Aabria Iyengar is doing an amazing job as the DM of Critical Role’s latest mini-series, Exandria Unlimited. There was a moment I want to highlight as a technique that newbie DM’s need to know and veteran DM’s need to remember.
The moment is small, blink and you might miss it. It isn’t a moment where she’s making an NPC with depth and Machiavellian motivations. It isn’t a moment where she describes a magic elemental rift or a giving personality to a monkey made of fire. In the example below, she sets boundaries and lets her friends at the table know that she’s done and would like to move on.
The players have been shopping for more than 40 minutes and Aabria has been playing NPC’s, having those NPC’s cut deals and feel bad for characters, flirt with characters and quote prices for magic items (and just make items up) for that entire span of time.
Then she does this, watch for a few minutes, starting at around 2:47:18:
There isn’t enough of that in tabletop gaming. We elevate the DM/GM/Storyteller/Referee/Hollycock God above the table as if they are an omniscient party motivator/fantasy novelist. Putting the night’s fun on one person’s shoulders is a bad idea. Bad games become good and good games become great when everyone at the table takes responsibility for the table’s fun. DM’s are players too (not deities, not authorities on the rules, not judges who dispense blue lightning bolts when folk do wrong). Set your boundaries. Tell your friends that you are done with this and would like to move on.
Watch Aabria Iyengar at the table if you want to watch someone who is full of rocking descriptions, amazing NPC’s and cool fantasy ideas but will also pump the breaks and say, “I’m done with this, my friends. Let’s move on and get to something more fun.”
In which we meet Clave who gets out of Ironhook in time to do his first job with the crew just in time to put on Ironhook overalls on and pretend to be convicts in order to break in to a Leviathan Ship with a secret science-cult in its depths.
Jason and Sean were back with us playing Maud and Charming, the gang’s Whisper and Cutter. Mad Jay joined us with Clave “The Wrench” Davaa, the crew’s new Leech. Clave was on the engineering team that did upkeep on the Imperial Army’s first War Hulls back in the war but was put into Ironhook after lashing out against his C.O.
The Unity War, specifically being involved in the battle at Barghast Bay is the magnetic force that brings the group together.
There was this nice player moment where Mad Jay had Clave say something cool and Jason’s Charming said, “I missed you, mate.”
It gave Clave context in the group and was a welcoming move and creative decision.
I was having trouble finding a grip on the game and getting things moving and had one vague idea for a job. I spent more effort describing the folder the job’s intel was in than the job itself because let’s face it, the job was vague.
The Hive offered info on a science-cult on a Leviathan ship, the Dunvil Rover, that was their largest client in human trafficking. Nothing to steal, no one to kill, just info to do with as you will on a former client who might lash out now that their line on fresh humans is dried up.
There was a moment when I realized this might be just too damned vague and let them know that if this job wasn’t juicy enough, they could always take some turf.
In the end, they took the job that ended with a Leviathan ship on fire in the harbor – The Usual Suspects-style. The Heat on this job was astronomical – the worst ecological disaster in Duskwall history.
An NPC named Cricket really came to life, so much so that Sean might play him for a while while Maude takes jail-time to deal with the crew’s Heat.
The game starts at around 56 minutes in if you want to skip the character burning and belief writing.
Our scoundrels were not going to make it to the table tonight, so we went to the Burning Wheel Campaign Ideas and chose one. Sean got stuff ready so we could stream and he got it up in about fifteen minutes; it was a heroic effort.
Sean narrowed it down to 3 and he chose some of my favorites from the list. In the end we chose this one:
BW campaign idea: You are a shoeless peasant. The armies of the dwarves, elves and humans will soon clash near your home. #burningwheel
Sean did a great job of walking through the lifepaths and teasing out the setting implications of his choices. Bina was a captive of war turned servant who married into the village, built around a tower at the crossroads. Bina has a husband who is a wheelwright and a lover who is a hunter. She has a 4 year old child. She serves the lord knight who rules this tower at the crossroads, where farmers from all over meet for market.
To the north are the mountains, ruled by dwarven princes. To the south is the ancient forest, ruled by elves. To the east is the capital, ruled by the human ducal council. The elves forbid anyone from going too far west.
I peeked at an old article, Elves at War, on the BW forum written by Luke.
Convince Deek to flee.
Keep Bodnar from raising the alarm.
Keep Bodnar’s flagon full.
