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Tips on making Ongoing Challenges Pop


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During various campaigns and one-shots an issue I come across time and time again is the implementation of the Ongoing Challenges. It's an almost audible break of player agency as their actions are boiled down to 'flip your best check and mark off success and failure' and no amount of artsy description can stop the feeling that they are stuck in the Ongoing Challenge box rather than being in control of their own actions.

Is there a better way to handle these situations? Because I see their worth (on paper) as a great way to mark off passages of time and to have consequences for failure/red herrings but I'm struggling to keep the players interest up when I suddenly slap down 'the list of limited skills' and ask them to make check after check after check until it's over.

How can I get Ongoing Challenges to work as intended rather than be a bore at the table?

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Well let's take the One-shot "Into the Gutter" and it's "Clearing the Collapsed Building" Ongoing challenge. It has three skills at a moderate TN11 with baseline success/failure with 2 events for each duration and a clock at the end depending on duration.

My players started this challenge and the first duration was:

"I start by picking up debris and tossing it out"

"I'll use Leadership to better get everyone organized"

"I'll help with lifting too"

"Yup same here"

So first duration, we have 3 Successes, no failures and ran through the first event, no problems. But then the next duration begins:

"I'll keep on tossing out debris I guess"

"Still keeping everyone organized"

"I don't have anything better in my skills, so keep working"


New event, all good then the next duration starts and the players are just flipping cards saying they're doing the same thing. We finally reach the success threshold and the table finally wakes up and begins having fun again.

The first duration is fun, the end of each duration is fun... after that first duration, it's like the players are waiting to play the game again and just want it to end.

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Is your greater objection "There's a list of applicable skills, and it feels like they just make a choice and flip until done"?

Because the thing about those intermediate rounds of an ongoing challenge is that they should go by really fast.  You've decided what you're going to do, you know how many cards you've got left to cover bad flips, and you're waiting for something to happen.

I suppose it's the sort of thing where if you had a tally board to mark on, or a bunch of poker chips you put a chip in each pile as they flipped, the sense of progress might be more real.

I mean, unless there's been something to happen (one of the negative results injured someone and people had to readjust what they were doing), this part


"I'll keep on tossing out debris I guess"

"Still keeping everyone organized"

"I don't have anything better in my skills, so keep working"


practically speaking is just:

"So, that's the end of round one.  You're still making progress, so..." and have everyone flip again.  The sessions I played in with continuing challenges, it was just a quick note about the progress, maybe a little bit of worrying about cards, and repeat the flips.  

I mean, if you decide that you need to clean your room, and think it's going to take an hour, you haven't robbed yourself of agency when you keep working on cleaning your room at the 15, 30, and 45 minute marks.  You're just doing what you decided to do.


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Well that's the point, nothing has changed in these ongoing challenges apart from the end duration which the players (typically) have no knowledge of results wise.

If it wasn't an Ongoing Challenge, would you ask for 2-3x Lockpicking checks from one player and 3-4 Notice checks to spot guards from 3 other players? Personally I wouldn't. In this Lockpicking situation it would be one check from the lock picker and one Notice check each from the others.

Did the lock picker succeed? Yes, the lock opens in a matter of minutes. Margin of Success? It takes seconds, good work! Failure? It's taking longer than normal but you're getting there, the TN lowers by 2, try again. Margin of Failure? You've broken the pick and it's lodged in the lock, you'll need to find another way in.

As Fatemaster, I've already got a feeling of when guards would appear on their patrols, so at that point it's just a case of 'do the players on watch see the patrol or not?' with their checks.

To your "Cleaning your room" example, why, in an RPG mind you not real life, would I ever need 4 successful checks in order to clean it? Surely a single check noting any margins of results would be sufficient, right? I don't often get asked as a player "make 6 successful Notice checks and I'll tell you what you see in this room" do you?

But I can see a good reason to use Ongoing Challenges for certain other things, asking for information around the district or navigating the Quarantine Zone without a guide for instance. Both of which would be a massive time sink otherwise BUT there would still be the issue of four players sitting at the table saying "yeah, that again" as I place a poker chip on it.

How do I make this process of Ongoing Challenges more fulfilling and interesting? Rather than it being something "that should go by really fast".

Because if it is something that's so dull and boring that it needs to go by "really fast" just to get it out of the way, why is it such a major part of almost all Penny Dreadfuls? 

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Seems reductionist, but the short version is to change what skills are available as they progress in response to what the players have done.

Also, some of the premades (Nythera, I think, is one of these) have good examples of SC's where an event happens between durations that change the equation and which the players are forced to deal with. 

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An idea that I have seen elsewhere and I intend to use in my game is to require different skills to be used by each player at each interval. This would give them a success regarding their primary skill and they would get as much done with that skill as they could in that moment, but they would have to adjust their approach to wrap things up. You would have to know the characters well enough to ensure that one-trick-ponies wouldn't bring the promise of failure. They should be able to return to the skills that they have used as more tasks of that type become available again. 

You could also have success with one skill lessen the TN of another check. For instance maybe the characters are at Guild armoury with scattered undead approaching and a Centering check on one interval could be made to wait until they merge into a horde and use Heavy Guns to mow down tighter groups of enemies with a lower TN than spraying lead at them when they are spread out.

Another idea would be if there were 3 expected intervals, maybe a particular skill can only be used 2 times successfully before all the work for that task is complete; in the above example maybe the Heavy Guns only have enough ammo for 2 intervals.

Alternatively, use of a certain skill might be necessary to use another skill. An example would be that a successful Enchanting or Notice skill was required prior to having Counter-Spelling available to cleanse a magical aura that has been found.

I know this strays from the standard formula presented in the rules, but it might seem more organic to the players and keep their interests peaked with an evolving situation.

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