Cosmological Implications

In our current run of BW, @PeterT plays an enchanter—though in our world we call them “elementalists.” And, as is his wont, Pete has wreaked havoc on the system since taking this role. We quickly found that enchanting times are far too short for what you can produce, but that’s a minor issue, easily fixed. We also quickly realized that the enchanting rules plug directly into the cosmology of the world—as much as Sorcery and Summoning—but I think it’s even worse. As we delved into the life of an enchanter in Burning Wheel, the rules forced us to examine the very nature of things.

Before I elaborate, I need to make two higher-level conceptual clarifications. The first regards the use of the term “creature” in Burning Wheel. We had to define creatures in the system back in 2003 or 2004. We quickly decided that we wanted to include as much as possible on a single paradigm because we wanted “monsters” to be playable. So creature=monster=being or, maybe more poetically put, humans are monsters too. In order to better express the breadth of my point in this post, I’m going to swap out “being” for creature. I don’t want any discussion to slip into lazy othering of people who are not like us.

The second clarification necessary for this wild ramble to make sense regards the text in the Enchanting chapter: “Taxidermy requires a carcass; Alchemy requires significant sample portions of the creature.” In this campaign, with the introduction of a new enchanter PC, I decided to clarify that statement: The trait that becomes the antecedent cannot be separated from the being without destroying it. It’s not possible to pluck off a wizard’s hair to transfer the Gifted trait to a potion. Taking the trait requires the death and destruction of the being.

I made this decision from the perspective of a game designer—it simplified a lot of sticky questions. For example, how do you define “significant” in terms of Alchemy? If a part were to be enough, how much of a part is enough? Is the Gifted trait worth an arm? What about Essence of the Earth? That is a trait, according to the rules text, that is linked to “body and soul.” I’m sure we could develop a detailed system around giving parts of oneself to enchantments, but this game doesn’t love that level of detail in an already complex subsystem. We had to simplify somewhere, so I chose to do so here: the extracted trait destroys the whole being.

Let’s take a beat to recall the multistep Enchanting process:

  1. Theorize or conceptualize an enchantment. The enchanter must decide the form and effect of the item in question, but they also must theorize a quality that exists in another living being that will power the enchantment.
  2. Identify the quality in the living being. This step requires a test of Aura Reading, Alchemy or Taxidermy.
  3. Produce the “carcass.” Which practical terms usually means capture and kill the desired living being, or scavenge a corpse. This part of the process often involves non-enchanting skills like Hunting, Trapping, Ditch Digging or similar. We gloss over this part of the process in the Enchanting chapter, as we assume that players and game masters will know enough about the game to quickly build a scenario around the process. The delicacy of these tests should not be underestimated. Hunting monsters is a game with deadly consequences.
  4. Extract the desired quality from the being, again Alchemy or Taxidermy.
  5. Incorporate the quality into the object and the desired enchantment effects through and Enchanting test.

It’s quite an intense process!

But you’re done! Right?

Uh…well…only if we ignore a few things! Primarily that enchanters are fucking vampires and secondly that I have accidentally introduced a metaphysical question: “What does it mean to magically destroy a being?”

The enchanter takes your corpse (or carcass), renders it to extract one of its traits and then what? What happens to the victim?

Let’s start with the most basic. The enchanter takes the trait and that’s it. It is dead, but not even a corpse any longer, just some residue or remains. Period. The end. That’s the simplest option, right? Nothing messy there except magic murder guy rendering “carcasses” (of what exactly?!) to make his toys.

But our fantasy worlds often don’t consider death as The End. What happens if any enchanter renders me but a Chosen One invokes a Major Miracle to resurrect me? Do I return whole? If so, what happens to the enchantment? Do I return but without that trait? That kind of works, but what if that trait is something like Born Under Silver Stars? How am I even alive again?! Sure, with divine magic you can just hand-wave it away, right? But I dunno. It makes me uneasy. Because without that trait, I am not myself.

The rules specifically mentions that common traits are tied to “body and soul.” What happens if I’ve promised a soul (or my soul) in a Bargain with an extraplanar entity and then an enchanter renders me to make an ever-burning cigarette? Does the entity still get the soul? Even if he does, it’s missing a “significant portion.” Seems like the enchanter screws them in the bargain. Which is maybe a good story, but…

Here’s the big one. The rules seems to imply that a being’s qualities—their traits—are still a part of their “carcass” after death. In a top level reading of the rule, I can take a fresh corpse back to the lab and render it. What about corpse that’s been a year in the ground? Seems plausible. But what about corpse that has been consecrated and properly interred? Or what about a skull you find on a shelf? Or half of a corpse? Does this purported carcass have to be whole and fresh? What’s the shelf life of a carcass?

