Getting Past the First Turn (Essay, LONG!)

So here’s what I drafted up in response to a couple of the BE threads that started. This is longer than I had anticipated, and for that I apologize. I’d like feedback, particularly from the even more experienced BE players out there. Eventually it should probably end up on the Wiki somewhere.

Go get a drink and visit the bathroom; it’s a pretty long read. I tried posting it all at once but I had to break it up into subsections.

Burning Empires: Getting past the first turn

After reading many, many posts by players starting Burning Empires games, I couldn’t help but notice there are issues that repeatedly crop up within the first few sessions of play. Having been through this myself, I feel like I’ve got a pretty good idea of what’s probably going wrong. Maybe some of these ideas will help you over the hump. At the very least, you can be reassured that your issues are not unique.

Part 1: The Maneuver-Scene disconnect

This is maybe the biggest deal-breaker in the entire game design. On the one hand, the game tells us that players win and lose Phases based on their performance in the Maneuver. On the other hand, the game gives us precious few ways to directly influence a Maneuver’s outcome. And on the third hand, the Infection mechanics skew in favor of the GM by default!

If you’ve heard one or more players say something like, “Why are we even bothering with scenes when all that matters is the Maneuver roll?” or “I’m frustrated by the fact that nothing that I do in my scene helps me win the Maneuver!” or even “I hate that we can win our scenes but still lose the Maneuver,” here are some thoughts.

[li]BE’s “winning” concept is probably both over-hyped and under-explained. There’s a whole section on that below. If your players can get their heads around how they’re actually going to win/lose the game, they should understand that their Phase Disposition is simply a countdown, not a meaningful score.[/li][li]One way to connect Scenes to Maneuvers is to emphasize the Artha cycle, which in turn means emphasizing BITs. If you’re earning lots of Artha, you’ll get to spend it on the next Maneuver. Granted it’s a long way away, but faster Maneuvers (see below) take care of this issue.[/li][li]One concept that has helped me is to emphasize that Maneuvers drive scenes, but scenes do not drive Maneuvers. When your players are picking a Maneuver, they’re setting the stage for their upcoming set of scenes. They may be frustrated by the fact that the game’s current events don’t play into an optimal Maneuver, but that’s the intent of the design. [/li]
Example: your group is playing the Infiltration phase and they really, really want to Take Action. However, either the character with the Take Action Infiltration skills (smuggling, suasion, rhetoric, etc.) isn’t front-and-center to the story, or the character who is front-and-center doesn’t have the appropriate skills. The players have two choices: They can either pick a different Maneuver action (Gambit, for example, if psychics, warriors, or smugglers are the focus) or they can push the story back onto the characters with the appropriate skill set.
[li]The skills used in each Maneuver action are meant to be abstract. Assessing the enemy’s disposition doesn’t mean you literally have to use signals/observe/cryptography/etc. on an enemy’s FON; it just means that signals/observe/cryptography had to be the focal skill used by the FON who will be making the Maneuver roll. Abstract, not literal.[/li][*]Finally, the players should be mindful that the point of the Maneuver is to create focus before scene play, and to create large-scale storyline movement after scene play. The Maneuver-Scene connection is pretty precise: If there was any more connection there’d be no reason to have a Maneuver roll (since winning your conflict would equal winning your Maneuver), and if there were any less connection there’d be no reason to have Scenes (since winning your Maneuver would render the Scenes irrelevant).[/ul]

Part 2: “Winning” and competitive play

This is a tough one.

Okay, so you’ve read that you can “win” Burning Empires. You’ve read that each side has their Disposition, and each side is hammering on the other to reduce the enemy’s disposition. You’ve read that driving your enemy to 0 Dispo means you won your Phase.

Then you start playing.

Inevitably, you’ll end up with one or more players who ask the obvious question, “How do I win the Maneuver? What can I do within the game to win?” Winning Maneuvers becomes all-important.

Then the players realize there’s precious little they can do to affect the Maneuver roll. Assuming exponent caps of 6, fully optimized help dice from two FONs and the maximum 3 Persona, you’ve got 13 dice to roll. That’s it. It can’t get any higher.

