Social skills Vs NPCs

Thank you all for great answers and ideas! I love reading the eloquent posts in this forum, though it sets the bar for a foreign speaker.

NPCs use falsehood all the time, but we all know it. Often they’re not very good, but desperate.

As proven last night, it does. B2 & B3 skills got routines as long as the GM volunteered an advantage-die for hitting something with the NPC(s) BITs and then we got to lobby for one more. Even a lenient GM in adding a post-speech blurb to add a second FoRK helps.

Sure, the test are still “difficult”, i.e. with a high chance to fail - but I (we) get to record ‘routine checks’.

Likewise, outrageous requests will get us those high-Ob. tests we need when we’re the face-men of the Northern Realms! :smiley:

I’m glad to say it works! (Note that I wanted routine checks, not what my character wanted without a “fight”.)

Oh, I even got to link a Seduction-test with a stunning number of successes. “Play to your strenghts,” as they say.

Thinking about actual play, on both sides, I think it works as written.

As a player
Rolling against NPC Will
This tells me that I’m really trying to force against what the NPC is about, and what the situation currently is. The GM can’t think of anything that the NPC wants in relation to what I’m trying to get. Sometimes this will lead to clarifying what I think is going on and figuring out where the mismatch is, or just showing where I want this to go despite where it is.
Example: Playing my favorite character (Vito, total jackass captain of a mercenary squad), I thought that this NPC noble was as venal as my character and that I could get him on board with what I was planning. It would be some sort of vs. test and he’d try and get the better of me while I tried to get the better of him. Turned out it was actually just my guy trying to lure someone fairly innocent in to a terrible position. It made sense it was hard and it changed what the situation was about for me. It could have been a DoW if the NPC was more important—but this was a more minor character, and it made sense to just make the attempt and move on.

Having an NPC roll against my PC’s Will
If I really want nothing, I like having the option there—and it lets the GM know that you have less of a stake in what is happening. You don’t want your PC to do it, but there’s nothing for your PC to really gain from the situation that you’re interested in. Even if people could suggest something to ask for, by refusing to, you are telling about the character.
Example: In Burning Ahimsa, this has come up once or twice, with Uddhar not wanting anything out of secular or practical discussions. You either convince him or fail to, there’s nothing he wants back. The other religious PC has had similar situations. It is a flag that we aren’t generally interested in bargaining or haggling over matters of the material world.

As the GM
Having the PC roll against NPC Will
I often do this when I’m not sure what the NPC is really about given the direction the PC is going, or when it is essentially an attempt to run roughshod over an NPC but engaging a full DoW is not desirable for whatever reason. I tend not to go this route because generally if the NPC is present, they should want something and it can be worked in to the social test. But, on occasion you get blind sided.
Example: In Burning Airships, generally when the Lord Protector interacts with humans they won’t dare asking for anything back or trying to leverage the situation—and there’s nothing that they’d reasonably want from him besides to potentially convince him they’ve done what he asked so he stops being near them and terrifying. Against the Obs 3 or 4 Will of the average folks he’s engaging with, it isn’t a big deal.

Having the PC roll vs. NPC Skill
This is what I mostly do. Because, as above, I generally have an idea of what the NPC wants out of the situation. And if it turns out to be something really interesting to the player, it can lead to a pivotal DoW.

I think this can’t be said too often.

Actually, Advancement does work just fine without using the various extended conflicts. Perhaps even quicker, as you get much more done.

And the admonishments to play the game first with just the first 90 pages do imply strongly that they do.

No, it works fine. I’ve played it as written and there are no problems. It feels funny, though, and lying is harder than I think it should be. Let me put it differently: the game is explicit about setting the obstacles to taste to get the feel for the game right—low Obs are heroic, high Obs are gritty can’t-get-a-break gaming. Well, the game then takes away that option for many social skills, and I’m not sold on it. It ain’t broke, but I don’t think it would be any more broken the other way.

Falsehood vs. Falsehood when only one has intent to lie seems funny to me. Falsehood vs. Will would make more sense, but not every test in which an entity is the opposition should be a Versus test. Some “characters” are really just obstacles.

Don’t tell me that the NPC should want something or have a stake. Obviously, they often should—conflict drives play. But I’m not talking in vague hypotheticals, I have a specific hypothetical. There’s a guard, who’s basically a non-character. The player’s task is to convince him to let them through. The guard’s desire is not to let someone through unless it really is sufficiently urgent or the person to be bothered would want to be bothered. How does he determine this? By what the character says. How effective is what they say? Persuasion Ultimately, though, it’s basically a non-issue. It works are written, and if you don’t like it you can replace it with an arbitrary Ob system that would work basically just as well.

