Stakes vs Obstacles

Really interesting conversation came about after our excellent turn tonight. Player D. says he feels like he doesn’t want to take risks because the risk is disconnected from the Obstacle of the roll: If I have 6 dice and the Ob is 3, then I’ll accept equal stakes. If I have 6 dice and the Ob is 5, then by golly I’d better get better stakes…way, way better stakes.

I think he was feeling like he had to play conservatively because he didn’t feel like the Ob was negotiable, particularly since I set the Ob after the task is described and the stakes are set. It never came up in actual play ™ but conceptually it’s seriously hindering his desire to go for bigger stakes.

Some concepts I want to make sure I’m clear on:

  1. The Ob is based on the actual task you’re trying to accomplish, not the size of the stakes, and

  2. Nobody is trapped into rolling anything if they don’t like the risk vs. reward balance once the Ob is set.

My understanding is that the Ob is negotiable to a point, but it’s up to the GM to set the final Ob. My understanding is also that either side can back out of the stakes, based on the Ob, if they feel the reward isn’t worth the risk. True? Or is there a “gotcha” bit of timing there in which the GM can set an Ob that’s unbalanced with what the stakes are, and the player is stuck with the stakes and a shitty roll?

My sense is that a test is a three-sided bit of negotiation: my stakes, your stakes, the Ob. We get to keep working out all three sides of the deal until we all agree with the final deal, and only then do we roll.

From a player POV I get his position. As a player, he doesn’t want to fail – ever. Despite the fact he can always say “no” to whatever stakes I’m offering, he simply does not want to fail. He also wants to be able to gauge his risk and his reward as he tries to plan out his play. It’s hard to do when there’s no table there telling you how hard something is (Circles and Resources excepted). When in doubt, I defaulted to Ob3.

It was kind of stressful, particularly for a problem that never actually came up in play. It was weird: On the one hand, he complained about having to play totally risk-averse; on the other, he said later that he thought I wasn’t setting tough enough stakes for my side.

I’m hoping to get my player to post up here so he can explain his issue better. I’m probably doing his position a disservice but this is the best I can explain it. It may, in fact, simply be a play style conflict.


If he truly, simply, does not want to fail ever, he’s probably playing the wrong game. Failure is a big part of BW–it makes the victories that much sweeter.

That’s just my humble opinion, though.


I’ve got to agree. My players were a little annoyed at first that they were rolling so damn well, though it did help them take failures in stride when the dice started behaving normally again.

I should add, though: yes, higher Obstacles often mean better results. Not always, though. It’s certainly true with, say, crafting skills though. The higher the Ob, the bigger, more impressive of a thingy you craft!


Additional thoughts:

In the course of the same discussion, I actually bounced back and forth between rules-wise connecting the task to the Ob and connecting the size of the stakes to the Ob since the task isn’t always the same thing as the intent – maybe it should be?

Example, first round of stakes-setting: I want to set a bomb off at the docks. If I succeed, one of the results of the explosion is that barrels of Naiven will be revealed to be stored on the dock.

Do you set the Ob on the difficulty of blowing up the dock, or on the stake of discovering hard evidence of worms at the dock?

Continuing the example, on the counter-intent: If you fail, the bomb still goes off but you don’t find any Naiven and your sappers are caught on tape doing the deed.

So the player has set out his intent, I’ve set out my first offer on consequences, and I have to come up with a number. If it’s based on the difficulty of blowing up a dock, well, that’s probably kind of easy: 1 or 2, probably. It’s not a military facility, there aren’t a lot of guards around. If it’s based on the size of what he’s asking for, that feels like a 3 or 4 – they know there are Naiven on the planet but I haven’t specified where they ended up, but discovering them in advance of my future plans is kind of a big deal. Finally, if the Ob is based on the counterstake, maybe it’s just a 1 or 2 again – the player doesn’t particularly care, at this exact moment, that I’ve identified his guys (he may think differently after I’ve taken advantage of that new information).

Let’s say his demo guy has 6 dice. If it’s an Ob3 (based on the scale of his intent and how disruptive it will be to my plans), that’s even odds. The player thinks that’s a good deal because he thinks his stakes are worth way more than my stakes (and I feel the same way toward his). Perceived value, no problem.

Let’s say he couldn’t afford to hire a good demo guy, and only has 3 dice. Against Ob3, based on the stakes he’s aiming for, that’s completely unreasonable odds to him because he’s virtually guaranteed to blow the gaff. Since he doesn’t want to lose any rolls, his next option is to lower the stakes on his side. This makes him feel disempowered.

