As I was reviewing the 2012 SOTY finalists I had an idea for an article about using contests in roleplaying. As usual when my brain presents me with an idea, it was at an inopportune time. I quickly noted the idea, shot off a query to Tourq to see if he liked it and then… promptly forgot about it! Never fear dear reader, your host and Head Wielder of The Whip duly reminded me to actually SUBMIT this idea rather than sit on it eternally as I’m sadly wont to do.
Contesting the Obvious
Without piling the prose too deeply, a contest can be many things. In common parlance today the use of “contest” is often synonymous with “lottery”, but the type of contest I wish to discuss is of the competitive variety than the randomly selective form. The latter excludes character or player involvement too much for my liking, while the former allows useful narrative opportunities.
A contest then is an event wherein two or more contestants compete against either a common challenge or each other with the one(s) deemed more successful gaining a prize or boon for their efforts. One type of contest one could stage is a competition of skill such as an archery contest, gladiatorial fighting, spell duel, jousting, a race (on a course with unusual traps, challenges and pratfalls to boot!), a singing competition, etc.
Another type of contest is the quest, usually depicted in myth as a Noble announcing that the first person or group to accomplish a given task would win a priceless item, a pile of gold, a palace, the Princess’ hand in marriage, etc. This form is well suited to a longer delivery and thus could span any number of gaming sessions as the PCs struggle to get the ‘X’ from ‘Y’ to attain ‘Z’.
Why Have Contests?
A contest is an excellent plot device which can easily be filled with tension & drama, involving roleplaying, entertaining or threatening NPCs and genuine risks with clear rewards. It is so apt for the plot and character driven storytelling of roleplaying that it behooves us as roleplayers to grasp at every chance for contests that come our way as either the GM or Player.
At lower levels, a contest is a good opportunity to introduce rivals. Perhaps ANOTHER group of adventurers is also looking for the ancient Mithryl Hammer to win the title to the Ironfoot Mountains from the Dwarven High King? Maybe you’re NOT the best swordsman in the kingdom and last year’s winner is here to prove it to you.. or will he? While this won’t fully establish a long term rival all by itself, the competition allows for ample encounters that will lay the foundations for how the PCs will react to and interact with these rivals when they see them again in a different context.
Contests can also be a “safe” way to test the capabilities of your players’ characters. Just how powerful is that 5th level Wizard? This is doubly useful if you have a player with a nonstandard character type you’re unfamiliar with. You can repeatedly challenge the character in multiple ways without risking killing the PC or derailing a significant component of your intended campaign.
For the player, a contest can be an environment to test out unusual or unfamiliar abilities, powers, or even tactics with your character. Have a new weapon? Enter the arena. Just gained a new ability or want to try out a new set of skills? Compete against your fellow players or some NPCs.
There can be post-contest consequences as well – some may be desirable, while others are not. Winning a contest may earn you local adoration by those who witnessed your achievement, or winning may turn against you as those loyal to the defeated come to avenge their champion. Of course, the reverse can be true for either result with losing a contest earning you local sympathies or have you run out of town as a traitorous disappointment to everyone.
The prize of a contest can change your character as well. A Fighter with a shiny new suit of prize armor will definitely behave differently during the next dungeon delve! Even non-material prizes can introduce changes. Winning the Mages Duel gave you an in with the local Wizard’s Academy who previously had ignored your requests for assistance in researching the whereabouts of the lost Tower of the Magi.
At higher levels the nature of a worthy contest should change, upscaling to meet the abilities, needs, and complexities of more developed characters and campaigns. Instead of the simpler direct competition of ability versus a known and discretely defined challenge, the contest could be more of a trial than a simple test, the outcome of which may affect the setting or long term plot of the campaign. With higher stakes, comes more danger, both from the contest itself (failure could mean death), and ones fellow contestants (they may be willing to permanently eliminate you from competing). Accordingly, the contest should be run by a more impressive personage – rather than the local lord, it is the Emporor, a God, a dragon, etc. Of course, with all of this upscaling, the rewards will be much greater as well. Winning an entire kingdom instead of a plot of land, a priceless, unique artifact of great power instead of a +1 weapon, etc.
The Devil Is In The Details
As a player, your role in a contest is to learn as much as possible about what is needed in order to win, and then perform at your best to achieve victory. This can sometimes be a simple process, or it may take many game sessions to complete. If the contest is a group endevour, then you will likely need to employ new or more advanced strategies in working together and relying on each others’ skills and abilities. Likely it will be your less used ones that will be tested, so be sure to bone up on your characters’ capabilities.
For the GM, there is a lot of work required before even presenting the contest. All the structural aspects of the contest need to be created in preparation for the players. A contest needs conditions of who may enter the contest, how the contest is conducted, the judging method for determining the winner, and rules about what is or isn’t allowable. The challenges throughout the contest (especially for longer, more complex contests) must be determined and designed. Unless the only contestants are the PCs against each other, the competitors must be prepared to as complete a degree as the contest itself, with not only their base statistics determined, but their personalities, and a few notes on what their strategy for the contest will be. Any events of intrigue or danger must be planned in a manner similar to the planning of a minor encounter or one off mini-adventure.
Finally, the prize itself must be created – be sure to properly consider possible consequences of the PCs reaping the reward as well. If they become the new owners of Mistmoor Keep after emerging victorious at the tourney, then what will you throw their way once they arrive at Mistmoor to inspect and move into their new digs? Will having a party Bard with a magical Horn of Confidence require you to up the ante in future monster encounters? Just how powerful is a Holy Avenger anyway? Either way, be ready to deal with what you’ve given your players so you don’t end up with regret. Running a contest should be an exciting series of challenges that add to everyone’s enjoyment of the game. With proper planning and an animated delivery, this outcome can be assured whether the PCs win or lose.