Burning Saturn Part I

Almost every tabletop game has a culture around custom content. Burning Wheel is an odd game in that despite being so invested in realizing character concepts, there are very few additional options created by the community. (Or at least – it is very difficult to find any online.)

Burning Wheel is a fantasy roleplaying game that feels more literary than game-ish. It heavily leans into Tolkien’s melodrama rather than a Conan-style high adventure. Character backgrounds are diverse, yet grounded. Burning Wheel is a rare sort of game that can make the highest Elven nobility seem down to earth and emotionally comprehensive.

In my personal pursuit of the “Wondrously Mundane” I’ve had a copy of Burning Wheel on my bookshelf for several years. Recently I’ve been fortunate enough to partake in a few games, and will be running my own shortly. I’m certainly not an expert however, and so my writings here will be from the perspective of a novice.

Burning Wheel seems like an excellent game for xenofiction – even it’s treatment of the standard issue fantasy options (Elves, Dwarves, Orcs) manages to realize inhuman themes on a deeper level than your typical stat adjustments or special abilities. Because of this I’ve wanted to sit down and write a Stock complete with lifepaths and everything else needed to realize it’s concept.

I’m not the first to explore this. The Burning Wheel Codex includes rules for playing giant wolves, and it’s predecessor the Monster Burner also included giant spiders. These two things actually go further away from humanity than I was intending for my own creation.

Despite some rough guidelines on tastefully creating custom content, there are few explicit procedures for actually creating content in Burning Wheel Gold Revised. While I could have simply reverse-engineered the game, I wanted to find anything that would give a direct insight into the process and explore the procedure exactly as it has been historically presented.

The information I was looking for was in the Monster Burner – an out of print book for an earlier version of the game. I’ll be using the systems presented in the Monster Burner to create a new Stock, and posting about the procedure here on my website. I’m hoping that my experience will offer insight to others who are interested in the topic.

Step One: Concept

Earlier I described Burning Wheel as “Literary” rather than “Adventurous” and I want to revisit that. There is an important distinction between what something is materially – and what something is about. At the risk of sounding pretentious I want to split hairs on this subject. Materially an elf is an immortal human-like creature. Thematically Elves are about detachment, the social distance created by time, and processing grief… at least that’s what they are about in Burning Wheel.

Materially my concept is an absent-minded species of mothfolk. Thematically they are about cognition, the nature of memory, selfhood, and the importance of mutual aid.

All of my choices in designing the Stock should realize the synthesis of the material and thematic.

Step Two: A Sense of Form

After getting a sense of concept, the Monster Burner suggests we write out the major details that differentiate the species from a human. The book itself has a handful of helpful lists to go through, such as the number of limbs it has and so forth. Here I’ll just be giving a bullet point version of the important details.

  • Saturniids are small and frail. This emphasizes their need for mutual assistance in both survival and day-to-day situations. Their physical weakness isn’t going to be compensated with a lethal advantage, so Saturniids are going to be a notably non-violent species.
  • Saturniids are insects and that has a few obvious effects on their biology. First they are cold blooded which will limit their climate adaptation. Second they have a non-mammalian reproductive cycle. I’m currently thinking that Saturniids only mate once – at the very end of their lives – and consequently they do not possess a concept of the parent-child relationship. This goes back to the importance of community “It takes a village to raise a child.” mentality rather than the individual family unit.
  • Saturniids have four arms, with hands that possess only two fingers and a thumb. They are totally omni-dextrous, meaning they use all hands equally. They are extremely coordinated, but not necessarily graceful.
  • Saturniids have clumsy leathery wings – certainly not as agile as a bird, but still an extremely valuable tool for mobility. Their society assumes the ability to fly as the default, and the inability to fly is thus a significant disability.
  • Saturniids have feathery antennae that are extremely sensitive to both touch and smell. Their antennae allow them to move freely in the dark, but it should not be mistaken for darkvision. This would also let them sniff out a person’s identity much like a dog. I think they might also double as expressive instruments, much like a human’s eyebrows.
  • Saturniids are covered in a layer of fuzz. It comes in a variety of colors and patterns and is the easiest way for other species to recognize the identity of a specific Saturniid.
  • Saturniids are bipedal, and thus their necks are flexible. I want them to be able to speak and generally interact with the more human-like species, so their faces will inevitably be somewhat less insectoid as a result. Given the fact that the Monster Burner expresses anything unspoken is assumed to be human, I think this is best resolved with a simple cosmetic trait that emphasizes their voices being a bit off, representing the fact that some notable difference does exist even if it isn’t something that needs further detail.
  • Saturniids have an outwardly paradoxical nature. They are alien beings, but they are also highly social. They are simple minded, yet possess an inhuman wisdom. Finding the nuance to represent this is likely to be my biggest challenge in terms of Stock traits and associated mechanics.

