So last night’s Burning Wheel game was a rough, instructive and ultimately rewarding one for me. To explain why (to myself as much as you), I’m going to have to go into some detail about what has happened so far. You can skip to the “Reflections” below if you just want the takeaways.
We’re playing in a sword-and-sorcery setting inspired by the Netflix show Castlevania, me reading Stormbringer for the first time and a couple of pieces of Magic: The Gathering card art.
The concept for the game is: A generation ago, the mighty Champions of Law went out to battle the fearsome Dukes of Hell. No one knows who won the battle, only that the Champions and their demonic foes never returned. Now, Chaos and the mundane world coexist in a motley patchwork. Chaos doesn’t really oppress people, just adds totally bizarre twists to the oppression people already face. You have just come by a magic sword that can harm demons and kill mundane creatures. None of the beliefs or myths about the swords means shit. You wield them now, and it’s up to you what you do with them. [I wanted the Trueswords to break the game: they are Superior Quality longswords that deal Grey Shade damage, grant 2 Grey Shade Balance Dice, and trigger a +3 Ob Steel test for demons when first drawn or brandished in their presence.]
Characters & Events
We’ve had two very different arcs. Sam’s character Gerard started as the brat prince of a decaying backwater, and his story has been moody, psychological and novelistic, very Wizard of Earthsea. Seth’s character Lorias (who I’m going to focus on) started as a penniless desert freebooter. He got his hands on the Truesword during a caravan raid. He’s been carving an unstoppable bloody swathe through the demonic nobility of the desert city of Jenera for five sessions straight, starting with The Thing in the Mines, a serpent-woman the citizens of Jenera make a human sacrifice to every year.
It’s been a blast. Lorias has gone from a scoundrel who slew The Thing in the Mines for her treasure to being adopted by Mother Superior, the only serious worshipper of Law in the city, as a Champion who will cleanse the world of Chaos and provide a model for men to live rightly.
Problem is (in a windfall of serendipity during prep) Lorias’s enemy Tiberius, a fellow freebooter who almost got the Truesword, also happens to be Mother Superior’s disowned son.
Law Saints are not kindly paladins. They are extreme ascetics who valorize sacrificing love and loved ones to their notions of order. Their iconography focuses on physical and psychological torment (think Catholic martyrdom minus the transcendence—for Law Saints, the martyrdom is the transcendence).
Much of Mother Superior’s development as a character focused on her coming to terms with the fact that Lorias is not a righteous man (yet), and struggling with the belief that Law requires her to kill her son Tiberius, so that Lorias’s past remains a secret and he can become the Champion she believes is needed. Lorias has begun to believe that he is the Champion—we held our First Trait vote last night, and Lorias was granted Faith in Mother Superior’s dead gods.
After Lorias emerged from the Mines with the Thing’s severed head (and a bag of treasure) and was hailed as Champion, Tiberius went to the Mine-Priests, demon-worshipping servants of The Thing in the Mines and the Spider-God, to reveal his true past. The Mine-Priests attempted a Summoning to bring their deity into the world and slay this upstart imposter.
Their Summoning roll failed, and the head priest and primary Summoner Marin was consumed by the Spider-God and used as a physical shell, a broken body suspended between monstrous arachnid legs. It lurched to Mother Superior’s chapel of Law and attacked. After a gruelling fight, Lorias managed to slay the transfigured priest, but not before he mortally wounded Mother Superior. This all happened in just 30 hours of continuous in-game time.
The second-to-last-session ended with Lorias turning the Chapel into a pyre for his dead mentor (and the fire spreading to the surrounding district due to a failed Firestarting roll) and heading for the Temple of the Spider-God for a showdown with Mother Superior’s murderers. The Mine-Priests, in response, attempted a doomed Summoning roll that brought their god back into the physical plane, but cost all their lives save one—an urchin they’d adopted, now the Chaos god’s foothold in the human world.
In between sessions, I spent more time than usual prepping the Spider God. It had cool sustained spells, scary “Special Effects” for its attacks, the works. I was practically rubbing my hands together as we kicked off the session. And of course, when Lorias closed with it a few minutes later, I blew my Engagement roll, blew my Avoid roll on the first volley, and saw my cool deity cut down before it could cast its first spell.
This threw me for a loop. I told my fellow players that I was feeling off-balance, but I definitely wanted to continue. Just sharing where I was at with Seth and Sam made it much easier to keep things in perspective and manage my mood.
