This post is inspired by gaming the other night, but it also harkens back to a post by Hallam Rickett in the G+ ICONS group. (I am, in fact, quite blatantly stealing my answer there as part of this post.)
A pyramid test is a series of tests whose results add up to a massive success. In the default case, marginal successes don't count. Two moderate successes add up to a major success; two major successes add up to a massive success. There are changes that can be wrung from it (failures take away successes, marginal successes count, somebody's competing against you, you need two massive successes, and so on) but that's the basic idea. Little successes add up to a big success.
When you're the GM setting one up, it's important to remember that these are successes adding up. The pyramid test is not a place where sixteen failures add up to a major success. (There might be a place for that mechanic, but Steve Kenson hasn't written it yet.) No, a pyramid test calls for:
- something the characters can succeed at
- where normally there would be a series of rolls
- for a single objective
If it's just a task where you're going to call for a series of rolls to see if they find the girl, the gold watch, and everything else in the adventure, why not make it a single roll, with the extra stuff for extra degrees of success? Or, if all that stuff is independent or in different locations, have a series of rolls, or if the stuff is actually necessary, ask them to pay an Advantage or take Trouble for each one.
No, a pyramid test has a clearly-defined objective or goal. You need to get into the high-security building, or win the hearts of the townspeople, or defuse the nuclear weapon. You might know what the different parts of the task are or you might not; the pyramid test abstracts them a bit so you see whether the characters achieve it.
I think of a pyramid test as being all one kind of roll, but it doesn't have to be. It might be like a challenge in 4th edition D&D, where you describe what you're doing and how it helps the chore. Maybe it's a pyramid test to get into the high-security base, but first Psimian uses his illusions power to make the gate keeper open the gate, and then Vi uses her hacking abilities to disable the sensors, and Typeface imitates the general to get the patrols out of the way, and whenever the successes add up to a massive success, they're in.
The one thing you have to be prepared for in a pyramid test is a fabulously successful roll (a massive success in one roll) or a fabulously awful roll (a massive failure doing something that ought to have repercussions). Let's say that Psimian above gets a massive success right away...well, then the gate keeper gives them security passes, under the impression that the player characters are different people. (Which could never happen with a character named Psimian... Okay, tongue out of cheek.)
Here are some other ideas.
Stopping that swarm of killer bees
A swarm of genetically enhanced bees is loose, and the players have to collect them (or squash them). The difficulty for this is 6, because the bees are small and dispersed. Normal pyramid test and each success is bees trapped. No real penalty for failure. All can participate in whatever way they can contribute. Some will find butterfly nets, others coffee cans, still others will use their powers stunted for burst.
Finding where they're holding the kidnapped President
This test is difficulty 5, but it's timed. If this takes more than 5 pages, SKULL will know and the difficulty for security will be +2 higher. Some players find contacts and try Willpower tests of intimidation, others work together for hacking specialty tests, and still others follow the payments and use Business skill. The players don't see any failure, but if it takes more than 5 pages, getting into SKULL headquarters will be difficulty 7 instead of 5.
Getting into SKULL headquarters to rescue the President
An alternate way to make it tough to get in. This starts at difficulty 3. The players have to disable or evade outer security, defeat electronic security, get inside, and avoid internal security. Because of the chance that SKULL will notice, this is an escalating test: every failure notifies SKULL that there's a problem, and adds +1 to the difficulty.
By-passing the mental traps left by the evil psionic
There are a number of traps, but the mind is resilient, and the President's psyche is more aligned to the new direction, so this is deep. Even a marginal success helps.
Clearing the town from the oncoming flood
If you have a speedster, maybe this is just a straight pyramid test. Each test represents finding a group of people and getting them out. If you don't have a speedster, maybe it's tougher than that. Perhaps it's a collapsing test: every other page, they lose the equivalent of a major success. One person can't do it—so the team has to work together. Or maybe it's just a way to get into the story, so the test is short .... it only requires a cumulative major success. If the town is very large, maybe it's long and requires two massive successes.
Running a foot race
The speedster and the paragon decide to have a race for charity. Because this is opposed (and it's for charity), this test will be competitive. Whoever gets to a massive success first, wins.
Finding the plans on the computer system
The players need to find the plans that describe what the evil organization is doing. The GM has determined that they'll only get a certain amount of information; success lies in not triggering the "self-flagellation protocol." So even if they do really well, it just means they haven't triggered the protocol, which will wipe out all information in the system, including the controls necessary to open the doors and get out. A set number of failures will be a real failure.
Training the monster
One player character adopts the genetic experiment they found in the bad guy base (PURITY88, why not) but needs to train it. It's got a mind of its own, and as played so far it isn't really amenable to training. It's difficult, difficulty 5 (which happens to be the genetic experiment's Willpower), and the character can only make one Willpower roll a day to represent a training session. (The character might want to claim that it takes twice as long for a training session, if the GM will give a +1 bonus.) If the GM wants to make it even harder, every failure by more than 2 increases the difficulty by 1.
Romancing the stone
Most players don't want to act out the whole romance thing, especially when both of them are sweaty hairy men who don't find each other attractive. (If they do find each other attractive, that's different.) Instead, you can abstract it with a pyramid test. "In your secret identity, you embark on a series of little things to make Dana be willing to date you. This is just a subplot, so you can do two each session."