How can I make a tournament/olympic games interesting AND realistic in an RPG?

I’m running a published adventure (Children of Lilith for Tribe 8) and we’ve reached the second time where it says something along the lines of: And now it is time for the inter-tribal Olympic Games.

So basically there is going to be a whole bunch of tournaments, contests, races etc etc. Lots of wrestling, archery, jousting and various other sports of a fighty-shooty nature. The players want their characters to take part. The book offers no advice on how to run this!

I’ve encountered this lack of guidance before on how to do the game mechanic in scenarios where there are contests and competitions, even if they are non-fighting ones like rally races or Bake Off.

My issue is based on the fact that there are supposed to be dozens or hundreds of other competitors. Maybe thousands, if the players want to enter the RPG equivalent of the London Marathon. And the other entrants are supposed to include talented and experienced contestants. The Grand National doesn’t have kids on seaside donkeys, it has professional jockeys on racehorses.

So if the players enter their racehorses into the Grand National, how do I run it, from a game mechanic perspective?

In games in the past I’ve done it in a minimalist way, but this feels very unsatisfactory, misses out the 40 NPC horses in the race, and means a player will always get the gold medal/racing cup in any sporting event in an RPG:
GM: Roll your Horse Racing skill
Player 1: I succeed by 10%
Player 2: I succeed by 14%.
GM: congratulations Player 2, you have won the Grand National.

Or I could roll individually for the other 40 horses… No, wait. I couldn’t. That would be dull beyond belief.

Or I could get the players to roll for stages of the race: first 5 fences, second 5 fences, etc. But that:

  1. Mucks with the probabilities, and - depending on what skill levels look like in any given system - can guarantee the players will always fail. A 90% Riding skill is a 53% chance of making it thru 6 stages of a race. A 75% Riding skill is 18% and a 50% Riding skill is under 2%.

  2. Annoys the fek out of me as a player when GMs do it in non-sporting context… like you have to make 5 navigation rolls in a row to get your spaceship from Earth to Alpha Centauri.

  3. Still doesn’t take into consideration the NPC contestants, except that they get to ‘cheat’ by not rolling dice! :slight_smile:

Or I can invent some sort of accumulator? There are 40 horses. The number of successes you get determines your placement in the race. That obviously works better in systems like World of Darkness, where you have a dice pool which can generate several successes per throw.

Anyone thought of a decent way to tackle this problem? Or seen one in an RPG?

The PCs want to take part in archery contests, knife throwing, wrestling matches, fencing matches, possibly some races and possibly weight lifting.

1 Like

Typical RPG combat does it in effect with multiple stages, but a skill roll failure needn’t be a failure; it just means that you didn’t do as well as the other guy who made their roll better. I think for a single big race that everyone’s competing in this is the way to make it interesting – also, give the players some kind of lever to pull, maybe “am I going to take this stage fast to get a better position or slow to save endurance”.

One might look at a hierarchical system too: the horse’s trainer makes a roll to get the horse in peak fitness for the day and that quality feeds into a bonus on the rider’s roll.

For sub-contests that don’t directly involve the PCs (e.g. “whom am I going to face in round 2”) something a bit simpler that just tells you the winner is fine IMO. Unless (next point)…

I’d also want to encourage the PCs to study their potential opposition, evaluate their form and tactics and so on, again with the promise of bonuses in the actual contest.

I’ve been mulling the “things that aren’t investigation or combat” idea quite a bit recently as I’ve just read The Long Way Home (Pan Am Clipper and crew marooned in Auckland by the attack on Pearl Harbor, went westbound back to the USA). There’s lots of exciting stuff there but in RPG terms it would be too easy to make it “roll Piloting, roll Mechanic” because there’s no fighting involved. (I would say “no human opposition” but one overriding goal is to keep the plane out of the hands of the Japanese; but they never actually meet Japanese forces.)

1 Like

One that comes to mind is from an Archery contest from one of the adventure books for the One Ring RPG. The mechanics system for that game is based on hitting a target number (TN), with players having a dice pool including a d12 and a number of d6 according to the level of skill being tested.

For the archery contest, there were three rounds at increasing TN (14, 18, 20). In each round, two rolls were made. The first was an Awareness roll to represent assessing and evaluating the conditions properly. Succes in this roll granted an extra success dice (ie d6) on the second test, which was Archery, to see if they hit the target.

For the last round, after the TN20 evaluation test, the final shot was resolved as an opposed test against an NPC.

So basically a bit of incremental difficulty to represent challenge increasing each round, a pair of skills under consideration to represent the guaging of the challenge, and a final match up with an NPC.

1 Like

Well, let’s take your example of a race event with forty contenders other than the PCs. It appears that you have the NPCs rolling percentile dice. Every interval on that scale is equally probable. So if you have 40 contenders, you can expect that one of the 40 will roll in the interval from 1 to 2.5, and one will roll in the interval from 2.5 to 5. It’s a fair guess, then, that the best roll will be an 02. Compare that with the average skill of the NPCs, and you have the typical margin of success. If the PCs do better than that margin of success, then they’ve won; if not, not. If, for example, the average skill of the racers is 45, the best racer’s margin of success will be 43; the PCs need to have a better margin than 43 to win.

