Thoughts on Duel of Wits / Social Skills and Player Control

Hello! I’m new to this forum and new to Burning Wheel. I’m excited to try this game (going to hopefully be a play by post style thing with just me as the 1 player and my friend GMing and playing more or less a second PC). I don’t think this should matter, but yes I have picked up copies of the BWGR and the Codex already.

My Intent
As the title implies, this topic is more of a First Impressions about a particular element of the game than it is a mechanical question, though I am interested in what experienced players think. I want to be clear up front that I am speaking only about my own play style preference, and I understand that the rules, as they exist, serve the desires of many long time BW players. I don’t think it’s useful to speak about a game in absolutes (“this game is good” or “this game is not for you” and so on). Secondly, the purpose of this thread is not that I want my mind changed. I’m confident I know what I want out of an RPG experience, and if I do change that Belief I will do it on my own time (this isn’t a BW session I don’t need a GM to provide a point of antagonism here :smiley: ).

My Preference for Player Control
When I’m playing an RPG, I’m there to roll dice, see my character perform mechanically based on how they’re built, and experience (or build if you prefer) a story with my friends. Burning Wheel is more collaborative in the way it creates a story than other games I’ve played, with the system of setting Task and Intent, and the stakes of Success and Failure. This seems pretty interesting to me now that I think I have my head wrapped around the idea. However, when this design philosophy carries over into social tests (and Duel of Wits), it runs into some territory I’m not interested in as a player:

The Player’s control of their character’s conscious mind (what they say, what they freely agree to, and so on) is sacrosanct as far as I’m concerned. Violating this condition simply bypasses what I want out of a game: to really get into the head of my character, think like they would think, and make decisions like I think they would. To be clear, this does not mean I am upset when a character misses an attack (they chose to make the attack, the dice decide how good their control of their body was), is made to cower in fear after a failed Steel test (the instinctual fear response is beyond the purview of the conscious mind), or says something under extreme duress (torture has predictable results that are, again, outside conscious control). This paragraph is the part I meant when I said the purpose of this thread is not to change my mind. I’m not interested in arguing the merits of the above preference, I am only stating that I hold it so that I can talk about my impression of Duel of Wits and other social skills in BW.

Social Skill tests in BW
I’ll just point out how my preference applies to a few common situations:

PC vs NPC (NPC wants nothing specific): Player rolls a social skill vs Ob = NPC’s Will, no problem for me we’re just rolling dice to see how the PC impacts an NPC.

NPC vs PC: as far as I’m aware, if the PC has no interest in the NPC, the NPC isn’t supposed to initiate a roll. Fine by me.

PC vs NPC (NPC wants to persuade the PC): This would be a versus roll, and here’s the first case I’m not ok with. The NPC’s dice should not, in my preference, be able to dictate the PC’s conscious reaction. Note I say persuade: I’d be fine with an NPC rolling Falsehood to trick the PC into thinking something they’re saying is true (this is a measure of the PC’s ability to interpret nonverbal cues), or Intimidate the PC (the fear response is often beyond conscious control).

PC vs PC: Aside from Falsehood to make another PC think you’re not lying when you are, or Intimidate to scare the other PC, any test like this is fundamentally counter to my preferences for RPGs.

Duel of Wits
Duel of Wits was of particular interest to me since I’d never learned a “social combat” system like it (I know others exist, I’ve just never read them). Now that I’ve read the general rules and commentary in the Codex, and seen a (rather old) demo of Luke Crane running The Sword that included a Duel of Wits, I think that, in and of itself, it looks like fun! The idea of setting up a series of talking points, RPing them out, then rolling dice to assault your opponent’s argument is pretty neat, as is the idea of using the winner’s remaining Body of Argument points to determine the level of compromise reached.

I think Duel of Wits would be ideal for me if my PC is in front of a crowd arguing with another character (PC or otherwise) and both of our Purposes involve swaying the crowd in a particular direction. All the dice and the compromise mechanic allow for a nuanced resolution of what the crowd takes away from the debate.

