OK! So new game started yesterday. Went relatively well, I think, despite the “teething issues” you’d expect from an inexperienced GM and players. Here’s what happened.
First, setup: as stated, I’m an overall inexperienced GM who’s only run a couple of games, though I’m a very experienced player from other systems. I don’t really like GMing as I tend to not have fun in the role, due to my worrying too much and trying too hard to ensure everyone has a good time but myself. I’ve never played BW before, but have loved it since I first read the old Revised books and always wanted to play. My group is made of both new and veteran TTRPG players, none of whom had heard of BW before I brought it up. We formed a group specifically to play BW as it’s my favorite game (yes, without even having played it yet) and I wanted to show the new people the joys of the tabletop hobby in general.
The setting that was decided on in our initial session was a “spy hunter” story - a group of spies have infiltrated the town/kingdom the group starts in, and they’ll be tasked with rooting them out and tracking their paymasters. The town they’re in is one of the most important merchant ports in the nation, with a strong naval presence, as well. The navy discovered the spies first, having captured one who’d managed to infiltrate the navy yard. Since this guy was a years-long resident and not a recent arrival, the officers at the yard fear that the spy ring is pretty big already, and they’re not really equipped to handle land-based espionage. Hence, they ask the admirality and local nobles for help. And that’s where the party comes in…
PCs (Character names are changed to protect the guilty):
“Lidia”: (Slave-Born, Desperate Killer (outcast), Poisoner (outcast), Consort (noble court)) - a former slave and killer-for-hire who’s managed to become the favorite consort of the local Baronette. She’s got complicated feelings for her patron, who’s managed to awaken the embers of something she thought long-crushed; as such, she’ll do anything to help him.
“Popeye”: (Peasant-Born, Lazy Stayabout (peasant), Sailor (soldier), Navigator (sea)) - a one-armed sailor who’s love of the sea is only dwarfed by his love of his Captain. They served together in the Navy, and he followed his superior to become a merchantman. After that turned up little profit, they decided to take their combined military knowledge and become a Merchant/Privateer operation. They arrived at this port after a successful “acquisition” mission.
“Maggie”: (Noble-Born, Court Jester, Apostate, Neophyte Sorcerer) - A wandering entertainer who is searching for the source of the voice in her head. She thought she was insane for a long time, enough to even cut ties with her former life in court…right up until the voice started teaching her actual sorcerous spells, one of which accidentally turned her daughter into a frog while she was learning it (not so bad since frogs are sacred creatures in her new religion). Having long ago learned to hide her powers from suspicious townspeople, she’s come to this place on the advice of the voice, and it’s not steered her wrong yet.
So, we start with Lidia, who’s summoned to the Baronette; instead of the usual “services”, he has a grave mission for her, from his father - to root out this spy ring infesting his city. As she’s the only one he can trust and who has the skills they need, he’s forced to ask her, and provides her cash for the operation (B3 credit) to get started. Then, after seducing him to get him to relax - for a second time! - She then heads to the naval yard to find out more.
Cut to Popeye, who’s asked to speak with his Captain once they arrive at port. Apparently, their pulling in here is no coincidence: the Captain was secretly contacted to find out what’s going on here after getting strange reports about “spies” from the naval yard. After accepting the request from his Captain. Popeye gets some money from the advanced payment the Captain was given (B1 credit). However, he’s noticed how uncomfortable his Captain’s been since they arrived and, after a bit of coaxing (vs test) managed to get the Captain to reveal that he and the Baron have bad blood from an incident in the past, which the Captain’s rather ashamed of. Armed with this, the good sailorman heads to the naval yard as instructed.
Over to Maggie, she’s just arrived in town, so starts her work as an entertainer to make her money. She sadly fails to get work at the Inn - failing to impress with her juggling act - so is left to hawk her skills on the street with the other entertainers, where she also fails to get money. Fed up, she decides to risk hawking her skills in a different area that’s less competitive, but is confronted by guards who tell her to move along. She refuses, naively stating she wants to help some frogs nearby (Artha for belief). This…disturbs the guards for many reasons (frogs are vermin with associations of witchcraft) and she looks and acts a bit odd anyway, so now they demand she move out. She pleads with them to let her stay and help the frogs and, after failing to convince them, is frog marched (yes, I said it at the table) back to the merchant district where the guards stay nearby to watch. Interestingly, the guards attracts the notice of the crowd, who are now WAY more interested in her act then before! She’s finally able to make money for herself!
Over at the Naval Yard, Lidia meets the Commodore, who’s expecting her due to communication from the Baronette. He explains how the spy’s resisted physical interrogation, to which Lydia suggests a different approach. The Commodore tries to drink from his hip flask, but Lidia manages to deftly snatch it from him and suggest he remain sober for now - a rather impressive feat to him!
