Say "Yes" and Ob 1

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.

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… Cool, cool. I mean, if I were GM I’d have a difficult time coming up with “something at stake” here.

Talk with the other player at the table and tell him you think there should be more Ob. 1’s at the table? This is probably most easily rectified with discussion and less on the hermeneutics of burning wheel (as fun as those hermeneutics are).

Similarly, GM’s are not mind readers (no offense intended) and if a player wants there to be “Something at stake”. Well, you could have made the procurement of the knife a character belief, this would have informed the GM that you want finding the knife to be something more than a “say yes” moment.

It’s important to note that you don’t “say yes” because the difficulty of what a character is attempting is low. You “say yes” because there are no interesting consequences of failure in the test. It’s an essential distinction.

The other side of this is that there was a way to make the test have something at stake. The GM could have worked into the story that if you were to fail a combat test that involved striking with the blade, it would break, leaving you defenseless. Maybe the weapon you take is of import to someone else. Perhaps you run into some shady practitioners who obviously did something against your character’s moral code, but they have the blade.

Talk with your GM, say you would like him/her to let you play out more OB 1 tests. There is a way to have more complex results for your actions, even at OB 1.

It doesn’t sound terribly difficult to make that Resources test matter, a faulty knife, a stolen knife, having to borrow the knife from unsavory types in return for a “favor.”

Definitely true. I have to confess that I wanted to write this post mostly to worry at this perceived textual niggle. What to actually do to improve play in my situation is clear and easily resolved.

This gets nicely at something I was f(l)ailing about trying to say: I think when the Obstacles are very low it’s natural for a lot of GMs to have difficulty finding interesting consequences of failure (because Ob 1 is so close to “you just know how to do that”). Hence instead of Ob 1s you get “say yes,” indirectly because of the low difficulty.

If you need a knife, something is at stake when you are trying to buy that knife. If you can’t afford the knife you want, that’s a perfectly fine failure consequence.
In that case I’d be tempted to use the Gift of Kindness so that the player has the option to get the knife but have taxed resources, but even if that weren’t an option, sometimes the obvious failure consequence is the right one. Don’t overthink it!

Often, just as a rule of thumb, I make the consequences of failure for low Ob tests also pretty light. Fail your knife-acquisition and you just get a worse knife. Fail your minimal Ob social challenge test and there’s some more foot-dragging or the guy expects a minor favor in the future. I get the sense BWHQ likes nearly every roll to be of great import, but prefer to have a lot of relatively harmless failures around, especially for new players. It helps diminish fear of failing per se and reserve that fear for the truly significant consequences, and it also means there’s more room to throw around lots of tests, some of which will be failed.

On a metagame level, part of the GM’s job is to toss out some low Ob tests, and yes, the players have the right to ask for them when appropriate. You can always suggest some failure consequences yourself.

Say Yes is supposed to move the game forward when the test isn’t interesting, but it’s neither for skipping stuff that’s most likely going to succeed anyway nor for depriving characters of needed tests. That’s a bad thing! I’ve toyed with the idea of giving free marks for low Ob tests without actually rolling now and then, but I’ve mostly come down against it. It’s psychologically useful to roll those and have a chance to win. Or to lose, occasionally, and remember that even seemingly easy stuff can go wrong!

Not true! Well, sometimes a test is of great import, even if the obstacle is low. I think your comments about “Low intensity” failures is spot on, but those can still be interesting.

Also note the rule is “roll the dice or say yes” and not “say yes or roll the dice”, which is a subtle but important difference.

… can you please elaborate? :slight_smile:

To me, that means that if you have a valid task/intent and a failure consequence, roll for it. If you have a valid task/intent, but no stakes, either because failure is impossible or wouldn’t matter, you can just say “Yes”. The order suggests you default to rolling unless you can’t come up with all the necessary things for rolling.
It’s not “say yes unless the stakes seem really high”, its “try to find interesting stakes, if you can’t just say yes”.

Exactly. Here’s the flowchart.

Player wants something. That’s an intent. (If the player doesn’t want something there’s no intent and therefore there can’t be a roll.)

Is there a consequence of failure? If not, you can’t roll. And, importantly, it has to be a consequence of failure that is good for the game. If you can come up with a failure that’s realistic and appropriate but would distract from what’s important to the game, don’t do it. Think of it this way: if the game were a novel and the failure happened, would your editor tell you to cut that part of the novel because it’s a waste of time between good parts? If so, Say Yes and get on to the good parts!

Is there a reasonable thing that the character can do in the fiction to make the intent come to pass? Which skill or stat or attribute does that translate to? Roll that, it’s the task. This is the part where the GM can say no. No, you can’t fly—there’s nothing to roll for it. No, there is no reasonable way for a peasant to make the king just give his throne away no matter how persuasive he is—it’s ridiculous. No, you can’t climb the mountain, sneak into the tower past the guards, and stab the king to death—that’s too big an intent/task for one roll. (The GM could say that last one’s fine, but don’t forget it’s the GM’s job to know when to say it isn’t!)

Thanks people!