Tuesday, July 25, 2006

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

Last week I posted about Brennan’s description of his process for writing Mortal Coil, and promised that I would give Burning Empires a similar treatment. Well, here’s where I start to deliver. It was such a long, intense process (I’ve been gathering notes and consulting with Luke about it for the past two days) that I’ve decided I need to break it down into multiple posts. What follows is a description of the very first steps we took.

It All Starts with Jihad

The story of the Burning Empires project actually began with Burning Sands: Jihad, the Dune-inspired space opera supplement for Burning Wheel.

Jihad was our love letter to Burning Wheel fans, a thank you for all their support. It was also the first real collaborative project at BWHQ. I wrote the World Burner, Drozdal was the mad scientist behind the Black Market rules, and Luke did all the other heavy lifting, though Dro and I came up with some of the lifepaths and traits.

To Luke, the success of such a collaborative project was fundamental to going ahead with the Burning Empires project.

“The reason the collaborative nature of Jihad was so important is that I knew the BE book would be big and stressful and would require some serious effort from you [Thor] and Dro. I don't know if I would have taken on the project without the knowledge that we could work together. Or, if I did take it on, it probably would have been a disaster.”

Jihad got a very warm reception from our fans when we released it just prior to Gen Con, despite the fact that we had kept it under wraps until it was done. We were very pleased with the results. Dro and Luke started talking wistfully of giving Chris Moeller’s Iron Empires (recently re-released) the same treatment.

Meanwhile, the playtest group I’d put together for the Jihad project was still going strong, and I was very pleased with where the Propaganda War rules were taking us. As we discussed the play results over lunch at Dosa Hut, our favorite South Indian vegetarian restaurant, Luke and I were also tossing around the idea of a more robust and rigorous treatment of those rules.

On a whim at the end of August, after we’d returned from Gen Con, Luke decided to send Chris an email about the possibility of doing Iron Empires as a role playing game. Fortuitously, Chris had recently decided that an attempt to do the Iron Empires as a role playing game with another company wasn’t going to go anywhere, and he was going to shop it around to a smaller company that was excited about the property.

We’d just come off a fun and very successful Gen Con, and were seriously discussing setting out in a new direction with our designs. However, once Chris showed interest in pursuing an Iron Empires project with us, Luke decided that we needed to strike while the opportunity was available. Luke convinced me (grudgingly!) that we needed to put the project on which we were now focused on the back burner and turn our attention to the Iron Empires.

Legal Matters (Aug.-Oct.)

Chris and Luke consulted their lawyers and Chris’ agent, and spent August to October hammering out a contract. Our lawyer advised us against doing a licensed product, but we stubbornly felt the advantages and opportunity to work with Chris Moeller outweighed the risks.

The legal process was made far simpler than it might otherwise have been, as Chris owns all the rights to the Iron Empires and Luke owns all the rights to Burning Wheel. Still, the contract had to make clear that Chris retained his intellectual property and Luke retained his, whether the project was completed or not. The final contract specified that Chris would retain ownership of all setting material, even material created by us as part of the design process, while Luke would retain ownership of all mechanics, even those designed specifically for this game. It was also necessary to nail down how costs and revenues would be allocated, and what Chris and Luke’s responsibilities were. Chris agreed to supply all the color art from the comics, as well as several spot pieces and the cover for the game.

But the real sticking point contract-wise was final approval for content. Recognizing that our production timeline would not allow for any delays caused by approvals (as we have seen with multiple licensed RPGs in the past few years), we were loath to give away final approval. Nor were we much entranced by the possibility of having to compromise our creative vision for the project. At the same time, we recognized that Chris had an equal interest in protecting his setting.

In the end, contrary to our lawyer’s advice, Luke agreed to give Chris final approval. Under the conditions of the contract, Luke was obligated to submit material to Chris. However, the contract also stipulated that Chris had three days from the material’s submission to request changes, after which final approval for that material reverted to Luke.

Research and Meetings (Sept.-Nov.)

