Blogging Wheel: I Burn For You

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Okay sports fans, this time I dig into the Character Burner to see what this Lifepath business is all about. Also slightly different format in that I read the book last night and so this is more like a review of sorts than a liveblog. That’s probably cheating but it’s probably for the best.

I should note at the start that my all-time number one favorite character generation system is FASA’s Star Trek. There’s this awesome series of tables that you choose or roll on (modified by things like your stats and previous rolls on the tables) to determine how your Academy years went, the results of your Cadet Cruise, and for your subsequent assignments (including your performance evaluation on those cruises) . Gives the character much more depth than simply “I’m a lieutenant j.g., a helmsman on a Reliant class ship, and a Vulcan.”  You know that’s where you end up because that’s the character you want to play but how do you get there? I’ve seen some really awesome and unexpected character background elements come up from this system when someone consistently gets shunted off to the Merchant Marine instead of top of the line ships, or a stellar career with an abrupt horrible performance rating – something happened there.

So that’s what I was hoping for when I heard the term “Lifepaths”. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly what it is.

I’m trying not to judge this based on my expectations for what it should have been but to be honest can’t guarantee that’s not going on in my brain.

Okay, the basics: you’re presented with 4 races – Dwarf, Elf, Man and Orc – and each of those has a number of different “settings” – Peasant, Villager, City-Dweller, Noble for the Men. You start off with a “Born” path then can stick within that setting or branch off into others (different lifepaths give you “Leads” to other settings, ways for social movement essentially). Each path gives you a number of skill points, a required and some optional skills, a required and some optional Traits, a bonus to either your physical or menal stats, a bunch of “resource points” and a number of years to be added to your character age. You pick a number of those paths as determined by the GM (3 is a novice, 4 is pretty solid, 5 is a veteran, more than that and you’re getting into serious badass territory).  Add up all the years, spend skill points in your required skills then pick  general ones, and spend resource points on things like relationships, gear, circles and resources and you’re good to go.

All very solid. Start with a concept and then build the foundation for that. Sometimes you need to take a path that gives you a Trait you’d rather not have in order to get a Skill you need, but them’s the shakes.

I’ve got two problems with the philosphy behind the character burner system. The first is that there’s no element of randomness. And yes, this is my “I wish it were like FASA Trek” creeping in. But I like the unexpected and things not going according to plan (in character backstory development anyway). As it stands there’s really nothing that I can see separating this method from just having a big list of skills and traits and saying “you have X points to be a novice character, Y for a middling one, Z for a veteran. Go pick.” Okay, maybe having to choose to be a “Temple Acolyte” in order to get that “Sword to the Order” Trait you need means something but wouldn’t I come up with the concept that the character spent a few years in a temple if I wanted him to be a member of a religious order?  I think these paths are a nice framework but I’m not seeing anything here that I wouldn’t already be working up free-form in my mind. Maybe 20 years ago this would have blown my hair back. I think if someone only ever played dungeon crawl-type games and didn’t work up extensive character backstories then yeah, this is really fantastic stuff.  That sounds really elitist, and I know folks who have been gaming for 30 years who love the way the burner shapes and guides backstory and I mean no slight to them. Like I said I’m sure that along the way you make some choices or see some options that you hadn’t considered and that can add unexpected twists.  It’s likely something you don’t see until you’re elbow deep in character creation.

My second gripe is that back there in the core book it said there was no fixed or predetermined setting to play in, but the settings and paths definitely shape you options. Caveat: it mentioned there’s a way to make up your own paths in the Monster Burnerbut I’m just going on what’s here for now. For example I sat down with a concept of a Dwarven Inquisitor, charged with rooting out sorcerers,  oathbreakers and other vile abominations in the caves and beyond. I had a “Dwarves in the Vineyard” meets Philip Marlowe kind of idea. But there are no religious-themed options for Dwarves. I’d love some of the Faith stuff over there in the Men settings but you’re not allowed to jump around. I could go military but that’s the wrong feel. Also Dwarves have this innate Greed that they have to deal with – they covet shiny things, power, fame etc.  That doesn’t fit my concept at all. Probably my fault for sitting down with a rather non typically Dwarfy concept. If I set my sights on a more traditional Tolkeinesque Dwarf I’ve got a lot more sensible options that seem to work just fine. But I’m pretty well locked in there.

(I’ll confess I didn’t read much of the other race sections at this point.  Let’s see, Elves are saddled by Grief, Orcs by rage, Men are just Men. It looks like Orcs do get some randomness as beyond 4 paths they have to roll to see if they’re maimed, killed, or eaten. Insert Traveller/DC Universe joke here.)

I do like that while there are some prerequisites for some of the paths they’re not excessively nested or stacked and the Traits don’t all have some kind of special and funky detailed rules like some of the skills and feats in games like Spirit of the Century. Here the prereqs make sense and the benefits from traits and skills are pretty brief or commonsense.

There are things I absolutely adore about this system. Beliefs and Instincts, Circles and Resources. A pretty straight-forward and simple engine with a very extensive but not overwhelming skill list.  I haven’t read the section in the core book on exactly how combat resolution works, or the Duel of Wits (something else frequently noted as what sets BW apart) or how sorcery is handled, so I can’t speak to those yet.

So I guess my overall feeling is that I’d like there to be a little more flexibility and less rigidly defined cultures (which means maybe I should focus on playing Men and not anything else) and I’d like the lifepaths to have some more randomness and unpredictability baked into them.

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3 Responses to “Blogging Wheel: I Burn For You”

  1. Theron Says:

    While the game says there are no pre-defined cultures, what you actually get out of the box is pretty much Tolkien. It’s a very good take on Tolkien, but if you want anything else, you’re going to have to make it yourself.

  2. Jack Kessler Says:

    The ‘special, funky’ comment makes me think you have some reservations about using Spirit of the Century. Since my LoEG game is starting back up with a revamp of all the characters, I wanted to try a switch to SotC from Adventure! Any advice/pitfalls you can point out for me to avoid?

    • Christopher Tatro Says:

      I could write a whole post about the problems I had with SotC (and probably did back on my LJ last summer) but this gripe involves stunt trees. many of my players wanted to be able to do X, but to do that you needed to first take prerequisites Y and Z which they didn’t want but had to spend points on anyway. Okay, fine I can kind of see that as a power balancing thing (except that in some cases the higher-on-the-tree stunt they wanted wasn’t really more powerful than the prereq, but whatever).

      Also the specific detailed rules for each of the stunts and what it could do were hard to keep track of, even when the players just had a sheet with only their stunts described on it. I can’t even imagine how this could be a “pick-up game” with character gen and a session played in a handful of hours as it purports to be. Having to read through all the descriptions of what skills/stunts can and can’t do alone would take up a lot of time. D&D3.5’s feat trees have nothing on this!

      (as a GM I had a printed a landscape legal-sized table with all the characters’ skill levels, stunts, and aspects. That was very helpful and I recommend it).

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