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.

There are two variants of this:

  • +challenge: This is our "classic" challenge system, against a fixed difficulty number.
  • +try: An alternate challenge mechanism, against potential complications.

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 meaningfully 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.

Classic Challenges (+challenge)

In a "classic" 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.

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.

Complication-Based Challenges (+try)

In a complication-based challenge, the difficulty is represented as requiring N successes. Each character can generate a certain number of successes with a roll. If there aren't enough successes to overcome the difficulty, then successes may be bought by accepting a complication. The challenge is successful if the necessary successes are paid, and fails otherwise. Sometimes, characters may decide that the price of the complications is too high to want to succeed on the overall task.

The difficulty may be personal for each character, or it might be something that could be overcome by the group; the player-GM gets to decide.
If it can be overcome by a group, then the successes collectively count, and the complications may be collectively paid (subject to the logic of the scene).

Only stats and gifts may be used with this type of challenge. Use:

+try stat [with optional-gifts optional-token]

The player-GM can also accept the use of tokens that cannot normally be consumed for a bonus, and can decide how many successes a token is worth. In general, directly-relevant 0-point tokens that represent preparation or the like are probably worth 1 success, 3-point tokens are probably worth 2 successes, 6-point tokens are probably worth 3 successes, and so on. However, player-GMs are free to decide they are worth more or less depending on how relevant they are to the situation at hand, including choosing to entirely reject such tokens at their discretion.

Setting Success Requirements

A player is likely to be able to generate 2 successes without difficulty (i.e., with an average stat, average roll, and no gifts). If the player has a bonus gift, they are likely to generate an additional success. Consequently, it's appropriate to set the typical difficulty for an easily-achievable individual obstacle to 3 successes; that makes it likely the challenge will be overcome, possibly with a single complication.

Anything that requires more effort or where things are more likely to go wrong should have a higher number of necessary successes. It is fully appropriate to set difficulty numbers that are sufficiently high that they cannot be overcome without complications. Complications lend drama to a scene.

Player-GMs should always specify the required number of successes before asking players to roll. That also allow players to determine if they want to take any actions that might result in an obstacle that doesn't require as many successes to overcome.

Determining Complications

Complications color the success of the task, as well as create difficulties that might be consequential. Some complications may rise to the level of a formal RPG consequence, while others may just factor into the scene. Complications might have immediate impact, or might create issues later on — either during the scene or in the future.

For instance, consider a character who is trying to pick a lock. Complications might include things such as:

  • The lock has obviously been picked and the enemy will definitely notice it, which will create problems later in the scene.
  • The lock-picking has taken so much time that the character is now in danger of arriving too late (or they actually arrive too late).
  • The lockpicks break, so they cannot be used again in this scene.
  • The character triggers a trap, which has set off an alarm.
  • The lock had a poisoned-needle trap and the character has pricked his finger, and is now weakened by poison.
  • The character is poisoned and now needs to find an antidote within a certain amount of time or suffer a serious consequence.
  • The locked door opens, but there's an unexpected golem guard behind it.

A complication should be singular and clear, but it is up to the player-GM to decide how severe a complication is. The player-GM can decide that a complication is severe enough that it's worth several successes rather than just one, though. Complications can be negotiated between the player-GM and the players, and players are encouraged to offer their own ideas for complications.

A player-GM may also allow a player to choose from a possible list of complications. For instance, a character might be trying to jump a chasm, and could be offered a list of possibilities such as:

  • You jump across, but you drop your sword into the chasm.
  • You jump across but you land badly, spraining your ankle.
  • You don't quite make it. Now you're clinging to the edge by your fingers.

In some cases, a character might know and actively choose between complications — i.e., the character knows that he's not going to quite make the leap, and he has the choice to drop his sword and grab onto the edge properly and pull himself up, or keep the sword and precariously cling one-handed to the edge.

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