Players throw up their hands in frustration at the fact there’s a cap on the Maneuver roll. Players threaten mutiny when they don’t see anything in the game impacting their Maneuver’s outcome. The GM is finally found dead in a nearby lake when his players win their scene yet lose their Maneuver roll.

Here’s the disconnect, and pretty much everyone experiences it the same way: Winning the Maneuver roll is not winning Burning Empires.

The Infection mechanic is, at best, a semi-random/semi-tactical campaign generator. It’s a countdown, so everyone knows when the story is over. Without the Phase structure, scenes would lose focus and drive as players simply work their way through their Beliefs each session, Vaylen invasion be damned.

At worst, the Maneuver roll becomes the scorekeeping tool to let you know who’s “winning.” But it isn’t. Allowing players to get sucked into this mindset will kill your game, because the emphasis will move away from stuff that matters (Beliefs, Scenes, conflicts) and toward stuff that’s not supposed to matter (Phase Disposition scores).

The only thing you win at the end of the Phase is your Phase intent. That’s it! You get to edit some big world burner element and narrate how that change came to pass. There are many scenarios in which Side A might win their Phase but lose the game because Side B’s players accomplished more of what they cared about.

I believe there is only one solution to this: Your group has to discuss what it means to “win” in an RPG. Every group will be different. Did they drive the Vaylen off the planet? That’s possible whether you won or lost their Phase. Did your characters accomplish their Beliefs? Did your players have amazing scenes together? Did you stage and then win a battle royale?

So, yeah, Burning Empires is winnable, but winning is not mechanically or creatively satisfying at the Phase level.

For me, the more important part of BE’s “winning” attitude comes in competitive play. The game is set up so both sides have approximately equal assets. The GM gets some bennies, like being able to say “Yes” to almost anything and keeping unspent Circles in his pocket. The players get some bennies, like more ways to win Artha and more brains working on the game at once.

The game doesn’t want the GM to pull his punches or railroad characters down a specific storyline. When you read about playing to “win,” what’s really being discussed is that the GM’s characters can and should pursue their goals with the same drive as the players’ characters. Discard notions of script immunity, deus ex machina saves, and GM fiat handing the players a victory because “it makes a better story.”

You want to win Burning Empires? Play on a level playing field.

Part 3: Unintended consequences

This is a pretty complex game, with lots of interconnected bits. It’s more than likely that your first go-round will involve screwy world burning and/or character burning that will not play out the way the players think they will. I’ve broken this down into a couple discussions.
World Burning

It’s really easy to get wrapped up in the disposition shifts one gains/loses due to various decisions you make in during World Burning. There are definitely optimal builds for those groups who want to shift all advantage to one side or the other. Some stuff to keep in mind:

[li]This is a sci-fi game and players are going to default to certain sci-fi expectations. Playing a zero-index or sub-index game is going to frustrate the hell out of them.[/li][li]Don’t forget that one of your tech categories can be one index higher than everything else![/li][li]Heavily front-loading your world in favor of one side or the other is going to result in a very short Phase. It’s also going to put Deeds points in the hands of one side, which may result in a snowball effect later.[/ul]Character Burning[/li]
There are a lot of decisions to be made during character burning, many of which will have unforeseen consequences later in the game.

One oft-cited problem is that of optimal Infection design vs. optimal Scene design. Characters with Infection-level skills will often be ineffectual at the Scene level, and vice versa. Also, new players will tend to very tightly focus their characters to excel in a single Phase, without considering how they might play in later Phases. You might get lucky and have a bunch of players who enjoy trying to fit their square-peg characters into round-hole situations; more likely, you’re going to end up with very frustrated players who want to be good at everything all the time. Thoughts:

[li]Spread the Infection skill load across all the characters. It’s probably a mistake to build characters for one Phase, unless you intend to let them die so you can bring in a new purpose-built character in the next Phase. [/li][li]At a bare minimum, ensure at least one FoN on each side is able to Assess and Take Action during each Phase. If you can’t do at least that, the Infection level of the game is going to be very unsatisfying.[/li][li]Don’t be afraid to make unskilled tests for the Take Action rolls. It’s only an Ob2 to make an independent Take Action, for example; that’s pretty easy with a Will or Perception of 4 and a little Artha. The unskilled Assess is harder: Ob4! Lesson of the day: prioritize the Assess skills.[/ul] [/li]Another common problem is in starting Relationships, specifically how characters relate to each other. The game assumes every PCFoN has an official, mechanical Relationship with each other – don’t gloss over that. There are no lone wolves. There are no mystery men without a past. You should be spending exactly 0 scenes meeting each other for the first time in a bar or whatever. Work it out before the game.

