Dealing with the lifepaths game

I understand that the lifepaths system is a game in itself that set the mood: to play BW, you’ll need to make hard choices. I love the fact that it creates flawed characters. I’m pleased when I see Luke replying in a recent thread: “there’s no such thing as a normal count”.

In the past I already complained about some lifepaths/traits/skills that are based on obscure references to the source material, BWHQ inside jokes or puns. Maybe the fact that English is not my first language makes it worse… But, that’s not the point here.

My main issue with the lifepaths system is the underlying implicit setting that is based on medieval (western) europe (+ Faith/Sorcery/Tolkien races).

IHMO, this implicit setting is insufficient for two different reasons (both sides of the same coin in fact):

1- if a player has a “realistic” mindset, he will find that the system is not comprehensive/flexible enough to create some characters that are “realistic” in medieval europe.

2- if a player doesn’t have such a mindset, e.g. he doesn’t know much about medieval europe other than the usual tropes, the system enables him to create a character that is not “realistic” enough to be accepted by the other players / DM (you can find some Luke replies about some characters posted here).

In both case, the player can be frustrated by the lifepaths systems, which is the first contact with BW and makes it an harder sell than it should be.

It seems to me that a more defined setting that draws a clearer line between itself and medieval europe would have greatly helped on the two sides. Of course, I understand that it is not something Luke will do.

I’m curious to know how you deal with it (beyond the usual “you can re-skin a lifepath or create new ones if you like, but be very careful”).

  1. What realistic character can you not make in BW? What is the specific example you are thinking of?

  2. I think this is a misunderstanding. A character can’t be too unrealistic—this is a game where you can play as a wizard. A character can be a bad fit for the group, but that’s up to the group and the particular, explicit setting of the game the character is being made for.

I think you may be misunderstanding what is meant by implied setting. The implication is that in the world of BW, the things in the lifepaths exist and are as the lifepaths describe them, and things you can’t do with lifepaths don’t exist, or are at least rare. That’s all there is to it. The alignment of BW lifepaths and medieval Europe implies similarity, but it doesn’t strictly require it. I’ve used BW to play games set in Homeric Greece and during the early industrial revolution and it still works out.

I guess I don’t deal with it at all. I know what I am getting into when I pick up the game. If I’m not in the mood to adhere to the specific choices the lifepaths force on me, I’ve got a whole bunch of other games that do things differently. I’ll go play one of those for a while. When I’m interested in playing Burning Wheel, it’s because of the lifepath restrictions not in spite of them.

I don’t want to argue about specific examples, that are beside the point, even if the lifepaths offer some flexibility, the real-world diversity, even in medieval europe, is more complex.

The fact is, I have seen on this forum characters that were deemed inappropriate based on knowledge of medieval europe.

Well, first BW has some things that no others games have beside the lifepaths system, e.g. the way that the BITS drive the game is not something you’ll get from FATE or Dungeon World. Second, you need to find players that are in the mood to accept it the way it is too.

I don’t want to argue about specific examples, that’s beside the point. Even if the lifepaths offer some flexibility, the real-world diversity, even in medieval europe, is more complex.

The fact is, I have seen on this forum characters that were deemed inappropriate based on knowledge of medieval europe.

I know from many of your posts that you have adapted BW to different kinds of play, but I think it’s fair to say that you go beyond a basic interpretation of the gane.

The LPs are, by design, stereotypical examples of that role. Yes, there were many exceptions in real life, but most of that in BW is meant to come out in play, not before it. That being said, you certainly can make unusual choices, and that is intentional, too.

I don’t think I have poo poo’d much beyond blatant munchkin builds where a LP was taken purely for a trait/skill. Something like taking a single level of Ranger in D&D3.x just to get the feats. I can only find one really questioning post by luke, too, but it’s probing for that character story.

One thing that might be helpful is to offer some suggested “typical” builds - the Burning THAC0 pdf on the wiki has a few, and you could also use the example rogues or other characters posted here.

Yeah, I should put more emphasis on the fact that lifepaths represent the boring part of the character’s life.

However, I wasn’t thinking about the usual “my character is different”, the fact that the systems crush those players is something I like.

The fact that you need some knowledge of medieval europe (beyond the usual clichés) to understand what the lifepaths represent (skills/traits are sometimes enough, but not always), it prompts players to find real-life references that those don’t necessarily match the existing lifepaths.

I may be weird, but cursing Luke Crane while wrestling with the Lifepaths is part of my enjoyment of the game.

its telling that when we adapt BW to other settings (Dark Sun, Tribe 8, weird demon worshipping home setting) we change as few LPs as possible and try not to touch the difficult trait choices.

I’m sure you’re not the only one, in fact I do like the gaming aspect of it, I just would have liked it is a more clearly defined game, but first-time players ?

Have you had real problems with this or are you anticipating problems?

Because, again, the lifepaths are not about understanding Europe. There are a few oddities, like understanding the difference between “constable” as high military office and constable as a police officer, but the words mean what they say. There aren’t any secrets hidden in the lifepaths. Not everyone I’ve played with knows anything about medieval France, but everyone’s done fine. And there’s no more to the lifepaths than skills and traits. That tells you what the lifepath is! The word on top is highly flexible because there isn’t a setting, really; as long as it fits the game you want to play it’s fine.

I’ve never had difficulty with the lifepaths as written, and we are never obligated to allow all of the lifepaths in every game, some may not make any sense for the particular story you want to play out.

The thing that immediately jumps to mind for me in response is to remind that Character Burning is intended to be a group process, with some discussion about the situation beforehand. With this, the more knowledgeable players can help the less knowledgeable players as they are trying to pick life paths. It’s totally reasonable to any player (not just the GM) to question life path choices, it’s also totally reasonable for any player to offer suggestions to another.


Everytime I’ve tried to pitch BW, the lifepaths system was the main issue.

I really wish to agree that there is no more to the lifepaths than traits / skills, but compare Doctor and Physician in City, or Tailor in Village vs Seamstress in City (and no such thing in Court). Try to guess why there is no Butcher in City (only in Village). That’s just some examples on top of my head, I’m sure I can find better ones.

I can accept that lifepaths don’t cover every possible kind of characters (e.g. a wealthy peasant owner), I just would have liked to have fewer oddities and more guidelines. For example, if you don’t have much medieval knowledge, understanding the idea behind the few skills in lord/count/etc. is not so easy.