The Difficulty Table -- Why?

Hi Folks.

I’m looking at transitioning a group from Torchbearer to Burning Wheel, and the biggest conceptual hurdle is going from the (very elegant) Mouse Guard Pass/Fail advancement to this crunchy, wonky difficulty table.

The question I’m putting to you is: why?

I can see definite differences between the systems. Both require the character to push their skill in order to advance, but Burning Wheel doesn’t actually require FAILURE, just challenge. Which, after a long hard grind in Torchbearer, is a welcome change.

But why is the difficulty table so inconsistent? It seems like the fraction of dice needed to make a test difficult fluctuates between 50% and 80% as you go up in dice. Is there a reason for this? With most games I would just house rule it into something simpler, but I have learned to give BWHQ the benefit of the doubt.

This is actually my second time writing about this. I think over a year ago I asked a similar question and didn’t get an answer that was any help to me. We tried BW, and things went off the rails with paperwork pretty quickly. My group seems to like everything about the game but this table! I do really like BW and BE in theory and would like to play them. So please, if you have a lot of experience with these games, can you help me out with the following:

Is there some reason not to just make the Routine/Difficult cutoff “Half, round up”? Does increasing the cutoff after 6 dice somehow improve the gameplay?
Is there a super-secret, genius design rationale for why the table is the way it is? Sounds facetious, but I’m serious. Part of me just assumes this is a rough patch in an otherwise ingenious system that got smoothed out in Mouse Guard. The other part of me wonders if it was a deliberate design that has some emergent property I haven’t discovered yet.

Really, any insight you can provide as to why the system works this way (instead of more like MG/Torchbearer) would be a huge help in getting my group to fall in line to try the game. Thanks in advance.

Would it be too easy to get Difficult Tests if the cutoff was 50%? Is that why it gets gradually harder?

For Stats and skills 5+, Routine tests are pretty worthless for advancement. So any change to the system that made fewer tests routine would make higher-rating and stat advancement easier.

Does this show in practice? Are difficult tests pretty hard to come by?

I would’nt say that I necessarily have a lot of experience, but I do see myself as being pretty moderately experienced with Burning Wheel, so I thought that I would add in my two cents here. I hope it helps.

I don’t have my book with me but IIRC exponents of 1-4 mark Advancement on a combination of Routine and/or Difficult and Challenging test. 5+ only requiring a combination of Difficult and Challenging.

I believe this is two fold. Like many things in BWHQ games, there is one reason in the Narrative and one reason in the mechanics, but I believe they closely tie in together.

I want to start first with exponents at 5+. In the narration, characters that are experience enough to have a 5+ to an exponent are now approaching mastery level in their skill. Day to day routine stuff is so common, and routine to them that its no longer essential to their advancement.

What this does in the mechanics at the play table, is that it encourages the player and nearly forces her to go out and seek conflicts for the character that are going to push the furthest limit of what the character is capable of. This in turn drives the story forward to dramatic and climatic results. You’re going to push your character, that’s what Burning Wheel wants. A push of your character into the dramatic, and into danger. Because, that’s fun.

Another aspect that I look at is Artha. All tests that are challenging level are going to require Artha to pass. This isnt because Luke is a jerk, but because what he’s trying to push you to do. Its all the wheel. Its all the revolving aspects of the advancement and reward structure of the game.

You write a belief. Playing out that belief leads you to dramatic and challenging skill tests that you pass or fail. But working towards those beliefs, and passing or failing those tests allow you to gain Artha. This then leads back to the the creation of further beliefs that lead you to more climatic and once again challenging skill tests that you pump Artha into in order to pass.

Its kind of magical.

But to me at least its all about engaging at the table and pushing your character to the extremes. Its all about seeking out those tests that are harder, for advancement’s and for fiction sake.

I hope my rambling helped a bit.


You can also get Challenging tests by Helping another character, if you have compatible skills.

Ah yes, I over looked that. Good point.

My understanding is that the Difficulty table includes all non-artha dice. So if you have Exp 4 and the Ob is 5 (Challenging), accepting help will raise you to 5 dice on the table (Difficult).

The only way to get challenging logs is to add artha. FoRKs, Die Traits, Help and Wises make the roll easier, and so lower the logged difficulty.

That part makes total sense to me. I’m really just talking about the complexity of that Difficulty table, the actual advancement tables for skills and stats are fine for me. I’m somewhat vindicated by the fact that nobody really seems to know or care how it works. :slight_smile:

For the time being I’ve decided to stay the course and play with the table as-is – but in general I wonder if the game might not benefit from a little simplicity in this core mechanism. I’m kind of taking it on faith that there is a reason for this complexity. If not, then the Mouse Guard/Torchbearer method is just flat-out superior.

