Grinding gears - linked tests and Circles whiffs

My group had a whole bunch of problems mastering the mechanics – in fact, we didn’t and gave up – but the underlying problem was a sense that when we rolled dice, there was a lot of counting on fingers and clattering on the table that, often as not, didn’t add up to much. I’m trying to figure out what we were doing wrong.

  1. Linked Test Troubles

One big specific example was linked tests. We all liked the idea of gaming these tests to give yourself advantages in the future – I was a bit giddy over it – but in practice +1D just didn’t mean a lot, since with ForKs and Help we were consistently rolling 6-10 dice on anything we really cared about. Plus there was the nasty downside of +1 Ob if you screwed up, which made people cautious.

I was tempted to make it possible for a really successful roll to give more than +1D to the linked test, but instead I stuck strictly to the rules (as interpreted on the forum). I did make people say what Obstacle their initial test had beaten, and restricting them to linking the +1D only to a subsequent test with an equal or lower Obstacle – which I understand is the rule – but that didn’t in practice create much differentiation among degrees of success in Linked Tests, either.

  1. Circle = Zero?

Similarly, Circles tests were an idea we were all excited about – “Room Service, please send up two minor characters with exponent 4 skills and a bad attitude about the Church!” – but we couldn’t extract the coolness in practice.

One big thing: I never actually invoked the Emnity Clause, in part because we never cared enough about the minor character we’d just invented (but not yet named or roleplayed) to enjoy fighting with him, but mainly because we did a bunch of tests where finding an enemy wasn’t a failure, e.g. our biggest Circles test was finding a rival to frame for something.

The bigger problem wasn’t unexciting failed Circles tests, though: It was unexciting successful Circles tests. Because the Obstacle penalties for getting a really skilled or powerful character are pretty high, at least compared to the Circles scores of our characters, the guys we successfully Circles’d up didn’t actually do very much for us, mechanically – maybe a +1D for Help, maybe a +1D circumstantial advantage.

As with linked tests, Circles seemed a lot of input for not much output, even for our characters with high Circles scores. By stark contrast, our characters with high Resources scores could buy equipment giving a +2D bonus pretty reliably. If we’d been more interested in tech, or more creative about describing social advantages as technology (Cleavage, +2D to Seduction, Resources Obstacle 5), that’d have been fun, but as Circles and Linked tests appealed to us more on a gut level, it just felt weird.

For one, I can certainly see your point about Linked tests. The gamble is this - sure, during the manuever rolls we’re rolling 6-10 dice. But what happens when my 7 exp characters are rolling 10s consistantly then the PCs are really falling behind the curve. And you get to do it in an otherwise less stressful situation.

Lot’s of folk (not neccessarily you) complain about how the PCs have no weight influencing the manuever rolls directly through play. I think this is where that comes out the most (that and offing FoNs).

I am not looking at a book right now. Can I have more than one linked die? If so, doesn’t that mean that a party of 5 can add +4 linked dice? That goes a long way in shaving dispo from your opponent.

Yes, you can have multiple linked dice:
“…a series of linked tests can be used for a whole journey–Space Lane-wise, Navigation, Physics, and Helm, for example–which can be resolved within just a few minutes of play.”
p. 300

However, I don’t think you can add linked dice to the maneuver roll (in order to shave disposition). To help in a maneuver roll, the helping PC must have given the rolling PC a helping die, a linked die, or a connection in a scene during the maneuver and the helping PC must have one of the skills or -wises listed for the phase.


[QUOTE=Sydney Freedberg;38159]

  1. Linked Test Troubles

One big specific example was linked tests. We all liked the idea of gaming these tests to give yourself advantages in the future – I was a bit giddy over it – but in practice +1D just didn’t mean a lot, since with ForKs and Help we were consistently rolling 6-10 dice on anything we really cared about. [QUOTE]

Sydney, even in its aftermath your game and your experiences are going to be useful for the rest of us–thanks for starting this thread. I think one way to highlight the possibilities of linked tests is to identify for the players the obstacle for a long-term goal well in advance, and make the obstacle high enough that the PCs will only be able to achieve it with linked tests. I haven’t done this yet, so I’m speculating, but such a situation will naturally lead to a series of building scenes which the players purposefully design to contribute to the long-term game. The key is that the players know the obstacle of the final test, so they understand the need for more help than just ‘help’.

