calling for rolls in BE

I have a question to which I think I know the answer. But I’m still going to ask because a) I might be wrong, and b) I initially had the opposite opinion so if I was wrong before, others might be too!

In Burning Empires, can the GM call for a roll when he thinks one is necessary?Example - The Chasm
Imagine we’re starting a new maneuver. In the previous maneuver, two PCs crash-landed in the desert. Maybe their ship was sabotaged by a vaylen spy, it doesn’t really matter (though let’s assume the crash-landing took place because of either a failed test on the players’ part, or a successful test for the GM).

It’s been previously established that there is a giant chasm between where the PCs crashed and the city. No one rolled to create the chasm (not sure how you would “burn up” a chasm anyway, except maybe with Chasm-wise), it was just mentioned as color in some previous scene(s).

Now let’s say Player 1 starts a scene and narrates trekking through the desert, crossing the chasm and making it back to the city.
GM: Whoa, hold on, you can’t just cross the famed Chasm of Drazash. You need to roll for it.
Player 1: But the chasm is just color! Color trumps color. I can just color getting past it.
Player 2: hmm…

So the question is, is the GM within his rights to call for a test to cross the color Chasm?
This came up in conversation with my brother (Dave Lucas on these forums, and full credit to him as the whole chasm thing was his example), in relation to some problems I was seeing in my current BE game. It’s important to me because I initially said no, the GM can’t ask for a test because the chasm is just color – the old “color trumps color” argument. But Dave changed my mind and now I think I was dead wrong!

My thinking now is this: If a character needs to overcome an obstacle in the fiction, and the players consider it to be a conflict – something is at stake in the story – then you need to roll the dice. It’s not a color scene anymore, it’s a builder (or conflict). So not only can the GM call for a test when he thinks one is needed – he must!

Of course, whether something is at stake is up to the group. They may consider the chasm just “furniture” and no one’s too worried about how quickly, or by what route, the PCs make it back to the city. In this case it’s a “say yes” moment. But if any of those things matter, or if the chasm is such a part of the setting that it’s almost a character itself (think Moria or Mount Doom) then it’s time to break out the dice!

When Dave and I were first arguing about this, he said something like “next time I GM BE I’m going to call for rolls when needed, even if the rules say otherwise, because it’s just more fun”. But I think this idea is actually well supported in the rules:

Actually there’s nothing that says only the GM decides when it’s time for dice – any player should be able to. And I think there will almost always be consensus. But if there’s disagreement, I think the GM should have final say.

So what does everyone think? Am I on the money or way off base?
(Personally I think I’m just restating the rules, but I was wrong about it before – I was taking the whole ‘color trumps color’ thing way too far.)

Just for the sake of clarification, isn’t the chasm part of the fallout from the failed piloting/successful sabotage roll? The chasm is what’s causing a problem for the characters, in that it’s what’s preventing them from easily returning to the city. Otherwise, if it can be dismissed with color, the fact they crashed doesn’t really matter in the fiction.

I think a Building scene would definitely be called for here, but it must be framed properly from the beginning, as in telling the players that the reason they’re stuck in the desert is because they can’t cross the chasm without some work, not just setting it up with “You crashed in the desert. What do you do?”

This is a basic function of the GM in ANY of my games: to create adversity for the players. The chasm is adversity. Therefore, a test is required.

Now, personally, I don’t think it’s the best example of adversity, but I want to go with the spirit of the example. The GM demands the players use a building scene to get back to the city – cross the chasm, traverse the desert, etc. It’s part of the basic scope of the game.


Daniel: I think the stuff about the failed roll is a red herring. I think regardless of how the PCs ended up needing to cross the chasm, there needs to be a roll for it. A better example might be a player saying “I want to break into the museum tonight, to steal the Titan’s Pearl” when the museum and the pearl have only been established previously as color, and aren’t attached to any main characters. How would you handle that situation?

Luke: agreed, this is basic stuff. But I’ve gotten it wrong before! I think in playing BE there can be the tendency to take the color vs. non-color stuff too far. You end up thinking “Anything that has been established by a test, needs a test to overcome. Anything that hasn’t been established by a test, can be overcome without a test.”

Not only is that against the rules (cf. When To Roll section), it also makes for unsatisfying play. Because you’re thinking in terms of the mechanics first, instead of the fiction. (I have another post brewing in my head about where that leads, but it’ll have to wait until I organize my thoughts.)

