Contests: An Alternative to Combat

Many players (especially munchkin-ish players) just love combat. Indeed, one of the biggest reasons for showing up at a game session is to get out and fight! This document attempts to illustrate what makes combat so exciting, some examples of contests that can capture the players interests, and some approaches to running contests.

Why is Combat Exciting?

It stands to reason that if you could come up with some sort of contest that contains all these elements, the players would have just as much fun. (Or so the theory goes...) As mentioned, combat is typically much more fleshed out than any other part of the game system. Here, we hope to flesh out contests a little better to make them more approachable and exciting.

Contest Ideas

The following are examples of contests that should be exciting for the players.

Any of the above contests could also be spiced up with some combat: in a chariot race, the contestants might throw things at each other; at the end of a drinking contest, it's likely that a bar fight would start.

Contest Considerations

Running combat is usually pretty simple: One side hits first while the other side defends, then the other side hits while the first side defends. Lather, rinse, repeat until one side surrenders or their hit points reaches zero. Like combat, contests are best run in a turn-based way, but there are some things you'll need to determine up front.

Who goes first?

This is usually the easiest problem to solve. In an athletic or racing contest, whoever is fastest or has the higher skill might go first. It can make things more interesting to roll against their relevant skill to see who goes first (a la initiative rolls). For simple turn-based contests like cards or darts, just pick somebody to begin. When in doubt, favor the players to go first.

What Skills Will Be Used?

At first blush, this might also seem like an easy problem, but it can be far more complex, depending on the magnitude of the task. Some contests might require many skills, or the players might have the option of using a variety of different skills. One of the things that makes combat exciting is that there are so many options to pick from. As the GM, you can make contests more exciting by allowing (and even encouraging) the players to use a variety of skills in a contest.

How Do You Gauge Who's Winning?

The hit point meters tell who's ahead in combat and in like fashion, you can invent some sort of exhaustible number that determine who's winning in a drawn-out contest. In a poker game, the players start with a pile of cash and as soon as the pile is depleted, they're out. In a horse race, the gauge is the distance to the finish line; whoever gets there first, wins. In a rock-climbing contest, whoever gets to the top first is the winner. In a drinking contest, whoever falls unconcious first, loses. A good contest should have some sort gauge that measures who's winning and by how much.

When Is The Contest Over?

If you're using a gauge of some kind, it's easy to decide when the contest is over: as soon as somebody is out of money or crosses the finish line, you're done.

In some contests, however, it can be difficult to determine what a "winning" number is, such as a riddle contest or a dart game. To limit the length of these contests, you can just set a fixed number of rounds. On each round, each side takes a turn and chalks up how many points they "won" (or lost) in that round. When the pre-determined number of rounds is completed, each side totals and whoever has the most points wins. Alternatively, you could set a fixed target number and whoever hits that number first, wins.

Series of Success Rolls

The previous guidelines dealt with turn-based contests, but in some situations, there might not be any semblance of "turns" because there is no opponent. Examples include putting on a theater production, painting a picture, writing a computer program, performing extensive surgery on a patient, building a fortification, or computing a complex mathematical formula. In these situations, the PC is simply making a series of success rolls and marking how much they succeeded by.

In situations where a player is just making a series of success rolls, it's usually a good idea to limit these to just 2-4 rolls, 6 at the most; any more than that starts to get a little tedious. Remember, it's a roleplaying game, not a dice rolling game; the dice are just a means to an end and shouldn't become and end unto themselves.

There are a couple of different ways to decide if the player "wins" following a series of success rolls.

Audience Reaction

In situations where a work of art is being created / performed and the success is determined by the audience, you could simply act out the audience's response based on the degree of success: the higher they rolled, the happier the audience is; the lower they rolled, the more tomatoes they throw.

Alternatively, you could make a reaction roll for the audience, adding or subtracting to the roll the degree by which the artist succeded or failed. "Success" is determined by how well the audience reacted.

Target Number

The GM could also set a fixed number that he expects the player to hit to be considered "successful". Any distance the player goes above that number could be considered "extra success", with some accompanying bonus. Sometimes there's no point in going over the fixed number, such as getting to the top of a mountain; as soon as you hit the target, you're done - there's no more mountain to climb.

The GM might tell the player what this fixed number is, or keep it secret, depending. If the GM is keeping the number secret, he might allow the player to make some kind of roll to determine what the target number is, such as a Diagnosis roll before treatment.

Withstand Damage

A series of success rolls can be performed to build some kind of fortification that will withstand damage from a storm or attack from an army. In these cases, the GM would probably set a fixed amount of time until the storm hits / army attacks, and allow the players however many rolls they can squeeze in until the distaster strikes (i.e. one per day or some such). The accumulated success then determines the amount of damage their edifice can withstand. For example, the degree of success could translate directly into a DR rating.

