In this post, I’ll go into some of the specifics of character creation. I’ll focus on how the different aspects of a Burning Wheel character can hint to their background and position them to take action within the current situation.
On Friday evenings, Phil Lewis has been running a playtest campaign of Lavender Hack (LH 📖) for three players. The players are Aidan, Alhana, and myself. The four of us have begun winding down that campaign; I suspect we have about three sessions remaining.
In preparation for that wind down, and because Aidan couldn’t attend, Alhana and I made Burning Wheel characters. The plan is to play in the Warhammer Fantasy Setting (WHFS 📖).
In our daydreaming about a new campaign, Alhana was thinking about river boat gondoliers. So Phil grabbed his Warhammer book on Marienburg and we burned up some characters.
We loosely held to the idea of running errands for an unsavory wizard. This is the background for Death on the Reik, but we didn’t commit to playing that adventure, just using that as a framing of the potential adventure structure.
Alhana has not played Burning Wheel. She’s mostly played Dungeons and Dragons: Fifth Edition (5E 📖), but has dabbled in Mouse Guard RPG (MGRPG 📖).
Having just played a wizard, I want to play something different. We settled on two core concepts: The Witch and the Captain.
When burning up a character in Burning Wheel, my advice is to find the lifepath where you want to end up, and work backwards from there.
We agree that I would burn up a character that ended up with the Ship’s Captain lifepath. And Alhana would create a Weather Witch. They would be related, either siblings or cousins.
We talked a bit and agreed that our characters would be skirting on the edges of society. Alhana chose to become a Weather Witch by way of Rogue Wizard; She fully embraced being a societal outcast. This agreement informed my path to Ship’s Captain; I’d go by way of Mercenary Captain. I’m drawn to the Fat Merchant-wise, but have some trepidation about having the Predatory character trait.
I’m not directly positioning my character on the edges; Instead I purchased a reputation around leaving one guild and an affiliation for being part of a rival guild. Through those choices, the character’s entering the game on the boundary of two different maritime rivals.
I’m basically screaming at the Game Master: “Hey, when James fails a Circles test, invoke the Enmity clause.”
In James’s untold backstory, he’s likely pissed off people in his new guild and has loyal friends from his old guild. That’s not important, until we make it important in game play.
Captain James van Shaw
Let’s briefly go over some of the important aspects of Captain James van Shaw.
- Born Noble → City: Sailor, Mercenary Captain, Mercenary Captain → Seafaring: Ship's Captain
- My brother’s strange powers over the rivers give me an advantage, I will do whatever I must to keep that advantage.
- I will become a fat guild leader, but first I must find a good paying gig.
- I just purchased The Danseur (a felucca-style riverboat), I must find a new crew to replace those I just lost.
- Always entertain a scheme, regardless of how hair-brained
- Never throw the first punch
- In each spare moment, practice reading
- Notable Skills and Attributes
- Brawling B5
- Circles B3
- Command B5
- Fat Merchant-wise B4
- Guilder-wise B2
- Oratory B4
- Resources B4
- Booming Voice (call-on)
- Mark of Privilege (die)
- Predatory (character)
- Stern Demeanor (character)
- Superstitious (character)
- Thick Skin (die)
- Marienberg - Rivermen's Association
- Marienberg - Left the Brotherhood of Seamen and Pilots
- Henrick van Shaw (nephew, minor)
- Anouk Vas (Thinker, minor)
Background and Design
In Burning Wheel, the Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits (BITs 📖) are the core of the character. By pursuing and/or achieving your beliefs, you gain Artha. Artha, is an in game reward for playing to your characters beliefs, instincts and traits. You use Artha to help accomplish in game tests; hopefully in the pursuit of a belief.
Let’s break down how I’m thinking about the beliefs, and how I see their interplay with instincts.
Belief 1: My brother’s strange powers…
This belief points towards another player character. It’s multi-pronged, and I hope it gives space for the other player to do their thing while creation situations of tension around the apparent transactionality of the relationship.
Let’s look at the tension or conflict. Whenever someone threatens their character, my character’s going to act. James’s instincts
Never throw the first punch and
Always entertain a scheme are ripe for tension.
Second, if their character attempts diminish the advantage my character perceives, then James may well enter a duel of wits. But there’s an out for the player, make it into some kind of
scheme and James will listen.
I also see James’s superstitious and predatory traits relevant for this belief. Superstitious as a way to yield to James’s weather witch brother. And predatory as a driver for invoking this belief.
The predatory character trait may also inform the two other beliefs. It’s also the one which I’m most interested in seeing if I have an interest in bringing to the table. I don’t know how I’ll sit with that trait during play.