Good points. We did in fact stack multiple linked tests to give multi-die bonuses to later rolls – never the maneuver roll, as per the rules – and in fact a typical Building scene was linked test, linked test, Circles test with +2D bonus.

This seems counter-intuitive, and I don’t see it in the rules–although I may just be overlooking it. I see linked tests as the building blocks for a much harder goal. If anything, the final test should have the highest obstacle–that’s why the PCs need to link tests to achieve success. I have not been setting requirements on the obstacles for the linked tests. Granted, a PC might want to test a skill he is good at to gain a linked die for a skill he’s not so good at–meaning even a lower obstacle in the subsequent test is ‘more difficult’, but I prefer linked tests to simulate building up to doing something hard.

I hear you saying no one saw a mechanical advantage to doing Linked. I wonder if that was a reflection of where you guys were with the rules and where you were in the story?

I’d think as the game goes on your characters might get more ambitious as they see what they can do with their rolls.

Also, some of the long-term stuff they would have to use Linked tests for might not have come up early in the campaign…i.e. building factories to pump out your newly designed Valyen proof (as if there was such a thing) Iron equipped death ray machines…whatever.

Just thinking that there are certain actions that are going to require you to link some tests together, not because it’s mechanically advantageous, but because of the nature of the action.

Regarding Circles: Your group had a problem with the help it generated (in terms of dice). What about the help it generated in terms of moving the story forward?

I Circles up your beloved daughter and hull her.

I Circles up the commander of the starport and kidnap him. Now we have the access codes to your ship, be-ach!

We saw the advantage to Links, it was just the +1D for the second roll felt like a letdown after we would blow away the initial roll with some massive run of successes.

And yeah, our must fun Circles test was one where the effects were pure story, not mechanical advantage, where the players found a good patsy for their frame-up job that was the manuever’s major conflict. But even there, I felt like there should be some mechanical impact (besides "Okay, now you can go away with your frame-up), but couldn’t figure out how to implement it.

If bonus dice from linked tests weren’t enticing enough, it’s likely that the obstacles to the actual tests weren’t high enough. If players aren’t scrambling to muster dice, then you’re not making the game difficult enough.

As for Circles, it’s certainly not about just getting bonus helping dice. If you’re not using Circles tests to find allies in your enemy’s camp, patsies, cutouts, and spies you’re missing out. Also, neglecting the Enmity Clause (especially for the GM’s tests) is just a crime.

Neglecting Circles is also a flag that indicates the players feel like they have everything they need in their immediate grasp. That’s a symptom of the world you’ve built.


The player-characters had Circles scores of 2, 2, 3, and 4 respectively. But even the 4 – our Psychologist-Courtesan, with 3D of Reputation and Affiliation she could apply to almost every roll – found the Obstacles really high.

As for difficulties in general, I started out using your handy guideline and doing Ob 3 when in doubt, but players soon learned to slam 6-10 dice together from Help, FoRKs, and secondarily (a distant second) Links. Then I escalated difficulties to 4s and 5s, but I could never calibrate it quite right.

If players aren’t scrambling to muster dice, then you’re not making the game difficult enough.

Oh, they were certainly scrambling to muster dice; it was just that linked tests seemed a lot of effort for maybe +1D – especially when any roll where it was hard enough to make you really want the extra die, the chance of failing was significant and presented you with an ugly +1 Ob, which is mathematically equal to taking two dice away.

A nice Ob 3-4 test to link into a juicy Ob 5-6 test? I dunno.

Circles obstacles are incredibly flexible. It’s quite easy to modify your conditions to hit Obs from 1 to 10. And the players are largely in control of this process. They can say what they want and what they’re willing to risk.


But didn’t you rule somewhere that the Ob for the test-to-link should be the same as the test-linked-to?

Well, according to the text in Burning Empires, the obstacle for a linked test is your discretion (as GM). My personal preference is to tie two obstacles together. But I’m pretty sure the rules text does not state this.

