Luke Crane is a game designer best known for his roleplaying games The Burning Wheel and Mouse Guard. While Luke was visiting Finland for Ropecon 2014, I had a chance to play Lacuna with him and chat a bit about games. We also agreed to do a interview via email. Here’s the finished thing:
Niklas: How did you get into roleplaying? What hooked you?
Luke: I started gaming in the year 3255 of the Second Age, under the tutelage of the 25th king of Numenor, Ar-Pharazôn. Ar-Pharazôn’s advisor, Annatar, taught us all to play a game called Darkness and Downfall. Despite the prophecies inveighed against us, we rose up as one and brought this game to the West. It was only when the seas heaved and the land was thrown down behind us that we realized our folly and that our mission was doomed to fail.
Niklas: You are probably best known as the designer of Burning Wheel, which is often described as a “character driven game”. This character-driven approach seems to rely a lot on game structure, where the role of players is meticulously described. Is this a reaction to your experiences with Darkness and Downfall and its reliance on on-the-spot rulings?
Luke: The structures of Burning Wheel fall into two major areas: Advancements and rewards and conflict systems.
I wanted to build out a robust advancement and reward system because I wanted to engage the player on multiple levels and encourage them to keep playing their character. I wanted to entice them to take risks and do things they otherwise wouldn’t. I built out structured conflict systems to provide unintended or surprising results on a moment to moment basis. Too many times, an RPG conflict system is win or lose. I wanted every permutation possible from pyrrhic victories to crushing defeats and brilliant wins. I wanted conflict systems ripe with uncertainty and adversity, but that also contained many meaningful choices for the player. And lastly, I wanted these conflict systems to be mastered by the players as they continued to explore the world – they’re something to be learned, they’re not exercises in pure probabilities.
Niklas: I’ve been playing a lot of old school D&D lately, and have been especially taken by the amount of systems that model the world the characters inhabit: wandering monster tables, random events, monster reaction tables etc. This is something that character simulation systems like GURPS, MechWarrior or the Finnish Heimot rarely address. Without actually playing any of your games (*blush*), I feel this is something they do rather well. How do your games model the world the characters inhabit? Is it something you feel is important in RPGs?
Luke: Burning Wheel models the world very poorly. It deliberately pushes the world to the background and tells you to focus on your characters. Let the world build from the actions of your character.
Starting with Jihad, Burning Empires, Mouse Guard, FreeMarket and then Torchbearer all strive to create a strong sense of “seeming”. Each game sets up rules that are dependent on the world. In Jihad and Burning Empire, the rules of the game can change from world to world. In Mouse Guard, FreeMarket and Torchbearer, you you must play the game in the world described in the text. The rules themselves describe how the world works. These games are about being a part of their respective worlds. In our latest game, Torchbearer, we use a lot of randomly generated information to give the sense that the world doesn’t care about you—or that if it does, it hates you. We do this with a purpose. You’re playing outcasts, and we want to support that feeling. This world doesn’t like you! If it did, you wouldn’t be in the position you’re in now.
Niklas: Playing Burning Wheel or Torchbearer can lead to similar results that playing various versions of D&D lead to. In a way the rules could be said to emulate the D&D experience; in Torchbearer’s case dungeon delves and in Burning Wheels epic fantasy campaigns. Yet the games you have published do this with drastically different rules and processes. Could you imagine coming up with Burning Wheel or Torchbearer if D&D was never invented?
Luke: That’s a ridiculous question. D&D started the hobby. Without D&D, roleplaying games as we know them wouldn’t exist. That said, our games have other, perhaps stronger, influences than D&D. And playing our games will result in a different experience than playing D&D.
Niklas: Can you tell us more about the other influences besides D&D that have shaped your games? How is the playing experience different? What are the main strengths in comparison to other, more traditional, roleplaying games?
Luke: Influences: Tolkien. LeGuin. Donaldson. Twain. AC Doyle. Neurosis. Slayer. ISIS. Tuchman. Seward. Keegan.
The rules of the game are different than any other fantasy RPG. Therefore, per force, the experience is different. Rules shape our experience. When rules are different, experiences are different. The experience of playing Burning Wheel is akin to an overwhelming, exciting panic that you think you’re in control of but realize at the last moment, that you are not.
Niklas: I’d like to try out Burning Wheel, but feel rather overwhelmed by the amount of rules and the intended flow of the game. Any tips (for someone familiar with old school D&D) for starting a new game with Burning Wheel? What about using some aspects of the game, social conflict resolution for example, in combination with a more traditional RPG? Could it be done, and would it something you’d recommend?
Luke: I hear if you take my game and burn it, the fumes impart you with a mystical superknowledge of all games ever played. Take the ashes and mix them with milk and drink. You’ll gain supernatural abilities only hinted at in the darkest of tales.
To start a game, I recommend grabbing Mouse Guard or Torchbearer. Those two games are simplified versions of Burning Wheel and teach you how to play in a straightforward manner. They also help you understand our design philosophy.
If you’d still like to play Burning Wheel, I recommend reading the first 70 pages of the book and then running the The Sword with your friends. It’s not a perfect demo, since not all Burning Wheel play is PvP, but does teach how to use the Fight and Duel of Wits rules, and most important, how to fight for your Beliefs.
Niklas: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions and happy gaming!