I believe this belongs in this forum as it’s a thought that’s come out of direct play of BW from a person (and group) with extensive experience with Burning Wheel. It’s not based on a first reading, but play. Please move it if I’m mistaken about where it should go.
So I’ve found this tension in my play of Burning Wheel. It applies mostly at low (skill) levels. Burning Wheel says on page 72, quoting the redoubtable V.B., “Roll dice, or say ‘yes.’” Permit me to quote from the text at said page (and not the text quoting Vincent):
Unless there is something at stake in the story you have created, don’t bother with the dice. Keep moving, keep describing, keep roleplaying. But as soon as a character wants something that he doesn’t have, needs to know something he doesn’t know, covets something that someone else has, roll the dice.
All this is clear. But I think there’s an issue here that crops up with the lowest levels of difficulty, say, Obstacle 1. It’s an Ob that is in the game and nothing in this game exists without a reason. It is there to be used, even if sparingly. However when I, piloting a beginning character, angle (not monger, angle within the context of the situation and my character as s/he is understood) for a low-level test with a B2 or B3 skill, needing those crucial Routines for advancement, I often find that “Say Yes” is invoked rather than have me go up against the slight but substantial shoot that is Ob 1.
Now you might say that this is an application problem. A GM who is imperfectly lacing the system into play. And sure, okay, technically we could see your admonition as correct*. The rules in this case work as strictly written. That said, I can’t see this as anything but an example of murk in the rules (no jargon here w/r/t/ “murk”; only natural definitions need apply).
For example, a couple sessions ago, my character without a combat skill or even a weapon wanted to procure a knife in anticipation of a coming conflict. I asked this of the GM, expecting an Ob 1 Resources test to begin the path of advancement for my B2 Resources (having read the Obstacles for typical Resources on page 366 and thinking with some wiggle room that Ob 2’s “poor quality arms” could be waived to Ob 1 since I wanted only whatever single sharp object I could scrounge). He simply said Yes and let me have the knife. Cool, cool. I mean, if I were GM I’d have a difficult time coming up with “something at stake” here; i.e. a failure that’s not just a “no” (though for the record I’d’ve been fine with a “no” in a case of a failed test, here).
And last session I had an NPC who for reasons of a failed Aura Reading test trusted me implicitly. Still, across two short scenes with me persuading him I figured I’d still need to roll, perhaps with a lowered Ob or an Advantage die. Say yes, again. I mentioned it to the GM afterward with zero hard feelings. I just wanted to let him know what my expectations had been so he can understand where I’m at and if he so desires adjust how he runs. That or I can adjust how I approach play. All fine.
But I think there’s something happening here where at those low levels of risk and skill exponent it is very difficult for the GM as Ob-Setter and Failure-Consequence-Decider to look at the whole of the Burning Wheel as a system (seeing both Ob 1 as a thing and “Say Yes” as a thing) and ever feel it is prudent to use those low Obs such as Ob 1. Strictly by the letter of the rule I think those tests I mentioned should have been called for, but it’s hard to see as it’s not one of those “crunchy” parts of the “rules” text, simply some free-flowing words in a paragraph. Ultimately it’s a judgment call, and those will always be subject to scrutiny.
I suppose what I am trying to say is that Ob 1 (possibly to a lesser extent Ob 2, but really Ob 1 is the culprit) tests seem to fall exactly in that space between “the character want[ing] something that he doesn’t have” and there not being a strong “something at stake in the story.”
So how do you all deal with this? How do Ob 1’s come up in your games? Do you find there’s a danger of them disappearing down the (generally very apt) ruling of “Roll the dice or say ‘yes.’”?
I hope it doesn’t need to be said but I guess I’ll say it anyway that of course BW works extremely well on the whole and this is pretty much a niggling issue, etc, etc. But it’s one my mind is bent on at the moment.
*for the record my GM is v. experienced with BW and knows the system well, but yeah, no one’s perfect or expected to be.