The next step in burning up the Saturniid Stock is the lifepaths – and I have been working on them for quite some time. Yet even now they are nowhere near completion. Today I want to talk about what I’ve learned rather than what I’ve written. Lifepaths require a huge amount of work mechanically and creatively, and for that reason I think I’m going to break up this whole subject into several posts over the next few weeks as I lurch toward my official play test version.
Elves & Dwarves By The Numbers
Before I started writing anything down I took some time to analyze the non-human lifepaths. I was somewhat shocked to realize just how few some of the other stocks have! Dwarves for example only have an average of ten paths per setting, whereas one of the human settings has ~70. As someone who is a fan of the game Dwarf Fortress, I found the lack of diversity… confusing?
I found myself wondering how I had overlooked the limitations of the Dwarven stock and imagined a wide variety of characters – particularly mundane characters – I might expect from Burning Wheel. That’s when I discovered the trick:
Humans have a huge number of specific lifepaths, whereas the others paint with broad strokes. This is mostly reflected in their special skills. Archcraft for example is an Elven skill that combines architecture and engineering, as well as forking into carpentry and masonry. The dwarven skill Black Metal Artifice combines blacksmithing and low-level enchanting, etc.
This makes narrative sense when you consider their extended lifespan. Humans have less time to learn a skill, so they tend to specialize. The Dwarves and especially the Elves have centuries and thus inevitably gain an understanding of everything related to their trade. As a result they need fewer lifepaths because long lives have more overlapping experiences that will blend together to create broader archetypes or social roles.
How can I apply this insight to the Saturniids? They have short lives, but they learn very quickly. They easily jump from one profession to the next as the needs of their community change. What this tells me is that Saturniids – like humans – should have a large number of specific lifepaths… however the average Saturniid character should have more lifepaths relative to other Stocks to represent their fast pace of their life.
Another Interpretation: Humanity & Metatext
Characters are the core foundation of Burning Wheel, and familiarity tends to foster emotional investment. Humanity is going to be more emotionally compelling to the average human, whereas Dwarves (etc) tend to be side characters. Non-Humans in fantasy fiction are points of interest rather than emotionally complex drama. This is why xenofiction (which I define as fiction from the perspective of non-human creatures/persons) is a relatively obscure genre.
As side characters we are only given glimpses into who or what they really are. To be memorable a side character must have a bluntly apparent feature that distinguishes them from the faceless masses. Thus the common ideas about who or what Dwarves actually are will be stated bluntly in contrast to the nuances given to the primary characters who tend to be Human.
Giving them the same nuances we give Humanity weakens our archetypal understanding of them BECAUSE that nuance is typically reserved for Humanity. In other words the more nuance we give the non-humans the more we humanize them, and consequently the less they feel like The Other. The same applies to their societies: glimpses, a (relative) lack of nuance, etc.
Those blunt archetypal characteristics serve to make a core memorable and recognizable commonality between fiction and folklore alike. They create a Metatext – a popular understanding or point of reference so that anyone familiar with the fantasy genre will have a shared language to describe these things. Deviating from the metatext lessens the power of it’s shared language, muddles ideas, and generally disorients those who are unfamiliar with the particular nuances or deviations you are attempting to inject into the popular idea of Dwarves, Elves, etc.
The Blank Spaces
Burning Wheel does not provide a setting, it creates an implied setting. Lifepaths are a toolkit meant to guide your own creations and ground them in familiar concepts. Any deeper lore is typically limited to the descriptions of emotional attributes, special skills, unique items, and so on. This works BECAUSE the metatext already exists for the fantasy creatures found in Burning Wheel.
This was one of the major barriers I came across when working on the Saturniids. I have no popular metatext to pull from, and thus anything that stands out in the lifepaths is actively creating a new textual material readers will experience for the first time. Without originality I am left with something that feels bland an uninspired – and thus I must diverge from the Burning Wheel philosophy in order to create something that feels worthwhile.
I must ultimately create the very fiction I intend to represent via the lifepaths. Yet I must also avoid writing something so specific it cannot bend to the worldbuilding of the players. Finding the balance is key and I think the correct method is not to sketch something the players are meant to colour in, but rather the colours themselves.
