My first Infiltration

Last Friday we wrapped up the first phase of our first Burning Empires game. I’ve learned a lot over those 6 sessions, and wanted to share what I’ve learned and some of the challenges I’ve faced.

Some basic info:

GM: Kevin (me)
GMFON: Grand Inquisitor Tyr, head of the Church. (infiltration)
GMFON: Raymix, head of a criminal organization, Vaylen (usurpation)
GMFON: Lord Tokugawa, bitter forged lord, hungry for power and resents the Emperor’s rule. (invasion)

PC Infiltration FON: Xun Xi Yi, head of the Psychologist foundation. Played by Brandon.
PC Userpation: A-ren, head of the banking house and crime lord. Played by Kory.
PC Invasion: Lord Shiyonin Forged Lord, right hand of the Emperor. Played by Dan.

Our basic theme was: What if Star Wars looked all Asian and got invaded by the Vaylen?

First and foremost, as a GM, I’ve never gotten my ass kicked like I have in this game so far. This was almost a complete shutout so far, though I did manage to pull out a Compromise at the last second, they’re stating the next phase WAY ahead of me. Not only that, they’ve already killed my Invasion FON, when they captured him in a battle.

Basically, here’s my list of reasons why I am doing so poorly:

1: The helping die rule: We were doing helping dice wrong. We were doing 1 skill per CHARACTER, not 1 skill per PLAYER. The players could quickly overwhelm me in almost every situation, but at the time I chalked this up to my own inexperience. All of their characters are very well built, and for many circumstances they can circles up a character that with one roll becomes a relationship. They just had a stable of helping dice that grew and grew and grew. I assumed that if I spent my building rolls more effectively and burnt up characters that could do the same thing they did, I could keep up. I couldn’t and didn’t keep up. There are many situations I can think back to during our game where I was just shocked at the number of people who’d come out of the woodwork to help the PC’s out, and I always seemed to have so few on my side. Correcting this will help a lot, I think. There was a post about clarifying this point, but I don’t know where it went to…

2: Poor scripting on the Infection level. Namely, one or two of those maneuvers ended up doing nothing at all for me and a LOT for them.

3: Amazing rolls on Brandon’s part. They dropped me 11 points, TWICE, and using Flak, Brandon rolled just amazingly well on the attack part both times + artha + call-ons. Ouch.

4: Inexperience. The difficulty for this game is very, very front-loaded and Dan, Kory, and Brandon all have WAY more experience with Burning games than I do. They also seem to just grasp what to do way better than I do.

5: Downtime, and this one is actually a combination of #2, 3, and 4 all rolled into one. A) they scripted Go to Ground when I scripted Assess, which completely kicked my ass, and they rolled REALLY well, so they got a YEAR of downtime to train up their skills. That was the 2nd maneuver, from there on out they had TONS of skills WAY higher than I did. This includes their relationship characters too. I was pretty much on the defensive from here on out, and never regained my footing.

Because of all this, I failed at nearly everything I tried. I won, I think, one conflict the whole phase, and even then that was with a major compromise that probably hurt me more than had I just lost outright. A fair # of the conflicts were complete shutouts in their favor. This started making me gun shy. When an assault on a base ends with my Invasion Figure of Note captured, and the rescue attempt was a COMPLETE ROUT, and every Duel of Wits ends with my characters having less authority than they started with… I started thinking “ok, obviously these guys are better prepared than I am” so I started trying to take more building scenes, tried to coordinate helping dice and linked tests. That just put me on the defensive, though, and I was unable to muster proper defense for their own conflicts and schemes.

Part of me feels like I’ve utterly failed as a GM. As Dro says, they should be shitting their pants all the time. They are certainly not shitting their pants. I know these rules free things up so that I can be balls to the wall aggressive without resorting to GM Fiat, but I certainly don’t seem to be pulling that off. On the other hand, it kinda feels like being a GM in a traditional game. I put up plans, and the players defeat them. I know they’re having a good time, but getting my ass handed to me session after session has started to cause my enthusiasm to flag.

