Returning To My Roots: BurningCon 2023

I recently attended BurningCon, a convention devoted to the games published by BWHQ in Queens, NY: The Burning Wheel, Burning Empires, Torchbearer, and Mouse Guard are the big ones. BWHQ haven’t released as many titles as some publishers but their work continues to be some of the most influential in both my own gaming life and the broader indie world. 

The visit was excellent and weird and a reminder that we can’t go home again.

The Firsts

I associate so many indie gaming firsts with BWHQ games. The first Indie Game Reading Club work was actually my long-form review of Burning Empires I posted to back in 2007. I can’t even remember how the game came across my radar. Decoding it tore apart almost every assumption I had about the power and possibility of roleplaying. My own transformation in turn remade my own local gaming groups. I had always preferred not-D&D, ever since 1985 or so, so we had gone deep into World of Darkness, Deadlands, Exalted, other stuff I had ended up working on professionally.

For some of us back in the day, the underlying ethos of the BWHQ games solved the many problems with “trad” gaming we had run into over the decades. For others, it revealed trad play to be fundamentally flawed. I was in that second camp. It’d be years before I could come back to anything like trad play, understand its flaws, and embrace them as a different flavor of the larger experience.

Some of my closest gaming friends could not, and would not follow me on the journey. Others have stayed by my side. None of them were so thoroughly indoctrinated as me. Sure glad they stuck around.

BurningCon 2010 was the first gaming convention I had attended since leaving professional design in 1998 or so. I had withdrawn from the whole world of gaming beyond my own table, embarrassed by my professional failures, disheartened by where game publishing was going. Some of my peers would go on to gather in the Forge community, a space I had no idea existed when I probably could have used it. It would have conflicted with my tragic heroic narrative in any case, so maybe it’s for the best that I didn’t find that space until much later.

Arriving in NYC for the first time in my life, and meeting folks I knew only through online forums, my dumb internal narrative just continued. Who’s this weird dude who flew in from Arizona? Stewing in his own take on these games, hermetically sealed away from the broader con scene. While you were attending cons, I studied the blade.

I went out of my way to continue attending BurningCon, learning and networking and expanding my understanding of not just the BWHQ ludography but broader indie gaming in general. The following year brought in other designers: Vincent Baker, Jason Morningstar, John Harper, Jared Sorensen. It was also the year I could feel myself peeling away from the BWHQ inner circle.

Hunkering down with friends over Agricola while Superstorm Sandy raged outside.

2012 brought Superstorm Sandy to NYC, a lowkey apocalyptic event for everyone involved. The city was shut down, lots of us found ourselves on the wrong side of flooding and craziness. I made a lot of powerful friendships that year as we hunkered down in folks’ apartments, drove all over the eastern seaboard looking for airports that could get us home. There would be one more BurningCon the following year, and then that was that.

A Convent Near Sing Sing

The return of BurningCon was held at a convent in Ossining, New York, along Hudson Bay. The town is about an hour drive north of the city proper, 90 minutes out of Newark. Where the old events had been in the middle of Queens, this one was pretty isolated. The convent is now a meeting space and retreat, with dorms on the top floors and tons of weird little rooms in the bottom floors. Sing Sing, the famous old maximum security prison, overlooks the Hudson less than a mile away. Dorming with a bunch of strangers on what I imagined were cots didn’t sound great, so a couple old friends and I got an AirBnB 10 minutes away. 

Turkey and deer roamed the property at Mariandale.

On the drive up we all agreed that nostalgia and, probably, the post-pandemic isolation we’d all been through made us all hit the GO button on this event before we had a chance to think it through. If we’d spent even a day before committing, we might have declined. I confess I’m glad I wasn’t the only one thinking about it! But, you know, we all got a decade older. We’ve all gone on to expand our palate beyond these particular games. And I know, I know, we all got stranger during the Covid lockdowns.

The merch, so much merch I’ve never seen before.

As a space, the Mariandale Center is pretty great. I’ve gotten spoiled for private room gaming via events like BigBadCon and NewMexicon and the convent had plenty of it. There were larger meeting rooms for BWHQ founder Luke Crane’s Inheritance parlor larp, middling rooms with nice big tables and whiteboards for five and six player games, smaller little reading rooms for even more intimate gatherings. Heck, I found a nice couch in a library and took a much needed nap for my 50+ year old body. Grinding out 12 hours of high intensity roleplay is a young person’s game.

As a location, it’s also pretty isolated. I mean not really, there are two or three towns within 15 minutes of driving. But we couldn’t just walk out the door and hit six restaurants, eight food trucks and three bars. That meant, as a practical matter, lots of forced socializing. I’m glad it got forced on me because I’m just not wired to want to seek out much socializing any more.

Q&A with Luke Crane

The whole event had a sort of boot camp vibe. Almost everyone bunking together, sharing three squares a day in a cafeteria, regrouping in another space and negotiating tables and events like a more chaotic Games on Demand style muster. Lots of time that felt both loose and inescapable.

