Storium Theory: Setting Up a Challenge, Part 1–Name and Description

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on 12/3/2015. Reposting a day early here due to tomorrow being Christmas and all. For those who celebrate it, Merry Christmas! 🙂

I’ve talked a bit on this blog about the player side of dealing with challenges, but I haven’t really gone into the very basics of challenges yet. So today, we’ll start off a series of posts on challenge design.

A lot of it is pretty easy to understand: challenges essentially represent “things that stand in the way” in a story. Maybe it is a situation, or an item, or a character…whatever the case, a challenge is something that the player characters need to deal with as the story progresses.

As narrator, your job is to identify the things that become problems for the characters and draw them out, making them challenges for the characters to deal with.

When you set up a challenge, you are asked to name it, describe it, assign it points, and assign Strong and Weak results.

In this series, I’ll go over each of those parts in turn.

Naming the challenge is pretty self-explanatory–give the challenge a name that reflects what it is all about. This might be a character name or item name, but more commonly I find myself using situations. It helps to come up with a name that you think will help focus the players on what the challenge is actually about. Rather than naming a challenge “Huge Enemy Army,” for instance, you might name it “Hold the Line!” if you are zooming in on a part of the battle (resisting an enemy assault), “Break Their Spirits” if you want players to focus on damaging enemy morale, or “The Battle of Marnovia” if you intend it to represent the entire fight. You don’t have to get overly creative with this (in fact, names that are too stylistic can be confusing), but a slightly more evocative name can help focus players.

Next is the description. This is where you lay out in a little more detail just what the challenge is about. Don’t get too flowery here–you need to make sure you are clear, so players again know what you want as the challenge’s focus. Don’t treat this as the challenge narration, either–you should be setting that up in your actual scene text. This doesn’t have to be absolutely dry and mechanical, but the most important thing to do here is explain what the players need to be doing. I like to make a statement about what is happening, and then ask a question. “The massive enemy army is charging! Can you resist their attack?” or “The Carrus Consortium HQ is a massive building with elaborate security measures and multiple guard patrols. Can you get to the server room without anything raising an alarm?” These sorts of descriptions provide a decent idea of what is happening or what the resistance might be, and also focus the players on what their actions should primarily be dealing with. You don’t always have to write descriptions like this–I’ve found flowery and/or mysterious ones can sometimes be helpful–but especially if you’re just starting out, making things as clear and focused as you can could help a lot.

It’s important to generally not think of these as individual actions–most Storium challenges should usually be about overall events, not individual actions. If you’re taking tabletop games as an example, think of challenges as full sections of a battle, or even full battles. For less combat-oriented examples, think of challenges as stages in an investigation, or perhaps even full investigations…as stages of an intrusion into a hostile area, or even the full thing. If you’re building a challenge about getting into an enemy stronghold, don’t go down to the level of detail of, say, picking this lock, and then beating this guard, and then scaling this wall. Generally, make the challenge something like “Get into the Secure Area!” and leave the details of how that is accomplished more up to the players.

As a side note, Storium does allow you to play challenges again and again over the course of the story, which can be tempting with character challenges in particular, but I find it is best to clone the card each time and change the description, so that I can highlight new or altered aspects to this instance of the challenge. Even if you’ve encountered a person before, after all, there can be differences this time.

We’ll continue the series on challenges later, moving on to what should factor into your choice on how many points to assign.