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
- Part 5 completed the Who question by presenting the faceless opposition
- In Part 6 I answered the vital What is happening question
- Part 7 explored the final question, Why is the encounter in the story?
- Part 8 examined the mechanical aspects of an encounter.
Drama from 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. It is entirely possible to run an encounter without a contest. Such a contest-free scene may not be as thrilling as one featuring a dramatic contest, where fortune swings back-and-forth between the contestants. Yet, a good roleplaying session will feature a variety of scenes, and one option is to run a scene with no central mechanical contest.
No Contest Scenes
Part nine of the series presents no contest encounters. A scene without a contest can perform several functions within the overall story. Such a scene may focus on one of the follow topics:
Another famous storytelling adage is to “show, don’t tell”. This is particularly relevant to an RPG when it comes to the setting. The GM could just read a passage of text to the Players, which was probably how the GM learnt the information in the first place. However, this is a very passive experience for the Players.
It is far better to present the information to the Players as a scene, even if the scene holds no mechanical challenge for the Players. Thus, the GM could narrate the Heroes’ approach to the city. Describe the crowds, the farmers, maybe a few street hawkers and then a dialogue with the gate guards.
This scene conveys a lot of detail about the city in a vivid manner. Such a scene might include the same information as the paragraph of text, but the presentation is more engaging. The Players will likewise remember a lot more about the city because they have interacted with it as part of the scene.
In terms of Hamlet’s Hit Points by Robin D Laws, contest-less scenes are often an information beat. The purest information scene is the classic encounter where the Heroes are lectured by the Patron who hired them. Here the specific details of the current quest are outlined.
This is usually an extended roleplaying encounter, but one where the purpose of the GMC is to pass information to the Heroes. While the setting scene see the Heroes physically interacting with the location, by moving through it, the information scene is much more social.
As with the Setting scene, this type of encounter is considerably more effective than the dreaded info-dump. Yes, information is being passed to the Players. Yet, the method of presentation, in this case a conversation, is far more engaging. A chatty information scene will take longer than simply reading box text to the Players. The extra time involved brings the scene alive and ensures greater engagement from the Players.
However, the epitome of the social scene lacking a contest is one focused on the character of the Heroes. The information scene has the Players roleplaying with a GMC deliberately sharing knowledge. In contrast, a character scene is just a chance for the Players to explore their Hero’s personality. A visit to a shopkeeper, or a chatty waitress, allows the Player to roleplay their character. This may not develop the major plot of the game, but it can still be a lot of fun.
The most extreme version of this scene is where two or more characters converse together. Whether this is an argument or a debate, everyone is roleplaying. I find these scenes emerge spontaneously, and often depend upon the mood of the Players. The GM has less control over initiating these scenes between characters. However, they are always fun, and often a highlight of our session.
The best versions of the character scenes are ones where the story has presented the Player with a difficult moral choice. Such moments of heightened drama stay with the Players for years. This is most likely a group discussion, where the Heroes debate which line of action to take. Sometimes they can play out as an internal monologue, where the Hero debates with her competing passions.
Examples of this moral contest include choosing between two equally bad options, or where a Hero must compromise a personal ideal to achieve a greater good. Expressions of this inner turmoil may be hard to facilitate, but ensure a powerful scene when they occur.
The final category of encounter where there is no contest, is one focused on the narrative. This is a useful GM tool, which often serves as a bridge between one “interesting” scene and another. Travel montages are a good example of this, or a short scene where the GM narrates the passage of time.
These purely narrative scenes can be enlivened at the table by the GM inviting each Player to contribute a line or two to the group narrative. This emphasizes the storytelling nature of the game, and shares the authorial voice between the Players. In this version of the narrative scene, the GM invites each Player to contribute to the story, by adding a specific personal detail.
For example: You travel for three days through the harsh dessert. What did each of you lose on the journey?
The primary focus of any rule book is to teach Players the rules of the game. However, every RPG encounter need not involve a mechanical challenge for the Players. It is entirely possible to run a powerful, dramatic scene without recourse to the rules. Stories abound of groups who enjoyed a fun session without ever rolling the dice. This article outlines several approaches to running a strong scene which does not rely on the mechanics to add drama or interest.
Next week, I turn to the current host of the Blog Carnival. This series will continue later with part 10, where I focus on adding multiple contests to a scene. Running contests are such a fundamental part of being the GM, so there is a lot to explore in the topic.
In the meantime, how do you run contest-free encounters? What has been the most dramatic scene in your game where you did not roll the dice? How would you weave narrative elements into your session? 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.
- 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 8, Contests
- Something for the Weekend next week: May Blog Carnival, Cult Magic Failures
- The series continues with: Improv Encounters 10, Many Contests