Describe, then roll... or the other way around?

Is it appropriate/correct in a Conflict to roleplay, or even give a detailed description of what your character or team is doing before the dice are even rolled, or should you only give enough information to describe your basic intent prior to a test, followed up after the roll with detailed narrative that matches the results?

p. 105 says, “Roleplay, describe how your characters are undertaking the action, then roll the dice.”, which seems to indicate that dice are rolled after describing your actions, which seems a little counter-intuitive to me since whatever it was that you just described could be completely wiped out by a simple dice roll. Maybe it’s a personal preference, but I think that putting too much detail before the die roll would lead to lots and lots of “Well, it didn’t quite happen like what you just described”, as opposed to “Given that test result, describe what just happened, bearing in mind what you were trying to accomplish”.

Perhaps more succinct: Front-loading description and RP before the roll feels like more of a pass/fail thing to me, whereas emphasizing roleplay of the results of each test feels more like the style/feel/vibe of a more open-ended game such as what MG seems to be.

You’re required to state your intent. You’re expected to roleplay or describe your task. You shouldn’t include success or failure at that task, since they’re up to the dice.

  1. Say what you’re doing; intent and task.
  2. Do it; roll the dice.
  3. Say what happened; you get the success, the GM gets the failure.


  1. I try to lock blades and twist the sword out of his hand.
  2. Roll Disarm.
    3a. He’s caught off guard, and his blade spins up out of his grasp, landing point-down, buzzing with vibration in the oak table.
    3b. He’s ready for it, though, and you can’t break his firm grip: sparks fly as your blades grind against each other until they’re hilt-to-hilt.

(Of course, you’d be working in your opponent’s action and success/failure, too… but you get the idea.)


  1. I’m going to brew some autumn ale that is far stronger than the soldiers expect, which will make it easier to subvert them later.
  2. Roll my Brewer linked test for a later advantage die.
    3a. I brew a rich amber ale, full of the smells of late summer, warm and delicious, its flavours masking its unexpected strength. (+1D to a later social test vs. guards I serve the beer to.)
    3b. I brew a rich amber ale, full of the smells of late summer, warm and delicious, strong, but not significantly so. (Success, no advantage.)
    3c. You brew a rich amber ale, that smells like you poured poitin over a hayrick: it may taste OK, but obviously unbalanced and strong as all hell. (Failure, +1Ob to that later social test.)

You have to roleplay the actions you are taking, but the results of those actions are indeterminate until the dice are rolled. So don’t describe the results until after the roll.

Lieam’ player: “I grab its fang and haul myself into its mouth and stab it from the inside!”

GM (as snake): “It swallows you! It’s got you right where it wants a mouse!”

Roll. Lieam wins with a bunch of successes!

Lieam’s player: “The blade of a sword emerges from the snake’s skull with a burst of blood!”

GM (adding to the narration): “Yes. And then it begins writhing horribly before flopping to the ground, terribly still. All is quiet. My compromise is that Lieam is trapped in the snake’s throat. You don’t have the leverage to cut yourself free. Better hope your friends find you!”

You have to describe the actions because that’s how you justify any wises or help applied to the roll. Your friend can’t just give you a die from his Fighter just because. He has to tell you what he does to help you.

Mouse Guard doesn’t use Burning Wheel’s Intent and Task system. There is no intent in MG. However, the player does have to describe what he’s doing. That’s how the GM knows which skill to call for.

Oh, I fail hard at using the forums… listen to Thor, not me, while I tattoo “look at the forum name” on my monitor for when I’m reading “New Posts.”

So, the trick here is trying to get my players to state what they’re doing (or, attempting to do – effectively their intent), without stating its outcome until after the dice are rolled. I’ll possibly have to borrow from BW for that (Where there’s a whip… ).

Thor, in your example, Lieam succeeds. However, if he failed his roll, how many of the three things that he posed as one action (grabbing the fang, pulling himself into the snake’s mouth, and stabbing it) would actually happen? I’d assume either none or just the first two, since the stab at the end is the only part that is actually tied to his roll.

