The Culture Burner: Intro

I’ve been role playing for as long as I can remember.  Literally.  Some of my first memories are of running a dungeon crawl with my father and 5 year old brother.  I remember the old black and red box with the now classic red dragon on the front.  I remember drawing up maps, creating items like the “lava sword,” and letting my imagination run wild as I narrated the adventures of Gobnock the gnome and Buddy Love the human (yes, Buddy Love, loosely based on the Jerry Lewis character of the same name).  Role playing games never left my side as I grew up. I devoured the new “Advanced” D&D books when my now good friend Josh introduced me to them in middle school.  Cross-country bus rides with GURPS, all nighters with Top Secret SI, and too many great memories around the gaming table with any number of d20 based excursions.  Tabletop roleplaying is fundamentally a part of my life.  I love it.  I love what it can do and the uniqueness of this advanced form of group storytelling.  So you can imagine how excited I was to find out that Team Covenant had decided to support the Burning Wheel.

It’s been said on this site before, and it will certainly be said again, that what the Burning Wheel does for tabletop gaming is simultaneously unique, powerful, and exactly what people like me have been looking for without even knowing it.  In other words, the Burning Wheel is the next step.  All you have to do is go through the character creation process to realize that you aren’t just dealing with numbers, inputs, and spreadsheets, trying to craft them into a memorable character.  You are dealing, first and foremost, with a character and the numbers are put on the back burner, they are there when you need them, don’t get me wrong, but they are not what makes up your character.  The beliefs are.  I’ll quickly breeze over this part, but for the uninitiated, every character is given three beliefs by his or her player.  Every time a character adheres to those beliefs or forces themselves dramatically, in-game, to go against one of their beliefs, the player is given Artha points (there are a lot of other awesome ways to get Artha, but the Core Rule Book covers it much better an in more depth then I can match here).  Artha points are basically the “experience points” of this system.  So now, right from the start you have advancement based on character development rather than how many kobolds were scalped that session.  Likewise, as a game-runner, you have built-in ways of challenging the characters, driving the plot forward, and creating a truly epic game.  And really, that is just scratching the surface of this wonderful system, a system that finally and truly allows us to really delve into our characters and to see what they are made of.

So, with that in mind, I started thinking, if the Burning Wheel works so hard to give GMs memorable characters to make a story for, what can a GM do to make sure that story is worthy of these now vibrant characters.  In D&D, this wasn’t really a problem.  Throw a gladiator pit somewhere in the city, give it some sewers for some sweet, sweet, rat-killin’ XP, maybe a mad king or wizard, someone mighty to work towards killing and poof, insta-fit.  Now a great many GMs took much more time fleshing out their worlds and to the benefit of their players, though, I fear not aided much by the system.  For a lot of us GMs, just like for a lot of the players, characters became about pluses and minuses, culture about the numeric bonuses, food about the amount of HP it replenished and bard-song about the buffs it instilled.  So, just as Burning Wheel challenged us to create breathing, memorable, even flawed characters, I would like to extend that challenge to all the GMs out there.  It’s time to create living, breathing, memorable, visceral cultures.  It’s time to concentrate more on the smell and feel and bustle of the marketplace than trying to remember what page the equipment list is on.  It’s time to give that king likes and dislikes and shades of grey and to know those better than his flat-footed AC.  Burning Wheel has givin us an opportunity to change our games from adventures to frontiers, from re-telling to remembering.  The table is ready and the time is right.

Now, this won’t happen overnight.  Ray Winninger took years worth of Dungeoncraft articles to fully expound on his ideas and I, as self-proclaimed disciple of his,  don’t believe I could express so much information any quicker (for anyone not acquainted with the Dungeoncraft series that ran in Dragon Magazine, I strongly suggest looking it over, it still exists in some form or another in the various dark alleys of the internet) but I do believe I can express simple and perhaps more powerful tricks and ideas based on what I have learned in the Burning Wheel in a fraction of the time.  This isn’t a world builder, this isn’t a hard and fast system of rules and tables where you input some ideas and out pops a finished product.  Also, it appears from recent tweets (@BurningLuke) that some sort of World Burner is in the works at Burning Wheel HQ.  And I don’t wish to challenge or confuse what I have every reason to believe will be another amazing addition to the Burning Wheel rules set.  What this is and what this will be is a “Culture Burner.”  A series of ideas and questions that when completed will constitute more than the sum of their literal parts.  So, if you are interested, please join me.  We can do it Mastering MonPoc style.  I’ll go in steps and will welcome your blogs at every juncture.  I’ve seen the road ahead and it’s going to be fun and I’ve seen the finished product created with this method and have heard the compliments of players.  So everyone hop in.  It’s gonna be a great ride.


