What are PC's skills, really?

I have found myself in the unexpected position of running a BW game. I will soon be introducing the mechanics to people new to the game, which is odd given my sometimes strained relationship with BW. So I’m turning to you, the experts. :slight_smile:

From where I sit, skills for PCs seem to have two very different roles, which sometimes overlap.

1. Skills are attached to the character
“Skills” on the sheet reflect how facile a character is with a skill set. They are character descriptors expressed through game mechanics: literally a rating of 0-10 in a character’s particular expertise, and a skill score should reflect that role. In certain subsystems, this is the only relevant role a skill serves–like DoW, R&C, Fight, and similar subsystems.

2. Skills are a resource attached to the player
“Skills” on the sheet reflect to what degree a player has narrative control over scenes involving a character and that skill. Thus, a player can narrate a character picking a lock as a means to assassinate a man, even though lock picking isn’t traditionally thought of as such a grisly skill set. And in light of “failing forward,” a character with a very low “skill” on the sheet may regularly perform well in tasks related to the skill–there just may be unfortunate consequences because the player lacks narrative control.

In these situations, the skill score does not reflect a character’s expertise in the skill. The skill is a game mechanic for determining narrative control. Ostensibly, a skill score should reflect the player’s interest in narrative control over scenes involving the skill.

I’d add that regardless of these very different roles, the mechanics of skill advancement and shade change service each role well.

Is this a fair explanation of how skills “really” play, regardless of the line-and-verse of the rulebook? Or am I doin’ in wrong? This is significant because I want the new players to understand how the mechanics “really” work at the table. Mechanics weren’t well explained when I was introduced to BW, which turned me off from the game for about ten years. Some of that lingers. I’d like to avoid repeating the same with other new people.

Thank you for your thoughts.

Here’s my take on it.

Skills are your tools for resolving a situation. They represent ways that a character can solve a problem. When the GM says “okay, so you want to assassinate the Duke, what are you doing?” you look down at your sheet and see what you’re good at, or else make something else up and start learning a new skill. In a way, they’re sort of like sub-traits, yeah. Like you said–character descriptors.

At the same time, skills are limited in that only some of them are really applicable to a situation. The idea of “stretching” really applies here–you can totally say “you’re just stretching to justify that skill, use another one”. So skills also serve to sketch out your turf in the current scene–what you can and can’t effectively do.

For Example: when one of my players chose to use Inconspicuous to assassinate someone from a crowd, that totally changed the outcome of the scene, and wound up getting another player’s character blamed for the murder.

My understanding is that skills are more like your first description. They represent the capabilities of the character. Narrative control is never explicitly called out in the rules, but is implicit in the Task and Intent rules. Grand enough intents can drastically alter the narrative, but the task (i.e. the skill) must be realistically related to the intent and the GM can veto it or suggest alterations. At the end of the day, skills grant the player exactly what you describe in your second part. The entire act of burning a character is a narrative act by the player because the BITs, skills, relationships etc. they choose indicate the type of situations and stories they are interested in, which the GM is woe to ignore.

Edit: In summary, you’re two characterizations are not mutually exclusive. In the fiction, skills represent character capabilities, but mechanically they also provide crafty players with the opportunity for narrative control. This isn’t really a huge revelation though. Character capabilities (or lack thereof) and randomness determine the narrative path in nearly every game that could be called an rpg.

To reiterate, there are many times when skills are inappropriate to tasks and their narrative control is limited. It’s up to the GM to draw the line.

I’m with you until you start implying that the player had some sort of ability to determine task matches intent. The Player decides intent, the GM decides if the stated task is appropriate.

The way I look at it, skills are an abstraction of the likelihood that the character will achieve their intent when using a particular task. To the extent the character succeeds, the GM may be constrained to providing that success to the player. However, narration is still a GM prerogative.

Skills are attached to the character. The character is a resource attached to the player. The skills are reflections of the character’s expertise that are used to determine narrative control.
In-fiction, a character is good at something. Out-of-fiction, that means that you the player have more narrative control when your character does that thing they’re good at.

So really, it’s both - and that’ll be more or less true in most games that have skills, even if the phrase “narrative control” is never uttered.
I suspect your players will be best served if you stick to the first perspective when explaining it to them, so long as you also cover how Task & Intent works. I think the narrative control stuff will come across implicitly. Unless it doesn’t. Sorta depends on the players, I guess.

