Monday, November 28, 2016

The Ongoing Challenge of Ongoing Challenges

After a bit of a brief break for the Thanksgiving Holiday, Malifaux Musings is back and ready to tell you about all of the bad things happening in our favorite gothic steampunk Victorian western city. First, some news bits, then an announcement regarding the blog itself, and we’ll finish up with a conversation about ongoing challenges in the Through the Breach roleplaying game.
Let’s dive in, shall we?


News Briefs

-The Divergent Paths story encounters event has wrapped up. The Arcanists continued their efforts towards coercing the Self Righteous Man, netting them wins in the last two phases and ultimately the win for the model. Despite their early success, the Rezzers were nudged out of the way by the Neverborn for ultimate control of the Trickster. And last but not least, in a surprise upset, the Outcasts rallied to take the child. The results of this seem to be that the SRM is going to be a werewolf man and full member of the Order of the Chimera, the Trickster will gain some ability to summon or manipulate Nephilim on top of her Nightmare abilities, and the Inquisitive Child gets shot (Malifaux really does suck sometimes, huh kid?) and in the process of saving her, Levi implants her with tech similar to what goes into the Hollow Waifs. Does this mean she’ll be a new waif? Or an anchor point? Time will tell. Unfortunately, Aaron also revealed that there was some cheating going on with the reporting of results down the stretch, so this will affect how they design future events. Bummer.

-The UK Nationals tournament was held on the 12th to 13th of November at Battlefield Hobbies in Daventry. Organized by Old Man Mike of Malifools fame, it once again set the attendance record for Malifaux tournaments with 123 participants. In the end, victory went to the Neverborn lead by Mark Elwood, now a two-time nationals champion. This victory puts him on his way to winning the UK Tournament Triple Crown.

-The Black Friday sale is currently underway at Wyrd’s webstore. In addition to a number of prereleases from book 4, there are two limited edition crews for sale: a translucent yellow Jack Daw crew and the Wild Ones limited edition alternate McCabe crew from Gencon in translucent smoke. If you spend $150 in the store you get an alternate Guard Sergeant and Rafkin, and if you drop $300 you can get an alternate Nicodem that should look familiar if you have one of the original fate decks and an alternate sculpt of Bishop, who does not look to have skipped chest and arms day. Toss in the addition of some posters for each of the factions (Black Joker novelty mini included for buying one of these) and Wyrd has some good stuff available. Sale ends December 2nd, so get your orders in now if you want to take advantage.


And next the announcement: we’ve become an affiliate of Leodis Games! This UK based game retailer contacted us to help promote their efforts, and we’re happy to pass along the good word about their services. Their webstore offers Malifaux models as well as Guild Ball, the Batman Miniatures Game, Infinity, and many more, as well as partnering with Army Painter and other hobby companies as well. In addition, they offer some custom 3D printed scheme markers appropriate for each of the Malifaux factions that I definitely have my eye on. All Malifaux Pre-Release orders are offered at 20% off, and free postage is offered on any orders over £40. If you’re interested in giving them a look, please use this offer link  or their banner on the side of the blog and they’ll kick some shekels our way, and the best part is it doesn’t cost you anything extra! So go get somebody you love the Christmas gift of Malifaux. We and Leodis appreciate your support. 


                For the main topic of today’s post, I wanted to discuss ongoing challenges in the Through the Breach roleplaying game. One of the things I liked most about the fourth edition of Dungeons and Dragons (which was a pretty short list, tbh) was the introduction of Skill Challenges, a mechanical system for providing out-of-combat encounters representing following a trail through the wilderness, negotiating a deal with a merchant baron with a grudge against you, or disarming a death trap before your group is crushed/stabbed/poisoned to death. I liked it because, prior to this, most of the RPGs I’d ever played basically boiled down to “Roll the skill check and, if they pass, give them the clue/result they’re looking to obtain.” This is problematic for a couple of reasons. First of all, if they fail the check then you have to bend over backwards to accommodate the failure (or just scrap the adventure.) Second, very rarely in life are any complicated problems solved with a single action, and third, it doesn’t accommodate dramatically changing the challenge midstream. Skill challenges offered a solution to all of these problems, but they had their own issues.

Through the Breach has a similar mechanism in the form of the Ongoing Challenge. When I relaunched Malifaux Musings, one of my goals was to try and grant more time to the Malifaux roleplaying game. As such, I thought I’d discuss some tricks for juicing up what I think has the potential to be a very valuable part of the Fatemaster’s toolbox.

1)      Transition into them smoothly- One of the biggest issues with introducing an Ongoing Challenge is introducing them in a way that sticks out like a sore thumb. Saying “We’re going to begin an Ongoing Challenge to search the treasure room. These are the skills that are allowed, and your duration is 1 hour. Who wants to give it a try?” almost always breaks your players’ immersion. So establish a way of getting into an Ongoing Challenge that isn’t such a speed bump. Or, if you’re really good at your job, don’t even tell your players that you’ve started one. Present them the problem that needs to be solved and just poll the players for what they want to try to do to solve it. When they throw an idea at you, figure out a skill flip that would represent what they want to try and have them do it. Mark the results of the flip accordingly and then have a different player suggest another idea. If your players are savvy they’ll probably figure out what you’re doing the second or third time you start this way, but it’s better than just throwing the hard left turn at them. One thing that will make this more free-form version of the Ongoing Challenge easier for you is to…

2)      Don’t lock down the list of available skills-This is one of my major divergences from the way OC’s are presented in the Fated Guide. I don’t like the recommendation to generate a small list of skills available for players to use during challenges, because I feel like it limits player creativity and locks some party members out of contributing. If your Fated are trying to infiltrate a ball in the Governor’s Mansion, the Drudge in your party is going to have his work cut out for him to come up with ways to use social skills to contribute meaningfully. This does not, however, give you permission to turn him loose and let him throw Endurance checks at the problem unless it comes with a VERY good explanation. I understand the point of restricting the lists, particularly given that one of the criticisms of TTB is that its too slanted towards player success, but the bottom line for me is that you are playing a game, and sitting back and watching your friends flip Bewitch checks while you stand awkwardly against the wall (suddenly I’m flashing back to High School dances…) But if I can't find a way to let all my players participate in the challenge in some way, I feel like I've failed. 

