Why are social skills so hard to succeed at?

Skills like Falsehood, Persuasion, and Intimidation has Ob equal to the target’s Will outside of Duel of Wits. Isn’t that too much? I mean, if the avarage human has 4 Will, that means you need to roll 8 dice to have a 50/50 chance of success, too high! Lying to an elf or dwarf then is even more impossible.

Why isn’t there a “sense motive” skill to oppose these skills like Stealthy has Observation? Thinking about this, Stealthy could be tested against Perception then, why is it not? Is there a philosophy behind making social skills so bad outside of DoW?

Marcos! Hello! Thanks for your question. We get queries like this one a lot.

In practice, the social skills are tuned well to the system. Their obstacles present the right challenges and incentives to the players, and the right range of options for the game master.

As for your rhetorical question, have you ever tried to convince someone of something simply by making one “convincing” statement? I’ve certainly tried, and it has never worked for me. So in a way, the rules simulate our natural resistance to manipulation—and our innate stubbornness to change.

Sense Motive sounds like a D&D skill. Our skills are occupations, trainings and practices that each cover a discreet range of activities and so “sense motive” doesn’t fit as a top level skill. And, further, “sense motive” sounds like a thing players would want rather than something a typical character could accomplish with any reliability. However, all is not lost for you. Since we place this kind of intuition as a rather rare and special ability, you can find our interpretation of it in the Aura Reading skill. Do note that to use this skill, your character will need a way to see auras.


Hey, thanks for the answer!

I think I can understand it for Persuasion and the like, but for Falsehood, I am not sure. I mean, people deceive each other all the time! Also, gameplay-wise, it’s very hard to use the skill even against the most unsuspecting person (assuming it’s still an important roll that can’t be yessed); you want to deceive someone saying they are being called inside? Ob 3 or more. It seems specially very hard to gain routine tests with low exponent as well.

As for a “sense motive” skill, there is always that trope, and I am not sure how real this is, of an investigator that can read subtle facial expressions that signals someone is lying. I understand the want to remove “defensive” skills, but since Observation exists, and since I think some people can see through lies better than others, it seemed strange to me that it isn’t a skill.

One thing is that talking your way into or out of a situation is something that’s very easy to make seem reasonable at the table. It’s very easy to do at the social level, at the table. It’s deceptively so. As Luke said, the actual difficulty of such a ploy is much harder than they way it often feels at our (my) tables. But it’s also seductively easy. We, being real people talking at a table, fall into having our characters talk their way out of issues, too. That tool of play is within such easy reach. The high social obs (wisely) put a stop gap on that.

Something else to consider is how easy you want it to be for me to be able to talk your character into something without you having a shot of doing the same to me. As the game sits right now, there are Vs Tests that can be made to oppose each other with competing intents. You want to convince me to open up to you about my secret mission here, you promise me aid as a fellow member of our order; I want to convince you to stop politicking, I point to the inner turmoil your scheming has caused you and appeal to the health of your own soul. Your Persuasion (or Falsehood, I dunno) vs my Suasion. There is your skill vs skill mechanic, but each side has something to gain that pushes them toward their agenda and moves the story (and the other character). What does a “Sense Motive” skill get us that we don’t already have? One reason the static Obs are so high for social skills is to encourage players to engage in Duels of Wits (or at least these Vs Tests), where both sides have an agenda, and the story is given motion.

Just to add some context, I was playing the scenario Twilight in the Duchy Verdorben as Brin, and she has Falsehood 2 I think. I used the skill several times, but had basically no chance of success against anyone I tried even counting fork and help. It’s still useful in DoW since the Ob 1 for point is low, but not much outside of that.

It’s easier with the Duel of Wits and Vs Tets.

Check out the Manhunter trait. Not just anyone is that detective; the Manhunter trait lets you be.

It can be used to Help, and Theoden may be able to grant her extra dice with Faith. And/or Help her with his Suasion which would grant 2 extra dice. She can also FoRK in her Astrology and maybe her Rhetoric and/or Family Secrets-wise. And she can work carefully. That’s 9 dice. If it’s a convincing lie, she can get an advantage die. And that’s sans Artha. I feel like she’s doing alright.

Yes, DoW does help with that. Your idea for Vs Test also, I just never thought about it that way. It can’t be used everytime, but I guess it does make sense in many “I’ll convince you to tell me the truth/I won’t tell you the truth” situations.

Indeed, thanks!

