Help me describe difficulty

I have a player who wants me to give an indication of how difficult things are through their description. I am not very good at this.

I think it should go like this:

“How hard would it be to climb the side of the ship?”
“The ship’s side is sheer, it’s slippery but its poor construction has left crude handholds.”
“And how would I feel about that with a skill of B2?”
“You might feel out of practice. Are you going to climb the ship?”

But for me it seems to go like this:
“How hard would it be to climb the side of the ship?”
“It looks pretty difficult. Lets look at the factors. Probably about the same as climbing a rock wall.”
“And how hard is that?”
“It’s pretty diffcult. An act you could do if you concentrate.”
“And how would I feel about that with a skill of B2?”
“It’s up to you to decide how your character would feel… Are you going to climb the ship?”
“How hard would it be?”

And then we both get frustrated.

Should I be aiming to be the first case? How do I get there?

Why don’t you tell him the Ob?

Because you declare the Ob when the player commits to the test.

Or is that just a Torchbearer thing?

A few thoughts.

How lenient are you about letting players know the obstacle before committing to an action. By its harshest interpretation, once an action is announced, it must be followed through-- no exceptions. Careful queries of increasing frustration may be a symptom of trying to get around this rule.

I do not think there is a right answer. Player skill and rules confidence play a great part of a good session. Nurturing those aspects are just as important, if not more so, than the rules. Striking a balance between rulebook harshness and casual practicality is necessary for all tables.

Alternative if you feel a need a consistent set of adjectives and adverbs turn to BWG, pg15, for a list of difficulty levels.

Storytelling techniques vary endlessly. I am myself a rather wordy person, fond of giving detailed scenic descriptions. It is my preference to demand that every scene be set, described, before being acted out. Having read some of your other posts, I definitely don’t believe there is anything wrong with your imagination :). Are there other concerns occupying your mind as you run the game? Something which prevents imagination from flowing freely?

As a technique, try allowing players to set their own scenes. This will let you act as an objective observer (for purpose of obstacles) and free up mental space to supply your own details and challenges.

Are you roadblocking? It is important to ask oneself if the real reason you are reluctant to describe in detail, or simply supply the obstacle, is because you do not wish the players to go down certain paths.

Examine your own motivations. If such is the case, then consider Vincent’s Admonition (Pg 72 BWG) and simply ask yourself ‘what does it matter?’ Run with it! Letting go can be both a challenging and exhilarating experience.

You are not alone. I have had to struggle with these very same problems. Enumerating the issues for analysis is the first step of resolving them.


Characters will always have more information than players. There are some actions you can’t reasonable know the Ob for before you roll. Convincing a guard, say. Maybe navigating. But climbing a wall? Unless there’s some secret making it really difficult, the PC can see how wet it is, how bumpy it is, knows how he feels about climbing, maybe give it a test grip. I’m all for being revealing with Obs before rolls.

The fun of BW isn’t, to me, in getting surprised by the Ob. If something is really hard and really interesting or important, players will do it anyway and spend artha. If it’s not that critical, they’ll try to find another way around with a lower Ob or using a more favorable skill. Both aspects are good parts of BW.

I think the issue with that request is that your descriptions are going to be fairly open to interpretation. More importantly, unless you have experience with that, describing or relating to how hard a task is is not going to be very useful. Is there a reason why the player can’t just accept the Ob and the consequences of failure? It seems like that’s the best indicator of difficulty. If the players know that it’s an Ob 3 Climbing test, they only have two dice, and if they fail they will plunge into the water, alerting whoever is on the boat to their presence, they would be able to know very quickly how they feel, both as a player and as a character.

Always share the Ob with the player before committing to the test. Always. BW revels in the choice the players makes as they decide if it’s worth the risk. BW doesn’t like surprises.

So in our games, it would go:

“How hard would it be to climb the side of the ship?”
“The ship’s side is sheer, it’s slippery but its poor construction has left crude handholds. Let’s say Ob 3. If you fail, you fall into the water, make a large splash, and alert the crew to your presence.”
“Hrm… I could use my artha and have a chance. OK, I’ll try! What’s the worst that can happen?”

In my experience, if there’s a major difference between the GM’s understanding of how difficult something should be and the player’s idea of difficulty that’s a problem. It usually results either from the GM not clearly setting the situation (“what do you mean the rocks are slippery, what do you mean it’s raining?” or the player and the GM not having the same understanding of the activity.

Sharing the OB (and for that matter the OB calculations) early catches either problem, and lets the parties get to a satisfactory conclusion.

Yeah, add me to the chorus of “explain what’s going down”. BW is about informed choices. It’s not about trying to sucker players into making impossible tests. And if they say they’re going to do something really difficult, you can give them the Ob and ask “are you sure?”…but if it’s not gonna be that hard, just give them the Ob and have them roll.

