First Session, focusing play questions

We played our first session of Burning Empires tonight. We’re all new to the game. The first time felt disjointed and didn’t really flow that well.

For me one concern seems to be a lack of cohesiveness to the story. It seems with 3 beliefs for each character, and 4 characters, we could have 12 different plot lines all going in different directions. For example, I gave a help die to the Anvil Lord plot to recon the space station, and now I have a scene where I am going to go look over the books at a mining operation in order to work on my belief about increasing profits. Its almost a ‘what does that have to do with anything’ feeling. What am I missing about how this all plays out?

If it was a fantasy setting (I haven’t played Burning Wheel either), I’d say ok everyone give me a belief why you’re in this mercenary company defending the city. To me it seems the characters need a shared belief, or even a belief tied to the FoN for that phase. Let’s say the FoN for that phase has a basic idea of what he wants to do for the next session, then everyone writes a belief pertaining to that goal. This would keep the story flowing, everyone involved, and actually going somewhere. The whole ‘just work your beliefs’ seems to fail, I don’t want a Seinfeld story about “nothing”, which is characters just going about thier lives, pursuing their own beliefs, with a random help die from friends, - I want a story about characters fighting off a Vaylen invasion.

Looking over the book again, it seems we might have missed creating a Spotlight, which seems to focus play more, but are there any in game mechanics supporting this? p406 Spotlight: A figure of note who is featured in this phase should very much be the center of attention. He should be the focus of conflict, the center of the web and subject to all manner of stress and duress.

Actually reading further, I know we chose a phase objective but for the life of me I can’t remember what it was. Seems to me we need to spend more time developing the objective, and then the players focus their scenes on accomplishing that? I wrote down 3 character beliefs, but they don’t directly tie into the objective. As characters do we each actually have that specific phase objective? How did we decide on that objective in character, is this just somehow we all amazingly happen to be working towards it, or does the FoN just color us all in on it, and then we help him accomplish it, rather than run around fulfilling our own beliefs?

On a smaller scale I have the same questions for the manuever. Almost seems like there should be a FoN by manuever, with the same question of how do we all tie ourselves together in on it. I mean would be easy if we were a secret cabal of 4 higher-ups who were dedicated to stopping the Vaylen, but I’m just a merchant trying to get rich and go attend high class parties. I have a few conflicts built into my beliefs, but nothing about the phase or maneuver objective, much less heading out to stop the Vaylen.

I definitely see we missed a bunch on focusing play, and hopefully the next session will be a lot tighter, but any hints/suggestions/answers would be appreciated!

The phase objective doesn’t have to be crucial (it can be, but it’s okay if there’s a goal for the phase that doesn’t map perfectly to any of the objective choices, so the choice is somewhat peripheral to your real goal).

You could have twelve plotlines running, sure, but you shouldn’t. Beliefs should be about stuff that matters to the group and the world, and so therefore they’ll tend to overlap or conflict or reflect upon one another. One event should always touch on more than one belief.

Ask your players to rewrite their beliefs. Ask them to write beliefs about some of the following:
-Another FoN, player or GM
-The Vaylen
-Something from world-burning, a faction or the like
-Another player’s belief or relationship

BE is about power players, there’s a definite element of conflict and competition, so you don’t want to say “Okay, everybody’s gonna write about how we all work together in the mercenary company.” But if you have twelve beliefs about twelve totally different things, that’s a problem.

Now, if your first session is disjointed, that’s okay. It’s setup. You’ll figure out how these disparate threads come together as you play. But if you don’t have overlapping interests and conflicting desires on the sheets, you’re not well-positioned for that.

Devin offers good advice. Let me stress his points:

Who are the opposing FoNs? Each player should have Beliefs about one of them. Thus there really should only be about three main plotlines running through the story.
Other Beliefs should be about the PC FoNs and the world itself.


Phase objective and manuever objective are great ways to help you if you don’t know what you’re doing right now. Take a minute to talk with the other players, and say “what are ways we can work towards these things?” But ideally, that’s best done before the session, when writing Beliefs. Also, keep in mind that you get one builder scene. One! So go into the session thinking of one thing you absolutely have to do. Ask yourself, “if my character only got to accomplish one thing this session, what would I want that to be?” That’s what you make your builder (or conflict) scene about.