A big part of this is I know I just need to get more practice in there. I’m “taking my lumps” but it seems like this process is more painful than it should be. Dunno. Maybe I’m just being a sore loser? Anyway, don’t really have any questions. Mainly just killing time at work. I’m open to any and all advice anyone has to offer!

I found my enjoyment of GMing BE dramatically improved when I concentrated more on being principled and consistent than I did about winning the Infection. Since the Infection roll is largely informed by table behaviors (did you chase BITs and earn artha?) and not on whether you won/lost individual scenes, it pretty much reverts back to plain old Burning Wheel style play.

Bad scripting is tough to overcome. Not much to say on that one. But if you’re rocking more artha than the players, you SHOULD be able to time out your maneuvers such that you’re throwing big die pools every time.

I also think of my GMing role more as providing the toughest possible opposition, not as trying to win at any cost. It’s a tough balance.


First off, could you expound on “concentrating more on being principled and consistent”? I’m curious what you mean there and how that improved your enjoyment of the game.

Also, I agree that the GMing role is providing the toughest possible opposition, which is certainly much more doable in BE than in many other games: Raymix, my Criminal, has slipped out of their grasp 3 times now, and they hate him for it, but it was always through rolls, never through GM fiat, which is very nice. But that one example aside, I don’t really feel like I’m providing anywhere NEAR the toughest possible opposition.

How much straight BW have you played? That’ll give me some context.

The short version: You need Artha to kick the shit out of your Maneuver rolls. Artha matters way more than good scripting. As GM, your job is also made easier by the fact you only need to give each FON screen time (rather than the players’ requirement to feed help/link/connections to each other). And the way you get your Artha up and running is by being fearless in your play of the GMFONs.

IMO there’s an easy trap to fall into in playing BE: it’s hard to play fearlessly when you’ve got this win condition hanging over the whole game.

I’m about to start my first ever game of BW on Sunday. I have never played it before. In fact, to give a bit more context, my Burning Experience is a bit… muddled.

The other players all played a full 1 1/2 year BW game together. I heard about it and wanted in on their next game. Adding me made a total of 5 players and a GM. The GM (Dan, who’s also run 1 Phase of BE before, but that game fizzled and died.) decided that was too many to try the Infection mechanics, but they wanted to try BE, sorta. So we made a home brew setting and played it like it was BW, but used the skills, lifepaths, and Firefight! mechanics from BE.

Myself, having never even picked up a BW book, read BE, tried to participate in this game going from the perspective of a BE game when in reality we were playing a BW game. Everyone else, already having over a year of experience with BW, jumped right in, but I floundered badly, and don’t feel that I ever really got the hang of it. Now I’m trying to GM. I guess I like challenges, heh.

RE: Win Conditions: it’s not so much the win condition for me as it is this: Last time I played aggressively, I lost a FON, and have come damn close to losing the other two. If I lose all my FON, how can I possibly produce the level of challenging opposition this game requires?

Wow, rough go! BE is a very, very tough way to learn BW-style play. I speak from experience – this is exactly the path I took and it was a good year of head-banging to get the new stuff into my addled brain.

I really don’t have a whole lot of advice. Actually I have a TON of advice – have you read the wiki article I link to in my .sig down there? I’d change a few things but it’s still a good first-timer read.

I get the distinct impression that it’s OK to give yourself a extra lifepath or two, as well as Artha to provide adequate opposition for your players. Would that help?

I guess, on the other hand, if everyone’s having fun (except you!) you could keep going with what you’ve got and chalk it up to a learning experience.

However, I’d demand one of them run the game next time, so you can apply what you’ve learned! :slight_smile: :evil:

first of all, just getting through a phase of BE is HUGE! you finished it, man. that means all of you enjoyed the story enough to play it out.

secondly, the helping thing is also a big pain in the ass for BE FoN. that’s why you have to fill your GM camp with badasses that all have two lifepaths more than the PCs, cuz THEY WILL GANG UP ON YOU. the rules actually support them ganging up on you. your GM FON’s 2iCs (seconds in command) should be equal to the PCs. your GMFON should be able to wipe the floor with any PC one-on-one.

thirdly, starting off with Burning games playing BE is tough. starting off as the game’s GM is brave. starting off running it against experienced BW players is masochistic. :slight_smile:

give us some details on your PCs lifepaths and GMFON lifepaths and i’d love to shoot some advice your way.

i’m really not sure how they Iced your GM FON in Inflitration. i can see it in the Usurpation or Ivasion, but there should really be any assasinations in infiltration. also, what was the final score for the phase? it sounds like you should shoot ahead directly to the invasion phase, though playing out Usurpation could be fun if you truly are masochistic.

