First Session; Help With Set Up and Beliefs

So as most newbies here I am posting because I am running my first ever game of Burning Wheel (besides two separate games of “The Sword” that turned out quite interesting).

I have a brand new group to the system, two of them though have played mouse guard with varying opinions.

Here is this situation. We have gotten together to come up with ‘THE SITUATION’, and have each burned up characters. I have completed a detailed relationships map, showing the ins and outs of each of the character’s relationships, and the secrets that will unfold in game.

And that is where Im stuck.

Where do I start the game? Here’s what’s going on, and character beliefs.

-What’s the Big Picture? What’s going on in this setting that makes it ripe for adventure. What’s changing, evolving, declining?

Emperor Marcus Severus IV is dead. After 35 years of war, and instability for the land, Rome teeters on an edge of falling into complete darkness, or raising from the ashes to its former self.

Tiberius Severus, his 12 year old son, now wears the crown of the empire. As Emperor Severus V; at 12 has yet to receive the ‘Rights of the Magus’,and is showing no potential for ‘The Gift’ and now is deemed unworthy to rule. His mother, Porta Diussenius Severus the former Empress, is being forced to give over the thrown and the empire, to the Senate who demand they are more fit for rule of the Empire. Senator Lucius Antius Comitinus, stands leader of the group who wishes to dethrone the emperor. Lord-General Verinus Quennethir, Lord Marshall and supreme commander of Rome’s Armies marches on the city. From the north he brings with him 4 legions and is bound and determined to take the crown for his own. Emperor Severus IV, was a heated rival of his, and Verinus plans on settling the long score between their two families, with steel.

-What’s the world’s culture? What are the cultural analogs? Analogs can be taken from historical earth, current events or fantasy works.

The culture is that of late-12th century Europe and the Mediterranean. The deviation from historical reality lies in that the Roman Empire never fell, that is, until now.

-What’s the conflict in which the characters are involved? What are the sides? What’s wrong?

The characters have been given the charge of restoring the Empire, back to its former glory. They must though, recognize Emperor Severus V as legitimate Emperor of Rome and keep all of Rome’s enemies at bay, they are numerous both inside and out of its borders. They have been branded outlaws and traitors to the state by Lord-General Verinus Quennethir, Senator Comitinus; and his rebel senate.

-What physical place does this conflict take place in? What ecology, environment, place?

Medieval Europe. Towns and castles, forests and mountains.

-What’s the name of the most important place in this setting? Not the capital or any dumb shit like that, but THE PLACE where all the action goes down?

-Rome, both the land beneath their feet, and the ideal in their hearts.

-What’s the name of a faraway place that folks talk about, dream about or mutter under their breath about?

War with the north has never been resolved, and locals are speaking of barbarians on the borders. To the the east, dark shadows grow, like a swift tide of retched blackness. It corrodes the soul of the Empire.

-Who are the antagonists? Who is opposing the goals of the characters?

Lord-General Verinus Quennethir, Nobles, certain Senators, and their loyal followers

-Imagine all of the characters are standing a room/ruin/field with the antagonists or their minions. What do the antagonists want from that meeting? What do the character want from that meeting?

General Verinus Quennethir pleads to the characters, wanting their support in taking the thrown of Rome. The characters in turn, call to him for the traitor that he is, stating that Emperor Severus V is the rightful ruler, they demand Verinus’ surrender, and exile.

- Alternately, imagine the characters standing at the scene of some great disaster or calamity clearly caused by one of the antagonists. What’s the disaster? How did it happen? What are the characters going to do about it right now?

The City of Scorcaea is smoldering. The Emperor Severus V is the only cause. The Praetorian Guard, ordered by the new emperor’s hand, in a show of power, burnt the city, and all of its 3000 citizens to the ground. With this show of force, Emperor Tiberius Severus hopes to show all that he means business and his word is law. The characters must protect the empire in this, its darkest time.

The Characters:
During character burning, I hit home the fact that beliefs should drive the game. That they should be actionable, and be able to be tested, and resolved. Here is what the group came up with.

