May 12

February ‘17 Carnival: Improv Encounters 8, Contests


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.




Encounter Features

The encounter is the building block of every RPG session, the equivalent of a scene in a film or theatre play. As a unit of storytelling, the encounter has a beginning, a middle and an end. Often encounters seem to overlap, as good scenes flow from one to another.


Those three main encounter features each bring their own considerations for the GM. For the purposes of this essay, I added a fourth category: contest. This heading covers the mechanical aspect of a scene, where the rules come into play. This is the aspect of encounters which demands the most prep from the GM, especially for rules-heavy games. The four aspects of an improv encounter to consider are:

  • Opening
  • Story Elements
  • Contest
  • Closing


Part eight of my series explores the mechanical aspects of an encounter.



What is the Contest?

The old adage is drama comes from conflict. RPGs formalize conflict resolution with mechanics, which creates the assumption that to be dramatic, every encounter must have a mechanical contest at its heart. This is not always true, and next week’s article explores contests in an encounter which do not invoke the rules.


However, for the bulk of the encounters in a game, the primary contest in a scene involves rolling dice as directed by the rules. Such contests create excitement, and can drive a powerful story. By relying upon the dice, a contest adds random elements into the story, and take the game down unexpected avenues, as the consequences of exceptional luck are played out at the table.


As we explore the mechanical contests in a game, it is worth dividing them out into categories. The simplest division sees three types of contest:

  • Physical
  • Social
  • Mental




Physical Contests

Given the wargaming roots of the hobby, physical contests are the most common. Many rules devote large chunks of text to outlining the combat rules, the most frequent style of physical contest. A good combat encounter can be thrilling and cathartic for the Players. Simply killing the monsters is the most direct way to remove them as a threat.


There are other ways of presenting a physical contest in an encounter. Extended chase sequences, or tough athletics challenges are tropes of action films, and thus make suitable additions to most RPGs. Such non-lethal contests may resolve faster than a combat, depending upon your rules, but serve to vary the rhythm of the game.



Social Contests

In contrast, social contests often lacked a mechanical basis in early RPGs. Haggling with a shopkeeper, or intimidating a prisoner were common events, yet it took a while for these types of contest to receive coverage in our games.


This style of contest blurs the line between Player and Hero. Nobody at the table is expected to wield a sword, and thus everyone accepts this part of the game being handled by the mechanics. However, it really is the Player talking with the guard. Thus, robust mechanics for social interaction took longer to arrive in RPGs.


Yet, a tense negotiation, or an extended court case, can have all the drama and excitement of a mighty duel. The style of social contests may differ, and many GMs ask the Players to roleplay out at least some of the conversation. Assuming your rules have social skills, then these contests offer a great change of pace for the game.


Mental Contests

This final category of contest is the least common. One aspect of the mental contest revolves around knowledge skills. Namely, does the Hero know a particular piece of knowledge? Perception checks also fall within this style of contest.


In terms of Hamlet’s Hit Points by Robin D Laws, this is an information beat. Such scenes usually carry little risk to the Hero, and often feel binary in nature. A Hero either knows, or notices, something, or they do not. There may be consequences later in the story depending upon the outcome, but such a mental contest is rarely exciting. Indeed, these information rolls may be wrapped up into a large encounter, and merely form the introduction to the main contest.


A more powerful version of this contest is where the scene is framed as a personal or moral contest. Very few RPGs include mechanisms where the Hero must overcome a personal flaw to proceed as the Player desires. The passions in Pendragon, or the Sanity system in Call of Cthulhu are examples of this type of mechanism, but others exist.




Very often, the heart of an encounter is the challenge faced by the Heroes. This tends to be resolved by the mechanics, often in great detail depending upon the rules system. When improvising an encounter, it is important for the GM to include something to challenge the Players. Varying the nature and duration of the mechanical contest is another way to alter the rhythm of a session. Next week, we explore encounters where there is no mechanical contest.


How do you add contests to your encounters? What style of contest do your Players prefer? Do you vary the style of your contests? Is there another category of contest I missed from my list? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.



Happy Gaming



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  1. […] Part 8 examined the mechanical aspects of an encounter. […]

  2. […] Part 8 examined the mechanical aspects of an encounter. […]

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