After this, Popeye arrives, but needs to prove who he is. He informs them he’s from the Captain, but then lies and refuses to tell the Commodore/Lidia anything more about the Captain, for fear of this Noble Commodore reporting to the Captain (Artha for belief)! The Commodore and Lidia detect the lies easily and, fearing Popeye to be a spy, have him sent to the torture chamber for interrogation! Lydia, now fearing that their internal channels have been breached, feels she needs to recruit someone “from the outside” to help act as patsy and heads out to find a
sucker volunteer she can get to join, heading for the Merchant district.
At this point, I should note that Popeye has a mighty Forte of *freakin’ B8"! So we’re all joking that he’ll pass the initial ob 3 test that I have to start the Linked Test of the interrogation scene (just multiple Forte tests from ob 3 to ob 5 as the torture gets progressively more brutal, with another Falsehood ob 3 test at the end). Instead, he fails the first check and breaks just as the hot coals are on him - he’s used to lashing and brawling, not burning! As he sobs and confesses to his Captain’s dark secret, the Commodore realizes his misguided loyalty was all he was protecting, and has him cleaned up and brought back to his office. Upon returning, Popeye - a Drunk who’s trying desperately to stay off the sauce - can’t help himself and snatches the Commodore’s flask from his desk and downs the very expensive scotch in one drought (Artha for trait)! The Commodore manages to explain the situation to him, also explaining that he knows the Captain personally and that’s why he asked for the Captain specifically. After testing this wastrel’s sword skills to find what worth made the Captain send him in the first place, Popeye offers to stay and wait for Lydia to return as he’s “in no condition to go out on this dangerous mission, having just been tortured” (fail). The Commodore’s eyes flash and he agrees that Popeye shouldn’t head out right now…so instead has him temporarily drafted back and placed on a punishment detail “bootcamp” to whip him into shape, as a lesson about taking things from others without asking (practice for Power test).
Cut to the Merchant District - Maggie’s performance is continuing, and she has a decent crowd, though for a little while now, she’s felt uneasy. Likely because Lydia is secretly watching her as part of said crowd, though she’s not entirely sure why (both failed checks to notice the other and/or things about each other). After Maggie’s done for the day, she packs up and heads back to the Inn to get lodging for the night. However, the Innkeeper asks for almost ALL of her money up front! Just then, Lydia quietly enters and heads to the bar, flashing a gold coin at the Innkeeper to keep his mouth shut about it. Sadly, the innkeeper isn’t able to hide his surprise, but Maggie doesn’t notice Lydia’s entrance, so it works out fine and the innkeeper returns to the matter at hand. After an intense round of negotiation (fail), the innkeeper agrees to throw in a free meal every day IF she agrees to entertain during the slow breakfast period. Just as Maggie’s about to respond, Lydia walks by and mysteriously whispers “I can get you more money if you want” before heading out the door. Maggie quickly agrees to the Innkeeper and heads out after.
Now that they have a moment to actually notice/examine each other, they get descriptions: Lydia is a somewhat tall, pretty young woman with raven curls who’d look for all the world like a normal city dweller…save her startlingly piercing green eyes, belying a sharp intelligence and cunning that are NOT to be trifled with. Maggie is dressed in a simple linen dress and brightly colored cloak and looks like a simple life-long street performer, but on close inspection, her skin isn’t as weather worn as a peasant’s, and she’s got a demeanor that’s not quite what a commoner would hold herself. She also has a frog on her shoulder? Who seems to be very well trained, and even acts with near human-like mannerisms?..anyway, Maggie approaches Lydia cautiously, asking what she meant about the “more money” thing? Lydia concocts a story about serving as a nurse at the naval yard, but Maggie’s not buying it. Still, when Lydia flashes the gold, Maggie’s interest is piqued by her growling stomach, so she agrees to head out in spite of her misgivings.
When they arrive, Lydia is shocked to find the suspected spy waiting in the Commodore’s office again, drenched in sweat. The Commodore quickly explains the misunderstanding after the door’s closed, then offers everyone (but Popeye) a drink to settle nerves. Everyone declines. After confirming with Lydia that Maggie wants to join, he then “offers” Maggie a choice - serve king and country and get paid in gold and silver, or…Maggie, having already had alarm bells go off when she saw she would be addressing a Noble with their political games, takes his attempt at intimidation and throws everyone for a loop by saying “but will my pet frog be OK?” (Artha for belief). After being told that ESPECIALLY the frog will be harmed, she quickly agrees to be part of this and to keep quiet, after which the Commodore explains the situation again. We ended with the group finally united and preparing to interrogate the (real) captured spy.
