Contemplating Scene Economy with Seven Players

I am embarking on a grand journey.  Running a D&D 1E campaign using Burning Wheel with 7 players.  I’d imagine this will cause me some sanity loss.  Recognizing this, I want to make sure I go into the game with a plan.  In particular, I want to make sure everyone has a bit of the spotlight.

The Lead Up

I’ve already wrote about Burning Empires in greater detail, but it was the first RPG that I read that had an explicitly defined scene economy.  In brief, a session is comprised of Conflict, Building, Color, and Interstitial scenes.  Each side can have one Conflict scene per session (though they can have  another one). Major characters have other scenes as well, though those are also strictly rationed.

Another one of Luke Crane’s masterful creations, Mouse Guard introduces the concept of the GMs turn and the Players turn.  The GM frames the first half of the session (i.e. deliver this package, wrestle with the snake).   The players take the reigns in the second half (i.e. resupply, look for a healer).  Here is a review that sums up the session framing.

And then I played Fiasco, a game with a very structured scene economy; Each player will the spotlight for 4 scenes per session.  When it’s a player’s turn for their scene, they can choose to either frame the scene or say how it resolves.

Proposed Solution

Today at lunch I got to thinking about how I’m going to make sure that everyone gets moments to shine; I don’t want to leave anyone behind, and I want some structure to the game itself.

The plan is at the beginning of the session, I’m going to hand out two tokens to each player;  One will be an “Initiate a Scene” token, another will be a “Jump into another Scene” token.

If we are in a lull (i.e. a scene is just wrapped up and “two weeks pass”) then a player may spend their “Initiate a Scene” token.  When initiating the scene, the player can choose to include other characters in the scene as well so long as those characters are available and not off negotiating a treaty or some such nonsense.  (In some cases, I imagine that I might have the brought along character spend their “Initiate a Scene” token.)

Likewise, there are times when a player wants his/her character to jump into a scene.  Spend the “Jump into another Scene” token, and you are there.  You may need to make some kind of test to see how you arrive (i.e. Orienteering or Stealth come to mind).

Once all of the players have spent all of their “Initiate a Scene” tokens, then everyone refreshes their “Initiate a Scene” and “Jump into another Scene.”  The idea is that I want everyone to have their moment.

If a player needs a follow-up scene, but doesn’t have an appropriate token, they can petition the table to have another scene.  This system isn’t intended to be a straight jacket, but instead be a set of focused constraints to ensure everyone is participating.

When spending the “Initiate a Scene” token, the player should state the intent of the scene, instead of just saying “I wanna go into the inn.”

Running and Playing Bloodstone in Burning Wheel

I’ve been spending a lot of time reading the Bloodstone adventure.  Not because I plan to run it by the book, instead looking to see what the core essence of the story is about.  As it is based on Akira Kurosawa‘s Seven Samurai, it is fitting that we’ll have 7 players.

Group Composition

I believe the following skills or character concepts will be extremely helpful:

  1. Command, Strategy, and Tactics  – This skill is very vital in the Battle! sub-system.
  2. Ditch Digging, Soldiering, Masonry – Skills that allow you to build defensive positions will prove helpful for the larger set pieces.
  3. Surgery – If you don’t want to die, someone will need this skill.  I have it on good authority that someone will be playing a Faithful surgeon.
  4. Field Dressing, Bloodletting, and Herbalism – On their own, these will prove useful, however, helping the surgeon would be a good idea.
  5. Sorcery, Summoning, and/or Spirit Binding  – Access to magic will be helpful.  I believe Summoning and Spirit Binding could prove helpful for the creation of defenses.
  6. Instruction – If the players are interested in training each other, or training the villagers, then Instruction will be a golden skill.

Starting Resources

You may not start with property that is tied to a location (i.e. manor, vineyards, mines, etc).  Each of you have likely fled the Night of the Long Knives with what meager possessions you have.

You may consider burning up a henchman, though that may be a lot of work.

Scene Economy

With 7 players, I’m concerned about keeping things moving.  I have a multipart plan.

Rely heavily on the Bloody Vs. mechanic.  After all, why should we focus 1 hour of real time to resolve what would be 6 seconds of game time.

Encourage players who are not in the active scene to jump in as an NPC.  If they have an idea, why not let them run with it.  Obviously, there might be some veto power.

