Burn! Creating characters in Burning Wheel

I’m about to fulfil a longtime dream and run a few session of Burning Wheel—more, if it fits the group. We created two characters (one players couldn’t make it to the session, but knew the rudiments of world I’d suggested so everyone was okay with it), which was fun, but quite daunting to me as the GM. Luckily, the game is wonderfully helpful for both the players and the GM.

The actual process of character creation is quite easy, despite all the steps. The game offers a helpful worksheet which details what you need to do, so there’s minimal page-flipping. But because it’s a character-driven game, the GM needs to stay on his toes during character creation, especially when it comes to NPCs and Beliefs; the latter are freely expressed beliefs, goals, precepts, philosophies that matter to the character and which the GM is supposed to challenge at every turn. Since it’s everyone’s first time at the game, Beliefs are sure to be a bit of a challenge, but I enjoy talking about them and thinking about how to challenge them.

The NPCs were the other daunting part. The characters are affiliated with a criminal organisation and a cult, and the cultist, arsonist and zealot that he is, is a hardliner against the established religion and we decided that he wants a powerful inquisitor dead, at which point I’m really excited on the one hand, and suddenly very suspicious of my own skills and creativity on the other.

After a couple of days of feeling vertiginous I set at the task of creating the main NPCs, starting with the inquisitor. It follows the same rules as creating PCs. For those who don’t know how it’s done in Burning Wheel (which is a game so rules-heavy, it’s rules metal, but I feel it’s really intuitive): you pick Lifepaths from a huge (but manageable) list, which tell you how many years your characters has spent doing various stuff, how many skill points, resource points, traits and so on he accrues during those years. Then you spend the points.

What I didn’t realise is that the Lifepaths are, if not actually doing the work for me, giving me a crapton of material to work on. First, I go through the different settings (which are the categories for different lifepaths), then browse through lifepaths and my ideas for the character; and since they all contain a lot of character material, the character starts building itself.

In addition, the system works in such a way that it’s impossible to make a character that’s in isolation from the world. Every character has a value in Circles, which lets you check if you know people; and you can only know people from your lifepaths and your affiliations (groups, cults, and so on). So, just by picking the lifepaths Born Noble, Bastard, Temple Acolyte, Priest, and Inquisitor tells me a whole lot about this guy and his connections.

Which is to say, the guy isn’t just some random bad guy in his own headquarters, waiting to be slaughtered. He has made enemies and friends and allies through the years, and if the characters won’t tread carefully, they’ll piss off a whole lot of influential people.

I don’t know if stuff like this comes naturally to some folks, but I found it a huge boon in creating a believable world in which to spread cheeks and majestically ram a male specimen of the gallus gallus in the equus africanus asinus of the PCs.

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