Am I Doing This Wrong?

So I’m gearing up to run my first game of Burning Wheel. It’ going to be set in a world I’ve played in pretty continuously for about six years. Prior to this, it has always been run using D&D or some variation (Pathfinder most recently).

I understand that part of the character burning process is to generate the world together, but is this a requirement? That isn’t to say I won’t allow for player input, but the general feel of the setting is there, as well as some pretty specific instances.

Also, is it not recommended to have my party start unaware of each other? I’ve been doing this for years without ever resorting to the tavern trope, and I like how it creates group tension. They may not want to join forces with each other, but recognize that working as a group accomplishes their goals more easily. In a long enough campaign, they may go beyond camaraderie for the sake of convenience.

Here’s my pitch:

The game is set in Winterfel (I named my world this long before I knew of George RR Martin). Snow blankets the ground for the majority of the year. The Thaw, a 100-day period where the snow melts and the ground softens, is a time of celebration. In Valdor, one of the kingdoms of Man, this period is marked by 100 days of festivals. These festivities attract travelers from across Winterfel as contracts are arranged, apprentices seek masters, and people make their plans to survive the winter.

However, the beginning of the festival saw an ill-omen. The farms outside of the capital city found a good many of their livestock slaughtered. The knights of the realm have blamed the Orc tribes that exist beyond their borders and are trying to recruit some of the festival goers into the military to wage war.

I want my players to write beliefs about this, but also have some personal goals within the festival. The Knight Captain recently lost his right-hand man, and the reward for winning the jousting tournaments is to fill that role. There are contests typical of any festival. Players looking to pursue a craft can find masters of their profession peddling their wares and recruiting new workers.

Will this set-up work with the nature of this game, or am I still railroading them too much?

Do all the players already know the setting?

Using an established setting can be fine if the players buy in to the situation. I would urge you to ask that one of their beliefs focus on another character or another character’s belief. You’re going to have to carry a lot of freight first time out with a new system. Why make things harder on yourself?

Yes, you’re doing it absolutely wrong. As such the burning wheel police will be around to confiscate your books and dice. :wink:

Ok now to being serious. As long as the group buys into the situation and setting and you’re at least a little flexible to some player authorship of some details then I don’t think you’re doing it wrong.

That seems just enough to establish a campaign. Just make sure the players are invested and their characters have stakes in the matter. Was it their livestock that was slaughtered? Is this a chance for a Squire to earn his spurs? Was someone’s child taken along with the livestock? Is a woman demanding her lover enter the fray to prove his devotion? Is a Criminal forced to take up this task instead of a trip to the gallows? Will the priest go along and act as their spiritual guide? The characters need this motivation in the form of Beliefs.

One Belief about the conflict/goal of the adventure. “I will find these orcs and slaughter them as they did my pigs!” “The orcs have my daughter. I won’t stop until I have her back!”
One Belief about each other. “The Squire seems competent enough. I will get him to teach me how to use a Sword!” “The Farmer’s anger is blinding him to danger. I will do my best to keep him safe, for his daughter’s sake.”
One personal Belief. “To prove my love for Gwenny, I will kill 10 orcs!” “I will go with the Knights and come back as one of them.”

All this said, I recommend you scale this down to a village setting. Make it more personal than a Capital City setting. And I also strongly believe the characters should know (or at least know of) each other. If you did this, your situation would make more sense. There is only one Knight in the entire village and he can’t investigate alone. So he makes conscripts of the most capable in attendance of the festival - namely the PCs. Otherwise, why in the King’s name would a Capital City full of soldiers and knights force peasants into a war? That part makes the least sense to me.

Start local. Start small. Start right smack dab in the middle of the situation.

"Instead of the laughter and music you expected a the dawn of the Festival, instead you are summoned to the village center by the church bells. Sir Galovere looks grim and is discussing matters with the Mayor. When all are gathered he speaks.

‘Orcs have slaughtered the animals at Oxendraft’s ranch. I am drafting able-bodied folk to assist me in tracking them down,’ he commands. Point his finger at you all in turn, he continues ‘You, you, you, you and you. We leave in an hour.’

The gathered crowd moans and wails as they imagine a cruel death at the hands of the orcs. Friends and family offer their support for the chosen."

Now go!

i would say that having a mostly pre-established setting runs the risk of losing out on the best thing about starting a BW game => player buy-in. i’ve noticed in the past that if the players have a hand in molding the situation, they are that much more invested in -

  1. learning the game if it’s a new system
  2. giving the setting a chance to grow
  3. showing up at as many sessions as possible

that being said, running a game is like producing a movie. you have to know your audience. if you know that the people you’re playing with just want to run around in someone else’s world, or just get a taste for BW without investing too much, you might have better luck with an established setting.

overall, to get the most out of BW in the long run, having player input on setting and situation goes a long, long way towards fulfilling that character and world creating itch that most gamers have.

best advice - don’t decide on one course or the other before you feel your group out. ask them what they prefer to do and go from there. some people want someone else to order dinner for them. some people are picky and want to order for themselves.

