Places to Go, People to Be [Next Article] [Previous Article] [This Issue] [Home]

Competition Play

by Nick McCarthy

In which the author explains that a little healthy competition can be very healthy indeed

Cricket is boring, so is baseball and the "Indy 500" takes dull up to such rarefied heights that you need a fully functioning bio-sphere to survive it. Yet you can watch any of them on the TV any time you want. Snooker! Snooker has got to be the worst of the lot and yet people in England tune in to watch it by the million! It is not the high excitement value, nor is it the finely honed athletes and their innate sex appeal. I know what it is though.

MONEY. Not only does it make the world go around, it places these sports on the prime time slots and inflicts some of the most vindictive programming ever devised. All of these so-called sports have enormous amounts of prize money and sponsorship available to those on the professional circuit. The skills of the competitors may be what keep us watching them, but it is the money they can earn which gets them on TV in the first place. I think that we might be able to get some of this. Not in the here and now perhaps but who knows what the future might bring (if any one starts making references to some D&D seer, I will feed you to your own monster manual).

I worry that role-playing will be a soon forgotten fad of the late 20th and early 21st century. There is a truism in life that you may have heard before: "evolve or die". This is something that evolutionary biologists know. So do the men in suits at the big international conglomerates. A thing, or person or concept, that does not change is by definition stagnant. tagnation leads to death. I believe that the only reason that our hobby has survived as long as it has (check out the archives of ptgptb if you want to know more) is the rapid rate at which new games have been coming out. This is unlikely to go on forever. Any new field undergoes rapid maturation. All of those 'growth spurts' start to slow down as time passes. There comes a point when the first heady rush of joy in the new is replaced by familiarity and then orthodoxy. You heard it hear first, role-playing is starting to get its very own thought police who monitor what is or is not acceptable in the hobby. I should know, as I am one of them!

I know this is far fetched but I have a genuine love of this hobby and feel that it has never got a fair press, something for which we are all to blame, and the future is a funny thing. If you make the effort you can sometimes shape it to your advantage. If we can get enough money to promote the hobby to a wide enough audience then they sky is the limit. People watch golf, for God's sake.

So I have had my rant about the state of play in RPGs. It is time for me to put my two pen'th in and get back to the point about all that lovely, lovely sponsorship money.

The fall of the Berlin wall has proven to most people that Capitalism is the top dog of the moment, and the foundation of Capitalism is competition. Fair competition is also entertaining to watch. That is why the sponsors wave their chequebooks at these stultifying pseudo-sports. The observation of skill is entertaining in the extreme, and the money men (and women) will pay through the nose to be associated with anything that that guarantees their brand name in the public view on a regular basis. They are well aware that you want to see, time and time again, someone execute a level of skill that you know deep down you could never match; to watch a player and say, "well I could do that, if it wasn't for my dodgy knee" or "I'll bet his dad was rich and he could practice all the time when he was young". They also know that you will think favourably of the mega-corp' that brings you the very latest in envy related sporting pleasure.

Now RPGs are not likely to ever be televised (mind you, they televise poker games) but it can be made more popular, dare I say more fashionable. For this to happen we have to change public awareness of RPGs (get rid of all these damn acronyms for starters) and to increase its profile in the general market place. We must make our hobby grow and break out of the weirdo-nerd category in which we seem to take such perverse pride. We are going to have to do a few things, some of them as individuals and others as a hobby:

  • Encourage those around us who express any interest to get involved
  • Focus on the skill displayed in the game, not just go with whatever is easiest or the most cool at the moment
  • Do what we can to create good press coverage. If you are in a club then bust a gut raising money for charity and get the press to write it up. If you do this as an individual you will get the glory, do it as a club and the hobby does.
  • Those of you who game in a University society, make a point of being helpful to those involved in other activities and join in. They may just help support your club.
  • Try to get sponsorship for any kind of competition that your club runs. Just walk into the local shops and ask. Get in the habit of wanting more than just a cream egg and the latest supplement for "Killing Things and Big Guns"®

So much for what you can do, now for what we have to do:

  • If we raise enough money to do so, we should advertise conventions and gatherings outside of the gaming press.
  • Make an effort to ensure that local information resources (library, or other info services) outside of the hobby know that your club is out there and can contact you if need be.
  • We should create a hobby-wide, independent governing body to direct inquires to and actively promote RPGs for each country (being sure that those outside of the RPG world can contact it easily)…. Wow! [ There is one in France already called the Fédération Française du Jeu de Rôle, and a very good job it does too. Ed.]
  • We must develop a code of conduct and guidelines for gamers and the gaming industry to unify the governing bodies discussed above. Their stamp of approval should mean something.
  • Create an international competition circuit that rewards excellence. I contend that good role-playing takes a level of skill. Those of you who have been fortunate enough to play with a skilled role-player, or even better a skilled GM will know how much they improve the game just by their presence.

