Challenges are essentially player vs. environment conflicts — occasions when another player isn't opposing your action directly, but where you still need to know whether you manage to overcome an obstacle. Typical examples include:
- Another player is opposing your action, but whatever it is that he's doing is fixed opposition of some type. Often, this will be an ability that doesn't get stronger or weaker depending on someone's stats.
- No player is opposing your action, but it's still notably difficult, and you need to know whether you can overcome it.
- A player is GMing this scene, and he wants to represent the strength of the NPC opposition.
- A player is GMing this scene, and he wants to represent the difficulty of a task or an obstacle.
In a challenge, a fixed difficulty number is used. Much like in a contest comparison, you are using a stat, together with an optional gift, or token to be consumed. You are trying to beat the difficulty number. Use:
+challenge number-or-gift using stat [with optional-gifts optional-token]
One of five things will happen:
- Complete failure. You haven't come close to overcoming the challenge. It might be appropriate to take a consequence or two.
- Failure. You failed, but it wasn't abject failure. It might be appropriate to take a consequence.
- Almost succeeded. You came very close to success, but didn't quite manage it.
- Success. You overcame the challenge.
- Overwhelming success. You overcame the challenge easily.
For Player GMs: When to Use Challenges
If you don't absolutely need a difficulty challenge, don't do one. If the story direction's clear, why bother? You should only do a challenge when the results make a difference, and when there are interesting results for failure as well as interesting results for success. This is really worth emphasizing: If failing means "nothing happens", the challenge is pointless. Similarly, if success doesn't yield anything special, the challenge is pointless. As a storyteller, a challenge should be helping you to make a decision on which of two story directions to pursue.
In other words: Challenges are dramatic moments. If there's no drama, there's no point in a challenge.
Challenges are specifically useful when:
- You need to determine whether the characters are going to succeed or fail at a task, and both success and failure lead to distinct, interesting outcomes.
- You know that the characters are going to succeed, but you don't know how difficult it will be for them to achieve success, and you need to determine how the scene should be colored. (If they do poorly, they are more likely to take consequences during the scene, it may take them longer to accomplish the task, etc.)
Challenges are also specifically a way for characters to show off their cool. If the challenge isn't making anyone look cool — in other words, if the challenge isn't illuminating character in an interesting way, and contribute meaningful to the shape of the story — don't bother with it. Just present the obstacle and let people pose as they feel suits them. Save the challenges for when it really matters.
Setting Difficulty Numbers
There's almost no point in doing challenges against low numbers, because your players are pretty much always going to succeed. Similarly, setting numbers too high will mean that players are pretty much guaranteed to fail. You only want to set a challenge when the outcome is genuinely, meaningfully in doubt.
Challenges should cover a large part of a scene. Avoid using them for "combat rounds"; a challenge should cover the entire fight. If there are multiple opponents, simply raise the target number; if a single goon is a 6, a goon and his two buddies are probably slightly something higher, like a 7.
The typical player's average stat is in the 3 to 6 range. In many situations, a player is going to be able to add +3 to +6, thanks to a gift, or a token expenditure. This means that most players will have no problems overcoming a 6, a significant percentage can overcome a 9, and a difficulty of 12 is going to be a real challenge for many characters.
Remember that everyone is awesome, and the stats reflect that. A difficulty of 6 ought to indicate something of mythic levels of challenge in the typical shadow world. A difficulty of 9 ought to indicate a feat worthy of note, even in Amber. A difficulty of 12 should be something memorably difficult, even for a Prince of Amber.
Broadly, most difficulties for challenges should probably be in the 9 to 15 range.