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:
- 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.
- Identify the quality in the living being. This step requires a test of Aura Reading, Alchemy or Taxidermy.
- 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.
- Extract the desired quality from the being, again Alchemy or Taxidermy.
- 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!