The player who played Theoden was uncomfortable with how strong Faith spam can be, so he only used it in the most important situations. I also did forget about working patiently, I think I could’ve used it in a few cases. Overall, most of the time I was rolling 4 or 5 dice against Ob 4 up to 6 if I recall correctly. You seem more generous with ForK than my GM was xD

I don’t know. It sounds like the person who doesn’t want to tell the truth doesn’t have an agenda there. What do they gain by winning the test? It seems like they’re in the same place they started, so this seems like a test against Will to me.

:person_shrugging: It’s up to the player to color their task with FoRKs and then the GM arbitrates. I’m not suggesting that Brin should be able to FoRK that stuff all of the time; I’m saying that a canny player should be able to fit those in at least some of the time. As the player, I’m going in thinking about how I can couch my lie in logic to apply Rhetoric, for example.

Though, it is possible that a miserly GM acts as a roadblock, too.

Really, I think Help is more of the spotlight tool. The more players you can get involved in a test, the more fun we all tend to be having.

This is interesting to read because I’ve always also had players who do not like the difficulty especially when it comes to lying. There is something very grating on that part of the mechanics for every play group I’ve run for especially if not playing much with Dule of Wits which in my main group we don’t because no one really likes how it mechanizes arguments. I think good FORK’s and help can mitigate but at the end of the day Burning Wheel just is a game where you fail more on average than most games. I have some personal hacks that I’ve inputted that have made this less heavy but overall I think if you are playing by the rules as written they are going to produce these results.

This is interesting to me. Can you give some examples from your games? In my experience as a player, GMs get real roll haply when it comes to lying. Like the fictional circumstances of lying is very clear, and that lures people into falling back into the habit of letting fictional circumstances trigger dice rolls.

If we’re having a conversation, it isn’t necessarily clear that I’m “Persuading” you or telling you the “Ugly Truth”. But then, when I say something thay we all know is untrue, folks latch onto, “Oh! You’re lying to her! That’s a Falsehood test.” And then I’m like… “Really? What’s my Intent? … What happens if I fail? Oh, she’ll know I’m lying about this inconsequential thing? Sure, I’ll take a free Challenging Falsehood test.”

I don’t assume that this is what’s happening in your games, by the way; I’ve seen it enough, though, that your calling out Falsehood especially brought this to mind.

Yeah, by “I won’t tell you the truth” I meant I’ll tell you something else that is not the truth. Supposing it’s important to feed false information of course.

The Intent part is usually actually quite well established my players are used to story game play where rolls don’t happen without a clear narrative relationship. If there isn’t an active thing they want to get they will not roll for it and I usually let it past. Casual lies do not matter to the came so we either let them pass or just say the other person does not believe them.

Falsehood example: Charecter A has meddled with Charecter B’s things in order to poison food she is making. B finds A looking through her things because of another roll that was failed. B lies to A falsehood is rolled.

Another example: Charecter A is a high up person in a Church. Charecter B is a lower personage A wants B to go and do a task for him under false pretenses. If B knows it is a lie he will still do it but he knows he was set up which would get back and bite A. Thus Falsehood is rolled.

I think there is nothing inherently wrong with difficult lies in fact it is part of the design. It is just a part I feel players bump against a lot. The success curve on BW just is harsh especially against set Ob’s.

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So this is a thing that always bugged me one way. And then the other.

My experience is that Ob4 is pretty doable for most PCs with a few sessions under their belt. If you’re playing a character with B2 in a skill, you’re a novice, practicing, using the Duel of Wits and trying and learning from failure, or needing to strategize in order to get it done.

My current group has a character who was a Dungeon World Bard (we changed systems after two sessions plus world building), with B4 Persuasion, B4 Falsehoods, Glib, Charismatic, and Faith (predicated on him telling someone a story or song).

So he’s usually rolling at least B6 (+1 Faith, +1 from a FoRK or working carefully), and has Ob 3-4, and a Call-On to fix it.

He rarely fails unless he screws up his narrative and gives himself disadvantage.

So much of Burning Wheel’s Obstacle/Skill system is about (In My Expereince) building dice out of different tricks, and not just trying to roll low pools against high Obs and hoping. It makes the huge skill list very important, letting every character shine and also giving you many tools to solve the problem.

I think is kinda the disconnect about why the advice is always “what about this fork, what about this trait” and so on. Lots of people want to “roll persuasion”, but Burning Wheel doesn’t want you to do that, it wants you to step back and ask " How am I going to persuade them" and build a pool out of that Task.