However, from what I’ve seen and read, a lot of the time a Duel of Wits is about getting a PC to agree to something. This is really not something I’m interested in at all. If my PC is going to agree to a compromise, state it to me the player and I will decide if my PC will agree. I have no interest in entering a Duel of Wits where I will end up agreeing in character to some course of action that is not specifically defined from the outset. That would remove my agency over my PC’s mind. It requires the player to remove themselves from their PC’s mind and let the dice decide what they end up thinking to a degree, and that’s just not something I want to do in an RPG.

For example, in the demo I watched, the Elf and the Dwarf (I don’t know their names) entered into a Duel of Wits where the Elf’s Purpose was “Leave and take the sword to my father” while the Dwarf’s was along the lines of “The elf will recognize the sword is mine and belongs to my clan and is clearly not of elven make.” The Major Compromise (in favor of the elf) that they arrived at was that the Elf would take the sword to his father, but the dwarf and several master craftsmen from his clan would follow the elf and examine the sword once there. That sounds like a fun compromise to me, and one that I might agree to if I were playing one of the two characters. However, what I would not agree to is going into a debate already having locked myself in to a decision that has not even been made.

Potential Solutions
Well, fortunately my friend and I are in agreement in terms of disliking social skill tests dictating a PC’s conscious decisions. So the easiest thing to do is just to use the social skills that exist on NPCs only like you would in any number of other RPGs, and leave any situation where PCs are having a debate or an NPC wants to convince a PC of something up to non-mechanical RP. We could still use Duel of Wits in the situation that a PC is trying to sway a crowd and is opposed by another character (as I mentioned above). I know that cutting out most of the uses of Duel of Wits has the potential to lead to Artha bloat, but I hope we will have enough Range and Cover and Fight scenarios to make up for it!

Why Did I Write All This?
As I said at the outset, this is just about my playstyle preferences, and from what I’ve seen most BW players love Duel of Wits in all its manifestations (and I see the appeal). I’ve even seen a couple threads that might have been by a GM trying to deal with a player with a similar mindset to myself. However, what I didn’t see was any real commentary by someone who both wanted to play BW, but also was opposed to social tests being used in the ways I described above. I wanted to offer what seems like a slightly different perspective in what I hope is a nuanced-enough fashion.

Also, I would love to hear the thoughts of veteran players on what I’ve said here! Like I said, not on the merits of caring about what I care about, but how you think the rest of the system will be affected by removing duel of wits, if you have thoughts on my suggested solution, or if you think I’ve made a mistake in my interpretation of the rules. Or just whatever’s on your mind really :smiley: .

What I don’t expect to do is change anyone’s mind on how they play BW. I want everyone to play every RPG exactly how they want to play it, and love the games they love for exactly the reasons they love them.

I tried to keep this from getting too long-winded, but I don’t know that I succeeded. Thanks to anyone who read all this; I hope you’re having a fantastic day!

Generally social vs tests are between two parties trying to convince a third: You want the bishop to denounce me publicly; I want the bishop to stay his tongue. Which of us is more persuasive?

I’ve never seen a GM call to have an NPC (or PC) roll to do convince a player of an idea or to do something (outside of a Duel of Wits in the latter case). I’ve once let another player roll to seduce my character, but there was no pressure there; I decided my guy was open to it and we let the dice determine the effectiveness

In general, if you you want to socially influence someone, you roll against a static Ob equal to their Will (or Perception in rare instances); a Vs Test is almost always the third-party scenario described above.

You can’t be forced into a Duel of Wits ( Walking Away BWGR 390). The Duel of Wits also can’t change a character’s mind (unless the player wants it too) (Losing BWGR 399). A Duel of Wits result is binding, but it’s binding according to the context established before the Duel is started.

It feels like your impression is that the Duel of Wits is much harsher and much more involuntary than it is. You say, “Your character’s father has insulted my character publicly; I want you to kill him.” I say, “That’s ridiculous; my character loves his father.” You say, “Duel of Wits!” I say, “Pfft, my character would never agree to that. Are you going to broach this topic in character, because my character is probably gonna shank you if you do.” You don’t have to open your character up to agree to things you don’t think they ever would.