A successful Perception check meant Lorias had spotted his enemy Tiberius in the back of the temple, slack-jawed from a failed Steel test at seeing the Spider-God’s defeat. Lorias broke the news of his mother’s death to him while dragging him outside, and Tiberius broke down, first blaming himself (after all, he had allied himself with the Mine-Priests), and then blaming Lorias (for not protecting her).
Lorias did not comfort him. When he started blaming him for Mother Superior’s death, Lorias threw him against the wall and said “Her death is not on my conscience. Will you acknowledge me as the Champion, as your mother believed?” Tiberius spat in his face and said “You are desert scum like me. The sword could as easily have been mine. If I had held the sword, my mother would still be alive.” We went to Fight!
I started scripting actions for Tiberius. I knew he couldn’t win against the Truesword, but he did have twice as much Speed as Lorias and a good shot (or so I thought) at escaping. I dropped my actions into the chat and went to Tiberius’s character sheet (which I hadn’t reviewed since the first session) to start building die pools. To my dismay, I had forgotten that Tiberius was an archer. He didn’t even carry a blade.
I was feeling very incompetent and insecure at this point. I don’t remember if I expressed this to my fellow players. But I did want to see where the scene went. On action 1, Tiberius blew his Disengage roll and failed to escape while Lorias wound up a Great Strike. On Action 2, Lorias scored a monstrous 10 successes on his attack and cut Tiberius in half.
I was running on fumes at this point, so I was playing slow, letting Lorias take the lead. As Lorias gazed down at his enemy’s corpse, my brother looked up from the list of Faith Obs and said “I want to pray for Tiberius, that his mother’s soul accept him back in the afterlife.” That gave me a jolt of inspiration. We agreed that Ob 5 (Guidance/Minor Miracle) was appropriate, my brother rolled, and came up with 0 successes.
As the dawn broke across the tunnel, I narrated Lorias witnessing Tiberius’s spirit approaching his mother’s where she sat, in the posture of a sacred icon, among the Law Saints in the void. As he drew close, she raised her hand in a gesture of renunciation and Tiberius’s spirit was driven back into the Temple of the Spider-God. Mother Superior’s spirit returned to contemplation, not touching and untouched for eternity.
It was a heartbreaking conclusion to Lorias’s arc, and a really powerful moment for all of us.
Frankly, it took some after-game debriefing for me to get out of my own head and see how much this session contained. Again, this game of Burning Wheel has been a blast, but it has also confronted us with multiple moments where negative emotions threatened to overwhelm play: The near-demise of Sam’s character Gerard in session 1, the gutting death of Mother Superior in Session 3, and my own bumbling mismanagement of Tiberius’ final moments in Session 5.
However, these events prompted our group to start communicating about our emotional states at the table. A conversation we had in-chat after Mother Superior’s death prompted me to share how off-balance I was feeling during the final session. It also generated some really good discussion of how our group can deal with these experiences.
Sam had helpful thoughts around this topic: Something happens that bleeds but doesn’t cross a line. I would argue that these are some of the most profound moments of roleplaying, and that we must not avoid them. Instead, we need to be ready to say how we feel. No amount of “that didn’t happen” is going to take that away (again, this isn’t line crossing we are talking about, in which case “that didn’t happen” is the way to go). These moments are (at least for me) impossible to predict. And the thing is, they can feel terrible, or they can feel great because of how terrible they feel, and it can be hard in the moment to know which is which. My argument is that veils [also: taking a break and calling a time-out to talk about it] can be effective in these moments, when emotion is becoming overwhelming.
My personal distillation of this conversation was: Roleplaying is an emotional contact sport. But that doesn’t mean we’re out to hurt each other. I remember Seth told me that in rugby you have to learn how to get hit and how to hit someone else. We practice safety so that we can play unarmored.
Reflecting on the session today, I’m seeing that it really forced me to really internalize the principle that the GM is “just another player.”
If I was solely responsible for ensuring cool, affecting events occured, the game would have sucked. Instead, I find myself thinking about Ron’s rock band analogy. I didn’t play particularly well. But I played in time and on key (i.e., I did my job of tracking where we are, who is there, and what they’re doing). I didn’t get in the way of my fellow players, and Seth laid down a fucking awesome solo.