Actively manage the scene economy.  I’m working this one out, but I want to make sure that everyone gets a fair share of the spotlight.

Give bonuses for Character traits.  I understand that there may not be as much of a chance to highlight your character traits, so I’m going to give everyone a bonus for their character traits.  Once per session, per character trait, you may FoRK that trait into a single test.  This rule is drawn from Mouse Guard’s rather awesome and concise Trait system.

Burning Wheel and Bloodstone

I am committed to running the Bloodstone adventure series, and today I have settled on using the Burning Wheel rules system.  Below are some of the elements that went into my decision.

System Wars

The initial candidates were Burning Wheel, Dungeons and Dragons 1E, and possibly Legends of Anglerre.  As I was deliberating, Rob Donoghue posted a timely article on returning to D&D 1E after having played D&D 4E.

What struck me about the article, and something that I had forgotten about, is that D&D 1E combat strongly encouraged pre-combat preparation.  Whereas D&D 4E combat only happens after initiative is rolled.

In addition, I still maintain that the system you use will strongly influence, and all to likely mandate the game that you will play.  And I want to be a part of a memorable game where the story takes front stage.

Mass Combat

Bloodstone makes use of the D&D 1E Battlesystem for resolving the many mass combats.  I have trepidations about spending an entire evening of a role-playing session focusing on mass combat.  While I have fond memories of the mass combat, I want to see if we can possibly get those battles done in about half a session.

While Battlesystem might work, I think there are better options available.  Legends of Anglerre and it’s cousin Diaspora, have wonderful mass combat systems.  Burning Wheel’s sibling, Burning Empires has Firefight, and with a bit of grunt work, would work well for a fantasy setting. It turns out a few intrepid souls already did the conversion.

Devil in the Details

Another factor that went into the decision, is that my 11 year old loves playing clerics.  So the system we play should easily accomodate her.  She’s not a strong reader, so I’m hesitant about having her process lots of spells.  She is, however, very strong with numbers.

Burning Wheel’s Faith magic has a simple set of rules to follow, and allow for creative prayers…something an 11 year old is quite adept at.

I do have concerns about her ability to track tests, but I’ll take those concerns over her deliberating over a massive list of prayers.  She’ll have several adults playing to help her.  And I plan on creating a sheet for her to track her tests.  In fact, I think this is going to be something that’d be helpful for everyone.

Cold Hard Reality

And lastly, the cold hard reality is that I’m running the game, and as such I can choose the system I want to run, and the players can choose if they want to play. So with Burning Wheel as the chosen system, I need to layout what will go into play.

Onto the Rules

The available races are Man, Elf, and Dwarf.  I’m capping Men at 7 lifepaths and Elves and Dwarves at 6 lifepaths; Everyone will have an 7 exponent cap.

I’m going to make potions available to assist in recovery Health tests.  The obstacle to create a potion is double the bonus dice granted to the Health test.  So a potion of Lesser Healing that grants +2D to a Health test will require an Ob4 Alchemy or Herbalism test to create.

Bloodstone Campaign Introduction

What’s the Big Picture? What’s going on in this setting that makes it ripe for adventure. What’s changing, evolving, declining?

With the recent death of King Virdin at the Battle of Goliad, the kingdom of Damara is shattered under overwhelming force of Vaasa.  Ruled by the mysterious Witch-King Zhengyi, Vaasa now demands tribute of the disparate barons still clinging to the shattered remains of Damara.

Refugees from the northern regions of Damara flood its southern barony of Arcata, seeking to escape the ever growing demands of the Witch-King’s army.

What’s the world’s culture? What are the cultural analogs? Analogs can be taken from historical earth, current events or fantasy works.

The kingdom of Damara was comprised of complicated feudal vassalage, made all the more unclear by the death of King Virdin.  The baronies and duchies of Damara are Arcata, Bloodstone, Brandiar, Carmathan, Morov, Ostel, Polten, Soravia.

Damarans have English names and Vaasans have Nordic names.

What’s the conflict in which the characters are involved? What are the sides? What’s wrong?

