Storium Theory: Setting up a Challenge, Part 3–Results

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on 12/10/2015.

Welcome back to my series on setting up challenges. We’ve been through the Name and Description in one prior post, and the Rating in another. Now, it’s time to talk about the Results.

Each challenge has a Strong result and a Weak result. The basic purpose of these is to guide the writing of the player who completes the challenge if it comes out Strong or Weak – to tell the player what events or information need to be included in his writeup.

(The narrator writes the challenge conclusion in the case of an Uncertain result.)

There are a wide variety of ways to write the results statements. Some narrators like to spell things out in detail, while others like to leave a lot up to the players. Some like to make strong, clear divisions of success and failure, while others like to go with success vs. success with complications.

I don’t think there really is a right or wrong on this one…it’s all in what works for your game and player group.

Here’s what works for me.

First off: both Strong and Weak results should move the story forward. Avoid results that slam a wall in front of the players. Results like “you don’t find the information” or “you can’t find a way in” or “you are driven away by the enemy” can grind a story to a halt.

If you want to do Success (Strong) vs Failure (Weak), make the Failure interesting and make sure it has a way to carry things forward. Instead of not finding any information, what if the team called too much attention to themselves and their investigation was interrupted by goons? Instead of being driven away by the enemy, what if the heroes were captured?

Overall, though, I find it much easier to work with Success (Strong) vs Success With Complications (Weak). I’ve seen this as a tendency in tabletop RPGs like 13th Age (Fail Forward) and Fate Core (Success with a Cost), and I like it. It’s very easy to keep the story moving forward and it makes the player characters generally look capable–while still providing the possibility of complications that make the story more interesting than just straight victories.

I find using this style makes players more likely to be willing to just let the cards fall where they lie, rather than planning out how to get Strong results. It won’t necessarily totally remove tactical thinking from the game, but it can help keep things moving as frequently players will feel interested in both possibilities.

  • “You get into the building, but have triggered the alarms…now you’re caught in a deathtrap!”
  • “You get the information you’re looking for, but the enemy knows you’ve been asking around.”
  • “You get the information you’re looking for, but moments later some goons come up spoiling for a fight.”
  • “You defeat the enemy troops, but it takes a long time.”
  • “You defeat the enemy troops, but someone is injured.”

Some of these aren’t huge variances from the Failure version, but each of them just kind of naturally includes the event that clearly moves the story onward.

Again, either method of doing results can be right–what’s important is the tone you want to set. “Success with Complications” sets a more heroic tone. “Failure” sets a darker one.

Thinking of your average heroic story, the heroes don’t generally outright fail that often–they more often tend to have a string of successes, just with some of them being tougher than others. So if you’re aiming for a mood similar to high fantasy tales, superhero movies, superspy stories, or even action films in general, I’d stick with Success vs. Success with Complications a lot of the time. There are definitely failure moments in a lot of these tales, but they’re few and far between. The protagonists will look very skilled and capable, or very powerful, if you take this path.

On the other hand, a darker story with more “average people” protagonists tends to feature more outright failures. You could still run this with the Success with Complications rules, but assigning challenges outright failure results more often allows the story’s dark moments to come up organically. The protagonists will look less skilled if you take this path, so be aware of that.

Either way…just make sure you’re always pushing the story forward, and try to make sure both results feel like the sort of events that would interest a reader of a story.

Once you’ve determined that, though…how do you determine just what you should write to describe the Results?

There seem to be three concepts:

  1. Player Driven: This style provides a limited amount of detail, laying out some very basic guidelines. Players make up most of the details. “You get into the base. What do you find there?” or “You get into the base but run into trouble. What happens?”
  2. Narrator Driven: This style really spells out in detail what happens. “You get into the base and find the RX-9 Graviton Engine that you can use to power your ship.” or “You get into the base, but find yourself surrounded by enemy guards. It’s a trap!”
  3. Mixed: This style falls in between, generally giving options rather than a set single result, or sometimes giving a single result but letting players define things within that result. “You get into the base, but choose: you’re surrounded by guards, or you’ve triggered a deathtrap.” or “You get into the base, but trigger a trap–someone is caught in a sealed room. Who?”

There’s quite a lot of variance among those styles, of course, and more ways to blend them, but those seem to be the general philosophical differences.

None of them are wrong.

I find that Narrator Driven results work pretty well overall, taking some of the creative burden off of players. However, they can be very restrictive and can feel like railroading, especially if used all the time or spelled out in extreme detail.

Player Driven results work best with a very, very creative group. Not everyone is comfortable being asked to make up large parts of the results–some gamers really prefer being given choices or just having it spelled out, regarding their role in the game more as choosing between the options provided. It’s rare for a game to entirely operate on Player Driven results, though I have seen good examples of it working. It can be tough, and I find that it works best if the game has fostered a very good sense of community and collaboration. Otherwise, you can really end up with a game full of jarring twists and turns that don’t mesh. I like to use these occasionally, but not constantly.

