Rolling to Make it Real pt 2: Wises

I’m having a conceptual problem with Wises. Yes, I’ve read through p 309 and the whatever-wise skill description.

What I’m having trouble with is setting a logical difficulty for rolls. That, and the implications of the some of the difficulty descriptions. Example: information that is “common knowledge” is Ob1. Clearly I can’t come out and state the fact that the world’s president is a Vaylen is common knowledge – that clearly creates a “ridiculous and jarring abberation in the play space,” to quote the book.

And yet…and yet one of the most important applications of Wises is to establish that things in the game are true, so you can act on them. What I can’t figure out is where to draw the line between information that’s useful, and information that’s a “jarring abberation” (even when it doesn’t directly contradict any aspect of the setting or play).

Okay, so anyway, I guess what this whole silly post comes down to is, I’m looking for examples of good, effective use of Wises for things other than helping dice and FoRKs. Obstacle numbers for those uses would be helpful as well.

Help a brotha out?


Here’s some examples using Noble-wise
and the British royals.

Ob 1 (Common knowledge): The Queen lives in Buckingham Palace. The first in line to the throne is the Prince of Wales.

Ob 2 (An interesting fact): Princess Di was a relation of Winston Churchill. Boys in the royal family are almost always named Edward, Henry, Charles, or George, and girls are almost always named Victoria, Mary, or Elizabeth.

Ob 3 (Details): The Windsor family is descended from a German branch of the family after the English branch failed to produce any viable heirs.

Ob 4 (Uncommon knowledge): The monarch is requirted to ask permission from the Lord Mayor of London before entering the city proper. The monarch is not allowed to be Catholic by law.

I think there’s two issues here. There’s the “how commonly known is this information”, which is the “how special am I for knowing this?” dimension. The more you know on a topic (the higher the wise exponent, that is), then the more special things you can know.

But the “jarringness” is a totally different dimension. What’s the Ob, for example, for knowing that the Queen is a Vaylen? Do you get a low Ob by declaring that everyone else knows this, too? I think that’s where Paul’s coming from.

All groovy…but how do you act on any of it?

I have a good idea of how to use Wises to produce trivial information, but my sense from the book and from Actual Play writeups is that Wises can also be used to produce nontrivial information as well.

Which is, I guess, the very shortest way of asking the question I was trying to ask in the first post.


That’s a judement call, of course. But for something like that you’re probably looking at an Ob 5 to start. Trying to game it as “everyone knows” is just being lame.

Yes, exactly.

You can have common knowledge that does not contradict precedent but is still jarring to, let’s say, the unspoken understanding of your game.

You can have very difficult Obs for producing trivial tidbits, although I have no idea what would motivate you to do so (other than fabricating a reason to make that roll for advancement purposes).

Can you also have very low Obs for producing nontrivial, noncontradictory tidbits?


The most natural use here would be as a linked test for something. It also establishes story canon as a general note.

Hey Paul,

I know this isn’t precisely what you asked, but it may help. If you’re having trouble with Wises in this capacity – if you feel like it’s hindering your enjoyment of the game – you could switch their role a bit in their game. Whenever you hit a “my character should know that” moment with one of your players in your game, use a Wise skill to establish if they do and how accurate the information is.

For example, you’re mounting an attack, your players know it’s coming. One of your players asks, “Hey wouldn’t I know their force organization? I’m ex-Hammer. Wouldn’t I be able to see weaknesses in their strategy?” Seems logical, right? Well, roll for it. Set the wise obstacle – if he was a commander, then it’s Ob 1 or 2, if he was a grunt or a functionary or a fop, then the Ob jumps up to 3 or higher. If the test is successful, he knows the force organization. Boom, it’s a fact. As the GM, lay down the relevant info for him. Don’t hold back any secrets. If he fails, then you can give him misinformation or outdated org charts or something.

Even in that old school traditional “roll for what your character knows” method, you’ve established some facts about the game world; you’ve established how the Hammer is organized. That’s pretty hefty all by itself. And it’s a nice detail to have at the table. It helps flesh out the world, right?

Can that have a more mechanical effect? Absolutely. That exact same situation could act as a linked test toward a Recon test or toward contact or whatever. So if it was successful, knowledge of the force org grants a +1D to that roll (which you determine when you make the first test). If it failed, then the outdated info wreaks a little havoc during the moment of truth, and inflicts a +1 Ob penalty on the Recon or battle plans of the ex Hammer character.

The information is established either way – either the Hammer is like this or it’s not like this. And the effects in the game can be simply flesh for the world or some hard numbers for the player to chew on.