P.S. We’ll be tweeting on the various topics from @TheBurningWheel. So if you use twitter, join in on the conversation!

List of completed Culture Burner blogs:


Construction Example


Cooking Example


Culture Example

The Story

Story Example

Advanced Rules


Pockets and Canopies

  1. Jonahtan, have you heard of Aria: Canticle of the Monomyth RPG or Everway? Both excellent systems focused on Roleplaying and culture… indeed the entire game of Aria WAS developing cultures and mythos. I would recommend reading them, then again, I will read almost any roleplaying rulebook.

    I’m waiting on my Monster and Adventure burner to make a final decision, but so far I have some problems with the Burning Wheel system… primarily that there is so much system. I can’t fully judge until I have actually played and I have heard that the additional Burners will free up the system a little; I certainly hope that’s true. Burning Wheel has some great ideas and I certainly recommend it to anyone who loves RPGs if for nothing else but a good read, but for now from what I have read it seems very regimented and restrictive instead of what I feel RPGs should be… loose and improvisational.

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  2. Chris, I haven’t heard of those two RPGs but they sound worth reading.

    As for BW being restrictive, I have to say I honestly don’t understand this critique. In my mind D&D and it’s ilk are incredibly restrictive because they are set up to support the tank, healer, dps paradigm. And since D&D is so much about combat (it’s the main source of advancement, for instance) if you try to break those roles your party will suffer.

    Believe me, one of my current characters is an 18 Con, Dwarven gun slinger.

    And the BW belief system actually rewards flaws and roleplaying, D&D (and the like) really give you no built-in incentives for hamstringing your character for the sake of complexity and storytelling.

    My brother has been toying with the idea of turning his character in our D&D campaign more evil and dark but what will he gain for this? The story will change minimally, the spells he gets won’t change, nor the feats. If it is restrictive because it requires a character’s powers to make sense within the story of the character as well as the narrative at large then I am happy to allow that restriction for the sake of the story. If it’s something else, I must just not be seeing it.

    Also, I have read the Monster Burner which is like the Monstrous Manual except only about 10% of the book is devoted to pre-made monsters, the rest of it is the step by step process of creating a monster (or PC race) in this system with the overarching rule of “rules bow to concept.” A rule I feel applies to the whole of the BW system.

    Haven’t gotten into the Magic Burner yet but it’s next on the list.

  3. There is no doubt that D&D is a restrictive system. I wasn’t saying that Burning Wheel was as restrictive as that system, I am just a little disappointed that Burning Wheel pigeonholes you into very specific paths… now these paths are an effort to create a more developed character but the character created is still very regimented within the Burning Wheel system. It will create stories, but the stories it can create are limited by being so system heavy and instead of letting ideas flow freely you have to fit them in the paths delineated by the system. I also find the scripting method of resolution to be far too cumbersome. It takes away from acting in character if you have to make a plan that will decide how your character acts, IMO. I’m still interested in trying out Burning Wheel but I doubt it will be capable of creating the type of roleplaying experience I seek, which would be more akin to improvisational theater and not so much accounting and form filling.

    Now going to the opposite extreme doesn’t really work out that well either; Everway is a system that is guilty of having almost no system whatsoever. We played it for a while (almost 20 years ago), but certain players would always suffer do to their inability to weave entertaining descriptions or dialogue for their character, it simply wasn’t enough of a “game”.

    No matter what the system, in the end it will be up to the GM to determine how much story is developed in game play. Even D&D can be made into a very roleplaying oriented experience as opposed to simply an exercise in dice rolling. I applaud Burning Wheel for steering players into a more story based environment, but I feel that it is some of this very steering that detracts from actual roleplaying.

    But I haven’t played yet. Or even made a character; I’ve just read the two core books. I will be giving it a spin sometime soon, but having played RPGs for over thirty years now I do have some trepidation about the system itself.

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  4. I love a good bit of RP. Got bored of the d&d setting quick though. Playing Dark Heresy and Rougue Trader at the moment, entirely for the setting. I love the 40k world, the game (40k that is not DH or RT) absolutely sucks but it’s world is amazing. I have heard good things about Burning Wheel and think i may finally go get a copy and see if i can move it to the world of 40k. Will be keeping eyes on this blog as i am a sucker for a good setting.

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