We got up and moving pretty fast. In that time we cleared up our expectations. Sean seemed to be expecting a fast and furious one-shot but I’m more into a long, slow burn with BW. I’m glad we cleared that up.
Sean definitely burned up a character who gave me plenty to work with but it was challenging. Bina is not a traditional fantasy novel protagonist and I liked that. As the situation demanded, she is a normal person swept up into an epic and dangerous event.
Deek Nandor – Bina’s husband, a wheelright
Nara – her 4 year old daughter
Sir Bodnar Butond – the knight in whose tower she serves
Vas – her hunter lover, tired of waiting, wants to run away with her
I prodded at Bina for a few hours. We rolled some dice, played out the consequences – did a Duel of Wits and learned how far Bina will go. We got to know the place, this lonely tower at the crossroads where farmers and shepherds brought their goods to market. We got to know the important people in Bina’s life a bit. I left Sean with a terrible choice, putting the life of the lord-knight directly into her hands.
In which the Wobbegong Crew try to set Maude’s demonic mistake right, angering the Hive and the Lampblacks in the process and brutally fail in the mines under Coalridge.
In the end this game happened because Maude failed some rolls and turned Coalridge into a charnel house. Sean decided that Maude had a conscience, which is a gutsy and fun decision. My favorite parts of this game were when the players made decisions for their characters that gave the situations and supernatural setting stuff real weight.
Maude deciding that she had to own up to her mistakes and ask the gang to do a job to make it right.
Willoughby and Charming acting scared when meeting Roric’s ghost.
It is one thing to have a Heavy-Metal-Album-Cover Demon unleash hell in a city district and having a ghost smoking a cigarette but Sean, Rob and Jay’s decisions gave it all real weight and feeling. It was inspiring.
Everyone had moments where they shined and the group is getting better at playing off one another. From Charming making brutal use of Willoughby’s truth-hearing to the way Willoughby managed to be the only person to escape.
We learned a bunch about Duskwall tonight. From the warehouse where the Hive sells people and their brutal security teams to the fact that if you sacrifice the right people on the Saint of Witch’s altar you can rummage around in the dead bodies and pull out weapons.
Lucella: accountant for the Hive – sacrificed to the Saint of Witches
Atreus: The Saint of Witches blood-thirsty son, now roaming free in Coalridge.
We were going to do a job concerning the hostage they had and using that leverage to broker peace between the Red Sashes and the Lampblacks but Maude had a problem. She had unleashed a demon into Coalridge and the word I used to describe the quarantined district was charnel house. It was weighing on Maude’s mind.
Charming and Willoughby agreed to put the hostage job aside and help Maude try to put this demon back in the bottle. Charming grabbed 2 people from a Hive-owned warehouse where they stored slaves, or as the Hive calls them, Product. He grabbed a guard and an accountant.
Willoughby found a coin-generating job to do in Coalridge, finding out that a factory foreman had a vault with treasure in still in the deserted district. It was a way to make some money on the endeavor. They never got to it.
Maude took the 2 human-traffickers from the Hive and killed the one still alive. The Saint of Witches put weapons inside them. It was squicky! Killing someone in a fight is one thing but killing an accountant who is chained up, even one who helps the slave trade was uncomfortable for all of us. It wasn’t over the line but it was close.
The failed their engagement roll and ended up in the crossfire between the Spirit Wardens and the demon and its cultists. Turns out the cultists were Lampblacks.
It was a total disaster. They prowled into position. Willoughby provided a distraction, acting like a scared citizen. After that it was a disaster. Charming broke against the demon in an assault – he trauma’d out. Maude tried to channel the demon’s mother’s voice. She failed to contain that much energy and vomited blood.
Willoughby wanted to grab Charming and bounce but she rolled a 5. She got out but Charming stayed.
I don’t keep track of the players’ stress; they do that. When Charming trauma’d out it was a surprise to me. The stress mounted slowly and surely. The scoundrel’s grind is brutal.
Demons are no joke.
I liked the way it all shook out. I can’t wait to see what happens next.
In which the duo tracks down Roric and smuggles his ghost past the Dimmer Sisters, then use downtime to begin to work on Roric’s dilemma and tend to their goat problem in the now quarantined Coalridge.
Link to Twitch Video will be linked here.
I thought we were going to have a full crew and get on with another job but the Brothers B couldn’t make it, so we were left with Pete and Sean, the players of the original Roric Job. After six weeks away, it was super-satisfying to get back to it and finish this one.