Does that help?

That depends. What’s the group’s consensus? I mean, you created these Figures of Note, right? Do all the players (including the player that’s controlling the Queen, GM or otherwise) agree that “everyone knows” the Queen is vaylen? Or is it something that no one or just a handful of people know?

No matter how “non-traditional” you may find BE, it’s still a game with a GM and the GM is explicitly given the responsibility and power to set Obstacles. The GM decides, using the Obstacle guidelines in the book, whether something would be common knowledge or rare goods or anywhere in between. The group, as the collective creators of the world, have the right to call bullshit. But the GM is the final arbiter.

But to dig a little deeper into what you seem to be asking: Yes, there are two types of knowledge.

First, as the GM, you’ve got the stuff that’s in your notes. You know that the basis of the relationship between the Archcotare and the High Inquisitor is that the High Inquisitor is blackmailing the Archcotare. If someone tries to use a wise to dig out that information, you set an Obstacle based on how common you feel the knowledge is, and then you let them roll. If they succeed, you tell them what they know.

The second type is knowledge that’s created by wises. So maybe a player has a character with Skeletons-wise, and wants to use it to create the fact that the skeleton in the Archcotare’s closet is that he and a Court Lord are lovers. You didn’t have anything in your notes about a relationship between the Archcotare and the Court Lord. Neither do you have anything in your notes that would be invalidated by such a relationship existing. So that relationship is fair game for a wises roll.

Once you’ve gotten to that point, assume that what the player is asserting is true. How many people know about it? Use that as the basis for the Obstacle of the test. If the player succeeds, it now becomes an element of the setting!

Does that get at your question?

There are “hippy” games where any player can assert anything and thereby make it “true” in the imaginary universe of the game (e.g. Universalis, Capes). But Burning Empires is not one of those games. There’s still a GM, and the GM’s job still includes acting as the final arbiter of what is “real” and what is not.

Now, in almost all roleplaying games – unless you’re playing from a module or a very detailed set of GM notes – there are always going to be significant blank spots that are open to interpretation and improvization. And in almost all games, even traditional ones, there’s a lot of player input, even if it’s couched as, “Oooh! You know what would be cool?” or as something like:

GM: So you’re in the tavern, and coming up to you is an old man with a map…

Players (groaning): Not again!

GM (hastily): … who walks right past you, muttering, and that’s when you see the incredibly beautiful woman with the map tattooed on her, uhm…

Players (leaning forward): On her what? Tell us! Tell us!

Most traditional roleplaying texts, with their “GM is God” mentality, tend to discourage the players having this kind of input, even though it happens all the time and actually makes the GM’s job easier and everyone’s play more fun. Burning Empires positively encourages it and gives you procedural guidance – Circles, Resources, Whatever-wise – on how to do it.

Okay. So, to frame it in terms of the dimensions I mentioned above, the Ob should reflect the expertise required to know things that aren’t jarring.

The “jarring” dimension isn’t something that affects the Ob. If it’s too jarring, don’t include it. This is something that’s discussed by the GM and players, and isn’t governed by specific rules (as it might be in a “hippy” game).

As with all tests in BW/BE, the intent is key here. With a clear intent, it’s almost always easy to work out the Ob for the task. This Wise stuff used to throw me for a loop, too, until I worked throgh it in play. It’s not as weird as it reads.


Yeah, useful. Sort of. What I’m trying to get at is explaining the utility of Wises to my players. They know they can make trivial, nonactionable information pretty much at a whim; the fact that really obscure information is actually harder to produce seems bass-ackwards to me, though: It seems like the ob should be HARDER the better-known the information (and therefore potentially widespread the impact of the information).

Wises aren’t hindering our enjoyment of the game at all, we’re just not yet sure how to use them.


Useful post, thank you. I still feel like “who knows this information” and “how useful is this information” are on two different axes. Since usefulness is more relevant to me and my players than how widespread the knowledge is, I’m still at a bit of a loss in terms of gauging the difficulty I should be setting. The game explicitly does not call out “usefulness” as a criteria, which I see either as a design oversight or a deliberate decision. If it’s deliberate, I’m trying to get at the intent of that decision.

Yeah, I also get that usefulness and publicity of knowledge can sometimes be intertwined. Whee, more complication. :smiley:

My understanding of the game-as-written is that the GM actually has very little in the way of “written down notes,” which is to my mind the very point of the cooperative/pseudocompetitive play model. So I don’t find the “don’t allow it if it doesn’t agree with what you have planned” argument compelling. It seems to be going against the grain and intent of the rules.

Am I misunderstanding your position?