The one area you have to be careful is with stuff your character “owns” – stuff that you’ve narrated as color but haven’t made the appropriate Resources/Fabrication/Circles etc. test yet. If you get caught with a color bodyguard and don’t have any building rolls left when the enemy comes a-knockin’ … well, you’ve basically admitted that the bodyguard wasn’t important enough to really matter. Whether your enemy gets past the bodyguard is just not “at stake” in the story you’re telling. But I see these as special rules that shouldn’t be extrapolated to the rest of the game.

You’re worryin’ too much. Go with your gut! Challenge your players! Play your FoN’s Beliefs!

I’m not the GM! But I see your point.

I was just trying to lay out my ideas in this thread, to maybe help others who are in the same rut I was. I really do think it’s an area where people get tripped up (see here and here).

Now, I’ve only GM’ed BW con demos (so grain-of-salt-time) but here’s how I look at this. Also, lots of text, somewhat rambling.

The PCs are tooling along in a building-scene compromised lighter that has serious saboteur-related problems. There’s two ways that we can handle the next bit, either: The players make a piloting roll against the saboteurs demolitions successes and fail, so down in flames they go.
The GM doesn’t call for a piloting roll because it’s something catastrophic (engine explosion or something) but since this is BE we don’t worry about the crash killing the PCs and instead bank the successes (or the “we’ll roll that test when it matters but it’s been builder-scene say-yessed so it’s now waiting in the roll-queue” option that trips some people up) for a later scene.

The explicit intent of that building scene was to get a shuttle to crash with the PCs in it. However, implicitly the intent was to keep whoever is riding in the shuttle out of the way so something else can happen (linked test dice to a later firefight, removal of powerful orator from a Dual of Wits, whatever). The implicit intent defined what happened (something is in the way) and the explicit intent defined how that thing is given narrative weight.

So now they’ve crashed and are on the ground and still want to get back and the GM (after consulting their notes) lets them know that there’s a huge bit of color between them and their destination.

The PCs then have a choice, they can spent a week hiking home and enjoying the scenery, or they can spend a builder of their own to make a navigation (or survival, or whatever) skill roll against the Opposition’s sabotage successes in order to get back before the thing that is going to go down down goes down. The question then becomes: are the PCs interested in spending one of their scenes blocking the actions of the Opposition.

From a mechanics point of view, this is directly in-line with BITS and Vincent’s Admonition, which roughly translates to “only pick up the dice for things that are interesting to the story.” The PCs can say “we want to get home but it’s ok, we’ll take our time” and the GM should say “all right” and then immediately call a conflict scene to hit the players where it counts. Or the PCs can say “we want to get back quickly as to not leave us weak” which will call for a building scene (and at least one roll against an Opposition-set difficulty) to succeed (in time) at their task. For the record, I don’t see getting back as the interesting part in this, it’s the tension that is created by the run against the clock that is interesting so that is what gets targeted by the rolls. As for using the color as a test, it’s not an issue since you aren’t giving the chasm a crossing difficulty, you’re using the color as a scaffold to make a different piece of mechanics look interesting (since if the PCs just had to walk a long way and they might not walk fast enough, that would be lame).

(There is a bit of a sticky point where the players get two tests against the same Opposing roll, but I believe that this isn’t a violation of Let It Ride due to the fact that the first roll is crash/not crash, and the second is get back in time/not get back in time. The overall goals are the same but the intent framing how that happens is significantly different. I’d say it’s ok but this might need a ruling).

Colin, I mostly agree with you, but you’re talking about something that’s tangential to what I was trying to say. Sorry, it’s my fault for not having a clear example.

So let’s change it! Let’s say the character is in the desert because the player narrated him there, using a color scene. It’d be kind of weird to narrate yourself crashing as a color scene, so let’s say he went for a week-long trek to the oasis. The player just wanted to show how his character is a cool desert nomad type and has ties to the desert folk.

Regardless of how he got there, the GM can call for a test when he tries to get back to the city. (I’m not saying he must call for one. It depends on whether there is something at stake, and of course is subject to “don’t be a dick”.)

“Crap! The Ghetto Sheef is plotting to stage a riot at my factory? I better get back ASAP!” sounds like it might need a test.

