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One classic trope of shonen anime is the tournament arc. Characters get to show off their individual skills and personalities, you get the opportunity to introduce and spotlight lots of interesting antagonists, its just a lot of fun. I would love to capture the spirit of an anime tournament in a TTRPG, but I'm not quite sure how to do it. The main problem I see is that players will have to "wait their turn" to fight (even more so than normal combat systems). If one player is doing a battle on their own, I don't want the other players to zone out.

Some possible solutions - allow the other characters to assist the character doing the fighting (by cheering them on, giving them strategy tips, etc). I could bake this into the system, giving bystanders certain options to influence the fight.

Another option is to make every tournament round a group round - your party is a team of fighters going against other teams. This sometimes happens in anime (My Hero Academia has several examples of this), but it would be more work on the GM side to come up with several teams of enemies to fight (assuming you want the enemies to be interesting, and more than just fodder).

Finally, you could just make the individual fights short and exciting enough to hold the players attention. Waiting for your turn in a regular combat can take a while anyways, and individual fights should go faster if there are only 2 combatants. Maybe if you can just make the fights interesting enough to keep the other players engaged it's not a problem?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Would you consider running separate game sessions for each player, or are you committed to having every player present at the fights of the other players? \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Apr 16, 2023 at 6:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ Most rule systems allow great tactical moves with group vs group. One on one, though? Roll-hit. Roll-miss. Roll-big hit. Repeat until one falls unconscious. The end. Dull, dull, dull. We've found a way to generate fun is a creative arena. The duellists have to leap-dodge-avoid the obstacle course as much as each other. Another route to player engagement are High Stakes. Simple wagers of money are only viable when most or all of their money is riding on the outcome. The losers face major embarrassment. Or, the duel is the "easy" way to get a major plot clue. Lose, and moving forward is harder. \$\endgroup\$
    – Blaze
    Apr 17, 2023 at 16:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ Is there a particular RPG system/edition you're playing? Some systems may have mechanics that are more specifically applicable (or better suited) to this situation than others. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    May 8, 2023 at 17:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ Run multiple fights, simultaneously. Use normal initiative rules to cut between the action happening in multiple arenas. Bonus option: Make those multiple arenas close enough to each other/linked to each other, such that things like spell effects might splash over between battlefields. \$\endgroup\$ May 8, 2023 at 18:23

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This is just a specific case of the split party problem

See:

In short, the secret is to share the spotlight time equitably (not equally). This means that everyone needs to be doing something and you need to cut between them. The best way to do this is to cut away at a moment of high tension, or, alternatively, at a moment when the player could use some thinking time. There are literally dozens or hundreds of ways to do this.

For example, you can run your tournament as a three or four ring circus - everyone is in a one-on-one contest. You could just run it as a single combat with the same initiative or with different initiatives and cut between PCs at different moments. Once your opponent is down you might be able to help your friends. Or not.

Or you could have one player fighting and the others running a book on them, or influencing the referees or whatever you can think of.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1, Definitely think it would help to include betting on the fight, or perhaps having NPCs who want to help the antagonist cheat that the other PCs need to outwit \$\endgroup\$
    – RSid
    Apr 30, 2023 at 16:54
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Make it short and interesting

Combats get old fast when they are drawn out and don't have some interesting extra. This gets worse if one player perticipates and the others don't. So you need to make sure, even more so than otherwise that the combats are fast and have something unsual. No bag of hit points in a nondescript arena.

Example

What I did wasn't really a tournament more of an exam but it had a similar pitfall as your idea and my players remember it very fondly. There were six or eight challenges which each character had to pass (I don't remember them all or the exact number but I think it was eight because it was a wizard tournament and the challenges were tied to the schools of magic). One challenge was a fight, where they had to present undead creatures to fight against other undead creatures. The players who couldn't make their own undead (we had a Monk, Wizard, Rogue, and Druid) could buy different quality ones from NPCs, they could buff them and so on. This was unsual because the PCs didn't really participate in the combat themselves. Another challenge was a crystal sphere which had to be destroyed as fast as possible. This is also like a combat but not a usual one. Other challenges included an imitation contest and a race against a fast ocelot. Here players could showcase different approaches again. The druid used Wild shape, the Monk teleported, the Wizard used Wall of Fire to frighten the cat from passing and the Rogue put a sack over the cat.

In conclusion, if only one player participates in a challenge, make it quick, make it fun, make it unusual. Combats easily get long or samey so you have to pay double attention with those.

