What is the reason for forcing character traits on lifepaths?

Hi everybody, I’m new to burning wheel (just bought the manuals) and I want to ask a few questions on the ruleset. I’ve played RPGs for many years (too much probably) and in the last few years I played mostly Dungeon World and other similar games.
I find that many of BW ideas are pretty nice and refreshing, however there are some strange things, especially in the character burning part, that do not convince me and I’m asking here to know if there is a reason for this. It’s not useless criticism, it’s that I really want to understand the author’s ideas.

The things that makes me think the most is the fact that lifepaths force you to characterizations that are totally arbitrary and potentially unwanted.
E.G. The city guard lifepath force you to take the “drunk” trait… why?? What if I want to play a city guard that never drunk a drop of wine in his life? Why do I have to be drunk? Also, why lifepaths have fixed (arbitrary?) amount of years to add to age? Can’t I be (reasonably) free to chose my age? Shouldn’t I be free (again, reasonably, but there is a GM for this) to chose my character history as I want?

My objection is more on the principle than on the practical rule. I guess that I’m free to ignore the rule and chose whatever character trait that I feel appropriate, however the whole point of RPG, IMHO, is that the role wins over the rules, not the other way… here I see that the whole character burning thing is setup so that the rules force some pre-made role on the character.

I get the feeling that the author wanted to give a guideline on how to create a meaningful and believable character in a very specific setting (Tolkien). I think however that many players are already mature enough to make some believable character by themselves, so why there isn’t an alternative character burning system where one gets some skill and trait points to spend as he wishes, trusting he will chose something appropriate? Isn’t it more simple than going through the whole lifepath selection and then manually changing all the little details that do not fit with your character? (which eventually leads to the same thing as having some amounts of points to spend).
Of course I’m oversimplifying, however I think that many alternative systems can be conceived giving more customizing freedom to the players.

Is there an alternative character burning system that I’m unaware of?

I see that the author has something against PDF files, however, as much as I like the paper book, there’s nothing like the PDF to quickly search for keywords. After buying the book, being able to also access a PDF version would be much appreciated.

1 Like

I have taken these lifepath traits to be questions about the character, rather than binding statements. Make a city guard character who doesn’t drink. The GM might leverage that trait to introduce incorrect assumptions about the character. They run into some soldiers who think the guard is a lazy drunk, unprepared for a real battle. There’s an opportunity for character exploration there, and if it’s not interesting, then you can drop it at the first Trait vote.

I think your interpretation of intent is mistaken. Lifepaths are not an attempt to hold the hand of immature players. I like the lifepath system of Burning Wheel because it allows you to make a character that might surprise you, with a richer sense of history than I get from point-buy systems. I enjoy the act of thinking through the stages of that character’s life, and the opportunities they were exposed to (and blocked from) by their birth and station. Character ages and other measures are a result of this.

There are absolutely other systems with more freedom of customization than Burning Wheel, with their own strengths and weaknesses. You mentioned Dungeon World above, which of course provides limited pick lists for character creation rather than a point buy; I think that design helps a lot with speedy character creation and establishing genre tropes. I don’t see a generic point-buy system adding very much to either game.


Thanks for the reply!

Yes I understand your point and it seems resonable. Still the ruleset is driving the roleplay in some arbitrary direction. Considering the previous example, “corrupt” could be as reasonable as “drunk”.
If each lifepath requires you to take a character trait which is somehow consistent with your role, and you choose it, that is totally reasonable. Forcing the choice seems a little unjustified from my point of view. It’s easy to overcome however, if you don’t like it you ignore it :slight_smile:

My other perplexity about the character burning is that this system is quite difficult to “adapt” to other settings. Suppose you don’t want your elves to be superheroes, or you want to add other strange races (e.g. reptilian humanoids, aliens, whatever). In that case you have to create a whole stock, few settings ad a ton of lifepaths from scratch. That is a lot of writing. And you have to do it for every race you create…
That’s a lot of work that may discourage people trying to write a campaign.
In this sense a more “elastic” point buy system, albeit more unrefined, with a relaxed lifepath choice could help a lot in speeding up the creative process of creating a campaign setting.
That’s the reason why I asked if someone, or the author itself, ever conceived an alternative system.

