In my extensive collection of games (this is not a complete list) there is a subset of games that I’ve never played; And in some cases, likely never will. One of those unlikely to be played is Burning Empires a role-playing game by Luke Crane set in the comic series Iron Empires, created by Christopher Moeller.
The production value of Burning Empires is simply amazing; It is 600+ pages of visual and written inspiration. The underlying Burning Empires system is directly built from Luke’s Burning Wheel. Where needed, there Luke both creates and updates rules to better model the appropriate game feel; After all, according to Luke, game design is mind control.
There are three intertwined concepts in Burning Empires:
GameMaster vs. the Players
- A scene economy
- A macro-level story conflict and resolution mechanism
GameMaster vs. Players
In most other role-playing games the GameMaster (GM) is responsible for providing the interface for the characters into the world. The GM* creates the conflict, manages everyone other than the player’s characters, and is arbitrates any rules conflicts. The GM in those other games challenges the characters, but has no explicit goal of winning (at least shouldn’t have that goal). Burning Empires throws that convention to the wind and explicitly states that the GM should play to win. To make this happen, there are rules put into place to make sure the GM is not abusing their position of power.
In part, this is done by defining the scene economy. Without a scene economy, the GM could simply manipulate the story as they see fit, constructing scene after scene that helps them win. So Burning Empires defines and allots each side four types of scenes: Color, Interstitial, Building, and Conflict scenes.
- Color scenes are there to establish the tone and timber of the game, to foreshadow possible upcoming events, or to highlight something that interests the players.
- Interstitial scenes are used for characters to interact.
- Building scenes are there to improve the teams position in the macro-level story (i.e. the movie montage scene).
- Conflict is used to force concessions from the opposing team.
The scenes happen in the context of the larger story, with the design intent being that the macro-level mercilessly moves on; Thus there is a “make it count” mentality. If the scene-economy wasn’t present, both sides might get bogged down in the minutiae of small conflicts, and the over-arching story would stagnate.
The over-arching story of every Burning Empires game is that the insidious Vaylen are working to infiltrate and perniciously dominate a feudally fragmented humanity. Each campaign starts in one of three Infection phases: Infiltration, Usurpation, or Invasion. The first game session is spent collaboratively creating the world (planet/star system) that will be fought over as well as the primary movers and shakers that will influence the greater conflict. During the world creation, each side is allotted a certain number of Disposition points. Once one side runs out of Disposition points, the one with points remaining is the winner and the campaign is over. The winner then narrates the epilogue based on concessions and margin of victory.
The macro-level story is narrated via Maneuvers; What is happening on the larger scale (i.e. massive battles, propaganda campaigns, trade wars etc.). These Maneuvers are influenced by the lower level scenes (i.e. an impeachment proceeding, a fist fight, a training montage). There are guidelines and rules for tying the character scenes to the opposing maneuvers, all of which help establish a clear and stated purpose for each session.
The session is comprised of one (or possibly two) Maneuvers; Each maneuver has many scenes. Below is the interaction between Scene and Maneuver:
- At the beginning of the session, informed by the results of last session’s maneuver, “secretly” declare your side’s maneuver (i.e. Go to Ground, Flak, Gambit, Assess, etc.).
- Then, play out your scenes, remembering that you want to play towards your maneuver
- And finally, at the end of the session, resolve the opposed maneuvers.
So why will I likely never play it
The game is a very specific type of game. The campaign has a shelf life, simply resolve the maneuvers until a winner emerges. I’ve subjected my gaming group to countless different games, and I think this one, with it’s specificity strikes me as having little chance of being chosen. Perhaps I’m wrong.