There’s a lot of nuance and making on-the-spot calls. But the core principle remains: it’s about giving players choices and dilemmas.

I’d give them the Ob and what failure means to them.

Whether or not you tell them the ob, the original question was about coming up with better descriptions, so here’s my advice for that:

“How hard would it be to climb the side of the ship?”
“It looks pretty difficult…”

But why does it look pretty difficult? You must have some reason for thinking that, right? Presumably, you’re imagining the ship, and you see it as having some qualities that make it difficult: The sheerness, the slipperiness, and so on.
So the description’s already there in your head, yeah? You have the scene, and you have some particular aspects of the scene that inform your judgement. Now, just tell the player about those aspects.
In short, they’re looking for information to base their judgement on - so, give them the information you based your own judgement on.

Or is the issue less about what to say and more about how to say it so it sounds good? If that’s what you’re asking about, then my best advice is to just not sweat it too much. Nothing wrong with a plain, matter-of-fact description. It’s the details that are important, not the language used to convey them.

In Burning Wheel, it should go like this:

“How hard would it be to climb the side of the ship?”
“The ship’s side is sheer, it’s slippery but its poor construction has left crude handholds. Ob2 plus an advantage die.”
“Can I get help?”
“You’re alone.”
“Um, can I FoRK in Complaining-wise? I’ll complain about the poor construction as I ascend.”
“Doesn’t seem appropriate. Are you going to make the climb?”
“Is there a shorter ship nearby?”
“While you’re dawdling, an orc pisses over the gunwhales. He hits you. Roll your Stealthy to avoid being detected.”

I tend to give Obs in advance but hold failure consequences until the player has committed to the roll. I’m a softie, though, so if they really flip out at the failure I might let them back out or at least rethink the consequence. But you go in knowing how hard the task is but not exactly how it can go wrong. Ob 2 climbing might mean if you fail you fall and bruise yourself and lose some time. Or it could mean you drop your sword into the ocean on the way up and become an unarmed boarder.

This is the best. Right here. I cannot argue with this. :smiley:

I think in systems with granular, GM-determined difficulty, there will always be a degree of “how much challenge is interesting?” That doesn’t make it fully arbitrary, but it means that in one game, a task could be Ob 3, while in another, it’s Ob 4. The difference between 3 and 4 could very well be how interesting the GM thinks failure would be, so they’re inclined towards making the challenge more or less difficult, even by unconsciously arranging the fictional positioning in a way that plausibly justifies the difficulty.

Again, that doesn’t mean you don’t give context for a particular Ob, but keep in mind that Ob is relative to the setting and type of story you want to tell. The BWG rules for Composition, for example, give Ob 3 for an editorial and Ob 4 for a book. That’s quite a jump in reward-for-risk from an Ob 2 for an essay. Maybe that’s just a quirk in the writing, but, to me, that says that in the BWHQ world, there’s a finer grain in difficulty for writing impacting short-form work for something like propaganda because it’s more interesting. Cutting the difficulty off at 4 for a book is a way to circumvent very high obstacles that could shove book-writing into the spotlight by making you arrange the world around helping you to write a book and then expecting a huge payoff due to that effort. The message, to me, is that the importance of new books in the setting is just so, and the expected level of interest in new books in the story we’re telling is also just so.
As a result, I don’t think it violates the rules for you to decide that writing a book is easier or much harder, completely irrespective of advantage dice. Because a significant part of that decision revolves around your own world and story. The challenge is making your choices consistent OR having a group of players who are on the same page about all of this - as opposed to players who are interested in arguing over an Ob.

As much as I enjoy BW, I also see the potential advantage in games that don’t put roll difficulties in the GM’s hands. Apocalypse World and its derivatives, or, say, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. If somebody has issues with such ongoing difficulty discussions at their tables or problems for the GM in assigning and describing difficulty, I’m almost always curious what happens when they play a game with more fixed dice mechanics.

I take all the subjected Obs to be just that, suggestions. BW isn’t an inherently gritty or tough game, as I say a lot. Want to play pulpy swashbuckling BW? Make crazy athletics stunts Ob 1 or Ob 2. Want to play high fantasy heroes who slaughter Orcs by the hoard? Make defeating a dozen Orcs Ob 2 and make failure still include beating them. You do it too slowly, or take a wound, or look silly when one Orc gets a lucky sucker-punch in, but you still kill them all.

What’s Ob 5 for street rats can be Ob 1 in a game of great lords and heroes. Not because you should discount the Ob for characters who are good at things, that’s the role of having higher exponents, but because Obs are genre and tone and flavor and different games have different Ob expectations.

Cheers guys. I’ll try to get the the descriptions and the mechanics pulling in the same direction.