My problem

We're playing Burning Wheel (Gold). About once every two sessions, we run into this problem with Duel of Wits:

  1. We want the graduated outcomes of Duel of Wits: we'd like to start with two statements of intent, roll some dice, and end up with interesting compromises.
  2. When we run an actual Duel of Wits, we find ourselves running out of things to say and straining to make our narration fit our moves. Especially after the first two exchanges. (Note that we have tried using Duel of Wits with a smaller body of argument — the "Not a Big Deal" option in the book — and this doesn't quite address our needs.)
  3. Most of the time, we don't especially enjoy the tactical experience of choosing DoW maneuvers.

So, if not for #1, we'd probably do a straight-up opposed roll and be reasonably happy with the results. We really want a good mechanic for compromises, though.

Your solutions, please

Burning Wheel Gold incorporates an update to the Bloody Versus mechanic, transforming it into a kind of miniature Fight that tends to be resolved in 1-3 rolls. I'm looking for a way to have a Duel-of-Wits-like interaction with a similar level of complexity.

Ideally, I want an approach that covers these bases, to use in our typical big-deal social scenes, while we save the full Duel of Wits for rare special occasions:

  • Produces compromises similar to Duel of Wits.
  • Involves an average of 2-3 "goes" per side rather than the 5+ we usually see in DoW.
  • Features a bit of very simple tactical decision-making, closer to Bloody Versus than Duel of Wits, in order to differentiate it from just mindlessly making a couple of rolls.

4 Answers 4


Treat it very much like a Bloody Versus:

Both sides make statement of intent. Both make their dice pool, narrate the action, get any bonus dice from roleplay, and then...

Make the opposed roll; the winner is counted as the Body of Argument (BoA), and the difference is the remaining BoA. (A broken tie is a Win with 0 remaining.)

Exempli Gratia

Fred (playing Burt the Bad) and Vel (playing Sammy) are arguing over which way they should go. Fred wants to go left, to the caves, Vel wants to go right, to the keep. The rest of the group is undecided. Fred's got Oratory B4, and FoRKs a die each from Intimidation and Threat-Wise. Vel has Ugly Truth B5, and FoRKs in a die from Cave-Wise, and asks for a bonus for Joe's Paranoid trait.

"'We should go left, to the caves. It's obvious that the keep is manned, and thus more of a threat, plus, if you go right, I won't help you fight. And that would be bad.' I then finger my sword hilt," says Fred.

Vel rebuts, "I point out that Burt's being intimidating, doesn't know diddly squat about keeps, and just wants to take us where he can kill us all and take our stuff. 'Our friendly murder hobo is asking you to go into the dark, to trust him, and face god knows what monsters — in this region, bears are likely. If we go to the keep, at least we'll be able to see threats. By the way, I'm hungry, anyone got some Jerky?"

The GM grants the die for Joe's paranoia, but no others. Fred rolls 4s, Vel gets 6s.

Vel wins, with a margin of 2s. Which means a 2 of 6 remaining... compromise time. The go to the keep, but if things are hostile at the keep, they'll flee back to the caves.


Go for what's simplest.

  1. Make two statements of intent
  2. Select a skill for each roll
  3. Make valiant and glorious speeches concerning the death of the world, and let the characters go back and forth in debate
  4. Make one roll
    • If there is a tie, then both sides get minor compromises
    • If one side wins by one, then they win with a minor compromise
    • If one side wins by two or more, then they are victorious

A second option is to inform the players that they can and should debate in character; once they start, they'll stop when it's natural, and then you can roll. Or, maybe you'll find you don't need to.

I have realized that both of these options won't work, as they require picking moves.

A third option is to call and end to the Duel of Wits when the debate begins to lose steam. You can do this fairly easily at the end of an exchange without any significant problems. Instead of using a self-relative metric (reduced to half of your own), use a metric relative to the opponent. I would advise against comparing the amount of points lost, since that's going to be a meaningless metric if the totals don't go below zero. Instead, do a direct comparison, and use the distance between the two arguments to come to a reasonable compromise. Some finagling required.