I’m going to risk coming off as a complete dick here. Sydney, I’m not finding your “advice” useful, in this or any context, because it’s clearly and obviously not coming from an informed, experienced position. In fact, I find your “advice” posts directly detrimental to resolving my rules issues. Please, please play the game awhile. Just do it. Stop making tech widgets. Stop making lifepaths. Stop burning up theoretical characters with theoretical beliefs. Just play the game, and then you may have some useful insights.

Please, please stop trying to armchair-general, because it’s coming off as purely theoretical (to me), condescending (to me), and not even a little bit useful.


(I guess it wasn’t a risk; I really did come off as a dick. Had to get it off my chest.)

OK, before this gets ugly:
Moderator hat on
Paul, while your concerns and comments about Sydney’s advice are valid, he is trying to help. In the future, please consider that before responding as you have. Your posts can come across as abrasive as well (it happens to all of us once in a while). And we’re all just trying to make the game as good as it can be.

Also, this stuff doesn’t need to be public. Please use the PM function for such commentary in the future. Comments like that aren’t really relevant to the overall conversation.

Sydney, if you’d like to respond to Paul, please do so in PM. Thanks, gentlemen.

If either of you would like to respond to my moderation, please do so privately.

Paul, in the interest of money-mouthing your own comments, let’s stop talking in theoreticals. Next time you have a concern like this, I need to see examples of the disconnect in play from your table, world and characters. We can be much more helpful if you can point to specific points of friction in your game.

So give us a character, his wises and the situation (or lack of situation).


Luke, before I bow out:

If my posts in this thread have been not merely unhelpful to Paul (sorry, Paul) but positively show that I misunderstand Burning Empires in some significant way, please correct me. I’m obviously reasoning by analogy to other games I have played and in the absence of actual play experience of BE itself, so it’d be useful to be set straight before I actually start a game (hopefully mid-January).

What’s more, I’d ask you to please correct me in the thread in the (perhaps unlikely) event of some poor sod coming along later, reading all this, and thinking I make sense.

EDITED TO ADD: Oops, you said “respond to my moderation…privately,” didn’t you? I’ll let this stand, rather than delete it, since I’m addressing the content of the thread rather than the moderation as such; but if you think that’s hair-splitting, Luke, delete it.

First off, apologies for the tone of my last post.

Now, regarding examples from my game: I feel this is putting the cart before the horse. I don’t have specific examples because nobody knows how to use your Wises rules. We would have a better idea of how to use the Wises rules if there had been examples in, say, the rulebook. Or here in the forum. But there are not, so we’re not using them.

There are no points of friction in the game other than the players looking at their characters, their lists of wises, and going “now…what do I do with these skills that’s going to give me something to do?”

I’ve so far clarified, in my own mind at least:

  • You can generate trivial or non-trivial facts in the game that don’t directly contradict anything else you’ve already established. Groovy.

  • GM can have private notes as to what’s real, apparently without using a color scene or any other element of the game’s economics. This strikes me as fundamentally unfair and not in the spirit of the game.

  • Ob numbers are generated by how widespread such knowledge might be, whether it’s trivial or nontrivial.

What remains to be clarified:

  • When a player wants to introduce a fact as true in the game, and this fact doesn’t fit with what the GM had planned, is it cool or uncool for the GM to veto it? My preference is that the GM doesn’t get to veto it, because otherwise what’s the point of the game’s economics?

  • When a player wants to introduce a fact as true in the game, and this fact paints a character into a corner narrative-wise but doesn’t otherwise contradict anything explicitly burned into the world, how do other play groups resolve this?

(My sense from reading other threads is that you don’t get to hit other characters directly – you can’t make it true that a FoN is a drug user if that doesn’t fit with the player’s conception of the character, for example. This seems reasonable.)



Luke is right. You gotta pony up with some examples here. You don’t need to include anything about Wises, just give us three short examples of conflict situations in your game. Who’s involved, what do they want? Keep em short but include the important bits.

Dunno bout anybody else, but I’ll give you concrete examples of using Wises in those situations, for sure.

Moderator hat goes back on
Paul, can you see how some people might misconstrue this as snark and be less inclined to respond to your queries? Help me out, man. Next time you’re going to toss a barb or dig in with the elbows, just leave it out. We really are all trying to help.

As John said, tell us a little bit about your game so we can give you good and concrete examples.

Also, GM in this case has veto power, but what he really has is the ability to set high obstacles. That’s much more potent and effective than veto power. Obstacles make the game go round.


Thanks for explaining that Thor, and that’s a pretty cool way to use it! Man, this game rocks.