Jul 07

February ‘17 Carnival: Improv Encounters 11, Running Contests


All the way back in February, the 2017 travelling RPG Blog Carnival host was Tabletop Terrors. Their nominated topic was a staple of RPG scenarios: the encounter.


This broad term gave me a lot to think about, and my initial essay plan developed into this series. Thus, I am still pursuing the February topic, even though the month has long 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. Contests are the building blocks of a roleplaying session. In this essay 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.

As an improv GM, I see four aspects to running an exciting contest at the table:

  1. System Mastery
  2. Prepared Elements
  3. Mix and Match
  4. Fast and Furious




System Mastery

The core requirement of an improv GM is to have system mastery. More than ever, the GM needs great understanding of their chosen rules. It is possible to improvise a game in any RPG, so long as the GM knows which rules to apply in whatever situation the Players create. By definition, an improv GM has little idea about where a session will end up. Thus, it is impossible to research obscure rules in advance of a session. The flow of the game relies upon the GM’s system mastery.


A secure knowledge of the rules of the game enhances the GM’s self-confidence. So much of improvisation is about confidence. You should know your rules well enough to cope with all the likely events in the session. Then, should an obscure rule be needed, you can make a ruling based upon your system mastery. Nothing breaks the flow of a session like a GM halting the game to ferret through the rules for an obscure mechanic.


These days, I prefer playing narrative games such as HeroQuest Glorantha. This game combines a small number of rules with a single contest resolution system, making rules mastery easier to achieve. So long as you are confident with your chosen rules, then you carry this confidence through to your improvisation.



Prepared Elements

For all your system mastery, the rules are likely to still require details: names, places, plot twists, skills, attacks, spells, etc. Roleplaying is often a game about facts and figures. It is possible to improvise everything, but this can cause problems. Being put on the spot does not always lead to creative names, or locations. Likewise, campaign consistency may require certain traits to be similar over time.


Thus, trolls should have similar names, all pyromancy spells should have similar effects, and every City Watch should have comparable combat skills. Ensure greater consistency in your setting by having prepared lists of suitable details. This could be cultural name lists, or basic skills for typical opponents.


Read more about prepared lists here


I rely heavily upon my prepared lists. These lists help me find names for anyone in the street the Heroes talk with. Likewise, as soon as we move into a contest, I pull out my generic list of abilities and pick an appropriate level. This keeps the game flowing and helps me feel confident when improvising. The challenge level may not be as finely tuned as a comprehensively prepared encounter. However, the spontaneity and energy of an improvised session balance that out.



Mix and Match

The third aspect of running contests as an improv GM flows from the second. Having invested time and effort in creating my lists, I do not want to simply use them once. Instead, I leverage more value from my minimal game prep by re-using and re-skinning the details as much as I can.


The concept of re-skinning monsters is not a new one. This idea developed among GMs of crunchy rules systems, who did not want to labour through the extensive creation process of a new monster of GMC, just to change surface details. For the improv GM, this almost works in reverse. What was previously the troll warrior is now the barbarian berserker, with exactly the same abilities. Indeed, those pre-generated abilities could be just as easily presented to the Heroes as a grizzly bear, or the Queen’s Champion. A few narrative tweaks keep the story flowing, while the mechanics run on the same abilities as before.


Once again, application of this principle keeps the game running smoothly and your confidence high. The GM converts a relatively small amount of game prep into all manner of encounters at the table. You focus on improvising the story, and reacting to the Players, confident that a few narrative tweaks are all you need to use your pre-generated mechanical traits.



Fast and Furious

The final technique for the improv GM is to keep the game moving. I like a fast—paced story, and this is how I run my games. One consequence of my streamlined game prep is a lack of exact detail in my encounters. There was a time when I would carefully describe every piece of furniture, and the contents of every chest.


This level of detail is not suited to an improv style game. I focus on the plot, meaning I want to move through encounters swiftly. The faster we move through a scene, then the sooner the Players need to make more choices about what to do next. Heroes in my game do not creep down corridors tapping every flagstone, nor do we spend hours on a single combat just to enter the castle.


One side-effect of this pace is how it masks the lack of details. I do not need to describe every piece of furniture in the room, because the story moves through the scene so fast nobody has time to notice whether there were four desks or five. I am always ready to improvise details should Players ask, but the general pace of the game keeps the story flowing quickly. A good thumbnail sketch can be just as evocative as an oil painting.




This is my fourth and final essay exploring the contest aspect of an encounter. In the next instalment, I reach the Closing part of the scene. Knowing when to end a scene ensures a fast pace to the session.


In the meantime, what tools do you use to run contests? What mechanical traits are best pre-generated under your rules, rather than improvised? Is there anything else my game loses from such a fast pace? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.



Happy Gaming



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  1. […] The series continues with Improv Encounters 11, Running Contests […]

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