Skill Confusion

These questions come from playing with chared mostly…

(1) Why are reading and writing separate skills?

(2) It takes me two points to open a general skill on chared. One to ad it to the list at 0 and then another to open it. Is this right?

Hi ProfessorK!

(1) Burning Wheel assumes a fantasy late-medieval world where literacy was not widespread. From the READ and WRITE skill descriptions:

“In the middle ages, reading and writing were separate and distinct skills. It’s difficult for the modern mind to comprehend this, but it is a fact. Therefore a character may be able to read but not know how to transcribe his thoughts onto paper.[…] Without the benefit of the ability to read, Write is a copyist’s skill. The character knows the shapes of letters and how to reproduce them, but he does not know what they mean.”

Note that Elves and Dwarves have skills that function as both Read and Write, though humans do not.

(2) Make sure you’re spending your stat points before skills. The first point spent on a skill opens it at half the value of the root stat rounded down, and each subsequent point increases it by one. Special skills, such as Training skills or Dwarven Arts, cost 2 skill points to open instead. Check out the chapter “The Garden Is Burning” for more detailed info.


To add further to Agnelcow’s point, I think it’s reasonably easy to experience read/write mismatch in yourself.

If you’ve ever attempted to learn another language - specifically one which uses a different alphabet than your native one, you will know this feeling.

You may spend hours practicing reading Korean/Arabic/Thai/Japanese, etc, but if you’ve never practiced writing that text, you will not be able to do it. It is absolutely a different skill. Until you put a pen in your hand, you won’t realise this.

I have never experienced the inverse, but, hypothetically, I’m paid to hand-copy a few hundred pages of Georgian text. After some time, I might be quite proficient in writing the symbols, but I would not comprehend any of it.


I had this recently as one of my blind spots. I work every day with technical construction plans, I take a drawing and interpret what work is required to make it happen.

I can read it no problem and then I wanted to build an extension to my home… I’m familiar with technical drawings! I can make them myself!

No, I can’t. I can do a best guess, I can produce something superficial to show the dimensions, but products, structural suitability and all the little decisions… nope. Turns out that’s not part of the skill set I use at work.

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Thanks folks, this thread cleared up all my issues and confusions :slight_smile: (The illiterate monks example was excellent.)

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When do you typically call for a read test? I find it difficult to know if I should call for a read test or another appropriate skill. In what situations do you think using read is the way to go?

There’s a lot of cross-over in BW skills (Write and Composition for example), and the system rewards innovative uses of other skills: so I suspect there are few situations in which a Read test is the only plausible approach; especially if you account for forking Read into a Topic Skill (e.g. Sorcery with a fork of Read or Read with a fork of Sorcery both work for looking through a wizard’s notes to see what he was researching).

If you want a world where literacy is very rare, ask for a Read test for anything that involves reading and limit other skills to forks/help dice.

If you don’t want the plot to be significantly shaped by whether or not characters can read, allow players to suggest another skill that seems relevant. How good a reason they need will influence how powerful literacy is.

Apart from reading silently, all the sample Obs for Read are about length of treatise; this suggests the core of Read is based on volume of prose rather than complexity. So, Read would seem to be the best skill for skimming the note on the Baron’s desk while he’s turned away to pour some and other “can I do it in the time available?” tests.

Another obvious use for Read is decoding bad handwriting.


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