What To Run and Why

Turns out that in my absence from BWHQ’s scene, my old forum articles about the Burning games continue to be read. It’s flattering and a little intimidating. It also turned out the Venn diagram overlap of BWHQ and IGRC folks is substantial. Out of 40ish attendees — it was a very intimate event — I think 10 are community members. Go us, way to represent.

Veterans and noobs alike getting a faceful of r-map goodness in Burning Empires

I went into the event with a Burning Empires event at the ready because I’m known as The Burning Empires Guy in that space. But I also brought Wolves of Aquitaine, a Burning Wheel scenario I put together for Dreamation 2017. Other than a short campaign I ran for a friend’s birthday present a couple years ago, that was the last time I even cracked open the rulebook. But it’s all branded on my brain at this point, no matter how many PbtA games and weird little larps I play.

After attending so many broad-interest conventions over the past decade and my own tastes metastasizing, it felt strange to be at such a focused event. Burning this and that and that’s it? Really? Well and also Crane’s Miseries and Misfortunes, his OSR-ish take on 1648 France. Miseries is becoming to Enlightenment Era pseudo-history gaming what Greg Stafford’s Glorantha is to Bronze Age pseudo-archaeology gaming.

Both my games went great, of course (and I’ll post both my BE scenario and a revision of Wolves of Aquitaine in the near future). I’ve only gotten better at running tabletop events in general, and in particular have mastered how best to apply any particular game’s strengths in any particular moment. A message I’ve been hammering on for a while now: beautiful rules do not ensure beautiful games. If you bring beauty to those rules you will get something so, so special. But you have to bring it.

A Kind of Cult

There’s always been a sort of cultishness around BWHQ fans. Probably true of many communities, honestly, but it’s always felt pronounced to me among Burning fans. I breathed that air, after all. Having belonged to the cult a good while, left, then returning made for a super interesting homecoming.

There are, of course, the old guard. Honestly I think we’ve all mellowed with age. The fervent enthusiasm is a bit muted now, and that’s probably just life if I’m being honest. It’s harder to pump my fist about anything in my mid-50s than it was in my mid-30s. But I saw this across almost all the old guard who made their appearances as well. Honestly it was nice.

The younger folks who have just found these games, yeah, I see so much of myself in all of them. But the context for discovering Burning Wheel in the 2020s is completely different than it was in the 2000s. These players have been exposed to the pop culture firehose of D&D 5E, the indie-dominating shadow of PbtA (some of the youngest haven’t even played Apocalypse World proper; they’ve come to PbtA via some third or fourth generation game), Gumshoe and Savage Worlds and Cortex and Fate and Mutant and The One Ring and and so on. Indie gaming is a very crowded space today. I don’t think any of the new fans are in the same “Burning Wheel fixed/destroyed conventional trad-style roleplaying” space I was, nor can they be. It’s one flavor among many distinctive flavors of play these days.

A distinctive feature of Burning Wheel fandom has always been a sense among its members of having cracked the code to better play through the systems themselves. Out here in broader indie gaming there’s plenty of talk about technique, inclusiveness, aesthetics, even identity itself (as expressed through procedural design, text, subject matter or the identity of the creators), but the BW thing to my ear has always come down to how these games’ specific procedures make better play. I think 15-20 years ago it was true and novel. Heck, I still think it’s true! But BWHQ games aren’t the only designs that succeed on those grounds any more. On the other hand, there aren’t many games that make that claim these days. Other factors have rotated into fashion. The pendulum will swing back someday.

Crane holding court before a rapt audience at his three-session-long Miseries & Misfortunes mega-game

The cultishness, today, is down to how present the creators are, both literally and in conversations with the players about the games. Luke Crane has always been generous with his time and energy, famously not coy about design and play, pugnacious but also deeply serious about the whole enterprise. Olavsrud, Crane’s career-long boon companion, attended as well. He put on a dungeon-creating workshop that was well attended and, I think, brought a nicely productive vibe. And all weekend long: “What I love about Luke’s games is–” and “Thor really nailed it with–” and so on. I have to imagine these games’ famously unhackable nature means they’ve remained more closely aligned with the original creators than, say, PbtA has remained aligned with the Bakers.

Almost every other name I’ve seen in their books’ credits, over and over, of course also attended. I’d only half-met them in the past and got lots of quality play and chat time with them all at this event, far more than I’d ever gotten in the past. It was a small enough event that it felt like a healthy social space, not parasocial weirdness.

The New Old Style

I was interviewed at the con for some videos they’re putting together. My interviewer asked me to describe Burning Wheel in one word. My word was: confrontational. To my ear, that’s not a dis. But I acknowledge that it’s a bit out of fashion any more to create games that challenge our assumptions, to have an opinion that you could and should be doing this thing better.

Traveling to the retreat felt like visiting a family you barely see any more. They’re still family! But I’ve traveled the world, had a career or two, raised a family. And so have they. The connections are still there, the underlying personalities haven’t changed. But age and the times we’ve all lived through have made all of us strange in our own skins. The old folks are older and sometimes wiser, the young folks have arrived with different values and concerns. It was a good reminder to me that this community of play and design still looms large, perhaps not so visible any more but still exerting undeniable gravity across all indie gaming.

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