The Rot of Hiri Handia - City Adventure Set up and Session Zero

Hello fellow Burners!

Boy am I excited. I just got a small group together to start off a new Burning Wheel campaign after many years of playing 5e. It feels good to be back into Burning Gold’s dense pages. The opportunity arose when a total stranger on the Dungeon Craft facebook page posted a question about the pros and cons of skill based games. I responded with a hearty endorsement of Burning Wheel’s advancement system and offered to teach the guy by running a little mini arc. Later I roped my buddy Chris into meeting online for a session zero.

Starting up with email and text messages, and ending in a session zero, here are some of the things that we Burned up.

City Adventure: We wanted a city adventure, inspired by Lankhmar and the city of Greyhawk. Human city with elves and dwarven neighborhoods. Chris recently visited Budapest, so we kinda settled on a Lankhmar on the Danube vibe with competing Noble Houses, ruled over by a Sorcerer King. The city has a vast underground network - a megadungeon.

Young Sword Singer: Initially I had stated that I wanted to run a Burning Thac0 style game which recommends 3 lp characters. Jay had figured out that the fastest way for an elf to get to Sword Singer was Born City > Spouse (Wilderlands) > Sword Singer. This led to some interesting story elements…An Arch-Fey queen, centuries old, through some ancient pact with the citadel, is granted the right to choose her mates from a Citadel within her sphere of influence. The boy becomes part of her Honor Guard. A Lady Thranduil: “That one,” she pronounces, “I like him, I want him.” Creepy!

So, Jay, says that his Wife, the Arch-Fey Queen, was abducted/kidnapped and his mission is to free/rescue her. Belief 1.

Down on His Luck Knight: Chris wanted to play a down on his luck knight. A veteran of battles who, through political misfortune, is no longer welcome at court and is living a pretty modest existence in a rented flat in the fantasy Budapest city.

Plague in the City: Chris thought it would be cool, if, as a backdrop tension to the narrative, the city was in the throes of a horrible plague. I am picturing the plague as a kind of fungal rot. little puff clouds of pestilence belching forth from the victims. Tubers and rot grubs ruining crops. It’s bad.

That’s when he hit on our BIG PICTURE/SITUATION:

A vile plague has stricken the human cosmopolitan city and the Mad Sorcerer King, goaded by a rival house, has kidnapped the demi-godlike Arch-Fey Queen to Compel her to heal the land/Offer her as sacrifice to dark gods/start a war of races, etc…Not really sure why. A young Elven Sword Singer has come to the bustling city to seek the aid of a young Knight, calling up on an old debt (elf saved his life). Knight feeling a sense of obligation and seeing an opportunity to exact revenge on his political rivals accepts the quest.

Here’s Jay’s sweet Notes:

What’s the Big Picture:

  • The city-state is ruled by a self styled “Sorcerer King”, legitimized by a local council of Nobles, Burghers & approved by treaty w/ a far away central authority.
  • The “Sorcerer King” has betrayed his covenant with the land. As a result, his previously “ironclad” legitimacy is in doubt.
  • The Crisis: A mysterious plague, populist uprisings, political factionalism, etc. all threaten to undermine everyone’s progress and prosperity.
  • The city is a melting pot of cultures, races , trade and (pre-modern) industry balanced precariously on a knife’s edge.
  • In a desperate attempt to right his wrong & hold on to power; the “Sorcerer King” employs his eldritch arts to summon & compel the aid of a Great Lady of the Fairy (Lady Thranduil).
  • Rumors and innuendo swirl about the city, as ill omens, portents of doom and the mass suicide of seven soothsayers occur in front of the sealed the doors to the Sorcerer King’s Central Tower complex.
  • No one has entered nor left the Tower for weeks; the court is in disarray, the bureaucracy has run out of excuses, blight blackens the countryside and the city is on the brink of revolt.
  • Dark whispers abound as the iron grey clouds of war gather over the serene forests of Fairy. Elven citadels fade in and out of sight with the billowing river mists. Their swan-knecked ships are recalled and trade along the great river slows to a trickle.
  • Even the ubiquitous Dwarven barges and caravans from the Beard-girder’s magnificent mountain-polis cease to ply their unending quest for commerce.
  • The situation worsens, as supplies run out, fate teeters on a knife’s edge.
  • Then two unlikely heroes from different worlds appear. They must strive together to bring back the land, restore hope and save a dying race.

