Burning Saturn Part III

I have this memory that somewhere in Burning Wheel a page exists discussing when exactly it is appropriate to make an Emotional Attribute. I sat down with my books, and searched for it until I had multiple paper cuts and could not find the slightest evidence it ever existed. I am left wondering if perhaps someone at Burning Wheel HQ tried to enter my dreams to prevent the horror that will surely result from a novice writing an Emotional Attribute.

Assuming it did in fact exist – what I remember is essentially this: If you are going to make an Emotional Attribute you should be absolutely certain it is necessary to communicate a fundamental aspect of the Stock that is distinct from all others and refines the central narrative theme established by the Stock as a whole. When I read (or imagined reading) the page it gave me the distinct impression the author was pleading me to not do what I’m about to do…

Traits and lifepaths are easy – I have a few hundred examples to pull from. However creating Emotional Attributes requires a certain nuance that I may well lack. It goes without saying that I won’t be making a carbon copy of an existing emotional attribute – that would defeat the entire purpose. What I can do is follow my own analytic guidelines… I can remember what Saturniids are about, and create something that mechanically explores this in a way no other Stock can.

Looking Back

“Thematically they are about cognition, the nature of memory, selfhood, and the importance of mutual aid.”

– Burning Saturn Part I

Saturniids are a fractured and confused hivemind. When I use the term I don’t mean a superorganism like an ant colony or bee hive, but rather a type of psychic network wherein the individual minds merge to form something greater than the sum of it’s parts. Many terms have been used to describe this type of thing – group ego, collective consciousness, etc. I’m going to be using the term Gestalt to refer to this collective intelligence.

“A collection of physical, biological, psychological or symbolic elements that creates a whole, unified concept or pattern which is other than the sum of its parts, due to the relationships between the parts (of a character, personality, entity, or being)”

– Wiktionary definition of gestalt

Emotional attributes describe an intrinsic truth about the Stock’s mode of existence. Grief is not simply something that Elves feel, but rather something that inescapably defines their reality. This brings me to an interesting observation I had.

Emotional attributes are morally neutral regardless of their written context. Grief, Greed, Spite, and Hatred are all bad things that double as sources of power. They do not exist to tell a moralistic story about why these things are bad, but rather serve as something that simply is. Just like hunger and death itself, the world is full of discomforting things that simply are what they are.

Saturniids use an emotional attribute to represent their connection to the Gestalt. Higher exponents imply the character’s ego boundaries have weakened as they grow closer to the Gestalt itself. Should the character’s connection become complete, they no longer exist as an individual entity. Everything they were is forever infused with the Gestalt, and thus they continue to exist within all Saturniids in a type of immortality far removed from our singular existences.

Much of the language around their emotional attribute conjures up ideas of selflessness and a heavy implication that the community is objectively better than the individual. This is because the Gestalt as an entity is wounded, and the individuality of a Saturniid is a scar it is attempting to heal. It does not exist to tell a moral story or promote a particular worldview, but rather to show a lived reality that the Saturniids experience and their struggles to find meaning within it.

Choosing A Name

Emotional Attributes have simple names. Grief, Greed, Spite, Faith, Hatred… they aren’t things that require a dictionary. They are primal things able to be understood at a glance. Choosing a name for an attribute meant to represent their relationship to a Gestalt unified self isn’t exactly easy.

The opposite approach would be easy: Schism. It grows as the divisions worsen. However antonyms for Schism all have an awkwardness to them. Unity feels nationalistic. Harmony is something I associate with eastern philosophy, and I’d rather avoid that since I’m already touching upon some tangentially related things such as reincarnation. I considered Serendipity for a while, but it doesn’t communicate the in-game utility of the attribute well.

I’ve decided to use Synchronicity, or Synch for short. It still feels awkward to me, but nothing is going to easily convey something so alien to human experiences in one or two familiar syllables. Synch (which is simply an alternate spelling of sync that I aesthetically prefer) is both a feeling and an action. I think most people will know what it means to feel out of synch, and that they would likewise understand what it means for things to be moving in synch.

What Does The Exponent Mean?