But let’s move past the easy questions of the flesh. We have established that using magic in Burning Wheel presupposes the existence of a soul. What separates soul and corpse? Am I completely separated into ghost part and meat pile upon death? The Enchanting rules proviso about rendering the “carcass” with Taxidermy or Alchemy implies that there is at least a window of time when they’re the same.

But when do they separate and where do my traits go? Do some stay with the corpse and others go with me? Seems plausible given everything we know about traits in Burning Wheel. Fine. But what if our enchanting ghoul digs up my corpse and decides to take a trait from it that belongs with my ghost. Can he do that? Since we’ve determined that rendering requires the destruction of the whole, will that annihilate my soul?! My interpretation of the rules seems to imply this. Which, to my mind, makes enchanters complete and utter (true) monsters. And, uh, that makes me their Victor Frankenstein.

In our world, Hell exists. It’s a place of judgement. Here’s the most simple version of death in our cosmology: When you die, your corpse remains on earth but your spirit enters Hell through the Lake of Fire (which is also Lord Fire’s wings). There demons come and, ahem, assist you on your journey and sort you into the queue for your afterlife according to the life you’ve lived. Eventually you see a judge, get your sentence and go on to the next phase.

What happens to me if I’m waiting in the queue when our exemplar enchanter monster digs up my corpse and fucking renders me for a trait?! Did they just annihilate me from all of existence? To make a bauble?! What a horror! And to go further, am I that bauble now, even if I’m not conscious of it? Fuck.

You might say okay, whoa there Luke, you’re overthinking this. Just go back to the vaguerie of the original rule and let some enchanting processes just pull parts out of living beings…And I’ll just stare at you while you try to justify this solution to a cosmological annihilation conundrum. Because that concession makes enchanters more vampiric and still does not address any of the philosophical positions raised here. Even the vague rules call for a carcass half of the time. If I gotta go, please render me with Alchemy, you fabulous lich! Don’t completely destroy my chances in the afterlife! Pretty please! Ugh. What horrors have I created?!

And if you thought I was done…buckle up. It gets worse. Because of our decision that all beings get stats, attributes, beliefs and instincts, we inadvertently made a call on some long-standing philosophical debates. Namely, dragons, humans, orcs, cats, odonata, roden, great spiders, or whatever all have souls—all have a spiritual component that can be separated from their meat parts and used for magical purposes. So for those who take oaths of non-violence or of protecting the weak or defending life or something similar, there’s no cosmological dodge. If you exclude one type of being from your philosophy, you’re compromised. Which, I will readily admit, is great grist for play. I’m only pointing it out here because “Does a horse have a soul?” is a question folks have been asking for a long time. And our answer is, “Uh, yes, of course. Duh.”

Are your seatbelts securely fastened? Because in our world, there are four (or eight, depending on how you count) elemental gods who are responsible for creating the world. They’re verifiably real—entities, powers and forces. Mortal beings are their creations, but so are the rocks, trees and oceans. If this is all a divine creation (and infused with some other “magical” stuff), where do we draw the line for a soul? Or, to make it more germane to Pete’s complaints: Why can’t his elementalist pull traits out of a rock? Well fuck me, I don’t really know. My defense so far has been “uh, game balance!” but I’d also like to say “Well, a certain amount of rock will constitute a whole being…and you can render that being for its traits.” But the cosmological implications of any answer or limitation I create are vast, and I have been unprepared to make the call…because I’m afraid of these fucking elementalist nihilists destroying the world to make a pretty necklace that protects them from sunburn.

Anyway, I raise all this here only to illustrate how rules create questions in our game worlds and the answers to those questions create truths and those truths create big pictures, situations, obstacles and consequences.

…and to make it clear that there’s only one villain in our current campaign and it is Pete’s elementalist.

Questions and comments welcome. Refute my argument! Help me make better decisions! Suggest a solution that obviously destroys our world! Huzzah Burning Wheel!

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Are you sure the villain is Pete’s elementalist and not Pete… (it’s amazing – though believable – that An Hui, responsible for a cataclysm that has killed hundreds of thousands, left more penniless and homeless, and caused widespread famine and starvation, is right there, yet Pete/Pete’s character is worse…)

What implication does this have for the God Wheels? Is there a difference between religious artifacts and enchanted items? Does this conclusively prove that miracles and sorcery are distinct things? Or what did the Four enchant using the Fifth?

