Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Burning Wheel, Michael Clayton, & Realm + Conquest

Recently in my quest to discover and absorb all sorts of games I came across a niche RPG game called The Burning Wheel. All the reviews I read held the game in high regard along with awards, and multiple accolades.


The game is not easily found at local book stores or even local gaming stores and needed to be ordered online from a few different book sellers to get the 3 core books. Once they arrived I was surprised to see how small the books are. Instead of the large 8.5" X 11" trim size that every other RPG system I own is manufactured at these books are shorter and fatter at around 5.5" X 8.5". The core book, pictured left, is a new updated edition of two books combined in one. It explains the core rules of the game as well as adding the mechanics for creating a character. This new edition is called the Gold Edition. At almost 600 pages it's not a quick read. I have not read it cover to cover.

The game uses a simple system conflict resolution system with only common six sided dice. Character creation is more in depth then D&D or other RPGs I've encountered and requires creating a characters full background, history, desires, acquaintances  etc. Characters in Burning Wheel are everything. The character burner, the section of the book that gets you up to speed with character creation, does not get going until page 77. The book itself recommends that first time players of Burning Wheel read the first 75 pages and then "burn" a character. After that you and some friends should start playing the game.

I myself have not actually played The Burning Wheel yet. I tend to do more reading of game books,  and guides, (especially the complex ones like this) then actually playing. Short games of D&D, Heroclix, Monsterpocalypse, and some home brewed stuff the kids cook up tend to be the norm at my house. Still reading and absorbing other gaming guides is fascinating for me and The Burning Wheel is no exception. This is a very well thought out game created by someone who obviously loves to game. think of it as the ultimate home brewed system taken to the Nth degree and published.

There are no adventures for Burning Wheel and the book states early on that there are already so many great settings and adventures out there. Can this system use other adventures from old and new D&D as well as other adventures from Dark Heresy, Gamma Word, etc? My guess is yes. The system seems to be heavy on the story/RPG aspect of the game. Game mechanics and task resolutions are well thought out and constructed for a GM to run a game using other game adventures as source material and overlaying Burning Wheel mechanics over top. I find this system completely fascinating. All the gamers, GM and players alike, are encouraged to come together to decide on what type of story everyone wants to play. The core book even lists fiction, non fiction, games, films, and music in the back of the book. The rules too are not listed as mechanics that must be adhered to entirely, but rather decided upon by everyone. varying levels of complexity are encouraged. If you want to play a simple game with the core dice mechanics, burned characters, and a GM taking you through a heavily story based game, that is fine. The core book has expansive rules that can be used or ignored. More than enough is contained that you will never feel something was left out. The back of the book has entire in depth indexes to help you quickly find anything in the lage book you might suddenly consider needing to refer to.

The two other books I picked up from this system are Monster Burner and Magic Burner. Monster Burner is a Monster Manual of sorts. In addition to listing monsters, it aids in their creation, (burning) just like when you create your player character. Magic Burner builds on concepts from the core book and the monster book and expands on them adding new systems of magic, modifications, a new attribute, guidelines for creating your own magic systems, and new character lifepaths for wizards.

The second two books are obviously not necessary to get playing but they seemed to fall into the trilogy of core rulebooks that most RPG systems have.

In conclusion The Burning Wheel is a RPG game system that stands out amongst all other RPGs. It is obviously a labor of love and is so well constructed and thought out that it reads more as an intimate bible then a game. If you and your friends are creative enough to bring your own stories to the tabel or have the will to convert existing material that you always wished could be a RPG but does not exist then The Burning Wheel is for you. Be prepared to do some heavy reading as the book is not written for kids. My guess on the reading level is 12 and up. Also this would be a great gift for any gamer as it is something they just might not have already stumbled across in their travels.





Possible Michael Clayton Realm + Conquest, 
Burning Wheel Connection?