You may have once been proud land owners, sworn to King Virdin’s banner, or pursued research or other paths of enlightenment.  For now, you have retreated to the city of Valls in the southern barony of Arcata.  From here, amidst the crushing swell of refugees, you are planning and working to restore your previous life.  You know there are others who would rally to your cause, but for now you are a disenfranchised, and impoverished mouth to feed amongst the multitudes.

What physical place does this conflict take place in? What ecology, environment, place?

The Barony of Bloodstone has an ecology/environment that is similar to south western Alberta (harsh winters, fertile valleys, ample woodlands, long summer evenings). It is located on the eastern edge of the Galena mountains.

What’s the name of the most important place in this setting?

The village of Bloodstone, the baronial seat of the Bloodstone Barony.  Once a prosperous duchy in western Damara, it’s mines have recently failed as the expected tribute continues to grow.

What’s the name of a faraway place that folks talk about, dream about or mutter under their breath about?

  • The Citadel of the Witch-King Zhengyi.
  • Heliogabalis, free city of Damara, bustling with vices and commerce.

Who are the antagonists? Who is opposing the goals of the characters?

The primary antagonist is the Witch-King Zhengyi, a powerful wizard who rules through his various lieutenants.  The Grandfather of Assassins, a lieutenant of the Witch-King collects tribute from the various baronies throughout the shattered remains of Damara.

Imagine all of the characters are standing a room/ruin/field with the antagonists or their minions. What do the antagonists want from that meeting? What do the characters want from that meeting?

The Witch-King would demand homage.  If the characters would swear fealty, on the Scepter of Scour, to the Witch-King, power and riches would be theirs.

Alternately, imagine the characters standing at the scene of some great disaster or calamity clearly caused by one of the antagonists. What’s the disaster? How did it happen? What are the characters going to do about it right now?

The horizon is filled with plumes of dark smoke. The smell of death hangs heavy in the air. As you approach the remains of Bloodstone village, the villagers refuse to meet your gaze, instead they mindlessly focus on tossing the numerous bodies onto the already massive funeral pyre.  You were to be their savior, and their voiceless accusations pierce your soul.

What type of magic exists in this world?

Dwarves and Elves use their Natural Magic.

Humans practice a wide array of magical disciplines from Sorcery and Enchantment to the more questionable Summoning.

In matters of Faith, humans of Damara turn to the Lord of Light, a beacon of hope and renewal.

The Druids of the wilder lands call upon the powers of ancient spirits, seeking to bind them to their will.

There are those who seek power in death and those who seek power from dead or forgotten gods (or worse).

What character stocks are in play in this world? Which are restricted and why?

Character stock is limited to Elves, Men, and Dwarves.

What cultural traits apply to the characters of this game world? Pick three character traits for each culture.

  • Damara – Brave, Folksy Wisdom, Greedy
  • Vaasa – Dour, Merciless, Xenophobic

What’s your Resources cycle? 1 month, seasonal, 6 months, annual? What’s the game world’s currency? Who collects the taxes? What do people do for work? What’s the major economy?

Six months (each spring and fall). The games currency revolves around the silver piece standard.

Economic issues will grow in importance as the campaign progresses.

Material world: What weapons and armor are available? Are some weapons and armor restricted to certain cultures or character stocks? What property is available? Are resources and gear otherwise restricted?

No restrictions.

Related Links: Bloodstone – It is Time and H is for H-series The Bloodstone Pass Saga.

Bloodstone – It Is Time

Yoda talking with Luke on Dagobah

Yoda talking with Luke on Dagobah

This one a long time have I watched. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing. Hmph. — Yoda

Bloodstone is one of my gaming grails.  And I’m thinking it may very well be time to run it.

Waxing Nostalgic

I’ve had several conversations at different times with Matt and Mike about what made Bloodstone so memorable.  The campaign draws inspiration from the Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven, but as that resolves the greater story unfolds.  There is plenty of politics, intrigue, heroism, and large-scale military conquest.

Endless Summer

Over the summer, due to various scheduling conflicts, we’ve had a particularly hard time getting our group together for both the Precious Few campaign and our Scales of War campaign.  The last sessions were June 5 and June 26 respectively.

I feel as though I’ve lost momentum for the Precious Few, but I’m working on an idea to wrap this up in two sessions, and possibly this could be done in one session.