Synch is quantified in game mechanics, but what does the exponent actually look like in the narrative? How can you recognize a character with a high or low exponent without simply looking at their character sheet? Emotions typically have behavioral manifestations, but what behaviors imply a character is feeling Synchronicity?

Synchronicity resembles Faith more than it does the other emotional attributes. Higher exponents imply a sort of selfless virtue, but acting out in ways that directly harm other Saturniids can cause you to lose access to Synch entirely. Such characters have the Lost In The Dark trait.

To be Lost In The Dark is to be entirely removed from the Gestalt. These characters no longer have a psychic connection to their kin and are thus fully realized individuals. They are also fully alienated individuals. The positive aspects of individuality are the negative aspects of Synch.

Most notably is autonomy or the freedom of action. Characters with a high Synch exponent have given up a certain amount of their autonomy in favour of connection. It’s important to note the paradox of the previous line – they have given up autonomy, not had it taken from them. Synch is both a feeling and an action, but it is the action aspect that allows a character to improve their stat.

Saturniids with a high Synch exponent prioritize the group (and thus the Gestalt) over their own well being. The only way to get a high exponent is to behave in that way, thus Synch is a cyclically reinforced tendency. It is also a cycle which can be broken – as individuals can become Lost In The Dark should they reject the group (and thus the Gestalt) in favour of their own interests.

Unlike the Faith put in a deity that exists separately from the faithful, the Saturniids are the Gestalt. Any action that would cause harm to the group (and thus the Gestalt) is self-harm. In the context of a Saturniid individualism itself is a form of psycho-spiritual masochism.

At the far opposite end we have the Saturniids with exceptionally high Synchronicity. There is a point where a Saturniid is able to form a stable permanent connection to the Gestalt. This is what transforms a Saturniid into an Illuminant. While the common Saturniid can only see the shadows on a wall, the Illuminant is able to see the object that casts the shadows. How they experience their relationship to the Gestalt (and thus their sense of self) changes, and the mental transformation is accompanied by a physical change as well.

Behaviorally the Illuminant are benevolent leaders of the Saturniids. They are saintly-monarchs with the soft yet terrible authority of a loving mother. Their stronger connection to the Gestalt makes them aware of what needs to happen for other Saturniids to also eventually attain the same state. Illuminants know they are the Gestalt, and they recognize the common Saturniids as suffering fragments that can only be healed via reconnecting to the Gestalt. While the leaders of other Stocks quarrel and scheme, the Illuminant Saturniids are all keenly aware of their mutually shared interests. When a society is guided by an Illuminant it is universally one that promotes cohesive harmony, as a healthy community fosters Synchronicity in the individuals. Any Illuminant who attempted otherwise – who purposefully caused strife and misery – would quickly become Lost In The Dark.

As A Passive Social Influence

Saturniids possess a universal aversion to harming each other. This aversion goes beyond violence, as deception, theft, and other antisocial behaviors that harm a community in the abstract go on to harm the Gestalt, and thus (as you might be tired of hearing) themselves. The Saturniid aversion to harming other Saturniids is in fact an aversion to harming themselves by proxy.

All Saturniids exude parts of their internal experience outward like a radio wave. Other Saturniids receive those waves, and the interchange is the basis for which the Gestalt itself is formed. Characters with a higher exponent broadcast a stronger signal, and thus more of their sense of self is received by other Saturniids. This creates a system of entirely subconscious influence and control.

In simple game mechanics: If a Saturniid wants to do something that causes harm to another of their kind, they must succeed on a Will test or find themselves psychologically incapable of whatever action they had planned to take. The Obstacle for this test is equal to the target’s Synch exponent.

If the target of the harmful action is Illuminant the obstacle is doubled. If the Saturniid is allowing harm to happen rather than causing it directly, the Obstacle is halved rounding down.

Example: The player, Saturniid #1, is visiting a human town. They overhear someone planning to rob Saturniid #2, who is a traveling merchant. In this example we’ll say that Saturniid #2 has a Synch exponent of 3. The player now has a choice to make – will they immediately take action to negate the harm or will they resist that urge? Attempting to resist will require them to make a Will Test against the target Saturniid’s Synch. (The target always being the one who will come to harm.) In this case the Saturniid is not the direct cause of the harm, so the obstacle would be halved. Ignoring the situation and potentially allowing Saturniid #2 to be harmed will be an Obstacle 1 test of Will.

