Signalling the Obstacle Level

I have a question about when the GM ‘reveals’ the level of the obstacle to players.

After their actions are announced, my players have an expectation that I will tell them the level of the obstacle before they use traits, gear, fate and persona points etc. They think this is reasonable.

However, I can’t find where this might be discussed in the rules, and the combat example (which may or may not be relevant) has the players using traits as part of describing their action.

I’m of two minds. I can see what they’re asking for, but I’m not quite sure if it’s in the spirit of the game; are they supposed to do more digging to get as clear as possible about the difficulty of what they’re trying to achieve and then basically make a guess as to whether they need the extra dice?


There is no situation in which I would ever expect my players to construct any kind of dicepool before knowing the obstacle. Using a trait or spending a persona is a tactical decision, and you can’t make tactical decisions if information is being arbitrarily withheld.


Well they clearly have to commit to the action BEFORE you tell them the obstacle, there’s no question about that. And you could argue it can be as much of a roleplaying decision as a tactical one to use traits. The combat example seems to lean towards this.

Yes, players are expected to commit to rolls. That’s why it’s ok to tell them the obstacle–once they’re committed, there are no weasels! It’s then up to the players in question whether or not they should blow their rewards, earn a check, or try to roll for it straight. It’s a constant battle against probability–and managing your bonus dice, earning your rewards, and planning against probability is how you get to be good at Torchbearer (and Burning Wheel, for that matter).

I think you’re looking at this upside down right now. Ideally, a PC is always playing to his traits. That’s just what’s happening in the fiction. Torchbearer’s mechanics are telling us, though, that there’s a distinction between when a Quick Witted character is merely being quick witted for the sake of quick wit, when his quick wit is giving him an advantage, and when his quick wit is somehow endangering him (and therefore earning him a check).

It’s up to the player to narrate how the latter two examples are impacting the fiction, but there’s never any reason to ever use a trait just 'cause, for the sake of the roleplay. Traits are a precious resource to be carefully spent to overcome obstacles. They aren’t “good roleplay” buttons. Traits function as an incentive for thinking in-character and being engaged with the fiction. The important point is that you only ever have to think in character and be engaged with the fiction in instances where you want those checks or bonus dice. Of course, there are other rules to help encourage players stay in-character–beliefs, goals, etc. And remember that playing to a trait even when you don’t have to will get you one step closer to earning Embodiment at the end of the session.

Consider the following example:

I want to scout the room. My GM calls for a scout test. I’m currently injured and have no checks, so I want to earn one. I also have a scout skill of 5, so my odds of success are probably pretty high, but I also really don’t want to stumble into a trap–that could kill me! I’m thinking about using a trait against myself, since I think, based on what I’ve described, this shouldn’t be too hard. I’m dedicated to rolling now, so I ask the GM what the obstacle is. They don’t tell me.

There are two issues here: one, I have no idea whether or not I should use a trait against myself. This could be ob 1, or it could be ob 4. Either way, failure could quickly lead to my death. I’m basically, as you said, guessing. While this might seem reasonable enough when adding dice, things break down when you start taking dice away. You’ll never have any idea when it’s statistically safe to use a trait against yourself–and players, many of whom are already reluctant to do this as-is, will stop doing it at all.

An even bigger issue arises when your players start to learn how to factor their own obstacles. There are rules at play here, and eventually your players are going to figure them out. I’ve GMed way too much TB not to do that when I play it now. So, ultimately, your players are going to be able to figure the obstacle out anyway. You aren’t really accomplishing anything by trying to obfuscate it.


Well your last point is something else I have been considering. The players in many cases should have a pretty good idea of the difficulty of the obstacle already.

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Once the GM calls for a test, obstacles should never be hidden.

Players are committed to the test because they have described their actions and their actions have triggered a test. Players can talk among themselves all they want, but once they have described their characters taking an action, their characters have taken that action.

Once you reach a point at which they are in danger or going forward is impossible without some feat, make them test a skill or ability. – Describe to Live, page 116

Technically, at that point you, as the GM, ask them a few more questions to clarify the action and what the characters are trying to accomplish. The intent here is for the GM to get on the same page as the players and make a determination as to which skill/ability is coming into play. If it’s a complex action, you’re looking for the point of greatest danger.

After the players have described their actions, you respond. Ask the players one or two additional questions about their actions to make sense of what’s happening. The players may use their answers to embellish with colorful roleplay that brings their traits and wises into the description. – Describe to Live, page 116.

The above is not to say players must make the determination to mechanically employ their traits and wises here. Chalk explains the reasons why very well above. What we’re looking for here is what some people call “fictional positioning” – narrative justification for employing them in a mechanical way later. We’re just looking for a bit of “oomph” to the roleplay.

Once all that is settled, you, as the GM, tell the players it’s a test, tell them what skill or ability they must roll, and what the obstacle is.

At that point, players can decide whether to employ traits and give us a bit more fictional positioning to justify a beneficial or detrimental use. They can choose whether to spend rewards, tap Nature, etc. I used the word “technically” above because a lot of time the inspiration for the use of a trait doesn’t really strike until this point. In my mind it’s fine for the players to do a little editing here to make traits, wises, help, etc. make sense at this point. We shouldn’t change the skill/ability in use or the obstacle at this point – that’s set. But we can calibrate a little bit so that everyone can participate and use the rules to their best advantage.


Players who balk at a high obstacle haven’t quite internalized how advancement works in Torchbearer.


An experienced player, on the other hand, feels a melange of conflicting emotions about high obstaces:

  • Joy of advancement
  • Fear of conditions
  • Curiousity about twists
  • Remorse for asking for help
  • Greed for checks
  • Ambition for eventual leveling
  • Tactile enjoyment of large dice pools

You left out the tinge of simple masochism.


Thanks everyone! Good to clear that up.


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