My longest-running gaming group just finished Out of the Abyss after 84 sessions over the course of almost 2 years. It marked a bittersweet farewell to the world of the Forgotten Realms; we took a long moment to remember all the beloved PCs and NPCs that were lost to the Demon Lord incursion. It’s the first Dungeons & Dragons campaign any of us have seen through to completion; most of us still can’t really believe that it’s over.
Nothing else I could run in Dungeons & Dragons 5e would compare to the massive feat we just accomplished, so we decided to switch gears. The end of Out of the Abyss became a slog, a 12-session climax to the campaign that had the players duke it out with one Demon Lord per session. They all craved a system that actively encouraged roleplay and character development, rather than D&D in which both of those things are more or less optional. Burning Wheel was the first system to jump to mind.
Ever since my Torchbearer game went on hiatus and I received my fourth copy of the Burning Wheel core rulebook (as well as a copy of the Burning Codex that I’ve been pouring through), I have been aching to run my first Burning Wheel campaign. I consider Luke Crane to be a peerless game designer, and Burning Wheel to be his “Swiss watch:” chock full of imperceptible moving parts that – once you finally get a grasp on how the hell they work – run more efficiently than any other watch on the market.
But the first session of Burning Wheel doesn’t include any play; rather, the “play” is burning up the setting and the characters that inhabit it. My group tossed ideas back and forth for hours and held a couple nail-biting votes until we decided on Peach Blossom Dogs.
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms
I have had an obsession with Three Kingdoms-era China since I started playing Dynasty Warriors at a young age. Thanks to Three Kingdoms bloggers like The Archlich, I cultivated a deep appreciation for the intricate politics, rich histories, and prominent figures of the era. After reading Luo Guanzhong’s Sanguo Yanyi and shedding many tears over the course of Gao Xixi’s Three Kingdoms TV series, I also came to better understand the themes of the drama.
One of the most prominent themes of the Romance is one it shares with Burning Wheel: Fighting for what you believe in. From Cao Cao’s pure, ruthless ambition, to Liu Bei’s unfailing commitment to the Han Dynasty (or a bandit’s lust for power, depending on who you ask), and Sun Quan’s filial loyalty and preservationism, every main player in the Romance was driven by their beliefs and died by their beliefs. In the wake of the collapse of the Han dynasty, everyone had one shot to claim the piece of the pie they’ve always wanted – even if that piece was the whole goddamn pie – resulting in one of the most bloody and heavily romanticised conflicts in human history.
This source of inspiration led to Peach Blossom Dogs becoming a facsimile of Three Kingdoms-era China: fierce, sweeping battles between various charismatic (or caricatured) warlords; beliefs so passionate they altered the laws of reality; poetic conveyance of everything from the Asiatic landscapes to the myths and men that shed their blood upon them.
Poetic is the operating word here. Myth matters. Myth is tangible. Everything must be embellished during play, from the way actions are described to the way the characters speak. Did Zhang Fei’s battle cry at the Battle of Changban scare off Cao Cao’s army of one million? All that matters is that you believe he did, and it is the player’s job to make everyone else at the table believe it.
Pirates of the Caribbean
But as if that wasn’t enough, the players were also fixated on some seafearing and swashbuckling, adventures of a sort that only existed during the golden age of piracy. This fit into the setting as established thus far quite nicely: fearsome pirate captains acted the roles of ancient Chinese warlords; epic conflicts were tinged with the brine of the sea and sizzle of gunpowder; their thirst for independence and efforts to claim mastery over the one frontier unclaimed by men defined an era.
From this source, an immediate conflict emerged: pirates versus government, which we complicated further by framing it as pirates (Freehearts) versus privateers (Loyalists). What would Freehearts think of those had sold out to the very power structure they were trying to escape? Is that an expression of freedom, or a squandering of it? Which led us to posit the big question that Peach Blossom Dogs was invented to explore:
Is There Freedom in Order?
