Chatty’s New York Trip Highlights, Part 2: Queens is Burning

Earlier this week, I described some high points of my New York Comic Con experience as a D&D Dungeon Master and how I liked that.

But NYCC was only half of the reason why I got to the Big Apple that weekend. My friend Luke, designer of the Burning Wheel Fantasy roleplaying game and Free Market, was celebrating something akin to the 10th anniversary of the publication of his game on the weekend of 10/10/10 (like he did in 5/5/05). He had generously invited me to join the celebrations and I accepted.

Welcome to Fortress Astoria!

On Friday night, right after my Comic Con shift and armed with a Google map, I made my way to the New York subway to grab the Q express train to Queens to join Luke’s kickoff party.  At first, I thought it would be in some sort of restaurant that Luke had reserved… but I was greeted by Luke in his apartment’s kitchen! It was already filled to the brim with Burning Heads and various hipster east coast game designers like Jared (Action Castle, Inspectres and Free Market) and Vince (Dogs in the Vineyard and Apocalypse World).

(Indie endorsement plug: Vincent is having a huge sale of his games in PDF form.  You can buy all six of his games for 25$ or a limited time. I’d do it just for Dogs and Apocalypse if I was you)

I’ll spare Luke’s private life but I’ll say that his apartment (or Fortress Astoria as he likes to call it) was like a photo montage of my 30 odd years as a gamer. We’re both the same age and I saw toys, games, books and movies in that place that mirrored the ones I had possessed at various points in my life.

As I arrived, Luke said “ahh, here’s our celebrity guest” which made me all awkward,  but I’m forced to admit I got to meet actual fans that gave me praise for my work as a blogger and gaming advocate.  A few tried to get me riled up about D&D but I failed to take the bait, resorting to my Multi-Spectrum gamer argument: “You GM it, I’ll play it”.

One among those fans was Rafe, an active member of the Burning Wheel forums and author of Realm Guard, a Mouse Guard hack that follows the adventures of the Middle Earth Rangers of the Fourth Age (I only barely know enough of TLotR to know that this is after Frodo chucked the One ring in Mount Doom).  Rafe and I had quite a few discussions on gaming with kids and he presented me with fascinating task resolution engines for kids from toddlerhood to Tweenagers for this new game he was designing.  I’m looking forward to hear about that, especially now that my own projects are currently on ice while I focus on my health (losing weight) and my seminars (starting again next week).

A great party all in all and I was honoured to have been invited.  I got back to my hotel in Midtown in one piece, happy.

Harvey Pewter and the Burning Frog

On Sunday morning, free of my volunteering duties at the Con, I took the train again to Queens, got lost a bit and found the site of the legendary Burning Con that had been going since the previous Friday afternoon.   Games got set up on time and started while gamers ate cheese pastries and Greek lamb omelets for breakfast.

I hung in the back to let the official con goers join their games of choice, I was an unofficial guest who was running a game in the afternoon.  I finally joined a Burning Wheel game of whose Game Master, a swell guy named Guy, had flown from Britain to attend the con.  Guy’s game was set in the Frogwarts School of Magic, where Harvey Pewter, his friends and (junior) professor Falderal teamed up to find the whereabouts of Professor Mallowick, the Defense against the Dark Arts teacher somewhere in the secret dungeons of House Snakejaw.

Yeah, I found that funny too…

This game was a hilarious classic dungeon crawl. The game was enhanced by Guy’s low British-accented voice and his absolutely maddening MC Escher dungeon structure that, while giving the illusion that we had too many paths to explore, eventually lead to the same areas, but from vastly unexpected directions.

Best moment: I’m squaring off against the Draco Malfoy equivalent while  his goon is trying to send Lucy LeSud (i.e. Hermione) down a well by cutting the cord she’s holding on to with a rusted shovel.  As I realize that my opponent is way more competent at fisticuff than I am, I use my only spell named “Call of Iron”, point toward the Well and shout

Accio Shovel!”

