Let's Talk About Obstacles

Moving a side-discussion over from this thread, so as not to derail the conversation there any further.

I’m interested in discussing how GMs can set meaningful Obstacles for their players. I know there are some decent guidelines in the BWG book, and the Adventurer Burner (which I have) has a lot of meaningful exposition on the matter and others related, and it’s undoubtedly been discussed on this forum before. Yet, no matter how much I read, no matter what the game system or how well the rules are presented, I still find it can often be quite difficult to set a really meaningful Obstacle / DC / whatever-you-wanna-call-it, especially when you have to make the call in the heat of the moment at the game table. Sometimes, the best way to learn something really well is to have active discussions on the topic.

So, let’s talk about Obs! I’m sure I’m not the only Burning noob who’d like to think deeper on the subject, and I hope there are some Burning veterans who would be willing to share their expertise.

First off, I’d like to respond to a quote from that other thread.

I see what you mean. I have handed out a few Ob 1’s and 2’s so far. Problem is, low-Ob tests seem to have uninteresting consequences of failure more often than the higher Ob tests. After all, the severity of the consequence has to be evenly-matched to the difficulty of the Obstacle, does it not? Or am I mistaken there?

Also, a problem in my case is that we are playing online, PbP. It’s a solo campaign, and I’m really trying to keep the ball rolling at a steady pace. We’ve burned through many of the scenes in just a few days each. One of the ways we’ve managed that is to only roll when something’s at stake, and to keep the stakes as high as possible. We’re really painting the picture, so to speak, with broad strokes. Which means, again, low Ob stuff is getting ignored…

Anybody have any suggestions on how to keep low Ob tests in a PbP game without sacrificing precious time?

Also, do you really think it will be game-breaking to have fewer low-Ob tests than usual? (Yeah, I know advancement slows down, but if it slows down for everybody evenly, hey…)

After all, the severity of the consequence has to be evenly-matched to the difficulty of the Obstacle, does it not? Or am I mistaken there?
Not necessarily. Sometimes, an Ob 1 or 2 test can have much farther-reaching consequences than you really want. And sometimes, failing a high-Ob test really doesn’t wind up being that bad. It really depends on the situation.

For example, if you have heavy mail, and someone wielding a sword gets a superior hit on you, you have to make an armor test. If there’s no VA, that’s an Ob 1 armor test, and you’re rolling 4 or 5 dice. Consequences of failure? Mortal wound.

That’s an example of an Ob 1 test with massive consequences of failure.

Now let’s say you need to find a surgeon RIGHT THE HELL NOW to save your dying friend. Well, that’s an Ob 7 circles test (+3 Ob for RIGHT NOW, +3 Ob for incredibly specialized knowledge). Consequences of failure? Enmity clause? You don’t find him? In this case, nothing really changes. And even if I throw enmity at you, what do you get? A surgeon who doesn’t like you? Doesn’t matter that the test is Ob 7 - the consequences of failure are the same if you fail an Ob 1 or 2 Circles test.

The combination of a high Ob and high-stakes consequences should be reserved for the “This is a Big F’ing Deal” sorts of situations, IMO. The sort of stuff where you blow tons of artha, dig for call-ons, root around for advantage dice, etc. If every single high-Ob roll is like that, your game will burn out due to the difficulty.

Also, one thing to remember is to get creative with your consequences of failure. Sometimes the direct “fail this and you get hurt” works fine, but there are ways to make things hurt that aren’t as direct. Failing an Ob 1 or 2 Etiquette test might make your Born Noble character the laughingstock of the court - who could screw up something so simple? Or maybe the king takes exception to such a slight.

So really, you have to think about what “hurts” in the context of a given character’s BIT’s.

One way to avoid time-consuming tangents but still provide low-Ob tests is to confront the players with an obstacle. Rather than giving them a situation to chew over and discuss, just hit them up with a test. Failures can result in ‘adventuring friction’. +1 Ob to the next test (or next physical or social test only), a lost or damaged piece of equipment, or some sort of narrative color consequence. ('You arrive soaking wet.") These can eventually result in a reputation or trait (e.g. Bedraggled).

