Mar 10

February ‘17 Carnival: Improv Encounters 3, Who & Players


The 2017 travelling RPG Blog Carnival is in full swing. The February host was the team at Tabletop Terrors, where they nominated a staple of RPG scenarios: the encounter.


This broad term gave me a lot to think about, and my initial essay needed to be split up. Thus, I am still pursuing the February topic, even though the month has finished.


The Tabletop Terrors site outlined the topic like this:


This article is part of the magnificent and prolific Blog Carnival, and the topic for this month is Encounters. This month other fantastic bloggers will be exploring things like inventive ways to come up with encounters, different ways to run encounters in play, and even explore using encounter concepts across multiple systems to surprise players and breathe new life into your game.




Story Elements

When improvising the content of the scene, the GM must answer the following questions:

  • When?
  • Where?
  • Who?
  • What?
  • Why?


The previous essay in this series answered the When and Where encounter questions. Part three explores the Player-focused half of the next question.



Who is in the encounter?

The third question for an improv GM revolves around the antagonists in the encounter Who is here for the Heroes to interact with? Antagonist is probably an unfair term, as the Who of an encounter could be neutral, such as a shopkeeper, rather than an outright villain.


The essence of a roleplaying game is an opportunity for the Players to roleplay with a GMC. The Who of an encounter is the main vehicle for Players to roleplay with the setting. A lot of character development can be revealed through Players interacting with each other. However, fresh information and new challenges primarily arise through external characters, which requires meeting them in an encounter.



The Who of an encounter can range from a lone street urchin to a vast crowd of worshippers. The GMCs could be the Hero’s closest family or sworn enemies. Even if the encounter is intended to be focused on combat, there is always the possibility of the Heroes interrogating a survivor. Thus, the GM has six aspects to consider regarding the characters they introduce into an encounter:

  • Role
  • Description
  • Name
  • Personality
  • Goals
  • Hooks


Depending upon the nature of the interaction, you need to progress further down the list. The first three of these aspects are Player-focused, and form the subject of this essay. The second three aspects are for the GM’s eyes, and will be discussed in the next part of the series.


These aspects are another example of GMCs being layered like onions



Role of the GMC

This is the most basic description of a GMC, and is often suggested by the where of the encounter. In some cases, a role is all you must provide for the Players. For a crowded street scene, you just need to describe the role of the crowd as they haggle with stallholders and go about their daily business. These GMCs are really just an extension of the location, and probably too numerous for individual descriptions.


However, every person in a scene should have a reason to be there. When dealing with a more intimate scene, where the Players will interact with the GMC, then the GM starts with the role of the GMC. Knowing the role will determine what actions the GMC performs in the scene. A guard will be standing still and watching, or perhaps patrolling the castle walls. Likewise, a shopkeeper will be serving customers or arranging stock.


Use your knowledge of the role to make the encounter more dynamic by having the GMC act. At the table, your GMCs are only visible when a Hero is looking at them. However, you want to sell to the Players the idea that these are living people, with an ongoing life beyond what the Heroes see. Thus, your GMCs should not be mannequins who only animate when a Hero speaks to them. Ensuring the GMCs are busy when the Heroes arrive sells the idea of a life beyond what the Players see.



Description of the GMC

The next detail needed by an improve GM is a description of the GMC. This can apply to a group, such as a patrol of soldiers in polished chainmail and blue tabards. Alternatively, each GMC may require a distinguishing trait, although this is best kept to a minimum to avoid taking too long relating all these details to the Players. At this level of the list, the GMCs are becoming individuals, even if this distinction is based upon an external feature. Thus, one soldier has a red helm, another a grey beard and a third has a bloodied spear. These simple labels are enough to run a tactical skirmish, but denote no degree of personality.


A memorable physical trait can help Players recall an individual. Names of characters may blend together for some Players, but the goblin with the fiery spear will probably be remembered. Thus, an improv GM should have a ready list of distinguishing traits, or be able to create them on the spot. I include such a list in my improv reference sheets.


See this exploration of improv reference sheets.



Name of the GMC

The name of a GMC is only needed if the Heroes talk with them. Of course, every GMC has a name, but in a dedicated combat encounter, for example, it is not necessary to name every participant. However, this is another area where an improv GM needs a prepared list. Such a list is especially important should you use culturally-themed names.




If the essence of an RPG is the roleplaying, then the most important feature of any encounter is the GMC. This is equally true for an improv GM, who needs to provide a selection of interesting characters at short notice. The factors above enable the GM to describe the GMC to the Players.


The next instalment of this series considers the internal features of the GMC which guide the GM on how to portray that character. However, I will take a break from this series next week in order to contribute to the March Blog Carnival. Having delayed my February article, I feel I should be timely with the March one.


How do you populate your encounters? What techniques do you use to determine the actions of the GMCs? How to you provide distinctive traits to your GMCs? Do you think the Players even notice? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.



Happy Gaming



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  2. […] Part 3 presented the player-focused aspects of the Who question […]

  3. […] February ‘17 Carnival: Improv Encounters 3, Who & Players […]

  4. […] Part 3 presented the player-focused aspects of the Who question […]

  5. […] Part 3 presented the player-focused aspects of the Who question […]

  6. […] Part 3 presented the player-focused aspects of the Who question […]

  7. […] Part 3 presented the player-focused aspects of the Who question […]

  8. […] Part 3 presented the player-focused aspects of the Who question […]

  9. […] Part 3 presented the player-focused aspects of the Who question […]

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