It failed miserably… so I had to run around the cave like a Benny Hill skit to distract Malfoy while Randall was shredding the Professor Snape-equivalent into comatose hamburgers. We got out scotts free because we managed to pin the death of the assistant professor PC (he failed a Sorcery roll very badly, dying on the spot) on Snape.


Al-Chatty el-DM gets a full dose of Burning  Wheel

In the afternoon, many participants had left so I found myself without any players at my Mouse Guard Game.  I wasn’t too disappointed as I expected this to happen and was also rather tired of my weekend.

Chance smiled upon me as a very nice GM named Alexander offered me a spot in an Tales of a Thousand Nights-inspired Burning Wheel game. The game was Phenomenal.  It sold me heart and soul to the Burning Wheel system for sure, at least for story-heavy one shots (I’ll soon post a review of the Revised game which I bought and read on the train ride back home).

Here’s a short recap:

An imperial princess and her party made of her female Magi advisor, male slave (and forbidden love) and scheming female desert guide (that was me!) travel into the desert. There, they find and enter the sunken legendary Library of Worlds to uncover a cure for the Empress’ wasting disease.  In it, the Guide leads the party to the Book of Knowledge where the Magi supposedly sets out to study for a remedy (she instead researched an immortality spell for her).

During that time, the Princess flaunted her forbidden love by freeing her body slave and (ugh) reading love poems to him before setting out to research a herbal remedy for her mother as a Plan B should the Magi fail.

With 30 days to burn, the Guide and the Slave set out to find the fabled Djinn of the Library. Being unable to read, she failed to understand that she had to part with something written from her inventory and give it to the script-covered librarian-guardian paper golems or risk getting cursed.

Thus, she got touched by one and contracted a curse that turning her into one of them in as many days as she’d lived years (i.e. 22) as her life story slowly engraved itself  on her skin.

As she and the slave approached the Djinn’s demesne in an enchanted garden, the slave touches her growing mark and contracted the curse… but was  violently “cured” as the Guide, in a flash, cut his fingertips with her hunting knife.

Slave player: Duuude, now you’re really scaring me now!

Me: Don’t you realize that this is the first time my character showed any sign that she cared about you?

GM: Now you are scaring Me!  That’s something my wife would say!

The Djinn, while gracious, refused to grant any wishes unless the Guide  found one of his unused names (Oh the irony of games where reading is a skill) within the next 22 days. While she initially wanted to become the true princess and be named heiress to the empire, at that point she mostly wanted to get rid of the librarians’ curse and live.

As they returned to their studious colleagues, the guide threw down the gauntlet at the princess and demanded that research for the cure stop so that she may get the required help to find a name from the djinn and wish herself cured.

(Breaking out of character)

This is where I got a face-full of Burning Wheel’s Duel of Wits. I got to go head to head vs a PC that had great social skills (mine had NONE) controlled by one of the most experimented BW players around.  (In fact, he’s part of the Burning Wheel HQ, Luke’s inner sanctum of designers and GMs).  I had no chance to win, but I could go for a compromise if I scored a few points before conceding defeat.

Have you ever had one of these few moments where you were so immersed in a game that Roleplaying comes out of your pores like you were born to do it?  This was such an occasion.  I went to town with all the In-character info I had gathered during the game, the sadness of the librarians collective mind, the forbidden love of the princess, my PC’s hate for the Magi and the Slave’s longing for freedom and fear of my character.

Hell, I managed to squeeze aid from the slave player (even though he kept repeating “I disagree with her goal, but she’s right” and even from the GM who said “I know it’s campy but she has really exploited the princesses’ belief”.  Even though I was severely handicapped by my character’s lack of skills… I managed to wring a minor compromise.

Princess: We shall not help you find the Djinn’s name, but I will find a herbal remedy that will slow your curse.

Guide (Trading 16 days for 16 months): Fine, I shall remain in the library, teach myself to read with the help of the librarians and find one of the Djinn’s name myself!

Roll Credits on my PC’s story.  (I think the empress got cured too, but my character didn’t care… for now)

Mind… blown.