Players and GMs are constantly negotiating, often non-verbally, the issue of how much time to spend on something. You can keep the pace brisk by narrating large swaths of time. “Your poor choice of path causes the lead mule to slip into a muddy ravine, dragging his burden with him. A wasted afternoon later, you arrive in Greyhawk, filthy and smelling of river water.”

(Note: I haven’t gotten a chance to pick up up BWG yet, so, operating from BWR understanding)

Ok, so for general obstacles?

  1. I guess at what skill exponent is this thing supposed to be a challenge. (“Oh, it’s a challenge for a professional, skill 4”)
  2. Divide by 2, then add 1. (“4/2 = 2. +1 = 3. Obstacle 3.”)

Why a little higher than average? Players should be using FORKs, Helping Dice, working Carefully, etc. to get extra dice.

I start with looking at what KIND of person should be able to handle the obstacle I’m putting forward. Which, for me, makes it really easy to set obstacles. (“Oh, yeah, you could get the goddamn waterboy to do that. Obstacle 1. That over there? Fuck, go find the Dwarven Artificer Sage. Obstacle 7.”)

With this in mind, low obstacles present themselves pretty easily. If for some reason you don’t want to even roll for it, think about how long the task would take and have the player mark it as practice. (“You spend an hour taking care of your horse. It’s an hour of Animal Husbandry practice. We’ll assume you do this every day on the trip, and we’ll total it at the end.”)


p. 15, BWG, “Absolute Difficulty” is useful; I refer to the table a fair bit.

If players are doing dirty Ob1 testmongering, “Say yes” works for me.

Some good advice above. I think it’s worth not getting too hung up on setting Ob. You will learn what’s right. In the meantime, your players have tools to let you know., If you consistently set Ob too low, they will ask for obstacle penalties, or just outright let you know. If you consistently set On too high, you will notice a lot of frustration from too many failures, or you will notice the players lobbying for advantage and forks. Also remember, as long as you set juicy failure consequences, the players shouldn’t fear failure.

If the test really is Ob 1, and you’ve got a juicy failure consequence, let the players roll. I’ve personally seen I think it was 9 dice come up with no successes. The result was juicy (though I think it was Ob 3, but still, the idea holds).


Had a player spend a Deeds point to double their dice on a Power test. 14 dice. 0 successes.

He almost cried.

A lot of skills have obstacles that are pretty straightforward. It’s usually -wises where I find the most fudginess in obstacle setting.

Really? I feel like the listed Wises obstacles are really solid. I rarely have any difficulty using it to gauge the obstacle of a Wises test.

Thanks for all the quick responses everybody! Looking forward to discussing this in detail. I’m kinda braindead tonight though, so will take some time to think and respond after the weekend.

I also have difficulty setting Wise Obs. I keep wanting to treat it like setting the difficulty for a Declaration in Spirit of the Century: the more boring the Declaration is, the higher the difficulty, and the more interesting, the lower the difficulty. But of course, Burning Wheel doesn’t work like that!

There is little reason you can’t simply house rule Wises Declarations that way.
Now, if you want a more FATE-like approach, you could also allow a fiat declaration with a persona point.

Hmmmm… So then, applying SotC declaration rules, we might end up with something like this:
[ul][li]Start with a base Ob of 4.
[/li][li]Is the declaration interesting (or funny)? If yes, -1 Ob. If no, +1 Ob.
[/li][li]Will the declaration have interesting consequences if it’s acted upon but is wrong? If yes, -1 Ob. If no, +1 Ob.
[/li][li]Does the declaration propose a specific and interesting or heroic course of action? If yes, -1 Ob. If no, +1 Ob.[/ul]
[/li]Think that could work? Might be fun. Still, maybe better to just stick with the standard BW rules for setting Ob’s.

That’s something I’d be likely to allow anyways, no matter what the system. I have no problem with handing over a little narrative control to the players if they’re willing to pay for it.

Shouldn’t that be “Will the declaration have interesting consequences if it’s acted upon but is wrong? If yes, +1 Ob. If no, -1 Ob.”

