Challenge/Focus/Strike is a shorthand method for describing l5r plots. You'll find lots of them in sidebars in books, and there's a big repository of them on the 'net. They're useful little one-session plotlines, good for when you've got gaps between big plots. The Challenge is the set-up, the Focus are the complications, and the Strike is the big climax at the end.
As I've said before, Timing is a key element of GMing. In this case, perhaps Pacing would be a better term. While C/F/Ss are supposed to fill only one session, that sort of episodic play will lead to a flat campaign. If every game session is entirely self-contained, the game begins to feel like Star Trek. Miss a week? No problem, things will be just the same next week, new planet new plot. You need to stagger material over several game sessions, to ensure there's a measure of plot continuity. At the same time, though, it's bad to have plot stuff too spread out. If nothing seems to happen in a session, if there's no climax, then the campaign seems just as flat as the episodic campaign. Instead of having lots of small, self-contained plots, you've got one big long one. The best games have lots of small-to-medium sized plots which combine and contribute to the big one.
The third session of Giri prompted me to write this, because it threw the whole pacing issue into the limelight. The plot-lines coming in from the last session were:
The Ratling plotline, on the other hand, was messed up. I brought in the ratling in session 2 and killed him in session 3. It also gave much too much away about Haruko's past and destiny. It should have just foreshadowed Haruko. As it was, it was practically a rehearsal. What I should have done was apply the Challenge/Focus/Strike timing to that plot.
The challenge is the initial establishment of the plotline. All it needs to be is a single event which introduces the PCs to the plotline. It could be nothing more than finding a burnt-out campfire (showing that there's someone out in the forest) or a letter warning of a Lion army mustering at Humility's Lesson. To avoid plotlines coming out of nowhere and annoying players, there must be a proper challenge. You can of course be as subtle as you like, and misdirect the players, but no big event should come entirely out of nowhere unless it's an important aspect of the event.
The focus is the development of the plot established by the challenge. During the focus, the plotline becomes (pardon the pun) the focus of the campaign. The majority of the game session should be devoted to that plot.
Finally, the strike is the climax and ending of the plot. Strikes should generally be big, dramatic scenes.
The key to the timing is to ensure challenge and strike never happen in the same setting. The size of the strike should be proportional to the length of the challenge.
It's a pretty simple and obvious technique, but it's
one that should be remembered and used. I forgot it, and the session suffered
as a result.