Anyway, I like the idea of the lifepaths, I’m not totally against it despite my few doubts. It’s a fresh and new Idea. We’ve played anything from Ad&D to Rolemaster. In the last years we played a lot Dungeon World (Apocalipse World, also a bit of Dogs in the Vineyard, even if it’s very setting-locked) because we started to be annoyed by too much rules and just wanted to play (and in this aspect those games give the player and GM almost complete freedom).
After some time however you feel the need to get back to a more “formal” ruleset, and I feel that Burning Wheel could be what we need. I see that many “complex” subsistems, e.g. fight, could be simplified a lot and made usable also to players that don’t focus on fights so much.

Since there are a lot of “alternative” options for most of the game mechanics, I thought that it could be possible that an alternative character burning system could exists too.


In my eagerness to reply I neglected to say “Hello, and welcome.”

Though Burning Wheel isn’t as ‘setting-locked’ as Dogs in the Vinyard, it does have a limited setting range and hacking it beyond those bounds is a lot of work. I have found it easier to look at the building blocks it provides (feudal political structure, signicficance of beliefs, magic and/or divine intervention, possibly elves) and develop a campaign from there, rather than developing a setting and adapting Burning Wheel to fit. That said, I haven’t always followed that advice myself and there is a hacks channel that would likely help you workshop your reptilians and the like.


Potentially less than you’d think.

Most traits, such as drunk, don’t have to be played.

Players can earn Fate Artha by having one of their character traits make the story more interesting/complex (e.g. a player finds a mysterious bottle and decides that, because they’re a drunk, they’ll take a swig).

GMs might look to traits for guidance on consequences of failure (e.g. a player’s intent is to seem trustworthy to a noble, the GM decides that if they fail they’ll take an impolitely large gulp of the goblet and the noble will think they are a drunk so can’t be trusted).

Traits can be a good way to break ties (e.g. a player is trying to convince people the local priest is secretly a demon worshiper by describing what they saw while the priest is arguing he was mistaken; the Vs test is a tie so the GM & player agree to break it in the priest’s favour by having a member of the crowd mutter that “most guards are drunks so maybe he were seeing things”.)

But traits without a mechanical rule attached to them don’t have to be played.

In fact, the Changing Traits rules (p. 58-60) base removing traits on deliberate roleplaying, so the system is explicit that the player’s roleplaying choices shape traits rather than traits limiting roleplaying choices.

So, I tend to think of starting traits as something that is true of all but the rarest of members of that lifepath in the setting.

For example, if I say “necromancer” then almost everyone will have pictured an evil antagonist. It’s possible to play a character who is using necromancy for good, but they will be facing an uphill struggle to prove they aren’t just really good at hiding their evil, the sort of struggle that BW deliberately wants to play out at the table rather than smooth away with a single moment in character gen.


If you read the character traits description at page 57 it’s the opposite of what you say. Character traits absolutely define your character. If you have the “drunk” trait, you aren’t just a regular drunk, you really have to put effort into this.

Anyway, your whole point is “don’t care, it’s not important and/or nobody really cares to look into traits”. I understand, and that’s why I’m going to completely ignore that rule and choose my own character traits (or let the players choose).
I know better than anyone that all rules are an arbitrary abstractions and during play you are always going to ignore most of them (and do what you think is appropriate to the situation).
However using such arguments doesn’t solve the very main issue: Why writing something like that if people are going to play as it doesn’t matter? IMHO it either matters, and you write it down, or it doesn’t, and you don’t bother registering it.

My objection is based on a principle. Die traits could indeed be avoided during play. That’s something you CAN do, you aren’t forced to do it. Character traits, on the other side, are supposed to define your character, and this being a roleplaying game, it has to be the player that decides his character (within reason).
That’s it, that’s my whole point.

I do like the ideas behind burning wheel ruleset, it’s just the character burner which doesn’t make much sense to me, despite being nice as a “tutorial” or “guideline” on how to create a character. I see that as a very funny tool to create NPCs! :slight_smile:

There are other examples I can make… e.g. suppose you are peasant born and then you discover that you are the lost son of the king, then it make sense that you take your second lifepath from the noble ruleset. At present if you are peasant born you are arbitrarily forbidden to move to the noble setting.
This is another example where the system shows it’s rigidity. I understand that 99.99999% of peasants will never become nobles (in a standard medieval-like setting), however why preventing people to choose their preferred background, if it makes sense (there’s the GM for this, plus the other players).

I was asking the opinion of people who played BW longer than me in order to have an idea on the average interpretation of the rules

1 Like

Looks like I didn’t quite explain myself.

