Welcome one and all to a brand new endeavor I’m embarking upon, namely bringing you – our loyal reader base – a glimpse into RPG systems you’ve either missed out on, overlooked, never heard about, or even some that haven’t been invented yet!
While part of that statement is an exaggeration to say the least (at least until I get my own system up and running – standby), there are certainly thousands of ways to roll dice with the express objective of advancing through a story and increasing your character’s proficiency at whatever it is they do, liberally swashing buckles, punking cyber, steam or diesel, and even fi-ing sci along the way.
Enter Role-playing Gems (see what I did there?), where I’ll rummage the world wide webs of information as well as my personal spider-webbed bookshelves for you, pick out the items I think are noteworthy and should be given a shot in the spotlight, and give it my best college try at reviewing them, pending your appraisal – in the oh-so-familiar listicle form you’ve come to know and we’ve come to love.
We’ll be delving deep in all your favourite genres past, present, and even future, provided we can get Doc Brown on the phone, so even if you come across something you don’t think would fit yourself and your group, don’t despair, there are many more of these to come.
I’ll start out with my personal high-ranking systems, then roll the specially-designed d20 Gem die – to be revealed at a future date, copyright pending – on what page to turn to next when I run out of those. Maybe you guys could even pitch some advice my way?
Anywho, I hope you’ll enjoy the current series and definitely believe you’ll be able to gain something from it in the long run.
Make like a dwarf and get your pickaxe on – we’re going gem-hunting!
Disclaimer: While listicles are rather straightforward to write, what with their numerical nature and all, I'll be jumping around these games' mechanisms forwards and backwards based on… not a lot of things really, just random info that pops into the ol’ noggin. Enjoy!
Chapter I – Burning Wheel
We’ll start this series off with a generic system – but not at all in regards to its actual cogs and bits that make it run, no, no, no.
You see Burning Wheel is an amazing Role-Playing Game without a setting, the creator (Luke Crane) even stressing the point that players will be able to create much more vivid and amazing worlds that he ever could, while offering them the tools with which they can get their setting moving in a gaming sense.
And, oh, such amazing tools these are!
1. Aflame with character?
Think for a second, if you will, about D&D – it’s the grandfather, we’ll be referencing behemoths in this series for comparison purposes. During character creation you had your general background information that bestowed upon you a certain effect or five that may or may not come into play at a few points during your adventuring days.
Thus, your background choice faded into the background most of the times, having your character put themselves in situations they wouldn’t normally be in just for the sake of using that one mechanism you haven’t really touched in a while.
While that’s certainly one way to fiddle with your character’s history, I pose to you the following question: wouldn’t it be better – from both a logistical stand-point as well as thematically – if your initial character choices would be the very platform on which you build each and every part of your actions, day in and day out?
Of course it would! Well, that was rhetorical, but still, damn straight that’d be fine!
And burning wheel has that in droves.
Right from the get-go of character generation (or burning a character, if you will), you're faced with choices that will affect nearly every action you will undertake over said character's adventures. Any item and quirk that you will choose will dictate not only how you will go about resolving a conflict for example, but will also drive you towards gaining certain bonuses because of the way you perform these actions, ranging in magnitude from minor aids to great boons that can have a campaign-altering effect on proceedings.
2. Destiny’s weavings
Without going into too much detail - and I could - the 3 parts of a character's initial setup are beliefs, instincts and traits. BITs in short – which is pretty cool if you ask me, since every little bit of these items eventually make up your in-game persona. Max points for that (and also FoRKs, but I'll let you discover what that means by yourself).
Beliefs are your top 3 goals in life that you setup from the beginning and go by until you or the story-line deems it necessary or possible to change. After all, people grow over the years and change their outlook on things several times during their lifespan.
Having these set at the beginning of a campaign allows both the other players as well as the GM to know what you are after and either help fulfill or allow the option of challenging these beliefs more organically.
Instincts showcase your character's course of action during a certain situation, and are marked by the words Always, Never, and If/Then. This not only gives you a frame on which to base any and all decisions you may need to make. While these may also change over the course of a campaign, they offer you a proper, solid basis from which to actually feel that growth as opposed to just gaining a +1 in being a quick brown fox who jumps over the lazy log. They're also good for when GMs are feeling devious and trying to push you into a corner – that's when you go “no, it very obviously states here that my instinct is to 'Always be a brave Sir Robin', it's not my fault you didn't get that reference. Now, I roll to run away in the face of the vicious flock of chickens!”
Traits are the most mechanical of the current three character quirks we're discussing, traits also effect game-play in either adding dice to rolls, breaking ties by being called-on, or offering another character layer via stuff like fighty, determined, or downright bonkers to the bone.
