The appopriate social skill for certain situations

In practice I think it doesn’t matter so much.

Once we have a conflict and an intent you get a task which in these social cases are the speech and actions taken by the character. The GM will call “Make a persuasion test” or whatever and a player might ask “I thought this would be rhetoric perhaps?”. The GM can ask “how is that rhetoric?” and the player can make a brief case for why the character’s actions was rhetoric. The GM decides but ultimately it doesn’t matter in that way.

In Torchbearer and Mouse Guard social tests are mostly handled by Persuader, Manipulator and Orator because there isn’t the need for nuance.

In Burning Wheel the skill written on the sheet informs the play. The important thing about having Stentorious Debate on your character sheet isn’t that it’s open ended, it’s that you will argy-barge like a dwarf and not whisper subtleties like spy because you don’t want the GM to say “that sounds like persuasion!”

Edit: As you get used to what the players have on their sheets and you get to know the characters you will recognise the skills the player is intending to use. But you still need to say “That’s an oratory test.” when it applies even if that wasn’t what they were expecting.

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I think it matters even once you’ve gotten to know the characters.

“That sounds like Intimidation.”
“I was going for my B5 Persuade by showing how it’s in their best interest to join the rebellion. I don’t have Intimidation!”
“Your approach is that their house is lovely and that it’d be a shame if rebels thought they were bougie and burnt it down, and only briefly mentioned that they might end up in a leadership position if they joined now. But hey, it’s okay, you’ll get a Difficult test for your Will, so that sweet.”

I agree that the diversity of skills funnels roleplay approaches to fit into the skills on the sheet, and I like how that shapes play. But the approaches natural to each skill aren’t always what the player or situation needs, so I don’t lean my interpretations of roleplay towards existing skills. Those sweet, sweet Beginner’s Luck tests are important sources of character development, both mechanically and fictionally, and are a valuable source of new skills and rare Stat tests. I wouldn’t want to deny those riches.

Going for particular tests is part of the player’s role. If the player wants the Will tests from beginner’s luck that’s a legit choice they can make informed by their play. It’s not part of the GM’s role to lobby for how the players ought to advance their characters.

Don’t misunderstand me. In no way am I advocating to exclude the middle and dictate how players advance their characters. Only that if the test doesn’t fit the task, I won’t call for a test that I know they “meant” to aim for.

I don’t hear you saying either that you’re at the other extreme and letting players have whatever test they want regardless of not matching the roleplay. I hear you, reasonably, saying that you take into consideration what you know they’re going for and give some leeway in letting them use the skills on their sheet.

I just disagree with that style. My own impulse is to do the same, but I recognize that I will not get the experience out of the game that draws me to it in the first place if I do that, so I don’t. My impulse is to think of Beginner’s Luck as a bad situation, but it’s neutral in the game, and avoiding it tips play away from what experience the game means to help us create. Thinking of Beginner’s Luck tests as opportunities prevents me from indulging that impulse that would inadvertently cut out part of the pleasure of Burning Wheel that I’m aiming for, and prevents me from teaching my group to fear and avoid failure, when BW wants them to accept both success and failure.

For how I want games to go, it’s a mistake to modify the Task based on what the player is lobbying for instead of what their character is actually doing. Some of the best moments are when a player can’t use their usual approach and pulls out the stops to somehow create a chance; similarly, some of the best twists are when a player does manage to completely reframe the situation into the skills they have so they can apply. Both ways we get play that is much more interesting than just letting the usual approach apply as ‘close enough’ without effort, without creating story. It’s the same as with Embodiment: close enough isn’t nearly as interesting as actually going out of the way to meet the high bar.

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I imagine this would get balanced out in the fiction. Unlike Persuasion or Rhetoric, where they’re slowly convinced of an idea through agreements and logic, this is bluntly laying out something that they don’t want to hear. This truth is ugly, and depending on your relationship with the other person it’s probably not gonna go well. Use Ugly Truth on someone above your station, and they’re probably going to cast you out or make your life hell. Below your station, and that’s how you get poisoned or robbed in the night. Or on the other hand, you might use it for the lower ob to make sure you get through to your best friend, who might still hate hearing it but appreciate your (brutal) honesty. And these are all successful roles. A failed role, you might say the same volatile thing, but they don’t believe it and now they don’t want to hear anything more from you; they cut off other avenues of dealing with them. Or they respond with violence. etc. etc. Overall, NPCs will most likely respond much more sharply to this sort of interaction.

(Just my take.)


Thanks for all the replies.

One more situation that often occurs:
Player(s) want to ask around for information in a village or town (and we want to make it quick). This is often a combination of multiple skills such as Streetwise, Persuasion, Interrogation, Intimidation, City-wise, etc. We have often just rolled Interrogation with forks but it doesn’t feel right for all PCs. What skills would you use (or allow to be used) as the main skill?

