This past weekend, I finally made the official complete switch, fully translating the events, characters, and setting from my KnownWorld “Timiro Nights” campaign into the Burning Wheel game system. This particular campaign is relatively new (only a handful of sessions so far since inception), but it has been a consistent source of gaming joy for me since getting the group together. It’s been a while since I’ve had a group this responsive, and this eager to extend the game talk well into our downtime. I’m glad to say that so far, the conversion to the new rules has been a success. I’d like to take a few here and talk about the juicy technical bits behind that conversion, and my own ideas of how the Burning Wheel system should work.
First, I want to talk about my feelings on Burning Wheel. If you know me at all, then you know of my curious obsession with this game. I own most of the major books of the system, sometimes multiple copies (for loaning and fan-conversion!), and have even had them all custom spiral-bound for ease of frequent use at the table (one of the most useful things I’ve ever done with a game book, and I recommend it to everyone). I’ve read them all multiple times through, and have burned up hundreds of random never-to-be-played characters in my idle time. And yet, if there’s any system that I would call my “White Whale” of gaming, that system is Burning Wheel. Despite many attempts to either run or play in Burning Wheel games, all my efforts mysteriously fail, either days before the games are to begin, or after only one or two sessions of actual play. I frequently get the feeling that Karma is working against me, and just doesn’t want me to play and enjoy this game system, no matter how many hours and dollars of devotion to its secrets.
Another problem is that I believe that the Burning Wheel that I have read and come to understand is a very different Burning Wheel than the game that its official forum-goers seem to enjoy. I only truly came to realize that recently, while working on translating this very campaign. When I started working on the conversion, I had multiple people refer me to the Burning THAC0 fan rules, telling me that those would do exactly what I wanted. Problem is, all that document really does is re-emphasize the core rules of Burning Wheel itself, with no real changes at all towards accommodating a more adventurous focus of play. The same people who referred me to the document intoned that the best way to run an “old-school” style of adventure in Burning Wheel is to get the characters into the dungeon and then turn them against each other, and then just sit back and watch the chaos. Wait… what? I was under the impression we were adventuring, and not playing Diplomacy (a game I have come through experience to now refuse to play with actual friends).
During the course of the conversion process, there was a great amount of discussion between the players and myself about their opinions on the (crucial) Beliefs subsystem of the game rules. There were a few rather vocal objections towards aspects of that subsystem – aspects which appeared to exist primarily to stir inner-party conflict, and to more deeply dig the trenches that separate the players from the GM. One player expressed his specific distaste for that kind of conflict, preferring instead a more heroic style of gameplay. He was not alone in this, and managed to find a few really heinous examples from the BW forums of GMs receiving advice to take the player characters’ beliefs, twist them into vicious scabby whips, and use them to cause strife and turmoil. Apparently, the consensus there is that such kinds of conflict are key to a good game of Burning Wheel.
I don’t entirely agree with this consensus. This discussion led me to ask the System itself two pretty big questions: is there room in a Burning Wheel game for a character who never questions his Beliefs, who always sticks with his guns? And can the Burning Wheel system accommodate a classic adventure campaign with such heroes, who go forth, fight evil, and save the day, without the GM antagonizing them and trying to make the players cry tears of anguish?
Absolutely. While it is true that a look through the official BW forums shows many examples of GMs being given praise for antagonizing the characters’ chosen beliefs and using them as weapons of Story War against the players, I personally believe that the game can be just as fun for a less heavy-hearted adventure, using the Beliefs primarily as guidelines towards that adventure, and goals to be fulfilled. It is my belief that not every game has to be “Big Choices All the Time,” and after our last session of the game, I’m glad to see that this belief has been justified. Character Beliefs don’t have to be pushed all the time, nor do they have to cause major conflicts of morality. Beliefs can instead be seen as Arrows Towards Adventure, and the system won’t lose any functionality at all. Sure, Hard Choices and Major Life Conflicts can be fun, but I’m glad to see that with just a little bit of perspective re-tooling, Simple Choices and Grand Adventure are just as enjoyable using the Burning Wheel game rules.
On to the mechanics of the conversion. While the setting and the characters of this campaign have been very enjoyable, KnownWorld just wasn’t doing it for us. I don’t believe this is a fault with the KnownWorld rules as much as it is with the core Palladium system that I wrote them to enhance. Despite my love for the setting and my nostalgia for the books, my own experiences have repeatedly proven how terrible the Palladium rules system is, and sadly, this very campaign has shown to us that no level of retooling outside of a complete system conversion will make that game any better. When I finally made the decision to go forth with the conversion, Burning Wheel was the obvious choice for me. We’d already been incorporating simple Beliefs and Instincts into our play, and the dice mechanics of KnownWorld ported with little tooling at all directly into Burning Wheel. The primary Stats were an almost perfect translation, and even the Lifepaths were pretty simple to reverse-engineer.
However, I’ve always felt that while BW’s Lifepaths were theoretically a pretty nifty way to create realistic characters, in reality the final results always left me wanting just a little more. Then one day a pal of mine, and a fellow BW aficionado, gave me the best advice I’ve yet to receive regarding this game system: Just give the characters the numbers you want them to have, and then go play. Use the lifepaths as a guideline, and then add to the results liberally to fill out the spots you feel are empty. Does this break the rules? Hell yeah it does, and it rocks too.
After hearing that, I was surprised I had never thought of it myself. Back when I was still running D20-based campaigns, that was exactly how I would handle character creation (screw your random rolls!). Players were usually too surprised when I offered that method to actually abuse it, and the end results tended to be more enjoyable for everyone at the table. After all players tend to be much happier when they are playing the characters as they actually exist in their mental conceptions.
So when tooling over the KW characters, I used the lifepaths to create close approximations, and then added extra skills and traits as I felt were necessary. While the party consists of a human, and elf, a dwarf, and a changeling, I found that the easiest way to port them over would be as human stock characters with traits to transform them into their respective races. I was quite satisfied with the results, and glad to see them play effectively (and more important: enjoyably) during this past session.
We’ve added a few system tweaks to fit our style of play, and we are all far more excited about the coming sessions now that we’ve adapted to a more functional and enjoyable game system.