Maude and Skannon have cool links to the spectral arts and compliment each other well. Jobs with 2 characters are hard on those characters and they paid for it in stress.
Maude had a cool moment using Roric to push out the ghost who had been hijacking space in her head previously and then using Quicksilver to hack the Dimmer Sisters’ telepathic network in order to save Skannon when the Sisters cornered him in the ghost realms and held him there, drowning him in the spectral dimension.
Skannon is just cool. Even when he fucks up and even when the dice screw him, I like how Pete is always describing him watching out the door, getting an angle on the stairwell of the tenement or leading the Dimmer Sisters away from the entrance to HQ in an attempt to misdirect them away from Roric’s actual ghost.
Thank goodness the clocks were saved on roll20‘s interface. This is what really allowed us to pick up where we left off six weeks ago as if almost no time went by. The clocks for the Wobeggong Crew finding Roric and then the Dimmer Sisters finding him were the only ones that got ticked off but when the game was over, I decided to leave the Spirit Warden clock in the mix. The Gondoliers and the Railjacks might have moved on but not the Spirit Wardens. I like that, as if somewhere in their labyrinthine HQ a file is stamped with NOT FOUND in red ink with a picture of Roric’s prison headshot peaking out of a file.
Roric, he’s still in the mix. They didn’t turn him over to Lyssa or the mystery bidder. I picture him played by Giobanni Ribisi and I’m glad he gets to become a more regular NPC, maybe even a patron for the gang. I’ve had conversations with him in my head and I’m eager to get him onto the table.
Zamira, the lady Roric hitched a ride in to get away from the various parties hunting him down – a captain of a canal skiff that sells produce. She’s a nice lady who got thrown into nasty business.
Tackle, the barkeep who is a retired scoundrel. He’s got one hand from back in the day when the City Council decided that taking the hands of thieves was a good law to bring back into fashion and of course he’s got an Iron Hook tattoo. He saw Roric grow up.
Lenia, the former Mistress of Spies, living in a mahjong parlor in Nightmarket’s Little Dagger neighborhood. She’s a Dagger Isles NPC who Pete made up whole cloth and I love her.
The Dimmer Sisters are fleshing out in my head and I adore them. Pairs of young women in black dresses, holding hands, floating a few inches off the ground, levitating across the canals and choking with their minds. Each pair named for an hour on the Doskvol clock.
I liked them so much I had them write a letter to the gang after the game was over and sent it to the players.
The letter arrives by post, addressed to this hotel’s listing back when it was in operation, decades ago, as if you were guests there and not squatters. The stationary has delicate white lace borders. The handwriting looks like a spider danced on the paper to form the letters.
One of your goats has broken from its tether and is devouring the perennials in our neighbor’s garden. The authorities are involved and it is a frightful mess. Please see to it at your earliest convenience.
Congratulations on your most recent professional endeavor. As you well know, our company was in the bidding for that contract but you proved yourselves spiritually savvy in ways we had not anticipated. Bravo, say we. Bravo.
We, along with our entire community, will be watching your handling of the goat situation with keen interest and the highest hopes.
Coalridge is under Spirit Warden quarantine and when Maude approached the mine where the Saint of Witches’ son is holding court, it was surrounded by Spirit Wardens, specifically, the Demon-Killers, who are like Spirit Warden Spec-ops.
The job was tense and fast paced. Having other gangs trying to do the job makes it tense and drives things along. I really liked that. The other crews never made an appearance but it was still a good time. Bounty hunting jobs are cool.
There were times when I really thought Skannon and Maude were going to fail this one. It was also the Wobeggong Crew’s first foray into a spectral/arcane job because of the characters at the table.
I loved the choices Sean and Pete made throughout this job and they had some tough ones.
In the end, they decided not to hand Roric over to anyone and he paid them out of secret stashes he had hidden around the city.
I’m getting a feel for when to push for harm, when to complicate things and when to push to a more dire roll. I feel like I’m spreading the different results around based on the context and the fiction in ways that I’m enjoying.
Pete and Sean were out, so it was Rob and Jay playing Charming and Willoughby. I’ve been gaming with these guys since I was 12 years old. They were both there when I first gamed.
I like the structure of Blades in the Dark because when people can’t show up I can just say, “It is the day of the job and 2 members of the gang don’t show up. This is normal; this is what happens when you work with criminals and scoundrels. Everyone is notoriously unreliable.” Easy-peasy to explain away absences.
