Burning Warhammer: The Captain and the Witch (Session 1) is a game session report for Burning Wheel. We played via Zoom on .
At the sea-mouth of the River Reik stands Marienburg, the world’s marketplace: the largest, richest, most corrupt and most dangerous city-port in the Old World.
We begin our campaign in Marienburg on the 13th of Sigmarzeit in the 2502 year of the Empire. The electors have elected Karl-Franz to the Throne of the Empire. The moon Morrslieb (the Chaos moon) has been erracticlly dancing in the night sky. An ill-omen for certain.
Alhana, new to Burning Wheel (BWG 📖), burned up Kasmiir van Shaw. They are the half-sibling of James van Shaw. We spent the first portion of the session working through their initial beliefs and instincts.
Kasmiir van Shaw (They/them)…
- City Born, Neophyte Sorcerer → Outcast: Rogue Wizard → Seafaring: Weather Witch
- I am determined to find someone with close ties to the Tzeentch cult.
- I need to stay close to James van Shaw, he pays my bills.
- Currency is meaningless, knowledge is power.
- Books like my bag so much, they find their way inside.
- I prefer shadows, so I always keep my hood up.
- When at a crossroads, I look to the wisdom of the spirits.
- Extremely Respectful of One’s Betters
- Aura of Fear
- Obscure Aura
- Weather Sense
- I Can Get Tzeentch Artifacts (minor, 1D)
- Kunz Vogelsang (Renegade Astronomer, minor)
"Captain" James van Shaw (He/him)…
- Village: Born Villager, Peddler → City: Student → Outcast: Smuggler, Fence
- I've read about being a boat captain and since someone just fenced the Danseur—it's mine now and I have the "papers" to prove it—I will get it out on the river and begin my life as a captain.
- I will become a fat with riches, but first I'll convince Anouk to get me a good paying gig.
- How fortuitous! I just learned about my brother's strange river powers, together we'll travel the river and make our first shipment.
- Always know where the exits are
- Never accept the first offer
- Always rummage through the paperwork
- Scavenger (call-on)
- Blank Stare (die)
- Eidetic Memory (die)
- Geometric (die)
- Glib (call-on)
- Paranoid (character)
- Rabble-rouser (character)
- Scheming (die)
- Shrewd (character)
- Superstitious (character)
- Marienburg - Riverman's Association (large)
- Framke van Shaw (minor, Sister, Augur, Midwife, Bandit)
- Anouk Vas (minor, Ship's Steward, Cousin)
Leaning on a Relationship
It’s always a bit difficult kicking off the campaign. Where to begin? I sensed Phil was looking for somewhere to start. I asked if I could frame our opening scene at Anouk’s apartment.
Anouk Vas is the cousin of James van Shaw. Anouk’s a steward on a sea-going vessel. I establish that James has an arrangement with Anouk.
While they’re travelling the seas, James stays at the apartment, keeping it safe. When Anouk is back, James is not allowed to stay there.
In the three months that Anouk has been out to sea, James has met his long lost sibling Kasmiir. And Kasmiir has been staying with James at Anouk’s apartment.
Anouk’s small wharfside apartment isn’t anything special. A place to sleep and several shelves with various bound ledgers.
The scene opens with Anouk at her apartment’s door, gently knocking. James loud-whispers to Kasmiir to give James a chance to explain the situation before Kasmiir announces themselves. Playing up the Spooky and Aura of Fear.
James eases Anouk into the situation:
- Kasmiir’s staying here.
- Kasmiir’s Anouk’s cousin (or maybe half-cousin).
- The place is in great shape and they’ll both be leaving
Anouk accepts all of this. At the fiction level, there’s nothing interesting with Anouk getting pissed.
While James and Anouk talk, Kasmiir looms cloaked in the corner.
At one point Anouk quips: “Kasmiir, haven’t I seen you around the docks?”
James asks if Anouk has anything she needs offloaded. Anouk offers up some mutton shanks for James to deliver to the Inn of the Three Legged Goat; It’s a day or so upstream.
Not interested in such a mundane errand, James asks if there’s anything else? Something that might need smuggling out?
Anouk’s ship brought back some contraband; a fine brandy from Castle Gransette in Brettonia. It’s contraband in the Empire. And there’s a mine of listless dwarfs in Grisenvelt who’d pay dearly for the brandy.
But Anouk’s not putting their faith in James. James needs to persuade Anouk to let him smuggle the brandy out of Marienburg and up the Reik. Kasmiir offers help spouting some River-wise related facts to help Anouk understand that we know the river. I accept Alhana’s help.
