Games Within Games — Skill Challenges and Minigames in D&D

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We’ve been talking a lot about tools in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons around the Nerdarchy HQ lately. The topic was the focus for a recent weekly live chat and newsletter, and came up again during a later live chat too. One set of D&D tools in particular — the gaming set — inspired our upcoming monthly Patreon rewards too. Rolling Bones is all about games within the games of our D&D campaign settings and adventure worlds. Our talk and writing about tools and gaming sets got me thinking about minigames in D&D in different ways. So let’s get into it.

D&D tools minigames in D&D
Click the image to check out our Patreon. Rolling Bones is our October rewards, all about games within games and minigames. Supporters at this level can access our monthly rewards dating back to December 2017! [Art by Nelson Vieira]

Minigames in D&D

We had a lot of fun creating a collection of games for characters — and players — to play at the table during a session of D&D. Some of them call for various skill checks, and others are actual minigames the players themselves can engage in using dice. Of course, any sort competitive game like chess or Three-Dragon Ante can be resolved by making a check with characters’ gaming set proficiency. In Rolling Bones we’ve even got a magical weapon for in-game gamers.

This got me thinking about what else we can do with other D&D tools to incentivize players to explore their characters’ tool proficiencies. I keep circling back around to Final Fantasy XIV, a massively multiplayer online game. In the game, characters take on the roles you’d expect in a science fantasy setting like warriors and wizards. The Jobs are divided into four categories: Disciples of War, Magic, the Hand and the Land. The first two are were your character’s combat abilities come from, and switching Jobs is as easy as switching weapons. Equip a gladius and you’re a gladiator. Swap out for a scepter and you’re a thaumaturge. Where it gets interested in the noncombat Jobs. Equip a chaser hammer and you’re a goldsmith, with your hotbar of abilities reflecting the skills needed to craft items out of precious metal. Switch to a hatchet and now you’re a botanist.

All of the noncombat Jobs have their own quest lines and challenges, and while pursuing them there’s times you’ll certainly put your crafting tools away and draw your sword. There’s a lot of rare materials out there, and sometimes you’ve got to fight through hordes of monsters to reach them. Players could definitely take a lot of inspiration for FFXIV for their D&D games. I’m already imagining a campaign following a group of crafty adventurers as they explore the land seeking rare materials, going to meetups for their professions and learning secret techniques to help master their crafts.

Making minigames in D&D out of any of these activities could be a lot of fun. It’s worth noting, as both a DM and a player I love rolling dice. Don’t get me wrong, narrative storytelling is awesome and I’m not advocating replacing collaborative weaving of tales with a bunch of dice rolls. But rolling dice certainly informs whatever story emerges around the table. By spending some time focusing on the party’s noncombat skills and tool proficiencies, you can hopefully increase verisimilitude. Our D&D worlds are dangerous, sure, but not 100% perilous.

Skill challenge minigames in D&D

Here’s a few minigames in D&D you can try during your games. I recommend using these like skill challenges. Predetermine how many successes the party must acquire before accumulating three failures. Often in skill challenges, a character can only make one skill check per skill. In other words, a character who makes a Wisdom (Survival) check cannot do so again in the same skill challenge, but a different character can. For these, I suggest allowing the same character to make additional checks for the same proficiency, but increasing the DC each time for that character. Relying on a single character to come through with the same skill over and over puts the pressure on! For each of these minigames, there’s a list of associated proficiencies. But players can attempt to use other proficiencies, provided they explain to the DM how they intend to use it and let the DM decide if they can or not.

  • Culinary Competition. Alchemist’s supplies, brewer’s supplies, cook’s utensils, herbalism kit, Animal Handling, Medicine, Nature, Performance, Survival. Characters are tasked with creating a delicious dish. They have to gather their own ingredients within a certain time limit, prepare the dish before an audience then present it to judges.
  • Master Builders. Carpenter’s tools, glassblower’s tools, mason’s tools, painter’s supplies, smith’s tools, tinker’s tools, vehicles (land or water), Athletics, History, Perception, Sleight of Hand. Characters work together to build something. Maybe it’s like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and the party only has 2 days to build a new house for a family in need of some help. Or there’s a soapbox derby and a child the party is familiar with from earlier adventurers has no one to help them build a vehicle for them to participate. For whatever reason, the group is building something out of wood, glass, stone or metal. They’ve got to haul heavy stuff, recall techniques of the past, watch for structural problems, perform delicate work and more.
  • Holiday Help. Calligrapher’s supplies, cobbler’s tools, leatherworker’s tools, weaver’s tools, Insight, Investigation, Religion, Stealth. Character pitch in to help those less fortunate around a gift-giving holiday. Character spend some prep time learning about those they’ll be creating gifts for, like local religious beliefs, likes and dislikes on the down low without giving away the upcoming surprise. Then they get down to the business of making clothing and presents with artistic wrapping and gift cards attached.

With these or any other minigames in D&D, certainly there’s room for roleplaying and more. Competitor NPCs might become new friends or rivals. Character backstory elements could emerge during challenges that hearken to earlier life and of course, monsters could always crash the goings-on for whatever reason. Minigames and skill challenges offer chances to use characters’ skill and tool proficiencies in new ways, which is always a huge plus in my book.

As both a player and a DM I love opportunities to engage in these sorts of activities. During one of my games not too long ago, the party discovered a gargantuan tree during their exploration of the wilderness. Inside the hollow tree, an adventure awaited, but they weren’t able to find the hidden entrance. Instead, they decided to climb the tree and made a competition out of it. We wound up with a minigame incorporating Athletics, Acrobatics, Perception and woodcarver’s tools. The party’s unorthodox approach to the challenge resulted in them making some new NPC allies, with the kenku bandits currently occupying the tree impressed with the display of climbing prowess.

Hopefully I’ve given you some ideas to inspire your own minigames in D&D, and I’d love to hear about the ones you’ve played in your groups. If you like the idea of using D&D tools and skill challenges, or adding actual games players themselves can participate in during a session, head over to our Nerdarchy Patreon and get involved. Supporters at the $2 tier will receive Rolling Bones, our October rewards, with games of chance and skill. Since we post our rewards on the Patreon page, you can access all our previous rewards too, back to December 2017!

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Nerditor-in-Chief Doug Vehovec is a proud native of Cleveland, Ohio, with D&D in his blood since the early 80s. Fast forward to today and he’s still rolling those polyhedral dice. When he’s not DMing, worldbuilding or working on endeavors for Nerdarchy he enjoys cryptozoology trips and eating awesome food.

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