Interrogation is only for specific intent of getting the information from clearly unwilling people to do it.

Intent and Task is the most important factor. How characters approach to get the information? What is the intent afterall (what they want to know actually)? There is no main skill, especially that Interrogation, Intimidation and Persuasion are not skills solely about getting some information about village or town (mostly Wise-skills, but if for example The Task is to outdrink local peasants in the tavern, and The Intent is to get some spicy gossips, Drinking skill would be appropiate for example).

Fiction matters. Sometimes it’s just “Say Yes” and move on considering that PC spends some time with certain people and get some (basic) information needed…

You could always use Circles to round up an NPC that knows what they want to know, or was around when the thing happened, or whatever it is they need.

On success, it’s a quick conversation. On failure, they now have to use those other skills to get the information out of said NPC.

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I’ve said it before elsewhere, I can’t recall if I said it earlier in this thread too, but: I think it’s really useful to frame it as: Circles is your ability to meet people, make friends, and mingle. Rather than treating it like a purely mechanical interaction to “narratively conjure up useful people from your past to coincidentally be in exactly the place you want them to be”. Fictionally I think those sorts of coincidences can make sense, but if that’s all that it does then it’s a very abstract ability and the fact that it advances like any other ability with tests seems weird to me.

Anyway, the point, with my interpretation as an “innate socialisation skill” instead means that you can use it for more than just dredging up people from your past: You can use it to make new friends in similar environments to those you’re used to, to call on social favours perhaps, and yeah I think it could be used to gather information from the local villagers (so long as whoever makes the test has an LP in the villager setting, for example). As for setting the obstacles… I’d use the Obs for wises as inspiration.

(And what this means when you do still use Circles RAW, is that it’s like you’re making a retroactive test to see how your relationship / lasting impressions with this old acquaintance went)

(And before anyone says it, yes you could just use a wise for it; but that often seems to preclude actual roleplaying, like you’re just “conjuring the required information out of your head” instead; which I think is less interesting).


Using Circles could be interesting. However, not being able to roll it untrained or fork anything to it gets players frustrated. Circles also advances very slowly in our games because we get routine checks so rarely.

If Circles was an “ability to meet people, make friends and mingle”, it should probably have more interaction with skills (like Persuasion, Seduction, …). But I have to admit I like your idea.

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@SeraaronCircles is your ability to meet people, make friends, and mingle .”

^This is a sketchy interpretation of the attribute’s mechanical definition.

Circles is more your list of contacts. Everyone you have ever met before, have remembered in passing, or heard of from someone else. You use it to find people that you already know about*. The girl you had a crush on in high school whose friend gave you their number after their boyfriend cheated on them. The professor from college you cost you your Summa Cum Laude because he was salty. The long-alienated friend who left your band when a major label asked him to sign on as a solo artist.

Meeting People, Making Friends, and Mingling are very different:

Want to make a friend? Test Soothing Platitudes to flatter them. Test Persuasion to invite them to your awesome party. Ugly Truth helps you tell them that you’ve got a crush on them, or that the guy who’s currently flirting with them is a jerk. Engage them in playful banter with Rhetoric or Philosophy. Appraisal can be used to compliment their lovely jewelry (so can Jeweler). You don’t make friends with Circles, but Circles finds someone you are already friend with, or can later become friends with!

Want to Mingle? Walk around the room / house / court / tavern! Test Perception (hey!) to notice the most popular person in the room. Test Observation to notice the wallflower in the corner. Test Etiquette to impress the stiffs. Test Seduction to impress the coquettes. Test Conspicuous to get everyone’s attention. Test Inconspicuous to avoid all the damn riffraff.

Meeting people is as simple as walking up to a stranger. There ya go, person met.

Defining Circles as you have increases the chances of a GM accidentally robbing their players of more intricate and interesting social scenarios. You should really only be testing it to establish whether or not a character already knows someone with the desired qualities. If they don’t have those qualities, THEN you get to Make them your Friend. If you couldn’t find someone, THEN you get to mingle (first you need to find a venue.)


Well argued, Joel. After having re-read the Circles chapter in the BW Gold book, I agree.

To my previous question. The problem is that to save time, we often try to bundle these things to a single roll:

  1. Find a target (NPC) with useful information
  2. Extract the information from the target
  3. If unsuccessful, find a new target and try again

The GM wants the player to roll because she often has a decision to make (eg. how much information to give to the players).

My questions:

  • Should we use a linked check for steps 1 and 2?
  • What would be appropriate skills for step 1? Example cases: “Ask around about a guy we are chasing”, or “Ask around for current rumors about the local crime syndicate”.
  • How has step 3, the possibility to repeat the operation with other targets, been taken into consideration?

