Rising to the Challenge–Part 1: Game Prep

TL;DR: Fari is an exceptional VTT but works just as well as a virtual whiteboard for game prep, and if you’re already Fate GM, you can jump right to it.

If you like what you read on The Polverine, please share it with your gaming group, on Facebook, Twitter, or Discord. I’m not asking for myself, more for a friend—really, a bunch of friends: the devs behind Fari. And if you really like what you read, do me a small favor: support Fari on Patreon.

Some Backstory (That You Can Skip)

There is no shortage of good online advice on preparing a TTRPGs session or how to improvise a game for your friends. I’ve been a GM for more than 30 years, but I owe everything I do for game prep nowadays to online resources. So I can’t even play the experience card and tell you that my advice is based on years of trial-and-error. It’s based on years of errors, though, for what that’s worth.

Now, I am also a logician. I have a fetish for mathematical models that start with a few basic building blocks and then combine and re-combine them to build complex structures. This preference has influenced my hobby. Back in the 90s, it made me favor GURPS. This rule-heavy system uses the same basic principles and re-combines them ad infinitum to obtain genre-specific hacks and subsystems. 

In the 2000s, I became a father and could not spend time role-playing with a system that literally has a dummy book written for it. So I played with a few lighter systems but mostly quit playing and started lifting, another hobby I blogged a lot about.

And then, in 2013, everything changed. I stumbled upon Fate, and that was it.

Well, not all of it.

Not until recently when I learned about Fari–thanks to the FATE SRD YouTube channel. I’ve played with other VTTs in the past, but they were all more or less geared towards helping with tactical map management. I’m more of a Theater-of-the-Mind kind of GM, so I tend to underuse them. By contrast, Fari is different.

Fari for Game Prep

Fari is the perfect Theater-of-the-Mind VTT. But it’s even more than that. Fari is also a fantastic game-prep tool, even if you do not plan to run a game with it.

Ok, maybe I’m biased here. It may just be that Fari complements my particular playstyle (but that’s a topic for another day). Still, as soon as I discovered it, I was immediately convinced that it could be helpful to others as well. So I started to play around with it, with some idea of creating content that I could share down the line.

And so, while prepping my current Fate Condensed campaign, I made a few templates I could re-use in future games and shared them with the fantastic folks on the Fari Discord server. Some of them were kind enough to express an interest. Before I knew it, I volunteered to write a blog post as a companion piece for those templates.  

Wait, if it’s just about Fate, why should I bother?”

A Fair (+2) question. And one well-deserving of a Good (+3) answer.

You see, Fate uses everyday words—nouns, verbs, and adjectives—and matches them with game mechanics like the numerical values that I just dropped in the last sentence. But if you forgot the numerical values, the sentence still makes perfect sense.

Even better, you can interpret the numerical values in your favorite system. Specifically, Fair and Good are just above Average (+1). So, suppose you figure out the average difficulty, rating, target number, or whatnot in your favorite system. Then, you could adapt Fate material to any game.

But we won’t even need these adjectives for anything essential here—just for a few bells and whistles in some examples. The Fate vocabulary that we will need refers to game mechanics in all the versions of the Fate system family. But I’m willing to bet that you could interpret those terms in any system.

And to prove my point, I’m going to use that vocabulary without referring to the corresponding game mechanics. I will just write them in Boldface (and initial capital)—and link to the Fate SRD in case someone is curious—but that will be it. I’ll pretend that my advice is generic, and I’m sure it will make perfect sense that way.

So, it’s just generic advice, then? I’m a Fate GM, why should I bother?”

That one is easy: your brain will turn my generic advice into game-specific advice if you are familiar with the Fate systemAnd voilĂ , you have a Fate system-specific game-prep technique.

“Ok, but also you mentioned Fari. What if I prefer another vtt?”

Well, my friend, if you don’t want to use Fari, that’s your choice. I wish you’d reconsider, but there is nothing that hinges essentially on Fari and how it works as a VTT. In fact, as far as game prep goes, Fari is just a perfect virtual whiteboard with built-in functionalities for RPG prep, and that’s how I’m going to use it in this post.

Also, if you reconsider, you could import my pre-made whiteboards into your Fari, filled them for your game prep, and use them with your players. Just saying.