I’m curious to know what the miscommunication was that drove you away from the system for ten years? If you don’t mind sharing.

Show of hands if anyone can truly imagine allowing assassination by lockpicking in their home game. I can’t.

I guess it depends on what monstrous beast the locked cage is holding shut, eh?
Mind you, all that does is get the cage open. There would need to be some further guarantee that the beast would attack the right target, methinks.

I would, indirectly.

By “indirectly” I mean this:
There’s most definitely an intent-and-task mismatch there. Lockpicking doesn’t entitle you to kill someone, just like Sword doesn’t persuade people and Perception doesn’t cut down trees.
But in play we’ve occasionally added the implied promise of a “Say yes” follow-up as part of talking about the stakes – “Sure, you can roll to break into his house undetected. If you succeed you manage to do it with plenty of opportunity to do the deed. But if you fail the guards jump you and drag you off to jail. Is that cool?”

So, in the situation you’ve set up there’s nothing preventing the assassination except the lock. Fair enough.

Bringing it back to the OP for a sec, that’s totally GM narrative control there. GM determines if the dude is vulnerable once the impediment is removed, GM determines the failure condition.

Yeah, that all makes sense. If the drama is in getting the lock open, and killing the person is trivial (hello NSA), then focus the test on getting the lock open, and say yes to the deed itself. But that’s not the same as the player stating “I want to assassinate him with my elite lockpicking skills.”

I have thoughts but I am reading replies and thinking things through before I commit thoughts to writing.

But I briefly will respond to a tangent.

I apologize for being deliberately vague as the person posts here with some frequency and I’d rather not out myself with specific details or call the person out like a douche. I mentioned it here only to give context to my situation.

It wasn’t a miscommunication–the game was poorly introduced, a bad first play (and second, and third). I didn’t understand what things meant. How do I make a charater that works in the game to accomplish what I want? What does the difference in shades mean–a heavy commitment a player makes up front–what implications does that have long-term, mechanically and otherwise? Okay, the character is better at the grey-shaded thing, but how much better (as opposed to more dice) and why better, and so on? Why didn’t I have enough skill points to cover basics? And making beliefs was a totally mystifying process. And artha. And so many other new terms. Things like this–they were both highly structured and unclear. It’s not as though I didn’t try to understand them. Frankly, I doubted whether players learned these things from the books alone as opposed to from first-hand instruction.

BWG is much clearer, but curious and intelligent players are still confused by a raw read. Another player in my playgroup asked me to run it. He bought me the book. I took a look and I’m going to give it a good faith attempt, but I have my concerns. In short, having experienced the bad end of failure, I am informed about how not to repeat my experience.

Yeah, we’re talking about a very particular situation–say, the paranoid noble who hunkers behind vaults and locked doors, not trusting anyone to protect them.

@purient, have you seen this thread where Josh is learning how to build a character from scratch?

it might be of interest before your players start in on the thing.

Description of the character, a way to allocate narrative control?

From what I gather, I suspect skills sort of serve both roles in most playgroups. The default is the first role, but the more valued piece is the second role.

I suspect people just roll with it–no puns intended–when there’s daylight between them. Like with creative use of the read skill–widely praised here–which has nothing to do with a character’s literacy. Like when a failed intent is divorced–in a creative way–from the task roll that was failed; the task is successful but the intent is failed. That seems to happen a lot in play that is praised in these forums, and in such a case, the skill on the sheet doesn’t represent skill of the character but narrative control over a scene involving that skill. I think any gap is a handwave-gloss-over-kind-of-thing-you-don’t-give-much-mind-to.

This all isn’t stated in the rules–I don’t think, anyhow–but I think it’s how people actually play. It’s a very important unwritten rule. What I’ve read so far, here and elsewhere, bolsters my belief, so I dont think I’m doin’ it wrong. I just don’t want it to be a sub-rosa kind of thing with my group–I think that would create confusion, or possibly a sense of unfairness.

Thanks for your interest. I hadn’t looked at that thread in particular, but I have read a lot about various approaches to the process, here and elsewhere. We’ve talked about me running this game while we’ve been playing other games, so I’ve had over a year to consider how to approach this.

