Me and my group are getting ready to play our first campaign of Burning Wheel. I’ve come up with a starting sitch together with the group, and since we wanted to play a short campaign first (6-8 sessions excluding character burning) and have the characters not form a “party” but still be in the same social circles and the same physical space, and because we’re excited by the idea, we decided to set the game in a city undergoing a siege by foreign crusaders. The city is one of the last true bastions of a civilization that has been the target of this crusade for hundreds of years, and now, finally, the enemy is at the gates.
The players will play characters in or adjacent to the religious subsetting, and the game will probably focus on salvaging what they can of their sacred texts, the conflict between duty and personal safety, possibly a summoner trying to do a summoning that’s way out of their depth to try and save everything, and the fallout from that. We’ve burned up the two deities that are worshipped in the city, and have a good idea of the setting culturally.
I’m looking for tips for a couple of things here:
Since the characters aren’t military, the siege itself will play out in the background, putting pressure on the PCs in terms of resources, NPCs pulling them in different directions etc. All this can just come out of Beliefs. I’m still thinking about ways to make the siege present in the situation. I’m used to GMing Blades in the Dark, so my instinct is to have Countdown Clocks, most or all of them open to the players, of the progress of the siege. Then perhaps actions taken by the players could impact that progress, and so on. BW doesn’t provide any tools for keeping track of long-term progress or development of agendas in the world like that, and I imagine it’s because the game wants us to be crystal focused on the characters and their Beliefs. I’m wondering if there are other ways I could make the pressure of the situation felt for the players, and so far have been thinking mostly about the Resource cycle. Does anyone have advice or experience running campaigns with shorter resource cycles than those talked about in BWG? At first I was thinking a month, but looking at medieval sieges even that seems kind of long to me. On the other hand I don’t want to break the game by setting a Resource cycle of every two weeks for my first ever campaign of BW. Advice on other ways of using the Resources mechanics to bring the feeling of dire survival home would be appreciated as well.
Second question is more general: what’s some advice on keeping the campaign short? The book has some general stuff, but that seems, at least to me, more focused on a “questing” mode of play, which is not what me and my group are really interested in. I think the starting situation itself, playing out the siege and focusing on what the characters do to survive, maybe get out, maybe try and save the day somehow, and what they lose in the process, gives the game a nice clear frame, but I’m still worried about getting bogged down in the consequences of the first few episodes and end up just getting throughthe first week or so of the siege in our 6-8 sessions (not least because everyone is new to the game, having only played The Sword before, and will learn as we go). Any further advice on this is also much appreciated.
If anyone has done a similar thing, playing in a besieged city, I would love to hear if something you did really worked or was especially fun or impactful. As a new BW GM it’s very inspiring to read on these forums and see what guy folks have done with this game.
I’ll see what I can add here, as I’m sure others will jump in and lend their own advice.
For your first point, I don’t think using Countdown Clocks/Fronts is a bad idea at all, so long as you’re able to keep them incredibly flexible. The players’ actions are going to throw them out of whack constantly, but having some idea of how the siege could progress can help keep the story focused, and also make it much easier for you to come up with good failure results as you play. Sharing the clocks with the players also might actually help them write Beliefs (especially since everybody is pretty new to the system). Again, you’ll need to keep it fluid, but I don’t hold to the “no plan ever - only Beliefs!” line quite so hard as others might.
As far as the Resources cycle goes, I wouldn’t sweat it. Your game doesn’t sound like it would run long enough to fall into a true resource cycle, so I wouldn’t call for anything outside of if the characters are trying to get something specific or perhaps triggering a roll as a result of the siege advancing. Something along the lines of “the west tower has fallen - what are the supplies like now? Is there enough food for everyone now that access to the store rooms has been cut off? Make a Resources roll.” Outside of those situations, I wouldn’t worry too much about the resource cycle otherwise.
I can’t speak to the third point, so on your second about keeping the campaign short, I think that’s really just on the group through play. If all you’re planning on focusing on is the siege itself, I think you have a pretty set natural conclusion in that it either does or doesn’t happen. If you decide to change it as you play on, great, but you have a pretty solid end point in mind. However many sessions it takes to get there is really up to the group as you play. The only advice I can give is to make sure everybody keeps their Beliefs as immediate as possible to help keep things moving. From a pacing standpoint, you’re probably looking for everybody to focus their Beliefs in a way that they can resolve at least 1-2 of them per session and keep the action rolling. If they keep their Beliefs kind of bite-sized, you shouldn’t have any pacing issues.
For pacing the siege, you might be able to steal some tech from Burning Empires here. Maybe each session culminates in a roll where the PCs add in helping dice for actions that would impact those participating in the siege…
It’s not a fully mechanized thought, but it’d be neat
I’d second looking at Burning Empires for inspiration. The Infection/Maneuver mechanics are used to show overarching drama that ties together and drives the narrative, while the scene economy keeps pressure up and shows what the opposition is up to.
The main way in which GMs influence the pacing of the game is in two aspects: Scene-framing and failure. The main way in which players influence the pacing is via Beliefs.