Or help on an Ob 6 test.

I don’t have it memorized, but that’s not the same as not caring. When I play I have that page bookmarked for easy reference.

Unlike in Torchbearer (with the exception of checks) PCs can make advancements for tests by helping. And in fact can short circuit all the math, since they only look at their own exponent and compare it to the obstacle. Pg. 46 ‘Helpers Learn’. Making it one of the easier ways to earn a challenging test.

I figure its like xp curves, and its there to keep the game playable for longer. The game’s been playtested enough to know how long they want people to stay at certain exponents. Burning Wheel is a long form game. If it was possible to max skills too fast, its sustainability might suffer.

A good thing to keep in mind is that 10 is the absolute max. After that you only have color shifting. And I know that Torchbearer has a max skill and none of this wonky math, but TB also has order of might. Which color shifting kind of does but not really. The game strives for objectivity. Not in a simulation kind of way, but in a world that knows itself kind of way. Demons have like G8 stats. In BW if a hero is going to get close to B8 they better go through some shit. There’s also not as much risk of skills decreasing. Injuries can still do that, but they don’t come up as often as in torchbearer.

I can’t speak to the table configuration, but I do think that limiting the number of tests that influence advancement is part of it. In Burning Wheel, the players have more opportunities to test skills than in how Mouse guard and Torchbearer are structured. “Roll the dice or say yes” also contributes to constraining tests in BW.

Thanks! I was hoping someone would point this out before I got home and could confirm it in the book.

Thanks guys, this has been helpful. Especial thanks to Alex_P and Bioleera for schooling me on help.

Has anyone made a comparison grid of all the BWHQ games? It seems like it would really help in transitioning from one to the other. The actual differences have a tendency to lurk in the system.

The wiki is a lost treasure trove if you can manage to navigate it.

BWHQ game comparison

Well then. I guess my answer was a little ‘left field’ then. My apologies Evil, I must have misunderstood the question.


No worries. Your response was good advice for someone with a different issue. My issue is wonky as hell, because I am wonky as hell. Given a table, I will attempt to glean its deepest meaning before using it in the game. That’s not normal.

In my experience, the advancement system really lets people experiment with low-exponent skills at fairly low stakes. However, once you start mastering something (exponent 5+), then you really get into character-defining moments that tie into advancement. Example: in one of my games, the wizard was one challenging test from advancing his sorcery to an 8. However, the player spent a lot of time finding non-sorcerous solutions to his big problems, simply because the potential fallout from a failure of that magnitude was something he wasn’t willing to risk.

Simply put, in my experience the complex advancement scheme has paid great dividends.

So, here’s the thing about Mouse Guard and BW. They’re very different games. A failed test in MG isn’t failure, it’s a GM decision point. Do I give them success with a cost or do I have an interesting plot twist to spring on them? Players are encouraged to read the dice and decide if they want to shift the results in either direction. Do I accept all these helping dice and try to push for a pass while including my friends in the risks, or do I take a check and push toward the other direction, condition or twist? If you have tons of dice, might as well take a check. If you can’t possibly succeed, might as well take a check.

BW presents a different set of decisions. I know it’s a bit of an over simplification that isn’t always true in all instances, but in BW the GM’s focus is on challenging your beliefs. Testing the characters. The players are going to be failing a lot and they’re going to be rolling tests with very unlikely odds, but they’re generally going to be pushing for success, because the GM’s focus on their beliefs will tend to make rolls about things that matter, things the PC wants. And failure won’t be easily shrugged off. It won’t just be an interesting twist. It’s gonna matter. Taking on difficult and challenging tasks, in the face of overwhelming odds, because you believe, is a subtly different tone from getting into interesting adventures because of a mishap.

Now, I admit that’s an oversimplification. We definitely sometimes look at the dice and manipulate them to get the test we need in BW. And sometimes MG twists exact a price. But I think the general thrust of the systems, and the advancement system in particular, support different priorities in play.

We’ve found through extensive playtesting that those numbers were the best ranges for the rate of advancement and the difficulty of tests we wanted in Burning Wheel.
Consistency is a hobgoblin, after all. And it’s really just a simple table look up that gets more and more familiar with time.

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I’d like to quote an old post I’ve found helpful on this:

That little mnemonic has saved me a decent number of having to bust out the table.

But… hobgoblins are awesome!

I think I do get it, now, especially after some of the advice upthread. At the moment, I still think MG has the better approach, but maybe after playing through a Burning Empires campaign I’ll become a believer.