In addition to my long running D&D game I am also running a Burning Wheel game. The game is heavily influenced by the Netflix animated series Castlevania. I have absolutely no love or even knowledge of the video game series the show is based on and had been largely ignoring it. When I decided to check it out, I was delighted to discover that it’s a beautiful and brutal Gothic swords & sorcery fantasy series. I highly recommend it with this caveat: season 1 is basically a “proof of concept” movie and functionally a prologue. The real story begins in season 2.
So, what does that mean for my Burning Wheel game? The pitch of the game is: vampires have decided to launch a genocidal war against humanity on the whim of one of their most powerful leaders. Another thematic point that will be relevant to the rest of this post is that The Church is powerful, corrupt and arrogant.
What this game has done is revealed there’s a thing I do, A LOT when running games. As soon as I understand what the character’s goals are I organize the situation with the intent of trying to provoke doubt about those goals. It’s not enough, for some reason, to lay out the challenges and obstacles on the path to those goals, but I always try to set it up so those things will provoke questing about whether the player/character actually WANTS the goal after all. That I do this, regularly, really leapt out at me in this game for two reasons.
The first is that character goals in Burning Wheel are framed as Beliefs. And I notice that my brain really circles the WHY part of the Belief a lot more than the WHAT part. Which is funny, because one of the pieces of advice I give to people new to running Burning Wheel is that they don’t need to get all philosophical about the PC’s Beliefs. It’s perfectly fine to “challenge Beliefs” by just dropping obstacles in their path because the rules are going to introduce all kinds of weird twists and turns for you. And yet, I don’t seem to heed my own advice.
The second reason is that this game involves religious fervor as one of its thematic pillars. So in some ways the nature of the game was primed for this thing I do. But more importantly it revealed to me how incredibly surprised and utterly thrown I am when it doesn’t work. I’ll set up what I think is this philosophically challenging situation and when the player shows unwavering devotion to their goals, I find it really startling. I find myself creatively pin wheeling and am utterly shocked that they didn’t flinch, at all.
Here are the two clearest examples of this happening in this game.
So one character is named Andrie. He’s a blacksmith whose young daughter, Anastasia, was killed and turned into a vampire. He had a Belief about slaying her corrupted body and seeing her soul elevated as a saint.
So what do I do prep Anastasia as an NPC? I make her deeply opposed to the vampire war. She thinks it's madness to provoke a protracted conflict with their food source. So she has an alternative plan: co-opt the human’s religion and gain recognition as a saint among them so that they willingly start making blood sacrifices to her and other vampires. Her phrase to her fellow vampires is, “Why reduce ourselves to farmers when we could be gods?”
To this end, she’s been visiting the poorest sections of the city and rendering aid (food and medicine) to the weak and the suffering. She’s built up a little cult around her of people who call her The Night Saint. There’s even a group of these poor and downtrodden that have organized an occupation of part of the main Cathedral demanding official recognition of The Night Saint from the church.
So, all that comes out in play and what does Andrie do? Immediately, decide that all that is vampire arrogance and heresy and proceeds to track down and kill his vampire daughter with the focus and determination of The Terminator. No doubt. No hesitation. He even killed her in front of a bunch of her followers which then led to wide scale rioting in the city since he murdered the one “person” who was actually paying attention to their plight.
In terms of play it was smooth and great because Burning Wheel has your back, but emotionally I was just stunned. And I’m writing this post because it just happened again! In this same game, but with a different player.
So, this involves The Bishop, the NPC in charge of The Church in the city. His whole response to impending vampire attack has been to organize a large Mass one the eve of the attack. He has been spreading word that when the bells ring that all the city's citizens should gather outside the cathedral to be “saved.” He has been super cagey about what he thinks this Mass will actually accomplish.
So, here comes the eve of the attack. One PC is actually up in Dragomir’s (the head vampire) castle attempting to sow enough dissent among the other vampire nobility to break unification around launching the attack at all. Another PC has simply decided he’s had enough and flat out fleeing the city. That leaves Father Lukas, a newer PC who was made because that player’s previous character had been so critically injured he didn’t want to take the downtown necessary to heal.
Father Lukas is busy trying to deal with a demon cult when the call to Mass is heard throughout the city. Lukas’ player seriously botches a series of rolls and ends up setting fire to the warehouse district and being buried under a pile of rubble. So, this means The Bishop’s Mass happens uninterrupted. I’m glad this happened at the end of a session because I needed to take some time to think about what that actually means.
The Bishop is working from an ancient and heretical ritual that was an attempt to purge mortal sin from people’s physical form and turn their blood holy. The Bishop thinks that if he does this when the vampires attack they’ll kill everyone but die in the process because the blood of their victims will be sanctified. It had already come out that the last (and only time) this ritual was performed it actually created vampires by accident. So, did I now have a city full of vampires?
I didn’t like that. Since Father Lukas was the PC that was going to be confronted with this when he wakes up, I looked to his Beliefs which are all about doing God’s will. So I decided to take a page out of Circle of Hands and it’s depiction of Amboriyon. I decide that holy energy is flowing through the Bishop unchecked and is “purifying” the citizens turning them into kind of angelic zombies seeking out those who didn’t attend the mass and bringing them into the “holy choir” divine hive mind.
Father Lukas witnesses this happening and what does he do? He goes straight to the cathedral and speaks to the glowing ball of divine energy flowing into what is left of The Bishop. The energy tells him that it doesn’t understand why the people are afraid and hiding. It wants Father Lukas to go among the people and speak to them as himself and “bring the flock home to the divine choir.”
And with absolutely NO hesitancy Father Lukas agrees. He not only agrees his first order of business is to enter (and win!) a Duel of Wits with another PC convincing them that this is the path of true salvation. The city must be brought into the fold and ascend into divine light.
And, I couldn’t help but notice that I’d done it again! Again, I set up a situation designed to invoke maximum doubt and again it was met with maximum conviction and again I found myself emotionally reeling in utter shock and amazement. This isn’t a complaint. None of my players are doing anything wrong. For that matter I don’t think I’m doing anything wrong. It’s just this deep pattern in my games has been revealed to me and I’m not quite sure what to make of it.