Sir Arxenes -Knight of Empire
B: The Empire must be ruled legitimately, and the Emperor Tiberius Severus V is the rightful ruler, I will convince Quinnethir of this, with mind or sword.
B: I will prevent conflict between Quennethir and the Emperor

Arshan -Pershan Duelist
B: Senetor Comitinus is madman, but no one believes; I must find evidence to discredit him in the eyes of the Emperor and the Senate.
B: General Quinnethir has it out for me since I embarrassed him in front of Emperor Marcus Severus; I will pick fights with his men
B: Rome must be preserved with order; I will dispose of anyone who threatens this.

Joel -Roman Sergeant
B: It is not our place to mettle in in Imperial Affairs; I will convince Sir Arxenes to leave this alone.
B: Actions truly speak louder than words, and my axe is heavier than pen; I will settle these political debates with force if need be.

Alexander -Tax Collector from Northern Borders
B: The Northern gods are the one true religion, Rome is a farce. I will protect my secret at all costs and the secrets of my northern brethren.
B: Rome must be preserved at all costs but the Northmen should end up on top. I shall use the law to orchestrate this change in power where I can, and my bow where I cannot.

Titus - Imperial Wizard and Consul
(no beliefs from player yet)

Kaazim -Morrish Slave Gladiator of the new Emperor
(no beliefs from player yet).

So here I am. The relationships of all the characters are strong, and quite twisted as well. And I have several ideas for scenes, to tie relationships, and threaten those relationships between the characters. And I have plenty of ideas for scenes involving challenging the beliefs above. Here are few:

Should I start with social interactions. Perhaps the new emperor’s mother pleading with the group to stand up for her son, THE EMPEROR, before she is forced to give up the thrown.

Should I start with battle, and Quennethir reaches the gates of Rome, the characters are forced to smuggle the young emperor out of the city, and find away to restore his power ( I really like this idea actually)

Any suggestions? Am I missing something?

I’d just get player buy-in that they’ve all sided with the emperor before the game starts. Maybe do the pleading scene as color. The smuggle the emperor out of town can work. Or, you might want to start with Arxenes riding out to confront the General in his camp. Then you can ask Joel if he would like a chance to confront Arxenes as he’s heading out.

Also, looking at some of the beliefs I wonder if the player has a good idea what to do with them in the first session. For instance, does Arshan know where to go looking for evidence of the senator’s madness?

The danger with smuggling the emperor out of the city is that it takes the players away from the action. Plus, the only toothy belief you’re hitting with that is Joel’s desire to change Arxenes’s mind.

Most of the beliefs you’re looking at revolve around dealing with Quennethir (and Rome’s laws/senate) directly. Put the players in a position to do this or make clear steps toward it. An easy trap is thinking of a character like Quennethir as the “big bad” and putting a buffer between him and the players. A head-to-head collision or at least a scary glancing blow with a powerful figure in the first session is a terrific way to start for a lot of reasons. Not only is it cool from a story/hook perspective, but it also helps move players from being in the same book to the same chapter, if not the same page. They’re more likely to come into next session with more beliefs about each other and so forth.

So give the players exactly what they want: Quennethir. He’s the usurper, yes, but make him something other than a force of nature. He’s desperate to get the backing of the Senate, but after the show of force at Scorcaea, the Senate is reluctant to ratchet things up by backing what they perceive to be a warlord with an axe to grind. So Quennethir is in town, meeting with senators, and an opportunity arises. The game opens just after the players have dug up some shocking dirt on Quennethir and/or senate members. Severus is apparently safe for now and the players have opportunities to stir the pot with their new information and confront the objects of their beliefs directly, perhaps especially right now, before they become known champions of Severus. Maybe even drop the players into an explicit mission to win the secret allegiance of a certain receptive senator. The dirtier you can get their hands in the process, the better.

Side note about these beliefs:

These beliefs point away from action. A belief to protect a secret only works when it’s not really a secret, so the player is challenged with getting his hands very dirty in order to persuade others that it’s in their interest to keep his secret. And the second belief is all about hedging his bets. It’s both pro-Rome and pro-North, and purports to support both agendas with both law and force. Especially considering that player’s focus runs orthogonal to the others, get that player to write more pro-active beliefs that invite more interesting challenges.