Rising to the Challenge

The cornerstone of the game prep technique I’ll explore today is a Challengea succession of tasks the PCs will have to complete and/or of obstacles they will have to Overcome. The first thing we’ll do is create a scene in Fari and drop an index card.

Fig.1: A simple index card.

Basic Planning

Let’s now add some details to that index card. First, let’s rename it as a Challenge. For good measure, let’s give it a name and a number—in case we add some other challenges later or side stories that have to be resolved for the challenge to be completed. Let’s add some indication that it’s the GM’s version (if we want to share a simplified one with the players later). Finally, let’s add a few details about the Challenge itself:

  • under the title, in the “Notes” section, a list of PCs’ actions necessary to complete the challenge;
  • under the Notes section, as many text blocks as there are steps to the challenge, with a short, plain word characterization of the Challenge Step #n;
  • under the name of the challenge step, a brief narrative description for that step of the challenge—don’t worry about game mechanics at that point, their time will come;
  • optionally, a clock dial to keep track of the challenge completion in one glance.

So, the final index card, for a generic 3-step challenge would look like the picture below—I’ll give you a more fleshed-out example later.

Fig. 2: A Generic Challenge (overview)

Tipping the Scale

One of the great functionality of Fari is to allow for sub-cards. With that functionality, fleshing out the steps of the challenge is a breeze, and we can keep things visually organized. Even more importantly, we can give ourselves and our players room to improvise during gameplay and still keep our bearings. 

How can we do that? Well, again, let’s start with a few simple facts that we can express in plain words before fleshing them out with game mechanics:

  • any Challenge the PCs will encounter require them to Overcome some Obstacle or difficulty;
  • if the nature of the Obstacle is not a total surprise, the PCs can take steps ahead of the Challenge to Create an Advantage that will give them an edge;
  • this advantage attaches some Aspects to the scene where the Obstacle appears that the PCs can leverage to their advantage.

Here is where Fate really shines: what I just described is all there is to the Fate game mechanics relevant to a challenge. With a Fate game, all you need at that point is to attach some numbers to the plain words, and you’re done. ‘Crunchier’ systems may require more preparation to match the plain words with game mechanics. But if you know your system, that should not be a problem. Anyhow, assuming a Fate game, below is an example of a challenge index card fleshed out with a sub-card.

Fig. 3: Fleshing out the Challenge

Now, you may be curious about this “side-quest” thing between square brackets. Don’t worry, I’m getting there. But before that, let’s say a few words about…

The Elephant in the Room

Let’s say that you put your heart and soul into your game prep. But then, your players surprise you with an unanticipated solution to the challenge you presented them with. At that point, there’s a temptation to nudge them back to the solutions you prepped for. That’s railroading.

Railroading is the elephant in the TTRPG room. It’s worth its own conversation, and that’s well beyond the scope of this tutorial. But the long and short of it is this:

  • railroading is not always badbut it’s never necessary either; you may worry that you could lose control of the game if you let the players be in charge, but the truth is that:
  • there is a difference between being in control and being in charge, and game prep is about the first, not the second.

And that’s all for the theory. But before I proceed any further, I’ll throw in an example because some folks like to visualize stuff, but you can skip it if you want to stick with the prep side of things.

An Example: the Library Door. In the finale of your eldritch horror game session, the PCs must interrupt cultists summoning an avatar of The Great Old One in the old university library. You have a tactical map ready, a stat block for the avatar and its minions. The Challenge for the session is for the PCs to sneak in at night, open the library door, and interrupt the ritual before the avatar reaches full power.

That door is an Obstacle, and a step in your Challenge. You’ve anticipated two eventualities: (1) the PCs will bash the library door open, or: (2) they’ll try and pick the lock. So, you have to know where they could find a crowbar and good lockpicks. That’s easy—you don’t need a tactical map for any of those two.

Now, you also decide to throw in night watchman for good measure, right at the corner of that library lobby, ready to interrupt the PCs and build up some drama.

You may need to extend the tactical map for the main boss fight to cover the lobby, but that’s not too much extra work. So you can have a sketch for it, and prep a stat block for the watchman.