Are enchanters/elementalists welcome in hell? Or do they seek immortality because their fate as baneful individuals would be too hateful to contemplate?

Could a soul be restored by destroying the enchanted item that consumed it? Or ritually sanctifying it with a proper funerary rite? If the latter and the rite involves burial, what happens if the item is looted from its sanctified tomb?

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Death Art has some interesting things to say about the soul and excludes animals and insects from the Death Art rules based on them (Codex 340). It also excludes (even dead) Immortals, though whether that’s because they lack souls (rather than “mortal” souls) is a little unclear. That may be more pedantic than helpful, but I feel compelled to take such a risk.

More on topic, these are some thoughts I’ve had about Enchanting for sometime. I always thought it was artful of Burning Wheel to leave these questions open – it hearkens all the way back to “It Revolves on This.” Is the Wizard’s Staff on 346 the result of ceremonial – and risky – bloodletting from the young wizard’s mentor, or is this some apprentice-destroys-the-master Sith shit? That’s gonna depend on how you answer these questions for your world.

Something that I’ve also found interesting is the diagetic implications the enchanting rules have on Artha (especially in earlier versions of the game). Traits come from Artha (sort of), implying that Artha’s influence in the game world is real and tangible (in a way perhaps more subtle than the results of big dice-pools and lighter shade abilities). In that sense, you can see how a cosmology that rewards agency (perhaps that’s a bit reductive) also invests agents with mystical potency. How much Artha has a stone accumulated and spent?

This last line of thinking is made all the more curious by the Anthology’s Immortal Investitment rules. Now there are things like enchanted objects resulting from being invested with Artha. How interesting. And not only that, but they also have traits… Perhaps ones that an Enchanter can access for their arts. There may be conceptual room for exploring where else Artha might gather (into traits) – though I think that would require extreme delicacy, if it were worth exploring at all.

(While we’re here, I’d like to say that I couldn’t help but notice even on my first reading that there was some parallelism between the effects of Faith and the effects of Artha – Aid can grant you up to +3D on a roll, like Boon, while… Boon can open-end a roll, like Luck. Naturally, this got me wondering about how those diagetic systems relate to one another).

Anyway, this may be reading too much into the diagetic nature of a system which is mostly discussed in the text in exegetic terms… But they are called “Spiritual Rewards in a World on Fire”; it seems like some of these cosmological questions have their answers there-in.

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Ah, right, also Artha is the path to Godhood. And so – if you accept the tie between Artha and Traits – you can see Enchanters as reapers of baby (baby) Gods, culling spirituality and rendering it down into earthly power. Which is… Pretty grim. But also about what you would expect enchanting to be.

(Also, how great is it that the Artha cycle produces a synergistic rise between spiritual gravitas and temporal influence? Especially when contrasted against Enchanting, it just feels so good.)

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Oh oh oh…new research revealed that before the Turning of the Wheel, Niraih priests worked closely with sorcerers and elementalists to create artifacts together. There’s evidence that many of the more powerful items in the world are hybrid creations.

They are distinct, but completely answering this question would violate The Pact and I don’t want to end up in Pact Court in Hell.

Hahahahah. That’s presupposes an elementalist who knows their theology. I suppose one who did might realize they’ve accumulated some heavy marks in the murder column of their assessment.

Great questions! I think destruction is destruction. I think restoration would have to come from another source, like a Major Miracle.

Ah, yes! I knew I forgot to mention something! Death Art is not a part of this campaign, so I get to dodge this question. In fact, there are NO UNDEAD in our world. However, you’re right to point out that in canon BW, Death Art has a lot to say about souls. And much of it contradicts the slide into madness that I’ve begun here.

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Huh, so Death Art is the path to reason? Maybe those cultists were right after all!

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Hahah, you’re blowing my mind with these observations. I never tracked the cycle of artha->traits->fodder for blood magic, death art, summoning and enchanting->artha.

Artha->immortal investment sort of subverts or vents that cycle, though, as it disintermediates the necessity for a technician and an esoteric practice. However, the idea is that the investment essentially makes the item in question an extension of you.

Whereas the arts all allow a technician or specialist to force another person to act as a resource for their quest for power. Basically, someone else pays the price!

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The true galaxy brain moment that made me turn my gaze from the abyss was recognizing that the harsh difficulty curves of standard tests encourage the use of vs tests where possible – which is right and good for encouraging me as a GM to put characters in to embody antagonistic forces wherever I could. Afterall, “Vs tests are the workhorse mechanic of the game.” (Codex 139) They get a special mention in the section of the game talking about when and why to roll at all.

