Skill roll advice for a new GM

Okay, long time GM first-time Wheel… Burner… Guy, here. Just finished reading Burning Wheel gold and I’m all fired up to run! I’ve had my players (two so far, my wife and my best friend) burn up their characters, and I’ve been prepping a quick intro adventure based on their characters; now, the time draws nigh to run my very first session of Burning Wheel.

I’m a touch nervous, even though I’ve been running games and telling stories for… Hmmm, longer than I’m willing to admit. I’ve never ran a game quite like this one before, and I want to do it justice so that everybody has a good time. Our time for games is at a premium lately (kids and school and work and all), so a new game has to compete with heavyweight player-favorites like Pathfinder and the World of Darkness at our table. If it’s not fun, or if we have a hard time with it, it gets banished to the land of wind and ghosts and I don’t get to run it again until another game ends.

In short, as this is both my debut running BW, and its debut at our table, I want things to go off without a hitch!

So, coming from a background of games as the above mentioned, I have a central question regarding the running of this magnificent game that will REALLY cramp my style if I can’t figure it out. Therefore, I throw my case before greater minds than mine, and plead for the aid of you marvelous forum goers!

Here goes: As regards the skill list (over 400 skills total! Wow!) How does one “call for” skill rolls in this system? I’m very used to having a character sheet in front of me with a complete skill list, which I glance over to determine what skill my players need to roll in order to accomplish a given task. The typical rhythm is something like:
Player: I want to do (something)
GM: (Glances at his cheat sheet) Okay, roll (Skill) at (Difficulty)!

Now I recognize that this system’s rhythm is going to go a touch more like:
Player: I want to do (Something)
GM: So, your Intent is to (Something)?
Player: Yeah, how do I do that?
GM: (looks at 400+ skills) OH MY GOOOOO-

So that’s got me worried. My instinct is to ask them HOW they want to accomplish it (referencing the skills on their sheet), but that leaves a scenario in which a player wishes to push his skills beyond his sheet in dispute. Do I need to open the book and painstakingly go through every skill, hoping to find one that lines up enough with the activity in question, so that he can write it down on his sheet? Should I just default to a stat test if nothing readily jumps to mind? Or should I just fudge a new skill, and make him test it untrained (I feel like Luke would scowl in disapproval through the very internet if I did that last one)?

Every technique has its merits and flaws (ha! White Wolf joke!). I’m curious if there’s something I’ve missed; I’ve been reading and trying to absorb the book (It’s densely written!) but I am but a man, and prone to human error, so perhaps there’s a crucial piece of advice I’ve overlooked.

So, I humbly beg for your advice; any and all is appreciated. Thanks in advance. Oh, also Hello!

This is what I do. There’s a handy chart on page 15 that helps with making up Obs on the fly. But really, only a small subset of the “oh god that’s a lot of skills” are likely to come up in a given game. If you expect your players to do a lot of prancing though the forest, read up on outdoorsy skills; if they’re going to try and manipulate their way out of people, read up on social skills; etc.

Here’s the thing: 75% of the time, the players aren’t gonna be asking you which skills they should be using; they’ll be fishing for tests for skills they have on their sheets, or trying to purposefully open up new skills they’re interested in.

And for those times that you do need to tell them which skill to use, the skills are almost always named exactly what you think they should be named. No kidding!

The most important thing to remember is the absolute difficulty table. Pick a skill (name chosen via common sense if the players don’t have the skill on their sheets – you can always double check the book between sessions) and pick an Ob based on absolute difficulty. Nothing else matters.

Tip: go through the skill list and jot down all the social skills before the game. Learn how each one is different. You’ll be glad you did.

I’ve found it oddly easy to absorb what things are skills and what things aren’t. I suppose your mileage may vary, but you might find it’s not as big a deal as it seems. It helps that a fair number of them are crazy elf, dwarf and orc skills that probably won’t be relevant for non-Elf, Dwarf and Orc characters or even elves, dwarves and orcs who don’t have those skills.
In my game, when we do hit a place where I think there might be a skill in the book but I’m not sure, I generally go ahead and look it up. This hasn’t been too disruptive in practice. People tend to use the skills on their sheets as much as they can, and when they don’t, usually stuff is listed under the obvious name. Besides, looking through the skill lists for particular skills means you’re skimming over the other skills, and that helps you develop a sense of what they are.
I think it’s maybe worth noting that
-Observation is for spotting hidden things, whereas raw Perception is for spotting things in general.
-There’s a Knots skill for people who aren’t elves and don’t have Rope Chant.
-Oratory, Rhetoric and Persuasion are for giving speeches, rational argument, and just getting someone to agree with you, respectively. I think they can all fairly be used to persuade people in the right circumstance, but that’s the difference between them.
Those are the gotchas I can think of. Everything else is either pretty straightforward, or I don’t know about it yet.

As far as setting obstacles is concerned, there’s a great bit in the AdBu that suggests when in doubt, use 3. It’s a good medium difficulty.

EDIT: Ninja’d by Dean. There are more social skills than Oratory, Rhetoric and Persuasion, those are just the main three.

Nah, that’s not how it looks at all. It’s more like:

Player: I want to do (Something)
GM: So, your Intent is to (Something)?
Player: Yeah, how do I do that?
GM: I don’t know. Do you have some kind of skill that seems relevant?
Player: How about this (half-assed justification)?
GM: Gee, I don’t think so. It sounds more like (this other skill I saw in the book). Maybe if you changed your approach slightly that (half-assed justification) would make more sense.
Player: okay, I’ll do that then.
GM: Cool, roll against an Ob 3. Failure here means that this (dire complication) ensues.

Keep in mind that a player’s responsibility when initiating an action is two-fold: They must give you Intent and they must give you Task.