“Amman decides to take a shortcut back to the city, crossing a deep rift in the desert sands known as the Chasm of Drazash. His muscles ripple as he free-climbs down and then back up the other side. Yeah, he’s cool.” - that’s probably just color. (Note you wouldn’t call for a test just because you found the climbing hard to believe – that’s a case of veto.) But I could see the GM calling for a test if he had something up his sleeve, and the timing of getting back to the city mattered. GM: “… sure, Amman is cool. But meanwhile, the Ghetto Sheef is meeting secretly with some of the verkers at your factory. He’s convincing them to stage a riot! You’d have to be climbing that chasm pretty fast to get back in time…”

Well, a fair amount of your argument was about “color trumps color” issues which I was targeting. Again, large wall of poorly sorted text incoming (I blame being at work and having other things going on). Also, I agree that this is an important (and probably divisive) thing, since it’s at the core of the game.

In this example, I’d still have it be a single versus test (in a building scene) where you’re testing Amman’s “being awesome at rock climbing” skill against the Ghetto Sheef’s “incite rioters while the boss is out” skill. If Amman’s succeeds, he gets there in time to deal with the problem, and if the Ghetto Sheef succeeds he’s got a bunch of angry workers.

For the sake of clarity, I’m going to make the following assumption about the scene before continuing, otherwise I’m going to get confused and end up revising everything I’ve written (again).

Player color scene: Amman is done with a weekend of relaxing with his desert brethren and is on his way back to the city. In order to clear his mind for the upcoming Kerrn union meetings, he has parked his jeep on the city side of the Drazash Chasm and walked the last part to his family homestead. He’s climbing the chasm like a badass, freeclimbing like a mofo.

(GM calls for a building scene)

GM building scene: Vaylen spies have decided that the upcoming Kerrn union meetings are a perfect time to throw a wrench into the works. Not only can they cause distrust between the Kernn and Human populations, but factory production will be reduced for weeks! To this effect, operatives posing as union reps have entered into the shop stewards office and are holding a meeting. The GM and the players talk a bit and then the stakes are set to this: “finish this meeting before Amman gets back so we can plant the seeds of distrust.” The GM has now made a versus test between the spies negotiation skill and Amman’s athletics.

Or at least that’s how I’d do it. Your example sounded like it was a GM color scene (“we’re talking about starting a riot”) that was initiating a skill roll, something that, at least in my mind, strikes me as a bit sketchy since you’re making a skill roll outside of a mechanics scene. In your example, the players can simply color their way home scene since it’s happening but it hasn’t been made important. If the players think it’s important (and want a mechanical benefit later) they spend a builder, if the GM thinks it’s important (and wants a benefit later) he spends a builder. In short, whoever wants more dramatic control over the scene spends a building scene, otherwise there isn’t a conflict and even though the seeds of doubt for the Kerrn revolt have been planted; it hasn’t been made a Thing until someone spends a building scene turning it real.

Also, don’t forget that BE is about the conflict between players and the GM. If the GM gives a free roll in a color scene to Amman to get back before problems happen it doesn’t get the GM anything, it’s at best (in his eyes) no better than if he didn’t allow the roll and at worst ruins his plans? Forcing that decision of “help the enemy and save my builder for something I want to do or spend it now as a reaction and postpone my other goals” is at the core of the scene economy rules.

As for that Titan Pearl thing, that’s 100% color from where I’m sitting. The thing is color, the museum is color, and the player is doing something badass that has no conflict-based impact on the story. In BW (even Iron Empires themed BW) this is a different story, but BE is geared towards hyper-focused competitive play. Your character might be a master thief (and be all about being a master thief) but until it becomes something that one side wants and the other side takes issue with you wanting, it just happens. Once the character has stolen the Titan Pearl, it’s then given a bit more weight by being in someones possession (it isn’t a non-color tech, but it now has been given McGuffin status) and if someone else wants to make it a centerpiece of the battle against the Vaylen, then there is conflict and it can be targeted by mechanics scenes. Oh, unless the player is stealing the pearl as part of a greater building scene, at which point I’d say you roll against Ob (something reasonable) and either get it or not. It doesn’t need to be tech burned to be used, unless it’s something out of the ordinary.

