May 19

February ‘17 Carnival: Improv Encounters 9, No 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.




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:

  • Setting
  • Information
  • Character
  • Morality
  • Narrative





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.


Find Hamlet’s Hit Points at DriveThruRPG [affiliate link]


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.


I discussed different ways to avoid the info-dump in the Updated Elf or Scroll




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.



Happy Gaming



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  1. I agree entirely that encounters don’t need to be mechanical challenges to be interesting, I would guess that a sizeable chunk of our sessions would fall in the Character/Morality category, even within sessions where combat is the primary or sole focus of the evenings play. Discussions between characters, debates, bickering between characters, discussions between players about the characters and what those characters might think and do are the foundation of the game. Social mechanics that tell the players how their character should think are a definite no no for us.

    Difficult to give you examples of dramatic scenes where we did not roll the dice because there are so many and for a lot of people they would not see any drama in the scene because the drama is so personal to the players and characters. Anyway here’s one example, although in many ways it is an example of a theme that runs throughout the campaign which has spawned many scenes.

    Early in our latest Deadlands Reloaded campaign (we are now 42 sessions in) the PC’s tried to help a ranch owner and his family who were being intimidated by the railroad company into selling their ranch and moving away. One of the players has decided that she wants her PC, Joey, to marry the daughter of the ranch owner. The daughter (and the whole family) have now become important NPC’s. The PC has bought engagement rings, purchased a plot of land to build a house for them to live in and has just asked the girl to marry him. Lovely, going to have an in game wedding.

    However one of the other PC’s is a Rich Weird Scientist who owns the hardware store in Tombstone. He is insisting that he should pay for the wedding of his friend, but the other PC does not want this, he has too much pride and wants to show his prospective family that he has the resources to look after their daughter and to pay for the wedding by himself, but the rich PC will just not listen. Such a little thing but this character ‘conflict’ has generated so many interesting conversations.

    To make matters worse one of the other PC’s, who is Harrowed and died and now shares his brain with an evil spirit, has been secretly telling the younger brother of the bride to be that Joey has been sleeping with a succubus they rescued from servitude in a vampire owned brothel in Albuquerque. All lies but the player is hoping that the young lad will speak out when the priest says ‘I am required to ask anyone present who knows a reason why these persons may not lawfully marry, to declare it now’ part of the ceremony. This is going to be a surprise to all the other players when this happens.

    All of this whilst the PC’s are maintaining law and order and fighting supernatural terrors in and around Tombstone, which is the actual theme of the game.

    Anyway sorry about the long post.

    • Phil on May 21, 2017 at 1:03 pm
    • Reply

    Hi David,

    You are lucky to have imaginative and engaged Players. They really are throwing themselves into your game, and everybody benefits. Those are interesting conflicts the Players have created, all without needing the mechanics to add drama to a scene. Thank you for sharing.

    I am glad you highlighted character bickering as an interesting inter-Player interaction. these scenes tell so much about each character, and the way the groups hangs together. I endure too much little boy bickering, but I enjoy it among the Heroes.

    I do not share your aversion to mechanical definitions of personality. Of course, it all depends upon the style of game you are playing. Passions in Pendragon, for example, help create the sense of the original tales. If a game simulates a genre with a particular mindset in the Heroes, then it feels appropriate for the rules to reflect this. Players need to buy into the concept, but the rules can help to keep a game “authentic” to the source material.

    Much as I have suffered under the Call of Cthulhu sanity rules, I accept how they reflect the style of Lovecraftian horror. Likewise, a mechanical representation of honour helps a samurai game feel like a samurai game.

    However, these mechanical intrusions into the personality of the Heroes should be handled sympathetically, and will not be for every group.

    Anyway, thanks again for sharing.

    All the best

  2. Hi Phil,

    Yeah, I don’t think I explained that very well.

    I don’t mind mechanical definitions of personality, they are very useful hooks to understanding a character and the style of game, especially at the start of a campaign. The players in a Pendragon campaign will choose Passions and these will help define the character. I don’t mind mechanics that reflect the genre of the game like Sanity or Honour.

    However I do mind social mechanics that formalise and define how a character should interact with another PC and how the results of those interactions should manifest, for instance the Apocalypse World sex moves. Similarly social conflicts where the NPC wins and therefore the character is expected to think differently because the NPC’s view has prevailed (although this may be more of a past experience of a bad GM). Both imply that the default perspective a player should have of their character is from the third person, not something that I think helps a player identify with the character in a way that encourages immersion in that character. I think my view on this and characters as a whole are probably not particularly mainstream.

    All the best,


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