Yeah, it’s true. The Codex (Pg. 135) talks about the high social obs driving players invest in the test. It mentions this being cool because it encourages to add depth to your argument to get FoRKs and up your performance game to get advantage. And that is cool. But on a more abstract level, it also brings us back to playing the game as a game. I talked before about a tendency in groups I’ve been in for players to just “RP it out” and maybe roll dice to make the prescribed outcome feel legit – with some groaning and complaining when a bad roll breaks our shared delusion. The high social obs kick you out of that by making you engage with the mechanics just to have a shot at success – they break that shared delusion by default. And then, how do you engage with the mechanics? You have to go back to your performance and enrich it. It’s kind of a virtuous cycle.

The high obs also (… quite nicely), tend to to shunt you down engaging with other parts of the game. You fail to talk your way past the guard, and now he wants a bribe – let’s bring in Resources; and he recognizes you, says some placating bullshit to get some distance, and then sprints for the alarm bell – let’s do a pursuit; and he whistles for the archers hidden near by who step out of hiding, arrows knocked – let’s do a Range and Cover. I like this because it moves our discussion out of just saying what our characters are saying and into describing imagery and action and setting. And it moves the stakes of the action from, “He doesn’t believe you/doesn’t let you through/doesn’t help you,” to more tangible things.

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I’ll just add that failing falsehood doesn’t mean they know exactly how you are lying. It just means they don’t believe you, or aren’t convinced enough to give you your intent.

Falsehood is a great fork for other social skills when stretching the truth.

I tend to be generous with advantage dice on falsehood if the lie is believable and the intent is not too crazy, and at the same time severe with disadvantage if it is.

I’d also eco the whole a high Ob means you need to gather dice aspect of the game. A guard won’t just let you into the king’s chamber because you say you know the king; however, if you’re wearing the right clothes, have the right writ, and he’s expecting a guest, then he might.

As a DM I tend to tell my players ‘this guy seems shifty’, ‘it seems like this character is telling you the truth’, etc, with no test necessary. I tend to describe the demeanor of the npc if the party questions their motive, this keeps things moving and creates tension (the party often knows something is up, but not exactly what). It also raises the stakes as the party then have options (persuade, intimidate, interrogate, etc) for trying to get the truth out of the npc, without the ability to roll a ‘sense motive’ skill which effectively ‘reads mind’ without the npc ever knowing they’ve been read.

One thing I’ve thought about when it comes to Burning Wheel is how certain rules change the philosophical interpretation of what a “roll”/“test” means. I don’t know if Luke would agree with me on this but I do think it’s an interesting point. This may sound like a non-sequitur but do stick with me.

When you roll a d20 in DnD (as an example), what that die roll (mostly) represents is how much of the character’s maximum performance was the character able to achieve? This is clear because when you fail you can typically retry and next time, all environmental conditions being the same, you might pass! The only change is whether or not your reached your maximum potential during a particular instance of the tested action.

Whereas the presence of Let It Ride in Burning Wheel changes the interpretation of the dice roll to “given all the unknown and unenumerated factors in the fiction, can the character do it?”. You cannot reroll in the same situation, so it isn’t representing the performance level of an individual act, what it is instead doing is accounting for all the things we don’t know about the situation. In some part, the complication narration from a failed roll expounds on the unenumerated factors.

Bringing it back to the topic at hand: when you roll in Burning Wheel we are testing to see if there is anything we don’t know about the situation that might hinder the player. The obscurity of the lock design, the adjacency of the guards, the freezing temperature damaging the mechanism. In many physical tests we’re relatively sure about most of the factors because we (or at least the GM) have a good idea about the physical world and how it works since it is much like our own. Mechanisms are predictable. Because of this these tests seem rightly easy when they’re easy and rightly hard when they’re hard.

When it comes to social tests though, the number of unenumerated complication factors is incredibly high, essentially infinite. It may seem easy to convince someone with “the boss wants you to come inside”, but what if they ask you who? What if they were told that they wouldn’t be needed inside. What if they were pranked before with the same trick. What if they just don’t like you, or are a loner? What if they think the boss can come out and get them personally? What if they think your word choice, accent, attire is suspicious?

And those are just the few out of infinite mental/emotional/personal complications. There are also the physical ones like: “did they hear you right?” too.

Despite this, we are quick to simplify people into mechanisms and assume that something that convinces us, or tricks us, probably will work on other people. Anyone actually engaging in debate or trickery has probably learnt the hard way that it is a skill that must be learned and it isn’t quite as easy as just saying the thing that would work on you. As such, real life social “tests” often seem unfairly difficult.

“I debated this person, laid out all the facts, debunked everything they said, and they still don’t believe me!”. Well, that’s your perception, were you really that logical and righteous? But even our perception of how the interaction went is part of the social interaction. So it is very hard to rate difficulty accurately, and anyway people are rarely convinced by reason.

