BoA (Body of Argument) and script, roleplaying the elements as they are spoken. The entire exchange grows stilted, and lacks the oomph our previous discussions have had. The Duel of Wits sort of became an extra layer between the players and their characters instead of enhancing their perception of their characters.

I have thought about it and my conclusion is that the reason why the Duel of Wits (DoW) didn't work for my crew is twofold:

1. Not enough familiarity with the rules.
2. Social expectations of my group.

Point one is easily remedied, it's like the few first combats with all their scripting options. A quick cheat-sheet with the different "maneuvers" on should go a great way to alleviate this. This is why I will include the DoW in later games, just not the one we are playing now.

This is primarily because of point two.

So far I our gaming, social interaction has been controlled by the players holding passionate arguments and speeches IC. This may very well have been systemically wrong of us (main speakers all have oratory, but maybe I should make them roll more often), but my players and I have come to expect this in the game.
Just like we in DitV expect and abide by the bidding contest, we have come to the consensus that verbal disputes are handled by roleplaying and not by any dice-system. Changing this at such a late stage in the game would disrupt what my players have come to expect of the game and thus I would be violating the social contract.
There are many good arguments for using the DoW, my favourite being that suddenly skills like oratory, strentorius debate and such have a function aside from bringing a little colour to a character. I also like the fact that the end result is not a black and white victory, but that every time you loose die from your Body of Argument you have to concede a point.
I dare say it is the first time the thought of playing politicians arguing and bickering in court has appealed to me.
Unfortunately the SC I have with my players on this matter weighs heavier on my mind.

So until the end of my Miranna campaign DoW lies in the box of future tools.

And for the record Duel of Wits is not broken.

I just don't want my SC to be.

make sense?