Burning Empires is an attractively presented, very crunchy system in a colourful science-fiction universe, that will please those who like rules-intensive competitive games, but will overwhelm gamers who like a more streamlined approach.
Presentation. First, let’s talk about initial impression when you pick up this hefty book. There is no doubt that this is one of the most lavish and beautiful role-playing games published in the last few years. The art, layout and presentation are absolutely gorgeous, the paper is glossy and of good quality, and the binding is of relatively good quality (though there’s a lot of variation on binding quality between individual books.)
It’s a small format tome, 6″ x 9″ (150 mm x 275 mm). It’s also massive, weighing in at 656 pages. Though I normally like the small formats because they’re easier to carry in my backpack and read on the bus, I really wish BE was a full-size tome of half the thickness (or less, since it would make more efficient use of the page space.) The binding strains rapidly with transport and play use.
Organization. The material is not organized intuitively for learning to play nor for quick reference in-game. The organization does make sense as a whole as pure reading material, but not for gaming. For example, when creating a character you need to look in at least four places to figure out your starting gear (pp. 109-113 – Character Creation Step 8: Resources, pp. 357-398 – Resources, Technology Burner, and pp. 540-574 – Armour and Iron, Vehicles, and Security Systems, Signals and Sensors).
Other examples: the advancement rules are presented before you can figure out how the system works, between the chapters on Scenes and Conflicts and Beliefs, Instincts and Traits. You get four pages on earning “artha” before you ever get to a discussion of why you would want to have it. On the plus side, there is a detailed index and the PDF version is fully bookmarked.
Writing Style and Tone. This is a very subjective topic. Author Luke Crane’s authorial voice is very distinctive; he addresses the reader in a very direct, very conversational way. Some people love his tone, and if you are one of those then you will greatly enjoy reading the book. On the other hand, I have seen very mild-mannered, sweet-tempered gamers get incredibly irritated with the style and drop the book because they couldn’t stand reading it any longer. I am neither mild-mannered nor sweet-tempered, but I did not like the very directive tone, which I referred to as “you may, you may not, you must.” I like to think that it’s tongue-in-cheek, but there is even a place where you get advice on what snacks to eat (p. 610) and when to take a bathroom break (p. 613), which absolutely infuriated one member of our group.
Jargon. Oh my, yes, the jargon factor is high. Much of it is inherited from Burning Wheel, of course. For example, the physical stats include “Forte” (toughness), “Power” (strength), “Agility” (manual dexterity), and “Speed” (agility). For reasons I can’t fathom, a handful of N six-sided dice is noted as “Exponent N” instead of “rating of N”, or “[N]d6”, or “roll [N] dice.” Dice that are not successes (i.e., rolled 1, 2, or 3) are called “Worms” instead of failures. The points used for advancement and special effort are called “Artha” instead of experience, or hero points, “Field of Related Knowledge” (FoRK) instead of related or complementary skill, “Wise” skill instead of knowledge skill or lore, etc.. This is compounded by the fact that the sci-fi setting also uses its own share of specialized vocabulary, of course; newcomers to both the setting and the system have a hard time remembering all these terms.
It’s a beautiful book, and the visual quality suggests a 5, but the other factors bring down the overall grade to a 4. (Some people in my group say they would refuse to give it more than a 3 because of these factors.)
The Iron Empires. I’m a fan of Christopher Moeller’s Iron Empires graphic novels, Faith Conquers and Sheva’s War, on which the game is based. The Iron Empires are the splintered remnants of an old star-spanning empire, slowly descending in darkness. Although they fight one another, their true enemy are the Vaylen, worm-like creatures that can implant themselves in the brain of other creatures and take over (resembling a cross between two Star Trek critters, the worms that crawl inside your ear and make you eat bad food, and the Trill like Deep Space 9‘s Dax). The Vaylen are fond of yummy human brains, but humanity doesn’t believe in their existence so the wormy ones are having a field day infiltrating, subverting and invading human worlds on the edge of the empires.
The setting has big technology, big heroes, big battles, big plots. Visually, it’s reminiscent of Warhammer 40,000 and Fading Suns, particularly because of the use of a strong centralized quasi-medieval Church.
Source Material. Sometimes it’s worth buying a role-playing product even if you don’t play the system, in order to get the setting material. Unfortunately, despite its massive size, BE does not belong to that category; it contains almost no setting material. What there is consists largely of tidbits and overviews contained within the long lists of traits, skills, and paths, so it has to be decanted. You never learn what the Church of Transition or the Mundus Humanitas believe in, and how they differ.