Tight scene-framing will move the narrative forwards faster. Try not the sweat the small stuff and watch for points at which you can end the scene. Asking the player what they are angling for in the scene can help with that. Just straight up ignore stuff that doesn’t challenge the player’s BITs and push those hard. If a player asks for a scene, make sure its tied to one of their Beliefs. Don’t be afraid to just time-skip where appropriate. If the players ask to do something in that time, check to see if their BITs correspond with that request. If not, hand out some practice time and move on.
The most obvious example of how failure controls pacing is in how Mouse Guard handles tests: When a player fails a test, the GM can choose to either introduce a twist which leads to a new test, or hand out a condition. If the player fails at the twist, the GM has no chocie but to hand out a condition, no more new twists!
Failure Snowballs can be extremely fun and game changing, but they often serve to draw more focus into a scene. Consider this when thinking of failure. Think of ways in which a character’s interests can be hurt without turning it into another set of rolls. If you want a narrative to go faster, hand out more “conditions” and less “twists”.
On the player end, Beliefs dictate where the spotlight ends up, so make sure your players are writing Beliefs which will propel the action forward. Watch for stuff which is unlikely to be part of the session. Talking to your players and setting expectations on what is or is not likely to be touched on in a session can help with this. It gives players space and information to rephrase or come up with new Beliefs which tie into the scenes you’re thinking of addressing in the next session
I think I need to stress that a lot of this stuff, especially the stuff on scene-framing is going to require some communication and expectation setting with the players or it’s just going to come across badly. So talk to your players and explain what you’re aiming for explicitly. Heck, maybe just set the number of sessions it will end at. It’ll help focus them as well and get them on board for the finale.
Thanks so much for the replies everybody!
With regards to the siege specific stuff: I’ll probably do what MyNamesArt suggests with Resources, and not have a set cycle, because of the length of in-game time the game will likely span, but instead call for Resource tests when it makes sense fictionally (during time skips, when the overall situation in the city changes.)
For tracking the siege I will probably rely mostly on fronts/countdown clocks, just to keep track of the overarching drama, but will also have a look at Burning Empires (thanks for those suggestions as well!) - I just don’t want to hack BW too much or introduce more stuff the players (myself included) won’t be familiar with, since it’s our first time. I wonder if anyone has any experience actually using Countdown Clocks/Fronts or the like in BW for this kind of thing?
With regards to pacing: I’m glad that I’m not alone in thinking that having the game be limited to a specific place and timeframe will help with this, but also agree completely about having shared expectations around these things. We’ve already talked about wanting to keep the campaign to 6-8 sessions, so everyone’s on board with that, but we haven’t gone much into the actual writing of Beliefs, since we’ll only finish character burning next session (we had a lot of fun with the world and gods the first time, and the players are taking their time figuring out all the bits of their characters) - but the advice on keeping Beliefs concrete and accomplishable, and having that be part of the way we talk about Beliefs as the players learn how to write them, sounds like a good idea. Also the stuff about failure snowballs, I’ve definitely had that happen in other games before. The Mouse Guard framing seems a useful shorthand to keep in mind.
In terms of spotlight I’ll also try and lean on using PC-NPC-PC triangles from AW to try to counteract a tendency I’ve noticed in some BW games on Twitch where the action seems to spiral into separate paths with the characters rarely interacting directly - which might not be a bad thing, but from conversations with the group it seems we all agree that we don’t want that to happen too much, while we’re also not very interested in a traditional “party” character dynamic. But again, the player’s Beliefs guide that much more than the GM, so I should probably also be guiding the players to keep that in mind when writing Beliefs. If y’all have any other tips for avoiding too much spiraling out of different character “story lines” feel free to share.
The Black Market and War Economy things from BE might help for that side of things too? They didn’t get much use in a lot of my BE games (the focus was more violent and swift in the wars I have been involved with in BE…) but I think they are highly relevant to those indirectly impacted by war.
Judd did this great thing ‘back in the day’, where he took player’s traits or instincts and tied them intimately into failure. This had the net effect of giving them a fate point at end of session for complicating things, made the failure more character-centric and helped set up Triangles and keep the PCs ingratiated with one another. You can do this trick with other characters traits too (PCs & NPCs).
Don’t forget its the players belief that drive this interaction too - its GREAT advice to make sure each PC has a belief about one of the other PCs.
With your clock quandary - I think that clocks were John’s way of mechanising tension and giving the GM permission to bring the pain. Its the same in BW. The GM has sole purvey about when and what scenes to frame based on the player’s beliefs. So make sure they have a belief about the impending dooms of the siege. That way rolls are made in the service of beliefs (about the siege) and failures ‘tick the clocks’.
Sounds like a great game!
Our gaming group used to run 6-session campaigns regularly. The key was to curb the ambition.
- Clearly state and all agree to the Goal of the Campaign.
- Clearly state the initial Situation - the Bang.
- All players must have tight Beliefs that force them to act with urgency.
- The players should have beliefs that tie each other together. This will help avoid the lone wolf that will eat up precious table time.
- Only plan for one conflict per session.
- End each session with a clear path forward towards the next session’s conflict.
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