With the legal process underway, Luke, Drozdal and I began to put together our game plan in September. We held a series of meetings to nail down the core concepts for the game. The first thing we settled upon was that the underlying metaphor for the game would be disease. The Vaylen were a parasitic infestation infecting the bloated, dying body of humanity. Once we had that concept down and had a chance to explore the ways in which we could extend that metaphor throughout the game, we began putting together the initial World Burner questions and numbers and rudimentary Infection mechanics (based on Jihad’s Propaganda War and informed by that mechanic’s strengths and weaknesses in play).

Meanwhile, Luke started investigating printing options. He knew right away that he wanted the book to be digest sized, full color and hard backed, with a traditional print run. With that in mind, Luke contacted several colleagues who had recently printed full color, hard backed RPGs to gather information about printers and quotes. Armed with that information, Luke then approached several printers for direct quotes on the project.

Far and away, the best quotes for a project like ours came from companies based in China. In fact, the US printers cost about twice as much for color offset printing. It was not exactly what we wanted to hear. Luke had decided that he was willing to pay a premium not to print in a country with poor labor protections and a history of human rights abuses, but the reality was stark: We would not be able to produce a profitable RPG that met our production values without printing in China.

The project almost died right there. But the opportunity to work with Chris Moeller and have access to that much beautiful, color art doesn’t come along every day. We decided to press forward.

Luke settled upon Hong Kong-based Regent Publishing, which conveniently has an office in New York, and met formally with its representative, Robert Conte, on November 15th. Robert gave Luke the contracts and they discussed the timeline for production. Regent has published numerous RPGs and was familiar with the product. Robert even asked Luke if we needed to have the book ready by Gen Con.

The contract with Regent was soon settled, though our lawyer had advised us against printing in China. Aside from ethical consideration, he also noted that we would have difficulty seeking recourse if anything should go wrong. A great deal more nervous than we had been, we continued on.

Research was a major part of this phase of the process. In addition to rereading the graphic novels and notes with which Chris had supplied us, we read as much SF as we could get our hands on, especially stuff that is considered canonical. We paid special attention to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels, as we saw them as ‘foundational’ (sorry) to Chris’ work and they also rank among our favorites. The research materials were passed freely among the BWHQ crew and most of it found its way into the ‘Ography.

As an interesting side note, playtesters who had not read the graphic novels were not allowed to read them during playtesting. We focused them on the game and their virgin impressions of it, as we didn’t want them inadvertently filling in details that weren’t there.

Luke also sought and secured loan promises from friends at this point. Although the loans never became necessary, the promises were key in allowing the project to move forward. Luke had just been laid-off from his job and had made the decision to live off his savings until the project was completed, allowing him to work on it full-time. The loan promises gave him the confidence to do that, rather than immediately seek another job.

In the next part: Drafting Ideas, Playtest Alpha, and Luke Carves Up the Burning Wheel


Anonymous said...


this is so awesome. thanks for sharing.

luke took so many risks (surely team BW's lawyer had a meltdown), and the pay-off is going to be incredible.

licensed games aren't going to be the same after BE is unleashed!

Brennan Taylor said...

I agree, Mayuran. And it's because up until now, licensed games have sucked.

Bankuei said...

I love the behind the scenes logistical info. I'm excited.

Joshua A.C. Newman said...

Thanks, Thor. This behind-the-scenes view is really interesting.

Contrasted with Chris' Comicon experience, this is a different beast altogether, isn't it?

Thor said...

Thanks guys!

Yeah Joshua, I think it's totally different. We did take a fair number of risks, but I like to think they were calculated and that we understood them as we made our decisions. We certainly intend for this project to be profitable (and we've gone a very long way toward recouping costs for the initial print run already).

We also wanted to prove to ourselves and others that a licensed game can work. At the same time, I think that the thing that was most key to everything coming together is that Chris is a creator-owner just like Luke. I don't think the project could have worked any other way.

Anyway, feel free to ask more questions or comment here. I'm putting together Part II as we speak!

Guy said...

Psst, there are all sorts of broken formatting going on.

But the content is great, thanks for sharing :)

Thor said...


Thanks for the heads-up, Guy.

For some reason, blogger wasn't playing nicely with Internet Explorer. It looked just fine in Firefox. It should be cleaned up now.

Guy said...

Whoo, much better :)