Trigger warning for discussion of rape and consent. Behind the link.
Trigger warning for discussion of rape and consent. Behind the link.
Adulath Caracai II:
I have a short list of tabletop RPGs with which I have an ongoing love-hate relationship. I so very much want to enjoy them, since reading them and reading about them shows reveals such enormous potential for fun. But whenever I try to actually play the damn things, the experience invariably ranges from mediocre to downright painful. Exalted, which I’ve mentioned here a few times, is one such game. Luke Crane’s Burning Empires is another, and that game is the topic of today’s post.
I’ve tried to play Burning Empires on three occasions. Two of them were face-to-face games and one was play-by-post; I GMed one of the face-to-face games and was a normal player in the other two. In all cases it turned out to be just too much of a pain in the butt to run the game, whether it was me or somebody else in the GM’s seat (though the PbP game may have fallen afoul of general PbP issues not specific to BE). I can sum up the problem in two words: cognitive load. At any given point in gameplay, you’re expected to process a multitude of sometimes conflicting rules and priorities, making it impossible to get into a flow where you can just play your character. That exhausting mental effort, plus a few other less head-hurty but still frustrating issues, make the game unplayable to me in any practical sense. In the remainder of this post, I’ll lay out some of these particular problems, then brainstorm on what I might do to fix them if I should ever dare to run the game again.
First, the stuff that looks good on paper but actually doesn’t work. For all these, keep in mind that the person running the game has to deal with it threefold or more, since they have at least three major NPCs who follow all the same rules.
The advancement system. Burning Empires and the various other RPGs in the “Burning” family are well known for their unusual, detailed system of character advancement. Characters build up their skills and attributes by practice: in order to level something up, you need to put it to use a certain number of times in play against a variety of levels of difficulty. On paper, this is a clever way to encourage you to get your character in trouble; if you constantly set yourself up to roll against favorable odds, your character will never grow. In practice, though, the system slows down gameplay to a painful degree. You need to remember several odd exceptions on each roll: some bonuses count against you when determining how difficult a roll is, while others don’t; some situations let you rack up multiple points toward advancement, while others don’t. Figuring out what counts for what level of difficulty, or how many rolls of each difficulty you need before you can advance, requires table lookups. And woe betide you if you get some downtime and want to use the rules for practicing skills off-camera! You’d better have a spreadsheet and an accountant to check your work.
Stakes-setting. The Burning games champion a particular approach to dice rolls that looks great on paper. Each roll is important–don’t roll unless there’s something exciting at stake! Know the consequences before you roll! Once the dice fall, you must live by the result! This is good advice for most games, helping sidestep some common pitfalls. Unfortunately, it steps sideways and falls into quite another pit. Before a roll, the GM and player negotiate what the outcomes of success and failure will be, which adds substantial overhead to every roll, and means that half of your collaboration–the outcome that the dice didn’t give you–will be wasted, every time! I found it exhausting.
Scene economy. Burning Empires uses a novel system for setting scenes. During any given session, each player gets a particular number of scenes for their character, and the number of rolls you can make within those scenes is also limited. In theory, this cuts out the sort of meandering, scenery-chewing roleplaying that can suck the energy out of a game, since you’ve gotta make those scenes count! In practice, though, it causes paralysis. With only so many rolls you’re allowed to make, and getting exactly the right rolls crucial to your character’s advancement (see above), players are encouraged to agonize over every roll and second-guess their actions when it turns out the circumstances don’t favor the exact odds you need. A strong-handed GM could force people’s hands and keep things moving, but that would feel like punishment, not fun.
Competitive strategic macrogame. Layered above the scene economy is a broader big-picture game where the scenes you play out feed into actions in a large-scale conflict of Humans and Vaylen (aliens). It’s a cool idea and promotes some very interesting forethought and maneuvering. Unfortunately, it’s also an extremely frustrating system to work with unless you’ve absolutely mastered it. You need very specific skills available to the characters participating in the strategic game, and if you don’t have them, you’re hosed unless you get extraordinarily lucky. It cuts the legs out of the otherwise cool lifepath-based character creation process, since building the character you want to play takes a back seat to building a character who has the strategic skill bases covered.
Resources and the Technology Burner. This is not so much a cognitive-load thing, but it still falls into the “good on paper, ass in play” category. BE features a nifty system whereby characters can build or acquire custom technology. You stat up a gadget using “technology points” for all its bonuses and subsystems, then make a roll using your character’s Resources stat to see if you get it free and clear, or if it comes with quirks or diminishes your available funds. All well and good. Unfortunately, the balance of the system is all out of whack. Characters need to be among the richest in the Galaxy to have an even chance at purchasing so much as a rifle without loans and help from other characters. It’s built for disappointment: dream up an amazing new gadget, but in all likelihood, by the time you actually get it, it will be a piece of crap!
The typical rejoinder from BE fans is that these things all get easier with time. Being difficult doesn’t mean the game is poorly designed, after all! You just need practice. To which I say: bull pocky. The games I most appreciate are those where you can still enjoy yourself while you’re getting the hang of it. And since I’ve now played things like Apocalypse World, where the game comes together so smoothly that you can have 100% of the available fun from the very first session, something like BE has a lot to prove before it convinces me it’s worth slogging through the not-fun learning curve parts to get to the good stuff.
Enough grousing, though. I am not such a negative person as to leave it at that. If I were to run the game again, these are the things I would consider for fixing or at least mitigating the above problems. I wouldn’t necessarily use all of them, note; some of them are even mutually exclusive. Which tweaks I’d use would come from discussion between me and the players, and they’d come out the other side as house rules.
