New DM Handbook: In-Game Games

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New DM HandbookIt’s been a long time since I’ve talked about fully theoretical implementations. There are some things that have been based on observations, general concepts, tropes, and other literary tools, but it’s been a long time since I’ve talked about something I’ve absolutely nothing to base my ideas on. That’s what I plan on doing. I’ve set up the groundwork for my players for the future, but I haven’t had a chance to implement it.

Today, I’m going to be talking about in-game games. I can’t be sure how often they get used in most campaigns, but being that the way the game’s solution for contests is to roll ability checks against each other (PHB 174), I can’t imagine that it happens all that much. The biggest problem with this, of course, is that players that have some form of gaming set as a tool proficiency are now being penalized against the other more useful ones, which is where my solution comes in.

Considering In-Game Games

When considering what in-game games to include, there are two primary considerations: time and implementation. There are others, such as frequency of use, complexity, and viability as a social encounter. The reason why time and implementation are the most important is because you run the risk of alienating players who are not involved in the in-game game.

Considering Time

Chess gamesWhen I say time, I mean how long each game will take. A few rounds of a very short game can be a great balance for satisfaction of players who have the proficiency of the game and maintaining the attention of players not involved in the game. A hand of poker or blackjack should be a rough guide of acceptable time. The games created by Critical Role‘s Matt Mercer are another fine example. Unless you’re including it in a social encounter, there should be as few NPCs as possible. You also need to consider how many rounds of the game is acceptable, too. That’s probably going to vary from party to party, but I’d assume no more than five rounds, which is probably a stretch. Limiting it to two to three rounds is more than likely a better scenario, depending, of course, how long it takes to complete the game. A game as complicated a chess, as an example, is way too long for normal play, but would be acceptable if you include a significantly truncated version, and try to limit it to social encounters.

Considering Implementation

PokerI have a very particular style of writing, which is very analytical and logical. I always ask myself what makes sense in the world I’m building. The rules aren’t the same for every story I write, but I prefer to consider what they are before I act. I’ve extended that philosophy into my decisions as a DM. To that extent, proficiency in a game means your knowledge of it. If you don’t have proficiency in a game, you don’t know how to play the game, period. In real life, you don’t inherently know how to play games and have to learn how to play. You have to learn them. That being said, knowing one iteration of a game makes the knowledge transferable to another. Rummy has a lot of variants, but even if you don’t know the particular set of rules, a quick explanation based on common themes means you can pick it up almost immediately. However, even though the PHB says knowing one set means you gain proficiency in all games of that tool (154), that doesn’t make any sense. Knowing how to play rummy doesn’t mean you know how to play poker any more than being able to speak English means you can speak French with some minor explanation. Knowing how to play rummy also doesn’t assume you have any interest in learning how to play poker, blackjack, hearts, or spite & malice.

diceJust because you don’t have proficiency in the game doesn’t mean you can’t learn how. Dungeons & Dragons allows you to learn how to use a tool, if you can find someone to teach you how to play (PHB 187). Taking 250 days to learn how to play a game is a lot. That’s a lot to imagine for just card games, unless your world has over 100 different card games to learn. Specific games, such as Dragonchess and Three-Dragon Ante, aren’t going to take nearly as much time, unless you’re looking to become a professional player. Learning how to play a game at a proficient level should probably take closer to 10 days, 15 at the most, and require several successful skill and ability checks, whose DC would lower as time goes on. Each game would have different skill checks to learn. A poker game, as an example, would require intelligence, insight, perception, persuasion, and deception checks, where a chess game would require intelligence, investigation, history, insight, and perception, but with higher DCs. Plus, if one of your party members knows a game, they can teach it to another one, if not all of them. That way everyone has an opportunity to play the game, and it adds another layer of realism, because less intelligent players are going to have a harder time learning how to play a game than intelligent ones. Not to mention it’ll be a great bonding experience.

Using In-Game Games

Knowing when and where to use in-game games is difficult. There’s no one answer. I don’t have a great catch-all, especially since this isn’t something that I’ve ever implemented, but my thought is to think of in-game games as the social equivalent to lock picks.