The players really seemed to enjoy the game and how things went. Only real complaint was Maggie’s player saying they weren’t happy about their character being strong-armed into this. To which I said “Yes, that is terrible that you’re forced into this against your will! Gosh, if it were me, I’d probably somewhat resent my companions and seek to try and undermine them a bit as revenge!” On their look of surprise, I responded “What? Burning Wheel doesn’t care so much about ‘party cohesion’ - it’s all about interesting stories and fun at the table. So long as the table’s having a good time with it, who cares why??” Lydia’s and Popeye’s players both agreed, which I suspect will have Maggie planning some things for next session.
Lydia’s player admits that they usually don’t to like “crunchy” games like BW, preferring the lighter cleaner feel of D&D 5e. But the way everything locks together and encourages the kind of chaotic messy gameplay they enjoy is really winning them over, and they’re excited to see more.
Popeye was having issues at the original character creation session due to not being able to jive with what they’d created, but those issues were resolved before this session started (along with some final bookkeeping and administrative stuff we had left over) - they’d apparently felt that their character was a “split” between the bad (lazy, drunk, missing arm, etc) and the good (duty-bound, caring lover) and couldn’t reconcile them in their head. With some help from Lydia’s player, we managed to tweak the character enough that it slotted into place mentally. After that, they seemed to enjoy the hell out of playing Popeye against himself, managing to earn the most Artha by far for the session.
As for me…I had fun, sure, but I still worry. I had fun the first couple of sessions in my previous games, but I eventually burned out very quickly. I’ve got my rough outline for the scenario setup already, with basic stat blocks for allies and foes prepared and PC stuff noted down for my own use. And I’ve got a few programs (including my test tracker) to help with the bookkeeping. Burning Wheel is my favorite system, and my players appear to be fantastic, so those should help. I’ll keep going as long as I can handle, I guess.
OK, so I’m talking about behind-the-scenes GM planning stuff I have, for those who are curious. If my players happen to stumble on this, I’m Hiding it so they don’t see it (they’ll recognize themselves from the above, of course):
OK, so funny thing about that Inn - that’s actually the headquarters of the Spy ring; the Innkeeper is part of the spy ring itself! So flashing that obviously-not-a-commoner coin in front of the Innkeeper…may have repercussions later.
Bit of info on the Kingdom: it’s actually bordered by 3 VERY powerful nations, and none of them have easy access to this particular ocean, due to unfavorable terrain (or afore-mentioned hostile nations) getting in the way. They hate each other, and that’s where this nation is able to survive - it acts as a small trade nation where goods flow between the ocean and the 3 nations. None of the 3 land nations dare make a move for fear the other 2 will strike back as has happened in the past, and traditionally, the sea nations aren’t powerful enough to break through the Kingdom’s incredibly powerful navy to stage an invasion. Hence, the spies.
The spies are from a nation across the sea (unnamed right now, will come up with one in due time). In addition to taking over the Inn, they’ve managed to infiltrate the town’s Glassworks and Tavern, and all three have their own specific objectives. Their overall goal is to soften this town up for a surprise invasion from sea, which would open the rest of the kingdom up to conquest. Their objectives:
-Undermine city defenses and naval facilities (Glassworks)
-Contact the 3 land nations for secret negotiations to ensure their non-interference (Inn)
-Infiltrate the Baron’s castle to steal info on land defenses/noble secrets/etc (Tavern)
The spy who was caught was from the Glassworks, so that ring knows they’re in trouble and are on the alert. The other two are unaware currently - the rings try and keep messages to a minimum. But as I said, that gold coin at the Innkeeper might make a head or two turn in interest at the Inn now…
Fortunately, the rings have mainly spent their time integrating themselves in the town and expanding their powerbase here; they’ve not made a move on their objectives until just recently. Further, to prevent chance of discovery and increase their chances at succeeding, they’ve stayed at or near the port instead of spreading to the rest of the Kingdom. Once the town’s subversion is complete and their control is secure, they’ll send word back home and move on to other towns, as well as the capital itself.
I mainly plan to run this as a true game of intrigue; lots of stealth and social roles and chasing through back-alleys, with combat being a VERY distant prospect. As such, I plan to use DoW and Movement and Pursuit. If fighting happens, it’ll likely be just Range and Cover distance stuff as the enemy attempts to escape, with Bloody VS as a last resort - no full Fight! mechanics on this one, nor other associated rules (Anatomy of Injury, Arms and Armor, etc) beyond what’s absolutely required.
Sorry it’s so long. Hope you enjoyed reading!