I absolutely care about traits, traits are important. My point was that the trait is a word/phrase that acts as a guide to the character’s story going forward not a prescriptive requirement.

Certainly you can define a character with Drunk as “the biggest lush in the city” but you can also choose to define Drunk for your character as “everyone thinks he’s a drunk”.

Whilst p.57 says character traits are physical or psychological, some of the traits listed in the rule book are explicitly about what other people believe (for example, Ugly Reputation explicitly says you are distrusted because ship’s doctors in general are distrusted); therefore, I read the rules as intending character traits to all be something everyone believes as true in addition to something that is currently true.

Definitely, the rules say traits define the past that has brought the character to the start of the first session but the player, GM, and table-interactions decide what that means: don’t like the idea your character is defined by his drinking problem? Have Drunk mean they are someone who joined the watch to escape from a father with a drinking problem; the issues will be different, but they will still have issues.

The fact you can’t do that is a deliberate feature. Burning Wheel has a strong ethos of doing the interesting stuff in game rather than in the past. Having your character discover he was actually a noble and take his rightful place before the game starts is burying the story that could be told about a peasant who is actually the rightful Baron of Takenovmi fighting for his birthright.

Instead, I’d follow my lifepaths to the point where my character realized they were actually noble, spend trait points on something to represent that (Mark of Privilege, perhaps), set one of my starting Beliefs to “I am the rightful Baron of Takenovmi: I must gather evidence to prove my claim” (or something similar), and lean into the excitement of winning the Barony back. Getting the actual title (and suitable Trait(s)) would come from a trait vote once I’d succeeded.


Thanks I understand your point.

To answer the question posed in the subject: The reason is “setting.” Those character traits are the setting of Burning Wheel.

To answer a question posed in the original post: “Shouldn’t I be free to choose my character history…?” No. Freedom is an illusion in games. Choice is always constrained. In this case, we constrain your choice to represent the setting and to encourage you to make meaningful, difficult, impactful choices about the character and the world without asking you to read histories or metaplots or even asking you to have played the game yet.


One of the most interesting things, to me, about the mandatory traits and skills is that they form a sort of detritus, creating the texture that your history has left upon your life. Who you are is shaped by what paths you have walked, and some things leave their mark on you. You can move to countermand your traits in hopes of a trait vote removing them, but from the get-go they create a character who is not entirely who you’d wish them to be.

To me, those imperfections and limitations make the character deeply fascinating.


Yes I understand that, however the problem is that the setting is arbitrary and quite difficult to change. This is ok, in principle, but it makes the game a little setting-locked and force the players to write a lot of stuff to adapt the game to their setting.

I perfectly understand that, in your setting, it makes sense to have such strict requirement. That is your choice and is totally respectable. What I wonder is why none conceived an alternative, more elastic, character burning system that, despite being less satisfying to some, it makes easier to adapt the game to multiple settings.
In my opinion, which I absolutely do not want to force on you, the set of rules should aim to be setting-agnostic and be adaptable to most situations that may come out from the fantasy of players (that is the whole point of roleplay). Again, in my opinion, BW is forcing the setting on the players for a totally arbitrary reason. Before I chose the example of the character traits, but there could be many (all in the character burning, the real game rules are totally fine).
As now I feel this is the only major drawback of BW, which is astounding for other aspects, and it would take just a little effort to solve this. It may encourage players to stick more to BW rather than being forced to change game in order to change setting.

You can always reply: write your own set of house rules and live with that. And I’m totally ok with that (that’s what I’ll do in the end).

Look, I do not want to drag this discussion forever. If you still think that you are perfectly fine with this, I’m happy as long as you are happy too. It’s just that there are many kind of players out there, and BW may be missing someone that could be happy too with just a little more elasticity. :slight_smile:

Ah, and about your statement on freedom in games… I understand what you say but I give you at most 30% of reason. I feel your statement is too drastic to be totally true. There is a lot of freedom in tabletop rpg, that while not being the absolute freedom (that doesn’t exists even in real life, you are always going to be constrained by the laws of physics :slight_smile: ) it’s still quite a large degree of freedom. Unless you decide to abide to arbitrary constrains that you choose. Your statement is instead quite true in Computer rprg :slight_smile:

I totally agree with that. My method to achieve such thing is to have the other players to propose and vote for drawbacks, traits, quirks and similar things after hearing the background history of the player in question. I feel that this is involves more players interaction than rules and is globally more satisfying (players in general can be quite creative).
As you can see there are many alternative methods to achieve the same results, that’s why, after my discussion with you, I’m still convinced that the character burning is unjustified in it’s arbitrary decisions :slight_smile:

Your argument is becoming somewhat repetitive, ale.