BE tries to have the players and GM create the setting, but it also tries to model a particular setting. Unfortunately, peppering the text with strange words does not provide a sufficient framework to “get” the Iron Empires.” There are many, many terms that are used but never defined. For example, among the life paths you can choose at character creation you will find words like Coeptir, Eremite, Armiger, etc., that are never defined. Sure, I can use a bit of etymology to guess that they mean a page or squire, a hermit, and an armour bearer to a noble respectively, but what do they do? Fans of this approach answer that this stimulates creativity. For me, it stimulates irritation.
Fiction. Yes, there are a few bits of fiction interspersed through the text, as well as many play examples. The play examples are very useful. The fiction is of average quality.
Basic Rules. The roll mechanics are simple: roll a number of six-sided dice equal to your skill rating, and count all the ones coming up as 4, 5, or 6 as successes, and the number of successes is compared to the difficulty level selected by the Game Master. On this simple beginning are stacked many complex sub-systems.
For example, under certain circumstances a player can use complementary abilities (Fields of Related Knowledge) to augment their roll on the primary skill, adding one or two dice. In some cases, the players can also lend FoRK dice to other characters, assisting them in a task.
World Burner. Perhaps the most interesting and enjoyable rule set in BE is the World Burning stage, where players and GM decide what the campaign world will look like. They do this by going through an extensive checklist and picking the elements making up the world, from its position in the galaxy, its atmospheric conditions, and its physical make-up to its main factions, its economy, and its technology level. This part is a lot of fun and very satisfying. World Burning also determines the relative advantage held by the Human and Vaylen sides in the strategic aspect of the game.
Character Creation. Overall, once past the jargon, character creation is very similar to that used in making, say, a 10th-level D20 character. The characters are made by picking Life Paths (similar to levels in various classes in D20, or to the old Traveller careers.) The easiest way to do this is to pick the last known career (say, Hammer ship captain) and work your way back by checking pre-requisite paths for Hammer Captain, and so forth.
A number of Skills and Traits are associated with the Life Paths. Skills are pretty self-explanatory, though many are awfully unclear or redundant. Traits are very much like Feats in D20, or Advantages and Disadvantages in many other games. Finally, the newish bits are the Resources and Circles accumulated during the Life Paths step. Resources let you roll to obtain or buy goods and services, a bit like in Conspiracy X, and Circles let you try to get contacts or allies.
Skills and Fields of Related Knowledge. FoRKs, as they are referred to in the text, are complementary or related skills used to boost a given roll by a die or two. On any given roll, you can use one regular skill and one “wise” (lore or knowledge) skill to provide FoRK dice. This encourages players to diversify between active and “wise” skills. The best min-maxing move you can make at character creation is to take as many of the “wise” skills as you can, and concentrate on a few active skills that are frequently used in maneuver, firefight, and duel of wits rules (more on this later).
Any skill can have a related “wise” skill. Unfortunately, this causes a good deal of redundancy and mostly useless skills. For example, since the skills Advanced Mathematics, Folklore and Streetwise exist in the game, we can also have the associated “wise” skills. But what is “Advanced Mathematics-wise”, or “Folklore-wise”, or “Streetwise-wise”? I prefer system where the skills have a penumbra of associated knowledge, such as Feng Shui, Risus, or PDQ.
Active skills can also overlap frightfully. For example, Oratory, Rhetoric, Suasion, and Persuasion all more or less do the same thing, not even counting Propaganda and Soothing Platitudes. Some skills are so obscure as to boggle the mind (e.g., Amercement — the knowledge of fees and criminal fines given as judicial punishment).
Figures of Note. Certain characters are designated as Figures of Note, three each to the Vaylen and Human sides. If you have four or more players, only three can be Figures of Note; it is recommended in the rules that all Figures of Note on the players’ side be PCs. Moreover, each player character is required to take a relationship with a Figure of Note on the other side. This is so the PCs can be conflicted about having to go against dear old Uncle Ademar or sweet Lady Jain. It’s meant to create drama and tension.
Artha and Advancement. This is perhaps one of the most difficult rule sets in the game, because unlike the Firefight, Duel of Wits, and Infection mechanics, it is always “on.” For example, players need to mark off every time they use an ability in game, whether they succeed or fail, and indicate how many dice were rolled (including bonus or penalty dice from traits, FoRK dice, etc.) and the obstacle (difficulty) they rolled against. When they have enough tick marks for routine, difficult, and challenging tests of a skill, they can advance it; they can also use practice during down time.