Yeah, wasn’t sure if you were looking for comments on the character beliefs, but Alexander’s whole setup scares me. Looks like a Druid out in the woods.

At the very least, you’re going to need to weave the Northmen tightly into the brewing conflict between the Senate, Quennethir and the Emporer or risk the character not having much of an axe to grind in the Situation. Then bring his loyalty to Rome into conflict with his loyalty to the north.

Then you would also need some NPC that’s out to expose his secret, or some reason he needs to expose it himself in pursuing his beliefs.

Lots of heavy freight to lift.

Thank guys. I appreciate it. All good things to think about. I’ve got several more ideas, or at least was able to put the ideas Im having in order with your suggestions. I’ll let you know how it goes.

I would tend to read Alexander’s beliefs as a strong flag to include the barbarians directly in the campaign. With those beliefs the player is begging for a band of barbarian “merchants” scouting out the city’s defenses to show up and blackmail him for information and sabotage in advance of an invasion.

Juggling beliefs is the hardest part of GMing Burning Wheel, and definitely the easiest thing to get wrong as a newcomer. My first game definitely fizzled because I flubbed involving everyone’s beliefs and hitting them hard, and I know I’m not alone. I also think having six characters is a heavy load. I consider myself decently experienced and I’m still nervous with more than four.

What I’d do, in your shoes, is make sure the beliefs really align in ways that let you get everyone involved together easily and frequently. Beliefs about why or how they support Severus are good. Beliefs about characters involved in the Severus vs. Comitinus and Quennethir, including newly fabricated ones, are good. Beliefs about something unrelated to the conflict are interesting, but challenging. Having no really central beliefs plugging into that is a red flag. Alexander definitely worries me. Joel’s belief in opposition to another character is generally okay, but it’s much easier to run a game where the party is mostly together rather than working at cross-purposes or second-guessing itself, especially if you want to have a grand external political-military game rather than a story mostly about the PCs. (Not to say this isn’t about the PCs, but the conflict is far bigger and involves thousands if not millions of others in the empire and beyond.)

One thing that strikes me as interesting is that in your big picture and situation writeup you focus on Quennethir. In fact, Comitinus seems to be an equally pressing problem, though political rather than military, and the two don’t really seem like natural allies. One wants the throne, and the other wants power to remain in the hands of the Senate in a return to the ancient Roman Republic. Don’t sell the senator short! Having two big villains gives you enemies to play against each other.

But your actual suggestion, where to start, depends on getting those last character beliefs and having a general idea of a plot that drags everyone in. It also hinges on how high-profile these supporters of the Emperor are. If they’ve been branded traitors individually by the Senate, they sound like a big deal, public faces of the Emperor’s cause. Leaders of legions who have not declared for a side could come to them, as could messengers from senators who aren’t sure they want to fall in line behind Comitinus. There’s a chance for rioting and civil unrest in the streets that has to be dealt with, possibly as a more urgent threat to Rome than the squabblings of its leaders.

Pick a meaty scene, one that involves everyone (or as many as possible) in key roles, and jump right in. Start at the bargaining table, in a riot, in a secret meeting or in a public forum. Have the Senate’s forces come to arrest them in a public space, maybe somewhere with lot of undecided people around. Shake Rome upside-down and see where the players fall out.

Additional Character Beliefs

Titus -Court Wizard
B:The young emperor puts much trust in his new gladiator, Kaazim; I will see that he wins his freedom through this endeavor.
B:Magic is the life-blood of the empire; I shall test the young emperor to finally determine if he has ‘The Gift’

Kaazim -young Emperor’s personal gladiator
B:The emperor’s sister Diana, is the true life in my blood; I shall convince her that her place should be by my side and that she should be my wife.
B:Emperor Severus V holds true power of the empire, and Titus believes he knows how to prove it; I will stand as guard as we head to the Lycaeum to find what tests are in store for the young emperor.

So they both have beliefs about the emperor as well. I feel like all the characters are in ‘the same book’ as the example from above states. Now I just need to draw them together, to get them in the ‘same chapter’ hopefully the ‘same page’

I do thank all you guys for your input, you’ve really given me a lot of ideas. We’re running the first session tomorrow. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Cool. Good luck!