I played my PC to the core.  Most of her beliefs and instincts came into play.  Hell it’s only later in the train, where I started reading the game manual for the first time, that I learned what a big deal it was for the GM to give me an “embodiment” award after the session.


My train ride home was 13 hours long.  During that time, I read the new D&D Essentials DM kit, the basic Burning Wheel rules and the Character Generation rules. I will return to Burning Wheel in a later post as I have many thoughts on it, some stark raving positive and others quite less so.

Oh and I also got a box of Gamma World.  Can’t wait to inflict that baby on my players!

All in all a great weekend in one of my favourite cities!

Peace out!


  1. I’m very glad you had a good time: you anchored the story in an utterly compelling way, and it was a delight to see the other players–mostly more experienced with BW–feed off that and have the whole session swing along nicely.

    Thanks for being the first victim of the scenario! I’ll be tweaking the guide to have at least one social skill, so she doesn’t get totally steamrolled if she hasn’t got help. Squeezing a compromise out of a Duel of Wits you expect to lose is a key element of BW play… and it’s fantastic when the dice love you and you actually win!

  2. Had a great time, Phil! I’ll get back to you once I’ve got a playable draft of my little project and/or when I’m able to accept your offer to hit up Montreal and game with you guys. It’s great to hear a full account of your gaming on Sunday! I don’t know anyone who didn’t have a fantastic weekend! Chat with ya soon!

  3. @Alexander: I rarely get to take the role of a character in roleplaying games. To have done it with such a skilled master and such experienced and welcoming players was so rewarding. I never say the time pass and as jenskot said on the forum, we could have played for another hour… hell, I’d probably would have tried to kill the princess after luring her to the garden and given her to the Djinn 🙂

    I t was a very positive experience that will remain one of the top highlights of my New York trip. Thanks for running it. Good call on adding a social skill to the guide. While it didn’t detract from my fun, she’s already handicapped (in a good way) by being illiterate, so some street smart skills would go a long way to round her off.

    @Rafe: It was nice to meet a fan of both the game and the blog 🙂 I’m sure we’ll have fascinating talks. I’ll track you down by email so you can add me to your gTalk list.

  4. I had the pleasure to play in Luke’s BW game at Draconis with a friend of mine (Walkerp). Like you, our mind where blown away by the system especially the Duel of Wits. The game itself was very simple but the roleplaying that came out of that session was some of the best I’ve ever had. The game I ran last year was, despite my fear at running a heavy system like that, one of the best game I’ve ever GMed.

    Can’t wait to give it another crack at the next Roludothon in November.

  5. @sicnaxyz: If you recall, that’s the game I rudely interrupted to talk to Luke… I eventually shut up when I noticed my gaffe and watched your game. That was my 1st step to knowing and eventually becomming friends with him so I have you to thank for it.

    I need to digest the “leveling up” system… it’s so different from Mouseguard… but I really love it so far.

  6. I do remember 🙂

    Leveling is not so bad. The bow and fight duals though are the biggest and most complicated beast IMO. I’m not sure I’d ever use either of them. A lot of BW players say they prefer to only use simple resolution for fights instead of dual. I dunno.

    Then again, i’d love to give it a whirl. I should try to design a scene for that in my next one shot.

  7. I did one fight and it works surprisingly well. It truly is an abstract, complex combat system. It tracks sword strokes and shoves… I liked it.

  8. Speaking of Gamma World, if you haven’t seen this PA comic, you should!

  9. One of the tricks with the Duel of Wits, Fight! and Range and Cover scripted combat systems is to make sure you actually play out your volleys (in DoW) and figure out what actually happened on the battlefield (in Fight! and R&C).

    While there’s a very strong tactical component to play–by design the system rewards skilled players–it’s still a roleplaying game, and making “bad” tactical choices for roleplay reasons (or to advance skills) remains engaging, so long as you keep returning to the action for the characters.

    IMHO, the Duel of Wits can be engaged in pretty easily (it’s why characters in “The Princess, The Library and The Djinn” favour social over martial combat slightly), while Fight! takes a while to really learn, but rewards you when you do. The BW books strongly encourage players to take Fight! piece by piece, adding in positioning, stances etc. as you become more familiar, and I think that’s good advice!