Quality of Goods

This is a mescla of the "Audience Appreciation" and "Withstand Damage" methods described above. Here, you are trying to make some product that will be worn / used by someone (maybe you, maybe someone else). Armory and craft skills lend themselves to this approach. You have N rolls to make a pair of shoes / some armor / a sword / a tool / whatever. The total amount of success determines the quality of the finished product. This could translate directly into PD/DR, appearance, or resistance to breakage.

Approaches to Running Contests

Here are some different methods for executing contests.

Throughout these examples the terms degree of success and degree of failure are used. For an example of what these terms mean, consider a player who needs to roll on their Engineering skill, which is 12. On their first roll, they get an 8, so their degree of success is 4. On the second roll, they get a 15 so their degree of failure is 3. Got it? Good.

Start Low, Go High

This is the 'Horse Race' model: "Everyone starts at the starting line, the winner is the first to cross the finish line". The idea here is that players keep track of the degree of success per roll until a fixed target number, representing the length of the track, is reached.

Usually in this approach, a failure doesn't set the player back (a rider in a horse race isn't running back toward the starting line), but it doesn't gain them anything either (they're not getting closer to the finish line).

Start in the Middle, Go Either Way

This is the 'Gambling' model. The player starts with a pile of cash. Over the course of playing, they could win more cash, or they could lose what they've got. Obviously, the contest is over when they lose all their cash (unless they resort to betting their watch, their horse, etc.), but determining when the player has "won" the contest might not be so easy. With that in mind, it might be advisable for the GM to set a fixed number of rounds after which the cardplayers pack it in, or start a fight.

Start High, Go Low

This is the 'Drinking Contest' model. You can break even, or you can lose, but you can't win. Kind of depressing, really. Every round that you fail your roll, you become more fatigued, more drunk, more of a loser, etc.

Another example of a contest that fits this model is a log-rolling competition: you start on top of the log ("start high") and you progressively lose your balance until you finally end up in the water ("go low").

Side Note: This is how all combat / contests are done in the Risus RPG.

It Gets Harder Every Round

Another way to set a limit on the length of contests is to say that everyone's skill diminishes by 1 every round. This continues until all but one person fails, or until it becomes impossible for anyone to win. The advantage to this approach is that the contest will eventually come to an end. (Example..?)

Other Ideas

Here are some other oddments that you can use to make contests more interesting.


In contests where the player needs just a little more help with their skill roll, you could allow him to roll against some auxiliary skill and if they get a success, it increases their primary skill by one. For example: In a horse race, before a player rolls against his Riding skill, you might allow the rider to make an Animal Handling roll. If he gets a good success on his Animal Handling roll, it could effectively increase his Riding Roll by one.

There are also the "Extra Effort" rules presented in the Compendium II that can give the player a little oomph when needed.


One thing that can make contests especially interesting is when the players find a creative (and dangerous) way to cheat. This can give them the opportunity to show off some of their special skills / powers, can carry a high price for failure, and really ups the possibility of starting a fight.

Creativity Should Be Rewarded

In the course of running a contest, it is possible that a player could propose an idea or think of using a skill that is completely unexpected and not at all what you had planned. The GM should not dismiss such proposals, especially if it's a clever and creative idea. Besides, a good GM should be able to adapt to different circumstances and think on his feet. Let the player try his proposal and if it works well, make a note to give them an extra character point for their brilliance.

Ham It Up!

The key ingredient for making contests entertaining is good roleplaying. PCs and NPCs should be going over the top, wailing and moaning, sweating and straining, coming up with snappy patter and bursting into laughter on a regular basis.

To encourage this sort of frivolity, the GM should reward players for especially theatric moments: give them a bonus to their next skill roll, give them an automatic success for an especially clever line, or give them an extra character point for something that makes you laugh out loud.

Consider The Criticals

If you've planned an exciting contest for the adventurers to engage in, be sure to plan what should occur on a critical success or critical failure. Planning this beforehand will make the contest go smoother and avoid the problem of being caught flat-footed while you try to invent something on the spot.

Keep in mind that critical failure results tend to be more along the lines of "an inconvenience", rather than "a complete disaster". For example, if a player rolls a critical failure when shooting a gun, the gun will probably just jam, rather than blow up in his face. On the other hand, if the player's been a real munchkin / PITA the whole game...

Complex Contests

Some contests could contain combinations of several of the above approaches. The best example of this kind of thing is an opposed contest being watched or approved by an audience. A "battle of wits" in a stately chamber with all the courtiers watching could have both the 'gauged' aspects of a two-man conflict, as well as the "Audience Response" dimension. In addition to being fun for the players, complext contests can give the GM a little more flexibility for steering the adventure in a particular direction or offering the players a second chance.

"A Game Within A Game"

If the players are playing a game of some sort, why try to kludge it with a bunch of die rolls? Get out a game and play it! It can give the players ar real surprise when they walk into a bar to play cards with one of the barflies and the GM whips out a deck of cards and starts dealing! If you're going to do this, though, remember to keep it short, interesting, and try to use a game that can involve all the players.