Pyramid Tests

The following option is mentioned in The Sidereal Schemes of Dr. Zodiac adventure and offered in The Villainomicon, where it was referred to as the “Success Pyramid”. It is presented here with some additional options and examples.

When heroes are confronted with a complex task, rather than requiring a single pass/fail test, the GM can set up a success “pyramid” for the task, where in a single test can succeed, but multiple smaller successes can also accumulate to accomplish the task, allowing for teamwork and the combination of different abilities or approaches.

Essentially, accomplishing the task requires a massive success against the chosen difficulty: an effect of 5 or more when difficulty is subtracted from the effort (ability level + die modifier) of the test. However, lesser outcomes can add up to greater outcomes to build a “pyramid” of success. Two major outcomes add up to a massive success, while two moderate outcomes add up to a major success. Thus four moderate outcomes add up to two major outcomes, which add up to the needed massive success.

The tests used to achieve the outcomes can be whatever the players think up and the GM permits. So if the task involves an investigation, for example, some of the tests might be Intellect-based analyses of evidence, while others are Awareness-based searches for clues, and still others are Willpower-based interrogations or efforts at persuasion. The tests can be carried out by one hero in succession or several heroes at once.

You can get a lot of flexibility out of varying the difficulties involved in a pyramid test and choosing different abilities to make the actual tests to cover a wide range of situations and challenges.

Try the following variations on the pyramid test to “fine tune” it to different types of challenges:


If a certain number of failures accumulate before the required successful outcome, the pyramid test “tips” and is considered a failure. So, for example, a pyramid test might require a massive success against difficulty 6 before three total failures accumulate to tip it.


Two or more sides are in a race to complete their success pyramid and whichever side completes theirs first wins. Thus everyone involved in the competitive test is under time pressure created by their compeitition (but not fixed timing like a timed test, see the following).


There is a “cost” associated with attempting each pyramid test, or with failing an attempt. This might be a loss of Stamina, reflecting actual injury or increasing fatigue, a loss of levels in one or more abilities, or a free compel for the GM, either using one of the character’s existing challenges or the imposition of a temporary challenge without awarding the player any Determination (ICONS, p. 76).


The longer the test goes on, the more difficult it becomes: each failure (or even attempt!) on the pyramid test increases its difficulty, usually by +1.


Successes accumulated and added to the pyramid do not necessarily stay there. Opposition can remove successes from the pyramid, causing it to “shrink” and making achieving the final outcome more difficult. Essentially, the opposition’s successes subtract at the same ratio, a moderate success removes a moderate success, or converts a major success to one moderate (removing the other). In this way, two sides can struggle, one building up the success pyramid, the other tearing it down.


The test requires two massive successes, which can be accumulated through lesser successes, as usual. So even a single massive success does not complete the task all at once. This is useful for drawing out a pyramid test so no one roll, no matter how successful, can complete it.


The pyramid test requires only a major success, or a total of two moderate outcomes to add up to a major success. Good for tests a bit more complex than a typical pass/fail test but not as demanding as a full massive success pyramid test.


There are a limited number of chances to accumulate the needed outcomes on the test, perhaps due to a time constraint. If the needed outcomes are not achieved after so many attempts, the pyramid test automatically fails. By definition, the final opportunity to attempt the test is open to determined effort (ICONS, p. 79).


Each failure or attempt on the test triggers some occurance. This can be anything from a trap or security system to a magical curse or unfortunate happenstance like a shifting rock falling down on the hero. Note that incremental events (moving a step closer to some disaster) is better handled as a balanced or timed test. A triggered test assumes something happens when the trigger is tripped, rather than stepping closer to something happening.


A wide test requires more successful outcomes at lower levels to add up to a higher level outcome. For example, rather than four moderate outcomes adding up to two major outcomes, which equal one massive outcome (a 4:2:1 ratio) a wide test might have a 5:3:1 ratio, or even a 6:2:1 ratio, where moderate outcomes are valued less, but major outcomes remain the same. The last value in the ratio should remain 1 (for a single massive success) unless the test is also long (see previous).

You can apply multiple modifiers to a pyramid test, so long as they are not mutually exclusive. So it is possible to have a costly escalating timed test, for example, or a balanced triggered test (where the triggered things get progressively worse until the test finally fails). Mix-and-match to create interesting challenges for the players and their heroes

A Success Pyramid in Action

A group of four heroes—Arctic Fire, Bolide, Anansi, and Hangman—face off against the rogue robot Skeletron. The heroes need to achieve a massive success to win and leap into action!

Hangman attempts to bind Skeletron with the Noose of Justice; his player rolls a major success against Skeletron’s Coordination and binds him. Arctic Fire and Bolide both blast the robot, although they both hit, neither overcomes Skeletron’s level 8 armor, so neither attack contributes towards success. Anansi uses the distraction to sneak around, making a Coordination (+Stealth) test against Skeletron’s Awareness: a major success, but also not yet a contribution to victory.

For his action, Skeletron breaks free of Hangman’s noose, his Strength 8 against its level 7 making it a fairly easy matter. The GM rules that removes Hangman’s contribution: the heroes are back at square one! Time to start getting innovative.

“Bolide! Pin him down!” Hangman calls out. He responds by using his Gravity Control against Skeletron, scoring a moderate success to hold him in place.

“Arctic Fire, heat the outer casing! Impede his processors!” The Acetylene Alaskan does so, using his Fire Control, and getting a major success! He uses it as a maneuver to apply a “Slowed” aspect to Skeletron, which will last for the rest of the chapter (or until the villain counteracts it). The maneuver, however, does not directly contribute to the victory pyramid count.

“Foolish humans!” Skeletron sneers, “You cannot... harm me... in this fashion!”

“Really?” Arctic Fire says, “sounds to me like you’re slowing up a little there, metalhead!”

Hangman’s player tells the GM: “I’m going to give a silent signal to Anansi with just a slight nod, telling her to go ahead. Can I make a test to coordinate and help take Skeletron off-guard?”

“Yes,” the GM says. “Test your Intellect against Skeletron’s Awareness.”

“Use the free tag on the Slowed aspect!” Arctic Fire’s player adds.

“Good idea! Can I use it for determined effort?” The GM shakes her head.

“No, you haven’t tried this before and it isn’t really your one shot,” she says. So Hangman’s player just makes the test solo, getting a moderate success.
“That’s two moderates,” Bolide’s player adds, “which gives us one major success, right?” The GM nods again.

“Here goes nothing,” Anansi’s player mutters. “Okay, I want to use the free tag from the Slowed aspect, if I can, but for a power stunt to cast not just a usual illusionary web over Skeletron, but to interface his slowed AI with the fear and panic of everybody nearby, and even the hope and compassion of the rescue workers and ordinary people helping out. The idea is that the human emotion will be too much and overwhelm him.”

“Cool,” the GM says. “I’d say you’re only going to get one chance at it. Do you want to make it a determined effort, too?”

“Yes!” Anansi’s player says. “I’ll tag my ‘Web of Influence’ aspect for it and go for a major success.”

Anansi’s player tests against Skeletron’s Willpower and gets an effect of 1, a moderate success, so she expends a point of Determination, taking that to 3 for a major success. Added to the existing major success the heroes cap the pyramid with a massive success!

“Error! Emotional input... processors slowing... Error! Nooooo haaaaarm...” Skeletron’s overwhelmed systems shut down. The heroes win!