      If you're not as liberal with ongoing challenges as I am, then perhaps a good compromise is to let your players with skills that are not on the list use other suggestions to help their friends indirectly. One example I often use is the example of an Academic searching a library for a specific tome with clues to a mystery the Fated need to solve. There are a narrow set of skills that can be of use here, and that Drudge from the previous Ball is again likely to not be very useful. However, if he wants to use Labor as a reflection of his just grabbing piles of books to haul them en masse through the library, let him. Don’t give them a success for it, but maybe give the Academic a + to his flips as a result. The Performer could also use some skills to brew a hot pot of coffee that could negate some failures that might come later in the challenge. Let your players be creative!

3)      Change the Rules-As written, most ongoing challenges are pretty static. You define the problem, list the skills, TN, and number of successes you need, and go from there. These are fine for smaller challenges, but can get pretty tedious if you have something major that requires, say, 12 successes to achieve. This is why you need to throw in something to shake it up partway through. One of the most common of these is to have something occur between each duration. Maybe while searching the library, the academic discovers a magical animated-book trap that the party has to deal with before continuing with the search. Maybe at the party the group bumps into one of their political rivals and now needs to deflect them before they can sabotage their efforts. In the Nythera Penny Dreadful there is an OC where the Fated have to get out of dodge while two Malifaux Masters duke it out around them. In between durations of this, a stray fireball might come flying down out of the sky at them or spirits might appear and attack. That certainly broke up the monotony!

Furthermore, don’t be afraid to change which skills the party needs as the challenge progresses. Maybe something one of your players tries now opens a new method of success and allows a whole different set of skills to be used! One example might be that the Fated are at the bottom of a mine which suddenly starts to collapse. At first they might need to use Labor and other physical type skills to get out of the way of falling debris and get to the lift to the surface. Then, once there, they discover that the lift is broken, so the party can either try to repair it quickly with Artefacting to carry them out or start climbing. Then, perhaps the mine shafts start to physically shift, so there may be some engineering or intellect related skills to find the right path in the midst of the confusion!

Taken to an extreme, you can even have an Ongoing challenge be the entire game session. I recently started running a group through the original Penny Dreadful “In Defense of Innocence” and had the party try to swing a town’s mayoral election in a particular direction. As presented, it was simply a group of encounters which, if completed successfully by the party, would move a certain number of votes from one pile to another. I decided to restructure it into a Large Ongoing Challenge (Win the Election) which would be broken down into smaller challenges by the players (Get the dry cleaner on your side, Free the playhouse from debt, etc.) For each of the smaller challenges there would be a small list of skills and a certain number of successes needed. Depending on the outcome, I transferred a number of successes or failures onto the larger overarching challenge. Throw in a few unexpected complications (holy crap, the incumbent mayor just came by while we were trying to sabotage the play, what do we do?) and you’ve got a whole game session full of adventure ready to go.

4)      Let them fail, and make it hurt-Now we all know that the dirty secret of game mastering is that, sometimes, we will cut a player a break to keep the game moving. If the players don’t flip well enough on perception to spot the murderer sneaking off into the alley, your group doesn’t give chase and all the effort you put into creating a dynamic ongoing challenge for the Dirty Harry style backstreet pursuit goes to waste. That sucks for you, and it sucks for the players because they don’t get to have the fun they would have experienced by doing the challenge. So, from time to time, we’ll nudge things to give the group a better chance to succeed for the sake of the story.

I used to do this a lot more than I am now. I wanted my story to go a certain way and I would nudge things in the direction however I had to in order to get that outcome. Then, about 8 years ago, I joined an online game in a Gothic Horror D&D setting called Ravenloft with a DM who is, charitably, kind of a bastard. In his game the dice land where they land, and the consequences of that happen regardless of whatever “story” he had in mind, especially if a player put themselves in the wrong position by making bad choices for their character. Characters have been driven irrevocably mad. They’ve been cursed and become evil. Once I had the villain throw my character’s son off of a cliff in front of me! To quote probably the craziest example, one of our players chased some bandits who had robbed us into the mists, resulting in his magically being transported somewhere random in the world. This random place turned out to be the middle of the ocean, whereupon he was viciously eaten by sharks and died! No good deed goes unpunished, I guess.

At first you might think that these outcomes were cruel. However, what I came to realize is that, because I knew the threats to our characters and their world were real, it made it so much more memorable than most other games of which I’ve been a part. The gamemaster wasn't being unfair, he was simply letting us experience real consequences for our characters' actions. I’ve since adapted this for my own games, and found the same results. The same is true for how you design ongoing challenges. Failure needs to be an option for the game, and the consequences for failing should be real. Don’t kill the whole game session if the party doesn’t find the clue you’ve hidden, but don’t let them off the hook for missing it either. Maybe by the time they get on the killer’s trail, their friend they had hoped to save has already been murdered or even reanimated as an undead creature. If this is a favorite Fatemaster Character they've known and learned to love, that's going to be remembered. This lets the party see that the game has real stakes, and makes it more memorable when they “beat you” and save their friends the next time.

                I hope these tips have helped you with some ideas regarding upgrading your ongoing challenge. If you have any good stories from your games or tips for other Fatemasters, feel free to share them in the comments. Thanks for reading!