So we have we have plenty to work with:

Advise from Knock! 2: In an article by Jack Shear in Knock!2 entitled A Powder Keg the Dune Way, the author suggests that if you follow the factions design of the Dune situation you can easily create a powder keg of a scenario ripe for adventure. You need:

  1. Two antagonistic rival Noble Houses (in our story, we have House Feketes who are politically ascended and have manipulated the Sorcerer King to kidnap the Elf-Queen and House Blahblah who my player hails from.)
  2. the Bene Gesserit, a religious organization that masks its poltcal power in the guise of spiritual guidance. I am thinking of creating a faction of holy pricks like the White Cloaks from the Wheel of Time. Followers of Pholtus of the Blinding Light. Not sure.
  3. Fremen. An unaligned Tribal military force that exists outside of the structure defining the other factions. Maybe Elves?
  4. The Padisha Emperor: A distant ruler wiht a powerful military force that defends traditional power structures. This would be our Sorcerer King and his Black Guard.
  5. The Spacing Guild. A mercantile force that masks its political power in the guise of pure economics. We think that House Feketes shares some of this role. Or Dwarves?

Sir Ladislaus, Dishonored knight from a proud House. (Born Noble, Page, Squire, Knight)


  1. I am from a heroic line of Hiri Handian warriors and defenders, I am sworn to defeat any force that threatens the realm. I believe that House Feketes is a threat to the city.
  2. My family have always believed that the Elven people are our allies and for centuries we were sworn to answer the call when they need help. I will listen to Turul, but I will be wary of being led astray.
  3. I am loyal to the Sorcerer King, and I believe that the plague on the land foreshadows that he has lost his way. I will be loyal to him and free him from the machinations of the lying connivers.


  1. Always be meticulous and disciplined.
  2. Always listen respectfully to the common people.
  3. Distrust the mercantile burghers.

Traits: -Mark of Privilege (D), Sworn Homage (D), Cool Headed (C-O), Disclined (Char)
Relationships: 1d Lady Cousin at Court, 1d Hateful Prick from House Feketes.
Reputation: 1d dishonored knight;
Affiliation: 2d with the Nobility from traits, and 1d with the Red Watch.

Turulmegil Aiwendil, Desperate Sword Singer in search of his beloved wife, the Fairy Queen. (Born Citadel, Spouse, Sword Singer, Lieutenant)


  1. Love and Duty: Discover the truth, free my beloved and punish the guilty.
  2. Honor and Brotherhood: Sir Ladislaus is my Fate-Kin. Help him reclaim his birthright.
  3. The Turulmegil is Ruthess; Aiwendil is kind and merciful.


  1. Always act with Honor and Respect
  2. Always talk to birds to get the lay of the land and give them an offering.
  3. Always Seek Truth and Beauty.

Traits: Elven common traits, Sword of the White Towers, Ear to the Ground, and Practiced Precision - drawing the sword super fast.
Relationships: Filegor, his son, a ranger that is out on patrol to the other elven citadels who prepare for a war council. Turulbereth, 8rp Elven Fairy Queen of the Wilderlands…Arch Fey who has been abducted by somebody. the only clue he has was that her sword was returned back to him along with a white rose. He suspects that it is the Sorcerer King.
Reputation as his wife’s newly appointed champion.
Affiliation, Sword of the White Towers, Sword Singers.

So far, the players are doing great! They are really getting into the world building and their beliefs and mini worlds. I have had to state, however, that its enough of out of game world building for now. We would like for more to the setting to revealed in play through the roll of the dice.

Its been awhile since I have GM’ed BW. I find myself so tempted to create scenes and push conflict, but I am reminded that this is a collaborative game, and to make sure that the players feel a part of it, I could also just sit back and let them make the first moves.

Do you think I should prepare a few bangs to attack their BITs?


You should definitely come out with some strong scenes in mind.