Paul: Yes, I’ve read your “Surviving the First Turn” of BE several times. Its pretty much considered Gospel at our gaming table. :slight_smile: Excellent advice. We were going to try for 2 maneuvers/session, but man, that’s proven really hard. So far we haven’t even gotten close.

Ken: Oh yes, next go-round I’ll have a bunch of BW experience, lessons learned from this BE game, AND I can relax and just be a player. I already told them I’m not running the next game (even though they want me to, because I pitched the idea of a Sub-Index world that’s basically 1950’s Earth, and the PC play the Vaylen in a kind of inverted Invasion of the Body snatchers game. They all loved the idea, but damnit I wanna see the other side of things.)

Jonathan: Thanks! There were lots of time at the table where I would just sit back and marvel at how cool this game is. There’s a lot of good in here, and it’s definitely worth going through the school of hard knocks because there’s already a decent payoff now, and I foresee a much larger payoff in the future. One thing we’ve all realized is Burning Wheel games take work and practice. We’re going to have to play these games for YEARS to really master their potential. And you know what? That’s totally awesome.

RE: Life paths: I know Lord Shiyonin (Forged Lord, Dan) and Xun Xi Yi (First Speaker, Brandon) are both 8 LP Characters. I tried to push for a 6 LP cap, but was pretty soundly shouted down for two reasons: Their character concepts required 8 LP, and how Artha distribution works for GM FON they felt was unfair, 6LP puts them even farther behind. Their argument was the deck is already pretty severely stacked against the PC’s to start with.

As for my GM FON’s, all three are 8 LP characters. 10 LP just seemed… excessive. I’m regretting it now, though.

Grand Inquisitor Tyr is 8 LP ending with High Inquisitor.

Lord Tokugawa is 8 LP that encompasses BOTH Anvil and Hammer Lord, but NOT Forged Lord, as part of his back-story: He was never given Forged Lord status (that was given to Dan’s character Shiyonin) even though he’s got a massive Anvil and Hammer force, and he’s bitter about it.

Raymix is 8 LP, all from the Vaylen Setting, and he’s awesome.

As for how Tokugawa was killed, it went something like this:

Tokugawa gets fed up with A-Ren (Crime Lord/Banking House played by Kory) being pretty much an open criminal with his casino city located on an asteroid (affectionately called Space Vegas, which was supposed to be a placeholder name, but it kinda stuck). So Tokugawa busts in with his Anvil and Iron, claiming authority of the Emperor, a dubious claim, but if he wins it’ll be too late to say otherwise, and the whole thing was really just a ruse for Raymix to get his hands on A-Ren and hull her. Except I lose that firefight, the conditions of which were “A-Ren holds out long enough for Shiyonin to come to his aid”

So, now we’ve got the Imperial Hammer Fleet in orbit around Space Vegas, with Tokugawa trapped down below. End of Maneuver. The maneuver scripting for that session was: Vaylen: Assess Humans: Go To Ground. They blow past my Assess and get a full year of downtime. We narrate that as a year long Mexican stand off, which was pretty cool.

So, starting next session Shiyonin, who previously had Circles’d up a Circle of 10,000 cyber-ninja and his clan of assassins (amusingly named Lord Oroku.) Sneaks said ninjas in on grain shipments into Space Vegas. He instigates a Firefight! with the objective of capturing Tokugawa. I lose this fight too. Now he’s captured, taken to the basement below the Imperial Palace and held prisoner.

I try to rally some troops and go rescue him, but THAT firefight is a loss too. Not only does the Cotar Fomas (Lord Tyr’s 2ic) fail utterly, he leaves behind evidence that The Church just tried to attack the Imperial Palace. ouch.