Finally, if we’re measuring the guy’s skill (3d) against the technical difficulty of blowing up a dock (Ob1), he’s all over it.

I have a theory (oh boy!) based on an old Robin Laws thing in his “how to GM” book way back in the day. The “Tactician” style of player is someone who wants to maximize return for minimum risk, and is most happy with an anticlimax when he actually executes his plan. Set the difficulty, and then line up enough buffs that you can present overwhelming odds in your favor. The fun for this player isn’t in the “I wonder what will happen if I try this?” school, but in the “I want to do what I want to do, and I want to do it with as little risk as possible.”

I can’t disagree with him; he’s not having the “wrong” kind of fun (!!), but I don’t know how to fit his fun into the BE paradigm. The list of possible buffs is pretty short: help dice from other players, 2d in FoRKs, 1d from a linked test. The Obs for Resources and Circles are determined by the book, not by me (and I totally understand why that’s so), and that means the odds of failure are often so great – even or worse – that the prospect of earning an enemy or Tax makes it not worth the the risk to this player.

Anyway, enough rambling. I couldn’t sleep because I kept mulling the issue over in my head. I’m looking forward to hearing if anyone else has experienced this (and what they did about it). I’m also really hoping the player in question checks in on this thread and puts in his own US$0.02 – he’ll explain it better than I have, I’m sure.


Maybe turn it around on the player, and ask him if he wants you to always lose. Because that’s what the player is asking for if he wants to always win.

I’m struggling to think of any game where that’s any fun at all. I mean, sometimes you get your way, sometimes he gets his. It seems unreasonable for him to get his way every single time.

The question so far is how fair it is for him, but really, how fair is it to you?

And I also noticed that you didn’t mention artha spending. That can make a difference in the rolls that matter.

Example, first round of stakes-setting: I want to set a bomb off at the docks. If I succeed, one of the results of the explosion is that barrels of Naiven will be revealed to be stored on the dock.

Ok, this is a disconnect for me. It doesn’t read right in BW/BE. And I think the BW way is different enough to be important. And this might sound pedantic, but there’s really no “stakes setting” in BW.

Should read like this:

Intent (what do you want?) - “to reveal the naiven shipment.”

Task (how are you going to get it/do it?) - “use my Explosives skill to set off a bomb on the docks.”

Obstacle - “Ok, the book says that to destroy property, the obstacle is X”

Failure - “If you fail the explosives test, the police find enough traces to make a link back to you.”

That’s one test in brief.

I’m traveling right now, but I’ll have more soon.


I’m not the experienced burning guru you’re looking for, but with that disclaimer, I’ll take a crack.

I’m getting a vague impression that you’re establishing a task, and then you’re specifying an intent you want that task to accomplish. I think this is what’s making Ob-setting so difficult - the task isn’t sufficient to accomplish the intent.

Do the intent first, then derive an appropriate task (or linked tasks, or a series of tasks), by picking out the difficult elements.

In your example (blow up dock to reveal Naiven), the hard part of accomplishing the intent is knowing where the Naiven are, not blowing up the dock. Using demolitions expertise to find Naiven is perhaps appropriate to the intent, “I want to blow up this dock in such a way to leave evidence of any Naiven that may be inside,” but this is a hopeless (and hilarious) way of searching for Naiven. (“How many are you gonna blow up?”)

If your intent is, “I want to reveal Naiven by blowing up a dock,” then you need to know where the Naiven are. As a wise test, it would be something like Ob 8 for a specific, well-guarded secret. Blowing it up could be a linked test - perhaps Infiltration with a FoRK of the explosives skill.

So I’m answering the question, if in a roundabout way. The obstacle is usually linked to the magnitude of the intent/stakes because the stakes determine the tasks.

He’s picked such a challenging intent that, once you pick out tasks, it’s too hard to do in one roll. He’ll need to build it up, by using Investigative Logic (and some Circled-up contacts) to find warehouses to which unusually frequent shipments of whatever nutrients Naiven need are being sent. (Assuming he knows what Naiven eat, etc.)

Okay, yeah, I’m getting what you’re both saying. “Stakes” shows up as a phrase in the “setting intent” section as well as other subsections beyond that, and it kind of reads interchangeably with “intent”. I’m still trying to get my arms around what is possible intent-wise with this system, because now I think I’ve been following the wrong conceptual path on this concept. :-/

Sigh…back to the drawing board.