Especially with new folks, I find that starting Situation-strong is often a good idea. If I were running, I would probably put them in a very zoomed-in, immediate scene.


Hey thanks Luke and Quincy. Yes I need a freakin strong Bang! And I have a lot to work with here. But I realize that I need to clear picture in my mind about the Situation.

Zoltan III, a self styled Sorcerer King has kidnapped Turulbereth, a arch Fey Elven Wilderlands Matriarch Demi Goddess from Turulmegil her Husband and the Sword of the White Tower of her Lands.

House Feketes, a powerful noble house who own vast tracks of land and have deep mercantile interests, haven climbed their way to the top at court and have, in one generation, supplanted Sir Ladislaus’ Family as the King’s Directors of Operations.

Her ‘abduction’ has to do with the plague, nicknamed the Rot. The land and it’s people are rotting. Crops did not get harvested because of excessive rains.

Is she a Sacrifice to appease some demon, Zuggtmoy, that Zoltan mistakenly summoned?

Is she a trophy for a Great Spider Matron Mother or a Rat King with whom the Feketes want to trade with?

Or is she a Dark Elf and she wants to bring society down?

I think I need to choose so that I know what each faction wants.


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Maybe in his mad genius, he’s keeping an open mind: Either she will help me restore the land – as any Elf-Queen worth her salt can! – or her capture can be used to cause a war with the Elves! Let’s see those mercantile agrarians take my seat when their fields have gone to rot and their precious trade-routes are raided by enemy soldiers! They’ll be begging for ol’ Zoltan’s mystical might then!

It’s the perfect crime!

What kind of things do you imagine the characters will do in the first session?

I actually like that a lot. It challenges Sir Ladislaus 3rd belief that he believes that the Sorcerer King is innocent and is being manipulated. Plus is challenges his first belief about house Feketes. They are trully freaked out about the plague and what is going on with Zoltan. Maybe they are thinking to launch a coup against he and his Black Guard.

I kinda wanted to do that with Lady Turulbereth as well. She after all is centuries old and plucked a young elf from the citadel because she thought he was special - not the nicest of elves, she ain’t no Galadriel. Lady Thranduil was what we were referring to her before Jay picked a name. Spiteful.

What would be a plausible motive for them to be allies or even lovers?

When the game starts I imagine the players will start pushing their beliefs…reconnaissance, gain information on the politics, factions, etc. Turulmegil will want to go to the Elven quarter…an urban garden. Ladislaus will want to see what house Feketes is up to.

I was thinking of a harmless, “welcome to the city of thieves” kind of scene would be fun. Tickle Turul’s instinct - always seek beauty and truth. Lure him in with someone beautiful and lawful goodly person and then pick pocket or shake him down with thugs. Lol.

This is great. Thanks.

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I definitely expected Zoltan bit of more than he could chew with this lady. Presumably she’s spinning her situation to her advantage as much as or more than Zoltan is.

Who? She and Feketes? Or she and Zoltan? Or she and someone else? Being a queen, she presumably has some loyalty to her people – unless she’s just using them for something? Based on how she’s been described so far, I might play her as a Dark Elf who greatly resents the other peoples of the land for the burden they put on the Elves. Given that the Elves are integrated with other folk so tightly, their Grief Exponents are gonna be higher; her subjects are literally suffering for their proximity to mortal kind. Maybe she’d do anything to put a stop to that – and to punish the mortals for the brevity of their lives.


I would open the session by describing the color and feel of the city, and then start a scene with the two meeting in the Elven quarter where – after the old friends have perhaps reacquainted themselves – a human orator (read “Feketes Agent”) is addressing a gathered crowd about the savage toll the Rot is taking on the land due to The Mad Sorcerer King’s folly and preaching the interests shared between the Elves and House Feketes and the wisdom of mutual alliance!

Anyway, I ask because thinking of a good initial bang to throw at the players has helped me answer the broader setting questions in the past.

Happy to help! Keep us posted!

Great chatting with you, Sanjeev.