On the other hand, there are probably some things you think your character might agree to. “You want me to kill my father? Well… He is a cruel man who’s never shown me an ounce of kindness, but killing him is a bit much, isn’t it… What will you give me if I do? Will you kill that slanderous Bishop? Can you be convinced?”

Overall, my advice is to try out the social systems with the works, but get assertive about the Duel of Wits. Use it to pursue your character’s agenda. If your interlocutor demands you put something too precious on the table to negotiate, then just walk away! … Or make a juicy counter offer that you are agreeable to.

Those are my thoughts! I’m sure there are plenty of canny folks 'round these parts with formidable insight of their own. :grin:

EDIT: Grammar


Oh! And welcome to the forums! It’s lovely to have you.

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I understand not wanting a roll to determine what your PC does. However—as someone who has argued a great many cases in courts across the UK—I also don’t want to force my GM to match wits with me by putting his ability to persuade against mine. So, I find Duel of Wits a useful mechanism to make persuasion my character vs. an NPC.

It also serves a similar purpose in areas where I don’t know anything but my character might: for example, I don’t know what is or is not actually corrupting in the game I am playing at the moment, so I would tank a discussion about the difference between necessary and unnecessary rules for the safe practice of magic.

So, my feeling on how taking out Duel of Wits (and smaller PC v NPC social tests) would affect the game is that it would slant social interaction strongly toward the players’ and GM’s knowledge and abilities rather than the characters.


Thanks for the response! I’m going to reply below piecemeal.

Ah, ok this isn’t the impression I had gotten from the Codex’s advice on versus tests. Good to know!

You can’t be forced into the DoW, but if you Walk Away, then by the rules you have to physically exist the scene and can’t argue about the topic any more. Are you saying in this case you’re not Walking Away but telling the other player a DoW isn’t appropriate?

Additionally, a DoW can make you agree to something that you the player wouldn’t want to agree to, since from the start you are bound to results that aren’t determined till the end of the duel. This seems basically the same as “changing their mind” except your PC is allowed to be mad they were convinced to go along with it internally. I know you can refuse the DoW if the Purpose of your opponent is completely anathema but at the same time, the only reason to have a DoW is if you don’t want to agree with your opponent right? Otherwise the PCs would already be on the same page.

So, I would not be ok with any DoW if the purpose is to get my character to agree to do anything. If my PC and another character are at an impasse, I don’t want the dice deciding how much of a compromise I agree to, even if the compromise the DoW produces is something I would have agreed to if it was stated on its own. This isn’t to say I don’t ever want my PC to compromise but that I want exact control over what they are willing to agree to on principle. It’s not a matter of agreeing to a DoW to make my character agree to something they never would agree to, but a matter of not wanting a DoW to make any decision on what my character agrees to.

Hopefully this clears up my concern somewhat. I tried to actually address your point here but maybe I’m still missing the mark :sweat_smile:

Basically, if my character might agree to something, I want to be the one making that decision. That’s part of the fun! So I still wouldn’t want to enter a DoW here, I’d just want to be told what my PC is told then come to a decision on what my PC will want to do myself.

Just to reiterate again, I don’t want the dice ever deciding where that negotiation lands. That’s the core of my reason for wanting to cut out DoW from my game :smiley: Still, this is all stuff I’ll keep in mind. I might change my mind at some point.

Thanks for the input! Again, responding piecemeal below.

Ah, well fortunately I’m no trained lawyer, but I suppose I understand that concern! :smiley: As for persuasion vs an NPC, I would just use the Persuasion skill in a standard test. For the NPC trying to convince a PC, then yes the GM would just have to talk to me. This does mean that unless the player decides to play along, the GM might have a hard time “pulling one over” on the character and that might not be super realistic, depending on the character’s stats and the disposition of the player. However, I personally still prefer that situation to the dice having any say in what my character will be convinced of in a debate.