The Scales of War campaign marches on, and on the surface has many similarities to Bloodstone.  There are a few differences, but one of the key components is that in Bloodstone the characters are the leaders, choosing what to do.  Whereas in Scales of War the war council directs the players to go hitherto and yon.

Think about that for a moment.  Bloodstone presents the characters with situations that require a response, and gives the GM the tools to handle those responses (i.e. a map of the region, various factions, its inhabitants, etc.).  Scales of War, instead informs the characters that a huge war is being fought and they are repeatedly assigned special operations by the ruling council.

It’s All About the System

I maintain that the system you play will strongly inform, and likely even dictate, the type of game you will play. Another way of saying this is determine how you want to play and pick a system to reflect that decision.

Which leaves me to ask what rules system should I use for Bloodstone?  The contenders are: D&D 3E, D&D 1E, Burning Wheel, Dungeon World, Mouse Guard or FATE (i.e. Legends of Anglerre or modified Diaspora).  Quite a long list of contenders.

The Predicament

One thing, highlighted in the Diaspora system, but that I’ve been aware of for a while, is the disconnect of character advancement. I’m not so much concerned with advancement, as much as the effect the advancement system has on actual game play.

In the modern iterations of D&D (3E and 4E), Legends of Anglerre, and Dungeon World, character advancement involves gaining new prestige class features, more powerful attack methods, more powerful feats and stunts, custom moves, etc.

I have seen, and have been guilty of, pining for that nifty power I’m going to get in 2 levels versus focusing on my character’s current situation and moment.

Certainly, at least for me, there is a joy in watching a character’s mechanical development unfold. But none of this is narratively very memorable.  In fact, regardless of how I go about gaining XP, I will eventually gain these new features.

Contrast this with earlier editions of Dungeons and Dragons, where the mechanical advancements were often times limited to improved saves, bonuses to hit, and possibly spells. Only the most bizarre player will look longingly at improving their saves.

I recognize that more than a few wizards at 4th level saying “I can’t wait until next level, because I’m totally going to fry things with my fireball.”

Show, Don’t Tell

Contrast the above with Burning Wheel’s system for advancement.  In order to advance something, you have to “fight for what you believe in.”  Burning Wheel scoffs at the idea of killing 1000 orcs and thus improving your diplomacy.

If you want a powerful Call-On trait, then show everyone how you are getting there.  Spend that Artha!

My goal as a Game Master is engaging players in the moment.  To ensure my players are engaged, I will bring every tactic and strategy to bear.

Should the Bloodstone game be run using a system that does not readily lend itself to pining for those cool new class features? If so then we will be playing D&D 1E, Burning Wheel, Mouse Guard, or a modified Legends of Anglerre (seeking inspiration in Diaspora).

Of course, if I’m running the game, I can simply dictate that we will be playing whatever system tickles my fancy.  There is one other consideration, who will be playing the game with me?

GenCon Games on Demand – Bulldogs!

Having played Dungeon WorldLady BlackbirdHollowpoint, and the Tower of Gygax, I was a happy convention goer.  On Sunday, we went again through the exhibitors’ hall, hoping to score some good deals.  We did pick up a few boardgames for dirt cheap.

The highlight however, was Jenny saying “We should go to Games on Demand and see about playing another game.”  Almost reluctantly, I followed.  In my head, I think I was wrapping up this year’s GenCon.

We purchased two more generic tickets for the 12pm to 2pm slot.  As it turns out, the creator of Bulldogs!, Brennan Taylor, was going to run an adventure.  Immediately, my spirits perked up.  There would be one last hurrah!

Brennan ran his Jaws of the Barracado scenario.  The scenario was kicked off by with the captain accepting a package that needed to be delivered to a pirate planet…no questions asked.

I’ll skip the scenario details, as I’d rather people play the game than listen to my recounting of the plot.  Instead, I’ll focus on our tables interaction.

Excluding Brennan, we had 6 players at the table.  Two of us had read Bulldogs!, 2 of us had played a Fate game, one of us was a regular role-player, and one of us was a new role-player.  Brennan did an amazing job of providing help and insight for the newer players. He was patient, and I believe did a great job explaining the rules as they came up.

Brennan explained that each of the characters had signed three years of their life away to embark on dangerous cargo deliveries.  Clearly we were a flying hive of scum and villainy.