Well, I just copied those three questions straight from the SotC srd (for lack of time). However, why make the Ob harder just because the consequences of failure are more interesting? This question might need to be nixed, or altered somehow.

Well, is it so boring no one cares? If so, Say Yes and move on.

Think of each -wise test as a chance for you, the GM, to lovingly drop ideas and history and backstory of your setting. Even failures are a good chance to do so- because you can talk about something related and leave the actual question unanswered.

“No one really knows if magic works against Angels. The Book of Solomon which was supposed to control both angels and demons was lost when the dragon attacked and destroyed the Palace. At least 5 temples claim to have it, but honestly, if they did, would they really be under the Imperial thumb like everyone else? I guess that doesn’t really help you right now, with Azazel hovering before you, but that’s what you remember in the moment.”

The other fun thing is that when it comes to time critical -wise rolls, you can have failures include remembering the fact AFTER it’s too late and the thing is about to spring on you. (“Shit! Devil wine ATTRACTS tigers, not repels them! RUN!”)


Players have a lot of narrative control in Burning Wheel as it is. They don’t have to pay for it. Here is the rule:

Roll dice, or say “yes”.

I think you, the GM, need failures to introduce your narrative in the game.

Wow. I like this. A lot. It never amazes me how this one simple rule can be revisited so many times, and I always seem to glean something new from it…

I think a big problem for me, as a new GM to Burning Wheel, is that I’ve run so many FATE games in the past. FATE really changed the way I think about running a role-playing game, for better or for worse. (I would argue for worse, actually. I made the cross-over to Burning Wheel because I just got sick and tired of FATE’s limitations and non-stop in-game meta-analysis {invokes and compels}.) But I’m finding that taking on Burning Wheel with a FATE mindset doesn’t work as intended. I’m enjoying the transition a whole lot, but it’s a learning experience for sure.

So, going back to Obs then, could we say that high Obs are how the GM tries to bring his narrative into the game? Or are the Obs just what they are – obstacles.

GM has high Obstacles and players have Artha to push their own agendas. But don’t abuse it. I think high Obstacles are for that moments when a player wants something BIG for just one roll. “Do you want to kill the cultist leader with just one shot? Well, maybe, but will not be easy.”

I just treat Obstacles as obstacles. I don’t like to shift up and down, because then players see it as a “GM nudge” to force story, instead of a statement on the difficulty of the task. It also means players can start becoming more creative with their options as actions that were once hard become routine (“It’ll be easy, I’ll just forge an Imperial document, we’ll make it one of the Archbishops in the far colonies. It’ll take months to verify and we’ll be long gone before they know…”). If the Obs keep bouncing up and down, no one can predict what options are more or less likely to pan out.

Failures are a great chance to add problems. Successes, sometimes, too - especially Wises or other rolls based on information gathering. (“Well, your Assassin-wise, lets you know the Queen was stabbed by someone holding a dagger in the left hand. Which means the Duke, with his three fingers left on that hand, couldn’t have done it personally… the only other person to meet with her was the prince…”)

Remember, you have all the NPCs to introduce conflicts with. You never have to make a Circles test to have an NPC find a PC (unless, of course, the players were trying to stay hidden). You can make things happen like have a landslide take out a critical supply train the troops have been waiting for, or have the King fall ill at the worst possible time. (Also make good things happen too, but mostly whatever makes things most interesting.)


High obs are a de facto method of the GM pushing the game according to his or her vision. Sure, there are cases where Obs are cut-and-dry, but there are also many situations in which the GM can - and is encouraged - to nudge the difficulty of a test. As the GM, it’s your job to push and challenge the PC’s. That means getting creative about the things that you use to challenge your players, and ultimately that means tying into your Big Thing, whatever that may be.

Remember, the GM is also expected to have a vision for the game, and to push for and introduce elements of that vision for the players. If BW was as straightforward as “look up obs in the book and use what the players have on their sheets,” then the GM wouldn’t even need to be there.

It can be a tricky thing to walk the line between advocating for your vision and railroading - that’s why there’s an art to being a GM.

Could you give a page reference? Because I don’t remember ever seeing anything like this in the book before.