Personally, I don’t “get” just rolling something to get the +1D. That’s now how I’m using linked tests in our game. Rather, we treat each roll as completely self-enclosed: If I’m Observing the town I’m about to invade I want something out of that Observe roll besides the +1D, for example. The +1D is nice and all, but the point is the Observe roll, not the bonus. Why am I Observing? What stakes do I set for success/failure of that roll?

I make sure I don’t have players just rolling to roll. It’s counter to the whole point of conflict-based resolution, IMO.


Oh, and failed Circles rolls should really always end up being an Enmity Clause. Write down the NPC in your little black book, even if he doesn’t have a name. Use him in the future against the players. He’s an asset for the other side now!


Paul B is wise! Failed circles rolls and linked tests should push the story forward. It’s not just about getting dice or people to do stuff for you.

In our recent game:

Dro spent all his artha to prevent Luke from pushing the sexy Vaylen scientist on him as the result of a failed circles test (because he wanted an ally against her in future scenes).

Luke failed a circles test and ended up recruiting my 2iC Anvil Captain as his Forged Lord’s right hand (he later, through his building scenes, bought off the enmity clause by making the Anvil Captain an Anvil Lord).

Thor helped us in the manuever by hacking the Vaylen scientist’s computer database (after making a sexy time with her as the result of a DoW) - this was a linked test to help me with a journalism roll. And yes, he basically set himself up to be hulled in order to pull off this linked test.

In BE, the linked tests are very important not just to gain +1D, but to allow players to help each other even though their characters aren’t sharing scenes together.

One thing I realized I was never clear on was how long a character brought into the game by Circles stayed in the game. The rules make it clear that if you like a character you Circle up, you give him or her a name and get +1D to future Circles rolls on that character, until you have rolled often enough that he/she becomes a Relationship. That implies that a character you Circle up goes away at some point and has to be “summoned” again.

Which in turn implies the very cool examples people have given aren’t rules-legal. How is Luke “recruiting my 2iC Anvil Captain as his Forged Lord’s right hand” as the result of one failed Circles roll invoking the Emnity clause – wouldn’t it take a whole bunch of rolls to make the character your “right hand” (i.e. a relationship)? Someone else suggested trying to Circle up someone to guard your house (who, on invoking Emnity, would actually be a Vaylen sleeper) – again, how would you get a character to perform a long-term function based on one Circles roll?

Part of it is “saying yes” instead of forcing someone to make a roll.

That doesn’t mean making them a relationship, but allowing them to participate in a scene in a way that forwards a story or the agenda of the players or GM.

Luke didn’t have the Anvil Captain as a relationship, in fact in one scene he said “I’m going to send the Captain to hunt down Bob’s Kernn” and I said “Actually, he’s not available right now.” In a later sequence, however, he had the Forged Lord raiding one of Dro’s domes, asked if the Captain was there, and I said “cool.” We were both using the results of emnity clause to our own advantage (In my case, I got to participate in a DoW and fulfill one of the Captain’s beliefs. Luke got help from the Anvil Captain, but faced the possibility that he would get his face blasted off if he escalated to violence vs. Dro).

To make the character a permanent relationship, and thus a reliable source of HELP (rather than potential hindrance), then you’d have to go through the full range of circles tests to earn the aptitude.

You’re not clear on it because the rules themselves don’t address this question. Our group’s answer is, “They stick around as long as they’re needed.” If you hire a guy to be your bodyguard (and do the Resources test to pay him), he’s your bodyguard indefinitely or until you release him. If you hire a master counterfeiter, he’s around 'til he’s done producing the forged document(s), then he’s on his way and you’ll have to re-Circle him up later (+1D if you named him).

So, yeah, it’s arbitrary and everyone has to kind of feel when it’s right for a Circle to disappear and when it’s okay for them to stick around. Personally, I’d probably require some level of loyalty be folded into the Ob if you’re deliberately Circling up a long-term character.


I think that loose definition of who’s available and who’s not applies to how we deal with all our FoNs as well. We talk about what we’re trying to get done, talk about who could help whom…and just let them get into the scene.

Unless it’s really breaking narrative (three guys are in the valley in the middle of a firefight…you said you were in the city hulling people…how the hell you’d get here?) we stay pretty loose with who’s where when how.