Really what I’m getting at with all of this madness and ranting is that the GM can’t force someone to take a test or force a scene to be spent (outside of the built-in scene escalation stuff), but at the same time things are only mechanically important to the story if someone spends scene resources on a building or conflict scene.

There’s some stuff about scene economy that I started to think about while writing (notably orchestrating things to get story control using only color scenes and forcing the opposition to use scene resources defensively) that I’ll try to remember to write about when I’ve got some time to organize what I’m thinking about.

I disagree about the chasm being a red herring, but perhaps I’m taking a different perspective than you. It doesn’t have to be a chasm, it could be simply the hash desert where they crashed or whatever as the problem the failed roll creates (or did they just not get to their destination in time?). The in-play situation would probably have a lot of those facts established; these kinds of implications are difficult to suss out from a hypothetical.

Regarding the situation with the pearl, I would definitely call for a roll, unless I thought the complications that would arise from the character having it in his possession would be much more interesting than success or failure to steal the pearl, in which case i would just Say Yes to the theft.

Is any of that helpful?

Daniel: I didn’t say the chasm was a red herring! I meant how they got to be in the desert was a red herring. As for the pearl, completely agreed (although I think you have to be careful about Saying Yes just because you find an outcome more interesting, but that’s a digression). I also think if the break-in succeeded, the pearl can now be sold for Cash On Hand, and/or have technology traits, depending on how it was described and what the Intent was.

Colin: hmm. You’ve described how you would play it and I don’t disagree with any of that – it’s certainly a great way to play to use versus tests as much as possible. However, I disagree that it must be that way. Amman can start with a color scene, and have it turn into a builder because the GM said “hey, here’s why you probably care about getting back to the city quickly”. The GM can provide adversity without spending any of his own building rolls.

What I’m trying to say, what I hope is true, is that all tests and all types of scenes in this game do only one thing directly: they affect the fiction. That’s it. Similarly, the only thing that determines whether you need to roll dice is the fiction – i.e. the GM/group’s determination of whether a conflict exists within it.

A linked test is shorthand for “a conflict about whether and how I affect the situation around another conflict”. It has to affect the fiction before it can give an advantage to the other test.

A Resources test is shorthand for “a conflict about the details of this fictional thing, how strong it is or what traits it has and whether my character can afford it”.

“Color” does not mean stuff that is less real in the fiction. It means “stuff that is not currently involved in conflict”. It only lacks mechanical weight because it’s not in conflict.

Your armor that you introduced in a color scene but haven’t rolled for yet? It’s no less real; it’s just that there is no conflict yet about whether you can afford it. When you’re attacked, suddenly whether and what quality armor you could afford is at stake, so you roll Resources. Unless you’ve used up all your building rolls, which was you saying “I care about this other stuff a lot more than I do about my armor, so for now we need to ignore my armor’s defensive abilities in the story”.

The “color” you introduced that wasn’t attached to your (or anyone’s) character – the museum’s security system, the pimp’s ballistic vest, the chasm in the desert? That stuff’s real too, and has mechanical weight as soon as it’s involved in conflict.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I hope I’m right, because it seems a lot easier to play this way. For me it fits Luke’s “go with your gut” advice.

One thing about the chasm (my example, so if you don’t like it blame me!) is that it’s not just a gorge in the desert; it’s a character in its own right. It’s the Chasm of Drazash, cut out of the desert by God’s own wrathful hand to punish man for his sin. They say no man has ever crossed it on foot. It is angry and spiteful and hates.

In the hypothetical game this has been established.

I think another way of looking at the function of “color” in BE is that it’s any in-the-game-fiction fact where there’s nothing currently at stake. I say I’ve got 10,000 saudukar troops at my back – great, who cares? They’re at my back. Big deal. You say you’ve got a vast fortress equipped with the most advanced detection gear in all of space. Great, who cares?

I march my 10,000 saudukar into your fortress. Who cares? You do. And because you do, I have to.

So basically, until someone – another player, including the GM – decides they care whether something is true in the fiction or not, it’s color.

In your chasm example, the GM is under absolutely no obligation to make you roll to get out of it IMO. He can always, always Say Yes. If nobody gives a shit whether you get out of the chasm or not – if there’s nothing at stake – get on with the gettin’ on.