But then, come game day, one of the players suggests searching the librarian’s house for a key. And you know nothing about the librarian, and where they’d put the key.

At that point, the question is Should you railroad your players and cook up an explanation why they can’t actually go to the librarian’s place? Since just I wrote that railroading is never necessary, that’s really a rhetorical question. All you need is to be ready to say: “Oh, that’s a smart idea! So, tell me, where does the librarian live?You put the player in charge of their side-quest.

You did it. You’re in control.

Side-Quests in Fari

The side-quest trick I’m about to suggest is an improvisation method. And since this post is about game prep, improvisation may seem out of its scope. But that’s not entirely true. Improv is about content, not structure. It is perfectly acceptable to have a pre-existing structure to develop your improvised content. 

(An aside here: If you have ever played Apocalypse World or any of the PtbA games, you’re familiar with these notions already. The Threat Map and the Fronts of the original game are structures. The Threats you put in are content. PtbA games have great advice to ‘seed’ the map with threats as part of your prep.)

As with Challenges, we are going to use an index card to plan our side-quest. Side-quests are an outgrowth of Challenges, so we need to reference the Challenge step in the side-quest–specifically, the Overcome action it is meant to support. The picture below should be self-explanatory (save for the clock dial, but I’ll come to that).

Fig. 4: A side quest, grown out of a Challenge

Again, the Boldface terms are system-specific to Fate. Still, the sentences make sense in plain English as well (even if they may sound a bit weird), so I’ll take it that this side quest summary is generic enough already. These fields are meant to be filled on game day, but you can “seed” a side-quest or two during prep (for instance, the crowbar and the lockpicks from Fig. 3). As for the clock dial, it’s here to let you keep track of the stages of a side quest—for instance, if you end up with a Challenge-within-a-Challenge.

Now, Fig. 4 is just the summary. That’s some structure already, but not nearly enough. Again, we can use sub-cards to structure a side quest and be ready for game day when we need it. All you need is a place, one or two faces, and maybe an obstacle or two to make things interesting. If you want some surprise, add a text block for secret Aspects that the PCs may discover during the side-quest. The minimal structure for a side-quest would look like Fig. 5.

Fig. 5: A Side-Quest with some structure

Taking it from there

As I said, the side-quest method is really an improvisation method, so in terms of game prep, that is all there is to it. The structure is there, ready to be filled with improvised content. Of course, as I mentioned, you can “seed” your Challenge with a few side-quests already, and there’s something to say for this kind of prep, but you may also leave things as they are.

In fact, the method is most useful when your players surprise you with an approach that you had not anticipated. This means that if you plant side-quest seeds based on your anticipations, they may never grow into sub-plots. In my experience, the details in the Challenge sub-card are all you need at the prep stage.

A Parting Gift

I’d love to go into the details of how to play the side-quests, but (again) that’s more gameplay than game prep—and that post is long enough already. Plus, while I can see how the game prep method could be helpful for other systems than Fate, I’ve only used the gameplay method for Fate-based games. I have had minimal feedback from GMs using it with other systems. 

I’ll leave things there for the moment, but I have—as promised—a parting gift: a Fari .json file with my template for Challenges with side-quests. WordPress does not allow .json attachments for security reasons, so I had to link to a Google account. Still, I think I set the permissions right, and you should have no problem accessing it. Otherwise, drop a message in the comments below, and I’ll find a workaround.

If I get good feedback, I’ll post a Part 2 with gameplay stuff. In the meantime, there are some guidelines in the template (in the “Notes” section) for in-game improv.

And that’s all for today, folks.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Thanks for that! Sounds realy cool and I will definitely will try that way!
    But I have a question to this screenshot:

    the clock has 3 “tiks” and 4 Challenges are written. Did that mean 3 of 4 (+ others ways the player will find) had to be done. Correct?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Polverine says:

      That’s a good point @realDeadMatt: the challenge needed #1-#3 to be completed as three steps, but completing #4 would have filled the whole clock. The clock “ticks” match the description: approaching, accessing, checking an exit. #4 would have covered it all (but with the certainty of a conflict). The reason that the above is not in the post is an extra piece of mechanics I used to let the players explore multiple solutions, and that’s a topic for another post 🙂


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