Choosing (or being forced) to take an action that would negate the harm is not a suicidal charge into the most blunt but unwise approach. In the above example you could (foolishly) attempt to fight the humans who are planning to rob your kin… however sending a warning out to let the merchant know the humans are planning to attack is also an action to negate the harm. Saturniids are allowed to play smart, but they must always act out an intention that attempts to negate the harm in one way or another.

None of this applies to those who are Lost In The Dark. They have no connection to the Gestalt, and are thus deaf to the passive influence of Synch. Such a Saturniid could plot the very murder of an Illuminant without being interrupted by the collective sense of well being. Such characters are not always heartless killers, but only someone Lost In The Dark could be.

Rolling to Synch

Synch is rolled when you want to accomplish something via the Gestalt. Synch tests are always open-ended, and they are rolled against an obstacle as outlined in the relevant action description below. Only successful tests count toward advancement. All effects last until the end of the scene unless stated otherwise.

Note: This brief list of potential abilities is very much a proof-of-concept rather than a finished product. Revisions should be expected.

Am I Doing This Right?

Used when you want to Help another Saturniid. The obstacle is the target’s Skill Exponent. If successful you provide two helping dice rather than one. Failure leaves you confused and uncertain, and no helping dice are awarded despite your efforts.

Did You Feel That?

Choose an emotion or somatic sensation (hunger, cold, etc) your character is currently experiencing. Then choose another Saturniid you wish to share the feeling with. If successful the target will briefly feel the same sensation for a few seconds, and have a sense of which direction the experience came from. Extreme sensations like pain are dulled. The obstacle is on the distance between you and the target.

Within ten meters, Ob 1. Hundred meters, Ob 2. One kilometer, Ob 3. Ten kilometers, Ob 4. Twenty-five kilometers, Ob 5. Fifty kilometers, Ob 6. One-Hundred kilometers, Ob 7. Two-hundred kilometers, Ob 8. Five-hundred kilometers, Ob 9. Anywhere in the world, Ob 10.

Have I Done This Before?

Usable just before you try a new skill for the very first time. If successful memories of the skill pass through the Gestalt into your mind, instantly teaching you the skill. Attempting to learn your first skill via this ability is Ob 3, the second skill is Ob 6, the third is Ob 9, etc.

Were You Looking For Me?

When you would normally roll Circles to find an NPC, you may instead roll Synch so long as the NPC is also a Saturniid. The Obstacle is the same as a normal Circles test.

Why Do I Know This?

You may use Synch as the root for any Wise skills you possess. Once per session you may test Synch as if it were a Wise skill covering any one of the following subjects:

Ancient Forbidden Evil, Common Misconceptions, Expired Prophecy, Failed Engineering Projects, Former Lives, Horrible Ways to Die, Irrelevant Nonsense, Outdated Trivia, Outer Space, Saturniids, Social Faux-Pas, Sources of Light, Things That Fall From The Sky, Weird Dreams, and That Really Important Thing I Forgot To Tell You-wise.

Passing The Torch of the Mind

Saturniids do not possess individual souls – much to the annoyance of certain spiritual entities. Their identities are purely psychological, products of memories and experiences lacking an intrinsic uniqueness. Consequently the Saturniids are not entirely confined to their bodies, as parts of them are always being shared with the Gestalt. When a Saturniid dies those thoughts and memories can travel through the Gestalt into another body. The coherence of the transfer is heavily reliant on their Synch.

Reincarnation adds an odd sense of longevity to a species known for being viciously frail and short lived. Even the elves have been shocked to see a Saturniid – who might survive twenty years before age takes them – speak casually of events that took place centuries ago as if they had been there. Within the context of an adventure the Reincarnation rules allow Saturniid characters to stay alongside their companions despite their ephemeral lives.