The Fog Hound Gang: A moment of silence for Margette Vale, the gang’s fearless leader and Bear, former Imperial Marine turned smuggler. The only survivor was Goldie, a navigator with a head full of gold teeth who took a liking to Willoughby.
I pulled the info for this gang from the book. The details included there made it easy for me to incorporate them into the Hive’s newfound patronage.
Brill: We got to meet Willoughby’s drug dealer and rival – one of those social drug dealers who makes his living by providing a nice atmosphere and welcoming people into his apartment/warehouse home. He makes his house the party.
Worth noting that it is now agreed that Willoughby will go talk to the Billhooks to get them off of Brill’s back.
Kross Pritchard: This smug bastard Hive-agent was back as the gang’s handler for this job.
Hix Comber: Ink Rake who the Fog Hounds were watching, deciding if they could trust her or not.
They heard some background noise about the Lampblacks and Red Sashes going to war but from the word on the street, no bodies had been dropped just yet but word was it was about to turn into Barghast Beach in the city streets of Doskvol.
Rob had Willoughby make a Gather Information roll to find out about the Fog Hound and it just kept escalating. Rob and Jay definitely go by the Player’s Best Practice mentioned in the book, GO INTO DANGER, FALL IN LOVE WITH TROUBLE. Shit, Jay is driving Charming as if he’s a stolen car.
At the end of Rob’s string of escalating rolls, we went from a party at a drug-dealer’s house to Willoughby and Goldie in the hold of the Fog Hound ready to make out but due to a failed roll, Goldie knew something was up and drew a knife.
I hit pause there and went to Jay.
Realizing this was about to pop off, I got Jay involved quickly, not wanting Charming to miss the whole job. Charming was on his way back from the Pig Pit, where he trained during his downtime when he saw Willoughby, dressed as a rich tart, walk by with the Fog Hound Gang. Charming followed them there before launching a frontal assault on the steamship.
After that, it was a blur of rage essence and sleep dust and slaughter. In the end, Willoughby had Goldie drugged asleep and Charming was gut-shot on the deck, covered in blood, surrounded by bodies.
Goldie told them that the Hive is selling Skovlander kids. The Fog Hound Gang was going to get that information out and expose them. That didn’t sit right with Charming or Willoughby but in the end, they delivered the goods and lied about everyone being dead.
Upon being set free, Goldie said he was going to go out into the Void Sea, get a gig and get away from land to clear his head. Willoughby told him to seek them out and work for them when he returned and she intimated that they’d finish the make-outs they had begun before knives and sleep-dust started to get drawn.
They got a good 6 Coin haul off this gig and they are now officially a Tier 1 gang. Their Heat is way up there after this job but frontally assaulting a gang on a public dock will do that.
Due to the way rolls escalated, we missed the Engagement Roll, which is fine. That mechanic is there to set the scene and start the job from an action packed scene. We did that fine on our own this time out.
I got to rock out and dish out some harm. As a matter of fact, I didn’t use clocks once in this job. It was honestly moving just too damned fast. We got a resistance roll and lots of stress. I laid off the clocks tonight. None were advanced tonight.
I upped Harm, dealt out Heat and put characters into Desperate rolls as parts of Devil’s Bargains. It felt like I was dealing out lots of Desperate rolls tonight.
When we stopped at 11 I kind of wanted to do the Downtime and keep going but Rob wisely got us to bed by ending the game. 2 hour sessions, one game for a job, another for downtime seems like it is going to work really well for us.
I’m getting the hang out the Desperate/Risky/Controlled position and the Great/Standard/Little effect. We’re hitting our stride and the time spent in-character is increasing as our system mastery get’s better and we understand the short-hand of what is going on. Interesting and really fun.
NOTE: I messed up the way the crew increases it’s tier. They have to pay coin to go up to tier 1. Noted! Lots of moving parts all spinning to put pressure on them.
I had a really rocky start because I felt like I was having to concentrate on so many things all at once.
Pete had to cancel last minute, so I had to do a bunch of technical and boring things to make Jay and Rob’s faces fit where they were supposed to on the damned screen. Basically, this meant I spent 45 minutes on the computer before the game with Rob and Jay signed in, cussing at the computer as I re-set the entire set-up of the game’s back end in a bunch of fiddly ways.
Once we got moving, I didn’t hit the record button. Does the channel record ? Do I have to hit the record button on my end?
I have no idea.