At this point, I’m eager for a Duel of Wits. To get things kicked off with a solid compromise that colors the start of a campaign. However, we go with a versus test.
It’s a Persuade test with 6 dice versus Obstacle (Ob 📖) 4. This test tracks directly to one of James’s beliefs; So I throw in a Persona point. I get 5 successes.
Anouk puts her faith in James’s that he’s ready for this rather large undertaking. They arranged for a time to transfer the goods.
I liked this interaction. As a player, I asked the Game Master (GM 📖) if I could frame the opening scene. This felt right for a few reasons.
First, as a player, I was following my character’s beliefs.
Second, as a player who also runs a lot of games, it can be hard to do a cold open. I wanted to help get us moving. I previously wrote about Strategies for Cold Opens of Impromptu Games. This is another take on that strategy.
Third, early in a game, things are rather barren. By jumping to an interaction with an Non-Player Character (NPC 📖) we could all begin exploring our characters a bit more.
What I loved in this scene was that Phil played Anouk Vas as trusting of James. Their family bond is sincere.
With one Belief addressed, I looked to my other beliefs and the next logical step: Get the goods out of Marienburg.
Circling up a Cultist
James and Kasmiir hit the streets looking to make a Circles Test to find someone that could help them slip through the patrols.
Kasmiir, gave James the slip, and went to find someone who might want something delivered upstream. Kasmiir was trying to circle up someone that might have a relic of Tzeentch that they wanted delivered.
First, they stopped in an alley and performed a quick spirit-binding to aid their efforts in finding what would invariably be a cultist. Spirit Binding is one of the magic systems found in the Burning Wheel Codex (BWC 📖). One of Kasmiir’s spirit domains is Alleys.
Kasmiir succeeded, without retribution, and puddles in the alley began pooling and pointing in a direction. Kasmiir then made an Ob 2 circles test with four dice.
They succeeded and circled up Lizbeth “Lil’Bet” Notenboom; A young woman in a bright dress selling flowers. Kasmiir recognized her as part of the cult of Tzeentch, a low-level street informer.
Lil’Bet clipping flowers and braiding them into a crown begins the conversation.
“So you’re heading up the river? All the way up to Altdorf? And looking to see if we need something delivered?”
“I know someone there, they could use this something. It would be doing me a kindness.”
“Alright,” replies Kasmiir.
Reaching deep into her flower basket, she pulls out a strange shark-like tooth, far longer than any shark tooth we’d seen.
“So I have this. If you go to Altdorf, go to the Royal College of Pharmacists and ask for Ernst Hiedelman,” says Lil’Bet as she begins tapping her nose, “Tell him Fortune sends her regards.”
Kasmiir quickly agrees and draws the tooth into their cloak.
Lil’Bet turns and says to an approaching pedestrian, “Daisy crown for the May queen?”
We misplayed the use of Spirit Binding. Cirlces is an attribute, and when binding a spirit for help, the spirit may help skills or stats. The more appropriate thing would have been to bind a gutter spirit that was wise about cultists.
I think the effect would’ve been the same, but there’s some rules interaction that I need to dive into.
I knew that James was going to have a hard time circling up someone that would be predisposed to letting James and his cargo pass through without inspection. By running off to find something else to bring along, Kasmiir advanced the story and complicated James options.
It was all good because Alhana got to practice some lower stakes Spirit Binding and establish a bit of Kasmiir’s relationship to the city. This also partially pulled against Kasmiir’s belief about sticking close to James.
Circling up an Accomplice
With the goods secured, James knew he needed a way to get the contraband out. He was going to Circle up a river patrol captain that would look the other way when the James was leaving Marienburg.
Consulting the Circles chapter, James was looking for someone above his station and with a specific disposition. Phil set the Circles test as Ob 5. James brought two dice for their base circles, two dice for their affiliation with the Rivermen’s Association, and one dice of help for Guard-wise.
Walking the harbor and wharf looking for a friendly, yet pliable face, James failed this challenging test, and Phil invoked the Enmity Clause.
Phil introduced Jens Nijlgaard, a river patrol captain from the old country, the Midden Moors, the same place where James was raised.
“Well if it isn’t the new captain of the…what’s that plank with paddles called?… Hello captain James van Shaw.”
“Jens, so good to see you. I need a favor of timely importance. I have a shipment that I need to get through as quick as possible. You know how long those patrols can take. My boat’s such a small thing, when I head out could you just let me pass.”