Also: you should rotate. In my case all the players did the ocelot challenge one after the other, then they went to a different challenge. In some cases, a player had no idea how to solve a specific challenge, skipped it and came back later. But it wasn't like one player did the entire gauntlet then the next. You should have one player do one fight then have the next player have one and so on.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the headline. Players are generally fine with spectating for a moment while someone else has the spotlight — after all, that always happens to some extent in any game with turn-based mechanics. The problems only arise when a player is kept out of the spotlight for so long that they start getting bored. And the two main ways to stave off boredom are 1) keep it short and 2) keep it interesting. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 15, 2023 at 11:24
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Know that tournament is what the players want needs to go first

Currently, my group is having winter court adventure. One of the highlights is the Bowman's Wager, a tournament that is in the universe giving the participants huge prestige by just taking part and the winners get prices that are quite extreme. Now, when the tournament started three players were present, all of them very invested in their characters and the world.

But if the players are not invested in the idea of a tournament: just go on, do something different.

Getting spots should be fun too

Just showing up for the tournament should not qualify in itself. There are countless of chances to make even enrollment fun for the players, and that allows a lot of participation of those that do not take part in the actual tournament. After all, a Dragoon wouldn't want to take part in a bowman's tournament, and a bowman that can't even ride has no chance to win in a classic bout of lancing.

To be in the Bowman's Wager, the characters need an invitation for one of the 25 sponsors - which in our case gave the characters that wanted to participate a means to intrigue for. Since one doesn't have archery as a skill and didn't even compete to get a placement in the tournament, this left two that pushed for their own sponsorships. The player not participating helped with checking up on some of the things to get the intrigues going and in general, it was a lot of social play to get two sponsors and also find out who was the competition before the actual tournament started - just to gauge how well they might compete. Of the NPCs, about 6-7 are quite well known to the characters, like, long-standing relations or very favorite NPCs because of quirks. So the whole round has an interest in their success or loss.

Taking part in the tournament should not be just a combat simulation

Combat simulation can be quite boring if some people can't take part. There's little excitement in just waiting for your turn to slog through the combat. Instead, consider a game for points - that is how the Bowman's Wager works and which worked well for us:

The first two rounds allow participants to score up to 10 points. Now, such a task accomplishing is handled as skill checks on the Kyujutsu skill with varying TNs in . Round 1 is simple, everybody rolled against the same TN and to cut down the number of rolls, each roll accounted for two points. In Round 2, the TN increased with each of the 5 targets hit, and the participant would score based on hits and unused arrows once all targets are hit.

The point is, that classic combat takes dozens of rolls for an outcome of "This one is eliminated" and stretches a long time without the players that don't have their turn doing something. Simplifying combat or using duel mechanics cuts down waiting time and boredom from it. By making the rolls for short, quantifiable goals that score on the board can make every single roll of a player an exciting thing: Is the archer scoring a 10 or a 9?

The scoreboard could be exciting in itself

After the players did their rolls scoring the points, the GM slowly filled in the participation roster at the center of the table with the scores of the others after rolling them. Comparing and finding out who came through fell to the players. We also figured out that we would need a tiebreaker between a number of NPCs that scored evenly to get the number of participants correct. While the numbers were filled in, there was anticipating tension around the table about which character would go on or drop out, and if a score would suffice for the next round. This was compounded by the fact that the players have their favorite NPCs they want to see succeed, and others they want to see fail. It felt like a betting parlor.

Don't exclude players not taking part

Now, tournaments eliminate players, some didn't even take part. So as a GM you should think about how to include those too.

In between the first two rounds, there was spotlight on the non-participating character, as he was tasked to write a report on the tournament. When the 2nd round eliminated it down to one player still in the race, we inserted a little filler to get everyone back together. In our case, it was a party with those others eliminated hosted by our favorite archer - the player still in the tournament.

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Let me tell you about an old book called Deities & Demigods...

actually, let's spare you the trip down memory land and just cut to the chase: have your players play the antagonists! Let them take the NPCs for a spin! Hopefully you've got enough rules-competent players that you can get two battles going at once, they can largely adjudicate themselves, a couple of other players can cheer on, and you can ping-pong back and forth, clarifying questions and settling disputes.

It worked when we were battling Greek-vs.-Norse gods in the 80s, it's worked in various AL modules through the years, and I think it's worth giving a try.

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I had similar situations in my games, as a DM, and down below one may find how I ran them at our table.

The first two strategies were very good, whilst the third is a suitable one only when the length of each encounter is a priori known to be short.

Split party

Several sessions ago I managed to split the party due to plot reasons, and I designed three different encounters that happened at the same time in three different locations.

Since we are playing on a VTT, I created a map with the distant three locations. The initiative order was shared among the locations, as it was one big encounter (as suggested in Dale M's answer): the table was happy with this management. I took this decision mainly to have just one initiative counter instead of three.

