Monday, March 19, 2007

A Look at Burning Empires

In my last full length post regarding game innovation, I hinted a little bit at the idea of tabletop RPG rules really only existing to mediate combat.

That was only the tip of a very large and formidable iceberg of RPG design theory.

D&D - The Standard

I would venture to guess that when the overwhelming majority of people think of tabletop RPGs, they think of Dungeons and Dragons. This is for good reason, since it is clearly the most widely played based on sales and licensing.

The D&D rulebooks (currently in "version 3.5") encompass a wide variety of rules related to character creation, combat, rewards for combat ("experience points" or "XP"), and character advancement (using that XP).

Now under the covers of those four things, there is a LOT going on, but if you understand it in those terms you'll have a pretty good idea what the aim of the rules in D&D are meant to mediate.

Given the basic rules of D&D, you can engage in entertaining combat using a very well thought out and detailed system that covers everything from swinging a sword, to hurling a fireball, to turning into a dragon if your character is powerful enough. It's why it is so easy and natural to make computer games based on D&D type mechanics: it provides a nice combat engine around which you can wrap a story.

Now, Dungeons and Dragons is historically built on the precepts of a Tolkien type universe. This is a world of elves, dwarves, orcs, and other fantastic creatures. As such the character you play is typically going to be from a fantasy type setting. Many players enjoy "acting out" these roles to add an extra element to the game, and this is where the real fun of playing these types of games comes for me. This type of "in character" speaking/acting lends itself to interesting storytelling and makes the stakes of combat and other mechanics seem that much more important, as we become emotionally attached to the characters.

This is a matter of setting, however, not system. The elves and dwarves and whatnot can easily be replaced with Vulcan and Borg. The important thing is the idea that players can become attached to their characters through storytelling. Which brings me to my next point.

There is nothing inherent in D&D (and most other systems of this type) that actually lends itself to storytelling.

Think about that for a second. One of the major reasons many people play D&D and tabletop RPGs is to involve themselves in a story, and yet most of these games have no rules or mechanics that encourage/mediate this sort of play.

Now, it's obvious rules to do that are not necessary. The folks I've played these types of games with over many years have all been excellent storytellers, and I like to think we've spun some good yarns. But it does give one pause: did we do all that in spite of the rules, just throwing out/trimming down complexities that got in the way of our storytelling?

The Forge - System Does Matter

I have heard a certain notion about role-playing games repeated for almost 20 years. Here it is: "It doesn't really matter what system is used. A game is only as good as the people who play it, and any system can work given the right GM and players." My point? I flatly, entirely disagree.

- Ron Edwards, System Does Matter

On the Adept Press forum known as "The Forge", Ron Edwards posted this shot across the bow of traditional thinking about RPG systems.

In that same article (and later ones), Edwards expanded upon ideas put forth in the Threefold Model of RPGs, which divides players (and therefore games) into 3 broad buckets:

1) Gamist - Players who like having a chance to win. They need mechanics interested in resolving contests. Things like D&D and Shadowrun are good for these types of players.

2) Narrativist - Players who like participating in a good story. They need mechanics that will help drive a story forward. Sorceror and Dogs in the Vineyard are good examples of this.

3) Simulationist - Players who want a system as realistic as possible. Edwards suggests that GURPS and Pendragon fall under this category.

Most of you are probably looking at that breakdown and thinking one of two things:
1) No category can define me, man!
2) Yeager, you are a huge nerd.

I agree with you on both points. Obviously these categories aren't going to define any one style of player precisely. I myself prefer a game focused on story, but sometimes you just want to lead an army onto the battlefield and split the skulls of a battalion of imaginary orcs in twain.

BUT, based on these categories and what I just said I like in my games, it should be apparent that I'm not playing the right type of game to really nourish the preferred style of play. Keep in mind here that I'm not criticizing D&D or Shadowrun or any of those games with this statement: I've been playing them for years. Clearly I really enjoy them. But it still makes one curious about the possibilities of a system that makes efforts to get mechanics that go beyond simply: "Roll to see if you hit it with your sword."

