Monday, May 2, 2011

Games Inside Games

Hang around rpg Internet fishing holes for even a short time and you will inevitably hear character generation or trading rules in Traveller described as a “mini-game”. Like most jargon, few rarely bother to spell out what the term means.

My own less-than-educated guess takes the term as shorthand for a chart-heavy rules subsystem with just enough self-contained detail that it plays almost like a game inside a game. If I am not talking out of my rear area (always a distinct possibility), that kind of rpg component is a rare beast.

It wasn't always that way, first generation rpgs, successors to the marvelous chart-obsessed solo-wargaming traditions of the 60s and 70s, were heavy with them. Indeed some of the earliest like En Garde (1975) and its Dark Ages cousin Heroes (1979) were veritably collections of linked mini-games. Players of En Garde could roll their characters through most of their lives--joining a gentleman's club, visiting bawdyhouses, wooing lovers, duelling, etc--as 17th-Century French courtiers without ever feeling the hand of a GM.

I can understand why our games evolved away from them, having whole areas areas of play dominated by a series of charts doesn't scream buckets of fun to many people. But like other pieces that feel out of favor, I can't help but wonder (again) if the stick got bent too far (again).

Done well mini-games have the potential to expand rather than restrict the arena of play. They create the possibility of an “offstage” for a campaign, an area that a player can explore a campaign world outside the micro-focus that the gaming table typically delivers on.

Think of it this way, its a rare campaign where the GM fills up a session acting out 20-30 years of a characters life, an entire military campaign, or an off-season when the characters lounged around town. But you did this very thing each time you rolled up a Traveller character or pushed a pike “off-stage” in Empire of the Petal Throne with Mark Pettigrew's magnificent mini-game simulating the Tsolyani art of war.

Midkemia's Cities supplement (later ported whole cloth into Runequest) devoted almost 30 pages to a “Catch-up” mini-game—a series of imaginative (and dare I say fun) tables for players whose characters lag behind others in the campaign time frame (presumably a much bigger dilemma back in the day when our campaigns were big, sprawling, and messy affairs). A random roll here could make mean a player had to roll on a sub-chart for NPCs that they have offended, a roll there could bankrupt you and send you to debtors' prison as you waited for your comrades to return from the dungeon .

While some see “roll-playing” I see something brimming with hooks for the devious-minded GM. That little affair that forced you to muster out of the Imperial Navy; the bastard love-child you sired on the carousing table; the battlefield promotion you received last year in the Desert of Sighs: all those little rolls off-stage become grist for the play on-stage. They add on, expand the edges.

I am, of course, as Jim the Wampus likes to annoy me by pointing out, leading up to something. Tomorrow I will be picking the mini-game thread back up again and looking at some ways Adventures on Tekumel, an exemplary series of solo gamebooks from the early 1990s, created an alternative to info-dump setting exposition—and ways we can riff on experimental mini-games of our own.


  1. Did you ever see this post by Delta?

    If not, it might interest you, if only for some other examples of what I think your heading at.

    I would love a very simple but colorful trading game that would allow players to invest in cargos and gamble on less/more difficult trading adventures.

  2. @Telecanter
    I hadn't seen it, but that is some serious parallel evolution (down to the title)! I have a lot of respect for Delta's work, so thanks for the heads-up.

    I love Traveller's interstellar trading mini-game, always wished there was a good fantasy equivalent (the ones I have seen tended to leave me cold by their abstractness or clunky elements). Alexis at Tao of D&D had some really intriguing bits on long-distance trade that are crying out for being put together in a sub-system.

  3. Heh. I wrote about the RQ version of this way back (

    I love the random downtime generator and I have plans for redoing it for my campaign...

  4. UWoM's Long Tour CharGen operates in that fashion, although the abbreviated version is 'standard'.

  5. Pendragon has some similar elements with it's winter season proceedures; I'm quite infatuated with these conceits, and would love a similar version of the Traveller chargen for establishing 1st level D&D/-ish/-esque PCs.

    Also, new rpg Fallen Reich apparently uses a hour-long boardgame for chargen!

  6. "Think of it this way, its a rare campaign where the GM fills up a session acting out 20-30 years of a characters life, an entire military campaign, or an off-season when the characters lounged around town."

    True enough ... but I am certainly ready to do exactly this if the players would ever sit down and request it. I have done it a few times, but I wouldn't need both hands to count them.

    Regarding the long-distance trade system; it needs a programmer who has much time to sit down and make it friendly. I have never met said programmer.

  7. Traveller's character generation is easily one of the best I have ever come across. I wish I had something like that for my fantasy campaigns as well. There is a certain kind of attachment one feels for Traveller characters when they are created by this process that always seemed more organic than the chargen in other games. Does anyone know something similar for D&D-like games?

  8. @gmkeros
    There are a few projects taking a stab at that kind of thing. I made a few attempts: