Some Thoughts on Contenders
Posted by Nathan P. on August 11, 2007
I played Contenders last Wednesday at SGBoston. It’s a game about boxing drama, though it’s really a game that uses competition as the focus for asking what drives people to get what they want. I played with traveling rock star Malcolm Craig, who facilitated the game and SGBoston stalwart Eric. I had a surprisingly good time! We made a really compelling story about three boxers in 1930s Colorado, each trying to scratch a living out of the hard times and take care of the people that they loved. I’m planning to pick up a copy at Gen Con. It very much hilighted a couple of game design things that I’ve been thinking about a lot, such as….
Good Rules Take You Somewhere New
Why do we have rules for RPGs? Because they take you somewhere you wouldn’t have gone on your own. My boxer was a kid, 19, just out of school, who wanted to box and the marry his sweetheart. He was a good, honest kid in a bad town. On my own, his story would have been one of struggle against his internal demons, with a lot of interaction with his sweetheart (when should they get married? what if she’s pregnant and he doesn’t want a kid yet? what if he doesn’t have enough money to support them both?), the boxing hilighting that conflict.
I got knocked out in the first round of my first fight, and that pretty much set the tone for the rest of the game. Due to a combination of poor card draws and personal decisions about what kinds of scenes I wanted for myself, I ended up with my Pain stat skyrocketing. I never had enough money to do anything, and I ended up being beat up by pretty much everyone (other boxers, the Mob, the other gangsters, etc). By the end of the game, I tried to use my measly earnings to get my sweetheart a ring….but her father didn’t even allow me to see her, because I was such a loser. I ended the game jumping on a train and becoming a tramp.
Wow! Totally not what I had had in mind for the character when I made him, but it was a really compelling, tragic story arc that grew directly and concretely out of my engagement with the game system and my poor, poor luck drawing cards. I’ve played games where failing almost every roll (or draw, in this case) was extremely frustrating; in this game, the system is such that you always have a slim chance to overcome your past failures, and it was enough to give me hope for the next time around!
So I really admire it as a piece of tight, streamlined game design, much more than I had expected to, to be honest.
GM is a concept, not a person
I also dug the way that GM duties are apportioned out in Contenders. Basically, you choose and frame your own scenes, and you can choose to assign other players to NPC roles in your scenes if you want. But you can also narrate your own scenes entirely, draw some cards, then narrate the end. Which sounds kind of lame….but the other part is, you HAVE to interact with each other in actual boxing scenes, because someone else needs to play the other boxer, even if it’s not another players character. Also, the Brawl scenes are specifically for fighting another boxer outside the ring, so it’s another avenue. Finally, the system acts as a kind of general, overarching adversity, as your own stats determine your opposition to non-boxing conflicts. I never had the sense that we were playing seperate games in parallel (which I get with GMless games sometimes), even before we started involving each others characters in our scenes.
Anyway, I’m working on a GMless game right now, and I’m glad that I played Contenders so’s I can steal from it.
I liked Contenders a lot, and I’m excited to get it and hopefully play it some more.