  10. I’d be curious to hear a bit more about the DoW and any Fight!s you engaged in. I have just read Burning Wheel and, honestly, found the combat system a bit intimidating in its complexity (where I thought the character creation system was brilliant).

  11. @ProfPope: As Alexander said, BW is a “go as you learn” system. While highly enjoyable, it’s got a steep learning curve to master the whole system. But the basic game and character burning is still very fun and engrossing so don’t worry. Try it bit by bit.

    You also gain a lot from trying it with others. Hell that’s how I learned how to play BW, like I did with AD&D 30 years ago.

  12. Slave here!

    Alexander’s calm and soothing descriptions juxtaposed by the surreal environment we found ourselves trapped in was really creepy! Great setup, great characters, great time pressure, and I loved the visual of the library paper golems. The genie was especially memorable and freaked me out!

    Phil, you did a fantastic job portraying your character. She was in a seriously tough bind and you balanced a wide array of emotions from panic to love to desperation… I was engaged!

    The game itself needed an extra hour or to somehow condense parts of it. But that would be a shame as there was plenty of great content. It was a game where people just enjoyed watching what everyone else was doing. You didn’t even have to be actively playing to feel immersed. Maybe it’s destined as a non-con scenario? I’m not sure but I would play again!

  13. @Jenskot: Hey man! It was great playing along you when we went looking for the Djinn, he truly was a scary opponent and I played the fearless broad only because she was so obsessed about getting her wishes.

    Regardless about what happens with this Scenario, I hope I get a shot at running it when I’m up to speed with the system.

  14. @Jenskot My intent was to do both… kind of. I like the Library idea, and thought it would work for a con scenario; with some tweaking to speed up the preamble and get to the meat of it, it will do fine. One of my goals for a con scenario is not only to give folks a good time, but also to show how BW campaigns can get started, and where the scenario (which is really just 4 characters, some setting and an initial situation) might lead. We definitely had to rush at the end, but left it in a place where it was obvious there was more to do, and you all had some idea of “What’s next?”

    @ProfessorPope The best way is to get someone who’s played before to guide you a bit… but failing that, do what the books say (start simple and work up), and when you run into trouble, come visit us at the BW forums. We don’t bite too hard =D.

    Failing that: Start with simple versus tests for conflict (social and martial) until you’re really comfortable with how you work Help, FoRKs and failure to gain success or skill advancement. Then start using Duel of Wits, but expect to screw it up. It takes a bit of experience to learn when to script for victory, and when to script for compromise, and everyone screws a script up now and then. This is normal. Get used to enjoying the impact that kind of failure has on your party and your game.

    With Fight!, start with actions only (Strike, Block, Push, Lock etc.) and while it will initially take a while to figure out how to execute each volley, use the scripting sheets from the wiki to help, and then describe what you’re attempting, roll dice and figure out what happens both mechanically and in the fiction. It’s easy with an unfamiliar combat system to get bogged down in the dice, and forget to figure out what your successes and failures mean for the characters… the results can be surprising, and forcing yourselves to ‘see’ what’s going on and describe it really does help. Once you’ve got a feel for when it’s appropriate to try to Lock someone, and when you want to set for a Great Strike, add in positioning which scares some people, but does add a lot, tactically.

  15. @Alexander — Thanks! I think I am the only guy in my two gaming groups who even knows about BW (but I am trying to spread the gospel!), so I’ll have to do some traveling to learn from folks who are playing already. Your “ladder of complexity” is helpful; knowing what sub-systems to add at what point is good advice.

  16. On what planet am I a hipster? Man!

  17. @Jared: On the same one I’m a celebrity blogger. 🙂 That being said, this wasn’t meant as a an insult, more like: These guys are cool and makes cool game so they’re “hip”.

    Not in the Indie music hipster sense.


  1. […] invitation at Burning Con a few weeks back and the 2 excellent scenarios I got to play in managed to sell  me body and soul to the game system. I bought several copies of the core books […]