Now, lying to PCs: I thought there was a part of the BW core book that explained that there’s no lie detection, and that the GM should tell the players when they’re being lied to and let them decide if they believe it or not. I can’t find it, and I can’t remember where it is. If I’ve been misplaying this… I think I’m playing it better than the rules.

Consider the intent of the lie: to get the character to believe something? That’s both against all other mechanics (even DoW can’t change what someone thinks, only what they do) and usually a bad intent. You want them to believe your lie for a reason What’s the reason? What do you want them to do? Usually, the conflict is more interesting if the players get a choice: tell them something, and let them decide how to act on it. Or even tell them something and say it’s a lie. Now they can decide if they believe it. They can also decide if they’ll act on it, true or false. Choices are the fodder for conflict, and they make a good game. Taking choice away from players is usually bad—not always, but overwhelmingly often.

Consider, as yet another test case, the beggar pleading for gold from the PCs. You could make a Begging test against someone’s will, but that is poor gaming. It takes away player choice (and, in this case, probably accomplishes nothing). Instead, you present the situation to the player for a decision. You get much the same in results from persuasion and lying. State the case or the lie, and let the players decide as they will.

The players know when an NPC is lying to them because the GM is rolling Falsehood.

You’ll find that Burning Wheel doesnt adhere to a preserving player choice in all circumstances mantra.

I could think of situations where your beggar example would totally call for a test, especially if it hits a player’s beliefs and instincts. It depends on context.

This is the problem with hypotheticals—why is the guard there? why is the beggar there?

An example from actual play. In Burning Airships, when the Lord Protector went to visit an elven sacred site where no weapons were allowed near, there were a number of armed humans along the path. They weren’t serious opposition, nor did they want anything. They were there to play on his Belief about the natural order of things in terms of elven dominion over man.

Burning Wheel works sub-optimally if characters and features of the world added for color are consistently given full mechanical weight. Beggars on the street constantly plying money from the PCs, guards always in the way to block access, and the natural suspicion of strangers are great things to describe—but if they are always worth a full test it is too much. Only when failure is interesting should they be present, and that generally requires the BITs to be involved.

As a note, I don’t think that this sort of “In these sort of situations, these people tend to be there, so they are there this time…” problems in narratives are limited to RPGs. I’ve read plenty of novels where they are as well. Where you see them cause a token delay (if following the fail-fail-fail-SUCCESS formula), or just sort of being there and easily sidestepped.

On the general point of high Obs for social tests and limitations on routine tests as a result, I think part of the problem is the propensity for Will 4-5 (or higher) random NPCs. Going by the life paths, most individuals in the prime of life are going to have 4/3 mental splits. I’d say it probably say the split is 50/50. In play I’ve noticed (and been guilt of) having pretty much no Will 3 NPCs. You don’t have to be perfectly representative of what the lifepaths produce with NPCs, but keeping them in mind your average person is probably Will 3-4 not Will 4-5.

Falsehood…yeah, one of the more authorial skills. But becoming a victim of Falsehood is pretty much just like losing a Duel of Wits: if you’re not playing to it, if you the player are trying to skirt the consequences of your character getting fooled, you’re cheating. You’re playing wrong. Don’t do that.

Choice isn’t a central tenet of BW, but taking away choice when a Belief is hit is the worst way to do it. Then there’s no challenge to the Belief—the player gets no chance to stand up for it at some risk/cost or turn away from it.

The general reasons for rolls are either BITs or as a consequence of failure. But there are times when obstructive people are great challenges to BITs or obvious consequences of failure. I guess I’m presenting vague hypotheticals with the unstated premise that there can be a good reason for the situation, so you should assume one.

A reasonable intent for Falsehood is “deliver these false orders to the messenger to take to the general so the army is moved out of position.” But turn that around—I don’t think it’s equally reasonable to force that level of effort and fiction and the players from NPC Falsehoold. PCs and NPCs are mechanically equal, but functionally different. You can play it equally, but I think it would lead to bad play.

DoW is different. Firstly, players can always walk away. Secondly, compromise is likely. Thirdly, players get to participate. That’s the biggest problem with having NPCs roll against PC Will: the PCs can be forced into major action without any players involvement. A bad GM could have Smooth McTalky use Persuasion and Falsehood on PCs repeatedly to deny all agency to players. It’s a stupid extreme example, but I think it illustrates what’s wrong with using simple social tests. Players are playing the game through characters. If you take away their control of characters, they are no longer playing. It must be done very carefully, for good reasons, and briefly.