“Captain James, always cutting corners never getting a real job. Say, what about your sister?“ Phil misremembers Anouk as James’s sister. Anouk is James’s cousin. Femke is James’s sister. We go the sister route. I have a brief pause because I’m assuming Femke (a bandit) may be in trouble with this river patrolman.
“Yeah, I’ve written her letters and she’s never responded.”
“Just let me through without inspection. I’m not worth anyone’s time.”
Here we begin a Duel of Wits.
For those unfamiliar with Duel of Wits, players roll for their body of argument, which is similar to Hit Point (HP 📖) for this verbal exchange. Then the players privately script their actions, and we reveal and play through the results.
- James van Shaw's statement of purpose
- "I don't have time to deliver your letters. This delivery's urgent, you'll let me pass without checking the boat."
- James van Shaw's body of argument
- 7 (Will exponent of B4 with and three successes from a 5D Persuasion roll)
- Jens Nijlgaard's statement of purpose
- "Tomorrow, when you come through, I'm going to search your boat."
- Jens Nijlgaard's body of argument
- 8 (Will exponent of B4 with four successes from a 3D Interrogation roll and the 4D for a Duel of Wits with someone circled up that has the enmity clause
For James’s first exchange I script: Rebuttal, Obfuscate, Point. For Jens’s first exchange Phil scripts: Incite, Point, Point.
At the end of the first exchange, James has chipped away at four points of Jens’s body of argument. And Jens has not managed to land any points in their volleys. The remaining body of argument for James is 7 and for Jens is 4.
In the second exchange I script: Rebuttal, Point, Dismiss. And Phil scripts: Point, Point, Point.
James drops Jens body of argument to 0 as Jens manages to land a few points, reducing James body of argument to 4. James owes Jens a notable compromise.
The players agree that the compromise is as follows: Jens will let James through without inspection so long as James promises to deliver Jens’s letters to Femke.
I love the Circles mechanic. As a player, it gave me the ability to attempt to bring Non-Player Characters (NPCs 📖) into the world that might help me. And the beautiful enmity clause gives a wonderful failure state; That is, there’s a new NPC who’s predisposed against the interests of the one looking for help.
I think of all the Burning Wheel mechanics, this is the one most useful for bringing into other games. Stars without Number: Revised Edition (SWN 📖) has a connect skill which serves the same purpose; though without the robust advice on how to set a difficulty.
With this being Alhana’s first Burning Wheel session, I wanted to go through a Duel of Wits to show a bit of the mechanics. This worked out well.
Our initial bodies of argument didn’t quite work, so we reworked them to get to a better state.
I suspect they didn’t quite work because Phil and I, as Jens and James, engaged in some initial verbal sparring. In that sparring, we had already begun to negotiate our terms before we pulled back and engaged the Duel of Wits.
My advice for ensuring a better statement of purpose is to stop speaking in character, and state your characters intentions. If the intentions are clear, go to the dice.
And this is a group table skill. I know the GM is pulling someone from the narrative void, and must bring forth someone with motivation and approach. Give the GM space to orient to this new NPC; have some quick establishing words.
And to all those at the game table, those speaking in funny voices and those listening on the sides, help move the situation to the dice. Ask for the players to clarify the task at hand and the intent.
Be active participants in this moment. Ask if they’re ready to go to the dice. Ask what would need to happen to go to the dice.
These questions do two things. First it helps remind those speaking in funny voices that there are other players, some of whom may not be involved. Second, it helps remind the players speaking in funny voices that Burning Wheel has robust rules for resolving these conversations.
And the more people at the table, the quicker you should interject with those questions.
I also know that sometimes players want to get a feel for their character. In a one GM and one player game, it’s okay to keep up with the dialogue. If you’re both enjoying it, keep doing it. No one else is waiting. And sometimes, even those not directly involved may be enjoying the show.
All of this is to say, be mindful that these in character moments can devour a lot of time and may reduce some fictional tension. Two humans speaking on behalf of their characters may reach concessions that the characters wouldn’t make. They may be more agreeable with other.
And that’s not fair to the characters. Let the fates intervene and inform the players at the table how these conversations go.
We wrapped up our session and went through our Artha awards. We each achieved one of our beliefs and worked towards at least one other.
I also realized that two of my beliefs have similar directions.
Both Phil and I guided Alhana during play, and it was during the Artha award that Alhana learned about the Artha cycle.
One challenge Alhana identified is that she’s a giggles and laughs a lot. This runs contrary to Kasmiir’s character (e.g. spooky and aura of fear). We talked about some strategies, namely modeling Kasmiir a bit on the Joker.
That aught to be nice and creepy, and I’m looking forward to that.