If you’re asking if someone has written a point-buy character creation system for Burning Wheel, you’ve gotten your answer: no.

If you’re asking whether the folks who frequent the Burning Wheel forums would prefer a point-buy system to the current lifepaths: the consensus seems to also be: no. Folks have volunteered their reasoning on this.

You have repeatedly said that lifepath restrictions are ‘arbitrary’ and ‘forced’ upon the player. I can share that in practice, these choices have felt interesting (and no more arbitrary than a limited skill list or set of PbtA playbooks).


Hey, Ale, welcome to the forums! You seem to keep saying that the design is fine on principle but then also say that it’s unjustified. These notions seem at odds. Could you clarify: Do you think the character burner is based on bad design philosophy, based on a design philosophy that isn’t to your taste, poorly implemented so that it fails to adhere to its design philosophy, or not implemented according to your taste? What are the standards for justification?

To add something to the discussion, I will say that while changing setting elements can be intimidating and challenging, I’ve found that that has served the experience in its own way: It guides setting creation back into a collaborative, focused process. For instance, you asked, “What if you want to add reptilian humanoids?” Well, the first thing you’d want to do is ask if they would add anything to your game for you or for the other players. If so, you would then brainstorm - ideally with the other players - what their traits and culture and society would be like, adding settings and lifepaths accordingly. So, now you have a cool, custom people that folks at your table have had a hand in building. What you get out of it is a level of culture and detail where that I haven’t seen in other games. And if something isn’t relevant to your game, you can shelve it and come back to it as needed. I guess, another question that might be handy is, “How would you, Ale, implement reptilian humanoids in your game?”


Sorry, I say that the character burning (and only that) is a bit odd. It is setting-locked and impose on the player decisions made elsewhere in the design phase of a specific setting. While ok in principle, as I said I, personally, think that the aim of an RPG is to be easily adaptable to most settings. Since there are many alternative systems for everything (fight, sorcery…) I wonder why there isn’t an alternative, more elastic (even though maybe less flavourized) character building system. That’s all.
It’s not that I say you don’t have to use it because it’s bad. It’s just that the availability of a more generic system could play a role when trying to adapt BW to a different setting.

We often change settings (even quite different ones) every few months. I guess that if you play always the same setting this is a problem you may never face… to me it could be game-stopping after a couple of changes and after having to rewrite the settings all the times…

That’s why, in my humble opinion, putting the setting into the rules (instead of writing them as separate things) is, in general, a bad idea :slight_smile:

That’s fantastic in an ideal world :slight_smile:
This is what happens in my reality:
“Hey look, next campaign I had few ideas, it will be a (this is an example made on the spot) postnuclear setting where elves, dwarves and the like are mutated people and magic comes as an effect of specific mutations, so that it will be fantasy but with a specific flavor (e.g. elves are humanoids decaying from radiation poisoning, which however gives them strange powers, which by the way plays perfectly by adapting grief mechanics!). Next week I’m going to sketch out the details of the characters and then we can start… oh wait… you say you want also to write all the lifepaths… mmm… so it can take a month, maybe two… look, let’s use a different ruleset and/or let’s drop this idea…”

This happens because we all have a family, a work and other stuff that takes time in real life :slight_smile:

In the above setting you can easily adapt the magic systems, i.e. you take them just as the same and you just change the few flavor texts that describe their background. As you can see the only major point where you get stuck is the character burning. If you could have really generic lifepaths it would be easy to adapt them.
If you are member of the following race add the following skills/traits (-here is a list-)
Then you chose between:
Bon in privilege
Born in poverty,
Born merchant
then you may have
life at the sea

This is just an example of alternative generic lifepaths that you can take. Each will genericall tell you something like:
life at the sea: You spent a lot of time at the sea. Chose a character trait that fits this path and distribute points between the following skills (-follows the skill list-). For every year spent on this add N skill points and M trait points. This is a list of suggested traits (-follows another list-)

This is just something that I made on the spot. Of course it has way less flavor than the character burning system, but it’s much more flexible! In most “standard” cases you would still chose the standard character burning, but in all other cases it’s of great help. Also, if lifepaths are generic and potentially applying to all races, creating another race is quite fast!
Another advantage is that you really think about the concept and you don’t have to find the exact lifepath combination that allows you to fit that concept. E.G. I want to create a 23-years old sailor, I don’t have to chose a lifepath combination that makes me 23, I just add years to the “life at the sea” background untill I get the mark.
The life at the sea background is the same if you want to be a pirate or a sailor, you just have to spend your points in different skills/traits until you match your preference.

