Situation Mining: War of the Burning Sky

EN Publishing’s War of the Burning Sky is a 3.5-era ‘adventure path’, and it’s got quite a lot of cool stuff. Invading dream-demon, set piece battles in icy fortresses, Council of Elrond-style gatherings of the Good Guys, and a battle inside the beating heart of a deity. Adventure paths as a format are not my preferred form of gaming, but that’s no reason to scoff at awesome ideas. The inciting incident of the campaign is as follows: Emperor Coaltongue, the sorcerer-ruler of the Ragesian Empire, has died, and Supreme Inquisitor Leska has claimed leadership of Ragesia, issuing a grand decree against magic-users. She invades neighboring countries while striking down rebellions inside Ragesia with an iron fist – all the while the resistance attempts to find and secure the Torch of the Burning Sky, a powerful artifact of Ragesia whose fiery influence is slowly seeping into the mortal world. All of these threads converge on the city of Gate Pass, a neutral settlement that stands in the way of Leska’s armies. It’s all very Lord of the Rings meets Malazan Book of the Fallen by the way of D&D 3.5 tropes. And it’s a hell of a Burning Wheel situation.

Empire in succession crisis? Check! Rebellions? Check! A state-sponsored cult of anti-sorcerous priests? Check! An ever-burning cursed forest? Check! Half-orcs actually having non-marginal roles? Check! Stalwart and aloof elves? Check! A quest for an artifact of unimaginable power? Check, check, check!

© EN Publishing.

Notes on Setting, Situation, and Rules

Adventure paths work very well as foundations and jump-off points. Make no effort to stick to the plot as written out in the text. Take a broad strokes-approach to the setting when necessary. The adventure path is not your script, so jettison whatever does not work for your game as it evolves.

For the beginning of the campaign, focusing on the initial conflict around Gate Pass is a double-edged sword. It creates a strong link between characters and starting location but it risks tying the game too much to that location and not to the greater conflict. Tie Beliefs and Relationships to the greater forces and conflicts at work, and not just to Gate Pass.

For Leska’s wizard-hostile clerics, the Curse miracle from the Codex seems very appropriate if targeted at the Sorcery skill.

The Ragesian Empire has more than a few important half-orcs running about – including the deceased Emperor, Coaltongue. If everyone agrees beforehand to play Ragesian characters, I see no harm in reducing the cost of the Fey Blood trait to 2 points to give everyone some real Orcish flourish. Or they might be outright Orcs.

Speaking of Ragesian characters, the Inquisition and/or the Imperial Court make fantastic Affiliations. On the side of the Good Guys, there are a nice catalogue of factions as well; the various polities, the Lyceum of free magic-users in Seaquen, the elves of Shahalesti, and so on. Don’t be afraid to invent new ones. Quest fantasies of this variety benefit from local factions not yet committed to the larger conflict. If only some itinerant heroes would unite them.

While Leska and the Ragesians are waging war, a race of extradimensional dream-demons are conducting their secret invasion as well. It’s just the way of things. They may or may not play important roles in your game, but they’re a good excuse to include some Corruption rules.

Cultural Traits

Ragesian Empire: Brutal, Grim, Proud.

Dassen: Firm, Passionate, Well-Dressed.

Seaquen: Erudite, Ideologue, Tolerant.

Sindaire: Agreeable, Reckless, Righteous.

Ostalin: Arrogant, Earthen, Rough Hands.

Burned-up Characters and Belief Prompts

All made with the excellent charred-black online character burner.

Lyceum Agent

  • Write a Belief your views on sorcery and why its free practice is a good thing.
  • Write a Belief about how you rationalize or deal with the dark work the Lyceum sometimes needs to do.
  • Write a Belief about a seed of corruption and decay you have glanced in the Lyceum.

