Worse than utterly incompetent?


Burning Wheel seems like a solid system. However, one thing really caught my eye and I can’t seem to find a good explanation for it.

The skill list is very long, and most characters will only have an exponent value in a handful of the available skills. Does this mean that most starting characters will be worse than “utterly incompetent” in most skills, as according to pg. 12 in BWG.

For example, a freshly burned peasant would most probably be worse than utterly incompetent when it comes to building a fire.

Thanks in advance!

Be careful there. Say Yes covers a lot of ground you are worried about.

A peasant wants to start a hearth fire. No Burning GM should be asking for a test. Just Say Yes.

If that peasant wants to light a bonfire in the middle of rainstorm in order to attract the attention of the castle guard before the goblins attack? Well! That’s a good time for a test.

But to answer the concern, most fresh 3 LP characters will be competent in a couple of skills an utterly incompetent in a few more. That’s intentional. Most of the utterly incompetent will end up as FoRKing skills or be used in Helping tests and will advance to competent rather quickly.

Also, the failures from those tests will make for some great story.

All right, with that approach it won’t cause any technical trouble in play.

What annoys me though is that BWG tells me that characters with exp 1 in a skill is “crippled” or “utterly incompetent”. Even myself, who spends most of my time indoors in a big city, can build a fire. I am certainly not “utterly incompetent”, but BWG tells me that a medieval peasant who depends upon his ability to build a fire is?

Remember: You ask for a test when something interesting can come from a failed roll. Don’t be able to build a fire is not so “interesting”. (What else could happen? What could go wrong?) If you can’t imagine an interesting failure consequence, and you think the character can do it, then she can do it. (Say ‘Yes’, as Kublai said.)

Under optimal conditions with an ideal, prepared fuel source, using matches and lighter fluid? I am not confident you understand the problem domain.

But also, what Etsu Riot said. A thousand times over.

Despite the number of skills in BW, the skill system is pretty abstract. You’re only rolling when it matters. So, anyone could start a fire, cook a meal, and feed their family with no tests, as long as there isn’t anything at stake. The “crippled” or “utterly incompetent” thing is referring to how good they are with a skill under incredible pressure. Like Kublai said, Say Yes takes care of the mundane stuff. Don’t take it too literally.

Edit: And looks like 3 of us said basically the same thing. Sorry, didn’t mean to dogpile you, man.

Sure, that is the way I will play it. It’s intuitive and definitely what drives play forward in the most interesting way.

However, according to the rules, a person without an exponent value in the fire making-skill shouldn’t be able to build a fire, since he is worse than “utterly incompetent”. So to make things work when you play, you have to “break the rules” and allow a peasant to build a fire even though his character sheet says that he is extremely horrible at it.

Seems like the rulebook is contradicting the way you’re supposed to play.

Or am I missing something here?

Think of it as using Say Yes on a Beginner’s Luck test. And if there’s a long period of downtime where a particular skill would be relevant day-to-day, that’s justification for Practice time.

I’ve always considered a character’s skill at something he’s not opened to be “a bit under half the stat” in terms of how competent he is. So someone with B4s across the board in stats kinda-basically-ish is a bit worse than someone with B2s in the skill. I mean, it’s not trivial to have a B1 in a skill! You can’t possibly do it unless your stat is B3 or lower.

I think you are missing out on Beginner’s Luck, basically base natural ability (in the form of Stats).

Also, it is not really “breaking the rules”. It is considering the whole of them. The concept of saying Yes and interesting failure (succeed in part but with a complication) are just as core to BW as that table.

Building a campfire is Ob 1. (Ob 2 if you don’t have the Skill.) So you can do it just fine half of the time (even if you don’t have the Skill). But it’s not usual that you face a failure risk, so half of the time is not accurate.

BW is not a medieval simulator. You make tests to see where the story goes. So if there is not risk (if the GM can’t think about something interesting coming from a guy making a campfire) then there is not need to roll. (Unless you think the character can’t make a campfire in the first place.)

Nah, the intent of the rules (even if it’s not directly in there) is to determine how competent the person is when he needs to use that skill when something is at stake and under pressure. The rules aren’t needed if nothing’s at stake. That’s Say Yes time. So, ok, one rule is technically needed! :wink:

So I’m a city boy, and, like, yeah, I can light a fire. Maybe even from scratch. But can I do it from scratch when I’m hungry and wet and cold and the wolves are circling in?

[edit: ha! we really are dogpiling! sorry!]

