Storium Theory: Setting Up a Challenge, Part 2–Rating

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on 12/8/2015.

In the first part of my series on setting up a challenge, I talked about naming the challenge and writing its description, two important elements that help set the challenge’s focus. See Setting Up a Challenge, Part 1 if you’d like to read up on those.

Next up is playing the challenge card.

The first thing to set up on the card is the number of points on the challenge, which directly corresponds to the number of cards the characters will be required to play to complete it. I usually call this the challenge rating.

How do you decide how many points to set on a challenge?

The first instinct of any RPG GM will be to set it based on the difficulty of the situation–to set things at 1 or 2 points if they are things that can be overcome more easily, and to use higher point values the more difficult it is.

I find that isn’t quite right. Because of the Strengths and Weaknesses system, short or long challenges can seem difficult or simple depending largely on what cards the players have on hand.

Rather, I like to look at it in terms of story focus. How much dramatic focus should the challenge have? Would this occupy only part of a scene in a TV show, or take up the entire segment? Is it a minor moment or a major plot focus? How important is it to the story as a whole? The more drama focuses around a challenge, the more points should be assigned. That way, it will require more moves to complete, which provides more focus on it for the story.

It does also sometimes benefit to think in terms of length of time covered by the challenge. I think drama and story focus should be the primary factors in your choice, but I include time as a secondary factor. If a challenge would take next to no time to resolve, it should probably take less cards than a challenge that takes a long time to resolve, at least if both are of similar dramatic focus. Case in point: A challenge about a single attack (which should be rare, by the way) should probably only have one or two points on it so it can be wrapped up in a single move, while a challenge about fighting a full battle should involve multiple points to make sure it gets a few moves. The single attack might be a huge moment where a character decides to take a bullet for his friend, making it a huge dramatic emphasis…but even then, on screen, it would only occupy a few shocking seconds. (A follow-up challenge about dealing with the aftermath, though, could be quite lengthy!)

The time rule isn’t always true, though–you can always have an hours-long research or investigation activity wrap up in one or two points if it feels appropriate. That’s why I use story focus / drama as the primary guides–they tell you more about how many moves you want things to take.

Another important guide: how many players do you want this challenge to require? Players can play up to three cards in a scene, so if you want challenges to require more than one player, it’s a good idea to set the challenge around the limit of cards for a single player. To make it likely that you’ll get more than one player on a challenge, set the challenge at 3-5 cards. To make it likely that you’ll get more than two players on a challenge, set it at 5-8 cards.

You may notice that the lower range of the above ratings doesn’t actually make it impossible for one or two players, respectively, to complete the challenge. The range you should use depends on the game and your player group. Some players almost never play 3 cards in a single move or on a single challenge, others will toss down 3 cards on any challenge they can. Depending on your player group, you might be able to get away with using smaller challenge values and still get the whole group involved, or you might have to make massive challenges to get everyone in there.

(You can always specify some card playing rules for your game, as well, of course–but that’s a topic for another day.)

Finally, one more piece of advice: in general, I suggest that you try not to use up your entire allotment of points for any scene, whether that scene involves one challenge or multiple. Leave 3 points unspent if you can–that’s the amount of cards one player can play in a scene. If you do that, it’ll mean that (barring unusual circumstances) you can get through the scene even if one player doesn’t play at all on it. Things can come up or players can unexpectedly drop, and putting in a little allowance for that can keep the game moving without you having to take the step of ending a challenge without it actually reaching completion.

I hope the above advice is helpful to you in choosing how to set up a challenge. I’ll continue my series later on with advice on setting up good Strong and Weak results.