Belief 2: I will become a fat guild leader…
This is the thing my character wants. James was born noble, but left that path; I’m uncertain why but it’s not material for their ambitions. And for the first session, I’m writing this belief as something James can achieve. Namely finding a good paying gig.
Immediately, James can use his circles to track down a gig to throw the characters into adventure. And James can bring his reputation and affiliation into the roll. Which creates the opportunity to explore the James leaving the sea-going sailor guild of Marienburg and joining the river-going sailor guild. The Rivermen’s Association aligns with begin riverboat gondoliers. The Brotherhood of Seamen and Pilots highlights the Ship’s Captain’s background.
Belief 3: I just purchased this felucca riverboat…
This is me putting James’s property in the cross-hairs. This belief is also one that James will use Circles and Resources. This belief’s actionable part is similar to the fat guilder belief. Both of these beliefs helps to introduce non-player characters into the world.
I’m also framing this belief to touch on some backstory (e.g. bought a new boat and replace the crew I just lost), but it’s there as flavor.
James has numerous Dual of Wits skills (e.g. Persuasion, Intimidation, Oratory, and Haggling) which providers further narrative potential energy for characters he circles up. Dual of Wits is the social “combat” mechanism in which each side establishes what they’re after, and in resolving, helps establish the compromise. These compromises become binding agreements; A new “rule” for the game if you will.
I already mentioned ways in which “always entertain a scheme” and “never through the first punch” could cause complications. In Burning Wheel, you gain Artha when you uses your character’s instincts to create complications for your character.
The third instinct (e.g.
In each spare moment, practice reading) is there for two purposes. First, I want James to be improving their reading skill. This is one way to automatically do that. Second, it could create complications because it implies James’s always has his nose in a book.
I added Henrick van Shaw as someone that will be available; I’m thinking of Henrick as someone that travels the river with us. Perhaps this is the character that Aidan could pick up, and if they can’t make it, James would still be able to rely on their skills.
I’m holding Anouk Vas in my back-pocket. Anouk’s a Thinker, a societal outcast skilled in philosophy, strategy, and history. Socrates would be a good example.
Anouk can provide ample ideas for schemes, and gives James access to someone from the outcast setting. In setting Anouk as a minor character, I’m assuming she has access to some information, but perhaps views herself as more important or in the loop than she actually is.
I’m also not adding Anouk to a belief, as I want to let that relationship develop a bit before bringing her into James’s beliefs.
I wanted to give some insight into my thoughts on the character creation in Burning Wheel. In part to highlight the interplay of the different character elements.
As I was going through writing this post, I started thinking even more about these elements. I think to Sean Nittner’s Narrative Control - Episode 80 - Conversations in Design, in which Sean interviews Luke Crane (creator of Burning Wheel). In particular, I think of the diagram that Sean used to outline the moving parts of Burning Wheel.
Every element of the character tells a bit of backstory; Nothing is random in Burning Wheel character creation.
As I was working through the character, I started purchasing resources before I even considered my characters beliefs. That was a mistake. Everything is in service to your character’s beliefs.
Looking at James skills, I thought about what he would be aiming towards. I saw three paths: get rich and retire to the country, restore his claim to nobility, or become a guild leader. With the Fat Merchant-wise skill, I figured that would help James become a guild leader.
So I wrote a belief about that. It didn’t quite provide enough insight into how to spend James’s initial character creation resources. I knew I wanted a river boat and an affiliation, and would likely have enough left over for a reputation.
Once I penciled in the actionable belief of finding a crew, James’s affiliation and relationship came into clarity. I would use that affiliation and reputation to provide the dice for the Circles tests necessary to achieve the belief. And one both could also serve in pursuing leadership of a guild.
James’s beliefs include a long-term goal, an implication of their past, and how they relate to another character. Two of the beliefs point to immediate tasks that James wants to accomplish, however other aspects of the character highlight ways to challenge James in those pursuits.
I don’t know how Phil intends to start the session, but Captain James van Shaw is poised to enter the stage and set things in motion.
You can clearly see the influence of Burning Wheel in the Bonds, Ideals, Traits, and Flaws (BITFs 📖) of Dungeons and Dragons: Fifth Edition. And the pale and distorted echo that 5E’s Inspiration is compared to Burning Wheel’s Artha.
Inspiration is not crucial for character advancement, which is why I find the BITFs of 5E to feel rather vestigial.
They’re not integrated into the game. You can ignore them or add them as an after thought. They might appease your desire for a character background, but the rules only half-heartedly encourage you to bring those elements to the foreground.
Contrast with Burning Wheel. The entire Artha cycle reviews your BITs and rewards you for bringing them into play.