Bear in mind that most ordinary, able-bodied and able-minded characters are going to have most of their skills start out at exponent 2, which the book describes as “untrained, raw, weak or unpracticed”. In order to open up a skill at exponent 1, you need to start with a root stat of 3 or less. And even if you do end up with a 1 in something, it’ll advance pretty quickly (two Ob 1 tests).

Also bear in mind that you live in an era where friction matches are a thing; medieval peasants did not. Even with this advantage, I know many modern city-dwellers and suburbanites who couldn’t build a campfire fire to save their lives.

Saying Yes or Rolling is a foundational rule if BW. It’s not breaking anything. Tests don’t just happen, you have to earn them.

And you can attempt to do anything, even if you don’t have the skill with Beginners luck rules. So, it’s always either say yes or call for a roll with interesting failure results.

PS: I wouldn’t assume that failure = not being able to make a fire.

PSS: Beginner’s luck gives most characters a good chance of success for routine difficulties.

I’m going to buck the trend and say I agree with you and there’s a serious problem. It’s purely semantic, though. Don’t call it feeble, incompetent, or useless and the problem is solved. The descriptive flavor text in the rules is inaccurate.

Yes, it’s definitely a semantic problem. Please disregard the games mechanics for a second here, and consider what the rulebook tells you about a character without an exponent value in a skill. I have no problem with how the game works technically.

The semantic problem is, however, a serious one because the rulebook signals to players how they should perceive their characters. If you play BWG by the book all freshly baked 4 LP characters would have to admit that they are naturally disinclined to perform most tasks.

Why aren’t they just untrained? There should be a special reason for someone to be considered utterly incompetent, like some sort of disability.

Again, I am not criticising the game mechanics, only the semantics in the rulebook.
I don’t want to have to say to my players “Yeah, I know the rulebook says that you’re crippled in most aspects of your daily life, but since you only roll dice when something is at stake, you will be fine.”

To make the game make sense, you have to disregard the wording on pg. 12 in my opinion, which is confusing.

p.s. most characters will have exponent value 0 in fire building, which means they are acutally WORSE than utterly incompetent, that is very harsh i my opinion d.s.

I don’t think they are. “Crippled” is not the only descriptor for Exp 1. You can say: You are naturally disinclined, which is logical with a exponent 3 stat.

Most people are not trained in almost anything. (Unlike you, I can’t build a campfire.) I can’t make a table, or reinforce a door, or compose a sonata.

Most characters will have the equivalent of exponent 2 in Firebuilding (half Perception) if the player choose to use Beginner’s Luck, but to them to make a campfire is more difficult. (Obstable 2.) And you always can work carefully (of course) and receive Help (if you have someone with you).

That is what I and a number of others [in this growing dog pile, so this will be my last post to this thread] are doing. Pointing out what the rulebook tells you about a character without an exponent.

You are flat out misreading and misunderstanding. For example Beginners Luck with a B6 Perception has generally speaking a better ability than B1 Firebuilding, certainly better at Ob 1 Tests.

EDIT: Note that B6 Perception odds are actually slightly better than the Skill opened to B3 Firebuilding, at Ob 1. But the odds do not improve as quickly when spending Persona for extra dice and the tables turn quickly as the Ob rises. So, coupled with a Skill not advancing by itself until it is opened, you still do want the skill opened.

EDIT2: Oh, and beginning characters do tend to fail a good deal of the time. shrug But that is OK, because if the GM is doing their job then failure doesn’t suck…for the player. It most certainly sucks for the character. But they are on a mission, right? They (as dictated by the player) are not going to let failing stop them from trying, because their Beliefs are that motivating, they are the essence of what the character stands for. Or they aren’t and the player needs to write new Beliefs that are so that in the player’s mind the character is still going to attempt these things. If that does not make sense to you, if that does not sound like what you and the other players are looking for, then I suggest Burning Wheel is not the game you are looking for. No judgement of you or your players in that, just helpful advice to save a lot of grief.

You’re missing the forest for the trees, so to speak.

The skills on your sheet should be relevant to your background and the situation at hand. Unless you’re playing some hardcore survivalist campaign where building fires is going to be central to the conflict at hand, I wouldn’t worry about it.

I’m also not sure why you’re reticent to tell players you only roll dice when it matters. I would hate to tell my players they can expect series of meaningless rolls.

The ability descriptors are not rules, or prescriptive limits on what a character may do.

The rules are (among other places) on pg 13:

“You make tests during dramatic moments, when the outcome is uncertain.”

and on p. 72:

“Unless there is something at stake in the story you have created, don’t bother with the dice.”

BW is not trying to be any kind of simulacrum of medieval life.