Jul 08

Improv Gaming, Part 3: Challenge Story Element


TalesOfAGM Dice Sq SmThis essay is the next part in the series exploring my approach to the liberating practice of improvised gaming. I hope you can take something useful from my techniques, and ease your progress towards faster prep.


See my Improv GM page for more articles on this topic.


In my approach to improv gaming, I have seven supports:

  • Background Reading
  • My Players
  • Instigating Incident
  • Collection of Story Elements
  • Reference Sheets
  • Narrative Outcomes Table
  • Skuld Cards



Part 3 deals with the first story element.


NB Attentive Readers will note I have added a seventh support to my list. In the process of writing this essay, I realised I needed another category. Thus, like the Spanish Inquisition, the number of core supports has grown unexpectedly.


Collection of Story Elements

As with the previous essay, the story elements are another aspect of improvisation I prepare in advance. A little preparation gives me tools for the table, and the confidence to improvise my way through a session. These story elements are scenes, or the seeds for scenes, written on mini-index cards.


First, the cards themselves. I cut standard index cards in half, to produce smaller cards. These fit neatly into my hand, allowing me to shuffle them easily. Yet, they are large enough for my brief notes.


I also use different colour cards to help me find the right component for a scene. My five colour-coded categories are:

  • Challenges
  • Items
  • Locations
  • GMCs
  • Themes


This essay presents the first of these story elements, the mechanic-focused Challenges.




On the blue cards are the challenges, the most mechanical of the five story elements. Here the flexible nature of my beloved HeroQuest rules comes to my aid. Firstly, any kind of conflict can become a contest: witty banter, magical research, a frantic chase, or the classic combat encounter. Thus, the rules allow me to present a wide range of challenges to the Heroes, all resolved using the same mechanics.


Secondly, HeroQuest allows for two levels of contest. The simple contest is resolved in a single opposed roll. The Players have great flexibility in deciding which ability to use, which in turn dictates the direction of the narrative. This allows a short challenge scene, where the Players discuss who will respond, and what abilities they use.


In addition, HeroQuest also has the extended contest. These are resolved over a series of rolls, similar to the standard RPG combat scene. The beauty of the system is that the rounds of the extended contest can occur at different times. This allows for extended chases, lengthy research or the slow romance story. I note on the card the progress of such an extended contest, and return to it in a later session.


Here is an extended essay about why I love HeroQuest 2


A Challenge card will state the nature of the contest facing the Heroes, along with a suggested resistance. If the Challenge is an extended contest, then I also record the progress of the contest, and perhaps a brief note about what is at stake.




To illustrate the challenge story element, here are two cards from the Fortress of Crows game. The first represents the ongoing attempt by the Heroes to escape Lower Valinor. This challenge is run as an extended contest. The second example was the instigating incident from the last session.


See my discussion of instigating incidents for improv GMs


  • Escape Lower Valinor
    • Versus caught by pursuers
    • Fealdir: 00
    • Heroes:
    • Resistance @ High
      • But varies with plot events


The first example shows an extended contest, which the Heroes are slowly winning. After two rounds of the contest, spread out over several sessions, the Heroes have inflicted two Resolution Points on Fealdir, their campaign nemesis. To successfully escape, the Heroes need to register three more RP against Fealdir. So far, the Fortress of Crows has evaded the bulk of the pursuing Ghost Fleet.


  • Distant Scout Ship
    • Faint lights in the dark
    • Pair of Skutes


For an instigating incident, this is a skimpy description. Despite such brief notes, even these were adjusted during the game. One Hero rolled well using a storm ability, so I replaced the distant light with a faint reflection of lightning on metal. This gave me the same outcome, but tailored it a little closer to the action of the Heroes.


The reason for such brief notes is that I was unsure how the Players would react. As I should have guessed, they confronted the pursuers directly, and triggered a pitch battle. However, this was never the only option, and you can see from my scant notes, this was not created as a combat encounter.


I always want to leave open the option for the Players to choose a clever tactic to deflect, evade or negotiate their way around a challenge. If I keep my notes brief, then I am not tempted to guide the Players towards the solution I have prepared in advance. Instead, I reply upon my experience and reference sheets to improvise story and mechanics around the Players’ choices.



Improv 3 Challenge QConclusion

I hope you enjoyed this overview of the story element cards, along with a close look at the most mechanical of the categories. Players enjoy rolling dice and having their Heroes challenged. I like adding a random element to the game, as so often the Narrative Outcomes table will create an interesting result which drives forward the table. Narrative Outcomes will be discussed in a future essay, but for next week I plan to outline more of the story elements.


How do you prepare challenges for a game session? Do your rules push you towards certain outcomes? How much mechanical detail do you add for each challenge? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.



Happy Gaming



If you enjoyed this article, then please share it, or the associated quotations. You may also be interested in the following links:



12 pings

Skip to comment form

  1. […] Read more about Story Elements as part of my Improv Gaming series […]

  2. […] Part 3 dealt with the challenge story element. […]

  3. […] Part 3 dealt with the challenge story element. […]

  4. […] Part 3 dealt with the challenge story element. […]

  5. […] Part 3 dealt with the challenge story element. […]

  6. […] I discussed Story Elements as part of my Improv Gaming series. […]

  7. […] Part 3 dealt with the challenge story element. […]

  8. […] Part 3 dealt with the challenge story element. […]

  9. […] Part 3 dealt with the challenge story element. […]

  10. […] Part 3 dealt with the challenge story element. […]

  11. […] Improv Gaming, Part 3: Challenge Story Element […]

  12. […] Part 3: Challange Story Element […]

Leave a Reply