I agree. A BW GM goes into a new game with an elevator pitch/big idea, and an initial situation/conflict. After that, it’s really a collaborative effort that leans heavily on Beliefs generated by the players.

And make a lot of questions. Let the players tell you how Winterfel looks, how the people are, the festivities, surrounding areas, etc. If the characters have wises about the town, the orcs, or whatever, the better.

I should expand upon what I’ve given you since there is a lot more than “kill the Orcs”. The Orcs didn’t actually slaughter the livestock; it was the Knight Captain. The reason being that in a skirmish in the past, when the knight captain’s son was squiring, the Orcs cursed the captain’s son with Lycanthropy. This is a ruse to motivate the kingdom into going to war with them for payback.

It goes a little deeper. The Knight Captain killed one the knights of his personal retinue because he discovered the truth and was going to take it public. The players, depending on the relationships/circles they take, could discover this and investigate.

All that is known publicly about his son’s condition is that he’s ill. Priests have tried to cure his condition in the past, but failed. Of course, there is a handsome reward for anyone who successfully cures him.

Due to his son’s condition, the Knight Captain and his son leave the city once a month. The captain actually chains his son up in an old well during the full moon to keep him from killing. Of course, rumors have sprung up around his mysterious disappearance. Some say he drowns his sorrow in small taverns around the kingdom; others think he is bedding whores to that one births a healthy, strong son. Of course, no one knows the truth.

I think I have enough here to get players interested from plenty of different angles. I guess my problem is pitching it, because I don’t want to dumb it down but I don’t want to reveal too much. The fun of this game will be picking through all the wrong information, which the players beliefs are based upon.

Wow. How are you going to make the players have a stake in that? All the awesome stuff is already set in stone and the coolest characters are NPCs. I think you’ve taken it too far and planning most of the campaign on red herrings doesn’t sound too fun.

Again, why are the characters going to care about the Knight Captain or his ill son? I still think you should bring it down to a smaller scope. Put it in the village. Make it the lone Knight’s son that has the illness. Encourage the PCs to either take a relationship with the Knight or his son. This will guarantee a desire to help.

The Knight can use the slaughtered livestock as a ruse to go after the Orc clan that cursed the boy. He might reveal this during the hunt. A belief might spring up that if the Orc Servant of Blood can be captured, the curse can be removed. No one knows that the curse is lycanthropy. Perhaps, take it to frakkin’ 11 and make two of the PCs the Knight and his son. How to keep it hidden from the other PCs? What happens when they find that Servant and he reveals their secret? That’s epic stuff, right there.

After the hunt, the successful party comes back to a village that’s been under siege from a horrific beast. (Or if the son is a PC, the slaying start soon after their triumphant return.) Friends or family members of the PCs have been torn apart. The town begs you to hunt it down and slay it. Instant motivation to pick up the trail and write new Beliefs. Maybe the village priest knows the answer, too.

I believe it to be a mistake to take this any larger than such a setting. Making it a kingdom-wide problem from the get-go is problematic as it seems completely overwhelming to an individual. Such a setting calls for companies and battles, politics and alliances. There’s no reason you couldn’t build up to that point, of course. But such is the stuff of years-long campaigns, which BW excels at.

Again, I think it will hurt the game if you allow players to write Beliefs about things that are untrue. Beliefs craft the story. The story doesn’t craft beliefs. If you pull the rug out from underneath the players in this fashion repeatedly, they will get frustrated and sour. I’ve seen it. It’s unfun. Keep the players empowered and be collaborative.

I think BW is not about the players trying to find out your secret plot. It’s a character driven game. They are the protagonist in a story that you can’t anticipate. If I were one of your players, I would expect you to tell me all this you have just said here (and talk a lot about it, so we can change anything that I don’t like it). And perhaps I would choose to play the Knight Captain, or his son, or his son’s girlfriend (or boyfriend or whatever). Because they seem to be the real protagonist in this situation.

There’s a reciprocity at work in Burning Wheel. The players make Beliefs about the situation and the GM makes the Situation about their Beliefs. I would suggest that the energy spent thinking up and then revealing all that awesome stuff about the Captain and his son is better spent focusing on the awesome that the players bring to the table and working to make their stories epic.