So, a couple sessions go by, and this is about where I get gun-shy from losing every goddamn conflict I’m in. Eventually Dan’s like “Ok, I’ve waited long enough. I corner Tokugawa and stab him in the face.” We negotiate that instead of just stabbing him in the prison cell, we take him out to Court and he commits Seppuku, thus preserving his family’s Honor.

So that’s how it went down and I’m not really sure what I could have done differently.

The funny thing is, even though the Vaylen got beat something fierce on the infection roll, narratively, it makes perfect sense to go on to usurpation. The Psychologist Foundation is now in Open Rebellion against the Empire (with an awesome name for her alliance: Novus Lux Luces, pseudo Latin for “a new hope”) and Grand Inquisitor Tyr, now Hulled, has been put in charge of the day-to-day ground duties the Rebellion, due to losing several DoW w/ the First Speaker where he tried to assert more authority on the burgeoning Rebellion. Of course, he promptly moved the Church’s medical facilities to the new base of operations for the rebellion (located, of course, in the Yavin Mountains on the southern continent, in the jungle). He set about hulling any and all injured rebels and every refugee he could get his hands on.

So we have a rebellion that’s slowly being eaten alive by the Worms and the world has fallen into anarchy. Sounds like a good place to start Usurpation, right?

Dude. I feel your pain. I lose every freaking conflict, too. And when I do win one, they howl bloody murder and glare sullenly.

sounds like you have 2 big problems.

  1. your GM FON need more lifepaths. (but since i already mentioned it, and you seem to agree, i won’t belabor the point)

  2. you have to re-examine the stakes of your firefights. although with your descriptions, it sounds like you’re playing an invasion phase, not an inflitration phase, i won’t get into that. accepting the stake ‘we capture your badass GM FoN’ is very risky. you have to evaluate your chances of winning. it’s perfectly sound (especially outside of invasion phase) to argue that those stakes are too high to accept, and offer lower ones. negotiating stakes before a conflict (be it DoW, Firefight, or Psychological Duel) is key in BE. the rules implicitly say ‘start small, a war isn’t one in one fight!’

a good way to renegotiate high stakes like that (if the players are hemming and hawing) are to think of something higher that the player’s won’t accept such as ‘i squash your fleet and leave it in ruins, forcing you to make a resources test to maintain your fleet at 3D or it drops to 2D’ - (that’s a ob 19 resources test - nigh impossible) no player will accept that, and they’ll be forced to drop their stakes.

it sounds like your players might have cornered you into unreasonable stakes, and you should have negotiated smaller stakes for that firefight. remember that for the future. now, if it was the middle of the invasion phase or even the last couple usurpation maneuvers, where FON have been hulled, captured, assassinated, etc., those stake’s are tottally acceptible, as long as you stand a fighting chance and ask for stake’s that are just as high.


I think you very well might have hit the nail on the head there. One thing we’ve had difficulty with is setting stakes that have a mechanical aspect to them. We’re never sure quite what’s fair or even possible, and it’s not really covered in the book at all.

From reading the forums, I see people getting relationships and reputations out of stakes/compromises and I’m never sure just exactly how to go about that.

Also, I remember thinking, and even mentioning during the session “You know, this shit seems a lot more like Invasion stuff than Infiltration stuff.” regarding our conflicts we were gunning for. I think this happened for 2 reasons: 1) since we were going for a Star Wars kind of feel, and had a whole Empire Vs. Rebellion thing set up, or plan was “give the PC’s a reason to fight each other and not notice the Vaylen infection” so they went right for big star battles and stuff, just not big battles with the Vaylen.

  1. our general philosophy has been “go big or go home”. We always believed the way to approach stake setting was shoot for ridiculously high stakes, knowing you’ll probably have to compromise down to something more reasonable. Perhaps this philosophy needs to be retooled a bit.

Much as in Dogs in the Vineyard, if the players work together in close concert, there’s bugger all that can come close to stopping them. The only way to do well as the Worm, in my experience, is to try to divide them - go for the places where their beliefs don’t line up (hopefully they have some, there’s no fun in having all player beliefs line up seamlessly for the same cause) and try to break them apart from the inside. If you can get their characters to distrust or even truly dislike each other, you should find it much harder to lose.