Now all that isn't so easy. I am not even too sure if it can be done. Football (the real game, not that perverted rugby that you Yanks pretend is a major international sport)has managed it, as have all the major sport and leisure activities. So if we can grow up big and strong like the other multinationals we might just manage it. My hope is that we can get to the point were one person in twenty role-plays on a regular basis…. well it's worth a shot.

All well and good I hear you cry, but how would you even start your insane plan for world domination of the role-playing community Doctor Evil? Well I would start it something like this:

Competition guidelines

The intention here is to create a system of scoring in role-playing games. One that is constant to all games and on a more qualitative footing than the reward scheme of experience points. Whilst this does go against the grain of what many consider to be the whole ethos of the RPG field, I feel that such a system is needed for several reasons:

  • To provide a fair and consistent means of determining the 'winners' at role-playing competitions/conventions.
  • To create a feel in the role-playing community of what is good role-playing and thereby encourage its spread.
  • To encourage the growth of the hobby by putting forward a more structured and professional aspect to those out side of it.

One : Those of you who have ever taken part in a role-playing competition may have experienced the following: Inconsistent scoring between one GM or group and the next. This is natural as no two people are ever exactly alike. However, just because it is natural does not make it right. Ebola Virus is natural but you don't see to many folks up in arms on its behalf as we try to eradicate it. Or you may have bumped into that ever-present joy that is the clique. We are all guilty of this and once again it is a natural set of human behaviour. It still is not right.

Two : Now we could stand here and argue what is "good role-playing" until the Martians land and turn us all into pack animals to work the chocolate mines. My point of view is that we all have in our minds, whether you feel like admitting it or not, an idea of what constitutes good play. If we can all agree to a set of rules for measuring good play, and we design those rules properly of course, then the majority view of good play will come to the fore and be recognised. Once we have that standard in front of us we will all start to try and achieve or surpass it. I am aware that the majority view is not always the best, but we have to start somewhere and at least this way it is democratic. Also the nature of competition is such that standards increase as time passes. Most modern day teams would kick the butt off the older teams of the same sport from twenty years ago.

Three : The perception of RPGers to the outsider. If we can show that our hobby is starting to show structure and a recognised international standard, then it might be easier to get sponsorship to promote the hobby. Just think, the GURPS charity shield, sponsored by Land Rover ("go anywhere, do anything").

So as the one to throw in the hand-grenade, I guess it is up to me to be the first one to walk in after it.

The easiest way to do this is to talk about a specific game. As I do not know which games you have played then we shall make one up very quickly. Lets take that old stand by of something nasty underground. We will have a deadly and noxious something killing police and Dept of the Environment types in some crazy archaeologist's house. I shan't bother with the whole game here, but it would be useful to define the characters of the scenario to give us all a frame of reference.

The characters & key aspects

Sgt. Smith : veteran of the force trained in hostage negotiations and has a wealth of knowledge of all sorts of situations. Yes, he is due to retire in a couple of months!

  • Never leave another officer
  • Short temper
  • Hates creepy crawlies of all types

Officer Brown : New recruit, teamed up with Smith. Seen as a something of a Golden Boy, top of his class and all that, expected to rise quickly in the force just like his dad and granddad did.

  • Over-confident
  • Touchy about being disagreed with
  • A coward who tries to hide it

Officer Jones : A mature female officer with a real chip on her shoulder about being passed over for promotion; she thinks it is because she is a woman.

  • Over compensates, tries to be all 'bloke like' to fit in with her colleagues
  • Tends to sulk when not agreed with when decisions are made
  • Never panics, can remain calm under the worst of situations

Officer Zanzibar-Crane : Partner for several years to Officer Jones. She does not know it but whenever he has got into a scrape about his little sidelines he has made an effort to implicate Jones and divert attention onto her to protect himself.

  • Corrupt copper, will do anything to make a buck
  • Will allocate blame to others and usually to Jones if she is not present. He does not take responsibility for his own actions
  • Excellent procedures. Knows exactly how to handle any crime scene and more importantly what he can or cannot get away with

Police Doctor Cumee : Old Doctor now working with the police after his retirement to keep his hand in and to feel he is doing something for the community

  • Alcoholic, of course
  • Can't stand the smell of dead bodies, has a pungent cream he applies to himself obsessively from the time he knows there is dead body nearby.
  • Slightly deaf

John Hacker, DoE officer : a scientist with a wide knowledge of the degrading filth in which people are prepared to live

  • Well-read, tends to annoy all those all around him by making obscure references to things that only he and a few others will have any idea about ("why this reminds me of honey collectors of lower Borneo")
  • Obsessive about his equipment, will count and rearrange it on a regular basis
  • Totally deadened to the emotional impact of just about everything, will make light of even the most tragic events

So now we have a proper frame of reference to work with we can start to make the score sheet up. I suggest something like this:

Behaviour Smith Brown Jones Z'Crane Cumee Hacker
Bad temper            

Please mark the other players in your game.