Given the scene economy of BE, I found myself Saying Yes a LOT actually. I’d rather the players be thinking about ways to chase their BITs via their rolls, rather than bogging down the game with probably-not-very-interesting procedural stuff. On that note, though, given Dave’s description of this notable landmark, I’d have to assume that if he were GMing he’d find some way to make escaping the chasm relevant to someone’s BITs…even indirectly.


Paul: you managed to say in 10 lines what I ended up writing a mini-essay to say. Nice!

Dave: the description of the Chasm of Drazash is awesome (and totally makes it BITsable).

Mike: Firstly, I think we mostly agree on this stuff, notably that color is changes to the fiction that have been deemed non-contentious (ignoring mechanical weight issues for now).

However, what I was contentedly getting at was that it I don’t think it is the GMs place to decide if something matters to a player. If the GM wants to get some benefit from a scene he calls for the scene, if the players want that instead they call it, but until someone calls it it’s a color scene and happens (again, without the benefit of mechanical weight, but that’s for a different post). I’m not sure if the GM taking a color scene and baiting a builder out of the PCs counts as opposition, since that is tacitly giving mechanical control to the players (which has more functional narrative weight than a color control).

I think this is new post time since there’s two different explorations going on here.

That’s not why you would call for a test. You call for a test if the fiction demands it. When does it demand it? When there is a conflict of interest between two characters.

I have a different view of the Say Yes advice: if there is a conflict, then you make a test. You don’t Say Yes to avoid a conflict.

This all depends on what’s a conflict and what’s not and that line is hard to describe. I think you know it in your gut, and the fiction really helps you figure that out at the table.

For sure. There just seemed to be some differences of opinion going on about how to decide when things got rolls. I feel that the GM can Say Yes to anything that they don’t find contentious, and that the players implicitly have the same power by not spending a building scene to respond mechanically. Essentially, there is a whole lot of Say Yes-ing that happens to avoid conflicts* because while there is a conflict it doesn’t rise up past the threshold of “does this matter.”

For example, a PC and an NPC can have a giant screaming match in an interstitial scene without it triggering a conflict scene if the purpose of that scene is to establish an opinion (not change anything as is the purpose of DoW) with the added color that you two are pissed at each other. The fact that you are fighting doesn’t force a conflict scene because as stated before, that part of it is color and does not matter**.

*By conflict I mean events that engage die-rolling mechanics.

** By the same token, things mattering/not mattering doesn’t reflect it’s impact on the game fiction but instead on the mechanical weight behind that statement. The same scene could be played out by having a polite conversation and then saying afterwords that you hate the person. Same effect, different path. BE scene economy and tests should only care about effect, not path.

Not a pedantic answer, I swear: the fiction can’t demand anything. Deciding what is and is not worth resorting to the system for is entirely in the hands of the players (with the GM holding veto power).

I’m not sure I’m getting the “you’re avoiding conflict by saying yes” vibe from any party in this thread, Dave. Unless…hm. I think I might get what you’re getting at. Let me make what I understand your case to be and you can correct me or just clarify:

Characters fall into a notoriously dangerous chasm as a complication resulting from a prior test. The chasm has been established in the fiction as notoriously dangerous: the characters all know it, the players know it, whatever. This fact in the fiction means there must be a conflict: Can the characters get out, and if so, what might it cost them?

Is that about it?



I hear you.

I’d suggest that saying “the fiction demands it” is sort of a cop-out. Again I SWEAR this isn’t a pedantic point. The only one demanding a test is the GM.

My feeling is, if we use “the fiction” as our reason why a test MUST be made, where does that slippery slope stop? Gravcars are known to be finicky in the heat: the fiction demands you make a driving roll to start it. The desert is known to be home to dangerous primitive tribes: the fiction demands you Circle them up and then fight them. You might not draw your gun in time: the fiction demands you make an Agility test. And so on and so on.

Reductio ad absurdum? Well yeah, of course. IMO – and it is only an opinion, stinky like everyone else’s – the oldskool “the only way to influence the world is to use the dice” thing is just such a huge drag. Personally I don’t want the players to tie up game time rolling dice when there are no interesting consequences.

As a GM, I blow off tests all the time. Am I avoiding conflict? YOU BET I AM. Because they’re conflicts nobody actually gives a shit about. Using that discretion is maybe my biggest GMing job.


“The Fiction demands it” is short hand for “the story so far implies that this would be a good point for a potential failure fork-point in the narrative”