This could be adapted in the tournament situation, in case the encounters do not interfere with each other (for example, at the beginning of the tournament, or when defeating an opponent does not induce some events in the subsequent encounters). Even there is only one arena, the DM could run the different encounters together IRL but in game time they are happening at different times.

The party is helping the current combatant

One year ago one of the party member completed their story arc and they had to defeat a component of their royal family in a trial-by-combat.

The rest of the party was in the audience and I let them influence1 the fight: one of them used Thaumaturgy for making "booming" the hits of their companion, another one used Performance checks to lead the crowd in offensive choirs against the enemy, the arcane caster used Minor Illusion to add effects to the combat. All these interactions led to mechanical consequences, such advantage on attack rolls of the party member or disadvantage on attack rolls of the enemy.

It resulted in an epic fight with also beautiful role play from all the players.

This could be easily adapted to the tournament situation, provided that the tournament rules allow this kind of interaction (for example, the arena and what is inside of it cannot be targeted by spells).

Tournament edition

The party had to convince the leaders of a secret local organization to be worthy of joining, and one of the tests was one-on-one fight in a small arena (a 20 ft. radius circle). I designed the encounters to be quite easy/medium.

I run separately each fight: the party had 5 components at the time, hence there were 5 separate fights. In this kind of fights there are not so much strategy to be done: hit the enemy with your best shot without needing coordinate with your mates, so the players were quick in deciding the next move. Each fight took max 3 rounds: this was designed, but if one wants to have more epic encounters this way may lead to boredom the table, since the majority of the players have to wait their turn.


1 In this part of the answer I refer to spells and abilities from Dungeons and Dragons - 5th edition, but I think that the idea beyond can be adapted to other rpgs.

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The Tournament Arc is lazy storytelling.

It's basically a "holding pattern" while the writer is thinking about how to actually develop the story. It's filler, and generally includes a boatload of no-name NPCs we never see again, just to add fights in the brackets to create the actual showdown desired.

Let's take a shounen modern classic, the Chunin Exams from Naruto. The tournament is divided into two parts, first the "preliminaries" at the end of the second stage, then the second part is the third stage.

In the first part, ten fights are held to narrow the field - one results in a double knockout, and the winner of one is randomly killed off by a supposed ally before the next part, leaving us with an even eight contestants where we should have had ten.

Of the fights that "actually mattered" in the first part:

  • Two are against Kabutos teammates, who are introduced here, defeated, and never seen again in the manga.
  • Two are against members of the Sound team, who we have seen once before and will never see again, and they are summarily defeated.
  • Three showcase the antagonists for the second part, Neji, Temari and Gaara, by letting them stomp people introduced and shown to be kind, caring and hardworking earlier in the Exams.
  • One is a bad fart joke preventing the protagonist from showing off any actual skill.

This whole part could have been avoided by letting Neji, Temari and Gaara show off their bad-assery in some other way. The only arguable character development happening is in the Ino vs Sakura fight, but since both characters are generally neglected during the rest of the manga, the point is moot.

In the second part, we get to see Naruto show off his doggedness, Shikamaru showing off his tactical acumen and then the actual story starts, since the tournament never was anything but filler.

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    \$\begingroup\$ While I really enjoy this answer for breaking apart the narrative idea, as a challenge to the answer I have to ask "but is that the question"? The question isn't "what are the benefits of a tournament in TTRPGs?" It's "How to best implement it for the table?" \$\endgroup\$ Apr 15, 2023 at 2:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ @GuidingOlive The Tournament Arc is best implemented by excluding it. Figure out what storytelling elements you planned for in it, then lift them out of it. Distill your story elements into liquid win, then serve it to your players undiluted. \$\endgroup\$
    – From
    Apr 15, 2023 at 3:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ I respectfully but vehemently disagree. Tournament arcs can be done well. In a TTRPG, a tournament arc can meaningfully advance the story and give the players a rare opportunity for one-v-one fighting which can be inherently fun. In more straightforward fiction, there are definitely tournament arcs where the story is advanced in ways that would be hard without it. Chivalry of a Failed Knight provides an excellent example since you seem to like anime and much of Split Infinity is about a tournament that advances the plot of the entire series if you prefer a book. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 16, 2023 at 2:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ What I'm getting from that analysis is "don't show unimportant matches". Typically an NPC vs. NPC match is either off-camera (the players didn't even watch it) or is a couple of quick rolls. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 17, 2023 at 0:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ @OwenReynolds That should certainly be a step to take, if you include a Tournament Arc. What I was going for, however, was that the actual plot and character development in the example was mostly "these three new characters are threats", "these two good guys are really clever and really stubborn, respectively" and a fart joke. There are more concise and interesting ways to create that development than holding a tournament, is my point, ones which may keep all characters in play. \$\endgroup\$
    – From
    Apr 17, 2023 at 12:10

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