Linear vs Parallel Lives

Saturniid Reincarnations are not necessarily linear. When they die they are not always moved to an unhatched body. Saturniids frequently experiences glimpses into each other’s lives, waking up recalling a former life you had seemingly forgotten about until this very moment is not actually that weird in Saturniid culture. It is even possible for two bodies to share slight variants of the same mind, which is referred to as a Parallel-Self. In other words, the Saturniid concept of a ‘former life’ can be any other Saturniid at any given time… especially the one quietly sitting across the room watching paint dry.

Synch RollEffect
0 – 1You aren’t able to reincarnate, at least not in any way that will bring you back to this adventure. It’s possible your memories are too thinly scattered to be recognizable. Perhaps you end up in a body on the opposite side of the planet. Whatever the truth might be, it’s time to burn up a new character entirely.
2 – 3Burn a new Saturniid, however they possess distant memories of your adventures and a distinct sense they had been interrupted while doing something important.
4 – 5Burn a new Saturniid, however the new character begins with all of the attribute and skill advances the previous character had received on their adventures. The character has a clear recollection of their former life.
6 – 7Your mind is the same, but your body is not. Redistribute your physical stats points, and swap out your physical traits.
8 – 9Ideal reincarnation. You hatch from a Cocoon in a youthful and healthy body, without any of the physical maladies or injuries your previous body might have had. Otherwise you are exactly as you were in your former life, and your biggest challenge is traveling back to wherever you last saw your friends!
10 – 11You may choose between the following. a) A new body as per 8 successes. b) A fully synchronized parallel version of yourself is already here, waiting to step out in a dramatic fashion. Use the “Mind is the Same, Body is Not” rules for 6 Successes, but your new body is already in the same area as the other player characters. This parallel version of yourself is aware of everything you’ve experienced right up until your death and could theoretically be using that knowledge to help from the shadows. If the group was locked up for example, your parallel self might have already found the keys.
12 +Any of the above. You gain the Illuminant trait and should you choose an option that involves burning a new character, your new life must begin with the Born Illuminant lifepath.

Advice: When you burn a Saturniid, make two copies of the character sheet. Some of the reincarnation options will let you keep the advances you earn on your adventures, and having the ability to look at your character from the very start of the adventure will give you a clear record of how your skills, attributes, and traits have changed!

Synchronicity Between Lives

Whenever a Saturniid reincarnates their Synch exponent is halved. Round it down to a minimum of one. Note that reincarnations do not use whatever Synch exponent they might normally have gotten from character burning!

You can avoid this loss by spending Persona. One point of Persona negates one point of Synch loss from reincarnation. If your Saturniid rolled a 12+ to Reincarnate and consequently gained the Illuminant Trait they instead shift to G3 Synch. This is the starting value for Illuminants, and cannot be altered by spending Persona.

Illuminant Synchronicity

Synch is unique in that it has two tiers. This is represented using the shade: Common Saturniids always possess a black shade, while the Illuminant possess a gray shade. Anything that would turn Synch gray automatically gives the Illuminant trait, and if a character ever loses the Illuminant Trait their shade returns to black.

Illuminants can use Synch like any other Saturniid, but they will also have access to traits that introduce new and powerful ways to use Synch.

Reaching b10 Synch forces an Epiphany which causes so much shock to the Saturniid they die instantly. (However it also gives them the Illuminant trait in their next life unless the reincarnation roll goes catastrophically wrong.) Reaching g10 Synch causes the character to vanish into the Gestalt and thus unplayable.

Lighting Up The Dark

The only way for a Saturniid to lose the “Lost In The Dark” trait is for an Illuminant to reconnect them to the collective consciousness. Attempting this ages the Illuminant by three years, even if it fails. The target must be willing, and the Illuminant must reach out and physically touch them while channeling this power. Lighting Up The Dark has an Ob of 10. If successful the target’s Synch exponent becomes B1, with a +1 bonus for any additional successes.

Final Thoughts

Oof! This was a massive undertaking and equally massive wall of text that could have just been “The Moth-People are Psychic.” My interest in xenofiction is probably showing given the amount of effort I’ve put into conceptualizing their mindset and sticking to my very non-human concept.

In my next post I’ll be exploring lifepaths, and I’m really looking forward to it. I have the sense that lifepaths will be a far more grounded thing than this extremely conceptually heavy juggernaut of a thought exercise I’ve called an Emotional Attribute.

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