Luke Crane graciously offered to answer a few questions for the blog. The interview was conducted over chat, and I've cleaned things up a bit for continuity/clarity.
SK: First things first... how did you get into roleplaying? Because I can't imagine D&D prepared you to write something like this.
Luke: I have a funny story for this! I am prepared!
I was at ICON a couple of weeks ago, and I bumped into a rather damp and disgruntled Greg Costikyan on the LIRR platform on the way home.
It was raining, and he was huddling under the pedestrian bridge to get out of the rain. I introduced myself -- we'd met before, but I never assume anything.
We chatted for a while on the train. Finally, I had a fanboy moment.
"Greg, I gotta tell you: Paranoia was my first game. So you're sorta my game design hero. The essay on dramatic play changed my life."
He smiled and nodded, "We were trying to get away from the crazy rules of Dungeons and Dragons."
"I have a terrible secret to admit," I said.
"We played Paranoia straight! As dark science fiction! No comedy!"
He gawked and laughed.
So there, that's my first RPG experience. My friend Aom Isabell introduced me to gaming in the 6th grade.
Then came Marvel Superheroes 1st Edition. Then D&D. In pretty short order.
My first MSH character was called Blue Streak, I think. My first D&D character was a dwarf with chainmail and an axe. I walked into a room and killed a goblin.
My life was forever changed.
SK: I think we all have a similar story of the dwarf with the axe.
Luke: My life was changed only because I'd never played a fantasy RPG up to that point. ;)
SK: What was the first game you GMed?
Luke: First game I GMed? The first thing I did once I played those games was go home and design my own. I used the Avalon Hill game Wizard's Tower (I think that's what it was called), and made my own fantasy RPG.
I ran my friend Joe Howard through it. He was a big fighter dude with a spiked helmet. He killed some gremlins and stuck them on his spike. I must have been 11 or 12. He even drew a picture of it at the time.
Man, what I wouldn't do for that pic!
Anyway, I like intense games. I like to play rough. Some of my friends are very aggressive as well. We tend to get worked up. I've gotten into my fair share of screaming matches over the years.
SK: Burning Empires definitely looks intense. Do you consider things like the scene economy (which I figure would lead to some of that intensity) as a natural progression from Burning Wheel?
Luke: No. Completely unnatural. An experiment really.
I realized that Burning Wheel doesn't instruct you on how to tell a story or how to construct a narrative or the conventions of the genre. It dumps a pile of interesting bits in your lap and says, "Build a car, go fast."
People who know how to build cars get excited and end up going really fast. People who don't, get frustrated and don't go fast.
SK: That's interesting, because I have a copy of Burning Wheel and was really excited by a lot of the things I saw there... but for some reason it was things like the Infection mechanics and scene economy that really thrilled me about Burning Empires. There is a lot in Burning Empires that seems to take Burning Wheel further. But you consider them separate entities?
Luke: Completely separate. We do not play with any bleed over from Burning Wheel to Burning Empires or vice versa.
There are things I like in Burning Empires better than Burning Wheel, and things in Burning Wheel that I like better than Burning Empires.
SK: Now you must give an example!
Luke: I like Perception better in Burning Empires -- I fucking hate open-ending now. And I like Linked Tests in Burning Wheel better -- I think I fucked them up and broke them in Burning Empires.
And what's more, I KNEW I was going to break them when I changed them. But I did it anyway.
SK: So would you change it now, or do you think it all still works?
Luke: Change which?
SK: Let's say Linked Tests in Burning Emipres.
Luke: Well, of course I'd change them in hindsight. But they are what they are. It's a minor thing.
SK: In your Treasure Tables interview, you talked a bit about some of the differences between running a convention game and a home game. You said you wanted people to play your demos and be confident bringing home a different attitude to their home game (I'm paraphrasing).
Luke: Sort of, yeah.
SK: Do you think there is a particular level of intensity/excitement required to drive a game like Burning Empires as a GM? Or is it something you hope comes out through the mechanics?
Luke: I like all my games to be intense and have a certain edge to them. But that's just my style.
I design my games to put difficult choices in front of the players. Otherwise, you can play them in your own style.
SK: I've noticed on the message boards that the Infection mechanics in particular seem to rankle some players when they first encounter them.
Luke: Hate isn't too strong a word. But the Infection mechanics aren't really the problem.
SK: Is it a misunderstanding of their purpose?
Luke: It's all about expectations. My games are ridiculous in that they ask you to jettison your play style and think in a new mode. It's a lot to ask people who just want to play a game.
Some folks are up to the task. Some folks aren't and know that from the beginning. But some folks get involved thinking that they are going to change the way the game is played to their style.
