Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Burning Empires: From Inception to Finished Product (Part II)

Continued from Part I

Drafting Ideas (Sept.-Oct.)

With the contracts well underway and our first high-level discussions begun, Luke spoke with his friend Bob and got his blessing for the project. Bob is one of Luke’s oldest friends and Luke considers Bob’s initial reactions a key part of his creative process. In this case, after Luke described his ideas for the Infection mechanics and Firefight, Bob told Luke he was nuts.

Generally, the more Luke’s friends are opposed to his mechanical ideas, the more driven he becomes to make them work. So Bob’s reaction was exactly what the project needed. Ultimately, Luke was so feverish in his description of his ideas that Bob told him to go for it.

With Bob’s blessing, it was time to get down to the grunt work. During this period, Luke was on the phone with Chris semiweekly, getting Chris to expand on setting concepts and the nature of Iron Empires society, and also trying to convince Chris to work on new original art for the game. He had some success with the former, but Chris’ regular work for DC Comics was keeping him too busy to do any additional work for us.


In the meantime, Luke and I began focusing on Vaylen culture, which we needed to understand before we could create any rules for them. Burning Wheel’s lifepath system, which we had decided to keep for Burning Empires, requires that you thoroughly understand the structure of a society in order to create lifepaths for it.

There wasn’t much to go on in the graphic novels, aside from talk of Vaylen ‘fingers’ in Faith Conquers and mention in Sheva’s War of Vaylen clans staking their wealth on attempts to colonize human worlds. Chris had some ideas to share about what the Vaylen were like, but largely we had to draw the few, disparate details into a cohesive whole.

First we had to answer the question: What does it mean, psychologically, to be a parasitic worm that can only gain sentience, memory and emotion by stealing the body and mind of another sentient creature? We decided that Vaylen don’t think of themselves as 'using' humanity. Instead, their leaders, the ones with human bodies, think of themselves as human. Their sentience is human. Their emotions are human. The memories they take from their hosts are human. If they leave their hosts, they lose sentience, emotion and memories (those that aren't encoded, anyway). If they enter a different host, the quality of their sentience, emotions and memories is different.

Vaylen desperately want to be human. And they want their children to be human.

But at the same time, they are creatures that gain sentience, emotions and memory all at once, in a split second of time. I imagine them as loving all emotion and sensation. At the same time, they do not have the direct experience that allows real humans to differentiate between good emotions and bad emotions, between good sensations and bad sensations.

The Ascetic that practices denial and restraint offers a path that is as interesting and sensation-ful as the Dilettante that pursues pleasures of all stripes. For instance, we gave the Dilettante the option of taking the Cannibal trait because the sensation of horror that emanates from the host when breaking that taboo is as delicious to the Vaylen as the sensation of sexual intercourse or drug-induced euphoria.

Once we had that concept, we had to explore the cultural ramifications of such a psychology. What happens to a society when one’s levels of intelligence and ability and depth of emotion are merely a matter of taking a new host? When a person that wants to experience childhood again simply has to take a child host?

What does it feel like to look upon your children in a tank and know that their capacity to experience is dependent on the bodies you secure for them? They can be animals or geniuses.

Then, for our own sense of closure, we had to satisfy ourselves as to why the Vaylen couldn’t simply clone human bodies to satisfy their needs.

Once we had answered all these questions, we were able to settle on a caste structure for Vaylen society, in which clans were regimented in the types of bodies they could own. Only the most powerful among the clans had access to human bodies. The rest had to make due with genetically engineered creations with less mental sophistication. Even better, we realized that the only way for members of less powerful clans to attain human bodies was to join a Vaylen finger (spies that infiltrate human planets). Perfect.

Luke began researching the Indian caste system and their system of familial power, and much of the feel of the Vaylen flowed from that research. He decided that the Vaylen needed to exist on two axes, the family and the caste. That way there could be internal tension, and they wouldn’t be a boring, monolithic alien culture.