“Stakes” shows up as a phrase in the “setting intent” section as well as other subsections beyond that, and it kind of reads interchangeably with “intent”.
I think calling it “stakes” is okay as long as it remains a synonym for intent, i.e. as long as you can trace it back to the intent of the PCs / NPCs involved. It has to be something the characters want (or would want if they knew all of what was going on - sometimes you use the player’s knowledge to set the intent, as in the example on p.297).
Note: I’ve re-read the intent section (p.294) and it seems to talk more about intent being the player’s intent … in this game, do you think players should ever have intents that go against what their characters would want? My feeling is no - you might think it would be cool if your character fails the test, but intent and task should still be set with an eye towards character motivation.

There isn’t much in the book (that I could find) about what to do when a task seems inappropriate for an intent. My guess is that it should really be kept super-simple. “Um, you can’t use blowing up docks to reveal Naiven until we’ve established that there are Naiven at the docks … how about something more investigative?”

To get away from the docks example and answer your question:

  1. The Ob is based on the actual task you’re trying to accomplish, not the size of the stakes,
    My answer is yes, set Ob based on task. I do think Ob is related to intent but only insofar as task is related to intent. Often (but not always) a stronger intent requires a more difficult task. Just as in real life, accomplishing more usually means working harder/smarter.

I think a lot of what I said here is just re-stating Fuseboy’s last post, but oh well.

  • Mike

P.S. On a tangential note, I have found setting Obs for tasks difficult when knowing the number of dice the players will be rolling, because it feels like that influences my obstacle-setting. I’ll try to remember my firm actual play examples and start a thread on that one day.

Okay, short answer seems to be we need to simplify our intents. That’s easy enough, I think. We’ll recalibrate for our next session.

Conceptually I’m still trying to figure out the whys and wherefores of when it’s okay to introduce new narrative details to the game. I thought I had it right, I really did. Some examples from our last turn:

  • Slave rabble-rouser wants to induce the slaves to go on strike. I call it a Propaganda roll, Ob4 (they were already colored as fairly unhappy in their lot, and a recent transmission by the Imperial Steward rewarded the monied people but left the slaves unhelped, but I thought a global strike should be a harder than the default Ob3). The humans have not yet activated the Slaves & Serfs faction via Take Action; I assume that once they have, they don’t have to get their to do things through rolling (or maybe the rolls are simply much easier?) – my understanding is, the reward for activating the faction is that it’s yours to play with now.

(Edit: Okay, I’m now reading the Propaganda skill and it appears to strictly be used by the gov’t against the population, and Obs are already set by the global attitude. Oops! Maybe Journalism instead? The player isn’t presenting “facts,” he’s simply speechifying – maybe Oratory? Ugly Truth?).

  • The Imperial Steward (and moustache-twirling Vaylen agent) makes a global announcement to produce a more positive, pro-government stance among the non-slaves (royalists, merchants, Anvil), in the hopes of staving off what he feels is an inevitable revolution on the planet. I may have used Persuasion for the roll, which in retrospect was probably the wrong skill to call up (probably should have been Propaganda). Anyway, I set the Ob to 3. Was creating a global attitude shift “too big” an intent for the roll? I have no idea now.

  • A trusted courier (non-FoN human player) needs to make a dramatic run across the desert between cities to make a set of deliveries for several different characters (both human and Vaylen). In this case, I allow him to set his own Ob – how hard does he want to make it on himself? His intent: On a success, he gets to his destination safely; the consequences: If he fails, he crashes his buggy and is stranded midway, requiring another scene to get back to safety. He picks Ob5, which IIRC allows it to become a “difficult” roll. Given the consequences it seemed like a better deal to me than to him.

  • Once the slaves go on strike, the local highest-ranking League official (and an unwitting pawn of the Vaylen) decides she must invoke a little-known law allowing her corporation to declare martial law and take over the local Anvil to break the strike. Law doesn’t exist yet, but we all agree the law is “obscure” so I think I set the Ob to 6. Her League Law is 6; I link in an Imperial Law test (Ob3: On success, the Imperial Stewardship agrees with her interpretation; on failure, corporate law and imperial law contradict each other on this point), and FoRK in an Imperial Courts-wise (for knowing the right judge to go to for the writ), and Intimidation (because she’s being really aggressive with heel-draggers within the local League offices who’d rather not get involved), and two more Persona dice for a total of 11 vs. the Ob6. I make the roll, so now it’s law. Is that the correct application of the Law skill?

