Mundane Skills : how Impactful should they be, and how to avoid one trick ponies?

So the title might not be entirely intuitive but here’s the topo :

Should a relatively mundane skill have enough impact to actually derail a campaign story by creating shortcuts “out of nowhere” ?

Say a group is tracking down several mcguffin’s items, go through their contacts for infos and learn the locations of such items, stated as X Y Z in the world.

Would it be fair to roll an intent such as " I intend to beat our Contact up so he admits he Owns one of those items and gives it to us afterwards " thus basically doing in one roll what could’ve been a multiple scene / sessions “adventure” per say, especially since the contact in question never was meant to have said Item ?

Because the way i see it, if that’s how it goes, why even bother looking for the item if , anyway , you could intimidate a nobody on the street and with enough dicepool he technically would own one of those super rare items anyway ?

On another note, how do you deal with / challenge characters that are basically one trick ponies ?
When a single or two of their skills are way ahead of the rest, to a point where they routinely roll 7 - 8 dices without problems and mostly default to said skill whenever something happens and / or leads to superhuman-like feats of strenght and prowess ?

Say a single fighter character, with a huge skill pool in sword, taking on 4 - 5 armored guards at a time and coming on top without as much as a scratch just because his Pool is too high for what the average mooks stats would be like. Should enemies be more tailored towards that better combattant’s stats ?

Thanks for taking the time to read through those questions

“I intend to beat our Contact up so he admits he Owns one of those items and gives it to us afterwards.”

Well, this is Burning Wheel, so there’s a skill for that. It’s called Torture. But unfortunately for your villainous player “Tell me the precise truth” isn’t a valid intent for the Torture skill. You’ll note the skill explicitly states the victim confesses what the torturer wants to hear.

And if your players are willing to torture their contacts for information, then it is absolutely a valid intent. And if your players leave a trail of broken bodies behind them, that’s what your game is about now.

And to be fair, that’s the situation for any game. No Burning Wheel game is about following precise steps to acquire an item. All BW games are about exploring what you’ll sacrifice to get that item.


Intent doesn’t create facts. If your contact doesn’t have the item, then forcing him to admit that he has the item doesn’t magically make him have it. You’ve just succeeded in forcing him to claim something that isn’t true. See Luke’s point on the Torture skill above.


Technically, one can establish a fact with a Wise; however, even if the player has McGuffin-Wise at a high enough level to make the (justifiably) extreme Ob to add “the mook I am currently with has the Item of Plot”, that doesn’t mean the player is the only person who knows; for it to be a fact and the player to know it, they must have discovered it somehow, so others can.

Therefore: let the player have the McGuffin-Wise roll with a consequence of failure that they don’t see the other group who are also coming to grab the item before the other group get to act, i.e. another group are arriving before the player can take the item, and the only variable is whether they get to surprise the player.

Similarly with the master swordsperson, move the conflict: he’s good enough to defeat 4 guards, but is he good enough to cut a hail of arrows out of the air? The first couple of times he turns up, people won’t be expecting it, but after a while, they’ll know they need more than a few people with shortswords and a gambeson; and if he’s that good, he’ll have a reputation.

So, you challenge players with a single massive skill by making the brilliance a complication.


Don’t the wounds inflicted by torture (or anything else, for that matter) reduce the Ob to then Persuade them to tell you the truth? It’s always sat a little uncomfortably with me, but maybe that’s how good/bad cop works in-setting? Not that it would matter in this case, because the truth is, presumably, that they don’t have it.

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That’s not how torture works, in game or out.

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You are right! My mistake. It is how it worked in revised, but in gold it was changed so that it causes a negative trait instead of a wound that reduces their dice. This is way better and sidesteps the issue (mostly). Forgive the derailment.

One of the subtle tricks of BW is that the scope of intent is critical to setting up the game. Nothing says you can’t roll a single skill to accomplish vast heroics except the DM and the table.

If you want to have a drawn-out adventure lasting a session or a campaign, the player has to break down the intent and task into smaller steps. If it’s not that interesting to focus on, you can zoom out, make something a roll or two, and move on.

“That intent is bad for the game” is legitimate and part of GMing. “Say Yes or Roll” doesn’t mean never say no to anything.


Some Safeguards:

1.) Good faith and on-boarding. Having a session zero and setting expectations and tone is a great idea. Getting everyone on-board for having Beliefs that require more than just killing their enemies can almost solve this problem outright. Sure, you’ll win just about every fight you get into, but that can only go so far toward seducing the duchess and proving your innocence in court, etc. Burning Wheel is meant to be played with friends; remember to get everyone involved and having a good time.

  1. GM Veto and Heckling. The Min-Max heading on page 105 of Gold Revised gives the GM authority to insist a character be reworked to be less min-maxed. It also gives the other players the authority to heckle the min-maxer should they feel the GM remiss in their veto duties. This is a simple, hard and fast rule, but it’s also a nice “soft” guideline. Just putting that header in front of a player is a good way to make it click for them that this just isn’t that kind of game.

  2. Exponent Caps: The default starting Exponent cap is 6. Your one-trick pony does not have a legal character of they have B7 Sword. These can be modified up or down as appropriate, so if they’re insistent on having B6 Sword, B6 Brawling, and nothing else, you might lower the cap to 4 or 5 for Skills.