A lot of that thread is not a fit for my group in this case. We’re making characters collectively. I’m changing the order from the suggested rules. Concept + situation first, then settling on at least one belief, which must be directly about the immediate situation, a murder. I think waiting to the end for all beliefs is a mistake.

On lifepaths–I’m taking a tip from something Thor wrote. The players will start at the end–the most recent lifepath that fits the character concept and then work back to born, likely by the most direct route possible. The skills cap will be exponent 4, and there won’t be a cap on stats. (I dont think). I’m not worried about capping lifepaths. At my end, I see the game balance as making sure every character has a distinct and meaningful way to completely own the spotlight, and I think the players get that.

For crafting the other two beliefs, I will offer several concrete approaches, selected from the wiki.

First game will be a modified version of The Sword, all humans and characteres such that the survivors could reoccur in the game.

4 seems like a pretty low cap for skill exponents to me. Why so low? A good 5 or even 6 skill out of the gate can help define a character, IMO.
I would encourage you to stick with a hard limit for lifepaths. Particularly if you’re thinking you want to cap skills at 4! A better way to make sure each character has a distinct way to own the spotlight is to give 'em four lifepaths and set the skill cap to 6, as per the default. Then they’ll end up with a couple skills at 5 or 6, which are reasonably powerful numbers to have. Limiting them to 4 lifepaths helps ensure more focused characters and forces the players to make some tough decisions about what’s really important to them. Letting them have everything they want will likely result in less interesting and less motivated characters. It’s the intent of the system that initial character concepts are subject to change during character burning - you’re not supposed to get everything you want.
In my experience, the numbers in the book are pretty deliberate, and you may get better results if you hold back from tweaking the defaults until you have a game or two under your belt.

Also, the decision to say that the character succeeds at their task but fails the intent, rather than failing both, is a GM decision. It’s not really anything to do with the skill numbers. It DOES mean that sometimes a PC with a low skill can still succeed at doing something they’re supposedly bad at, but that could potentially have happened if they’d gotten a lucky roll, too.
I’ll grant you, there’s a little bit of a disconnect, but it’s pretty minor. It just boils down to the fact that you’re rolling to get what you want, not to succeed at your task. If it makes you more comfortable to have failed rolls always mean failed tasks as well as failed intents, that won’t break anything as far as I can tell. It’s not at all necessary to have successful tasks with failed intents. Just makes things a little more interesting and gives you more options as the GM.

I had a whole rant about how skills are simultaneously a description of the character AND a way to allocate narrative control, and that the latter is a more meta-level description of the former, and that this isn’t remotely unique to BW, but it was getting long-winded and I decided not to include it. But it’s totally true.

I think you’re getting bogged down somewhere in here.

You test to achieve an intent, not a task. The task is color that informs which ability will be tested (including help or FoRKs), as well as failure outcomes. I personally don’t allow for much of that daylight you are referring to. As Luke says in the “Read” thread, we focus it down to the scene at hand. Likewise, I try to keep failures relevant to the original intent, so no butterfly effect from a failed test.

Wises as fiction-creation are a special case, but my guideline there is first to make sure the Wise being proposed is appropriate to the intent. One thing I have seen is the twisting of the intents to create “common knowledge” of specific details about someone. E.G. “I want to test Noble-wise so that everyone knows the King has ‘relations’ with the Bishop” is not a valid intent. Rather I scale up the Ob the more specific the fiction being created is, following the Wise obstacles.

Ob 1. The King is King George of the House Whatever
Ob 2. The King is good friends with Bishop Jorge
Ob 3. Bishop Jorge is the King’s private confessor
Ob 4. The King often goes incognito to visit the Bishop
Ob 5. The King has been seen going into the Bishop’s bedchamber

Actually, I’m pretty sure that the fabrication of common knowledge does fall under the scope of wises. That’s what the page here seems to suggest is possible. An example like the one you propose would fall under a fact that conflicts with the GM’s knowledge of the world, so it falls under Secret GM Knowledge.

Yeah, that’s fine and close to what I was saying above. The thing I have seen posted about there is players wanting to make “common knowledge” tests such that detailed info would be only be an Ob 1 Wise test.

EDIT: Also I forgot that the page you linked of is partially composed of prior forum posts by me!

Well, the way I’m thinking it–such an intent would be “everyone knows and is either scandalized or doesn’t care”. If that fits with the GM’s conception of the character (or if the GM likes it), seems like it’d be kosher.