If I were the author, i would have first put a “generic” system and then I would have added specialized systems for specific settings. I see that BW works in reverse with respect to my logic.

I do not want to criticize the authors of this system and or your roleplay choices, I just wanted to give my point of view hoping it could be helpful to some. Of course you are free to ignore all of this :slight_smile:


My three cents.

As I understand Traits’ role in BITs (Luke, correct me if I’m wrong), Traits are static component of BITs (Beliefs are dynamic, Instinct are either reactionary or semi-dynamic). It’s not what the character really is, it’s about how the world is perceiving the character right now, biased upon common stereotypes. “Drunk” doesn’t mean that the character has to be drunk, it means that by that moment - according world’s/society’s perception - the character had been put into bracket of “those lads are drunk every day”.

But it’s to player how much Drunk or not-Drunk the character will be. Are they fall prone to that stereotype? Or act against it? Trait Votes are meant to verify that static part of BITs; to update the world’s view on the character.


I think this is at the heart of the friction you are experiencing, because It’s just not a universal game design truth. While there are games—like GURPS or Fate—that want to cater strongly to that philosophy, there’s a large range of games at the other end of the spectrum that take the complete opposite approach. Burning Wheel is one such game. It’s setting is defined basically entirely within the rules.

What the game loses in terms of being easily adapted to various settings it more than makes up for by the Swiss-watch like way all the pieces work together to deliver the particular type of game it’s designed for.


My own take is that BW directs one down a specific path envisioned by the author(s). That’s fine but one can determine how to redefine certain stereotypes to fit your own conception of the setting. Taking the City Guard LP, the ‘Drunk’ 1pt character trait could be replaced by another that the GM/the group believe encapsulates the average city guard - looking at the list of traits there are any number to run with.

Wholesale changes to the setting are much harder, so I personally would not use it for anything very different from a quasi feudal setting.



1 Like

First of all, hi there.

Now then, you use the word arbitrary a lot, and I believe that is doing the rules a disservice.
These rules were designed very deliberately to push a certain style of play. there’s nothing arbritary about it.

Many of these rules seem counter intuitive on first reading, but manage to interact with one another in play in some wonderful ways.

As Luke said, setting is defined by lifepaths. And the setting of BW is gritty Fantasy. You could design your own lifepaths, or tweak some to change the setting a little, without creating whole new stocks or sub-settings.

However, I suggest you actually give this a try in play, and see how it works.
Character Burning, as well as so many aspects of the game, is designed so you have to make hard choices and may not end up with the results you wanted but be rewarded with more character depth and story inspiration, than you planed on.
You can also always try a different route to get where you wanted. In your guard example, you could take Born Peasant -> (Lead to Soldier) Foot Soldier -> (lead to Outcast) Vagrant -> (lead to city) Seargant at Arms
There. I now got a 23 year old former child soldier who probably deserted and was on the run for a while only to end up in a city and actually finally be recognized for his talents.
And he is going to rip those drunk guardsmen a new one, because they have never known true hardship a single day in their life.
And THAT is the power of the character burner. I went and took you concnern over the drunk guardsmen, wanted to create a character that skips that lifepath and ended up with an awesome character concept that offer lots of depth within 15 minutes of searching through the Character Burner.


Exactly. Some lifepaths are “better” than others because of the traits they offer or the lifepaths they grant access to. So, making players take traits that they might not want to take makes that cost in the way that a freer choice system doesn’t.

Obviously, for a group where all the participants share the same vision of fairness and balance that doesn’t matter and you can just adopt a “players choose for themselves/each other” model; but, over decades of RPGing I’ve seen genuinely decent people get into huge arguments about whether something is fair or not, so having BW take away some of that discussion can be a real advantage for getting to the game rather than bogging down in whether a world-class spy with fear of cheese is “equal” to a “grizzled mercenary with a drinking problem”.