Artha (hero points) comes in three types: fate, which lets you re-roll 6s as additional dice (earned by role-playing or using the character’s beliefs, traits and instincts); persona, which lets you add one die to a roll, temporarily soak one wound point, or attempt to recover from a mortal wound (earned through good acting, being “hot” in game, fulfilling personal goals, earning the MVP award, and generally wowing the group); and deeds, which lets you double your stat or skill rating for one roll or re-roll all failed dice on one test (earned by accomplishing larger-than-life goals). Yes, lots of tick marks to track here too.
Fractal Sub-Systems. There are several rules sub-systems in the game that are based on the same approach but act at entirely different levels: the Firefight (killing things, a.k.a. fighting big time), Duel of Wits (social combat, a.k.a. arguing big time), and Infection (fighting the Great Enemy, a.k.a. interstellar fighting big time).
All of these rely on each side picking among a list of actions or maneuvers and scripting a few moves in advance. Certain actions are better at countering certain others, or are more vulnerable to yet others. For example, in a Duel of Wits each opponent would secretly select three actions in advance, such as Point, Feint and Rebuttal for Side A, and Point, Obfuscate, and Incite for Side B. They each would reveal their strategy step by step, role-playing and rolling dice for each action using one of the approved skills, then compare totals, gradually whittling away at each other.
The Duel of Wits and Firefight scale correspond more or less to what we think of as an action or a turn, perhaps a bit longer (like a section of a speech.) The Infection mechanics use the same structure, but the scale is of one or two maneuvers per game session. Maneuvers include such concepts as Assess, Gambit, Pin, or Go to Ground. They are to the Human-Vaylen war what a Firefight is to two duellists (or two squads firing at each other).
At the level above this is the Campaign scale, divided in three phases of the Vaylen infection: Infiltration (the worms are just beginning to crawl in your ear), Usurpation (they’re replacing key people and subverting the system), and Invasion (All right! Bring out the big guns!).
All of these sub-systems use a number of approved skills than can be rolled for a particular maneuver or action. It’s necessary, to create an effective character, to look at the maneuver chart for whatever phase of the Infection the group picked and identify the main approved skills. Certain skills occur much more frequently than others, such as Intimidation, Persuasion, Command, Tactics, etc.
Scenes as Currency. Within each maneuver, each player is allocated a certain number of Colour Scenes (no dice rolling, just setting the stage or the mood), Interstitial Scenes (conversations and interactions between characters, no dice rolling), and Building Scenes (all right, we finally get to use those skills and roll some dice!) or Conflict Scenes (the big stuff). There are very specific rules on how many scenes of each type each player gets.
Because the number of scenes of each type available per maneuver and player, it is possible to be unable to roll for certain actions because the group or the player ran out of building and conflict scenes, or must hoard them for something else. This aspect is entertaining and challenging for some people, but feels stilted to me and runs counter to a truly creative flow among the group.
This is tough to rate. Those who like this style of play, with a lot of sub-systems with sharp competition, high crunchiness, and iron guiding hand in all aspects of the game, will certainly be delighted and give it a 4 (Meaty) or 5 (Excellent). Those who, like me, like toolbox systems with a lot of flexibility and find only a few elements they can use, will give it a 2 (Sparse) or even a 1 (I wasted my money). I give it a 2 because the book may be thick, but I can only use a small portion of it. Be aware that this game will probably provoke a love or hate reaction in most people.
We started with four players and a GM, all good and experienced gamers who like to try new systems. One player dropped before the start of the actual campaign, turned off by the style and quantity of the rules system. A second vowed that he could keep up, but sank under the weight of it after a couple of games. We brought in a new replacement player who gallantly tackled the challenge, but eventually, after three months of efforts, our group could not stand the complexity of the system any longer.
Reading Requirements. This is where we discovered that it didn’t matter that the book was not organized logically, because we pretty much had to integrate the entire book in order to play. Here is what the reading assignments looked like.
Game 0 (World Burning, character creation):
- Pages 1-128, which cover an introduction to the game, world burning, and character burning. Thats a lot of reading, but concentrate on pp 1-21, and skim the rest.
- Pages 610 – 625 which cover how the game is played.
- If you are feeling frisky, pp 284-310 would be useful, but can wait until next week
Game 1 (Wrapping up character creation, short little intro):
- Wheel Meets Fire: pp 284-310
- Advancing Abilities: pp 311-323
- Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits: pp. 324-332
- Artha: pp 334-343
- Relationships and Circles: pp 344 – 356
- Resources: pp. 357- 372
- Technology Burner: pp. 373 – 398
- Vaylen Infection: pp. 400-440
- We will likely have to learn the big conflict mechanics (Duel of Wits and Firefight) at the table next game, but you can read about them if you want. You might want to at least go over pp 442-446 and 463-478 for the basics.