(Edit: Maybe it was just Ob2? “Determining legality” is just Ob2 according to the skill – does this imply you could make any old law with an Ob2 roll? That seems awfully easy, and kind of contradicts the Obs on p309).

  • The “blow up the docks and reveal as-yet-unrevealed Naiven” scenario did not come up in actual play; it was an example we batted back and forth. In principle it seems sound: I attempt to do something, and if I succeed I get to add new non-contradictory story information to the story. Is the reason that’s not okay because the concept of uncovering information is not in the purview of Explosives? The counterexample from above is me using Law to “uncover” (create) a law – I’m adding something to the story that’s clearly inside the boundaries of the skill I’m trying to use. Is that basically the difference?

This makes me wonder if allowing a high-Ob Propaganda roll to actually incite a strike was “too big” an intent. Propaganda is for making people believe certain things about their government, but is making someone believe something enough to get them to act? Would it be a linked test into another roll, and if so what? Would it simply be a setup for the Take Action?


Okay, let’s tackle the Law example first

This probably should have been a Duel of Wits, with Law as the duelling skill. So, the Merchant League wants to bring in the Anvil to crush the protesters. In this situation, I’m assuming the League can’t just ask the Anvil Lord - they need to basically usurp his authority for this to happen.

Now, you’re looking at introducing this law. Why? What is the point of bringing up this law? So you can use it now, right? But it’s the APPLICATION of the law that is the point here, not the EXISTENCE of a particular text. If you want to call in the Anvil, that’s the Intent here, not to introduce a law - because the mere existence of a law means very little, it’s the court case that puts a person in jail (OJ anybody?). Under the description of the Law skill, it looks like compelling the military forces into action requires a Duel of Wits - League Law vs Imperial Law.

An alternative tests spring to mind as well - a simple social test against the Anvil Lord (provided he’s an NPC, anyway), like Persuasion or Extortion. This is probably more appropriate if the leaders are part of an old-boy’s club. Same Intent, same outcome, totally different means.

Here’s my thinking: I want my GMFoN League Official to be able to take control of the Anvil in a following turn. The Anvil is, by default, currently under the control of the planet’s Imperial Stewardship (a GMFoN). There are nobles on the planet, one of whom (a PCFoN) is serving to command the Anvil but is not an “Anvil Lord”. However, those nobles are expats (and angling to take control of the planet back from the Steward); the Stewardship is in control. This is what our table has agreed to, and we don’t really care if that’s “canon” or not.

Since my League Official and my Imperial Steward are both GMFoN, and the Steward has various tactical reasons to allow the megacorp to declare martial law (mostly having to do with deniability later in the story), my feeling is that this is nothing more than color once I’ve established that it’s within the League’s legal power to do so. Now, I’m expecting the PCFoN who’s commanding the Anvil will disagree; at that point, my GMFoN will use the Law to justify her position in the DoW, and if the noble wins the argument she can try to have his command stripped. The League Official is a lawyer to the end, making sure all her angles are covered before she does anything.

In the end, it seems perfectly reasonable to have wanted to make this law: the Steward hands control over to her, she goes to Anvil HQ to take command, and she and the Noble get into a DoW. That’s my take on my intent.

In my table’s style of play of this game, we simply cannot wrap our heads around the idea that the characters have any in-game motivation or justification to do anything without some set reason to do so. I don’t understand the “the truth doesn’t matter, just do what you want to do” school of character behavior. My characters want to feel justified in their pursuit of what they believe to be true. The particular League character in this instance isn’t a usurper, she’s a cog in the machine – she has the trait and everything! – and is simply carrying out her duty to her corporation.

Now me, the player – I’m a usurper, I want to snag command of the Anvil. And, yeah, I-the-player don’t really care if the truth is fucking up my plans. But my characters do. I simply cannot justify their actions without outside validation that what they’re doing is what they would do.

[Edit: Re the rules: My sense is that Law is actually meant to represent the actual argument of a law in a courtroom setting. I probably should have used League Law-wise and/or Imperial Law-wise – she has both, and they’re all the same stats, so it doesn’t really matter.)


Ah-ha! Now we’re getting to it!

In this case, I still don’t see a conflict with introducing this law. The League wants to take control of the Anvil from the Imperial Steward, and they want to do it legally. The Imperial Steward wants this as well, for ammunition later. There is no conflict between them - she pulls out pertinent legal color, Steward agrees to it, done and done.