You could be careful with the intent behind the task of having NPCs roll social skills against PCs and just ensure that the consequences aren’t too major, but I haven’t found that my games suffer noticeably from not doing so. It’s more fun to give players choices—then they get to use their BITs.

Again, depends on context. The player is making a choice in resisting. That decision could be very telling. What belief did they devalue when they chose to preserve their coin? I don’t know. It’s a hypothetical, but I might be curious to see if they lose the coin anyway and the choice was ultimately in vane. I don’t think categorical statements are very useful without a fleshed out situation in which to view the results. Give a real situation that occurred in play and we can have a meaningful conversation. Until then, it may or may not be a bad thing depending upon context.

Getting players to deliver false orders is a perfectly fine use of Falsehood by an NPC.

Here’s an axiomatic statement that I think sums up my position. The question is not whether or not player choice is restricted, but is the consequence of failure something interesting that you want to see in play?

If you make obstacles to Persuation tests then the players will not have the need to seek those versus test. They don’t have to risk losing anything.

You want that the duke help you in this one, right? Well, but, why would he do that? Why would he even listen to you? That’s difficult. That’s a Persuation vs Will exponent test. Do you want to be successful in this one? What do you have to offer him? Make it a versus test, make it a Duel of Wits discovering something he wants and putting it on the table.

But convince the Duke that he must to provide you with his support it’s not the same thing that persuade the guard to take your coins, right? Well, that depends. The duke may be a bit naive. Who knows? The king and even the Pope can be a bit naive with a low Will but many sycophants around who manipulate them. It’s not a Wiil problem. You don’t represent the difficulty of this task by changing the obstacles of Persuasion rolls. You do it giving the players high obstacles to the Circles tests needed to meet them. Do you say you have the Duke as a relationship? Good! That’s the good thing of having good relationships.

Lying is not difficult. Making someone believe your lies it’s difficult.

Didn’t even know that option existed. I thought that to have a heroic character you needed gray shades.

You don’t get to choose to resist with Will or not, it’s the Ob. You could give the players the right to Say Yes or demand you roll, but that’s not how the game is written. And I can’t give you an example from play; I don’t play that way! The closest I have is an occasion where you old acquaintance of the party (a Circled NPC, not a relationship) fell on hard times and came to them asking for a substantial loan to keep his creditors off his kneecaps. They knew him and liked him, and two PCs had Beliefs about supporting friends in need. But it was a lot of money, and more than they could easily afford.

For me, it was simple: I presented the NPC’s pleading, and the players decided what to do. What would you suggest instead? Give them the option, then roll Persuasion for the NPC if the party denies his request? Just roll and give no option? Those seem to take away not just from players choice but from players actually getting to play their characters’ beliefs. Instead I’m playing their characters’ beliefs.

The messenger case in my game had a task of deceiving the Marshal General with a false report of enemy activity so he would send the army into an ambush. The task was deceit with Falsehood; the intent was the destruction of an army. (Fit for a single test? In this case, it wasn’t important enough to drag out, so I decided it was.) But there were hundreds of miles and thousands of enemies between the capital and the general needing orders. Turn it around and make the PCs the messenger (and, for simplicity, the Marshal General as well). An NPC coms to them with incorrect information. On the strength of that roll, the PCs are now obligated to undergo a long, dangerous trek? If you pull that often, you can railroad the game whenever you want.

A Versus test isn’t appropriate every time there is opposition. You don’t roll Versus when you knife someone in a bar; that’s usually just Knives (outside of Fight). You do roll Versus if you and someone else are arguing, but not if you’re arguing and the other is basically listening and evaluating your argument. Convince the Duke that his wife is sleeping with the Count—where’s the Versus? The Duke has no stake except to figure out whether or not what you say is correct and whether he should kill you for libel or demand satisfaction from the Count.

Finally, for heroism, you really can do interesting things. I ran a short game where the party was basically Greek heroes in the Trojan War. Against other heroes, combat was Fight. Against normal soldiers, the Ob was generally 1 per two or three soldiers faced, so defeating a random mook was Ob 1, and defeating a squad of ten might be Ob 3. They mowed through nameless infantry like the sons of gods they were. And, of course, often I would just Say Yes to immense slaughter: it was part of being the heroic, semi-divine warriors: they were unstoppable in battles until they met immovable opposition. It has a very different feel for the game, but mechanically it’s identical.

You can always choose not to resist when someone asks for something. You just don’t resist.

And you can decide you want something as well and turn it into a versus test. If it’s a big deal to you, ask for a DoW.

I’m not saying always make a roll. The Filter is what’s the consequence of failure and would you be interested in that result?

