Use This Simple Technique To Improv Tricky Situations With Great Clarity

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1004

Here’s a cool tip from RPT GM Jim B about how to handle roleplay and skill challenges.

I like it because it’s simple and flexible — perfect for handling tricky situations on-the-fly.

It’s reminiscent of D&D 4E skill challenges, and I think Jim lays out a clear approach for us to try next session:

Hi Johnn,

I realized while reading your examples [of ways to intensify encounters] that my new favorite encounter framing technique is also a way to intensify the encounter.

Best Out of Three

I use variations on Fate’s Contest mechanism.

The short version is that there’s a series of exchanges.

One side wins each exchange, scoring 1 point or maybe 2, or there’s a tie.

The first side to reach 3 points wins the contest.

How does this frame and intensify an encounter? Read on.

Climb Three Steps to Intensity

Each side has a concrete goal they’re trying to achieve in the encounter. It’s what success looks like — what happens if the encounter turns out well for that side.

  • Get through the gate vs. repel the attackers
  • Flee the ship before it self-destructs vs. blow up the ship (the self-destruct mechanism’s goal)
  • Question the prisoner vs. convince the interrogators that they can’t break me
  • Kill or capture the orcs vs. flee to the orc camp
  • Find the escaped prisoner vs. evade capture
  • A concrete goal keeps the encounter focused.

Each side also has two intermediate milestones leading up toward the goal.

The intermediate steps help intensify the encounter by showing one side or the other getting closer to the finish line.

For example, getting through the gate could break down into:

  1. Work our way to the gate (milestone)
  2. Fight the guards at the gate (milestone)
  3. Break down the gate (goal)

Those guarding the gate might have the steps:

  1. Attack them from the walls (milestone)
  2. Reinforce the gate (milestone)
  3. Chase off the attackers (goal)

An important principle is that the steps need to make sense no matter who scores next. Side A could hit their first or second steps before side B hits any, for example.

One Side to Rule Them All

How many sides are there? The rule of thumb is that there’ll be one “side” for every separate goal.

If the whole PC party is trying to get through the gate, the whole party is one side.

If some PCs are trying to close a portal while the other PCs are holding off demons, the PC party could be split into two sides. That can ratchet up the intensity while we see whether the demons can be held off long enough to get the portal closed.

Create the Rules of Engagement

The GM has two important decisions to make before the start of each contest:

  1. What happens during each exchange?
  2. How to score it so there’s a single winner of each exchange (or possibly a tie)?

Suppose there’s a fight scene. One exchange could be one round of combat.

The side with the most successful hits wins the exchange and scores 1 point in the contest. Scoring a point achieves that side’s next step.

In a car chase, each exchange could be a single drive skill roll, and the best result scores 1 point.

In a tracking situation, a success could score 1 point for the tracker, while a failure could score 1 point for the prey.

Make sure the scoring mechanism is easy and clear, so you don’t get bogged down in excessive bookkeeping or debate.

If your scoring mechanism allows all sides the opportunity for both ordinary success and special success, let a special success score 2 points while an ordinary success scores 1.

Otherwise, if a special success isn’t an option for every side, the winner of the exchange always scores 1 point.

The first side to reach 3 points wins the contest.

Depending on circumstances, that might end of the contest, or you might need to find out what happens to the remaining participants.

A Couple of Examples

Here are three run-throughs to illustrate this technique.

Example 1: PCs Questioning a Prisoner

The GM decides to answer one question for each point the PCs score.

The prisoner’s steps are:

  1. Make a defiant speech
  2. Try to make a deal
  3. Clam up with nothing left to offer

Each exchange is an interrogation roll.

Success = 1 point (and one question answered) for the PCs.

Failure = 1 point for the prisoner.

When either side reaches 3 points, the interrogation is over. That’s all the PCs are going to get, using their current approach.

If they want to try again, they’ll have to find a different way to go about it.

Example 2: Chasing Orcs Through the Forest

The PCs have these steps:

  1. Pick up the trail of the orcs
  2. Get within bowshot
  3. Catch up with the orcs

The orcs have:

  1. Reach the Gray Clearing
  2. Reach Cold Creek
  3. Reach our stockade

First exchange: tracking roll by the PCs. It fails, so the orcs score a point. They’ve reached the Gray Clearing.

Second exchange: still tracking. It fails again, so the orcs have now reached Cold Creek.

Third exchange: The tracking roll finally succeeds, and the PCs score 1 point. They’ve picked up the trail.

Fourth exchange: The GM decides the encounter has shifted from tracking to pursuit, so it’s speed vs. speed. There’s a tie, so nobody scores a point.

The GM could narrate the PCs’ frustration as they’re unable to gain any ground, or this might be an opportunity to throw in an extra complication, such as rain.

Fifth exchange: The PCs score 1 point. They’re now within bowshot. The GM narrates that the PCs can now see their prey.

The sixth exchange is a round of ranged combat before the pursuit continues. Both sides have accumulated 2 points. The next point wins the contest.

The GM counts the number of successful hits on each side for this exchange.

If the PCs get more hits, they’ve pinned down the orcs and they can close to melee range.

The orcs might then surrender, or maybe there’ll be a new contest for hand-to-hand fighting.

If the orcs win the round of ranged combat, however, they scurry off to their stockade and get behind the gates before the PCs can catch up with them.

Example 3: A Burning Building

PCs Androth and Beriel, and enemy NPCs Clurd and Dothu, are fleeing a burning building that’s on the verge of collapsing. It’s everyone out for themselves as they run for the exits.

Each PC and NPC makes their own roll relating to their speed, modified as needed by whatever obstacles they face.

Break down each character’s steps into:

  1. Reaching one chosen room
  2. Reaching another chosen room
  3. Exiting the building

If some characters are already by an exit, don’t bother including them; assume they escape.

This contest is for the ones who might not get out in time.

The burning building has these goals:

  1. Raging fires on the furnishings
  2. Falling, burning debris
  3. Collapsing in a fiery inferno

First exchange: Dothu scores 1. Second: Androth, 1. Third: The house, 1.

Previously, the flames were present, but now all the furniture and wall hangings are raging fires, attacking any characters who are near them.

Next: Beriel, 1. Next: Dothu reaches a 2nd point, reaching his second intermediate destination.

Next: Androth scores his 2nd point also.

Next: Beriel reaches her 2nd destination.

Next: Clurd, who’s been struggling to get past burning obstacles, finally scores and reaches his first intermediate destination.

Next: The house scores again.

Now, not only are the furnishings burning up, but flaming things are starting to fall: wall hangings, ceiling beams or chunks of ceiling, and so on.

The GM has the falling debris attack each character.

Androth is down, currently in his second location. Beriel is also in her second location.

If that means they’re in the same spot, she can start dragging him out, although her success chance will go down.

If they’re in different locations, maybe she could voluntarily reduce her score by 1, making Androth’s location her next step.

But let’s say they’re together, and Beriel has a way to drag Androth to safety.

Next: Dothu reaches his 3rd point. He has left the building.

Next: Clurd scores his second point.

Next: Beriel scores her 3rd point, dragging Androth with her. They have escaped the building.

Next: The building wins its 3rd point. It collapses in a fiery inferno, with Clurd still inside. Clouds of smoke, sparks, and dust billow forth, and Beriel takes care of Androth while wondering whether Dothu is still nearby.

Thank you for the excellent breakdown and examples of this technique, Jim!

I found the idea of breaking any challenge into three steps — two progression and one success step — easy to wrap my head around.

And I especially like the opposed goals set-up. It ensures your in-game reality does not tunnel-vision down to pure PC focus and reaction. Even burning buildings have their own nature!