Please note: I’m not trying to be negative or argumentative; I really enjoy MG, especially compared to some of the tabletop minis games out there being presented as RPGs. I’m just trying to understand this aspect of the game better.

Mouse Guard is the only Burning Game I play (or have read), but I definitely think it is important for players to give as much and as vivid a description as they can before dice are rolled.

“I leap up and over the table, sword lunging for his throat!”

“I scramble through the autum woods gathering a rich lod of nature’s bounty to feed the patrol.”

Dice are rolled:

The speed of your attack and it’s unexpected angle see your blade hit home. (Success)

You return to your companions with a few withered berries, some nuts, and a mushroom which you realize is poisonous and not the delicacy you had hoped. It will sustain your patrol, but barely. (Either slim margin of success or a compromise)

This is more fun than “Roll ‘Forager’ to find food” Roll. “Ok, you find food enough.”

I like Iskander’s examples. The intent is not required, but knowing what it is helps to boost narrating success or failure.

In Thor’s example, I would say that how many of Lieam’s actions succeed would depend on how badly he lost the conflict. The snake might want Lieam to succeed at grabbing the fang and swinging into its mouth as this facilitates swallowing the mouse…

Lieam’s conflict outcome will likely only determine the effectiveness of the sword stroke, especially if his goal is to kill the snake vs the snake trying to eat him. This is where conflict goals become important.

Maybe I’m letting my players take a little too much of the GM leash, since I’m allowing them to describe both their action and its results following a successful roll. If they use helper dice, -wises, etc., those are required to be explained after the roll as well, or we take away dice. This approach makes me feel more like I’m collaborating with the players, and not just reading the results of the dice (GM: “The speed of your attack and its unexpected angle see your blade hit home”. Player: Yeah, I know; I had four successes."). It also has gotten the players more involved with the storytelling aspect, since they’re sharing in the authorship of the outcome of their actions, and not just the actions themselves.

The flip side of this coin is that I momentarily take full control over their characters and the narrative following a failed player roll. It’s kind of a fun and freeing approach to the game.

GM: Ok, you find food enough” is exactly what I’m striving to avoid. How I’ve played a few times, with successful outcome, has looked exactly like your example, except my final part is: GM: Ok, you find food enough. Given the skills, -wises and help you just used for that roll, describe in detail how that happened.”

I used to play RuneQuest with GM who had a style of taking our statements of action/intent and the die rolls and then narrating the action and what happened. It took a bit of getting used to. It was at first hearing somebody else playing your character. Mouse Guard in the GM’s turn seems to play very similarly.

No worries man. No offense taken.

This all depends on your descriptive sensibilities as a GM and where the conflict stands.

Did this roll end the conflict? Then consider what your conflict goal was and how the action leads to that. If the snake’s goal was to eat Lieam…

If the conflict isn’t over, then you describe what happens as a result of the actions described by both the player and the GM. I’d probably end that action with Lieam inside the snake’s mouth and holding its jaws apart but unable to plant his sword. The snake’s powerful hinged jaws dislocate and its throat muscles begin rhythmically constricting, slowly drawing Lieam into the snake’s belly. He’s in a bad place and better think of something quickly!

But you could just as easily describe the snake feeling the sharp tip of Lieam’s sword and spitting him out, landing hard in a jumble on the ground.

My advice is that you don’t invalidate the descriptions you or the players shared before the roll. Incorporate them and weave them into the action. Try to think in terms of the panels of a Mouse Guard comic. Helping you and the players visualize the action in your imaginations is really important. It helps make conflicts feel vital, as opposed to a sort of elaborate and mechanical roshambo.

Also, it’s perfectly fine for the players to interpret and describe the results of their successful rolls if they prefer. It doesn’t always have to be the GM.

This is great advice from everyone involved. Thanks, all!

Dave: 100% agreement on the importance of description.

slash: Glad to help!

MG is explicit about roleplay/performance.

Page 87: Describe your action.
Page 90: Passed Tests/Roleplay.
Page 91: Failed Tests

This is something that has worked well with my groups.