The Kerrn were up next. In many ways, they proved more problematic for us. We only see one Kerrn in the graphic novels, but it’s clear that they’re intended as the ‘warrior’ aliens. While we really enjoyed the Kerrn Gopher in the comics, we frankly found the concept of ‘warrior’ aliens boring. They’re almost always some weird amalgam of Vikings and Samurai that I call Vikurai. Boring! We knew we had to do something different, while still upholding Chris’ vision for the Kerrn.

We started with what we knew from the graphic novels and Chris’ notes: The Kerrn were a genetically engineered slave race created by the Vaylen from human and plant genetic material. They looked like frogs, were capable of subsisting on photosynthesis, and were tough enough to withstand brief periods of vacuum. Somehow, a small group of Kerrn developed the ability to regain control of their consciousnesses and expel the worm from their bodies. The Kerrn fought a war with the Vaylen and won their freedom, fleeing to a hidden world. They would later join forces with humans and a select few would become the Emperor’s honor guard.

As with the Vaylen, we had to explore the psychology of genetically engineered slaves that won their freedom, and the cultural ramifications of that psychology. How would such unimaginable torment and horror shape a culture?

I pitched Luke on the idea of using Mossad as an inspiration for the Kerrn. Also, based on the narrative that we had, Luke had the idea that after their war with the Vaylen, the Kerrn crashed their damaged, stolen spaceships together and built a hidden, artificial world for themselves. Using that as inspiration, Luke decided to use the culture of submariners as an additional source of material for the Kerrn. The Kerrn would flow naturally from those roots in time.

Firefight, Psychology, Iron and Injury

Once we had a feel for the alien cultures, Luke began working on the Firefight rules. We knew that we wanted to base them on the Duel of Wits rules, and that each Firefight would have stakes. Firefights would not be simply about killing or being killed. That would happen regardless. They had to be about something. The early rules were very rough, but it was enough to allow us to begin a playtest.

We also began sketching out ideas for what Psychology (psychic powers akin to those described by Asimov in Second Foundation) would do, and how to translate that into mechanics. We spent a lot of time pouring over Sheva’s War, looking at the dialogue between Vienne, Sheva and Philippe, searching for clues as to what Chris’ psychologists could and couldn’t do. It was immediately clear that Psychology would be problematic. Psychologists have the ability to control minds. They can change Beliefs! How could we allow that sort of thing without turning Psychologist characters into generators of Social Contract dysfunction?

Luke had an answer: Connections. For most Psychology effects, a Psychologist would require a Connection. And we decided that our rules would not allow for a Connection to be forced upon a player. Instead, the Connection would be a player-to-player contract. A player of a psychologist could offer a Connection to any other character in the psychologist character’s presence. The player of the target character could accept or refuse, and that would be the end of the matter. Accepting the Connection would open the character up to a range of effects, both beneficial and deleterious. Most importantly, accepting the Connection would give the target character a FoRK die toward all social skills (including Persuasion, Oratory and Command) as long as the Connection was maintained.

We also created downsides to having too many Connections out as a psychologist: The more Connections you had, the lower your Barrier to incursion by other psychologists. To really give that teeth, we determined that a psychologist could not end a Connection on his own. He would have to request his Connection die back from the other player, who could then decide whether to give it back or keep it.

We believed these rules would ensure that psychologists had powerful juice, but that other players could use game-derived social pressure to keep abuses in check.

Luke also began putting together the rules for Iron (power armor) at this time, and we began to explore ideas for how we wanted Injury to work in Burning Empires. We explored the possibility of making all Injury trait-based, but eventually discarded the idea as too complicated within the Burning Wheel framework.

Playtest Alpha (November)

With a feel for the culture and some new mechanics to work with (but no lifepaths), we put together the first playtest group: Luke, Dro, Chris (not Moeller), Mayuran and myself. We created the world of Ogun using the new World Burner, but still had to use the Burning Wheel lifepaths to come up with analogs of the types of characters we wanted. Drozdal decided to play a Kerrn, and Luke had him use the dwarf lifepaths to simulate it. He would complain mightily about it in true Polish manner in the weeks to come.

While there wasn’t much of Burning Empires yet in place, this game really showed us the types of things that players would want to do in Burning Empires. We learned very quickly what sorts of things our rules did not cover. It also showed us what the new Lifepaths of Man would require, both structurally and in terms of skills.