And so forth. Our gamers fell like flies. That’s just a hell of a lot of material to absorb. The BE learning curve would eventually prove fatal not only to our group, but to several others I know of, including people who were already familiar with Burning Wheel.
Bean Counting. This is a very demanding game in terms of tracking resources. Players need to monitor or keep track of eight types of maneuvers, four types of scenes, three flavours of “Artha”, seven types of Duel of Wits actions, nine types of Firefight actions, the Firefight steps and Disposition modifiers, all the specific skills that are allowable per maneuver/Duel of Wits/Firefight actions, tracking the skills they have used and pre-Field of Related Knowledge (FoRK) dice pool size, tracking Beliefs and Instincts fought or obeyed, etc. Even using poker chips and beads, we ran out of colours. We always for got to track something, most often resulting in no “Artha” awards for the episode.
Competition. The GM is supposed to drive the players as hard as s/he can in BE. This is somewhat compensated by the explicit limits placed on GM power by the system (e.g., number and types of scenes available). Some groups already play in that style, and will be more comfortable with that approach. Others thrive on shared authority and cooperative narration, and will be in complete shock.
Player Rotation. It’s very challenging to lose a player and very difficult to bring in new ones because of the integrated nature of the setting creation (World Burning) and the multiple ties that are built between characters, particularly Figures of Note. Losing a Figure of Note means losing a major anchor point in the plot. In contrast, new characters have a hard time inserting themselves in a setting they have no stake in.
Inflexibility. This game is designed to play one thing, and that’s Sheva’s War: the main characters have ties to old friends and mentors who have secretly been subverted by the Vaylen, and are all broken up inside about the conflict. Using the rules as written, one wouldn’t even get a good rendition of Faith Conquers, where Trevor Faith (the main character) certainly wasn’t conflicted about his path. If that’s not the type of story you’re interested in, if you want a more clear-cut division (we’re the good guys, they’re the bad guys), BE will leave you perplexed or annoyed.
Burning Empires doesn’t let you play anything but a particular take on the Iron Empires. You can manhandle it to play something that resembles Faith Conquers, sorta. You can’t do completely different plots, such as, say, Carcajou’s earlier adventures, or Trevor Faith’s, or even Lady Sheva’s courting. You can’t use it to run the adventures of a group of smugglers between empires, or the rise of the Church of Transition, or the adventures of the Grey Rats, etc.
Moreover, the rules are not adjustable or modular. Every time we talked about modifying or ditching some of the rules, we received warnings from more experienced BE players that the whole edifice would collapse, that all the rules are intricately linked and balanced. This is essentially a game that you are not supposed to tinker with, it does what it does, and that’s the end of the discussion.
How Do I Use This?
BE vs. BW. I think the best way for a new group to approach BE would be to play Burning Wheel first, so that they can get the basics of the system down before tackling the added levels of complexity of Burning Empires. Go through the World Burning, and make characters using the BE paths. Play for a while using only the single-roll mechanics from Burning Wheel. Use the BE charts for Firefight and Duel of Wits once you feel ready to use those mechanics, but don’t touch the Infection mechanics yet. Finish a story arc or two; then if your group enjoys this level of complexity and feels ready for more, go ahead and throw in the full deal from BE.
Other Uses. Unfortunately, as previously mentioned, this book is not useful to buy as a sourcebook on the Iron Empires setting. There simply isn’t enough there to justify the purchase if you don’t plan on using the system. If you do decide to try it anyway, I recommend you go for the PDF version, which is searchable.
Alternately, you could think of using the system for another setting; one of the first to be suggested on RPGNet was Battlestar Galactica. In theory, this would be an excellent fit because, like the Vaylen, the new BSG Cylons are infiltrating, subverting, and invading human societies. Unfortunately, be prepared for a metric tonne of work if you decide to go this route, because you’ll have to create all the paths for both Cylons and Humans, as well as the World Burner elements. There is absolutely nothing in BE that can serve as a toolbox to create or adapt new settings.
You know how some architects and interior designers hide the piping and columns of a building, while others leave them in plain sight? If Burning Empires was a building, its entire interior space would be organized to showcase the structure and mechanical systems; wiring and piping would be prominent decoration elements.
Burning Empires will not appeal to people who like the system to get out of the way of the story and the role-playing, or to people who like light systems. Moreover, it will not please people who like to play with clear moral and emotional lines, or hate to have to make up a character background and story. If you prefer to play Savage Worlds, Truth & Justice, Feng Shui, or Wushu, you will probably not like this game.
Burning Empires will please those looking for a game of sweeping science-fiction epic, emotional entanglement with the enemy side, and harsh competition, using an extremely structured system that never disappears from view. This may be for you if you like to play The Riddle of Steel or Burning Wheel.