Lifepaths are a rarely explored method of character generation (chargen). Cutting up a character’s life into a series of stages and combining them can lead to some very evocative, dynamic, and real characters. Others method just do not provide the same experience. Burning Wheel (BW) has one of the best Lifepath systems in tabletop roleplaying. Breaking it down and understanding how BW’s overall system interacts with Lifepaths would help designers implement it properly in their own titles.
BW has strong assumptions on its world, even if no explicit world is given. The four classic fantasy races — Dwarf, Elf, Human, Orc — are kept very closely to their stereotypes. Such a basis allows the game to determine appropriate life paths and categories of life paths (“settings”).
Time in years is used as the main resource. A characters spend a certain number of years as a “child.” Afterwards, they can begin to pick their paths. As they pick up more life paths, they unlock more skills, skill points, traits and traits and trait points. As they take more roads in life and start at an older age, they will have better access to skills.
Skills advance based on action. A character must perform a number of tests to advance a skill, pass or fail. Lower skills can increase with fewer and easier tests. One can learn a new skill with time and luck.
Characters gets a different amount of stat points to spend based on their age, divided into physical and mental pools. There is a happy middle ground that can be considered that race’s “prime” (biggest pool possible). Certain lifepaths can give extra points and attributes can advance like skills.
The lifepath system feels one with the entire game.
It has a clear balancing mechanic between starting skill level and attribute level. Older characters will start with many skills, but will have few attributes. Younger characters will start with more attribute points, but few skills. Through effort and time, both characters can overcome these shortcomings. This can create interesting character motivations: the youngster trying to become a skilled veteran or the old timer trying to get back his youthful vigor.
One needs to consider how this all works out if they want to implement in their own games.
The skills system needs to be one where advancement can come easily and without true limit: it can’t be level locked or it ruins the internal balancing.
There needs to be a natural trade-off between acquiring a lot of lifepaths and acquiring few.
The lifepaths and their “settings” should be evocative of the world, explicitly or implicitly. Lifepaths should tie the character to the world, make them a fixture, and give them a sense of place.
The skill system should be something easy to reference and use. There should be a clear system for rating expected difficulty for an application of the skill and for understanding the skill’s use.
Lifepaths, however, have their limits. This chargen method has a high level of player investment, interest and time-wise. This makes it a poor fit for lethal games. If you want quick chargen, this system will not facilitate that. New players are likely to have difficultly with this system: if you’re using this system, be as clear as possible. This system also puts a lot of risk of skill imbalance.
Lifepaths are one of the most interesting and evocative to make a character. While not as prolific as classes, it really helps build characters that are part of a world. With all the changes in game design over the last ten years, I’d love to see designers play with the ideas alongside the more “meta-textual” elements of chargen seen in Apocalypse World or FATE Core.