Chinese philosophy has always been grounded in order. Concepts like filial piety, the importance of ritual, ancestor worship, and strict utilitarianism have been present throughout Chinese philosophical development, typically favoring the collective over the individual. Can an individual be truly free in that philosophical frame?
That’s a complicated question. Freedom as a Freeheart means constantly being on the run from the government, or banding together into larger Freeheart communities to eke out an existence. That doesn’t sound like absolute freedom to me. Nor does serving your government as a Loyalist that guarantees you and your crew salaries, legitimacy, and a clear mission in life sound like absolute order. The thing is, freedom and order are sliding scales. Recursive. Yin Yang.
But our characters don’t think so. They believe that you either have one or the other. And watching them fight to try and justify their black-and-white beliefs and the world’s subversion of them are the main source of grist for the Wheel.
The Wheel Manifest
One of the design choices I love most about Burning Wheel is its commitment to the “wheel” metaphor. Not only is the ruleset is divided into the rim, the spokes, and the hub, but the “Wheel” itself is often used throughout the book to refer to the ever-progressing state of the game world. Really, a burning wheel is the best image to represent how the game plays. So why not take that metaphor one step further and make the Wheel an integral element to the game world?
“Lannister, Baratheon, Stark, Tyrell, they’re all just spokes on a wheel. This one’s on top and that one’s on top and on and on it spins, crushing those on the ground. We’re not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.”
– Daenerys I Targaryen
This quote kept ringing in my head while we burned the setting. Yes, in this world there is a Wheel. It grows with each generation, the will of the ancestors propelling it violently forward. During tumultuous times it is said that “the Wheel is turning,” implying that change is on the wind, the type of change that causes dynasties to rise and fall in a fortnight. No dynasty – no matter how grand – lasts forever.
What makes matters even worse is that Men don’t control the Wheel.
“A fisherman floated on, enjoying Spring.
The shores, he found, were covered in Peach Blossom.
Watched reddening trees, uncertain where he was.
Seeing no one reached green water springs.
There a way led through the hill.
Twisting, turning to a vast plain.
Distant trees rose to the clouds.
Houses stretched among bamboo and flowers.
Woodmen had names from times of Chou,
Clothes they wore were those of Ch’in,
Once had lived near Wu-ling River,
Now they lived outside the world.
Bright moon in pines. By their doors peace.
Sunrise. From clouds the wild birds call.
Amazed, they want to see this stranger,
Invite him; ask questions of his country.
At first light they sweep flowers from the gate.
At dusk fishermen, woodmen ride the stream.
They had sought refuge there from the world,
Became Immortals, never returned.
Who in those hills can know the world of men,
Who, gazing out, sees only clouds and hills?
He forgot Paradise is hard to find.
His spirit turned again to his own home.
Leaving those hidden streams and mountains,
Thought he could return when he wished,
Knew the way. How could he go wrong?
Who can know how hills and valleys alter?
He only knew the deep ways he wandered.
How many green streams in those cloudy woods?
When Spring comes a myriad Peach-filled rivers,
Who knows which one might lead to Paradise?”
— Wang Wei, “Peach Blossom Springs” (699-759 AD)
That poem serves as the Elven creation myth for the world of Peach Blossom Dogs: Men who long ago abandoned the world to live in long-forgotten hills where the Fusang tree blooms, an ethereal realm they call “The Garden.” The peaches of the Fusang tree sprout once every 3,000 years, but once consumed, they grant immortality. The Men of the Garden have been isolated for generations, until they were Men no longer.
The Elves sometimes return to the realm of Men, but only via riverways laden with peach blossoms, always appearing from just around the bend in canoes of white silver. Men call them “dogs” to distinguish them from Mannish stock. This term was used to single Elves out as mutts and as cowards, but no longer carries a negative connotation, unlike “siren,” which colors the Elves’ songs – reducing oral histories and heartfelt lamentations to “sirensongs” and “beguilements” – as inherently manipulative (indeed, a seaborne conclave of Dark Elves cast out from the Garden used spellsongs in this manner, birthing a myth and giving credence to the term).