Mixed results are a good middle ground that can work very well. They give players some creative freedom, but still lay out clearer rules for what the result is about. I find that when games use this style–particularly the “list of options” idea–it feels like players can direct the story, but aren’t overwhelmed by the possibilities.

What do I advise using?

All three. Emphasize the style that seems to work best for you, but really, all three are good in their own way. Sometimes, it’s best to spell things out. Sometimes, it’s really cool to let players dream up whatever they want. And sometimes, it feels right to let the situation be a little variable, but not totally open.

Once you’ve decided what style to use, the next question is how to write your statements. Even with the narrator-driven style, you don’t want to go overboard on details. Spell out what you need to spell out–not every single facet of what occurs.

I tend to write a few sentences, but I’ve seen very effective challenge results (particularly in the player-driven style) with just a few words. I think the general idea is to give a brief summary of what happens…not every little tidbit.

Here’s some of mine:

  • Confronting a wizard that’s ostensibly the party’s ally:
    • You manage to slow Alvis without running into any major trouble, and without revealing your interference.
    • You manage to slow Alvis, but with a negative consequence. Choose, or make your own. 1) Someone is injured in the process. 2) You have to intervene openly, and earn Alvis’ wrath.
  • Trying to protect a boy from a kidnapper with super-speed:
    • Somehow, you manage to keep Rory safe from the woman, but she’s still a danger.
    • She’s gotten hold of Rory, but hasn’t gotten clear of the area–you’ve still got a chance. Where did she go?
  • Walking through a dream-world:
    • As you walk through the fog, you find yourself in the midst of something from your past–a pleasant, encouraging, or otherwise positive time. You change to fit it, and you relive it, and find your heart lifted by it. When it is done, the fog begins to clear, and you can see a shining path…
    • As you walk through the fog, you find yourself in the midst of something from your past–a discouraging, painful, or sad memory, or worse, a positive one twisted to despair. You change to fit it, and you relive it, and feel it dragging you down. When it is done, the fog begins to clear, and you can see a bleak path…
  • Trying to keep a villain talking when he was holding them at gunpoint:
    • You manage to keep the conversation going in some way, without giving anything away.
    • Choose: Either things devolve into combat and you’re going to need help *fast*, or you keep the conversation going, but accidentally let slip something that’s going to be a problem for you.
  • Flying a ship (Sulriga) to an enemy base in the midst of a dangerous asteroid field:
    • You locate the Stars of Freedom base, avoiding or destroying the dangers along the way…now it’s time to begin the approach.
    • You locate the Stars of Freedom base, but along the way the Sulriga has taken some notable damage.

All of these felt like they worked well in play, so as you can see, there’s a lot of potential options.

A few more notes:

  • Remember that Storium is about collaborative writing. It’s best for results to allow players at least some control over the story. If the story goes exactly as you as narrator expect it to go…you have to ask yourself why you weren’t just writing a book!
  • When you’re providing options, I’d suggest keeping it to two or three choices. Any more can become pretty hard to read.
  • If you’re doing Success vs Success with Complications, be sure it does feel like there’s a difference between the two results. The “Complications” result should be something that impacts the story. (See the Alvis example above–the “earn Alvis’ wrath” example would be a good, story-impacting complication in particular.) You don’t necessarily need to do a full divergence on every one, but it’s good to have things slowly turn towards a secondary path if players repeatedly get a Weak result especially.
  • Again…no brick walls.
  • I’ve mentioned this before, but challenge results don’t just lay out what happens at the end of a challenge–they help establish what range of events could happen during a challenge. If a challenge is “You win the battle” vs “you are captured,” the sort of things that can happen with a Weak card play are somewhat different than “You win the battle” vs “You win the battle, but with injuries” or some such. Keep that in mind!

Finally, let me touch briefly on Uncertain results. These are when the duty of writing a challenge conclusion falls to the narrator.

I find it is best to try to figure out a reasonable middle ground between the established results. This is easiest if you’re either using Success vs Failure, or if you make sure to give the Success With Complications a pretty significant impact in your writeup. What you can also do is take the opportunity to throw in a little twist or have one of the negatives of a weak result almost but not quite happen. An uncertain result is a good chance to put a little tweak in there that isn’t positive or negative–just interesting.

Some examples:

  • On the Alvis challenge above, the team got an uncertain result. One of the heroes was nearly discovered by Alvis, but saved in the nick of time by an NPC the group had helped earlier.
  • On a challenge about getting blueprints to a building for planning an intrusion, the group could’ve gotten blueprints clean, or gotten blueprints but alerted people that someone was looking into the building. Instead, on an uncertain, they found building documents, but only historical ones–the building had been modified, so the plans were useful but not totally accurate.

Challenge results are an important part of your game, so be sure to give them some real thought when setting up those challenge cards. Make them make sense, make them catch player interest, and make sure you never set up a brick wall. It’s more art than science, but I hope the above gives at least a little help.

We’ll continue this next up with the last part of setting up a challenge: the narration accompanying it.