Finally, there’s always the problem of players uncertain of what their character can actually do. Very simple solution: Play out every character in a variety of out-of-game arena-style conflicts. Have your warriors play each level of Firefight, but also have them play out a Duel of Wits as well so they’re not surprised when the social monster talks them into something outrageous. Have your social monsters slap-fight each other in a Firefight.

You’ll also discover your characters are missing vitally important skills! Either this will lead to fun play for players who enjoy figuring out what to do with suboptimal characters, or will allow your more tactical players to patch holes before play.

Part 4: Beliefs

Lots and lots of games fall apart because of problems with Beliefs. Unfocused Beliefs, Beliefs that aren’t being challenged, and Beliefs that aren’t being pursued will lead to a lack of reward for the players in the form of Artha. Artha is one of the only meaningful ways to keep score in the game. The game design makes chasing Artha the single highest and best application of its various systems.

I see Belief problems coming in one of two ways: Beliefs that weren’t right to begin with, and Beliefs that aren’t being challenged by the GM.

Belief-building tips

The most common problem I see with Beliefs is that they either have an ideology but no action, or a to-do item without a driving ideology. Each Belief needs a to-do so it’s clear when the character is pursuing his belief and he can earn Artha, and each Belief needs an ideology to back it up so the action has context. My shorthand for this is, Beliefs are a principled to-do list.

Red flags to look out for:
[li]If the players don’t know what they’re “supposed” to be doing right now, their Beliefs are broken. [/li][li]If the players aren’t earning at least 1 Fate for pursuing their Beliefs, their Beliefs are broken.[/li][li]If the players haven’t completed a Belief and had it graduated to a Character Trait by the end of the second session, IMO their Beliefs lack urgency. Not broken, but potentially stagnant.[/ul]Two good tips I’ve picked up:[/li][ul]
[li]Every character should have a Belief that can be resolved in the next Maneuver, a Belief that can be resolved in the next Session, and a Belief that will never really be solved. You should be able to get a Persona for resolving a Belief and two or more Fate each Maneuver for pursuing your Beliefs.[/li][li]There should be an inner conflict built into your Beliefs. You should be able to get a Moldbreaker Persona every other Maneuver, at least, with this.[/ul]Hit both those points and your players will have clear goals, and will have mounds of Artha raining down on their heads.[/li]
GMs who want to be players

GMFoNs are not independent. For whatever reason (probably related to “winning”; see above), it’s an easy trap for a new BE GM to build his characters with their own plans and dreams. Frankly the players don’t care. Players want to be challenged, and the only way to do that is to design the GM’s characters to oppose them.

GMFoN Beliefs need to directly contradict each PCFoN. Because this is a game, players need opposition so they have something to overcome. Two thoughts on this:
[li]Don’t write the GMFoN Beliefs until the players are through writing theirs, and [/li][li]Write your GMFoN Beliefs in such a way that they directly contradict or confront what the PCFoN Beliefs are trying to accomplish.[/ul]I think it’s a substantial error to try and build the GMFON as if they have any sort of free will. The GM is not a player, and you don’t get to play actualized characters.[/li]
Now…as play continues, the GMFoNs will become more nuanced, perhaps sometimes even supporting the PCFONs or opposing one another. But in the very beginning, let the GMFoNs represent pure confrontation.

One method that worked well in my game was to take each GMFoN and, for each of their Beliefs, figured out how he would oppose one of the PCFoN characters. So GMFoN #1’s first Belief opposes PC #1, his second Belief opposes PC #2, and his third Belief opposes PC #3. This means every GMFoN has a reason to interact with every PCFoN. If you’re clever, you can even do this using the tips in the previous section!