A fourth option is to cut the exchanges down by 1/3, reducing them to two volleys. However, multiply the points reduced to each of the argument bodies by 1.5; that way, more damage occurs in a smaller timeframe. This will result in a faster-paced argument, which actually sounds like what you may be going for, though the results are not tested and I cannot guarantee their safety. Your pets may perish in the process.

I think your best bet is to let the players debate until they're done with the core of their arguments. It sounds, from your description, like the players are more suitable freeforming their arguments, then rolling for success. I say that because they're already predisposed towards avoiding structured DoW rules, and are leaning towards something more versatile.

How do these options sound?

  • \$\begingroup\$ It's certainly a viable approach. One thing I do like about DoW's back-and-forth is that sometimes a statement will completely change the way I think about a situation, which prompts me to just give if I'm not longer worried about the stakes in the same way. Going to straight-up one-roll does kinda reduce that. \$\endgroup\$
    – Alex P
    Commented Jul 29, 2013 at 2:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ @AlexP If it's possible, you can communicate to the players that they can and should debate in character; once they start, they'll stop when it's natural, and then you can roll. Or, maybe you'll find you don't need to. You can also roll at critical points in the argument, and do as Fate: lose certain points, win others. \$\endgroup\$
    – user8248
    Commented Jul 29, 2013 at 3:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm giving this answer the bounty because it was the first to suggest using margin of success to determine compromises. \$\endgroup\$
    – Alex P
    Commented Aug 23, 2013 at 11:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ @AlexP Ah, thanks! Hopefully your question was answered, then? \$\endgroup\$
    – user8248
    Commented Aug 24, 2013 at 18:26

Consider using the conflict system from Mouse Guard (and now Torchbearer). You can find a summary on the second page of the Mouse Guard character sheet.

There are only four actions to choose from: Attack, Defend, Feint, and Maneuver. For an argument conflict, you would roll Persuasion (plus helping dice) and add your Will for a disposition. You would need to map all of the Dueling skills into their actions (e.g., Falsehood for Feint/Maneuver), but that shouldn't be too hard. You'll still get compromises and tactical scripting, but it might run longer than you want. In my experience running Mouse Guard, an argument is usually up to two scripted rounds of three actions each. It can occasionally go long, though. Defend can actually recover disposition (but not above the starting value), but a well-scripted Feint will deflate it.

  • \$\begingroup\$ So that's simpler but more-or-less the same duration as BW DoW, right? \$\endgroup\$
    – Alex P
    Commented Jul 29, 2013 at 4:55
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Actually scripting might be faster since there's fewer options. You could hack in Not A Big Deal, but with a lucky roll and some Fate you could potentially one-shot an argument. \$\endgroup\$
    – okeefe
    Commented Jul 29, 2013 at 4:58

This reminds me of a house rule my storyteller uses in a game of Werewolf the Forsaken I am playing.

He implemented an adaption of the concept of a 'stare-down' when two werewolves lock eyes a "battle of wits" takes place for "dominance". Either way, the same concept of how the mechanics work could be applied here. The mechanics of the 'stare-down' works like this:

The players take it in turns to be the "offensive" and "defensive" rollers. Anytime a player fails a defensive roll, he loses the 'stare-down'.

To adapt this to your needs, I would do something like the following:

  • Each player makes an initial roll to determine the strength of their argument. This check would be done by rolling certain skills against each other, each player would roll their persuasive/manipulation/whatever skill against the other players stubborn/willpower/whatever. This represents each player's argument's initial strength, this total is added to that players subsequent dice pool for who wins the argument. (This might result in a negative if a certain player has great defense)

  • Then both players will make opposed checks, determine what the best base-skill for them to use is for this roll, and then add dice equal to their successes in the previous roll (or removing dice for negative results).

This process resolves itself with 3 opposed rolls, the result of which provides two scores. To figure out the resolution of the argument you can have a tie, a close victory, a definite victory.. etc.


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