Gate Pass Mercenary

  • Write a Belief about how Gate Pass has become a home for you.
  • Write a Belief about how you intend to make a lot of money supporting the resistance against Ragesia.
  • Write a Belief the shameful secret that forced you to become a mercenary.

Ragesian Defector

  • Write a Belief about how Leska’s reign of terror is destroying the Ragesia you know and love.
  • Write a Belief about what you gave up when you defected.
  • Write a Belief about how far, and no further, you will go in aiding the resistance.

Elf of Shahalesti

  • Write a Belief about the Torch of the Burning Sky and the legends you have heard of its power.
  • Write a Belief about the indignities your homeland has suffered under Ragesia, and how this drives you to act.
  • Write a Belief about how your service to the cause will further your own family’s standing in post-war Shahalesti.

Situation Mining: Umbar After Sauron

Judd Karlman established the practice of situation mining: taking ideas and premises from various media and formulating them as potential Burning Wheel campaigns with character ideas, questions, etc. His site is full of great stuff in that regard.

It’s mentioned in Tolkien’s appendices that after the War of the Ring, Near Harad and Umbar are brought under Gondorian rule. I always thought that sounded like a rich environment for a Burning Wheel game. We got a proud city-state with a shady history, whose religion has been revealed to be a sham perpetuated by the dark lord, now without its proud navy, and forced to submit to its hereditary enemy. Excellent campaign fodder. Here’s an attempt at situation mining it.

These ships? Sunk! Fantasy Flight Games 2016.

In the books, we never hear much of Umbar aside from the corsairs. Is it a kingdom? An oligarchy? Perhaps ruled by a council of the grandest corsair lords – whose power base of warships has now been eradicated. Perhaps it is ruled by a puppet prince. How do the Gondorians impose their rule? How do merchants and commoners navigate the new situation? What has happened to the former priests of Sauron? What’s political environment like after the city has been humbled so profoundly? Use the pre-game to answer these questions and fine-tune the Situation.

Potential flashpoints include choosing new leaders, new market opportunities, dealing with underground Sauron-cultists, negotiating the power vacuum left after the war. Tie the Beliefs into volatile, dramatic premises. Umbar is a small enough setting that the political and the domestic go hand in hand – milk it for all its worth! Lean into the themes of injured pride, of dark pasts, of forgiveness, redemption and rebuilding.

Sample Cultural Traits

Culture clash between Umbaran, Gondorian and Haradrim norms could be a central theme. Cultural traits in Burning Wheel don’t mean that every member of the culture actually are this way, but are rather points for how the culture is perceived and sometimes perceives itself.

Umbaran: Aggressive, Mercenary, Swaggering.

Gondorian: Dutiful, Proud, Righteous.

Haradrim: Devout, Merciless, Sharp Dresser.

Burned Up Characters and Belief Prompts

All made using the excellent charred-black online character burner.

Umbaran Ship-Noble

  • Write a Belief about the qualities and worthiness of your house, and how you aim to preserve those in the new age.
  • Write a Belief about something you admire about Gondor, reluctantly or not.
  • Write a Belief about how you need to ensure you get a say in ruling Umbar.

Ex-priest of the Dark Lord

  • Write a Belief about the connections you still have with the Dark Lord’s loyalists.
  • Write a Belief about someone you need to ally with and offer your services to.
  • Write a Belief about what you gave up to serve the Dark Lord, and how you now wish to reclaim it.

Good excuse to use the ‘Faith in Dead Gods’ rules from the Codex.

Gondorian Envoy

  • Write a Belief about some public or governance project in Umbar you wish to realize.
  • Write a Belief about your home’s history with corsair attacks.
  • Write a Belief about the pressures and demands from the crown of Gondor and how they affect you.

Haradrim Merchant

  • Write a Belief about how your business can benefit from setting up shop in Umbar.
  • Write a Belief about what you lost in the War of the Ring and how Sauron’s lieutenants subverted your home.
  • Write a Belief about some clandestine trade deal you have a part in.