The real conflict is if the PCs disagree - then you have the legal DoW between the PC and the League Official, if the PCs win, the League does NOT get command over Anvil forces.

On the other hand, I can see a reason for using a roll to bring the law into the game - just like Tech, the roll creates a new Obstacle related to that law. This being the Obstacle for future Law attempts to change or modify it. Personally, I think using a Versus test of DoW over Law at the point of conflict would be the cleanest way to handle the interpretation of laws, which start out as essentially color, instead of turning them into “Hard Tech” through rolls, but I’d still give it a shot if the situation called for it.

Like say if the handover of Anvil authority happens without PCs being present, they can’t DoW about it. But if they come across the Anvil units who have orders from the League, they could make rolls to convince the Anvil officers that the League orders are illegal, and the Steward has no authority to hand over his control.

Yeah…okay. Yeah. I get what you’re saying. As long as stuff is happening between guys on my side, it can just be color, no worries about rolling dice. Is this always true? Really? I can’t think of a loophole, but give my players time and they’ll come up with enough of 'em to make a fishing net.

I think my first instinct was to make it a Building roll because the maneuver felt like it was very quickly screeching to a halt. All the PCs had had their scenes, just one of my FoNs had had his building scene, and my other two FoNs were left dangling w/o much to do – I’m finding it challenging to think on all three tracks at once. I don’t think I was quite prepared to go in and directly attempt to assume martial law during that maneuver (which is too bad; the noble PC still had a roll left and we certainly could have had a DoW at that point).


In this situation, I think it’s entirely reasonable to use an Interstitial Scene to set up the law. I don’t see a problem with her pulling out this interpretation of the law, unless there is already something in-game establishing that this would never happen. And if the Steward isn’t going to fight it, then there’s no problem.

Of course, other situations will be different. And players will come up with objections, but that’s when the situation becomes a conflict, no?

Yup, I think I’ve got it. Thanks for helping me talk it through!


Let’s move over to your conservative player.

I can understand not wanting to fail, sure. This is a problem if it’s just failure in general that he’s shy of, but if the player has specific goals, you can easily make failure be about something different.

Let’s take the Explosives example. PC wants to blow something up, let’s say it’s a warehouse. Maybe this is easy, maybe it’s not. Some buildings are tougher than others.

Now, do you, as the GM, have a problem with the warehouse blowing up? Cause if you don’t, fuck it, boom. Set the stakes over something else - easy example is discovery. The Ob is set for how you conceal your explosives - success and nobody can trace them back to you, failure and hey it was you! Here is another case where you can just say the Explosives roll sets the Ob for Investigative Logic (or an additional Ob to Scavenging tests in the ruins of the building).

If the player or PC doesn’t care about discovery, then he’s gonna go ahead. Now, I’m not saying you should make failure be about something meaningless just to get the player engaged and rolling. I’m saying set the stakes for failure according to your agenda as the GM. Make failures play towards your own strengths as opposed to strictly against the goals of the players (or PCs).

This is what I’ve been aiming for and IMO I’ve been setting good, fair consequences so far. More often than not, the players successfully do what they wanted to do in the first place, but with a twist attached to it (like the sappers getting caught on tape) I can hook into later.

I think his concerns are largely theoretical and tied into our fuzziness on negotiating the final roll: He felt like – rightfully so! – that he could easily get jacked up with a shitty counterstake he didn’t like but was stuck with when he rolled. I’ve since clarified, hopefully, with him that everything’s negotiable up to the moment you roll the dice.

I’m still hoping he’ll hop on board and chat about his concerns with you guys. I’ll drop him another note.


That’s the right attitude.

Obstacles shouldn’t be high because you don’t like the results or because if you fail, bad things will happen. Obstacles should be high because the task at hand is objectively hard.

Some of the best failures and worst consequences are in easy tests. Just today we had an awesome failed Propaganda test.

Matt wanted his Psychologist-Propagandist to create a movie to eulogize and aggrandize the death of the Anvil Lord. The obstacle was a flat 3 – the Ob from the book for an Indifferent population. Matt went to great lengths to describe the movie and its content. His intent was to up military recuitment (their world has a volunteer force). He rolled ten dice and failed. We were all laughing. I described how the movie had back-fired. Matt chimed in with his agreement. We all agreed that the the death scene at the end was overwrought and offensive! It had the opposite of the intended effect and the military was disgusted with its authors.

Very cool!