Hope the ideas don’t defang the Sorcerer King and the Archfey (Sorcerer King is frozen with depression and the Archfey left of her own will to attempt to live a mundane life). Can’t wait to hear how it goes. I think you have enough great BIT’s and strong factions to push conflicts without two big NPC’s being the mysterious forces behind it all.

Good luck! Can’t wait to hear how it goes.

I am settling on the “What’s Really Going On” in this little scenario.

Here’s the basic pieces once again:
Sir Ladislaus, PC1, a young Knight from House Andros (Northern, Elf-Friend, Rugged, Decorated Warriors, Once Great) believes that House Feketes (Southern Mercantile Wealthy) have manipulated the Sorcerer King into tampering with Forbidden Magic. The land is wracked with plague and disease. The crops spoil and persistent rains impede a good harvest. And Ladislaus, believes that Feketes is behind it.

Meanwhile, The Fey Queen Turulbereth of Whispering Wood (Demi God Maya level arch fey elven queen) has gone missing and the elven enclaves suspect foul play from the humans. Turulmegil, her young husband and Captain of the Sword Singers, (PC2) has travelled to Hiri Handia, the capital city to investigate and possibly rescue her. He has enlisted the aid of his friend and blood brother, PC1, Sir Ladislaus.

NPCS: Sorcerer King Zoltan Nhilas. I cannot decide what to do with him? a) Is he frozen with depression and cannot act? b) is he truly being manipulated or c) is this all his doing, an evil plan to turn his lands into a necropolis? Is he old or young? I think Young. I like CHOICE A and a little bit of Choice B.

House Feketes. Why would they want to be behind the Plague and Famine? They are rich and powerful. Why would they want to hurt profits? Should they be neutral…conniving but totally not behind plague and famine? Or are they secretly behind it because they are sick demon loving whack jobs that want the throne of the Kingdom. What would you do?

If not House Feketes, who is really behind the plague?

  1. Underdark? Cultists? Servants of Zuggtmoy (demon)?

  2. Evil Ancient Elves seeking a war to bring mankind down and usher in a new era of the Grand Arbors.

  3. Revolutionary Rodens form the Below?

  4. Science…literrally nothing magical or conspiratorial…just plain old science.

What about the Elf Queen?

  1. Abducted as a sacrifice. To Seal a bargain with a demon lord.
  2. Abducted to compel to heal the land? Drain her essence.
  3. Left of her own volition because of Grief? Boredom? Spite?
  4. Secretly behind the Plague because of Spite?
  5. In love with the Sorcerer King? Fickle and simply changed her mind cause she is capricious and has alien value to life.

Beliefs are:
Sir Ladislaus

  1. I am from a heroic line of Hiri Handian warriors and defenders, I am sworn to defeat any force that threatens the realm. I believe that House Feketes is a threat to the city.
  2. My family have always believed that the Elven people are our allies and for centuries we were sworn to answer the call when they need help. I will listen to Turul, but I will be wary of being led astray.
  3. I am loyal to the Sorcerer King, and I believe that the plague on the land foreshadows that he has lost his way. I will be loyal to him and free him from the machinations of the lying connivers.


  1. Love and Duty: Discover the truth, free my beloved and punish the guilty.
  2. Honor and Brotherhood: Sir Ladislaus is my Fate-Kin. Help him reclaim his birthright.
  3. The Turulmegil is Ruthess; Aiwendil is kind and merciful.


How did the Sorcerer King become a Sorcerer King? How does he inspire loyalty?

What kind of plot do you want to have?

What are some cool things you imagine you all doing in this game?

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You’ve got a PC with a Belief that Feketes are a threat, so one of my guides when deciding what’s actually going on would be to challenge that. The simple guide is to have Feketes not be a threat, but—at least for me—it challenges the belief more if Feketes are a threat because they are doing what they think is the right thing.

So, mashing some stuff together: House Feketes have accidentally uncovered a plot by a faction of elves to work a centuries-long magic on human crops to make humans pliable/sterile/something; the only reason Feketes know is because someone in their house was experimenting with forbidden magic, so they don’t want to tell the Sorcerer King; instead they try to expose the plot using the same forbidden magic; because Forbidden magic is creepy and badnwrongTM, instead of what they intended the crops are now visibly “tainted”.

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