     And...  Whenever you come into opposition with someone, you make a vs test to resolve the 
     dispute.

                And...  There are Gods in this game.  Gods who, presumably through white shade 
                abilities, set things up the way they like them...  So, just about any test you make is 
                opposing the divine order of things...  It's ALL VS TESTS!  IT'S VS TESTS ALL THE WAY 
                DOWN!  AHHHH --

I have a degree in philosophy, and I am VERY AFRAID TO USE IT!

Ehem.

Yeah, it’s a much “cleaner” version of enchanting, I feel. It’s interesting how much of the magic in Burning Wheel has a grounded, dirty feeling. These are not enlightened philosophers. It feels like Burning Wheel has a built in skepticism of power that the systems fit into nicely. (It also feels like there’s some response to the (contemporary) culture of gamers in there too – there was big I-want-more-power-to-hurt-people energy then. To say nothing of gaming culture today, of course.)

EDIT: “Version of enchanting” may not be quite right, but you get what I mean. It plays in the same field.

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I’m glad this aspect comes through. It is a philosophy we tried to bake into the design. There are three of us who really built the frameworks for magic in BW—Chris, Thor and me. We all had our own preferences and perspectives of course, but all wanted the same philosophy behind magic: It had to demand a price that few people were willing to pay.

I suppose there was second guiding principle: The power granted was a tool, able to be wielded selfishly or selflessly. Gaining power is not an inherently moral act, but wielding this type of supernal power is questionable at best and may very well be immoral.

And a third: These powers flow from laws greater and more fundamental than human understanding. Meaning that no matter how much power one accumulates, there is always a threat it tears you or your world apart.

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That is also a good insight.

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This has been a fantastic thread to read. And, I’m no expert on these rules, but I like playing with What-Ifs.

What if the Self, the combination of body and soul, is maintained during the rendering, so that the entirety of the creature is kept, but one trait is brought to the fore in order to be used in the enchantment.

So, if someone grabs your body while you’re waiting for judgement, you’re ripped back to that location and… boiled down for essence.

So… At some point in the future, some historian who knows the created item, and the details of the creature rendered, could re-render that artifact and bring a different trait out.

Maybe someone would find it useful to create a “Certificate of Provenance” for enchanted items, just so they know what traits are available for future use from the referred Self.

Of course, this doesn’t change the vampiric nature of Enchanters. But that’s cool. Maybe their sins remain. Maybe a rendered Self is ripped out of the circle/cycle/path of life and can never receive judgement or reward. Which could anger done divine patrons.

Anyway… This was fun.

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Chris insisted on this through years of testing and development.

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That is a fascinating schema. It boldly hints at an entirely alternate cosmology in which the soul is indivisible and eternal…but pliable, plastic even. Knowing the story behind a seemingly low grade enchantment could unlock keys to greater power and mystery.

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Good for Chris. Pass my compliments on when ya get the chance, would ya?

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To take the opposite stance: maybe nothing is created or destroyed in a fundamental way. When a being dies, their carcass is changed into something else; the only difference an enchanter makes is that it is changed into a trinket rather than fertiliser, then flowers, then honey, then &c.

Reality is an enchanter who always extracts the trait “raw material for something else”.

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I have a question.

How much of the power is the Enchanter’s.

So much of this is focused on the power of the rendered soul, and obviously that matters, but someone has to bring the Gift to bear. Why do they need it for rendering the soul down to an artifact? Does the Enchanter’s power use the rendered soul as a vessel? Or does it use it as a battery (needing a certain flavour of magic)? Does this mean that the amount of soul taken depends on the scale of the artifact? Maybe there are armless wretches down in hell who are missing chunks of their bodies due to a hateful enchanter, and maybe there are people cursed (blessed?) to forego the usual afterlife and instead spend it living in a Sword of Dragonslaying (maybe that’s where those pesky intelligent items come from, inexpertly rendered souls?).

What does the Enchanter bring to the table? And does this affect things?

Also - this is now making me want to play a John Constantine style campaign where you screw over demons and such by taking the valuable parts of souls from the graves of saints and the sanctified.

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I would think the Enchanter has a lot to do with it. They are manipulating the energies of the creature in question. Not just anyone can do that. Just like a “regular” sorcerer; they’re manipulating the energies of magic.

And, snagging just a piece of a soul is pretty funny, but I’m not seeing a way I could make that matter to the story.