It can be hard to switch to that mode of play if you’re used to Burning Wheel. In Burning Wheel, there’s no limit on tests, so you can enter each session thinking “I’m going to do things A, B, and C today, and that’ll hit all of my Beliefs.” In Burning Empires, I’ve found it’s easier to go into the session thinking “I’m going to accomplish thing A, come hell or high water. How can I influence things so that my other Beliefs get touched on?” Sometimes you can make linked tests into someone else’s builder to help. Often you can use the opposition, if you’re clever and lucky! A great way to get goals accomplished is when the GMFoNs hit you with a Duel of Wits, you name your secondary goal as your stakes, and you come out and win - and the GM has to foot the bill with his conflict scene! But unless you’re thinking along those lines, it can be tough to keep play focused.

What phase are you in? In my experience, it’s going to differ noticeably depending which phase you’re in.


Thanks guys. After the first session I know I want to examine my beliefs closer, that will definitely help.

I think where we missed a step was I was thinking the plot lines were supposed to develop organically from roleplaying our beliefs, which seemed like a meandering path that would have be stretched constantly to get it back on track with what the other characters are doing. While instead the way I’m reading it now, the Prequel section (p405) really comes out and says hey this is how things tie together and these are the things I think are cool and want us to start doing? And then on top of that the actual maneuver points us in a direction of what we need to accomplish with our scenes? Problem is this implies a ‘we’, while the characters know each other we’re not exactly a cohesive unit sitting around talking about the maneuver.

So I started my scenes going after my beliefs, which is where of course I wanted the story to go, but now my beliefs might not tie directly in with the objective or maneuver, which is why I felt “off story”.

On my scenes I chose to do #1, but I’m assuming I should have done #2 or #3?

  1. choose a belief to pursue
  2. look at the manuever we chose and then figure out how to use my beliefs to get that result
  3. take a look at what the spotlight character is talking about, and try to back him up

Our maneuver is to assess the enemy, but I don’t even really know there’s an enemy at this point, so I went off to look at mining account books which was related to my belief tie-in with the enemy FoN crimelord, but didn’t move the story towards completing the maneuver at all.

How can we have a maneuver which we aren’t all in on, ie the ‘mercenary group’ ploy? I mean a character can basically force the rest of us into his color, but we’re all pointed in different directions. One player did a great job of this, basically asking me to supply uniforms for a recon, which I did, but for my scenes I went in a totally unrelated direction. Instead do I just say well this is where the story is going so let me do something related and try to shoehorn it into making sure we accomplish our objectives?

You should write a Belief with the other players and FONs in mind, a Belief with the objectives in mind and a Belief about your character’s ethical stance.

Once play begins, you should focus hardcore on playing your character and accomplishing your Beliefs using the scene structure.

If you build your Beliefs correctly, the game will naturally come together.

First of all, I’ve found the Prelude and the maneuver intents (not “Take Action” or “Assess”, but what that means in the fiction) are absolutely essential to tying the whole thing together. You cannot Take Action in a vacuum; there has to be context, something to Take Action at/toward/against. You Take Action by disrupting smugglers’ operations. You Assess by discovering corruption in the Senate (and the corruption stems from vaylen plots, of course). Without those manuever intents, things are going to feel disconnected and weird.

This also provides you with ways the disparate characters are brought into the action. Corruption in the Senate prompts the Senator PCFoN to get involved. If that corruption involves smuggling, it’s easy to see how the business magnate and police chief have interest in the developing situation. This helps bring cohesion to the group of characters. So when you said “our maneuver was to assess the enemy,” what did you set as your maneuver intent? What did “assessing” look like in the context of the fiction?

You don’t have to devote your scenes to the session maneuver or backing up the spotlight FoN. In fact, part of the great tension in Burning Empires is whether you’ll devote your scenes to the common cause, or fight for what your character believes in (and those scenes everybody really wants to see). I’m just saying you need to have a narrower focus session-to-session than Burning Wheel requires, and steal every advantage you can. Know the limits of the scene structure and what you can accomplish, and work from there.

The manuever intents also provide a way you can all be in on something. Even if your characters aren’t directly working together, as long as you’re doing something to advance the cause of finding corruption in the Senate (and pass Help/Linked dice to the player testing the maneuver), it works.


A BE maneuver is tight, really tight. One or two things happen, and a couple other things are foreshadowed or set up or looked back upon. The pacing model isn’t a movie or a TV episode, it’s a single issue of a comic.

If one session doesn’t tell a complete story, that’s as it should be. If one session (particularly an early session) doesn’t feel like a single unit, that’s okay too (you’re supposed to be setting some stuff up for later, and even the things that do happen may not yet connect to one another).