The stream’s image froze up, according to chat. We re-set at the break but how long was it frozen?
Juggling this stuff while running a game is really difficult. Respect to the RPG twitch-streamers out there doing this every day.
That said, I like streaming games and I dig getting to interact with chat but there will definitely be a feeling out period for a while.
Leon F. Czolgosz, the assassin. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <” rel=”nofollow”>https://www.loc.gov/item/90707285/>;.
The Corliss Bevel-Gear-Cutting Machine. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <” rel=”nofollow”>https://www.loc.gov/item/2004678678/>;.
In which the gang lets off steam, trains in the Pig Pit, studies a demon-goddess’ altar, gets some artifact trinkets back from the Billhooks, and made contact with a barrister representing mercantile interests (and stole his watch).
Muade, the gang’s Whisper joined the group; Charming knew her from the Unity War; they fought together on Barghast Beach, one of the bloodiest engagements of the war. I’ve known Sean for years and I’m excited to finally be able to game with him.
Skannon’s nickname is The Crow and that is what we called him for most of the game.
Charming hasn’t met a problem that a proper assault wouldn’t solve.
Willoughby was out indulging in her vice (as Rob couldn’t make it due to work responsibilities).
I was surprised at how many places and people we generated through downtime.
Bug – Billhook, saved by Wobeggong Crew from prison barge who keister’d one of the Goat-Matron’s idol children
The Goat Matron, Saint of Witches, and her 13 Young – altar/engine, connected to an ancient demon-goddess and her brood
Grine – pub-owner being tortured by Coran after having stolen from the Billhooks
House of 11 Pleasures – brothel and tea-house owned by The Hive
The Pig Pit – a fighting pit run by the Billhooks where Charming works out
Phin Rowan, Barrister with Rowan, Dunvil and Welker – property and acquisitions lawyer
Queen Bee’s Nest – pub in Nightmarket where the gang dropped off a message to The Hive.
Clocks are hitting the table and I’m also looking at the clocks in the book that go with each faction, particularly clocks for The Hive, the Bluecoats and the Billhooks but also thinking about the coming gang-war between the Red Sashes and the Lampblacks as fun background noise.
Blue Coats Hunt Down Shannon, 0 of 4
Learn the True Nature of the Artifacts, 8 of 8
Maude completed the clock, letting her know all about the Goat-Matron’s altar and the names of the Saint of Witches’ children.
Three 6’s on the attune role when learning about the blood altar to a goat-headed witch-saint. LOVE IT.
Maud Becomes High Priestess of the Goat Matron, 1 of 6
The Hive Seeks Recompense from Charming, 3 of 4
This last one is like throwing a grenade into the game after the fuse is just about gone. Charming got his time-piece by menacing the mercantile conglomerate’s barrister but he’ll have to pay the price for it eventually. See below for more on this interaction.
Jay had asked that we spend more time in-character this game and get to know our characters a bit. I welcomed that suggestion and tried to step sideways to the mechanics and encourage free play as much as possible. This meant that Downtime took a while and we didn’t get to the Job but that is okay. I feel like we fleshed out the gang and breathed some life into our Duskwall.
Sean joined us and he knows this game backwards and forwards. We would’ve done fine with downtime on our own but he helped us realize the importance of teamwork, even during downtime along with a thousand other details he informed us of quickly, rather us looking it up.
Sean gave us good pointers. I think we used a bit more teamwork than we would have in our downtime.
I’m going to read up on Stress & Trauma and Consequences & Harm. I feel like I’m not comfortable with the link between those mechanics and Action Rolls. I need to refresh.
I’ d like to look at one scene in particular:
[I’ll have the youtube video set to this scene later]
Charming wanted the barrister’s time-piece. Crow wanted Charming to chill so that the gang could secure The Hive as a source of lucrative jobs. It was a tense moment. Sean jumped in as a rules moderator, letting us know our options. Jay and Pete checked in one with another throughout. It was good stuff and a clock was created out of it. I liked how they both stayed respectful towards each other’s characters; there was affection between Charming and Crow even as they disagreed that was nice.
Those moments are tricky. I don’t want a fractured gang messed up by infighting but some friction is fun.
It is an odd thing to have a video record of a game. It was surprisingly fun having a dozen or so folks (mostly friends and online friendly acquaintances) in chat, cheering the game on. Thank you to everyone who watched, thanks to the Actual Play Team for hosting our game and thanks to Sean for walking us through this process.