Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Pre-Campaign Prep: Boardgames, not bored gamers

A Dungeon Master prepares
Carrying on the idea I started up in my first Pre-Campaign Prep article, I want to explore the idea of using different systems to create challenge in D&D, without really using D&D rules.

To paraphrase the idea from the previous article, a boardgame is the simplest way to see how a particular set of rules translates into a player experience. When you can relate that experience to a different kind of real-world situation, you have the potential to use an existing ruleset to create choice and tension within the game.

Many board games have themes, which informs their design choices. In Monopoly, you can buy and sell property because it's a game about Real Estate. In Chess, you capture pieces because it is a war game. And in D&D, you get a massive combat system because the game is about fighting against monsters and evil creatures.

But when you aren't fighting a foe that is about equal to the power level of the party, the combat system of D&D tends to fall apart. That's why we can use other games to create systems that replicate non-fighting decisions, or situations where the fighting would be unfairly easy or difficult.

How to Use This Guide
Want to play a game?
Now, I'm not suggesting that you should whip out the Monopoly board in your D&D session. Your players came here to play D&D. Pulling out a different game breaks an implied contract for your session.

But remember, rules create a play experience. You don't have to use all of the rules of another game, but taking some of them and repurposing the rules to mesh with D&D rules can give you that play experience without changing the game.

Here are some ways to meld the game rules of another game into D&D:
  • If the game has a random element (dice, card draws, etc) replace it with a d20 roll on a preset table
  • If players have life totals, stats, or resources, replace them with D&D numbers: HP, skills, gold, etc.
  • If the game uses a game board, either convert it to 5 inch squares, hexes, or find a way to remove the elements of the rules that require a board
  • If the game requires turns or rounds, decide if it is compatible with initiative
Obviously, this will change based on the situation and the game. But with those guidelines in mind, let's explore the type of player experience given by different types of games.

War Games

Talk about uneven distribution of craftsmanship
These types of games are the oldest in the book. They are used to simulate war as a method of expressing tactics without losing lives, which in medieval times was a great opportunity. Nowadays, these games aren't as directly applicable as they once were, but can still be used to create a situation where two armies fight for control of an area.
  • Chess: two equal sized armies, units of unequal power and importance, no change in power of different areas, emphasis on planning and threat
  • Battleship: two equal sized armies, working with limited information, reducing options based on known information
  • Stratego: two equal sized armies, units of unequal power and importance, no change in power of different areas, working with limited information, emphasis on discovery and tracking losses
  • Risk: multiple armies of different sizes, units of approximately equal power, areas of unequal power and importance, heavy emphasis on positioning
  • Warhammer: two or more armies of approximately equal power, units of unequal power, focus on strategic positioning and utilizing unit abilities
D&D itself was once a War Game, so these rules are the easiest to implement into a game. NPC units can easily become chess pieces, a war in fog or darkness can borrow ideas from battleship, or a large-scale fight can take ideas from Risk and Warhammer.

Resource Gathering Games

I swear to Pharoh if you lay down another road this friendship is over
This is a relatively newer form of game, within the last century or so. The goal is not to defeat your opponent by removing their resources, but by having more resources (usually victory points) than them. This can lead to a lot of interesting situations that create new player experiences.
  • Monopoly: use a given resource (money) to leverage areas of the board (properties) against your opponents
  • Settlers of Catan: use a random resource (goods) to leverage areas of the board (hexes) against your opponents
  • 7 Wonders/Dominion: gather resources, the choice of which denies that resource to your opponents, the resources themselves don't impact much of the game until the very end
  • Poker: the quality of the resources is varied (by card suit/number), and their impact on the game is dependant on the total set of resources rather than just having the most of something
These games are usually still every player for themselves, so it works best if the players have multiple "foes" to work against. Otherwise, you'll have to only use high-level concepts instead of specific rules.

Path Games
I don't remember there being lightning in Chess...
Though these games are generally seen as children's games, they can be valuable in learning about making travel games interesting. Just looking at the board gives ideas about how to reward and punish players during travel.

The other important point in these games is that there is a finish line with a timer: you must reach it before someone else does. That element of urgency should not be forgotten.
  • Chutes and Ladders: The simplest of these types of games, rewards are moving ahead and punishments are falling behind
  • Candyland: introduces a few more challenges, also, a different choice: you can take one of two paths, each with its own dangers
  • Life: not only does this game have multiple paths and potential setbacks, but it introduces an extra element: You only win if you've gathered enough of a resource by the end
  • Sorry: encourages inter-player combat while keeping the goal of reaching a finish line
  • Quelf/Trivial Pursuit: Every space on the board requires a challenge with its own reward or punishment.
Honestly, if someone came up with a deck of wilderness encounters that read like the Quelf card deck, I'd buy it immediately.

Guessing Games
How many images of weird chess landscapes are on the internet?
This covers a broad array, but the best part of these games is that usually there is a single person who knows the information and the other players don't. This translates pretty well into a DM vs players situation.
  • Hide and Seek: the basis for every stealth check in D&D. Try using rules variants to mix things up
  • Clue: part of this game is that the killer doesn't know they did it until the end. That's not as great in D&D, but limiting resources and clues is awesome.
  • Pictionary/Charades/20 Questions: fairly straightforward. Giving the players 20 questions for a major interrogation would be a good way to use this.
  • Mastermind: Uses limited resources and truthful confirmation to allow guessing. Might be good for a long-term mystery
These can be tricky to implement, but they can make a mystery game more tense and interesting.

Social Games

A lot.
These games can probably be put directly into a D&D session with few changes.
  • Apples to Apples/Card Against Humanity: use it as a series of one-upper stories, maybe to spread a rumor
  • Never Have I Ever: instant scene where the characters get to learn about each other
  • Werewolf/Mafia: good for a one-shot, or a game where the players have to deal with doppelgangers
  • Spin the Bottle: I don't recommend it

Other Games

Rule #75: Don't tell the players that you're gambling with their lives
A lot of games are what are called "solved" games or "perfect" games. Interestingly, these games are usually the least usable for D&D implementation.

A solved game has a single ideal strategy. Tic Tac Toe is the most common example, but many games have ideal strategies, or close enough that someone who knows the game can always defeat someone who doesn't.
  • Checkers
  • Uno
  • Connect Four
  • Chopsticks (a finger game)
  • Small boards of Go and Reversi
In this instance, the real challenge of the game is learning how to play. Once you have that down, it just becomes an exercise in performing the ideal strategy.

We want to create and use rulesets that give the player choice in D&D. There needs to be multiple viable choices that can easily lead to victory or defeat. That's another reason why you shouldn't just whip out the Monopoly board during your session.

In the end, no board game is quite like D&D, and it's good to keep that in mind, even as you pilfer parts of rulesets to use for your games.
Or you could just quit D&D and play the best game of all time
Thanks for reading!

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