Burning Wheel and What’s the Deal with Wises

Or Hey Where's My Investigation Skill?

Note: This post has content disclaimers.

In Burning Wheel Gold (BWG 🔍), we need to look beyond the core rulebook for guidance around the Wises category of skills. The Burning Wheel Codex (BWC 🔍) provides 10 pages of discussion, which highlight their utility.

Let’s turn to Mouse Guard RPG (MGRPG 🔍) for a quick explanation:

In play, wises are tested and advance just like skills. Wises can be used in three ways: you can test to elicit information about a hidden fact from the GM. You can test to bring in a new fact about something in the game that’s relevant to your wise’s area. Or you can use a wise to augment a skill test.
Mouse Guard RPG

In a game that I’m playing, we had a situation where one of the players was looking to gather information about rumors regarding any of the duke’s weaknesses. I have not taken the time to write up these session notes, as I’m uncertain of the format I’d use. With 5 players, it’s a bit different than the players for Campaign: Burning Warhammer.

In the moment, our collective approach worked. However, we had quite a bit of table discussion to settle on our approach. An approach differing from what outline later in this blog post.

In BWG, there’s no generalized “gather information” or “investigation” skill.

I see where a socialite would want to glean information from people. The most direct method is Interrogation; maybe FoRK 🔍 in some Soothing Platitudes or Ugly Truth? You could use Persuasion to encourage them to cough up information in exchange for something they might want. Or perhaps a bit of Rhetoric to lay out the logic of what they should share.

For those curious, the 24 Mannish social skills are: Ancient Languages, Begging, Command, Conspicuous, Etiquette, Extortion, Falsehood, Foreign Languages, Haggling, Inconspicuous, Instruction, Interrogation, Intimidation, Jargon, Oratory, Persuasion, Preaching, Ratiquette, Religious Diatribe, Seduction, Soothing Platitudes, Suasion, and Ugly Truth.

But all of that presupposes a specific subject of your test and that they know something. You could also Circle someone who has the knowledge and is pre-disposed to sharing that knowledge. For me, the multitude of approaches is a feature. Each approach/subsystem creates its own tensions.

Neither of these approaches account for the incidental stuff. The things you pick up by being in the presence of folks who might have the knowledge.

Example

And this is a case where Wises fill the gaps. You could abstract the situation a bit and say, “I’m talking with this group of knights looking to glean information about the upcoming military campaign.”

Or you could say “I’m going to saunter up to those knights and listen to see what information I can glean about the upcoming military campaign.”

I see that as a great case for your character to test Knight-wise or Military Campaign-wise. The skill reflects your knowledge of what’s relevant. It also provides a crease in the fiction.

Let’s explore two approaches, both of which could easily be a linked test for your information gathering task.

The first approach is “My character’s going to saunter up and really parade around with my regalia, in an effort to impress these folks.”

Cool, let’s test Conspicuous. If you succeed they’re impressed with your regalia. If you fail they notice your regalia and recall a past atrocity of your regiment.

The second approach is “My character’s going to discreetly approach and just sort of join the group. I want them to keep speaking freely.”

Excellent, let’s test Inconspicuous. If you succeed they keep talking. If you fail, they shut up right away and will assume you’re a spy.

In both cases, the success and failure conditions would leave space for a future Military Campaign-wise test. And your success would make the information gathering easier, and a failure would make it harder.

The separation of tasks helps scope the cost of failure for each test. Put another way, you divorce people’s impressions of you from what you learn from them. And depending on your beliefs, perhaps you wouldn’t test one or the other (or both).

Further Considerations

It’s unclear, in my reading, if it’s appropriate to FoRK into Wises. My inclination is to not allow a FoRK. The reason being that I see Wises as a passive skill of the character that the player actively uses (i.e., a character receives expository information that the player seeks). update: Someone pointed out that allowing some one to FoRK other wises would make sense. And I agree. If, in the above scenario, my character has Knight-wise and Military Campaign-wise, then I’d certainly consider those valid FoRKs.

Further, in separating the task of approach from the task of gathering information, we can look at the gathering information task. Looking to the possible root stats (e.g., Perception and Will), it’s clear that gathering information is the domain of Perception:

Perception is the awareness and mental acuity stat. It’s rolled all the time in game. Players always have their characters searching for information or clues, and this is the stat tested in those situations. Perception is the root of many skills in the game.
Burning Wheel Gold (p17)

Now we’re onto something. And here’s where the Wises become more evident. Yes, we could favor Perception tests and ignore Wises; but that is neglecting a notable case (e.g., I have Military Campaign-wise and what I’m trying to learn about is a military campaign).

With the Beginner’s Luck mechanic, we are still using the character’s Perception. However, we are also providing a mechanism for the character to develop some savvy regarding their interest. In addition, if the test is too hard, we can still mark a Perception; assuming the character’s succeeds on the test.

Does this mean those passive “gather information” tests should be a graduated test? Perhaps.

On one hand, let the player work towards opening Military Campaign-wise. Those Ob 🔍 1 tests are achievable, will help the character work towards opening their Wise, and give the Game Master (GM 🔍) options for revealing information.

This mechanism allows for the GM to regulate the flow of information.

On the other hand, the player could also reach for something juicy. They could state what they want to learn. And the GM can regulate the Ob. In this case, the GM doesn’t need to go through the mental exercise of Okay, if they meet Ob 1 they get this, Ob 2 they get that, etc..

Conclusion

My goal has been to explore the particular situation and reflect on possible paths through the fiction by way of the rules. As I’ve written and developed this approach, it sits quite well with me. Using a linked test really helps bring the fiction to the foreground, while also providing a chance for the unexpected.

My hope is that this is helpful, both in terms of Burning Wheel Gold and in general, is to work through these social situations. Consider in Dungeons and Dragons: Fifth Edition (5E 🔍) how you might do this. The linked test for your approach could determine if you got advantage or disadvantage on your investigation test.

The complexity of social situations, coupled with the flow of information from the GM create a lot of space for ambiguity. Reflecting on how you might model that process in a game can short-circuit a meta-conversation around the game table.