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.
- Part 9 presented no contest encounters.
Drama from Contest
The old adage is drama comes from conflict. Contests are the building blocks of a roleplaying session. Sometimes the GM wants to bind together multiple contests within the same scene. Alternatively, Players not engaged with the focus of a scene may initiate a separate contest to complicate matters.
Part 10 of the Improve Encounters series explores three ways of weaving together more than one contest in a scene. The three combinations are:
- In Sequence
- In Parallel
The simplest way to combine two contests in a single encounter is to run them in sequence, one after the other. A classic example of this would be perception rolls at the start of the combat scene. These initial perception rolls, or similar information-gathering skills, inform the subsequent combat, but they do not overlap. The perception checks are fully resolved before the combat begins.
The clean separation of the two contests makes this combination easy to run. Both the GM and the Players only need to focus on one contest at a time. Running contests in sequence feels rather like two small scenes playing out in the same location.
On Chaining Contests
Of course, it is possible to chain together more than two contests in a sequence. A string of different contests all in the same location is another way to vary the pace of a session. However, chained contests should be carefully monitored. The danger is the apparent lack of progress felt by the Players as one contest follows on from another without a change of location.
Multiple chained contests work best when presenting a complex puzzle, or perhaps as the finale to a session. Puzzle rooms are popular in a dungeon context, as they offer a chance for non-combat skills to influence the story. An initial perception check, an arcane puzzle, then a variety of athletics checks to cross the chasm works fine in the narrative. Yet, a string of puzzle rooms would likely strain the narrative, and should be avoided.
It is generally best to resist the temptation to chain together too many contests in one location. The tolerance of your Players may vary, but the Players will feel a greater sense of satisfaction if the contests are broken into separate locations. Rather than multiple engineering and science contests all on the bridge of a crashing starship, the story may flow better if these contests are broken up. Move each challenge to a new location, and the story builds as the Heroes work systematically through the stricken starship.
An encounter with more than one contest becomes more complex for the group when these challenges run parallel. Now the GM is juggling her attention between two, or more, contests running at the same time. This combination makes for a dramatic scene, with the warriors holding off the horde of skeletons, while the mage puzzles out the arcane lock.
Parallel contests bring the same challenges for the GM as a split party. While the Heroes remain in the same physical location, their focus and actions are running independently. Such a scene requires rapid cutting back-and-forth between the two contests. Run the table as you would for group combat, but switch mechanics and narrative style according to the active Player’s contest.
Also be aware how the story is tightly woven between the two contests. A resolution of either contest could have severe consequences on the other one. Stray weapons or spells could bridge the gap between the two contests. Here is another dramatic scene to use sparingly as a change of pace in the session.
This last category is an extreme version of a parallel contest. No longer are there two groups conducting their own, independent contest. In an asymmetrical contest, the two parties in the same contest are engaging in very different tasks.
For example, the skeleton is trying to slash the mage with its sword, while the mage is desperately trying to open the sealed door. Neither contestant is actively trying to stop the other. Yet, the actions of the skeleton could have a direct impact on the mage. Another classic example would be fleeing from combat, while the opponent wants to keep fighting.
Individual rules may deal with this in different ways. Regardless, the GM needs to juggle the competing goals and keep the story moving along. I always keep my focus on the story, aided by the narrative HeroQuest rules.
This is my third essay exploring the various ways contests can appear in an encounter. Next week, I finally present advice about running contests as an improv GM. Contests are such a crucial part of an RPG session, and thus play a central role in every encounter. Whether they run in sequence or in parallel, a good contest will make for a memorable scene.
In the meantime, how do you run multiple contests in an encounter? Do you prefer running contests in sequence or in parallel? How would you run an asymmetrical contest in your game? Do your chosen rules even accommodate asymmetrical contests? 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: May Blog Carnival: Cult Magic Failures
- Something for the Weekend next week: Games Expo Review
- The series continues with Improv Encounters 11, Running Contests