You're Having Fun, So What's Really the Problem?

When you are playing a "Gamist" style game, but what you're interested in playing is the "Narrativist" style, you run into some pitfalls.

Any "Gamist" style game is capable of supporting RP. If the players are into their characters and the setting (again, not to be confused with system), good RP is going to result.

However, it can be difficult to make sure that everyone gets time in the spotlight. There are no mechanics in place to stop that guy who wants all the attention to be on him. If he has a forceful personality, outside of telling him "Shut up", nothing in the rules can really stop you.

If you have a twink player who loves to exploit the rules for every possible edge, his character is going to become unbalanced with the rest of the party. The problem here is as a GM you try to create challenges and situations that involve everybody, but again nothing can stop that guy from owning every dragon you throw at him while everyone else stands around and watches.

In other words, a disproportionate amount of the onus falls on the GM to drive story forward. Not only is the GM responsible for putting together the scenarios, if you want a good story with everyone involved and invested you really need to go out of your way to make sure that happens. You need to intuit what it is the players want from you based on how they react to certain things and try to give it to them.

This goes back to Edward's hypothetical "Herbie the GM". If Herbie is a good GM, he'll make it all work regardless. But it sure would be nice if the system helped make it work.

Um... You Were Going to Talk About Burning Empires, Right?

First, let's talk about something in Burning Empires that is sure to get every player emotionally invested in the game right from day one.

World Burning.

Before you get too excited, I probably should have mentioned that "burning" is interchangeable with "creation" in the lexicon of this game. So when you see things like "world burning", "technology burning", "character burning", etc., you are not actually lighting things on fire. I understand your disappointment, but trust me, it's still cool.

The first session of your game will consist of World Burning and Character Burning, in that order. World Burning is a collaborative effort in which you choose the type of planet your game will take place on in terms of climate, available technology levels, quarantine rules, and a host of other things. This isn't just an exercise in creativity: the choices made will determine starting disposition pools for the good guys (the humans) and the bad guys (Vaylen, parasitic worms that take over your brain and steal your body). Disposition is part of the macro story economic of the game: by using maneuvers (segments of play time), you are trying to reduce your opposition's disposition to zero. We'll touch more on maneuvers in a bit, but for now it is enough to know that the choices you make about your world have a tangible effect on your game through mechanics right away.

Next you make characters. Burning Empires uses a "lifepath" system which is very different from anything I've seen before. The more starting "lifepaths" a character has, the more powerful she is. Each lifepath that you take opens up traits that you can take to enhance your character, in addition to opening up more lifepaths with more traits. It's like a spiderweb, but the genius of the process is the lifepaths will give you a really great character history right away as part of the mechanics of character creation. You'll have to fill in the blanks of how she went from one lifepath to the next, but it still provides a pretty detailed baseline.

Also as part of character creation is the crux upon which this game appears to revolve: character beliefs. You must come up with 3 beliefs that define your character, and I'm not just talking about "I hate the worms." A good belief explains what you're going to do about your hatred of the worms: "I hate the worms, and I will persuade my brother to fight by my side against them." Now we're talking.

These beliefs are important because they drive the artha system, which is like the "experience" system in Burning Empires. Every time you perform in a session in a way that jives with your beliefs, you earn artha. What this means is that players have a mechanical reason to develop their beliefs and perform actions towards fulfilling them.

Scene Economy

There's lots to talk about in this game (without even getting into the conflict systems), but I want to touch on the concept of scene economy as a final example of how this game is different from traditional RPGs I'm used to playing.

As I stated before, one of the problems in story driven RPGs that are using gamist systems is the issue of "spotlight". It can be difficult to make sure everybody is getting a chance to shine when playing Shadowrun or D&D, and players with strong personalities are more likely to steal spotlight time for their characters from folks who may not be as assertive. As a GM I've always considered it part of my responsibility to make sure it doesn't happen, but with Burning Empires there are actual mechanics to help prevent it.