Enemy Figures of Note are players too. I’ve found that I don’t mind most of the above when I’m a player running a single character or a character and second-in-command. It gets unmanageable and unfun when it’s tripled or more in the GM’s seat, though. To mitigate this, I’d have players take roles on both sides of the game’s central conflict. You’d basically have two “teams” of players: one running Human characters, one running Vaylen. You’d still have a GM with governance over miscellaneous NPCs, executive powers like the ability to buy tech outright without rolling Resources, etc., but they’d have only one principal character to keep track of all the fiddly bits for.
Remove the macrogame and scene structure. Without the scene economy or strategic mechanics, BE would run like its predecessor Burning Wheel, but in a science fiction setting. You could build characters according to what you want to play, and act them out according to their Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits, not according to the pressures and demands of the metagame. It would require a bit more GM finesse in setting scenes and driving play, but seeing as BW is a perfectly serviceable playable thing, I doubt BE would break with a similar setup. As a side benefit, it would give freedom to have games that aren’t specifically about the Vaylen invasion, a thing that doesn’t bother me but might help some folks.
Adopt the simplified advancement system from Mouse Guard. Mouse Guard, a later Burning-based game, uses a streamlined version of those systems’ advancement mechanics. Instead of rolling against particular difficulties a particular number of times, you need to fail a certain number of rolls and succeed at a certain number of rolls using the skill. It makes perfect sense and requires a bare fraction of the calculation and bookkeeping involved in BE’s setup.
Scale Technology points and Resources points differently. This one I’m least sure of and would take some playtesting. Buying technology during character creation in BE gives you more oomph per point when you’re on a high-tech world vs. a low-tech one, but this doesn’t carry forward into the main game–higher tech levels give access to more things, but nothing costs less. If tech points per Resource obstacle scaled according to your world’s available technology (say, the default is for a zero index world, and on a low index world you can get 1.5 tech points per Resource obstacle, 2 at high index, something like that), gadgets would be easier to acquire in games where tech is a major focus.
I feel like with some of these things in place, I might actually want to run Burning Empires again. What do you Burners out there think?
When I made it to high school English and thus graduated from analysis of story structure like exposition, climax, and resolution to the exegesis properly called “literary criticism,” I found it a wondrous experience. Here were these stories I already enjoyed reading made into a whole new sort of game, going between the lines to guess at the author’s hidden meanings! It was like playing at spies with Shakespeare across the centuries, he penning his poetry with a wink, I winking back as I set to the task of decoding it.
In college I was in turn introduced to feminism, and the lens of feminist criticism. Here I encountered discussion of the patriarchy: how so many cultural mores, laws, and artistic themes were instruments of oppression, means to keep women “in their place” and men in positions of power over them. I got the idea well enough to score good grades via the approach, but the rhetoric of it always struck me as rather strange. It wasn’t like a bunch of villainous dudes sat down in a boardroom discussing how best to put one over on the wimminz, and came to the conclusion that images of underwear-clad female bodies with the heads cropped out of the picture would be an excellent stratagem. But that was the conspiratorial scenario that the instruments-of-oppression discussion seemed to convey.
It wasn’t until recently that I realized how these two things are related.
The author is dead. It is a truth of human existence, a fact of human nature that we can never truly know another person’s intentions. We can only see the effects of what they do, and if we are so inclined, guess at what thoughts led to those actions. Perhaps the person speaks up about what they meant, saying or doing what they did, but we can only take what they say as fact insofar as we trust them. Shakespeare is a beloved icon of Western culture, and I dearly wanted the sort of intellect and refinement associated with being conversant with him; so it was simple to believe that the Bard had with skill and intent buried themes in his work for generations to unravel and discuss. I can only imagine that peers of mine who thought Freshman English a waste of time likely believed the unpacking of deep textual meanings to be so much teacherly sleight of hand. I, being in a place of privilege myself, found it a stretch to ascribe malice to men simply looking to make a buck or raise a family in the same traditions as they grew up. If I were marginalized and frustrated by constant belittling of my gender, race, or orientation, I would not have the energy or inclination to give the benefit of the doubt to those perpetuating the system.
This is, I think, the deep source of many conflicts: religious, political, geek-tribal, etc. Or if not the source itself, then at least a cause of the constant talking past another we do, the bizarre and frustrating sense that the folks on the other side of whatever divide are speaking a different language. A devout Catholic believer, feeling well loved by the Church, having a rapport with its representatives, remembering many occasions of support and comfort from it, might be shocked and dismayed to hear of clerical abuses; but in the end will accept the clergy’s remorse and reassurances at face value. Someone with less deep-seated an investment in the Church’s authority, someone who perhaps feels disconnected from their fellows there, or who has had experiences of their worries and complaints falling on deaf ears within the hierarchy, or someone not a believer at all, will be much more inclined to see cover-up, hypocrisy, and emptiness in the same ostensibly reassuring words. (This is not to deny or make light of the possibility that such a startling event could break even the deepest-held trust; I’m talking about trends and tendencies here.) Whose interpretation is more correct? It’s hard if not impossible to know, because we cannot look behind the mask of the sermonizing priest’s face to lay bare his thoughts.
I’m not sure where to go with any of that, really, save to recognize it when I see it, especially in myself. There are conspiracies in the world, and there is malice, but the places we see them often say as much about us as they do about the people we perceive to bear those ill intents.