Luke Crane is the creator of Burning Wheel, one of the most successful small press RPGs ever published. A frequent contributor to the Forge, Luke is at the heart of the indie gaming community. He’s also the most passionate GM I’ve ever had the privilege of playing with, and his GMing style is as energetic as it is engaging.

In a conversational, free-wheeling interview via AIM, we talked about passionate GMing, Burning Wheel, burnout, Luke’s approach to GMing and more.

Treasure Tables (TT): Thank you for giving me the opportunity to interview you for Treasure Tables, Luke.

One of the things that never fails to impress me when I game with you is your energy level — it’s insane! I know part of that comes from Burning Wheel, since it’s geared towards passionate play, but most of it is you.

How do you get your players so involved, and keep them involved?

Luke Crane (Luke): How do I get my players involved? It’s a complex equation.

First, you must realize that when I’m running a demo I take it very seriously. Not only are all the players expecting a good time, the reputation of BW as a playable, fun game is on the line. It’s actually quite a bit of pressure.

I started off trying to appeal to traditional gamer habits. Make a character, go on an adventure, kill shit. That fucking sucked. Anyway, those demos were horrid — doubly because that’s just not how BW plays.

So I made a point of going with my gut, rather than going with what I “thought” people were expecting. I decided to have fun and go all out. A very personal decision, trust me.

I look like a complete fucking goober up there, gesticulating and making the funny voices, but that’s what I like do in the game. It helps me invest in the scenario, and my energy, more often than not, acts like an espresso shot for the players.

But my own insanity is only one part of it. BW’s mechanics are the other part. Beliefs and the intent/task system of BW build investment. They tell the player from the very beginning, “you are going to do more than just roll dice.” They let them know they are a meaningful part of this. And people really respond to that, you know?

You’ve played in two of my con games, right?

TT: Three, actually: “The Gift” twice, and the replacement for “Nest of Webs.”

Luke: Ah! What kept you involved? You’re a skilled player, but man, you were INTO it at GenCon this year.

TT: Your energy kept me involved — it’s impossible to be a passive player in one of your games, as far as I can tell.

I’m not actually a skilled player. I’ve got the potential to be, and I think you saw that, but it’s not my norm. I’m a much better GM than I am a player.

Luke: Interesting. But that’s not true. I get some very frustrating turtles at my table. Usually one per session.

And you’re hiding your chops. You’re a skilled player. Don’t forget it.

TT: Your comment about feeling like a goober when you’re running games is — I think — on the mark for some folks at the table.

Luke: Being self-conscious in general?

TT: They just don’t seem to know what to make of it, which is too bad. The three friends I’ve played in your games with, though, felt the same way I did: inspired to play at the top of their game.

Luke: Well, I’m geek and proud — despite the goober comment. I figure if I pull out the stops, players are more likely to relax and get into it.

TT: I agree.

Luke: See, it can work.

Often, turtles are dealing with other shit that I can’t help them with right then and there. Abused player syndrome being the big one.

TT: I can speculate, but what do you mean by abused player syndrome?

Luke: Well, I picked up on this from listening to Ron Edwards. He’s excellent at analyzing PLAYERS at the table, and he’s taught me a lot.

Often a turtle is reacting to some other abuse in the past where his participation in the game was ruthlessly crushed by the GM. But in such a way that the player still wants to play, but is terrified of offering any meaningful input, because he just assumes the GM is going to shit on him.

The other side of turtles is the “My Guy” syndrome. As in, “My guy wouldn’t do that.” Which is complete bullshit. But these players are tough to crack.

I’ve actually had players take up the Captain character in “The Gift” and say, “I’m not going to do anything, I like the character as he’s written.” Why do they even fucking play the game, then? Are they gamer voyeurs? I never understood willfully NOT participating in game because of something you perceive (WRONGLY) on the character sheet.

