Challenging Knowledge-Based Skills

This has come up numerous times in our campaign, and I’d really appreciate some advice on how to deal with it. There are two issues I’d like advice about:

1. For players: How to proactively use knowledge-based skills?

2. For GMs: How to create situations that challenge knowledge-based skills?

We have one PC in the story, a sorcerer named Leonid, who has a host of these skills. History, Research, a bunch of wises … there are more too, can’t remember. The main problem I’m having is that thus far, every time he wants to use one of them, I’ve had to Say Yes. There were never any interesting consequences of failure. These have all been for assessment tests, not declarations.

I’ve done some thinking as to why this is. First and foremost, if a PC is testing to see if he knows something, what is an interesting consequence of failure of NOT knowing? I can see some situations where it’d be fun, but in many cases, it’s just a matter of whether you know something or not, and there’s not much else to it.

Also, we have an interesting mystery plot arc going on, and it’s the mystery stuff that Leonid’s been trying to suss out. I’ve been dropping in most of my clues at points when the RP’s starting to wind down, when we’re coming up to a lull, and the players need a prompt to continue. Namely, when the ongoing Intents conclude themselves, and nobody is bringing anything else to the table, I bring something to the table. It works.

So I drop a hint, a nudge to push them on towards establishing new Intents for themselves, and the Sorcerer wants to roll Skill X to learn more. What do I say to this? The whole reason I injected a bit of information into the story was to push the story forward. Consequence of failure? Every single time so far, I haven’t been able to think of something interesting that wouldn’t just prolong the lull that I was trying to overcome by bringing something new to the table. Consequence = You don’t know, and we sit here for another ten minutes twiddling our thumbs. Huh. So, I just keep Saying Yes, and giving the sorcerer the information he wants to know, and letting that push the game forward.

And the sorcerer gets no tests for advancement. Shitty deal!

As for the mysteries, I’m trying to be fairly transparent about them. I have a few long-term mysteries that I am keeping close to my chest for the time being. As the PCs approach the various hidden plot hooks, I will explain the situation to them OOC, perhaps keeping a few secret twists under my belt to reveal later. I’ve already done a lot of OOC exposition for the smaller mysteries, and dropped some good OOC hints for the bigger ones. The story’s not all mystery either. We have a large-scale economic issue that encompasses the entire setting, and some other plot hooks related to the PCs themselves. The mysteries are mostly aimed at linking the PCs’ stories to each other and to the major NPCs in ways that the PCs don’t anticipate.

Also, I’d really like a bit of advice about how to encourage my players to start using Wises more often for fact declaration. I know how to use Wises myself. I think most of the players understand the system as well. Yet Wises have gotten very little usage for fact declaration so far. The sorcerer player especially seems rather flustered about this. He has all these knowledge-based skills and wises, but doesn’t understand how to use them to direct the story. I’ve been trying to give advice, but am at a loss as to how to really make it sink in. He’s not the most inventive player, so this seems to be a bit of a challenge for him. Any advice for him or for me?

Thanks, everybody, ahead of time! ~ Dean

One thing I have used for failed knowledge is false/wrong information, rather than no information.
It can lead the players off down a dead-end, or wild goose chase, messing with their beliefs along the way.

A useful question to always put, is, “Are you trying to see if you already know this, or are you trying to go research it?” Researching should always be easier Obstacles, but require things like finding libraries, people to talk to, and other logistical needs.

  1. “You don’t know, but you COULD find out if you go…”

…To the great library, in the capital, a week’s travel away. …Speak to the Old Sage at the top of Temple Mountain. …Cross compare the 3 translations of the book one of which is in the hands of your rival. …Get a chance to look at the Royal Records.

Then it makes it a choice. Obviously, you’re going to have to weigh the info being asked against the hassle you’re tossing in, but it’s a good excuse to open the door for players to consider talking to characters, using Circles, or going on an adventure.

  1. “It’s going to take longer than expected…”

“How long do you want to spend researching?”
“Well, I guess a few days, because we’re in town.”
“Ok. You spend a few days, and you feel like you’ve got a lead, but you’re not sure exactly how long it will take. Do you want to try to convince everyone to stay a bit longer?”
“Ah, geez. I’m mean, we’re talking a few more days, not like, months, right?”
“Yeah, well, you failed, and I’m going to tell you right now you can learn it anyway, it’s just that it’s probably going to take between a few more days to a week or two. Do you want to keep looking?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Ok everyone, make Resource Tests!”

Again, a choice. And, if the players choose not to follow up on it, they can still come back to it later. Do make sure the info is worthy of something, though and not simply a waste of time.

  1. “Finding out too late.”

“Hey guys, remember how the Sarkan Undead are weakened in sunlight?”
“Yeah, that’s why we’re here, at noon, right?”
“The runes here say it’s actually only in SUMMER sunlight.”
“Why did you wait until they had us surrounded?!?”
“I didn’t see the runes until just now.”

This is nice because it doesn’t give the players totally wrong information, it gives them right information, just at limited chunks. It allows them to get into trouble, and then you can spill the beans so it’s clear what’s really going on, even though they’re still stuck in the moment.

  1. “Research leaves trails.”

“My men tell me you’ve been looking up my family history.”
“Um, well, it’s actually just general ancestry for everyone in the area. I’m fascinated by the history here.”
“My ‘men’ would be the librarian. So let’s dispense with the falsehoods and get down to business. The easiest thing would be to make you disappear. But I’d like to know who you’re working for, and what your price would be to work for me, instead…”


You could also use failure to determine the truth. Succeed and the answer is what you hoped to find, fail and the answer is what you feared.

