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 broken up into this series. 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.
- To learn more, see the Tabletop Terrors site.
- As February has finished, Tabletop Terrors have posted a summary article.
- In Part 1 I discussed encounter openings.
- Part 2 answered the When and Where encounter questions.
- Part 3 presented the player-focused aspects of the Who question
- Then part 4 explored the GM-focused aspects of the Who question
When improvising the content of the scene, the GM must answer the following questions:
The previous two essay in this series answered the Who encounter question for GMCs. Part five explores an alternative Who.
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? The last two essays presented six aspects for the GM to consider when presenting a sentient GMC as the Who of an encounter.
Yet, the challenge facing the Heroes is not always a sentient GMC. Sometimes the nominal antagonist in an encounter is relatively faceless. These encounters can be both fun and challenging. The GM can vary the pace of a story arc by swapping a conventional GMC antagonist for a faceless opposition. I see three main categories of faceless opposition:
The Animal Who
This category of faceless opposition is very broad, including all manner of living creatures who primarily operate on instinct. These creatures cannot be reasoned with, otherwise they would fit in the GMC category. Yet, the actions of these creatures can be understood as an instinctive reaction. The Heroes can thus interact with this opposition in a range of ways, including via the limited intelligence of the creature.
For example, a bear can be intimidated by noise, or pacified with food. These options are a basic form of personal interaction. Yet, the bear cannot be reasoned with through a clever or witty argument. This distinction marks the threshold between a true GMC and a creature operating on animal instincts.
As I noted, this is a broad category of opposition. Animals display a wide range of intelligences, with the more intelligent ones offering Heroes a broader range of responses. Many creatures in this range are close to being true GMCs. The classic f20 presentation of monster races puts them in this border area. So many of the “evil races” are just in D&D to kill and loot.
All About Talking
The key factor here is communication. If the Heroes can talk with the opposition, then this makes the Who of an encounter a GMC. Personality becomes relevant, and hooks can be shared with the Players. In contrast, no matter the intelligence level of the opposition, if the Heroes cannot communicate with them, then the encounter falls in this category.
These encounters rely upon non-verbal communication, regardless of the intelligence levels of the two sides. The Players are limited in their options for moving through the encounter. Thus, the way the GM introduces the opposition sets the tone for the scene. An aggressive foe is likely to be dealt with violently, as the Heroes lack the communication skills to deal with the antagonist any other way.
Thus, the improv GM should always be aware of the languages and other communication skills of the Heroes. As the ability to talk with a foe declines, so do the range of options available to the Heroes. Sometimes you want a simple combat scene. Sometimes you want to challenge the Players to find a creative solution. Language skills are often the difference between the two outcomes.
The Natural Who
Another type of Who for an encounter is a natural obstacle. A howling blizzard, raging river or thundering rock slide may be the antagonist in a scene. This option quickly draws the focus onto the What of the scene, as the Players struggle to deal with the natural forces arrayed against them.
An encounter with a natural, environmental Who further narrows the options available to the Players. In the majority of cases, this situation presents one or more physical challenges. Here the Heroes may be swimming, climbing or simply enduring a harsh environment.
Once again, a natural story element offers the improv GM another change of pace. A different set of skills are required, and likely different Heroes will shine. For those GMs who prefer less combat in their game, these scenes where the Heroes fight against the environment allow the more physical characters to take a moment in the spotlight.
The Magical Who
This final category of antagonist is much more of a mental puzzle. Now the Heroes are faced with a magical or technological antagonist. The hi-tech lock cannot be persuaded to open by wit, nor can the magical vortex be defeated by sword and shield. Traps, locks, mazes, robot guards and computer software all require specialist knowledge to overcome.
The secret to a successful story arc is to present the Players with a varied set of encounters and challenges. Individual Players will prefer different types of contest, and this option is for puzzlers and thinkers. This encounter often develops in two stages: decoding what challenge faces the Heroes, then overcoming the challenge. The first stage is all about solving the puzzle, and rewards characters with specialist knowledge. The second stage could require a wide range of physical, technological or magical skills.
Improvising an effective challenge is not simple. This is definitely one area where good prep supplies the improv GM with the tools they need. However, a magical opponent is a great vehicle for showing the wonder of a fantasy setting. Likewise, a clever technological foe encapsulates an advanced SF setting. Both options superbly “show” the nature of the setting, and give the Players the chance to interact with this example of wonder.
Replacing the Who of an encounter with faceless opposition is a great way to vary the scenes in a story arc. These opponents present a different range of challenges to the Heroes. Roleplaying opportunities are limited here, but other skills have a chance to shine. This is another way to keep the spotlight moving between the Heroes. Likewise, a clever faceless opposition can illustrate a core truth of your setting.
Next week I expand on the other encounter questions. Back to today’s topic, how do you portray the nature of your setting in an encounter? Have you challenged your Players by presenting an opponent they cannot communicate with? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.
- Read the summary of all the entries to the February Carnival at Tabletop Terrors.
- The RPG Blog Carnival is under the stewardship of Johnn Four, at his Roleplaying Tips website.
- See my dedicated page for a full list of all my RPG Blog Carnival contributions.
- Read all the current entries to the March Carnival at Moebius Adventures.
- Do you need more Tales?
If you enjoyed this article, then please share it, or the associated quotations. You may also be interested in the following links:
- Something for the Weekend last week: Improv Encounters 4, Who & GMs
- Something for the Weekend next week: Top Four RPG Cities
- The Series continues in Improv Encounters 6, What is Happeneing