December 19, 2009

Mini-Games in RPGs

We all love mini-games, right? I mean, who doesn't love taking a break from battling Sephiroth's armies to race Chokobos for a hour or two. Heck, it might even open up a few quests for you too!

Wait... you DO like minigames, right?

OK, good. So what minigames are played in tabletop roleplaying games? Let's assume that the standard activities of combat, roleplaying, and leveling up found in most dice-based RPGs do not count in themselves as minigames. Let's assume instead that what I'm talking about are things like: playing poker as part of a particular encounter; using riddles or physical puzzles to solve a problem; or playing chess or checkers to decide an outcome. This is somewhat different from what Supah mentions in player skill vs. character skill over at RPGDieHard - I'm talking about the mixing of player skill and character skill to play a "game within a game".

On the surface, most table-top RPGs have few, if any, minigames built into the rules. For example, The Savage Worlds Deadlands Reloaded has Dueling built in. It's an excellent minigame that pits a single character against an opponent in a classic, Spaghetti Western-style shootout. The other PCs in the Posse can help however they want, but the main outcome of the shootout is decided by cards, not dice. If the two combatants survive the initial shots, combat begins as normal. It's a ton of fun during play because the players get to briefly use a unique mechanic, before returning to the normal rules. Another example of minigames was Trollball in Runequest (ok, going way back). Think trolls... and football... it was really fun. These minigames are fun because they all use a different mechanic from the rest of the game. Can you think of any other examples?

4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons is interesting because it essentially has one ruleset for all minigames: the skill challenge. The PCs could be racing chokobos or having a bikini contest among forest gnomes -- in either case, the core skill challenge mechanic can be used to resolve the outcome. Which sounds like a good thing, one system to learn, one way to determine success - but I would submit that this actually may be a draw back of 4E in general: outcomes for all outcomes are usually reduced to successes vs. failures - but situations are often more complicated than that. For example, a minigame that would have the PCs performing in a theatre play might have more than just two outcomes (success vs. failure). Even if a skill challenge was written to include different outcomes, you can't account for all the possibilities. That being said - skill challenges definately DO have their advantages in that they place a framework around non-combat, roleplaying encounters for DMs to award experience points and other rewards in a predictable way. Success - you get your XP. Failure - something bad happens. It's faster, cleaner, and works for the type of roleplaying experience 4E fosters.

I tried to find out if any game company has specifically produced a book or supplement specifically on this - like a "book of minigames"; but I was only able to find one. Avalon Games produces a Minigame line of PDFs, all available from But I haven't played any of them, so I don't know if they are any good.

So, what about minigames that are brought in from outside the RPG you are playing. For example, Wizards of the Coast games Three Dragon Ante and Inn-Fighting - both of which co-marketed with D&D. I've never played them, but I wonder how well they would work as a minigame for a D&D campaign. Or would these games be too long to work well? Steve Jackson Games' Munchkin, or Munchkin Dice, also comes to mind.

But what about other minigames that are not in the rule books or products in themselves. I'm talking about the ones like those mentioned in an article by Stuart from Neitherworld Stories ("RPG Minigames") from last January. Homebrewed minigames anyone? I've used chess and othello (once) to include a minigame into our games. I also played in a campaign where, whenever the PCs traveled long distances, we would have a minigame that involved shooting paper into a wastebasket. The further the distance before the next "encounter", the further the DM would place the waste basket. We called it "Travel Shot"... it was corny, but really made long distance travel in our game interesting. If we missed; we could try again - but something bad would happen with each miss. If we made the shot - then the PCs reached their destination without incident.

How prevalent are minigames in your campaign?

And, as far as video game RPGs - which ones were your favorite? The card game Pazaak in Knights of the Old Republic is the one I remember as being the most/worst addictive "game within a game". I must have blocked out the horrid interface (shown below)... it really is a fun game... honest...


  1. Us BECMI fan are pretty used to minigames. Domains, Sieges, Warmachine, tourneys, etc; there are plenty of sub-games to distract the players with.

    I really enjoy adding a minigame or two into my games. We use mini games for puzzles, hunting/fishing, and even bartering in most of my games. I'm all for switching up game play.

  2. The games with a unified mechanic don't really have mini-games for the reasons you described.

    1E AD&D is generally viewed as full of little subsystems that all use different dice rolls and tons of little tables you have to look up for various things. But in this light those are all mini-games! One problem is that most of them are for the DM only.

  3. Too true.

    I guess I never thought about it that way... maybe that's why DMs (me included) love to tinker around with world design so much... it's kinda like a minigame in itself.

  4. I smell fodder for NMP content. Just sayin...

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