Storium Theory: Component Challenges

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on February 23rd, 2017.

Today, I’d like to take a look at another interesting thing that you can do with Storium‘s challenge system – something that I’d call “component” challenges.

Component challenges are something that I’ve found very useful when you’re dealing with an overall situation that might be too large or amorphous to handle by means of a larger challenge.

For example: Let’s say that you want to do a challenge about a journey through an underground cave, with the heroes finding their way through to the room that holds a sacred artifact. You could, of course, do this as one big challenge titled “Through the Caves” or something of that sort, with outcomes that reflect the heroes either finding their way through safely or getting lost or running into trouble on the way.

But…that can be a pretty tough challenge for players to play, particularly if they’re not used to creating their own trouble. There’s not a lot of cues, really, and in my experience, players have some difficulty working with a challenge that’s covering a longer journey, investigation, or what-have-you all in one go. Instead, what I like to do is use components.

The simplest way to do a component challenge is to just sequentially play out a series of smaller challenges. Say that you decide the journey through the caves will have three major obstacles: An underground river that has to be crossed, a cliff that has to be scaled, and a crumbling ruin that is hazardous to walk through.

With the sequential components method, you’d just decide what order those will appear in. You’d set out the first challenge, and once it was complete, set out the second. Then, once that was complete, set out the third. Once the third challenge is complete, the heroes have made it through the caves. The individual challenge outcomes determine what happened along the way. Did they lose a critical item while they crossed the river? Did they get scratched and bruised in a dangerous fall as they scaled the cliff? Did they find a strange idol in the ruins that holds a clue to a future evil?

Now…that’s the simplest way to do this, but it’s not the only way. My personal favorite way is to let the players decide the order in which the obstacles emerge. Here’s how.

I’ll start, as above, by determining the components of the journey. Let’s say that I picked the river, the cliff, and the ruin, as above.

Then, instead of placing out one challenge, I’ll place all three out at the same time. My narration will just cover the beginning of the journey. The players then tell the rest of the tale, using the challenges as cues.

When using this for a journey or other full group activity, emphasize to the players that they’re journeying together – these aren’t challenges that players split up and conquer simultaneously. The group, as a whole, is moving through these challenges. Otherwise, you can end up with one set of players climbing the cliff, while another set appears to go in a different direction and fords the river. If you emphasize that the players are moving as a group, it’ll feel more like one complete journey.

The first player to play on a challenge actually describes the obstacle being faced – how the characters encounter it, what it looks like, and the like – and leaves cues for the other players to use. This puts a little more on the players, but I’ve generally found it to work just fine – as long as you’ve set up the obstacle card with a moderate amount of description, players have plenty to work with and can set the scene perfectly well. If someone needs help, of course, let them know they can ask you for more information, but I find leaving that to the players actually tends to work just fine.

Now, placing all the challenges out there at the same time can lead to points where the heroes are midway through exploring the ruins when they come upon a cliff, partially descend the cliff, and run into the river…in other words, all the challenges are active at once. Sometimes that can work for a story – for instance, there’s really no reason the heroes couldn’t come upon a cliff in the middle of some ancient ruins, right? But sometimes, it doesn’t really work…why would the heroes run into some ancient ruins halfway across fording a river?

A lot of the time, you can just leave that to the players – people tend not to want to write things that don’t feel like they fit together, so generally I think you won’t end up with problem situations too much. For my part, if I’m concerned, I just use a simple house rule: Once one of the component challenges has been started, it must be completed before another component challenge may be started. In other words, if players start fording the river, they can’t start the ruins or cliff challenges until they finish the river challenge. If players start climbing the cliff, they can’t start the river or ruins challenges until they finish the river challenge. And so on.

This optional rule makes the scene work more like the sequential method, but lets the players decide the order that the challenges show up in. It works as a nice middle ground, I’ve found. You get a story that feels consistent, but still allow the players to choose the order of events.

It must be noted that with this method, whether the heroes reach the end of the caves at all isn’t generally in doubt. What’s questioned is what happens along the way. At the end of the three challenges, the heroes do reach the end – they just might be in better or worse condition depending on how the challenges went. That, of course, is pretty much in line with my challenge methodology anyway, as I tend to do challenges’ Strong and Weak outcomes as Success vs. Success with Consequences, but if you use a different method, you may need to consider that when setting up these concepts.

Modifying this to suit the possibility of the characters’ getting lost or ending up at the wrong place, though, isn’t all that hard – just make it a possible result from one, and only one, of the component challenges. Pick a challenge that seems to adequately suggest a possibility of getting lost, like “Confusing Tunnels” or “Supernatural Darkness.” The Weak outcome for that challenge can suggest that the heroes got turned around a bit or aren’t fully sure where they are. The other challenges should be about whether they get through safely or with danger, or whether they find a useful item or not…things like that.

Don’t make more than one challenge involve the possibility of getting lost – that leads to all sorts of possible outcome conflicts, where a Weak outcome could negate a Strong immediately, or vice versa. It’s best to make the outcomes as independent from each other as possible.

I’ve used the example of a journey through caves here, but you can use this in all sorts of ways. Maybe the heroes are fighting as a unit as they go through a complex battlefield. Maybe the heroes are searching for pieces of information about a criminal. Maybe the heroes are making a long journey across the wasteland.

Any time you’re faced with a point in your story where the obstacle feels too large to be played effectively, where you’re worried that the players might not have enough cues to work with, break it down into some components and play those instead. I think that you’ll find it can work quite well for giving you a story that still feels like a big, complex task that takes a lot of time, but that is much easier to play through and gives the players more cues.