One of those may be a personal trait.
3. Crunching numbers
Although having a very 'fluffy' near-600-page book (at least for the Golden Edition that compiles several previous entries in the series), Burning Wheel deals with all of the above mechanisms as well as other innovative ones it employs rather simply. For one, it uses D6s, probably the most widespread dice this side of the Big Bang, and certainly your best bet at being present in any and all gaming homesteads.
The way in which successes are (usually) measured are by rolling 4, 5 and 6s, with 1, 2 and 3s being traitors that work against your chance at succeeding. You're trying to beat a certain number of successes by rolling a set amount of dice based on your skill, its shade and various modifiers that may apply to a roll.
Skill improvement is also done rather ingeniously if you ask me – the character sheets present you with small boxes that you can tick once you achieve various results by testing that skill. As such, the better you do at it over time, the better you actually get at it – evolution through training! Great stuff!
A skill's shade (Black, Grey or White) also has an impact on what you need to roll, Grey meaning 3s are no longer traitors, and White giving you the near-supernatural ability of rolling 2s or better to succeed at something. It's as simple as that, really... Not much more to it for a backbone, and it has just the right amount of simplicity and opportunity for special rules being added via character peculiarities to work with just about anyone, no matter their experience at role-playing.
4. Arthafully done!
Evolving your character is done by spending Artha (Sanskrit, google it), allowing you to fiddle with beliefs and instincts and turn them into traits of various potencies.
Not unlike most things in this game, Artha comes in 3 variants: Fate, Persona and Deeds, each more powerful than the last.
Fate is awarded when you role-play according to your character's set BITs, allowing minor aids when situations deem it usable.
Persona comes along when someone breaks out of the mold, does something that makes thematic sense and can be used to modify dies following rolls.
Deeds are the utmost a character can achieve and are usually awarded when someone goes above and beyond what is required of them, subsequently allowing heavy dice roll modifications.
The Artha categories are pretty extensive when it comes to their explanation, so I suggest getting your hands on a Burning Wheel book (if you haven't already, mesmerised by the sheer amount of thematic options presented in these couple pages) and digging into them for a feel of how even the smallest gesture you make at a given time, a joke or a nod can all have some bearing on you driving your character forward into the story and on to great and greater things…
5. What… is your quest?
But if you thought that was all there was to it when burning a character, think again... There are also lifepaths that influence the final concept you end up playing.
Starting with the general campaign idea, you can opt to be a Dwarven Coward, Elven Lancer, Ambitious Noblewoman, Astride the Beast (that's a mounted orc if you're wondering), and so many other variants based on race, setting, religious beliefs, mysticism, special items you can start out with or certain circles you may be a part of... ALL of which carry a certain (rather large usually) amount of weight in the way you play out your character and the way it naturally evolves during a campaign.
I almost forgot to mention that over the course of adventuring, characters can be awarded new traits by the GM, based on their previous actions, said traits being voted upon by the rest of the party – laying another layer of immersion, interaction and dependency on an already excellent theme-to-paper system.
Add to that rules for fear, wonderment, surprise, pain, arguments and wealth – all of them making sense and enriching rather than damaging immersion, and you're set to play one of the most well thought-out, true-to-life (or fantasy-life rather) role-playing system you can come across.
6. What… is it all about, really?
It's sleek, it's fast, it's elegant, it spreads the weight of ruling almost equally among the players and the GM alike, and makes for some crazy, beautiful shenanigans brought upon by sense rather than 'I think I'll be doing this now on account of being bored out of my mind'-ness.
It's also one of the most rewarding systems when it comes to progressing and seeing the very evolution of a character across the course of the campaign. In the end, you're faced with not a collection of numbers and pluses, but with a (virtual) living, (assisted) breathing collection of choices, risks, and the odd cock-up, brimming with personality, uniqueness and charm.
When it comes to all of the above, you'd be grasping at straws to find something that even comes close to this one. Burning Wheel outright incendiates its competition (if any) to the ground, then rolls straight over it and fades away into the sunset, an ideal for many if not all others to strive at.
Writer, gamer, and - provided he's got the time for it - loving husband, Costin does not rule out sacrifices to the Great Old Ones in order to get into the gaming industry. He's been role-playing for the better part of 6 years, but has been a joker, gamer and storyteller for as long as he can remember.
His greatest pride is once improvising a 4-way argument between a grave digger, a dyslexic man, an adopted child and a sheep, all by himself. That moment is also the closest he's ever come to giving himself a role-playing aneurysm... thus far.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.