Sniffen Packets

With a name like Sniffen, it's got to smell good.

Burning Empires, by Luke Crane

I’ve written about this elsewhere already. That was written when I’d read enough to absorb the material. This is written after I’ve given it a thorough, front-to-back reading. As with other indie games (e.g., Weapons of the Gods), Burning Empires is best read straight through. There’s a lot of specialized terminology here, and a lot of attention given to the method of instruction.

Further, the game described is very different from traditional RPGs like D&D or GURPS. Those who forget this will learn the middle chapters on top of a falsely assumed basis. Like reading about helicopter controls while imagining a jetski as the base vehicle, they are likely to doubt the quality and sanity of the work.

This is a gaming book. It’s a book about a game. Once you’ve read the book, you can play the game. It’s closer to being a prepackaged game than almost anything else I’ve read in the genre—right up there with Mountain Witch and D&D 3.5 for ease of use.

Those two provide further use as endpoints of the spectrum of mechanical complexity: unlike Mountain Witch, this is a game with skill and trait lists. It has stats, dice pools, and tactics to be employed in their selection and use. As the author said, it is a “technical game.” Like Risk or Cosmic Encounters, it is best enjoyed by those willing to use many points of contact with its mechanics, distributed across its surface.

I’ve spoken of other features of the game before. Let me here concentrate on its features as a technical book: how it communicates the setting and the mechanics. This author has a different sense of language than I do. The book is dense with jargon, peppered with symbols and referents. Each is explained, often multiple times, and there is an excellent index—but it makes it hard to flip in and browse. This rewards reading the book from the front, which teaches you basic terminology and explains that the book is divided into Hub, Spokes, and Rim. Everybody should read the Hub, which explains basic gaming techniques and systems. Spokes are pick-and-choose: the detailed firefight mechanics, magic powers, aliens. The Rim is ancillary material.

The setting is not in a separate book or chapter. Instead, it is worked deeply into the mechanics. Nothing straight-out says that the Hammer naval troops have little respect for the Anvil infantry, but there’s no way into the navy lifepaths without picking up the “Hammer Flies, Anvil Dies” character trait. Nothing says the psychic academy scorns non-nobles, but there are different entry lifepaths into the psychic setting depending on whether you already have a “Mark of Privilege” trait. Soldiers get a trait FUGAZI, with no further explanation. I had to look it up.

There are some flaws: the Tech Burner makes some differences in mechanics between burning and play unclear. The rationale for so many decisions is explained that a few unexplained features stand out—most particularly the lack of connection between gameplay and the Infection strategy game.

Overall, it’s a darn good game. The indie sector of the market is growing up. Like Weapons of the Gods, this is a game to attract normal tabletop players and show them a world beyond WotC/WW/SJG/Palladium. Further, with work like this coming out, there’s no excuse for the travesty of the recent Serenity game.

Books read this year: 34