SK: You'll have to forgive me, I've only just discovered Forge theory, but the mechanics seem to lean towards the "Narrativist" approach.
Luke: "Narrativism" just means making in-game choices that are about story/character/theme, rather than about a particular game mechanic or the overall situation transpiring within the game world.
The Infection mechanics can serve all three priorities. They are designed to create a story arc and give all of the players at the table input into that overarching story arc.
SK: Is Burning Wheel/Burning Empires something that came from Forge theory, or was the development of the games more organic than that? Were there other games that really influenced your design, or did it come from your own play experience?
Luke: Burning Wheel Classic was an untainted product of Game Headquarters, developed in isolation. You can check out the bibliography in the back of Burning Wheel Revised, it tells the whole story.
Anyway, after playing Burning Wheel Classic hardcore for 1.5 years with hundreds of different players -- some of them being top flight game designers themselves -- I wanted to clean the bitch up. So I revised it and re-released it.
But if you compare the two editions, you'll see that the additional materials are both pretty traditional and pretty unique to BWHQ.
What I found as I played all these excellent games was that we were estranged sisters and brothers. We were all designing from a similar standpoint, striving for similar goals using different tools and materials.
I think the only thing I wholly lifted from another game was the Linked Test from the Victory mechanics in Sorcerer. Other than that, the other games just largely helped me clarify my own thoughts on various design elements.
SK: Here's kind of a wacky question that some of us have been debating -- do you think that the popularity of games like World of Warcraft and other massive online games could actually help interest people in tabletop games? Or do you think the activities are too dissimilar? I ask because of the social element involved in something like World of Warcraft.
Luke: I think the sun has set on tabletop RPGs as a mainstream hobby.
Luke: Yup. Barring some ridiculous innovation that hooks adult players, I'd say it's relegated to the hobby market for eternity.
SK: That makes me sad.
Luke: Doesn't make me sad at all.
SK: Why is that? You like the fringe?
Luke: I do! It's fun being part of the cool, weird kids!
I'm not saying that RPGs are going to go away. But the Serenity RPG, for example, won't be a mass market hit.
SK: Do you think a game like Burning Empires can bring an experience that simply cannot be captured in an online game?
Luke: Of course! There's NOTHING out there that has the depth and richness of a tabletop.
SK: I know many have tried and failed.
Luke: And will continue to fail until one of the current crop of game designers makes it into the electronic side.
The electronic side is now a victim of its own success. It's got to follow a formula to be successful. And that formula has little to do with the awesome that you and I experience on a regular basis.
SK: Whereas, on the fringe, you have the freedom to try new things?
Luke: Sure, but when you count free/chat players and WoW/MMO players, we table toppers are a small, weird minority.
SK: It was thought in the giddy days of D&D 3.0 by some that we would see a resurgence of tabletop gaming. Do you think Wizards of the Coast was a good thing for the hobby?
Luke: Are you kidding? Peter Adkison's vision for D&D was a great thing!
Even if WotC's intent was malign, they still reinvigorated the hobby. And I don't believe they had a malign intent!
SK: I've heard it said that open d20 diluted quality.
Luke: Blah blah blah. RPGs are more popular now than ever!
SK: Would you rather play Burning Empires with someone who is gaming for the first time, without any preconceived notions of how it works? Or would it be more satisfying to you personally to see an old gamer come to the table, bitch and moan, but eventually get it? And which do you think would lead to the better game?
Luke: They both lead to the same type of game, actually. But the new players often get the mechanics and concepts much faster than the old players.
New players don't often have the irrational mechanics-hate that old players demonstrate. New players can more often walk away from a game and say, "That was weird and complicated and it wasn't for me."
Diehard RPGers often get angry at me personally and start bitching about how the game is broken.
My favorite player is a skilled one with an open mind. I play Burning Empires and Burning Wheel with a lot of n00bs. It's fun, but the system is designed to be mastered and gamed. I love it when someone can give me a run for my money!
SK: Why do you think it is that the diehards have such violent reactions to the game? People either love it or hate it!
Luke: Expectations. There seems to be little middle ground with my games.
SK: You like it that way, don't you?
Luke: I do. Good or bad, and I can't say which, but at least my games are different than what else is out there. They challenge you in ways that many other games do not.
SK: Any parting words of wisdom for other game designers out there?
Luke: Never give up, play test, be honest, hire an editor, and never trash talk another game or game designer.
Luke will be attending Origins, Dexcon, and Gencon this summer.
Check out Burning Wheel here.
Check out Burning Empires here.