This is an oversimplification in a couple of ways: it ignores the possibility that different NPCs will have different skill levels (if one NPC has skill 95, their margin of success will be way high), and it ignores the virtual certainty that any one race will have patterns that don’t distribute the NPC scores evenly across the range—you might have three NPCs in the range from 1 to 2.5, or none. But it gives you a quick and dirty estimate.

Another thing you could do is figure not only the average skill of the NPCs, but the skill of the single best NPC. Compare this with the expected roll of 50.5, to get a margin of success. If the best NPC has skill 90, their margin of success is 39.5; if the best of the PCs has skill 35, they can’t possibly beat that margin, so they won’t win. On the other hand, if the best of the PCs has skill 80, they’ve got a 50% chance of doing better than a margin of success of 39.5 and winning.

You can do this for a single event, or you can divide an event up into heats with a smaller number of racers in each heat, and with PCs surviving as long as they keep winning.

1 Like

Is this something you want to eliminate from your game? Are you looking for odds where the NPC collective is as likely to win as any particular PC or where the NPC collective is much more likely to win? Do any of the characters have a specialization affecting this, like one of them is Polydeuces and it should be a surprise if some NPC from the sticks makes a showing against them?

1 Like

I would think that should depend on the skill level of the PCs as compared with the skill levels of average NPCs. Of course that can itself be adjusted to fit your narrative premise, either by having the NPCs be better or worse, or when the campaign starts, by letting the PCs take higher or lower abilities.

1 Like

As a thought, with no prior experience or reference to say if this would work but…

Could you have PC’s essentially invest in different types of training rather than roll during the event, so using your example of horse racing, practice jumps, practice wet conditions, dry conditions, etc.

Give them an allotted budget of time they can train in these areas and have them roll (you could offset this with player ability) for their skill in these areas multiplied by the time they spend in them (I will spend 5 of my 10 hours training in wet conditions, times my roll of 3 gives me a skill of 15 in the wet, 1 hour spying on the competitors to get some info on competitors performance, I.e. 30% of the field are practicing heavily in jumping so have over 20 skill in jumping, you could also spend an hour spying on the course or judges, etc…

I would RNG the field in a spreadsheet which can be shared at the race. For the event itself you could roll for the weather and the course (5 jumps, 3 moisture) multiply the skill by the condition To get a final score, so a jump heavy course where you practiced heavily on jumps would benefit you,

The goal being they can practice what they want to train in and gamble time vs knowledge of conditions/competitors to allow them to spend slightly less on training. Ultimately the race is determined based on training, if it’s multiple events and one competitor you could have them invest across multiple areas with some key terms(cardio, upper body, lower body certain activities may benefit from one type over the other) . Also in the event of any draws between PC’s and NPC’s they can then be settled by a final round of rolls between a significantly reduced field.

Sorry if this is tosh but the question appealed to my curiosity.

1 Like

I want to eliminate the unrealistic bit of them winning everything, all the time, which some game systems/PC skill levels have led to.

Otherwise I get situations like this:
PC’s mother: What did you do this week, dear?

Player of PC replies:
Well, on Monday I entered the Great British Bake Off… and won. Because I have oodles of Craft skill and apparently you can default Baking off Blacksmithing in this system.
Then on Tuesday I entered the London Marathon… and won. Because I have a high Stamina and made the roll by oodles.
Then on Wednesday I entered the World Poker Championships… and won. Because I have an average gambling skill, but a lot of story points to spend.
Then on Thursday I entered the Grand National… and won. Because I have 90% in Riding skill.
Then on Friday I entered Strictly Come Dancing… and won. Because I spent a willpower point to get a re-roll.

The above mixes and matches various game systems, for humorous effect. But I have run games in the past where the PCs collectively won every gold medal and prize going because the game system did not support the idea that a bunch of average PCs should probably have average placement on the winner boards…


So I would be most likely to do this in GURPS, and where I’d start is by defining a typical level of skill for a competitor at whatever level the thing is. Broadly GURPS says that normal people are about level 8-13 (skills used to earn a living being at the higher end of that); 14-19 is “experts” who are regularly doing the thing with penalties (because a 17-18 on 3d6 is always a failure, getting your skill over 14 doesn’t change your basic odds of success much, but it makes it possible to soak penalties), 20-25 is “masters”. So a world-class contender is somewhere in that last bracket. Usually in my experience adventurers aren’t that specialised; they need to know Driving and Guns and Stealth and First Aid and so on at useful levels, while this particular sport just runs off (say) Driving.

If it’s a combat sport, you can point out that there’s the X Sport skill which is relevant to the way they do things in the ring as opposed to the way they do things to hurt people. That’s effectively a -3 for the adventurer who’s going to find it hard to avoid going for the eye gouge or groin kick. While the rules don’t explicitly support it, I think one could make a case for similar equivalents in other fields – (insert name of famous racing driver) has Driving Sport, not Driving, so you might be able to catch them on the road but not on the track. And of course many sports are covered by a relevant Sports skill which the PC probably doesn’t have at all.

There’s also the relevant Games skill to know the actual rules; I’d definitely allow that as a complementary skill to come up with a “well, technically this isn’t against the rules” ploy that would give a bonus to the main sporting skill roll.

At that point I have a bunch of effective skill levels, and I probably use a spreadsheet or write a program to generate a series of rolls against those levels. As I said before, I probably split even a single event into multiple stages, and let PCs define a bonus/penalty on one roll which will feed in some way into the next. Then I compare the PC’s roll with the others and get some idea of how things are going for them.

1 Like