Storium Theory: Character-Specific Challenges

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on March 29th, 2016.

In most cases in Storium games, narrators set up challenges that can pretty much be fulfilled by any of the characters. They set up a situation and leave it to the players to decide who resolves it and how.

But every now and then in a story, you feel the need to get more specific–to actually set up a challenge for a particular person.

Now…I’m not talking about challenges where you name one, or a few specific people because the group is currently split–though those can take some of the same advice below. What I mean here is challenges that speak to a certain character’s plot or issues, and therefore should generally only be fulfilled by that character.

Let’s look back at my discussion of game arc vs. character arc from earlier this year. The duty of the narrator, generally, is to drive the game arc and set up points where it could alter, while simultaneously supporting the players in their development of their character arcs.

Thus, normally, challenges are set up to fulfill that goal: they highlight the game arc in their descriptive and results text fields, but provide a situation that is open enough that players can show their character arcs progressing as well.

Character-specific challenges are a bit different.

When you set up a character-specific challenge, you are zeroing in on one particular character…and your challenge will deal with issues specifically relevant to that character. You’re setting the spotlight on that character and bringing his character arc to the forefront.

The challenge can still be relevant to the game arc, but the character arc is what’s being highlighted by the descriptive and results text fields.

Here’s an example from my “Wings of Truth” game, in which a skilled hunter who is part of the crew of a smuggler’s starship finds himself following some ancestral spirits in the middle of a mission and is interrupted by soldiers on the way:

  • Vision Quest, With a Side of Military Conflict (L): You are close to what you seek…can you get there safely? And when you get there…what is it that you find?
    • Strong: You defeat the soldiers without difficulty, and find your way to where the spirits were leading you. Somehow, it is good…what is it?
    • Weak: You defeat the soldiers, with difficulty, and find your way to where the spirits were leading you. What you see causes you emotional pain…what is it?

The “(L)” in the name of the challenge stood for “Lovek,” the hunter’s name, and was my way of calling out to the players that only he should play cards on that challenge. It’s a good idea to come up with some kind of clear labeling scheme for these and also make a note of your intentions in the comments.

The soldiers were added to keep the challenge consistent with the current game tone (this was happening in the midst of an action sequence, so I didn’t want a huge break from that), but the main focus for our purposes today is the vision. The hunter’s vision, and where the spirits led him, might or might not relate to the main game plot. I left that open. What’s important here is how the vision affects the hunter himself: is it a good thing, that helps him or gives him confidence or something like that? Or is it bad, causing him doubt, or fear, or pain?

Thus, the focus of the challenge is entirely on the hunter himself, and his character arc. If the player chooses to put something in that ties it in more strongly to the main game plot, he certainly can…but I’ve set up the challenge to put the spotlight on the hunter and his emotions.

That’s the general idea, with one of these. Point the camera at something more personal.

So that’s what a character-specific challenge is, but…when should it be used?

I think it’s fair to say that this is a powerful technique to bring a character’s issues to light, but a technique that should be used carefully and infrequently.

As the narrator, your primary responsibility is to the game arc, and most of your challenges should reflect that. You should trust the players to bring up their character issues and involve them in the game. Just leave things open enough in your challenges that they can do that, and give them cues in narration to make it easier.

That isn’t to say you shouldn’t involve character plots directly in the main game plot, mind–it’s a great idea to find things you can pull from character backstories or player posts throughout the game, and involve them in further events. What I mean is that your challenges should generally be about what happens to the group as a whole or the world situation or some such, in keeping with what the game arc is about. In most stories, game and character stories intertwine quite a bit–Luke’s story about wondering what happened to his father, for instance, matters quite heavily to the galactic war in Star Wars, but most of the challenges around Darth Vader would still be about whether heroes escape from him or defeat him or some such. They’re about the game story. When Luke is trying to destroy the Death Star, Vader being his father could enter into things in the story if the player wanted, but the main focus is whether Luke can make that shot or not. That’s the game arc, and that’s what the narrator concerns himself with most of the time.

On Bespin, though, Luke might have a more personal challenge–not just because he’s fighting Vader, but because the challenge isn’t about whether he wins or loses, or even whether he escapes–it’s about how he reacts to Vader’s revelation. Similarly, look at that decision he makes on Dagobah–deciding to go off to save his friends, despite Yoda’s warnings. That certainly affects the main plot, but the main focus is whether Luke personally sets aside his worries and stays with Yoda, or goes off despite the warnings.

Those are good examples of the point where the story needs a character-specific challenge, something that puts the spotlight entirely on the character’s personal story.

That’s the main thing: your job as narrator is to try to detect those points, the points where the game’s main story should take a backseat for a moment to let a character issue come to the fore. The challenge can still affect the game arc, but the character arc is the part that’s highlighted. In some games, there might be quite a few of those. In others…you might only use the concept once, or not at all. “Wings of Truth” only has one. “Twishted: Academia,” another game of mine, focuses much more on personal situations–and thus, it has used these pretty regularly.

There’s one other concern that bears mentioning on this as well, of course, and that’s the effect it can have on the speed of play.

When you limit the characters who can play on a challenge…especially if you limit a challenge to one character…you run the risk of game slowdown. You make the game pretty much entirely dependent on a single person. That can be fine, if the player is usually reliable. It can be a disaster if the player isn’t reliable. When you’re thinking about doing a character-specific challenge, do think about that. Question whether you can rely on the player to come in quickly and make a move so the game doesn’t get held up.

Remember that your primary responsibility is to the game as a whole. Sometimes you may need to pass by a potentially powerful character moment for the good of the game.

It’s also generally a good idea to give the rest of the group something to do, too. That keeps the game arc in at least some focus, and more importantly, ensures that the rest of your players don’t get bored if resolving the character focus takes a little time. Looking at Bespin, the others are busy escaping the city while Luke interacts with Vader. In “Wings of Truth,” the other characters were talking with one of the main villains, keeping him busy while they worked on an escape plan.

One more thing, before I close up this article…how many card plays should be required to resolve the challenge?

Obviously, if it’s meant for a single character, you can’t do more than 3. I’d suggest generally keeping it to 1 or 2, though. 3 can work (and indeed for the “Wings of Truth” one I used 3), but I’d keep that to challenges where you really think the player might want to take some time to dig in and explore the situation more, over the course of more than one move (you can play 3 cards in a single move, but I’ve found most players won’t). Setting the challenge to a single card, or to 2 cards, lets the player have a spotlight moment but reflects a more focused situation.

Between those…I’ve used 1 card more frequently so far, but I think that I prefer 2 cards philosophically. 2 cards lets a player use a Strength or Weakness to get a result but also toss their Subplot in, and these challenges will tend to have an impact on the subplot so it makes sense to make it easy to play that. I’ll probably aim to set these at 2 cards in the future, myself.

Character-specific challenges, shining a spotlight on a character’s issues, can be a very powerful tool to bring out the emotion of your story. Look again at that Luke/Vader confrontation, the revelation, the reaction, the desperate plunge…it’s one of the most iconic moments in movie history for a reason. It’s all about Luke’s personal story, but it stands out, possibly more than any other event in the original Star Wars trilogy.

That’s the power of a character moment, when the story takes time to pause and really put it into focus.

Use them too often, and you can overwhelm your story…but all the same, don’t forget about this powerful tool. Sometimes the game really needs to poke at a character’s personal issues. If it feels like one of those moments has arrived, do what you can to bring the character to the forefront. Emotion is what keeps readers reading and players playing, and these are the moments that can evoke the most.