Going back to your previous question, I’d say your instincts are good. If it’s not super important, and your characters are asking around for information that someone might wish to withhold, interrogation is perfect. In terms of how you can describe it, think like a montage - think Scott Pilgrim, when he’s asking about Ramona Flowers - since he doesn’t need a specific NPC to tell him, he’s just looking for anyone who can talk, we get a montage of partygoers, one after another, telling him what they know.
“She’s from America.”
“I heard she’s hard core.”
“She has a boyfriend.”
“No, they broke up.”
But let’s say he fails the test of Interrogation? Then one of those NPCs says “Scott, I forbid you from hitting on Ramona.” Boom. Enmity.

Also, a lesson I still continue to struggle with - if you can’t think of a failure condition that makes you want to spend more time on this part of the story, it means the test is boring. Just Say Yes and describe what they learn.

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OK, so I should probably make just one roll with a social skill and fork streetwise / city-wise type skills (that I was considering for a preceding linked checks) to it. Keeping it simple.

And as the main skill I’ll use interrogation, intimidation, seduction, persuasion, drinking or whatever is the method for extracting the information.

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But here arises an interesting and potentially contentious point. Namely, when considering the view that:

…and the natural intuition that:

…with which I cannot help but to agree! And if our experiences in real life are to offer any indication, a person’s capacity to succeed at making Circles tests might reasonably be expected to deteriorate with time and not, to the contrary, advance with use. What alternative interpretation(s) might we devise to give The Burning Wheel a greater feeling of consistency in this regard?

Does it need greater consistency, or to be less abstract? There’s nothing inherently wrong with abstraction—else we’d be playing the hardest of hard sims instead of Burning Wheel to avoid abstraction as much as possible—so there needs to be more design reason than “it’s abstract” to need to change it. (As opposed to wanting to just for taste.)

I think the abstractness of Circles is just part of the game aspect of the system. It wouldn’t be very satisfying if Circles was static, would it?

Burning Wheel used to have skill decay, but it was taken out for being a lot of bookkeeping for no fun. Realistic, consistent, but not good gameplay. Similarly, I don’t see shade-shifting as much more than gamey motivation, nor the idea that someone gets more effective by dramatically angsting (Moldbreaker), but it does wonderful things for the play experience.

I think Circles’ existing definition does a good job of adding game-level positive experience, by giving players a way to contribute NPCs and open new, expected avenues of play. I don’t think it needs to be made more realistic. I suspect trying might actually impair its role in the system and play experience.


I’d argue that not only is there nothing wrong with abstraction. BW goes for abstraction on purpose, where other games might become extremely concrete, like Resources.


Well, I find my interpretation of Circles useful in my own games. Often because the player characters end up being from opposite ends of the world, so they’d be unable to use their Circles attribute at all if it can only be used to dredge up people from their past.

Instead I say, “Ah well you’ve lived in villages before, you know what village people are like, yeah let see if you can find this places medicine man: roll Circles”. The character doesn’t know them yet, but circles establishes whether they exist, and determines their first impressions.

Is that a better way of phrasing it? Initial disposition. Instead of being your ability to meet people, make friends, and mingle, Circles is an abstraction of what sort of impression you leave on people, or you ability to make a good impression (but not like mimicry impressions). To me those seem like the same things, but maybe not to you. Repeated Circles use on the same person grants them as a relationship, after all, so it must have some relation to your ability make friends—or enemies—both old and new!

Using and bending the rules the way is best for your table is always ideal! But it’s not necessarily the way to grasp or explain the subsystem’s role in the game or what it represents.

The difference between a relationship and another NPC is strictly about how important to the PC’s story they are, and how reliably the player can reincorporate them into the story. It’s mostly about game and story-level things, not ability. The “ability” it represents is just how connected the PC is, not so much a skill rating as a rating about a fact of their social web. (Page 378: “[Circles] allows the players to abstract the process of discovering who their characters know in the game world.”) It need not have some relation to the PC’s ability to make friends and enemies.

Hence, the capacity for Circles to promote NPCs to Relationships isn’t about simming an ability to make friends and enemies so much as it is about promoting an NPC from “extra” to “recurring guest star” in the PC’s organically-emergent personal arc. It’s “who you know and who they know”, so-called “networking”: the ability to get a meeting with someone or acquire an introduction, not also the ability to capitalise on the connections and meetings. So, meeting only; mingling and making friends is for other skills. (Invoking the enmity clause or lack thereof doesn’t so much dictate first impressions as it determines whether the connection has negative baggage. Page 383 notes that the enmity clause need not create outright enemies, just those who have a negative disposition, possibly due to a circumstance or past slight that’s fixable. Notably, it’s not a first impression, it’s an existing impression.)

The ability rolled always has to match the Task, too. If a player wants to find the foreign village’s medicine man (Intent), how (Task) matters: “I’ve heard of him before by reputation” is a (kinda thin, but still) Task that fits Circles. If it’s “I know villages and can spot the kind of residence a medicine man would have”, that Task would be Village-wise.


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