Assured contests drive the story forward

Have you ever encountered a situation where a player is rolling dice for a check and you sense everyone on the table is thinking “please don’t fail now, let’s just move on”? The failure would just make things unnecessarily complex or the GM calls for another try or makes other players roll until someone succeeds and the group, finally, gets forward. The whole encounter, or contest, was probably good for the story, but not for the game.

In QuestWorlds, you are supposed to only have contests on interesting obstacles, where failure introduces some meaningful story branch. But sometimes certain contests brew from the players, or the GM, and they really want to contest about something that really isn’t a story obstacle. Sometimes the situation calls for a contest.

Introducing: Assured contest

The abovementioned are handled in QuestWorlds with a rule named Assured contest (QW SRD In all its simplicity assured contest is resolved with the following steps:

  1. Agree on the terms of the contest (prize, tactic)
  2. The GM decides the player gets a victory and the prize

Well, there’s a little more into that, but the key point is that the players get their prize. So, there’s no chance that the player characters would not get what they were seeking.

Is that a joke?

Okay, it might sound like this is just a way to say “Yes” to players but there is a reason why QuestWorlds has this rule in it. It is one of the most important tools the GM has in their toolbox for establishing character competence and driving the story forward.

Some contests are coming from the GM and some are initiated by the players. When the contest is introduced it should be framed just like a normal contest. What is at stake? What is the tactic? Then, the GM can decide that failure in this contest does not really make sense for the player’s character or for the story. The GM should be careful how they present the assured contest so that the player is not disappointed as the tension of the contest is suddenly waning away. This is mainly a communication and narrative challenge. I would avoid fudging the GM die roll (more about that in this post) and more openly tell about using an assured contest. Nothing prevents from narrating the contest as something the character struggles with but, finally, overcomes it.

Assured contest examples
Sir Richard, a knight of the king, arrives in the small town of Bagnot with his intimidating entourage. He is running short of rations and goes to the first peasant he finds. “In the name of the king provide us enough bread for three days”, he demands from the peasant. The goal of the contest is to get enough bread that can be used as a bargain in their next encounter. As this encounter builds up Sir Richard’s attitude against peasants and should be quite common in the setting, the GM decides that no roll is required. The peasant is not happy but does not oppose and provides the bread. Dissatisfaction against the king and his knights rises…
The investigators decide to visit the library to find more information about the unknown disease plaguing the city. Their goal is to gather the next clue. Preventing the information from the players would halt the story so the GM decides the investigators, after spending most of the night in the library, finally find the crucial piece of information. They follow the lead.

Library by mr-nick (CC-BY-NC-3.0)

Adding some tension

There is a way to add more tension into the assured contest, though. You can roll the die for the consequences of the contest. The player and the GM roll the die just like they would in a normal contest. The rank of the outcome then guides the GM in coming up with a benefit or a consequence. Remember, the player character still gets the prize, but at what price.

This ruling is also a way to stealthy apply the assured contest rule. The player is thinking they are rolling for a normal contest. If they are victorious, fine, they got the prize and the game goes on. If they fail, the GM can say something like: “Say, I will now rule that you still got the prize, but you get this and this consequence.” So, the GM does not have to downplay the resistance and, in the best case, they don’t have to even tell they were going with the assured contest. But only do this if there are some meaningful consequences to be had from the contest.

Let’s revisit the investigators visiting the library. Again, the GM decides they find the piece of information. But on top of that, the GM makes the players roll the dice. They get a rank 1 defeat. They spent the whole night flipping through the books and finally when the sun is rising, they find the clue. The search was tasking and they get a -10 sleep deprivation penalty for their actions during the day.

Somewhere in the West by Ferigato (CC-BY-NC-ND-3.0)

Assured augments

In the rule, augments are assured contests (see QW SRD 2.6.1). This means the player gets the +5 bonus (or +10 if the augment was dramatic or entertaining) without rolling. In earlier versions augmenting was a contest that could result in no bonus. This ruling will make augmenting a little more straightforward.

But, again, if you want to add tension to the augmenting you can do the same thing described above. Roll the die for the consequences of the augment. On a victory, it is just +5 and that’s it. But, on a defeat, the player gets the +5 augment but the GM gets to come up with the penalty that affects the augmenting ability later. The penalty should follow the degree of the defeat.

Augmenting example
Hodgson, the sheriff of the Pearl’s End, and the local hat maker, McIntyre, are chasing the bandit Rick in the streets. Hodgson’s goal is to capture Rick, dead or, preferably, alive. McIntyre will augment Hodgson’s attempt as he is not really a gunslinger but just a puny hat maker. Hodgson gets a +5 augment to his die roll in this contest. The GM wants to see if there are any consequences for McIntyre being part of the intensive chase. They roll dice and McIntyre gets a result of rank 2 defeat. Ouch, that is bad. On the other hand, the overall outcome of the chase is a rank 3 victory! They narrate the chase so that Hodgson and McIntyre split and McIntyre manages to spot Rick. He notifies Hodgson just before Rick hits him in the left leg with a shovel. Luckily Hodgson stops and detains Rick before anything worse happens. McIntyre will suffer a -10 penalty for some time.