Step Three: Stats

The book presents the ranks for every stat as a matter of comparison or question. This process is straightforward – see which questions or descriptions apply to your creature, and it will tell you what rank their stat is. Keeping in mind that humans have an average stat of 4 in everything.

As I noted above, the Saturniid mental stats (Will and Perception) are the most difficult to measure. They possess aspects of both high and low scores simultaneously. It’s pretty obvious that I’ll need to express this contradiction via traits that target specific uses rather than a global modifier to the stat itself. However for the purpose of the here-and-now, this is what I cam up with.

Will (3)
As I keep saying – Simple Minded. That would imply they are lower than a Human, but they aren’t profoundly impaired either.

Perception (6)
This stat is enhanced by several angles. There is the somatic element – their Antennae. However as a fragile creature they must have more situational awareness to survive, and their communal nature gives them an intuitive tendency to watch each other for social ques.

Agility (6)
The ability to coordinate four arms and wings simultaneously implies a fairly high agility score, however at the same time I don’t imagine them as being graceful in the way you might imagine an Elf to be. This is probably one of those things a specific trait will better represent the precise nature of their strengths and weaknesses.

Having a wide vocal range doesn’t automatically make you a professional singer, it just means you have more notes to work with. I think the same applies to their four arms here, so I’ll probably drop this down in the future.

Speed (3)
Moths are slow creatures, and so are Saturniids.

Power (2)
This is going to be the single biggest limitation of their kind, something that downright demands they frequently find assistance to get things done.

Forte (4)
This one is hard to judge. On one side they are frail, but on the other side they are lightweight and efficient. Their physical frailty is more explicitly structural – the kind of frailty that would cause you to easily break bones, as opposed to getting easily exhausted or more general sickliness.

Total: 24 Points
The same as Humans. I’m planning to aim low for their Stat scores overall, so the above would probably be a better-than-average individual. For context

Step Four: Monstrous Instincts, Beliefs, and Skills

Earlier I mentioned that creating a “Monster Manual” style representation of the Saturniid was our first step before dismantling it for Stock and Lifepath components. This last portion is mostly irrelevant since we have no intention to use a Saturniid as a monster. This is purely as a starting point for our eventual recreation in Stock-format.

As far as instincts – in an evolutionary species wide sense – I know that I’m going to play with the attraction to light. Part of the exploration of individuality will involve having an instinctual sense of leaders within their species (The “Queen Bees” so to speak.) and thus a certain level of submissiveness is to be expected within that context. Finally in spite of their frailness, they have very little fear of death (The reasons for this will be explored later.) and will fight to the death to protect their communities.

I haven’t worded these out like a character, but I think the reasoning here is more important than what I’d put down on a character sheet.

As far as Beliefs and Skills are concerned, I’m going to make the executive decision to leave those out since once again – I’m only using this as an absolute starting point for conceptualization before I break it down into a stock. As a tool-using species they will have a wide array of typical skills…

That said I know of at least two Saturniid specific skills I want to include. First I want to include a skill specifically relating to their flight. Although Burning Wheel doesn’t particularly have raw physical skills like “Running” I think that I want to diverge the character’s flying ability from raw physical potential. Additionally I think they should have a unique form of child-rearing, which I’m currently calling Grubwatching in my head.

Wrapping Things Up

At this point we have a pretty good basic outline. In my next post I’ll be going over the process of Trait Burning to give their form it’s mechanical nuance. That will also involve establishing what stat limits I’m going to put on the species to fully represent it’s overall potential – Saturniids are generally speaking less capable than humans, but they do have their unique advantages.

Header image generated via craiyon.com

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