All three of your strategies are appropriate for different moments. If your side has scripted Take Action, and you’re playing Cotar Fomas J. Henry Anvil McStompington IV, it’s totally appropriate to look at your sheet, say “I have this here belief about forming a closer relationship between my boot and Vaylen FoN X’s face, I’m gonna pursue that right now,” and ask the other PCs to back you up. In the same situation, if I were playing the Commune leader and you asked me to set something up in my builder or to hand you a helping die, it would be totally cool and appropriate for me to say “Oh, yes, of course! I’ll get right on that, let me just get your signature on this petition I’m sending to the Archcotare…”

Here’s the thing: The Infection’s a pacing and direction mechanic. The players play it. Then there’s the scenes, and the characters act in the scenes. The players are the only interface between the two levels of play. So when you script Assess, you as a player are saying “I’m going to direct my scenes towards finding shit out,” but you’re not saying “I know where the Vaylen threat lies and my character’s going to presciently fly straight over there and pop a sensor sweep.” You’re also not saying “My character has no idea there is a Vaylen threat, so he’s not going to assess at all, he’s just gonna build an empire.” (That would be appropriate for Conserve or something instead).

You do something in between. You play your character knowing that this is the assessing part of the game. Think about a movie, and imagine that your character knows what part of the movie this is, but not what’s coming next. So in the training montage part, they train. In the part where they’re on the lam, they hide (but they don’t know what the viewer knows, so they aren’t able to pick the hotel that the bad guy won’t search). In that context, checking over account books that you know are connected to an enemy FoN is perfect. Trevor Faith’s Assess in Faith Conquers was, what, circling up and bribing a prostitute for info? He didn’t do that knowing there were worms under that rock, he did that just because knew there was likely to be dirt under there.

You don’t say this exactly (so please correct me if I’m wrong) but it sounds like you’re feeling like your buddy just called you for the uniforms because you were a PC? And you just gave them up because he was a PC? That’s a disconnect, all right. We had that same experience a little bit, and I don’t think it’s optimal, but you know? It worked just fine. At first it was all like “Sure, guy that I just met in council yesterday but who did seem to have a strange spotlight on him, I’ll be happy to help with this illegal shit even though I don’t really know you!” but after a couple of sessions that shit was really, really fraught. We’d piled on baggage and history so fast that it was suddenly like “I know you’re kind of my enemy and you’re just waiting for the right moment to take this world away from my family and turn it into a theocracy under your Iron boot, but at the same time you’re the only person who can really stand up to my father’s scheming vizier, so here are today’s palace guard passwords.”

One thing that helps is to set up some distant connections. Two of our players were from our world’s hereditary aristocracy. One had been exiled, and so there wasn’t that weird thing of “we’re already best buddies” (which would have been tricky) but they had a bit of context for one another. Also, start slow (asking for uniforms is a little odd, depending on the context: we started with stuff that was more like “my department is pushing this initiative that needs clearance from your department, would you give the okay? I’ll owe you one.”) And don’t forget to ask for shit back. “I’ll owe you one” is great (don’t forget to write it down: just because it’s not binding like a DoW result doesn’t mean it’s not good leverage), but “Sure, can you help me with X” is even better.

EDIT: Brodie is totally right about maneuver intents. When we sat down to choose our maneuvers, we talked about two things first:

  1. What maneuvers suit our current position in the Infection?
  2. What are our character’s goals, and what maneuvers are appropriate to those goals?

Because of that, we’d usually go in knowing that like Michael had just acquired this factory moon that he needed to vet and secure and get running, so that was our Conserve, or I had a cult leader exposed as seditious and was ready to put down the boot, so that was our Take Action. And then we’d haggle over the details in play, like “Sure I can get my father-in-law to sign the warrant for the cult raid, but you’ll be under his authority instead of Church authority, so we get the prisoners and we’ll take credit in the media.” (Those aren’t exact real examples because it’s been a while and I don’t remember the details).

Also note that players that want their characters to be effective in BE need to bring their goals into alignment. They don’t necessarily need the same goals, but they need reasons to work together and support each other. They need to get into each others’ scenes and pass around helping dice. If they don’t, they don’t get to help during the Infection maneuver roll.

If each player goes haring off after his own objective with nothing to tie him back to the other players or to a common goal, the Vaylen will divide and conquer.