Character burning for Burning Wheel is a very involved process. It's exhausting and takes a toll on the players, much like session game-play of Burning Wheel. After being in five games (ran four played in one) I found a weird trend: that first, exhausting session of gameplay was never really referenced for the rest of the game. And each time it's felt like such a waste, cause so much time was spent on making the character, so much effort went in to making this character's history, and how much do the players have to show for it?
Well, in my games? Nothing.
As I pondered the problem I looked at the way my group did character burning. We just put the lifepaths together after some talk about the characters and the situation, and that was it. It was a solely mechanical affair and I sure as hell never took notes. No wonder none of it mattered, we hadn't made it matter! A game about character progression and we never bothered to track their pasts, even a little bit. Now Burning Wheel says to not detail out the backstory too much, so I'm not talking about all of it, but the broad strokes can't hurt.
And then I thought about it another way. Alot of long novels, like the Count of Monte Cristo, Game of Thrones, and The Brothers Karamazov start with a short biography on what the character's been up to right until this point in the novel, explaining the psychology of the character so everyone knows what they're getting themselves into as they start the story. And that's exactly what the first session could be: the explanation of where everyone's been up to this point.
So here's what I want to do the next time we burn up characters:
- Ask questions! "Who was the knight who you were a squire for?" "How did you wind up becoming an assistant for the court?"
- WRITE THE ANSWERS DOWN, both of you! There's a notes section in the character portfolio, make ample use of it. Note important persons from the past, why you stopped being the town baker and joined the army, things of that nature. Don't make answers, make questions that can be resolved later.
- Ask how big of an impact the character's decisions have had on those around him. Mandate reputations and affiliations to match.
- Ask even more questions. Consider different angles on the characters' actions. Could they be the villain in someone else's story already? A hero? Write down more.
The focus would be to develop a persona with the player, a person who lives, breathes, and has bled. The mechanics should back up the story and the story should generate mechanics. Here's hoping that during the next campaign I can fix the problem. The first session is the beginning of the characters' story. Everyone should know what's going on.