Game sessions in Burning Empires can consist of one or two maneuvers. This is a unit of measurement for a chunk of playtime. In each maneuver, the player and GM choose a maneuver type they hope to accomplish from the list of options. (There is a very clever mechanic here as well, since some maneuver types provide bonuses/advantages against others, but it is a bit much to get into here). The players (and GM!) then have a certain number of "scenes" allotted to them to accomplish their maneuver purpose. The scenes are defined as follows:

- Conflict: This type of scene is anything that requires BE's combat rules, which include "Duel of Wits" for verbal arguments/debates (important ones with something at stake, like the Council of Elrond and what to do about the One Ring, for example, or persuading your brother that his wife has in fact been taken over by a Vaylen worm) and "Firefight!" for shooting guns (duh).

- Building: A scene where you do something specific towards your goal which requires a roll of some kind. This encompasses a huge variety of options: you could do research on that mysterious NPC, you could hack into the bad guy's computers, lay groundwork for a future conflict, etc.

- Color: A scene where you are fleshing out your character or the game world with details, usually through RP.

- Interstitial: A scene where you exclusively interact with another player or character.

At first I thought this was sort of arbitrary also, but the more I thought about how typical games run, this is how things happen anyway. By limiting how many of these the players and GM get, it provides some serious focus/pace to the gameplay, because you have a limited amount of time to do what you need to accomplish your maneuver.

Think about that for a second. This means that the splotlight hog really has to think about how important it is that he gets that twentieth tattoo or the eighth engraving on his sword or whatever. It doesn't limit the possibilities, it just forces priorities. Combine that with a belief system where players need to move towards their beliefs to earn artha, and you've got yourself a pretty tightly wound mechanic to drive play.

Enough Already!

Obviously there's more to this, but I've gone on long enough I think to highlight the things I found exceptionally cool about Burning Empires. I hope I also provided some context as to why this game is so interesting to me.

Now, on the downside: this game definitely would take some adjusting. I can imagine it might be tricky for the first couple of weeks for an entire group to wrap their heads around some of this stuff without resistance. It also doesn't look like it would be easy to do right away with large groups: I can't imagine trying to run this game with more than three players on a first campaign.

Most importantly, in the old style games I've described to you like D&D and Shadowrun, for the most part the players are reactive. They react to situations the GM presents to them. In a game like this, the players must be active. They must use their scenes to advance their beliefs and earn artha.

However, it does via mechanics address a number of the things that I take for granted as just "things you deal with" when running a game. And if nothing else, it's really made me think about the genre of the tabletop RPG and how it can distinguish itself in very real ways from MMOs, because games like this one really highlight things that would be exceptionally difficult to duplicate using a computer.


Tezrak the Impslayer said...

Well of course you're a nerd, but we won't hold that against you. :P

kat3ri said...

Is this why you've been trying to hard to kill our Shadowrun characters? lol


robustyoungsoul said...

Absolutely not! I'm all about the Shadowrun game right now. Besides, I don't think I'd be able to handle a BE game with a group our size in a first pass anyway.

I try to kill your characters because it makes me feel warm and fuzzy. >:-D

the uber dude said...

1) I concur. You, sir, are a ginormously geeky nerd.

2) Within the first 2 minutes of beginning to read this posting, you put into my head the possibility of Vulcans killing Borg with swords. And that's just awesome.

3) Sounds like a very cool, comprehensive new approach to the kind of things we've all been taking for granted for so long.

4)'re still a nerd, Mr. Yeager.

DM Osbon said...

erm...nerd?...haven't been involved in fantasy role playing in this sense since I was about 14, played AD&D. Really can't comment on the games of now some 23 years later.

It's good to read that people are still playing them.

Dan Cross said...

So...I could easily see the concept of maneuvers incorporated into D&D...yes?

robustyoungsoul said...

I don't know that it would be easy. The "maneuvers" mechanic is tied to a "disposition" mechanic, which is sort of like a countdown for that phase of the campaign... there isn't space enough to discuss how all the rules tie together, but it all appears extremely elegant. Hopefully we'll be able to try it out sometime soon.

Ed said...

Were Gutenberg around to read this post, he surely would feel the same regret that Oppenheimer did after unleashing the atomic bomb on the world.