So in addition to what people have mentioned here:

  1. Social tests ARE hard, a common feat to brag about is talking yourself out of a ticket, and the average policeman is as good as an average person, will-wise.

  2. To encourage many FoRKs, social interactions with many points of contact tend to be more convincing.

We have,

  1. The testing system of Burning Wheel is directly solving for the unenumerated factors that might actually exist in the fiction…and there are simply and incredibly large number of unenumerated factors in social interactions, making them inherently difficult.

I’d be curious to hear others thoughts on this.


I think this is an interesting and useful approach to looking at tests in Burning Wheel.

I also think it’s wrong. (Wow, so dramatic! :sweat_smile:)

There was a time when Si Juk found himself (pushed himself) into a hidden, underground chamber with no easy way out. (He failed to swim through the flooded underground tunnel to get here and had to decide to either turn back or press on with out being able to come back this way. He chose the latter.) The only way out he could find was a great stone slab that was part of a cistern built into the chamber (which happened to be where all that water came from). It was an Ob 4 Power test to press the slab far enough to squeeze through; if he fails, he would be trapped in that chamber and die – presmubaly either from starvation or drowning in a failed attempt to swim back out. This is an example where your unenumerated factor approach doesn’t apply as far as I can tell. The obstacle is 4 not because of some nebulous cloud of possibility; it’s because it’s a heavy fucking boulder. The consequence of failure is also pretty straight forward: If you can’t force your way out of here, you’re gonna be stuck in here (and because your attempts to find a way out rides, you’re gonna die in here). Sometimes in Burning Wheel, the situation is just clear. (Si Juk failed, by the way. Part of that failure when swimming collapsed Si Juk’s lung for a Midi wound, dropping his Power to B4 (Luke truly is a bastard!) But, he used a Deeds point to reroll and succeeded.)

Bringing in an unenumerated factor as a failure consequence is a good technique. It helps the setting and situation to unfold and grow. Like I said, it’s a useful and interesting way of looking at it. But I don’t think it’s the only technique or always the best or necessarily what Burning Wheel’s tests are about, I guess is what I’m saying.

I guess what I’d say is that the unemuerated factor in that case (or at least the main, clearly apparent, and dominating one) was whether the boulder was too heavy or not. The unenumerated factors don’t necessarily have to be secondary. Indeed if the factor was enumerated it would have been a “yes, your character can do it” or a “no, not a valid task for that intent, it’s impossible for you”. Something unemuerated is always being solved with a roll, but it’s a question whether it’s the unenumerated environment/situation (BW) or the unemuerated “how much of your strength did you bring out in this particular performance?” (DnD, etc.).

Because you cannot test again, we cannot interpret the situation as the character “not giving it their all, and if they just try again and concentrate this time they’ll be able to do it”, which would be the valid and potentially main (unless the Ob was too high) interpretation for games like DnD without Let it Ride.

But we could interpret it as, “we found out the rock was too heavy” or alternatively “we found out the environment was so cold it hindered your abilities”, or alternatively “we found out the stone was magically enchanted to resist interference, there must be a wizard afoot”. Noting that each example is a bit different from “I didn’t try as hard as I could” or “I lost concentration mid attempt”

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I’d take what you said and boil it down to something subtly different. I’m also going to feed it back to the core question being asked, because otherwise I’d be considering opening a new thread for it.

In Burning Wheel, a standard test is a form of Conflict Resolution, not Task Resolution. The system does not only adjudicate whether you accomplish your task, but importantly whether you accomplish your Intent. I am going to pretend that the actual Conflict Systems are beyond the scope of this discussion, they are Conflict Resolution mechanics and the tests inside them are basically Task Resolution or sometimes they’re a piece of the whole Conflict Resolution Mechanic.

The unenumerated factor theory is one way of saying the same thing, but it’s something particular and different, as it only looks at what failure means, and it takes a rigid view, because failure in Burning Wheel doesn’t always mean you succeed the task and fail the Intent because of an unenumerated factor.

In many RPGs, and I’m going to use D&D as a shorthand here, a roll is always task resolution. You don’t have Let It Ride or Intent and Task because your roll to pick a lock, sneak up, or convince someone you’re a polymorphed lammusu is just a roll to do that. In D&D if you roll to Persuade someone to kill the King, then success means that they want to try. In Burning Wheel if you say “I want to have the king killed by persuading this guy” and you are given a roll, success means that the King is dead. Long Live The King.

Unenumerated factors are one way of describing this process, but your goalposts are moving a little. The roll is to determine what the resolution of a conflict is: whether you accomplish your Task and get your Intent, and what the price to pay for it is.