There is an Elf for every 100,000 Men, and those Elves tend to live as hermits or wanderers, never letting their roots grow too deep lest they feel the bite of grief; their hearts are ill-suited to this land where time is in motion. And yet they are still enticed by the excitement in Mannish lands, a rush that they will regret as they are crushed ‘neath the Wheel.
There are also Dark Elves who let their grief sour into spite; change is the problem. Ironically, by the time they reach that conclusion, they will find that those blossom-strewn riverways no longer show them the way home. Their very natures have been tainted by change, and the Garden – a realm where nothing changes – cannot allow their presence. Dark Elves crave any self-destructive rush to bury their memories, which froth into a potent jealously. About half of the Elves in the realms of Men are Dark Elves.
The most obvious difference between Men and Elves is that Elves are sensitive to processed metals. Their ancestral weapons — swords, bows, and arrows alike — are carved from the hale wood of the Fusang tree; their armors are woven from pink Fusang blossoms hardened with its own sap and lined with its papery yet impenetrable bark. When Elves wield Mannish swords or guns, they often request them to be made as crudely as possible, or wrap their pommels in leaves lest the cold iron sear their skin. Since they have been banished from the Garden and lost their access to Fusang wood as a result, the Dark Elves circumvent their processed iron sensitivity with Morlin, a jet-black metal of their own creation.
Packs of Dogs
“The next day in the peach garden, they prepared a black ox, white horse, and other sacrifices. The three men burned incense, worshipped again, and took their oath, saying: "We, Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei, although of different surnames, now bind ourselves as brothers, that we may with one heart and united strength, resolve each other's difficulties, support each other in danger, protect the state above and defend the common people below; we ask not the same year, month and day of birth, but wish to die on the same year, month, and day. May the Heavenly Emperor and the Earthly Consort inspect our hearts; and if we ignore righteousness or forget kindness, may Heaven and man both strike us down."
– Luo Guanzhong, Sanguo Yanyi
Elves are particularly sensitive to the revolutions of the Wheel, and as the sun sets on each generation they are compelled by fate to gather into conclaves to usher in the next golden age.
Men call a conclave of Elves a “pack,” and even among Elves the name stuck. An equal number of Elves and Dark Elves are compelled by Heaven to gather at one location for a common cause. Once this happens, the Elves are obligated by tradition to take an oath in a peach garden (even if that garden is a single withered sapling). This oath is meaningless now – the Elves and Dark Elves glare at each other with ill intent as they recite it in unison – but it is taken nonetheless, and looks an awful lot like the quote from the Sanguo Yanyi above.
Let’s get a little meta here: packs of Dogs are not agents of the Wheel, they are the Wheel. The world keeps on turning because of the motion of this hypothetical Wheel everyone has bought into, but the Wheel’s motion is only spurred by the conflicts within Elven conclaves, which blossom from tussles over local affairs to conflicts of kingdom-shaping magnitudes. Elves are demigods among Men; they take it upon themselves to execute Heaven’s Mandate, but each Elf thinks that their Mandate is legitimate.
City of Planks
Going back to that conflict between freedom and order, a juicy complication is that Freehearts often chain their ships together into floating city-states to offer protection from the Loyalists (and seaborne threats like typhoons and whirlpools), chart out claims with the support of a central council, and set up avenues of trade that they as pirates have no access to. Plank-States, as they’re called, are giant floating hypocrisies, making them the perfect locale to explore this burning central question.
Districts in Plank-States are drawn by who owns which clusters of ships. Seats on a Plank-State’s council are given to the Freeheart captains who owned the formative ships, which wind up sun-bleached and scuttled at the center of the mass. The seats are passed on to first-mates or descendants, and are never reassigned by democratic means. The first captains to lay their chains in a Plank-State relinquish their statuses as captain under an oath leveraging their honor, so that their avarice cannot dismantle such precious infrastructure.