Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Narrative for non-wounding hits

In the last couple of months I've listened to a number of D&D 5e actual play podcasts courtesy of the Podcast of Foes series. Of the many things I've noticed is the way in which combat hits are narrated. Most GMs and players describe hits in the same way.

The weapon creates a wound.

I mean that even if it's a dagger used against a paladin in plate, the narrative is still about the dagger drawing blood or sinking into flesh. Hit points seem to be a bit more nebulous than that. They're a pool of points used to describe fatigue, bruising, cuts, poisoning, burns, infection, psychic pain, and so on. As such, we need to tailor our narrative to each strike. Let's consider a paladin with full hit points taking a few different hits.

From a lizardman's spiked shield: "The shield crashes into you, each spike delivering a painful bruise."

From a rogue's poisoned dagger: "The dagger thuds against your armour, and slides across to find the space between the plates, nicking your skin."

From an orc's sword: "The orc's sword comes down in an overhead arc. You lift your heavy shield high to block it and stagger back from the effort required to hold back the brute."

From a monk's flurry of blows: "The monk moves faster than your armour allows. Strikes land and miss, but all of them force you back and forth under the weight of your armour. It's exhausting."


The challenge is to find a fit between all the aspects that hit points represent and the details of the attack. The other challenge is to break the mental model that all attacks create wounds. As players we need to change the way we think about hit points.

I'll take a leaf from Vincent Baker's theorising about games. He described it as an interaction between Dice and Clouds. It's probably more accessible than using semiotics theory to describe it, so let's go with it.

The dice (the physical game component) have produced a number. The number is interpreted by the rules as a hit. The hit needs to be translated by the players into the cloud of the narrative. We know the first two parts of this chain quite well and have the opportunity to do better with the third part. Broadening our understanding of what hit points represents opens the possibilities for how to convert the interpreted die result into fiction.

So think broadly! What else does a successful hit look like in your game?

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Fight me!

I posted earlier this week that my next session of Burning Wheel would use the Fight! rules. This is one of the features that people raved about when the game was published. Naturally, I was excited.

We got into it. Two of my players know the rules well so I often lean on them for rules help. They were great! They know the ins and outs of it. They suggested ideas and rules interpretations. We had the fight.

And I hate it.

I fucking hate it.

It took an hour to resolve six volleys. The stakes were resolved nicely but the effort required to get there was far more than was necessary. Because of these rules, my once-a-fortnight game turned into treacle. I couldn't move. I couldn't breathe. The story became a statue. Nothing happened. Two hours of gaming advanced the story almost nowhere.

That makes me sad and angry. I wanted this to be glorious. I wanted it to be active and meaningful. I feel disappointed that it's not the play experience I had expected.

Part of me wants to convert it to DramaSystem, Fate, or even D&D. That's unlikely to win me any friends in the group. I'll probably just never use the Fight! rules again.


Intermission: I wrote all of that in the 30 minutes after my game finished last night. Then I slept on it before coming back to it.


I still fucking hate it.

I was ready to sell all my Burning Wheel Revised books, or give them away as a prize at the next Go Play. I just wanted the foul things out of my life for the time I won't ever get back. Instead, I've mellowed a bit to figure out what I've learned from this.

I've learned that I don't like the Rim of Burning Wheel. In the last couple of games I've tried the Duel of Wits and Fight! to add something to our experience. The Rim doesn't suit my comfortable play style at all. After a good night sleep I've come to the conclusion that I like shorter fights, perhaps no more than a few rounds of action. Poison'd fits that category nicely. So does Primetime Adventures, most Fate games, DramaSystem, low-level D&D, and so on. So what does that mean for my game?

Bloody versus linked tests. That's about as complicated as I want to get for a fight in Burning Wheel. If a simple bloody versus test doesn't suit the story then I'll make it a linked test of three to five tests with a mix of fighting styles or agility or whatever it is the scene needs, and be done with it. I'll be able to handle multiple combatants more easily and get to a resolution within five minutes.

Will I ever use the Burning Wheel Rim again? Very unlikely. I'll keep playing the Hub and Spokes of this game, though, but the Rim has suffered a mortal wound and there's no coming back.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

There's going to be a fight

My next session of O Mortal is tomorrow night and I've decided there's going to be a fight. Well, it's Burning Wheel so I guess it's a Fight!

I've been apprehensive of this in BW because I'm unpractised with the Fight! rules. Furthermore, I'm unpractised with the multi-character Fight! rules. There's a great worked example of it that I've read and that will inform me, for sure. Let's see how it goes.

Of course, I'm just the GM and I strongly pursue the idea that we should play to find out what happens, but I'm also a participant in the game and that gives me space to bring elements to the story. I'm not railroading, I'm being creative. And if that sounds lame to you, let me add that I've no current idea who is going to start the fight but the players have made enemies and some of them don't mind killing their way to success. I have plenty to choose from. Lameness has been overcome.

Now you may imagine a GM cackle all the way between now and the end of the game session.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Queen Rowena of the Lakes

As Ken Hite always says, "No invented setting is as interesting as the real world." Well, something similar to that, anyway. Having heard him talk about this idea, I think he's right. Put whatever skin on it you like for space opera or high fantasy, he'd say. The point is that the events, motives, machinations, and so forth of real earth history present a vast source of inspiration for games.

I'm using this principle in my Burning Wheel game. For example, one of our protagonists is Lord Alain Fitzroy, bastard brother of Queen Rowena of the Lakes. Rowena rules Fournemouth, one of the four mannish kingdoms. Now that my players have added her to the game, I can work my GM magic on this character. She needs to be interesting, with depth, with flaws and terrors, with connections. So let's turn to history.


The ever wonderful and terrifying Elizabeth I of England. Never married but often pursued. A brilliant mind from youth. Attacked by religious authorities but refraining from persecuting. Monarch in command of one of the great powers of Europe, yet able to foster the cultural growth that included Shakespeare.

That's my inspiration for Queen Rowena of the Lakes.

But let's put boundary around this. Although Elizabeth was many things, that doesn't mean Rowena is all those same things. As GM, I can cherry-pick what I need from Elizabeth without needing to bring all of it. Fournemouth has the prosperity and power of England, and has good relations between the state and the mystical. Fournemouth has a significant naval presence in the Keon Sea. Rowena rules over all of this.

And Rowena is the centre of conspiracy. In this game, Lord Fitzroy believes that there is a conspiracy against her and he will uncover it. Rowena has attended the executions of people found guilty of treason, adding weight to the feeling of suspicion in the game. This is the aspect of Elizabeth that I draw on for the larger plot, keeping the players moving.

Around the edges, though, is her unmarried status. The setting is patriarchal (ugh... medieval Europe...) but she resists. The suitors and the lords and the other kings and the advisors are all kept at bay by her choosing. She, like Elizabeth, is a woman of intellect and power, and marriage would only dilute it.

Let's see how things transpire with an Elizabeth on the throne.