The difference between CoCian and BWian philosophies of skills

Roleplaying games can represent stuff about real life that you don’t necessarily stop to think about. I’ll write about one here, the difference between how Call of Cthulhu and Burning Wheel handle skills, and what those differences say about human capabilities. And why it matters quite a lot to me, personally.

Call of Cthulhu uses a percentile-based system, but chances are you already knew that. Your character has a basic chance at succeeding at things. You need to roll under that basic chance or fail. If you suck at it, you’re better off never trying it. Sure, there are some bonuses for easy tasks, but still, you’ll suck at it. Besides, in Cthulhu, you’re better off never trying stuff that you’ll suck at.

Basically Call of Cthulhu says that there is stuff your character is good at, there is stuff your characters is really bad at, and you’re better off sticking to what you do well, and leaving the rest to your companions.

Burning Wheel approaches things in a different way. Your characters capabilities are measured in dice. You throw those dice and hope for a 4, 5, or 6 (usually). All those successes are compared to an Obstacle. If your successes at least match the Obstacle, you succeed.

That is, Burning Wheel drives home the idea that your character’s capabilities are always relative to the surrounding world. Some things will be easy for you, others not as much. But you’re welcome to try anything, and anything you do, will improve you. The system encourages you to try out stuff, meet the world, improve yourself.

Sure, Call of Cthulhu does have a rather misanthropic worldview to begin with, and as such, the skill system sort of fits the game. (Trail of Cthulhu actually goes a step further and has an optional high-Lovecraftian rule that you can never improve, but only get worse.) But why this matters to me, personally, is because something resembling the Call of Cthulhu mindset sort of dominated my view of my own skills for years: that is, I believed that there are things I’m good at, things I’m bad at, and that’s it, forever. I was good at a lot of things and had gotten used to gaining things easily; hardships were something I had had to really deal with. So I couldn’t really develop the mental determination to tackle hardships before I realized this.

Burning Wheel, as a system, is more optimistic towards human capabilities. You’re never too old to learn stuff. Just tackle things that are close to your own skills and you’re more likely to succeed. It’s not about you, it’s about your skills, and you have several. Failures move you forward. You learn from your mistakes. You will become a richer, fuller, more complex person, and live a happier life.

One thought on “The difference between CoCian and BWian philosophies of skills

  1. Good post!

    I’ll never GM games that uses a critical fail system exactly for the reason that they even further intensify the incentive to NOT to try things you aren’t good at.

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