It’s every player’s responsibility to get into the mix with his priorities. Yes, responsibility. It’s the player’s main job at the table: Put something on the line so we can all say, “cool!” My demos are meant to be training for that type of behavior.

TT: It sounds like you’re advocating a mix of passion derived from the character with passion — notably in the form of a desire to be involved in the heart of the game — on the part of the player. Even if there are incompatibilities between the two, you’d prefer the player to trump the PC and get in the game. Is that about right?

Luke: Almost. In the demos, I want the players to see how they can trust the other players and the GM by pushing the character to the limits — in ways they wouldn’t in a home game beause the group/game might break. I want the players to take the character and do what they think would be cool for the character, not what they think the character would do.

Inevitably, this involves serious conflict, because I don’t write sissy characters for those games. I want players to leave those games confident about participating in a passionate way in their home games.

The Elven Captain, for example. His Beliefs are written to desire peace, but everything else about that character screams war: Skills, stats, gear, attributes — he is bred for war. That is a deliberate conflict. Sure he desires peace, but he’s much better at war.

Wouldn’t it be easier to betray these beliefs and just kill away all your problems? Oh wait, if you do, your charge, the prince, will die. That character is infused with conflict, but players inevitably shy away from it.

You saw it in our game, Tony was soft-spoken and non-confrontational. He didn’t want to push it, even though he said to me before the game, “I want to play the ass-kicker.”

TT: I can sympathize with that: It took playing through “The Gift” once for me to really grok what was going on, and want to be in the thick of it. Not that I wasn’t passionate about it the first time — I still talk about that game — but it was a whole different ballgame in round two.

Luke: I had a great game of “The Gift” with my brother (15) and five other guys two weeks ago. My bro played the Warden. He said to me, “This guy’s a beast, I want a fight!”

I told Hart, “Start shit. If you want to fight, be belligerent now!” They were in a Duel of Wits. Everything he said was insulting and inflammatory, so much so that the Elves actually drew swords on him at the end of the Duel of Wits!

He managed to get what he wanted by playing into the character, and by not just “going for it.” It was teh hotness.

TT: Here’s a loaded follow-up for you: How would you characterize your approach to GMing? And how did that approach inform your design choices for BW?

Luke: I’m the most dysfunctional, railroading, “this is my fucking story” GM I’ve even seen. I designed BW so I’d stop that.

Seriously, I designed BW to force the players to fucking talk to each other, to think about each other as people at the table, not just numbers to fuck over. Even in BW, every rule in there is about make choices about another person, not a character. Fight, artha, Beliefs, Trait votes, help, all of it.

BW is designed to speak to the people playing the game at the table. It demands that they recognize that they are all human beings and that they are responsible for each other’s fun.

I did all of that to try to mend the horrible dysfunction at my own table. Because I’m a terrible GM. Or used to be. Maybe I’m better now. I dunno. How you like them apples?

TT: That flows nicely into an odd question: What are your faults as a GM?

I advocated writing a list of one’s own GMing faults as a tool to improve. Assuming “dysfunctional railroader” is on top of the list — or was — what else is there?

Luke: I’m a bully, I’m hyper competitive and I adore the use of “force” and “illusionism” (to borrow some Forge terms).

TT: In complete seriousness, I regard you as one of the best GMs I’ve gamed with — if you didn’t like your approach before BW, you’ve got nothing to worry about now.

Luke: I’m telling you, behind the innocent façade is one of the most pissant GMs you’ve ever seen. It’s the mechanics that force me to behave. (And the fact that I’m representing my company, I suppose!)

TT: How about burnout — you have a full time job, you do BW, you’ve put out other BW books, you’ve got con appearances, presumably other hobbies — how do you keep from burning out?

Luke: I’ve long passed the burn out stage. I burned out sometime last year.

TT: So what are you running on now? Do you GM outside of con demos, or is it too much?