Types of In-Game Games

Magic: The GatheringYour world should be populated with a wide variety of games. There should be a wide variety of them that would fit many different scenarios. When you make or choose them, consider that not all games are going to be popular among everyone. Chess is popular among Western intellectuals, where Go (otherwise known as Weiqi) is more popular in the East (although it’s starting to gain popularity in the West). Poker is very popular in America, especially among the middle class. Collectible Card Games such as Magic: The Gathering are more popular amongst the nerd community. Specific regions, countries, communities, and sub-cultures are going to be more prone to prefer certain games. This should be no different for your game. Knowing who would like what games is going to help guide your ability to set up your games to be important for social encounters.

I’ve created a few games for my players, which I plan on sharing more in-depth when I’ve done a better job of solidifying them all, but I’ll share a couple here to provide some examples of what you can do with them.

BeholderBeholder’s Eyes is a game common among the noble classes in the prime material plane. It’s a dice game where each player starts out with three 20-sided dice each. They both roll all three of their dice in secret, and position each of them against each other, so each dice is opposing an opponents’ dice in Position 1-3 in secret. From there the players bet on the dice they lay down, taking turns increasing bets on the positions. Once the bets have been resolved, both players reveal all of their dice and the higher roll in each position takes that position’s pot. This leave an opening for deception, because a player may choose to bet a little higher on a low roll to try to take the pots with the other two, thus coming out on top overall. Since there’s no folding, a player may choose to just forgo betting on that round to not waste money, or they can take the opportunity to create uncertainty in future rounds. Secondary to betting, if a player rolls a natural 20, they take the dice of the opposing player in that position after the round has been resolved, and if they roll a natural 1, they give that dice to the opposing player after the round has been resolved. The noble class took to this game because it was a way they could take prized possessions from each other in a way that wasn’t a declaration of conflict, which came about because the nobles were using their dice as a way to show off their opulent wealth. What better way to show how much better you are than the opponent than to be willing to put up dice that are worth thousands of gold? Players who wish to use Beholder’s Eyes for social encounters need to have a set of dice that are commensurate for the level of nobility for which they are playing, because the dice are a status symbol and show how much you can afford to take or lose.

RiverRiver’s Run works pretty much like Texas Hold’em except with 12-sided dice. Each player is given two dice to roll in secret. From there, the betting works very similarly. The Head is the initial phase of play, when players roll their dice and make blind bets. The Channel is where the first three dice are rolled in the River (or community pile), similar to Hold’em’s Flop. The next phase is the Bend (the Turn), where the dealer rolls one dice to add to the River, followed by the Bed (or the River in Hold’em), which is the last dice to be rolled. At each turn, the players make their bets until all but one folds or the game is resolved, and all remaining players reveal their dice to determine the winner. Since there are no suits, the ranking is based on numbers of a kind and straights, but the other major difference is that since there’s no minimum or maximum of any given number, anyone and everyone could have the same sets of numbers. River’s Run is popular among criminals, pirates, sailors, law enforcement, bounty hunters, and anyone else who deals with them directly since deception and insight are a very large part of the game.

When to Use In-Game Games

GameAs I said before, I believe that in-game games are best used as a social lubricant for social encounters, especially as a means of gaining access to areas. You don’t need to, of course. Players can just as easily use it for their own interpersonal social encounters, or they can use it like they would a bar crawl. They can also use it to make money, the way that others would use their skills to have a profession in their down time (PHB 187), whether that down time is a night, a week, or a month. However, if they’re going to play for more than a few rounds, that’s where you would have them roll a few dice adding their proficiency checks against a DC that’s dependent on what level of players they’re going against, and average it to determine how much money they make or lose.

I hope some of these ideas help trigger some inspiration to you (sorry, I’m still a low-level DM, so I can only offer a d6 of Inspiration) for your own games. Stay Nerdy.

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Follow Joshua Brickley:
Despite looking so young, I'm in my mid-30s (36, to be exact). Up until I was 21, I focused a lot of my attention on stage acting, mostly local and school theater. At some point, I felt a need to change my life's direction, so I joined the Air Force. After 10 years, where I was an Intelligence Analyst and Mission Coordinator, I was medically retired. I went back to school and got my Bachelor's in English, focusing mostly on literary theory and rhetorical criticism, at the University of the Incarnate Word. In this next chapter of my life, I'm turning my attention towards tabletop RPGs.

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