This thread should be read by all newbies (like me).
It’s really illuminating.

ideas like ‘the knight is a lycanthrope’ or his son is, etc. are fine idea coming from the GM, but in BW, we try not to front-load situations with red herrings like that. these ideas are good, and you should keep them in your repertoire as a GM for failure complications.

for example - a character (a page or soldier aspiring to be knight’s squire perhaps) makes a circles test to contact the knight. he fails miserably. as the GM, you invoke the enmity clause, yet give the character everything he wants from the knight. you’ve created an interesting situation out of a player failure, and really raised the dramatic tension. the player knows you have something up your sleeve because of his failure (the knight - his idol - is a lycanthrope), but maybe the player doesn’t know what yet. the character, though, has succeeded in making steps towards his goal.

though the story might be exactly the same as you’d imagined it if you front loaded the knight-as-lycanthrope storyline, there is a subtle difference. the player agrees to the failure consequences (in this case enmity clause) before he roles the dice, and your lycanthrope storyline is a result of that dice role, as opposed to a result of what in other games people term as GM railroading.

At this point I’m considering scrapping it. This was an old D&D adventure I used to run and it made sense because in that world, adventurers are few and far between. Due to the more historical-based feel of BW, I can see why any number of more competent people would pursue this before 4-lifepath characters.

So, to back up, if I just pitched the general feeling of my world and asked my players what they would like to do, is that a better starting point? I really do want my games to be more character driven, so this seems like a better way to accomplish that.

I really think you’ve the core of a fine campaign here, so scrapping it seems unnecessary. You just need to make it personal.

But if you are going to back up, you’ll need more than just a general feeling for the players. You need a conflict or situation to bring to the table. Nothing more than a 3-sentence elevator pitch, really. Having a setting in mind is fine, but keep the details untold. Maybe a few names on an imagined map? Long-term campaigns can be broad in scope and light in depth when starting out. Adventures spanning only a few sessions need to be much more well-defined right from the get-go. I’m going to assume you want to go for the long-term campaign.

“Hey guys, I’ve got this campaign idea. There’s this kingdom that being raided by orcs. Your village was the latest to suffer an attack. A knight wants to enlist you into his service to track them down.”

“The Dwarf Empire fell apart ages ago when the High King disappeared and his citadel was lost from memory. But now, a book appears that promises to reveal the throne’s location. Who wants to go?”

“You’re part of a new colony that’s escaping an evil land. You’ll have to make friendly with the natives, while stopping your tormentors from following you to this place of hope.”

Then the players consider this and revise it. This goes back and forth until everyone has contributed and put some sort of stake into the idea.

Let them name the village. Let them name the kingdom. Let them list all the important NPCs, especially if they work them into their starting Beliefs. Let them name the Orc clan. Let them describe the terrain around the area. Decide with them why there is conflict? Resources? Ancient Grudge? Demon commanding them? A knight covering up some terrible secret?

Here’s the golden rule, really: The players’ ideas are just as good as the GM’s. That’s why BW doesn’t have any official setting. Your ideas are just as good as Luke’s and he respects that. As a GM, you just need to supply the catalyst to get them thinking - to get you all thinking. Let them inspire you and you them. When you’re finished, the story is something you all made and have a stake in. This will guarantee interest and motivation. It’s such a sweet breath of fresh air, I tells ya.

And the time to stop brainstorming is when you’ve established that initial situation. In your case, it’s that first raid. You can keep all that other stuff in the back of your head.

In our current game here’s what was established before the first session.

The setting is Dark Sun, everything in the original boxed set is canon. So, established setting with tons of detail.
Were a group of dissidents out to destroy a sorcerer king.

Heres what wasn’t established: everything else.

Nice. When the setting is already established and well-known like Dark Sun, starting a campaign can be very quick! You can skip a LOT of the collaborative process as everyone is already in agreement. And if someone doesn’t know what Dark Sun is, stab them in the eye and find a new player!

Here’s the campaign pitch for the game we’re currently playing although a little background first. We’ve played 2 story arcs in this same setting which was we took a map of blackmoor and use it for convenient landforms and names of locations.

So the pitch was “You’re a peasant who recently found out you’re the bastard son of a lord who died with no legitimate issue. Congratulations you’re a lord. You have a year to figure out how to pay your taxes.”

In my Burning Wheel game, I originally had everything planned out, too. It’s an easy temptation for a storyteller, and every GM wants to tell a story.

On the advice of Luke and others, I ended up pretty much chopping the situation in half, leaving players to determine the direction of the story by their motivations. I had them create their own culture and work out a short-term group goal. Then I unleashed them on the situation.

The hardest part (for me) is eliciting player participation. My players mostly view themselves as uncreative or don’t like the setting-creation (or even character-creation, sometimes) process. So I established more NPCs for them to hang relationships on than I would like, and more of a detailed Situation than I likely would have with players more keen to play the Burning way. (They’re creative, they just don’t know it. I’m working on them.) So if your players need a little help, the creative balance may tilt more back towards you. But make sure it tilts only as much as is necessary.

That said, this did all start from the proposal “let’s play a game of intrigue in the world of Dune! Sound like fun?”