If your character should know something relevant to the situation either from their backstory or through a Wise skill they have, shouldn’t the GM tell you what it is your character knows? If your character knows what practices are safe practices for magic, my assumption would be that you would talk to the GM, figure out how much your character knows and what those practices are so that now you know. This might come down to playstyle preference again. I don’t want to assume anything about you but for me at least, I don’t really want a high degree of player-character separation, which imo includes knowing what the character knows about relevant plot elements. Obviously, I’m not trying to say either approach is better I’m just trying to clarify my confusion.

I will keep this in mind though! I’m sure I could do a better job with my roleplaying in terms of accurately portraying my characters’ logical abilities in all the games I play :smiley:
Edit: Honestly, this point is similar to one brought up by another friend I was speaking to and I do agree that it could be an issue. I’m hoping the resolution can be something the player and GM can discuss OOC, if the GM thinks the player is obstructing the narrative with their decision making.

To clarify your point, if your character confronted the (NPC) empress and engaged her in a duel of wits and she (rightly) demolished your character and thus imposed her will and conditions (you were wrong, I am right and you know it and believe it), would this be an acceptable outcome for you as a player?


I just checked the Codex, and you’re right! There isn discussion on using Vs Tests convincing at cross purposes. Maybe we always use Duel of Wits because it’s more fun and interesting!

In the example, I’m telling the other player that if he comes to my character and pitches a scheme to murder his father, it’ll be a Fight! rather than a Duel of Wits. Of course, it doesn’t have to be so extreme! Players and their characters can disagree without their being a Duel of Wits or social test involved; but if you want the other guy to do things your way, you gotta back it up with dice and stakes of your own.

You set the terms at the start, allowing you to opt out if they aren’t to your liking. You can reject a compromise and negotiate another, so you still aren’t really trapped there. And, of course, you can slay your opponent!

Yeah, at this point, I don’t know what to tell you. Sorry. :sweat_smile:

If you’re gonna ditch the Duel of Wits, maybe go for some of those social Vs Tests to get early social skill advancement.


Hello there! I was hoping my post wouldn’t come across as too combative toward your work. I want to be clear I do really like what you (and your collogues) have developed here. Of course you don’t need my affirmation for your game but for my own sake I wanted to say that again :smiley:

This is an interesting question, and I think a good clarifying point. So if I’m reading this correctly, my PC has went into this situation either knowingly wrong or unknowingly misinformed, and in talking to the queen, is either called out on their lie or informed of the truth they were unaware of.

I still would like to have control over how my character decides to react to this situation. I don’t see a reason for the dice to dictate the degree to which my character is swayed internally. If I am playing my PC as acting rationally, then surely they will know and believe the queen is correct. However, I don’t really need a DoW to tell me whether my PC is convinced: they either are (by my choice), or they’ll react irrationally and refuse to believe (in which case, I suppose, I should have them refuse the DoW in the first place). In either case though, a bit of RP between my PC and the queen should be enough to clarify that my PC is objectively incorrect here.

If the DoW was between my PC and the Queen, and the purpose was to convince the other NPCs of the court of which of us was in the right, then sure. It sounds kind of fun to go into that knowing you’ll probably not convince anyone in the room! But if the purpose is what you stated, that my PC believe that the Queen is correct, well I’d like that to be my decision not the DoW’s.

I think I might be convinced in the future to give a campaign using DoW a try, but for the time being I think it comes down to my preference for less distance between the player and character. I’m not sure how it is for other people, but I like to approach playing an RPG as inhabiting a person in the fictional world, so I guess I expect to have agency over my character in a way that’s generally analogous to my agency over my own mind and body. Obviously there have to be places this bends to fit mechanical or narrative needs of the game and every one will have different interpretations of where they want that line drawn exactly :sweat_smile: . I know I have friends who see it more as a group of authors writing a story together (which implies a bit less control over their characters and more of a focus on collaborative theme building).

I’m enjoying the conversation (I don’t mean to sound forced I just want to be clear since you can’t see my face to know I’m having a good time)! Like I said at the outset my main interest here is to get other points of view on what I had been thinking about :stuck_out_tongue:

Yeah, came across to me mostly as a faster alternative to DoW for use when time is short or the conflict doesn’t have a stake in a PC’s Beliefs.