When I began to recognize this problem I sat down and write about a particular Saturniid city – the twisting spire of Ineth. I wrote about the landscape, the people, infrastructure, housing, economy, government, and so on. (The specifics are not important for this post.)
Handing the players the city of Ineth would be the fundamental mistake of providing a Sketch. It would convey an expectation that Saturniids live in Ineth, and without Ineth your Saturniids are somehow wrong. Instead I need to find the interesting ideas that coloured Ineth, transform them into lifepaths, and give those colours to the players to be used wherever and however they wish.
This is actually something I found troubling about Roden as described in the Codex. They stand apart from the other Stocks by having a specific history with some established historical figures and religious conflicts. I know that I will not completely avoid this problem however I hope that by acknowledging this as a design goal I can minimize the effect it has on my project.
Lifepaths Establish Tone
Tone and setting are interwoven and inseparable. What we choose to write as a Setting (in the Burning Wheel sense) establishes the tone of the Stock and the games it might participate in. Dwarves have a stoicism that is carved into the lifepaths and this can be seen in the lack of comedic paths. While humans have Jesters, Ratcatchers, and Crazy Old Sailors – Dwarves do not. (With the exception of the Drunk and Coward outcast paths.)
I’ve had half-written stories about Saturniids for a long time. Stories with societies that challenge the feudal views of most fantasy writing. Stories that involve science-fiction elements and bumbling fools finding themselves in high stakes situations. Many of these stories have themes or ideas that will clash with the subdued low-fantasy style much of Burning Wheel seems to fancy.
There is a conflict between my creativity and the accessibility aspect. I want the Saturniids I create to reflect the stories I’ve imagined, yet I also want this project to result in something as easy to use in a Burning Wheel campaign as Trolls, Great Wolves, or the other non-standard stocks.
Earlier I made an observation about how the number of lifepaths available may be related to the lifespan of the stock. At the time I’m writing this Saturniids already have roughly seventy lifepaths, and I expect them to have quite a few more before I finish the project. Many of these lifepaths relate to ideas that may be less accessible – such as their technological advances.
I think that my best option is to divvy up lifepaths into more modular Settings so that certain themes or ideas can be easily edited out to suit the preferences of the players. Unfortunately this means I will be deviating from the Burning Wheel standard for representing Stocks, which is something I would prefer to avoid.
To provide an example: Saturniids have exceptional engineering. Their urban Setting has several lifepaths representing Engineers and their cultural importance. However the technological developments may not be suited for a more explicitly ‘Medieval’ campaign world. Creating a sub-setting specifically for the engineers would allow a group to reject that Sub-Setting categorically and by extension easily edit out their technological aspects.
Am I overthinking this? Quite possibly, but every group will read the final version with a single question lingering in their mind: “Is this something that fits my campaign?”
A Final Thought
The monster burner emphasizes common traits as being the things that distinguish a creature from humanity. If a creature has a tail, it should be represented via a trait because humans do not have tails. Lifepaths benefit from this mindset as well, but only to a certain point. Exclusively including things that seem unique to a Stock limit the potential for the mundane – the everyman characters.
Saturniids are strange. They have an alien life cycle. They share thoughts in a way we cannot. They fly around hypnotized by the glow of the full moon hanging in the sky. Yet they are not about grandeur. They are industrious creatures who value the common trades necessary for society to function. Saturniids have jobs and obligations – perhaps even more so than humans!
Perhaps one warning I would give to others making a Stock is this: Lifepaths are not character classes, and you should be very careful not to conflate these two ideas. This is especially true for the stranger lifepaths that are strongly linked to the inhuman nature of the stock. If you wanted to convert a D&D style character class into Burning Wheel, the proper way to do it would involve breaking it down into various components and making lifepaths that reflect how you learned those small parts. Instead of having a Rogue lifepath that includes things like daggers, stealth, and lockpicking you should break them down. Create a ‘Cutpurse’ that uses daggers and intimidation to rob victims. Create a criminal ‘Lookout’ that learns stealth and observation. Then perhaps a Burglar that learns lockpicking and appraisal.
Anyhow – that’s enough rambling for today. In my next post I’ll be outlining some of the Settings I’m writing for the Saturniids, including a few work-in-progress lifepaths!