Part 5: Infiltration as the first Phase

The Infiltration is probably the hardest Phase to play, particularly for players who are new to Burning Empires. The temptation for GMs to have their characters sneak around and, you know, infiltrate is great – so great, in fact, that it’s easy to not give the players anything to push back against. If the sneaky Vaylen are doing their jobs, after all, the PCFoNs will never know what they’re up to!

Some solutions that may work for you:

[li]No Vaylen FoNs for the Infiltration Phase. Yeah, this is crazy talk if your players want to kick alien ass. But give it a shot! Build three normal Human characters with goals that oppose those of the PCFoNs. They can always get hulled in the final scenes as you head into the Usurpation.[/li][li]No secret, independent Vaylen plans in the beginning. When the game starts, the players are going to have precious little narrative traction. New players are probably going to be more reactive than proactive, and they need things to react to. They don’t care that your GMFoNs have their own hopes and dreams. The players want things to do, and secret Vaylen plans have nothing to do with what their characters want to accomplish. Save it for later.[/li][*]Start in the Usurpation phase. Groups new to the game seem to play their Infiltration as if they were in the Usurpation anyway. Your players will probably have an easier time setting their scenes to the Usurpation skill list in the Infection as well.[/ul]

Part 6: The Scene economy and “immersion”

Some players are simply not going to like the game’s scene economy. The tactical players will be frustrated because the economy isn’t really rigorous enough to screw around with stuff like scene timing; the roleplayers will be frustrated because they won’t be “allowed” to freeform in-character. Some thoughts:

[li]The Scene economy is intended to forcibly divvy up spotlight time around the table. Your group may not need or appreciate this issue being hard-coded into the game. Some players, for example, may prefer to be supporting cast. The only important mechanical issues are the Building roll budget (3 per player per Maneuver), the Conflict budget (2 on each side), and the fact that only one piece of tech can be introduced per player per Maneuver. Other than that, you just might ditch the Scene economy. Roll for the Maneuver when nobody has any rolls left to make.[/li][li]Tactical players might want to leverage the Scene economy to favor their plans: Forcing the opposition to use up their Conflicts, for example. Since each side has two Conflicts, max, it’s kind of hard to play defensively: If I wait for you to use up your Conflict before I hit back, you’ll still have another Conflict in your pocket if it’s really important. There are ways to leverage the Scene economy, but if everyone’s turtling in order to force the other side’s hand, play is gonna suck.[/li][li]The limit on Interstitial scenes is meant to speed up play, not restrict player-to-player discussion. The Interstitial exists only inside the game reality, when two characters get together and chat or share information. Outside the game reality, players should absolutely be discussing their plans.[/li][li]Play faster. Five to 10 minutes for a scene, then move on![/ul] [/li]Part 7: Conflict resolution

Some players will not ever buy the concept of conflict resolution. They just won’t. They’re too hardwired to appreciate what the concept accomplishes, or they don’t trust that they’ll accomplish what they want, or they don’t trust the GM not to screw them over. Some thoughts:

[li]Negotiate absolutely everything before the die roll is made. Make sure all the stakes are out in the open. There cannot be anything hidden. This means the GM and player have to trust each other to actually follow through.[/li][li]When both parties negotiate and agree to stakes, they’d damned well better live up to their side of the bargain. Nothing sucks worse than winning a DOW only to have the loser simply ignore the outcome.[/li][*]Make the escalation scale perfectly clear to everyone: A Duel of Wits can be escalated to a Firefight if you don’t like the outcome. A Firefight can be pre-empted (with an appropriate Instinct) by a Psychic Duel of Wits. You can cut and run from a Firefight but there’s no guarantee you can get away. You can always walk away from a Duel of Wits (but it might get escalated to a Firefight if you try).[/ul]

Part 8: How big is a Maneuver? How long is a Scene?