Again I’m not suggesting you railroad anyone. Im arguing against the blanket statement that mechanics shouldn’t be used when an NPC is persuading or lying to a PC. It always depends on what’s going on in play. You set the consequence of failure based on the fictional context, and what would be most interesting, not some tautology about choice. Are there situations where a particular roll is a bad idea? Of course.

I am confused by your bar fight example. If they are opposing you, why isn’t it a versus test?

I know you’re not on the same page re player agency, but typically in any given social situation there are four possible resolutions:

  • Engage in a versus test if both parties want something
  • Roll social vs Will when the opposing party is just Saying No and the opposer wants the result to stick (via LiR)
  • Walk away from the scene, leaving the situation unresolved
  • Escalate to violence

If the players have poured big points and effort into building their Will, awesome, they should be rewarded for that. Bring on the roll! And the guy who invested in his Will is going to do better than the guy who invested in, say, Agility. That roll is gonna be hard but there are no guarantees. This allows for unexpected outcomes. I think there’s a fairly strong argument to be made that the risk of unexpected outcomes is perhaps the only reason to even use mechanical procedures for this silly overwrought make-believe we enjoy so much.

When you give players the right to Say No at any time for any reason, this isn’t opening up the narrative horizon – it’s closing it way down for the GM. There are no unexpected outcomes, and resolution moves entirely to the GM versus Player level. This is IMO as un-BW as one is ever going to get. It’s precisely opposite what the system was built for.

This is all mostly for discussion with other folks reading the thread. I get that you don’t agree, and that’s fine.


Also, why did the GM become a railroading dick in this discussion? I was assuming everyone was at the table to increase everyone’s fun. Can we just stipulate no one’s being a dick and talk about mechanics?

In a fight, it’s Versus, likely Brawling, and possibly Bloody Versus. If you walk up behind someone drinking peacefully and stab them in the kidney, it’s not Versus. They’re opposed to getting stabbed, but they aren’t actually opposing you. The same can be true of social tests: sometimes you’re up against someone who wants something other than what you want, or you have a zero-sum situation (haggling, apportioning treasure) and that’s Versus. Other times they don’t really care about the outcome, and it’s a simple test. I think we agree here, actually. But I think there’s a difference between “I want this to happen” versus “I want that to happen,” which is a Versus test, and “I want this to happen” vs. “I don’t want this to happen,” which isn’t always. If the thing happening is pulling a lever, you might have a Brawl vs. Brawl test, or Power vs. Power if you’re both just pulling in different directions. If the thing is you wanting me to give you money vs. me having no active intention beyond a baseline “don’t lose money,” it’s a non-Versus test. There’s no action opposing the begging.

Forget being a dick. I think preventing GM-dickery is part of the thought behind BW, but it’s not essential to the point I’m trying to make. Nor is player agency, precisely.

You have a point about players of characters with high Will deserving to be rewarded for it, but I think the system already does so: higher roots for social skills, better DoW.

It’s the unexpected outcomes where I think we have our big point of disagreement. You want to emphasize randomness, and I want to emphasize player will. But player will is what BW runs on! “Fight for what you believe!” is the tagline, but I would call “What would you do for your beliefs?” another contender. The most important thing in BW is to engage BITs. Instincts are always a choice: the player decides whether the character acted on instinct or not, and gets Artha for choosing to follow an Instinct that causes problems versus not acting instinctually in an instance. Beliefs are the same: you get Artha for following beliefs. But I think it’s the player who has to make the choice, the choice leads to an intent and a task, and then the roll is made. You don’t substitute a roll for choice!

Example (why do I keep writing these?): Here’s a bit of Remy

  • I will kill the evil Comte de Villefort and avenge my family’s death and dishonor.
  • I will never stoop to the Comte’s level. No matter how low my new station in the world, I will not resort to theft or murder—I remain an honest and honorable gentleman."
  • We may be rivals and have more than a few disagreements, but family is family, and Edouard is the only one I can still trust.

Relationship: Edouard, a cousin (hateful)

Edouard, a foe to both Remy and the Comte, tries to convince Remy that the Baron will be taking a carriage through the west gate tomorrow at noon with only a handful of guards—no trouble for the renowned swordsman Remy—and this is the perfect time to strike. Of course, Edouard’s hope is that Remy will assassinate the Comte and then be killed by his escort: two enemies removed at once.

I would say that the player hears Edouard’s story and makes the choice. Is this the right moment to strike? Is it worth sinking to base assassination to destroy the Comte? Is Edouard trustworthy? There is are some big decision points here: will Remy risk death for what he believes? Is his first or second belief more powerful? Is he, in the end, a coward?

