Burning Empires: Good On Paper, But…

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?

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2 thoughts on “Burning Empires: Good On Paper, But…

  1. Willow says:

    I recall the PbP game I ran failing largely due to normal forum issues- poor cues for who we’re waiting on. I probably could have used force of personality to keep things running. I actually felt like BE worked better in forum play than in real life, because I actually had time to work out all the advancement dealies, and you can run concurrent scenes, but you have people who hold off on their scenes and then you’re waiting for them.

    Setting fair stakes and target numbers for yourself as GM when playing an NPC figure of note always seemed clunky. I agree with the team vs. team suggestion.

    • SabreCat says:

      I get the itch to do some forum-style RP every once in a while. It can be a PITA to administer, but I do love the collaborative-fiction style of it all.

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