The initial Technology rules began to take shape at this point. We didn’t yet know exactly how we intended to handle them, but knew that we wanted players to be able to talk tech into existence.

Based on the six sessions of the playtest, Luke revised the Infection, World Burner and Firefight mechanics.

Luke Carves Up the Burning Wheel (Nov.-Dec.)

As the playtest was getting underway, Luke was also beginning to plan the physical design of the book. The very first step Luke takes when designing a project (before logos, layout, etc.) is to select fonts.

“Fonts are the foundation for the look of a book. They’ve got to knit together all the other elements. So for BE, I knew I wanted a different look than BW. It had to have a classic look to it, like BW, but also had to be modern.”

Luke went through his font database of several thousand fonts and made a short list of the fonts that suited his needs. He knew he’d need four fonts: body copy, chapter header, subheads and example copy.

His first selection was ITC Tiepolo.

“I selected Tiepolo for the body because it’s a semi-serif with very shapely letters, but very unobtrusive, and it benefits from looking both modern and classic at once.”

He selected Europa for the subheads in order to mimic the covers of the graphic novels. Caliban, for the example copy, made the transition from Burning Wheel.

“Caliban stayed on from BW because it was convenient and it linked the new text with BW, which was serendipitous because later Caliban fit nicely with the layout concept of the future computer from the past.”

The final selection was Democratica, which had a very mechanical look, as the script font for the titles. However, Luke soon realized that Democratica had been used in a number of other RPGs. Luke believes that fonts make people who see them form strong subconscious connotations. He didn’t want readers to mentally connect Burning Empires with those other RPGs, so he chose a new font: Oxford. Luke felt Oxford wound up being the better choice, as it would fit better with the eventual design concept of the book.


With font selection out of the way, Luke and I started holding the first of many (sometimes heated!) discussions of the best way to present the information in the new book. Burning Wheel consisted of two books, allowing us to send new readers from one to the other in a manner suited to learning the rules, while also keeping the information compartmentalized in a way that made it easier for reference in play. But Burning Empires would be a single book. We had to decide upon a structure that would give it a logical flow to a new user while still being easy to reference.

The most important decision at this point was that the World Burner had to precede the Character Burner. Our conceit was that players would not be able to burn their characters until they had collaboratively created a world. We would later reinforce that mechanically.

“The World Burner to Character Burner decision was huge. It shaped the rest of the game. We knew that we wanted the players to be able to add their own stamp to the setting via the World Burner. We knew that from the beginning. But I don't think we understood what that meant for the rest of the game. Not until I physically put that chapter in the beginning of the book did we truly see that your choices when building your setting affected everything else about the game you were about to play, from your Lifepath choices, to the maps you were going to draw in Firefight!”

We also decided the Character Burner would precede the Burning Wheel itself, and the order of the lifepath chapters and all the chapters in the Burning Wheel section. The latter would not remain static, as chapters would move, merge or disappear entirely based on our play experiences in the coming months.

Grunt Work

Once the structure had been determined, Luke set to work. He rewrote the Burning Wheel in November, excising chapters that were no longer needed (Fight!, Range and Cover, Sorcery, Emotional Magic, etc.), and incorporating our new material. He then set to work on the Character Burner in December, pulling together the Human, Vaylen, Kerrn and Mukhadish lifepaths, the new skill list, and the new trait list. The skill list chapter and the trait list chapter, as always, were some of the hardest, most painful chapters to write. Luke, who is incredibly driven when working, pushed through and completed the first draft of Burning Empires by January.

In the next part: Shotgun Playtests, Playtest Agra, Moeller’s Three Sketchbooks Arrive, and Wider Playtesting


Guy said...

I know what you mean about Polish complaints, what with having two Polish grandmothers and a Polish mother, oy.

I did wonder about the origin of the Hebrew terms in the Kerrn section...

I think the way in which you put Social Contract in the game, in the Psychology section, is a master stroke of brilliance. I think putting Social Contract in the actual game text of books will become more important and prevalent.

monkeyking said...

I'm really keen on the Psychologist thing. I can't wait to see this game!