You could reduce this to a Persuasion roll by Edouard. But if Edouard makes the roll, the player no longer has the option to choose not to act. (And if you’re a stickler for intent and task, both the Comte and Remy are dead; obviously the GM has to restrain the scope of intent). Without a player option, he’s no longer playing, just observing the outcome of character stats. More importantly, I wouldn’t give Artha for something that is not under the player’s control.

Players don’t get to Say No, but they do get to say no. That shouldn’t shut down the narrative, because the plot is the Beliefs and the choices made around them. You could argue that this isn’t a reasonable social roll against a PC, but what is, then? Now I want a concrete example. If it’s not engaging Beliefs, there’s not really a good reason for a roll. If it is, I see reason not to roll.

Maybe this stems from a different reading of Say Yes or Roll. My game flowchart looks something like this: player makes a decision, character does something, player rolls, outcome is based on success or failure, player uses outcome to make next decision. The GM never calls for rolls unless he is not Saying Yes. The narrative isn’t reactive, and events will blindside players or NPCs will accost them, but the mechanics are purely reactive. It’s not pure player vs. GM because there’s still randomization when the GM decides there is, but it has to be based on players doing something where the outcome is interesting with either success or failure. It should not be a point where the GM sees multiple interesting possibilities and wants to randomize which one occurs.

Again, I might just be missing how NPC rolling is appropriate. Please give a complete example!

It’s probably worth pointing out that I extend this to all GM rolls against PCs. It’s fair to call for a roll for something PCs don’t explicitly choose. The ledge can collapse and require a Speed test not to fall, or travel that suddenly became perilous as the weather turned for the worse can require Survival. But I would never have any situation roll against PCs unless it’s a Versus test and the player is rolling too or its one of the extended conflict systems, so the player will also be rolling and the intent/task/outcome are substantially predetermined. A PC can randomly knife a man in the bar. A man in a bar can’t roll Knives to wound a PC out of nowhere; the PC gets a roll, even though I’d let the reverse happen. It keeps the focus on PCs, their abilities, and their motives.

In one of our games we had a roll where the PC was trying to seduce the NPC, the GM called for a versus test with the NPC’s goal of seducing the PC instead. The question was who was falling for whom, and it worked just fine in play.

I wouldn’t make a persuasion roll for Edouard in th example, unless it was about something else. If the player wins they still have to face the choice of do I strike? So what did the roll do?

A Falsehood where failure means they realize that Eduoard is also setting them up might be interesting, or that he’s not telling them everything.

Your Seduction would be perfectly reasonable in my games. Player calls for a test, and the NPC wants something. Specifically, the reverse. So yes, Seduction vs. Seduction, and you see who is cool-headed and who is the smitten lover.

The roll didn’t do anything. I told Remy’s player that Edouard had come in excitedly and told him about the opportunity. Edouard didn’t roll anything. The player chose not to assassinate but ended up attempting an honorable, dashing, daredevil plan… that failed.

If it’s interesting for the players to know that Edouard is lying or being misleading, I tell the players. I want an interesting game! (I also tell them their characters know Edouard’s lying. This isn’t just dramatic irony.) If lying’s not interesting, then he’s not lying. If having the players figure out whether it’s a lie is the interesting course, I tell them they can’t tell if it’s a lie, and it’s up to them to unravel it. (Really, how often can you tell when someone’s lying? Some people are terrible at it, but most people are okay. I’ve never had a player complain that she can’t play the Lie to Me guy.)

What if the GM had called for the seduction roll and the player had decided to make it a versus test? I actually think the GM said “she’s trying to seduce you and I’m willing to go to dice on that. Do you want anything?” but I’m not sure of that. It would be the kind of thing that happens in our games though.

Maybe I wasn’t clear about the Eduoard thing, the players would know he was lying the moment Falsehood was rolled. I might be curious to see if Eduoard gave himself away to the characters though. I’m just thinking out loud now, though. It all depends on the moment.

As the GM in question, I say that a lot and I am 99% I said it there.

For these types of situations where a NPC is pushing on a player’s belief I like to let the scene build a bit and let the player and I both get a handle on what is going on. Inevitably the player will pick up dice and demand something or shoot off in some belief fueled direction (involving violence more often than not). If not I will pick up my dice and say “this NPC wants X and I am willing to go to dice for it, what do you want out of it or what are you going to do about it? Do you even give a fuck in which cases lets re-evaluate the situation?” Most the time something very fruitful will come out of this discussion of intents or we will realize that the whole conflict was a non-starter and move on to something else.

  • Colin