Ah, ok thanks for the clarification. If both players are amicable to having their PC’s mind changed then this works fine (and I agree the DoW process looks fun, I like how it leads you to tie in your background-rich skills for FoRKs and gets you to reach for things to use to support your scripted moves).

I guess my concern is also, what if you want to convince your opponent of something but don’t think it makes sense for your PC to have their mind changed? There’s not really a spot for that sort of obstinate argumentation once a DoW is proposed. You either agree to risk agreeing to something or you “shut up” and let the scene continue without further input on the topic from you.

I suppose an easy solution to that particular concern is just talking to your group about how to handle walking away. I mean the rulebook says have to literally leave the scene in character but every group doesn’t necessarily have to play it that way :smiley: I’ll leave it at that though since this is not the Hacks subforum.

No need to appologize! If I’ve worked myself into a bit of a corner, well that’s what I do best and it’s my job to figure out what I want to do :stuck_out_tongue: . Like I said in the OP, I already had decided I probably don’t want to use DoW all that much but I wanted to see if my point of view could be explained to some more experienced players. I’ll take some time to think about how to get social skill advancement into the game, yeah. This first character I’ve built isn’t the most socially adept but I do want to get the chance to change that as time passes, and removing DoW is going to really make it harder to get those tests for advancement without some thought put to how to replace it. Thanks for pointing that out.

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No, you went in convinced you were right. And your loss means you’ve agreed to gather an army for the empress and wage war against an ally.

You can still harbor your grudges, misgivings and whatever else. But she won and you’ll do as she wishes.

Does this result sound like something you would engage with?


(Reposting this text as a reply to the post I’m responding to rather than a general reply to the thread :sweat_smile: )

Edit: Looks like actually the initial post was already a reply to Luke, but I wasn’t seeing the “Replies” dropdown under his post so I assumed incorrectly it wasn’t. My mistake, sorry for the additional notifications.

If the reasons the Empress gave were compelling enough that I think that my PC would agree to do what the Empress wants, then sure. But in that case you don’t need a duel of wits, you just need the Empress to state her case and for my PC (and I) to realize my assumption going in was incorrect and agree to do what she wants in character.

If she’s going to say “do this or die,” again, no need for a duel of wits, the Empress can say so in character and then I as the player can decide if my character would do it, or submit to execution.

If, for some reason, I hear what the Empress has to say during a duel of wits, still think she’s full of it and don’t agree that she needs an army or has a valid reason for going to war, no I’m not interested in the result of the DoW being “you’ve agreed to do what she says.” I always want that to be my decision. I think I could invoke the Murder Most Foul rule and try and kill the Empress then and there, but that’s not quite the same. The Empress isn’t saying “do this or die” and I choose to go hang. If I invoke Murder Most Foul the narrative implication is that I just up and attacked her at the end of the argument. :smiley:

So, I’m fine with the idea of having this conversation with an NPC Empress and being forced to agree to something or die, or to have my PC’s mind changed, but only if the end result is fully my decision. I don’t really see a reason for the dice to get to decide to what my character would agree.

I think if I was to use a DoW in a situation like this, I’d have my Purpose be “I will convince the courtiers that the queen is misguided” and her Purpose would be something like “I will reaffirm the superiority of my decisions to the assembled court.” Then when I lose that DoW, the queen might be in a position to tell me “you have to do this or I’ll just have you executed” or just “go away” (up to the GM) but the DoW has not actually caused me to agree to anything, it’s just determined the opinions that NPCs have of my case.

Right. So what I’m reading here is that you’re defensive and protective about your character and maybe even your ideas of where you want a game to go. And that you’re not interested in being challenged or surprised or forced to adopt an uncomfortable stance.

And to be fully transparent, BW play doesn’t require such challenges, surprises or discomfort — you can play with a light heart. However, playing with real risk, real vulnerability on the table, BW is at its best. And caring about something deeply and being forced to compromise and not get your way is part of that vulnerability.

So if you’re going to take vulnerability off the table, I submit to you that playing Burning Wheel is not worth it. It’s a complex game full of exceptions and frustrating quirks. It’s heavy and unfamiliar. And these burdens don’t pay off unless you enter the bargain with an open heart.