You have three marks that you can put in each character column.

Each of the Key aspects should now be able to be identified at the end of the session and whether they were played properly. The GM can get each player to tick the appropriate section and a simple template will then be placed over the score sheet (I hate that name but can't think of a better one) to tally it up. Being sure that nobody marks themselves and checking to make sure that the players have only marked three boxes in each column. This should put an end to situations where you go to a convention and are asked to assess the role-playing skill of the other players without being sure what they were actually required to role-play. It should also put a stop to friends asking each other what they want to be written down. Each player will then get up to five marks for their performance in the game for each of the identified key aspects. In games of less than six characters a maximum of five marks for each aspect should still be applied, even though this will tend to boost the average score for each player.

Anyone writing a scenario for a competition wishing to gain points in the circuit should be required to design the adventure for six. If six players cannot be found for one of the games in the knockout rounds then the organisers should provide a 'dummy' player to make it up to six. Ideally this person should not be known to the other players or be familiar with the plot. Drag them off the street if you have to, it should not be too hard if you offer them free popcorn or something. They might even like it!

Scenario Design

For this to work then organisers will have to be a little more disciplined in the design of the games they put up for competitions.

  • Each character must have at least three "Key aspects", more are permissible but marking of sheets must follow the guidelines to the right of the columns. The template may reveal more than three boxes for each character, up to a maximum of five.
  • Marking sheets must be made with a minimum of fifteen (15) suggested key aspects.
  • Scenarios must provide at least two puzzles. These are defined as non-obvious solutions to situations that are either or both, A: of a life threatening nature to the PCs or B: essential to the progression of the plot, with a five puzzle maximum.
  • Scenarios must contain at least one life-threatening scene to the PCs. This is defined as a situation that will kill one or more characters (with an equal chance for each character, or a scene for each character) and has a 1 in 2 chance, in total if more than one deadly encounter is planned, of fatality for each character if left to random dice rolls. NOTE the aim should be for the players to escape or deal with such situations without having to resort to dice rolls.
  • Scenarios must include at least one opportunity for each character to reveal all key aspects and preferably more. This must not be a 'spotlight' moment when the players are asked to spontaneously emote; rather an integral part of the game that the player must recognise and take on for themselves.
  • Scenario must conclude with a feedback session, taken by another GM who is familiar with the plot to ensure that all players have as equal a gaming experience as possible. If something went wrong then a stand-by scenario should be on offer for the team to play, or they may be awarded a single point each. This is to be decided by the players after they have been informed of the error.

The designer of the scenario should be very aware that a single situation might cover more than one element of the list. Also 'life-threatening' situations will almost always include a puzzle element and thus commit monolithic dual aviacide in the majority of cases.

The GM will then provide a mark for each of the following:

  • Surviving the game, if your PC is alive at the end of the game/campaign.
  • Understanding of the plot, if you made a decision in the game that is appropriate to the story line.
  • Identifying plot devices, if you aid the GM in moving the story forward.
  • Good reasoning, this one is to cover those moments when the GM thinks 'I should off thought of that!'.
  • Puzzle solving, we are not talking riddles and stuff here guys & girls; I mean, figuring out what to do in tricky situations.

This gives each player a maximum score of twenty and even the worst player should be able to walk away with at least a few points. Remember, this is supposed to encorage people to play, not put them off.


I know this would have to be altered every time you change characters and scenarios and is something of an unwieldy beast. The idea here is to get you all thinking about this and trying to see if it is possible to come up with a workable, reliable method of assessing someone's role-playing skills. If we can't do this then we should consider removing the competition game from all conventions! Not something I want to do as I have had enormous amounts of fun in competition games (even when I didn't get placed, those clique-ridden geeks with their vampire fetish. You are all on the list and will rue the day mutter muter vengeance mutter mutter damn their eyes mutter mutter I know who has one for sale mutter mutter)

So what do you think? Is there any potential here and could it lead to growth of the hobby? If you think that this is a stupid idea that goes against all that is good, pure and holy in RPGs then blame me, step up and see what happens I ain't scared of ya! If you think there is the germ of a good idea in there somewhere then credit should be given to my mate Andy Brown who sparked off the whole idea.

Nick McCarthy lives in the UK and so does not know the meaning of the words "climate", "billabong" and "color".

[Next Article] [Previous Article] [This Issue] [Home]

Copyright © 2000 Places to Go, People to Be , all rights reserved. May only be reproduced with permission. Refer to the copyright page for full details. Email us: .