The Care of New Gamers – III – A Contenders Review

I’ve run one game more than any other for people who are completely new to roleplaying:
Contenders.

This is Joe Prince’s improbably playable game of people for whom boxing is a way out.

Now, I have no interest in boxing (apart from Amir Khan in the Olympics a few years back) and I don’t think I’ve seen any of the usual movies – Raging Bull, Rocky, or even The Quiet Man. (How have I missed all those?). Unlike almost any other game on my shelf, I don’t also have a pile of complementary source material.

It’s also a disarmingly simple game. It’s short, it’s scrappy, and the art is minimal.

Despite or because of this, Contenders has been wildly successful for me. Along with one-offs at cons and introductions for newbies, I’ve played this game in two short ‘campaigns’ of a few weeks apiece. It gives and gives. Why? Here’s three reasons.

It takes geeks out of their comfort zone. You’re boxers, it’s the real world, there’s nothing goofy. There’s nothing to stop you playing bored soldiers on a hyperspace frigate, but every game I’ve played in has been grounded. This means the scenery, characterisation and plotlines feel really natural.

The group builds a setting. There’s nothing required but pure setting, so there’s no stumbling over how to allocate genre dice or thematic traits. All you need is someplace where fighting is a way out. Among others, I’ve played in 1980s New Jersey – This Must Be The Place. A docked aircraft carrier in the Pacific during a lull in WWII – fights in the boiler room, and sweatily crashing through chicken wire and grass huts on the island nearby. 1950s Dublin, with working class grime and a defiant priest. And a 1960s Siberian village packed with dissidents and samizdat. Contenders has allowed me to play in places I wouldn’t ordinarily be able to.

When you’re unsure what to do next, the system makes suggestions. My Cash is low, so I need to bump that up, but I’m not ready to fight for a purse… so let’s have a Work scene. I’ve got plenty of readies but don’t want a lot of characterisation, so let’s put that into a Training scene – low investment, just passes the time while I consider what to do next. Want to cew the scenery? Fetch me a Connection. What are my options? They’re all listed. For newbies, this is hugely helpful.

There are a few constraints on narration that push play in unexpected ways, so the table doesn’t get bored by the obvious or inevitable. For example, as you flip cards, Jokers require you to throw in positive or negative references to previous scenes. Sure, there’s a natural tendency to want to dovetail storylines, but making it a constraint is a challenge. This was the first time I learned about the importance of reincorporation.

As a house rule, I like to encourage whoever draws the high card to narrate the results of a scene. This runs normally in Fight scenes, but adding this to Work or Connection scenes is an interesting wrinkle. What tends to happen is the table is a little more engaged than usual as no-one knows who’ll have the last laugh.

The only thing that doesn’t work well in a short game is there’s no reason not to wallow in Pain. There’s plenty of short-term advantages and you’re not so attached to the character that you feel a lot of empathy for their downfall. Typically, one or two players at the table spot high Pain as a technique worth trying.

The use of cards over dice (novelty value at least), the pared down character sheet and focus on relationships, and the simple, zen challenge of being dragged into a scene as some character’s harridan or hero are terrific too.

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