We talked first about survival. The most primal and primary of challenges is “Can I keep playing this character?” which is a basic way of saying, “Can you make decisions that keep your character alive and viable throughout this challenge?”
It works, but every GM has seen at least once that point where players are able to arm characters with enough mechanical good stuff to make these challenges either a matter of escalation (tougher threats, more PC countermeasures) or worse yet, a stalemate. Here’s the thing: In a game where the most important struggle for your character is staying alive, the wisest course of action is to optimize towards survival.
But survival alone ain’t good storytelling.
The substance of the best stories always center around the desires and needs of its central characters. What do the characters want in their lives, short term and long term? What keeps the character from getting those things? When we challenge these things, we challenge characters directly, and put players in support positions. Rather than asking how you the player keeps your character alive through this threat, I now ask you how you help your character gets what he wants.
Every time we get your character struggling towards something we drive a game’s fiction. It’s not to say that you never introduce death into your games. Death and the challenge of survival gains meaning when characters have purpose. Which do you think about more in your life: death, or your own desires and needs? Special situations make us think about survival above all else, but even those moments borrow strength from what we care about. I care about my life absolutely, but to be perfectly honest, I care more about my wife’s life and my baby’s life. If a time comes where I have to weigh my life against theirs, I know who has more weight. My family is one of my main reasons for living in the first place!
Obviously I avoid dire situations that force these things on me, but that’s the point: Certain things are more important than one’s life. Survival challenges are good but gain more weight when subordinate to challenges of desires and needs.
This is something that Burning Wheel gets absolutely right. The first game I could think of to make a character’s belief and principals the main concern of the game, Burning Wheel will always be one of the most conceptually important RPGs ever for that reason. In a game like Burning Wheel, you do not fight to live or die; you fight for your beliefs, for which you may live or die.
Now, one mistake certain Burning Wheel hardcores make is believing that only in that game can one fight for their beliefs, desires, and needs in a meaningful way. The game is built to support that, but the most important parts of goal challenges is how you frame them, and how you develop stakes, which is a matter of technique and process. I’m open to talk more about those techniques if people want later, but I first want to talk about the last of my major challenge types:
The art of making s*** up.