Maneuvers and Scenes are really quite short. There’s lots of talk in the book and online about drilling through a Maneuver, including 2-4 conflict scenes, in three hours or less. In a game with three PCFON and three GMFON characters, that’s a total of 3 scenes x 6 characters = 18 scenes in 180 minutes. Assuming you can divide by 10, and assuming full-blown conflict scenes take no less than 30 minutes to work out, you can see that scenes are tiny, focused and fast.

I’ve had a few issues come up with trying to pack too much into a single Maneuver:
[li]Players try to pack too much into their three Building rolls. Their Intents become expansive and unwieldy because they want to accomplish everything right now.[/li][li]The session loses focus. Your Maneuver action choice should be guiding your scenes, but if the scenes are bloated it’s easy to forget what your Maneuver action was in the first place.[/li][li]It may be harder, not easier, for players to pursue their characters’ Beliefs in a single sprawling Maneuver. If one player creates a big, expansive scene that creates all kinds of new events inside the game, the storyline may drift too far away for each player to get to do their own thing.[/ul] [/li]Bottom line: I believe the game is immeasurably improved by pushing for two Maneuvers in a session. It reinforces bite-sized scenes and it creates a setup-resolution tempo to your two Maneuver choices.

Part 9: Player knowledge vs. character knowledge, aka TRUST

Given the competitive elements of Burning Empires (see above), issues of trust come up a lot in actual play. In most competitive games (board games, card games, etc.), an important part of a winning strategy is playing close to the vest. If you’re trying to win, the last thing you want to do is let the other side know what you have up your sleeve. Unfortunately, nothing will screw up your BE game faster.

There is really no hidden information in Burning Empires. There are no hands of cards, secret resources, timing tricks or gotchas of any kind. Players are all aware of each other’s BITs. The game even encourages players to target each other’s BITs. Doing this in-character can be a challenge, given the players know things the characters cannot know. So you have to trust each other to not abuse that information at the cost of in-game plausibility.

Some of the most awesome conflicts will come about from the GM and the players discussing what they want to accomplish within their upcoming Maneuver. This really does need to be discussed openly, so the GM can set up appropriate conflict.

Excellent synopsis and information!
I just finished a first Maneuver with a bunch of new BE players (and my first as a GM) and I have to say there was a lot of confusion and other issues that cropped up in play. You’ve adressed most of them, and I’m pointing out this thread for my players to read.
My thanks!

Neat stuff, Paul. You bring together a lot of stuff that’s scattered through out the book.

I’d like to mention a couple of things:

In a 3 player game, without artha*, and assuming a 6 skill, the maximum number of dice that can be rolled in the maneuver is 12: 6 base, plus two FoRKs and 2D of help from two characters with a skill of 5 or higher.

Your character’s internal help, FoRKs, are worth half of what external help can get you. External help, therefore, is very important. 8D without help, 12D with help. That’s a big margin.

And the only way to get that help in the maneuver is to play into the scenes. In order to get those help for the maneuver, you must help the rolling character, give him a linked die or have made a connection with him in the maneuver. And in order to do those things, you must participate! Participation can win you the day. Sitting back and watching it all pass by can lose it. So you really can affect the maneuver roll with your scenes, but not by “winning” or “losing.” Participation is the most vital element to tipping the balance in the maneuver roll.


*With artha under the same conditions, you can actually muster 21 dice: 6x2(Deeds), +3D Persona, plus FoRKs and Help.

FoRKs! Shoot, I forgot that one. And Deeds are so terribly rare that I’ve not yet experienced their use in the game. Thanks, I’m gonna edit my master document.

Good point on the importance of helping vs. winning. That’s definitely a weird one for the players. My players, at least, don’t get that what happened matters less than how it happened.

Keep 'em coming. Hopefully it’ll be helpful and not just redundant.


Most games I’ve played had a Deeds point or two kicking around. But we play with Chris, who will make 5 LP characters just to prove a point.

Paul, very handy and concise. Good sum up of the various issues several people have been bringing up when they start the game. Definitely needs to go on the wiki.

Yeah, what Z-Dog said about the wiki. I like this a lot!

I’ve never posted anything in Wiki format, so I’ll have to learn how that works. I’ll wait a little bit 'til everyone’s had their say. If someone has an issue I didn’t hit, please do bring it up! I may or may not have something to say about it, or I may be able to expand an existing section.

