Drowning and/or holding one's breath

I’m just kicking off my first BWG campaign, and it’s a roughly mid-1500s inspired nautical setting (tropical archipelagos, “new world” exploration, caravels, harquebuses…).

The crux of my question is: How does one handle drowning/holding one’s breath in BWG? I suspect Forte, but I’m so new to the system I’m not sure how to approach it. Can anyone clue me in, or point me towards existing resources? Part of my question relates to a Player wanting to create a character with high proficiency in swimming and skin-diving, and being unsure how to model that via the existing rules.


In Burning Wheel you don’t hold your breath just because. There is always a reason that you would be holding your breath. Find out that reason when you ask the player for their intent.

If holding your breath would be the sufficient for a standard test then test forte. I’d probably use the advice of “my favourite obstacle is 3” from near the back of the book.

It may be that you use a linked test, for example if a player wants to swim under water to get to another part of a partially submerged ship you could request a test speed to swim followed by forte for breath.

Drowning would be a complication for such a test that you’d need to specify beforehand. Is the player risking his life? Can the player’s friends rescue him? They might need to do CPR, let them suggest the skill to use. State the complications. I would consider taxing forte by margins of failure as my complication as the bridge of death does in Thelon’s Rift.

Forte rolls seem to be the go, unless you’re swimming a sprint, then you’d use speed. To model experience and expertise I’d guess you’d use special C-O & Dt traits, so you might have a Seafaring life-paths like…

Off the top of my head.

Pearl Diver 6yr 12res +1P Peasant, Village, Servitude
Skills: 4pt: Pearl-Wise, Diving-Wise, Seamanship, Sea-Wise, Weather-Wise
Traits: 2pt: Deep-Lungs [C-O], Half-Fish[Dt], Bent[Dt]

Deep-Lungs - a C-O for Forte rolls when holding breath.
Half-Fish - +2D to all swimming actions.
Bent - +1Ob for all rolls in deep water.

What Guy says. You need to frame it as an intent, then decide what the task will be.

Some off the cuff examples:

Player: I want to hide under the water until the guard passes.
GM: OK, it’s versus test between your Forte and the guard’s Perception. If you lose, the guard will discover you as you come up for air.

GM: Your boat is thrown against the rocks, and you’ll have to swim to shore. Test Forte against Ob X to make it safely to shore. If you fail, you’ll drown.

GM: NPC Bob is swept overboard in the storm.
Player: I want to jump in and bring him back to the boat.
GM: OK, Test Speed against Ob X. If you fail, Bob drowns/is bashed against the rocks/is swept out to sea before you can get him.

If it’s going to be really important to the game, either come up with some traits if you have the MonBu, or maybe a “Skin Diving” skill that can be used for these purposes. Root it in Speed/Forte.