Another one, succeed and you get the whole truth, fail and you get as much of the truth that I want you to know…

This is awesome, guys! Keep ‘em comin’!

I particularly like this one. ^^

Also, what about my question on wises? I have the adventure burner, and have been trying to explain it, but it just doesn’t seem to be sinking in for some players. Others seem to be having a different problem: how to choose a fact to declare that fits neatly within your Wise. This situation has come up a few times now, where they want to declare something broad for a narrow wise or vice versa, giving them a high Ob with little chance of success.

Awesome stuff Yeloson, we’re using too few wises, history, research skills in our games. Nice to get some ideas in how to make their failures more interesting.

In my last BW game, one of the players made a wises to determine if there were undead. I says to him, decide, and then roll. He decides there are none, I set a 50% difficulty using the tables… and he fails. So, what he knows and believes is that there are none. Never came up again, but he acts as if there are none.

Similar for non-humans… fails, and I decide the villain has hired a dwarf.

Wait for him to ask you a question and then say “I don’t know. Maybe you want to roll your wise and tell me?”

Wrong order…

“Maybe you want to tell me what your character believes, and then we’ll roll your wise to see if it’s true.”

Knowledge skills:

  • If you can’t think of a great consequence of not-knowing, or of mis-“remembering” something, just Say Yes (if it doesn’t contradict precedent).
  • Invite players to establish truths and facts as often as possible. Plan as little as possible. The game will run itself and the players will have enormous investment in their inventions.
  • Say Yes to new facts invented by players. Not everything needs to be rolled out.
  • Don’t get lazy about laying out consequences of failure on -wise rolls.
  • Let it Ride applies to knowledge rolls as much as anything else in the game.
  • Don’t keep secrets from the players when it comes to straight knowledge of GM-created stuff in the game. The game just works so much better with players who can play to their characters’ ignorance.

You may be giving the character the same information in the end, but if they succeed, you can give them a shorter way of getting it (the plan of the house indicate a hidden wine cellar, as opposed to knocking down walls looking for secret chambers), or some extra information that leads to an advantage (in the family history book. . .there’s a treasure map!). Based upon my experience as a history researcher, I would also not discount having the information be presented by someone who happens to be at the research location (the books have nothing about the history of the monastery, but while you are reading, you strike up a conversation with a fellow research who happens to be something of an expert on local history. . .)

Often, I find that you can separate the Say Yes situations by questioning the player on their Intent before they make a -Wise check. Very often, what they want to know is a relatively inconsequential fact.

One thing I often like to do with a -Wise is to challenge them in a time-sensitive situation. When the shit hits the fan, do they remember that crucial fact? Consequence of failure is “OH GOD I FORGOT HOW TO BANISH A DAEMON FUCK FUCK FUCK!”

Sometimes, a simple “nope” can be enough of a consequence in the right circumstances.

While Curil (my mage) has not had many real -wise rolls, I’ve found research to be very handy when trying to get a link-test to doing some enchanting, learning a spell, or finding out big-plot-critical information.

For example: One of Curil’s beliefs in the past was ““The Paths of Thoth” is a tome that will help me understand the Mulhrandi religion.” First, I had to figure out where the book would be, purchase or find a copy, and then actually read it to get the information I wanted about the party’s current Mulhrandi nemesis. I keep going back to it and using research with a read fork or a doctrine fork in order to get answers, or make up things I want to be true about our enemy.

More recently, I used it (the book + research) to find a ritual for making a tea that would release our other mage for one of several self-inflicted curses.

Doctrine also comes up on occasion, typically as a fork, sometimes when information is needed on a specific ritual, but could also be used as a link test to make a later test easier. In the case of a game last night, Curil needed to perform a specific ritual to prove to some religious people that he was earnest about giving up his catamite ways in order to gain access to a book he wanted (falsehood was forked. :P).

Sometimes my DM will have me make a knowledge test to be able to make another test for something, like how to brew a potion or make an item or something. If the test is failed, then I also have to find another way to get the information I want other than the knowledge test, like finding another character or take a different approach.

Declaring intent is a great place to start, as usual.

The player who wants to know something can say, specifically, what they intend to know/remember/deduce. Once you’ve determined that something is at stake depending on this knowledge or that failure could be interesting, then you go to a roll. I’m willing to bet that players have acted on knowledge gained from such rolls, so something is likely at stake. It’s all about figuring out how to make the failure interesting.

As mentioned here multiple times, failure could mean that the character believes something that’s untrue, but that’s only situational. Sometimes it can create a perfect misunderstanding, other times it sends the game on a wild goose chase that has to result in discovery of the truth in order to feel like it was worthwhile - which can make the game feel a bit deterministic for some people. Depends.
I like options such as: 1. something else is true and the character knows, it’s simply not what the player wanted to be true, or 2. what the player wanted is true, but with a gnarly catch. If the information desired is sufficiently complex, turn to a linked test. A success along the way gives narrative power to the player, a failure gives it to the GM.

Since the flow of information and narrative power in a game is subject more to taste than most aspects of play, it’s a ripe case for drifting and improvisational rulings. You want to know the bloody history between rival clans? There are six facts that are widely known. For every success, you get to declare a fact. Every remaining fact is in the hands of the GM. You can trade two successes to twist one of the GM’s facts instead. Test difficulty is either 1. one, because it’s an open test, 2. six because of six facts, 3. the number of facts named by the GM because that represents the margin of failure, or 4. a test of whatever difficulty you need.

Another good complication, especially for extremely long lived characters, is that it used to be true, but things have changed in the past century. Really drive home that Elves are not just people with pointy ears… the people they used to drink with are legends now, and the hamlet they saved from orcs - was it 200 years ago? - is now a city.