The Task portion is about describing how the character goes about fulfilling his Intent. The description of the Task should give you, as the GM, a pretty good idea as to which skill is appropriate. I’d say 90% of the time it will be obvious which skill is required.

That’s not to say you won’t still need to look through the skill list; sometimes I need 15 seconds to flip through the skills to decide between a few possibilities, and I’ve been running the game for 9 years. I’ve never heard a complaint about that.

In fact, if you have multiple copies of the book, encourage them to flip through the skill list at the same time. One of the positive habits at the BWHQ table is that while the GM and a player are playing, anyone who’s not directly involved in the scene grabs a book and finds the rules appropriate to the situation.

Besides, you’ll want to take a look at the skill in question anyway to determine the appropriate Obstacle of the test.

Imagine that the players have taken on the role of spies. They’re in Duke Urfino’s palace and want to get into his office to take a look at his papers, which they believe will indicate where he plans to send his troops. Urfino is no fool. He has a guard posted outside his office.

Intent: “Get into Urfino’s office.”

The players have multiple options for tasks here. Here are just a few:

Task: (the player has gone through a series of tests to obtain the livery of Urfino’s servants from the washroom) “I walk up to the guard carrying a broom and other cleaning supplies, doing my best to look like a servant, and explain, ‘I’m here to clean the office.’”

GM: “That sounds like a Falsehood test. Or possibly Acting. I’ll accept either. He has a Will of B3, so that’s your obstacle. Failure means you’ve mistimed your play and a servant is already inside cleaning!”

Task: “I walk up to the guard and before he can ready his weapon I’ve got a knife at his throat. ‘You and me are going inside. Now!’”

GM: “Intimidation! Ob 3. Failure means he wails in terror, alerting the guards nearby.”

Task: (the players have spent some time investigating the guard and know that he has been selling information about supply shipments to Black Pete, the pirate) “I walk up to the guard, smiling wickedly. ‘Does Urfino know you’ve been working with Black Pete? You want to keep it that way? You work for me now.’”

GM: “Extortion! Ob 3. And yes, Intimidation is a valid FoRK here. Failure means he pretends to go along and then tries to murder you to keep his secret.”

Anyway, you get the idea.

It’s been covered already, and covered well, but it bears repeating: clever players can come up with thousands of tasks using the hundreds of skills to accomplish any given intent. Some are far-fetched and it’s okay to say no and pelt them with dice. Some are plausible but definitely the hard way, and you assign higher Obs. Some are equally reasonable. It’s not your job to pick the tasks players use to reach their intents; that’s their job. That’s roleplaying!

A more usual construction will be, “I want to accomplish X, so I’m going to do Y” or “I’m going to Y so that X.” Your job as GM is to Say Yes or name an obstacle and a consequence of failure. The task and intent should already be on the table, although you might haggle a bit over them.

You guys are all awesome. I’m gearing up to run my very first session now; I’ll be sure to tell you how it goes!

Thanks very much for all the advice, I promise I’ll put it to good use!

If it’s not too late, I suggest you run The Sword introductory scenario with your group ahead of diving into the game with your own characters and situation. But either way, good luck!

Great, great advice so far. However, one other thing is very important, and although it’s been mentioned, I don’t feel it’s been highlighted enough:

Set Failure Consequences Before Rolling

It takes some work to get into the habit when you’re coming from games that don’t have that rule. But it’s very important to the proper functioning of BW.

What success and failure get you are are critical to setting the tone of the game. If it’s gritty, your failures end with you face-down in the mud, everyone jeering at you. If you’re playing with larger-than-life heroes your failures are often still tremendous accomplishments. Not successful, perhaps, or not in time, or not the right thing to do, but still impressive feats.

Remember that failure means the intent is not achieved, not necessarily that the task itself was failed. You can overuse the gimmick, but it the consequence of failure on a Sword (or Axe, or whatever) test kill an Orc scout so your location is not revealed can easily be, “You cut him down, but not before he screams and everyone within a mile knows where you are.” Sneaking Inconspicuously among the palace staff to assassinate the duke? Failure can be that you’re caught, but it can also be that you’re overcautious and slow and arrive at his chambers after he’s already left. Failed Ditch-Digging gives you plenty of ditches but terrible, aching blisters, and your fortifications are for nought if you can’t wield a sword to fend off the raiders!

Okay, so I ran my first session last night! Everything went down pretty smoothly, all things considered.

I actually had a few scenarios come up with skill rolls; the most common was that my players could name their task with their intent, so no looking up was needed. Another was me suggesting a task (thanks to some marvelous advice from the forum, of course), and getting on in just a few seconds and the final was me looking through the book for a few moments to find an appropriate skill (which took a fraction of the time I imagined it would).

Honestly, because I had to look up any skill they suggested anyway (because I had to find the Ob), the pace of the game settled into one of mild reference, and so the slightly longer time it took to look up a skill wholesale didn’t really leave my players waiting overmuch. Also, yeah, flipping back and forth through the skill list really gets you comfortable with where everything is after all.

And setting failure consequences before rolls was fun as hell! I might just do that with every game I run from now on.

Another thing I imagined would be tedious was logging tests, but it really wasn’t intrusive at all. The only thing we fudged a touch was after a pretty hectic ranged and cover battle (ending in a gory bloody versus between my dwarf and three goblins, whom he handily dispatched) we had to remember which tests of what difficulty we needed to log (since you only get to cherry-pick one in a series of tests) and we may have exaggerated a little. Oh well, nothing of value was lost as they say.

We had a great time with this game, so I’m definitely going to try and run a second session. Thanks again everybody for all your help!


Fantastic! Glad it went well.

It does not work as well for every system, BW strongly encourages you to take the risk even when it stares you grimly in the face, but seeing it coming is definitely prime suspense territory. Glad to hear it went well!