If you’d like to play Burning Wheel the way you’ve played D&D or GURPS or whatever else you’ve played to satisfaction in the past, I think you will enjoy your experience much more if you played D&D/GURPS/Whatever the way you would play BW instead.


And to dig more specifically back into the example: none of those emotional waves of the hand will come to pass. You will not simply agree. You will not see the empress as one to be obeyed.

Why? Because you will write a belief about something your character cares deeply about and, as GM, I will slowly and steadily build weight and complexity onto that belief, probably over many sessions. And when you finally put forth your hopes and dreams (to the Empress in this case), I will challenge you in such a way that for you to fail will gut those hopes and dreams.

That’s how the game is played.


(I’ll just respond to both posts here to keep things together)

I’m protective of my control over my character. Over where I want a game to go? Yeah I might be protective of that if I have something in particular in mind. As for being forced to adopt an uncomfortable stance, I guess if you mean “forcing my character to adopt a stance that I don’t think they would adopt” then yes, because like I said I am protective of my control of my character.

I don’t think I meant to say that I would never compromise, I’ve been trying to specifically say that when I do compromise, I want to make the choice myself rather than have the dice decide to what degree my character agrees to compromise. However, I will keep this advice in mind as I play!

Frankly speaking, I’ll be the one to decide when and if I’m having fun playing Burning Wheel, and when and if it’s worth my time. For the time being, I am interested in trying the game, and maybe in the process I’ll even change my mind on how I want to approach my character. I find the attitude of “I don’t think you actually will like this game” rather frustrating, especially after I have stated repeatedly that I am excited to try the game regardless. Maybe I’ll play BW with a larger group one day, hate it, and go play a different game, but I want to try it first so there’s no need to scare me off before I do :smiley:

So you’re saying that if done right, I as the player will never want my character to agree, but they will anyway? Doesn’t that just mean that the DoW is forcing my character to go against their Belief whether I want them to or not? If their Belief leads them to the conclusion that helping the Empress is wrong, then the DoW loss ends with them agreeing to help her anyway, then hasn’t the actual emotional decision of whether or not to stand by that belief or to bend to the weight of the Empress’s power been sort of skipped over and made by the dice?

I really am trying my best to follow what you’re saying here. If I’m completely missing the mark then I apologize for it. It’s interesting to know what the, well, intended way to play the game is :smiley:

Nah, it’s been a good time! No worries.

That makes sense. I see it the other way, that the extended conflicts are zoomed-in versions of simple vs tests.

That seems like what the standard test-vs-their-Will situation is for. Generally, if a Duel of Wits is on the table, it’s because both parties have something they want from the other.

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Yeah, that sounds right to me.

Yeah, I suppose it’s just a matter of “having to risk something” to convince your opponent of anything, if you both are active players in the conversation (as far as the rules are concerned).

Why would I argue with you if I didn’t think I had a shot of you listening to what I have to say? :stuck_out_tongue:

Well, yes but more specifically you put your agency as a player on the line in DoW (in that if you lose you lose your ability to control your character’s decision making process precisely, or you can depending on the stakes of the DoW). Not just “maybe I’ll like what I hear” like in this conversation. Plus if you mean this thread specifically, I wasn’t approaching this as a matter of arguing to change anyone’s mind, I just wanted to talk to some BW players! I’ve definitely been listening to what you’ve been saying and I’ll keep it in mind though :smiley:

I agree one can always play down one’s abilities: I’ve played plenty of characters who weren’t professional lawyers. However, it is very tricky the other way around: someone who has not experience in arguing a court case will have great difficulty playing a character who is brilliant at it just on their OOC skills. Which is where DoW is great because it replaces the binary “make a Law” test that most systems fall back on with a system that represents the complexity of debate.

In the same way many systems already have a system that means players don’t have to be brilliant warriors to play one and represents how combat can be about tactics and complexity rather than just who hits hardest.

To riff on that, how would you feel about a player who said “I want player agency, so if an attacker wants to wound/capture my character I want to decide they they are able to do it, not have the dice force me to take wounds/be overwhelmed”?