The table ended up choosing their characters, and I grabbed Gloop, a Tetsuashan systems expert.  The Tetsuashan are a small, slug-like race with the following racial aspects:

Begin Open Game Content

Aspects:

  • Short of Statur, Strong of Will
  • Slug-Like Form
  • Space is Home
  • Omnipresent
  • Fearless
  • Inscrutable

Stunts:

  • Slime Trail – Can walk on walls
  • Squish – Can squeeze body to extremely small size
  • Resilient – recover consequences faster; once per scene may clear away one minor consequence
  • Regenerative Power – can regrow lost limbs
  • Poisoned by Salt – salt inflicts extra stress
  • Reduced Speed – Movement costs more
End Open Game Content

Having practiced lots of Dr. Zoidberg impersonations, I opted to use a modified Zoidberg voice for Gloop.  I also decided he was somewhat petty and a real schemer.

Being the systems expert, Gloop kept the ship warm and humid, much to the chagrin of Prbrawl, a Ryjyllian pilot; The Ryjyllians come from an ice planet.

Gloop reprogrammed the medical robot to be a better meat shield than a doctor and systems expert; After all, having regenerative powers, Gloop didn’t really need a doctor.  And if Gloop wasn’t head and shoulders the best at systems, they might replace him.

The interaction with the other players was fantastic.  Prbrawl, the pilot, was played as a brown nosing second in command to the drunken captain.  This created a wonderful moments, as each of the crew worked to undermine Prbrawl’s self-appointed authority.

By far, this game was my favorite one that I played at Games on Demand. Brennan gently prodded the adventure along.  More importantly, he wisely yielded narrative control to the players our group, as we were clearly enjoying establishing our characters and the relations to other characters, and playing a day in the life of our disfunctional ship.

Burning Wheel Gold – Initial Impressions

While at GenCon, I picked up a copy of Luke Crane’s Burning Wheel Gold, an update to the Burning Wheel Revised.  Mercifully, the changes do not invalidate existing material. Here’s looking at you Dungeons and Dragons.

Changes that are immediately evident upon a quick read:

  • Perception is no longer open-ended.
  • No more moving quietly within Circles.
  • Minor lifepath tweaks (i.e. Young Lady can become a Physician, Song Singer gains Vocal character trait, etc.)
  • Bleeding from wounds is now based on scene economy instead of elapsed time.
  • Mounted combat has promoted from a wiki page download to core rules.
  • Armor tweaks to create a more linear progression (I believe these changes were in the Adventure Burner).
  • Resources can now be “banked”; You can make a resource test to generate a bag of gold to give you one time bonuses to resource tests. (Ob. 2 test yields +1D, Ob. 4 test yields +2D, etc.).
  • Sorcery brought inline with other skills.
  • Minor adjustments to Fight maneuvers.
  • Expanded Range and Cover to bring it inline with Fight! and Duel of Wits.
  • Reworking of the Fight! positioning mechanic.
  • Better explanation of Surprise and Ambush for Fight!
  • It is now a gorgeous hardback that still costs $25.  Seriously.
  • More clarity.  (i.e. Each skill has a schedule of suggested Ob. Racial resources have more description.)

I assume there may well be other tweaks, but I haven’t yet noticed them.

What has me particularly excited is the streamlined Fight! mechanic.

Sidebar: For the uninitiated, Burning Wheel’s Fight mechanic requires the combat participants to secretly and simultaneously script a few actions during a combat exchange.  As Luke Crane explained in his Fear the Boot interview, the purpose of this mechanic is to simulate the utter chaos of combat.

The streamlined Fight mechanic removes the scripting of position for each volley of an exchange.

Instead, before the first exchange, combatants make positioning tests.  With the tests resolved, characters are either engaged with a combatant or disengaged.  Disengaged combatants have the privilege of not being poked and stabbed by other combatants for the entire exchange.

Before each subsequent exchange, players vie position.  This time you may either attempt to disengage from your attacker(s) or improve your position against them.  Having not played this new mechanic, it would appear to solve the challenge of multiple combatants (you are either engaged with a combatant or disengaged).

I’m certain when next I run Burning Wheel Gold I’ll have questions about the Fight mechanic.  However, this does not detract from the improvements that Luke Crane and BWHQ have made.