Right now I’m thinking through the “unintended consequences” section. I know our first group had a bunch of issues crop up due to how the worldburning went, but hell if I can remember what they were.


p.s. I just looked through the site and I have NO IDEA where I’d expect to put the final, edited doc. Help!

Hi, paul,

If I had my way, I’d create a new wikipage for each of your numbered sections and put a list of links, plus intro, on the “Emergent Behaviours” page (under Burning Empires Campaigns).

If I may offer my wiki-fu, which is mighty, I can take your final doc and post it for you. In the meantime, if I think of any questions or suggestions viz your work so far, I shall offer them here.

Added in Edit: Wiki-Linked.

Okay, groovy. Messing around with the wiki guts was making my head hurt (although it is something on my to-do list…just not right now).

I’ll take any other comments, then do a final edit and get the Word doc over to you. Thanks!


By Paul B:

Example: your group is playing the Infiltration phase and they really, really want to Take Action. However, either the character with the Take Action Infiltration skills (smuggling, suasion, rhetoric, etc.) isn’t front-and-center to the story, or the character who is front-and-center doesn’t have the appropriate skills. The players have two choices: They can either pick a different Maneuver action (Gambit, for example, if psychics, warriors, or smugglers are the focus) or they can push the story back onto the characters with the appropriate skill set.

The skills used in each Maneuver action are meant to be abstract. Assessing the enemy’s disposition doesn’t mean you literally have to use signals/observe/cryptography/etc. on an enemy’s FON; it just means that signals/observe/cryptography had to be the focal skill used by the FON who will be making the Maneuver roll. Abstract, not literal.

OK, what suggestions do we have for groups that commit to a particular course of action but wind up doing something else?

Their Assess degenerates into a Firefight?

Play it out and roll the dice. The maneuvers are meant to add focus and drive to a session, but sometimes things go astray. It’s not a big deal if it happens once in a while.

That’s an interesting situation, Ken. I don’t really have anything specific to say on it because it hasn’t come up in my own experience.

But it brings up a really interesting illustration/proof-of-concept of the scene-maneuver connection (or disconnect). I could see, in an experienced group, a strong argument to not allow the side that went astray to roll at all! If the other side played better, if they kept you from doing what you were going to do and you simply have no rolls left at the end to slip off and make that suasion/rhetoric/food service roll your Maneuver requires, then your side’s been outmaneuvered. No roll for you!

But that’s really hardcore. Maybe in my next BE game I’d go for that and see how it plays out. Basically I’d be in favor of a very, very strong scene-Maneuver connection.

In your basic first-go-through group, I guess I’d just let them roll whatever they want to roll for their Maneuver, regardless of whether they used any of the appropriate skills. That’s obviously a very, very weak scene-Maneuver connection (and probably feeds into the disconnect many players experience). And then I’d bring up the subject and get everyone to agree that that’s not the point of the mechanic. I might even slowly get the group to try and buy into the more hardcore POV.

But this is all purely theoretical. Luke, does BWHQ rigorously enforce the requirement that one of your Maneuver’s skills had to be prominent during the scenes?


Actually…wait. This did come up, very recently in fact.

I had scripted a Take Action, thinking I’d get my badass ex-Archcotare-on-the-run to bust out the rhetoric and/or suasion at some point. That totally didn’t happen, but my crime lord did win a DOW in which he negotiated with a PCFoN to have built for him a spaceport that would be out of view of the Church. Now…I didn’t actually roll smuggling, but the spaceport thing is clearly thematically related to smuggling, so I “said yes” to myself and rolled Smuggling for the Take Action.

Come to think of it, many/most of the Infection-level skills are not actually rolled in-scene. I can’t think of a good use for Strategy, for example, except for a pre-FF roll to achieve the “larger forces” dispo bonus. Which, I suppose, is proof that you do not in fact have to roll the actual skill.

I’d still insist on a thematic connection, or at least a nice post-scene rationale for using a particular skill in your Maneuver roll.

It was also a useful lesson, for me, on keeping my scene plans loose and looking for new ways to fit upcoming scenes into my Maneuver.