A few years back I saw the film Michael Clayton staring George Clooney. The film centers around the morally ambiguous character Michael Clayton, a fix it man for a large law firm. Michael is the guy who gets his hands dirty for the prestigious firm doing questionable stuff the high ups dont want to dirty themselves with. In the film Michael Clayton's son is a young boy named Henry who lives with his mom and step dad. He does not live with his dad due to a divorce. When Michael and Henry are together heading to school he tells his dad about this fantasy book he wants him to read called Realm + Conquest. He quickly describes aspects of the book to his dad and lays out a fantasy setting in a small town with many characters with few or no alliances. He mentions Mages, Unbidden Warriors, etc. he wants his dad to experience the thrill of what he is experiencing through this book but his dad has bigger problems and has not even given the book a glance despite his son already having left it at his place the week earlier. Now in the film  Realm + Conquest play a very significant role and ties everything together in a way no thriller that I know of does. The film is fantastic and should be viewed if you have not already seen it. I'm not reviewing the film here though. Maybe that will be in a later blog. This is about the Realm + Conquest book and it's possible connection to The Burning Wheel Game.

After seeing Michael Clayton I was so taken with the film and the book Realm + Conquest  in the story that I went looking for it online. To my dismay it does not exist. The writer/director of the film Tony Gilroy created the book, card game, and computer images in the film to fictionalize real life books and games he and his son played and connected together with. Realm + Conquest in the film are made up likely from source material such as Magic the Gathering card game, Pokemon, various video games, and RPGs that already exist in the world–stuff most young kids tend to play.

So my search for Realm + Conquest led nowhere but I was still left with this odd feeling like I wished it actually existed. I read that Tony Gilroy went so far as to write out a large portion of Realm + Conquest for the film so it would seem as real as possible. If only he had finished it we might have this cool game. Many places I have read about Realm + Conquest speak of it as if it were a novel in the film, not a game. I suspect though that it was meant to be more of a narrative style source book for a card/RPG game, much like Pokemon or Magic the Gathering. The Pokemon video game even has a new book that comes out each year with new additions of new characters. It is shaped similarly in size to the Realm + Conquest book in the film. If Tony Gilroy and his son played card games together they were likely either Pokemon or Magic the Gathering. They might have also played video games or D&D. Naturally this is all speculative but in the film Henry is looking for a deck of cards. We also see Realm + Conquest on his computer screen as well as many wild and fantastic toys and art in his room. Seems like a fictional melding of Pokemon, Magic the Gathering and D&D to me.

When I stumbled upon The Burning Wheel I was struck right away at how similar the books cover looked to Realm + Conquest in Michael Clayton. Also too since I had never seen any actual Burning Wheel books in person I was unsure at first which books were the most current. It took me a while to figure out that the newest book was the gold edition that combines the older books 1&2 together. The original Burning Wheel Character Burner book looks strikingly similar to the red Realm + Conquest book in the film. The book is small and has a similar trim size too, as well as a circular wheel with spokes coming out from it. It is possible that when making Michael Clayton the films designers used the Burning Wheel book as inspiration. It is also possible that Tony Gilroy's son may have actually had copies of the actual Burning Wheel books. The game was originally published in 2002 and Michael Clayton came out in 2007.

Much of my comparisons are speculative but the resemblance between the original Burning Wheel books and the Realm + Conquest book in Michael Clayton can not be denied. In almost every way these books look similar. The red cover with the spoked wheel at the top and the books title prominently placed below are uncannily similar. Further reading led me to discover that the Realm + Conquest book was custom made for the film by the Praxis Bookbindery. Also the book itself does not seem like a novel but rather a nicely bound game system rule book that describes the many characters, game mechanics, ideals and setting. The cards and computer screen logo in the film further serve to illustrate that this was not just a novel but a game system with character archetypes and a setting that eerily mirrored the modern day setting Michael Clayton exists in within the film. This is a setting of mistrust, individuals sharing similar but disconnected experiences, dream-quests, etc. Henry speaks of this from Realm + Conquest early in the film. Only later, at the end of the film, is its uncanny synchronistic connection to his father's journey apparent.

Even side by side comparisons of art from the two books show similar pen and ink styles.

Burning Wheel is not a story but its sophistication and concentration on character creation does have similar overtones to characters in Michael Clayton and the personal moral conflicts they experience and how these moral conflicts arc and shape their destinies. Burning Wheel relies heavily on a players character creation, and like Michael Clayton in Burning Wheel ones "character" or "morals" drive the story and the direction of game events.

I'm glad I stumbled upon this possible connection and as I further read Burning Wheel and re-watch Micael Clayton I will add more information or insights I have as they come to me.

Thanks for reading.

–A