Luke: Hmm, a little background is in order. From 2002 to 2005 I worked two jobs — 16-18 hours a day. One was BW, the other was for pay. BW actually took up more time. For the past few months I’ve just been working on BW. It doesn’t pay the bills, but it keeps the mind active.

Over the summer, I finished up a long running (eleven year) BW campaign and then played some other small press games — Inspectres, Primetime Adventures, With Great Power, OctaNe, Dogs in the Vineyard. Now I’m back in the driver’s seat running a short term BW campaign and I’m happy again.

But yeah, I passed burn out a long time ago. I have no clue what’s keeping me going at this point. But I still do love the game. I love playing it.

TT: What’s on the horizon for you? You’ve expanded BW with a couple of supplements, not to mention the revision — do you have plans to branch out?

Luke: What does branch out mean?

TT: One of two things, I suppose: Write more stuff for BW, or write other stuff entirely — freelance, start a new game, etc. Farm out projects to other writers would be a third option.

Luke: Well, I’d love to design some other games, but I’m a slave to the Wheel. Freelancing sounds neat, but it’s not worth the effort. I make more money and gain more recognition doing what I’m doing. And I’m not farming out anything to anyone

If folks want to contribute settings to BW, that’s cool. But I ain’t hiring hacks to write books for me.

TT: This one’s a two-parter. What advice and tips would you offer to a GM who’s starting out with a new group, and wants to capture some of the fire that you bring to the table in her own game? And: Same question, but with an in-progress game?

Luke: Pretty simple for the first one. First, be polite and enthusiastic about your new love. Don’t shove a new game down your group’s throat. Find out if anyone’s interested and arrange a game. Don’t set demands or destroy an in-progress game.

Go slowly, and introduce a bit at a time. Get people who are interested to play and get them to talk about the game/campaign with other folks. But the biggie: Before you get started on a campaign, you’ve got to shake things up and you’ve got to get everyone involved.

In BW we calll it a Character Burning Session, but it applies to all games. Basically, the group gets together and hashes out their characters as a GROUP and talks about their individual goals and their hopes for the campaign. The understanding is that all input will be considered and either vetoed by the group as a whole or, if not, be incorporated in the game.

A lot of gamers think we’re hippies or something for doing this kind of thing, but it works because it builds investment from the players. And that investment is key to game you want people to care about. If nobody cares about what’s happening, the fun level drops precipitously.

And that all ties back into my being a bad GM and having to learn from my mistakes.

TT: How about a group mid-game, but experiencing a slump — where’s the hook to bring in new fire?

Luke: I dunno. When we hit slumps, we’d talk about it outside of the game, and sometimes we’d agree that we just needed some time off. We weren’t always happy with that, but it served us over an eleven year game.

TT: My experience with breaks is that they tend to be game killers — how did you get around that once, let alone several times?

Luke: I’m one determined motherfucker.

Seriously, if you’re worried about game killers, you’ve got talk about it. Because the group could be talking “break” as a code for “this sucks and I want out.” By outing that problem, at least you can address it.

For us though, I just refused to give up on my players. Once I felt ready to jump back in, or I got the signal from a previously unenthused player that he was ready to jump back in, I just dogged the other players until we were back at the table playing again.

Now that I think of it, a really, really obvious answer to this is to play shorter games and change up your games. Don’t let your players give you any bullshit about “learning a new system.” Complacency should not be used as an excuse to ruin everyone else’s fun. πŸ™‚

TT: I’m told it’s traditional to end with asking you if you have anything you’d like to add, so… Do you have anything you’d like to add?

Luke: Dude, I think I added too much! Thanks for having me. It was a pleasure and I hope we get to game together again soon.

TT: I hope so too! Thanks, Luke!

(This was my first AIM interview, and the difference between AIM and email as interview formats is apparent. It’s also worth nothing that at Luke’s request, I cleaned up our text a little bit to make it flow better as a post. Which would you prefer for future TT interviews: AIM or email?