  3. Dig into FoRKs. “I’ve scripted a counter-strike, and I’m fighting a guard, so, I’ll Test Sword plus 1 for Guard-wise -” “You’re FoRKing in Guard-wise?” “Yeah, I’m fighting a guard.” “Right, sure. What bit of Guard-wisdom are you calling on to help you counter his attack?” “Uhh…” It can be easy to get too stringent on digging into FoRKs and making work for the players trying to employ their abilities… But it’s also a great way to add color and richness to a game, and is probably good practice if the FoRK isn’t obvious or fun. (The same goes for Help. It’s not as applicable with a fight-happy character, but just having a Skill that seems applicable and handing over a die isn’t enough to Help; your character has to do something helpful in the fiction.)

  4. A Diversity of Challenges. Does the One Trick Pony really only have Beliefs that they can resolve with their B6 Hammer? Probably not. Their romantic rival isn’t going to duel them for the right to court the duchess without being convinced (Persuasion Test). The bishop will grant them amnesty… For a fee (Resources). If they try to fight their way into the castle, the baron will torch the incriminating evidence they are after; they’ll have to go in quietly for their prize (Stealthy). This diversity of challenges is pretty essential to Burning Wheel; being a one trick pony is kind of inherently “suboptimal”. If you, as a GM feel like the player isn’t being adequately challenged, put their macguffins in places they can’t cut their way into - or where doing so would be dramatically interesting. But also… You know… They want to be a badass; let them have their fun too.

  5. Maybe It was Never as Easy as It Seemed… Let’s look at a simple Vs. Test Routinely throwing around 7 or 8 Dice, let’s call that B6 + an Advantage Die and a FoRK; you could pump that up to 11 Dice with Persona in a pinch (assuming they’ve been able to accomplish their goals with such a narrow skill set). Ye olde mook has a weapon skill exponent of some where between 3 and 5. 3 for recidivist rabble, 4 for some jobber guard, 5 for a member of The Fraternity of The Broken Shield - a semi-secret, semi-organized sect within the city watch dedicated to hunting down the wretched murder hoboes who remorselessly slaughter their fellow watchmen. We’re talking about armored guards so let’s call that B4 +3 or 4 Helping Dice or B5 + 6 or 8 Helping Dice (Exponent 5 grants two dice per helper). So, it’s 7 to 11D vs 7 or 8D - or vs 11 or 13D. Even with Fate, I don’t like those odds, especially with debilitation or death on the line.

Bloody Vs. can be a bit more swingy, but I wouldn’t expect the dice values to change by too much (relative to each other). But, the Dice Pool split is gonna be rough on the player. They’ll probably want to prioritize defense a bit more, and the risk of a neither side hitting means that they may not have the Artha banked for the follow-up Test - Helping is forever though! (Meep.)

Fight!ing Ye Olde Horde of Mooks helping each other is gonna be even rougher - mathematically, that is; smart fighting is an asset, but that’s player-side not math-side so why complain? Going nova with Artha isn’t as tenable as it is in either of the Vs.'s. I imagine our one trick pony has the finest armor available, but, well… Everybody gangsta 'til half a dozen guys are tackling them to the ground and locking them up.

  1. Run The Sword First! I find a lot of players who get into the combat of RPGs do so because that’s where the system is. If you’re the kind of person who likes to engage with a system and make it work for you and you play RPGs, you probably gravitate toward combat. I ran The Sword the other week, and I had a player like that. Their take was, “This game has engaging rules for talking to people! I wanna play this game!” Introducing the DoW before getting into character burning can open a player’s eyes… To the fact that the real munchkining lies in the social skills!

  2. Go Back to the Beginning. I kinda tried to list these thoughts in accordance of value. On-boarding and establishing good lines of communication around the table is probably the best practice. And… If everyone is informed of the challenges and set backs that having a one trick pony at the table can bring, and you all think it’s still a fun idea, maybe roll with it; don’t look too hard for solutions to problems you don’t have.


I think the idea with establishing facts with Wises is for undefined elements of the setting or adventure. If the GM has established that the only way to destroy The One Ring is by hurling it into the fires of Mount Doom in which it was forged, a successful One Ring-wise test isn’t going to establish that actually any old forge will do.

See the Etiquette of Wises header on page 211 of The Codex.

Obviously, some of this is more a matter of implementation and style than hard rules.


I was seeking to nuance Thor’s statement that Intent can’t create a fact, then give thoughts on how to handle a situation where a roll did create a fact; obviously wasn’t clear in stating context and assumptions. Trying again:

Some GMs generate a very rough plot, then fill in almost all the details just before each based on player BITs and actions; other GMs define a lot more details in advance. Depending on where a GM falls and how important the items are (for example, “The Unique Sword of Required to End the Plot Threat” would probably be pre-defined, the location of every tailor who sells black hose probably isn’t), they might or might not have defined who specifically holds each thing before the players start searching. In the case of a GM who hasn’t defined where a thing is, the players might use a suitable Wise test to define it—but with suitable circumstantial complications even if they succeed.

Assuming the GM hasn’t been leaving critical points to be filled in later (and if they have, that’s the game they’re playing) then players using a Wise to find something that really advances the plot is only likely to come up if the players come up with an unexpected way to solve issues; in which case, why not reward them for their character’s cunning by giving them a chance?