Storium Theory: Challenges: Simultaneous or Sequential?

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on March 17th, 2016.

I’ve written a fair amount about setting up a challenge in Storium, but thus far, I’ve only really discussed challenges from the standpoint of a single challenge–the intricacies of setting up one challenge, narrating about it, setting its points and outcomes, and so on.

Today, I’d like to bring up the idea of multiple challenges in the same scene–a common element of Storium games, but one I haven’t much discussed so far.

Using multiple challenges in the same scene is a good way to portray more complex or lengthy situations. A challenge can only use up to 9 points on its own, but if multiple challenges are used to address the same general situation, then it’s possible to assign the situation more dramatic emphasis than 9 points would allow. Additionally, it’s possible to highlight individual “sections” or “moments” within an overall situation, making scene portrayals more complex and interesting.

When you’re deciding to use more than one challenge in a scene, one major choice you need to make is whether you’re going to have the challenges out there simultaneously, or sequentially. Will they be available for play all at the same time, or will the next one come out when players finish the first?

Here’s what I suggest using to guide your decisions:

  • Use Simultaneous challenges when:
    • The challenges are different, independent parts of an overall situation.
    • One challenge can resolve Strong or Weak without significant innate impact on the other challenge.
    • The events of each challenge are, in fact, happening at the same time and need to be addressed as such, storywise.
  • Use Sequential challenges when:
    • Events do not need to be addressed at the same time, storywise.
    • One challenge is linked heavily enough with another that you need to know how one resolves before you can satisfactorily address the second.
    • The events are “stages” of a situation, or the events are different parts of a situation but one is dependent on the other.

The basic rule is that if you’re going to need to know how one challenge works out to know the situation that affects the other, they should probably be sequential for ease of play. If they’re pretty much independent of each other, on the other hand, they can probably be simultaneous safely, so long as the story will support them being addressed at the same time.

Here’s a couple examples:

  • Simultaneous: The heroes are fighting a gang of criminals who are trying to escape, and the criminals have also set up a bomb. The team needs to stop the escape, but also needs to disarm the bomb. These challenges aren’t dependent on each other: the bomb can be disarmed or blow up whether the criminals escape or not, and the criminals can escape or be captured whether the bomb is disarmed or not. Events of one of the two challenges should certainly be mentioned in the other challenge, and could influence events, but the success/failure of one is not dependent on the other.
  • Sequential: Same situation…except that the heroes are trying to get into the building and the criminals are in defense. The heroes can’t get to the bomb without defeating the gang. Now, the bomb challenge’s starting situation is dependent on how the heroes do against the gang. Depending on the outcomes, for instance, the heroes might clear out the gang with time to deal with the bomb, leading to a challenge about disarming the bomb. Or, they might not be able to deal with the gang until there’s too little time left, and the next challenge might be about evacuating the area before the explosion.

You see? Both of these setups use the same general concept…just that one opens the situation up to allow both events to happen at once and be relatively independent of each other, while the other forces dependence and forces one event to happen after the other. In both cases, the gang and the bomb are two separate challenges, but the way they interact is quite different.

Now, what about this situation? There’s a bomb, and characters want to disarm it and have access to it now…but there’s also a gang, trying to drive them away from the bomb before it can be disarmed.

In this case, even though events are theoretically happening simultaneously, we can’t really do two simultaneous challenges. If the gang drives the heroes away before the bomb can be disarmed, by definition, the bomb can’t be disarmed.

This, of course, assuming that “you are driven away before you can disarm the bomb” or some permutation of that is the Weak outcome of the gang challenge.

So, what should be done to set this up? There’s a few options:

  • Sequential: Even though the bomb disarming is technically going to happen simultaneously in terms of story, get the resolution to the gang challenge first. We need to know what happens with it before we know whether the team has time to work on the bomb. This will require some careful writing to make sure that character’s aren’t effectively being shown two places at once, but it can work, and gives emphasis to both challenges.
  • Single: Instead, treat the entire situation as one challenge. What matters to this situation isn’t so much the gang…it’s the bomb. Just making it one challenge will allow everyone to write on the situation in whatever role they see their character taking, without having to jump through any hoops to make it all work. Make it one challenge with outcomes like the below:
    • Strong: The team manages to hold back the gang long enough for the bomb to be safely disarmed.
    • Weak: The team is driven back by the gang and has to abandon their location before the bomb can be disarmed. They get clear…but the bomb goes off.
    • Or some variant, depending on your story’s tone (Success with Complications for a Weak result might be “The team holds on until the bomb can be safely disarmed…but somebody takes a bullet and is seriously injured,” or some variant).
  • Simultaneous, evading the problem: Change your concept of what the “gang” challenge is about. Make it about defending the location without getting hurt, for instance, and leave everything dealing with the bomb to the bomb challenge. Then, you can do them simultaneously, just as if the gang’s goal was escape.

That brings to light the other consideration: when should you use two or more challenges?

My answer to that is: whenever more than one aspect of a situation needs the full spotlight.

If you want the fight against the gang to have story focus, and the disarming of the bomb to have story focus, you need to do multiple challenges. But if what matters is more just the overall situation resolution, and you don’t care how much time is spent, relatively, on either part of the situation, a single challenge will do fine.

In most cases, this sort of thing isn’t all that difficult of a decision, but I have seen cases where there are potential issues. Consider the following challenges appearing simultaneously:

  • Lady Drake: This villain is dangerous and must be captured!
    • Strong: You capture Lady Drake.
    • Weak: Lady Drake escapes.
  • Drakelings: Lady Drake’s servants are trying to defend her–can you get around them?
    • Strong: You defeat the Drakelings and are able to get to Lady Drake.
    • Weak: The Drakelings hold you off long enough for Lady Drake to escape.

There’s an obvious problem if those appear simultaneously, right? What happens if the Lady Drake challenge resolves Strong and the Drakelings resolve Weak? Lady Drake can’t both escape and be captured! So, obviously, with these outcomes, the challenges should probably be sequential – resolve the Drakelings, then move on to Lady Drake.

Sometimes, the conflict isn’t quite as obvious as that…but it’s an important thing to look for. When you lay out simultaneous challenges, take a good look at the outcomes, and think to yourself what certain combinations of outcomes might mean for the story. If one doesn’t make sense, you might have a problem!

Again…these aren’t necessarily hard points, just things to think about when you’re laying out challenges. As narrator, your job is to guide the players in making a fun and interesting story…but your job is also to help make sure the story makes sense, in general. Simultaneous and sequential challenges can lead to some more intricate and complex scenes…but they can also introduce logic holes in your story. Use them–in fact, use them often–but take a little time to really think about them! You want them to help emphasize things…not be a source of confusion.