Ask the gamemasters

Campaign Mastery reader Andy S. asks, “I want to set up a fishing mini game, and I have all the fish and weight/length charts. I just want a better challenge then a STR vs. STR(strength) one for them to haul the fish in. Any suggestions on how to do it?”

Ask the Game Masters - Johnn

Johnn’s answer:

Andy, I have just spent two weeks camping and fishing. I caught four fish on the last day before my 8 day license expired, and before that I returned to the dock empty-handed every time. So, I can tell you first hand that fishing is tricky business.

Mike has some suggestions for you on gameplay. Before getting into that, I’d like to pass along a few variables you have not accounted for but might find useful for giving players more choices and decisions to make.

Location

Location should be your first consideration as a fisher. Where you go determines what species of fish are available for catching. The environment and fish types available then inform your next consideration, tackle and lure. Fishing in a lake versus ocean, for example, gives players different requirements and choices.

Once you know the general area where the PCs will be fishing, you can stage various encounters to mix things up, or just get right into your mini-game. Some encounter ideas:

  • Weather - wind speed and precipitation impact safety, visibility and movement, plus can hinder bringing the fish to your net.
  • Forest Fire – even fires miles away can bring smoke, ash and fleeing wild animals in the PCs’ direction.
  • Water creature – perhaps a water elemental regards fish in this area as pets, and things with long tentacles always seem to get my players’ attention.
  • Other fishers – “Hey, that’s my spot!” Plus, there’s a chance of getting lines tangled up or collision if in boats.
  • Stuff on the bottom – if the water is clear or shallow, all kinds of things could be at the bottom from lost lures to dungeon entrances
  • Stuff on the surface – I found an orange ball floating in the water and scooped it up with my net; I’ve also seen hats, garbage that can screw up your line, and papers floating merrily by.

The PCs must decide the specific area in which to fish. A lake has all kinds of neat features that can attract or repel fish, so you might outline the various location factors to the PCs and make them choose. For example, shallow water versus deep water (if the water is warm at the top, fish might go deep, and if the water deep has no food, fish might surface), shoreline versus middle (shorelines offer shade and protection, deep water offers coolness, bigger food options and more room for larger schooling), and then the part of the lake or ocean. Fish will not be distributed equally, so that last factor, which location to try – north end vs. south end vs. center, for example – can play a big role.

Further, as I learned on my most recent trip, there are other more subtle considerations, for lakes at least. If there are spawner type fish, then there will be at least one stream or river feeding the lake, and fish will gather there at certain times of year to spawn.

Further, the spawning location has a big effect on overall fish distribution. Generally, young fish will be nearer the spawning point, unless there’s some attribute of the area that drives them into other places. And young fish are smaller and school more. Big fish will go into deeper and riskier areas to find better food and more comfortable conditions. And the few fish ready to spawn each year will be adults, large in size, and swim solo more often.

The big point here is you can design fish to have entertaining gameplay options that include where they can be found at any given time, their size and edibility and behaviours.

Lures

That brings us to the next biggest factor in catching fish – the bait. PCs can choose from live bait or crafted lures. Could be a well-crafted lure outperforms live bait (as they do at the lake I was fishing in) and there’s a chance for a skill check or purchase consideration.

Certain lures will work for certain fish at certain times of year in certain locations. How’s that for variables? Welcome to fishing. For example, the PCs could try fly fishing. Different type of lure altogether than trolling or deep ocean fishing. In addition, casting requires finesse, so there’s a tactical consideration for dexterous PCs.

We found that pink lures attracted the type of fish we were after this week. That was learned after experimenting with different lure types in green, pink, orange and red colours, plus lures with two or more of those colours. Oi! In addition, one type of pink performed best – an Imperial Mack – and other types did poorly or caught nothing.

For a fantasy mini game, I think it would be a hoot to make it so hand-crafted lures and bait from monster parts are the only things that successfully catch fish. A basilisk eye on a hook, a gang troll crafted from young dragon scales, or a fly made out of couatl feathers. Great quest material, especially if the PCs want to catch the Grand Daddy Fish.

Time of day

You can get different results from morning vs. afternoon vs. night fishing. Could be fish only rise at night for catching, which means an opportunity to pull out the night encounters list.

My father in-law likes to follow Major and Minor time periods based on sun and moon phases. This could mean a PC can finally unleash a knowledge skill sitting unused till now beside his 10′ pole on his character sheet. It might mean certain dangers coincide with better fishing. Or you could just use it as interesting flavour for the mini game.

Fishing skills

Catching and eating a fish involves more skill than might be apparent. Here is a short list to consider to add depth to your mini game and to help involve other PCs and their range of abilities.

  • Lure selection or crafting – and a sub-set might be rod and tackle selection or crafting
  • Sailing and boating – to get to the fish, to avoid other fishers, to return to shore safely in various environmental conditions
  • Casting - if fly fishing
  • Hooking and reeling – if a fish bites you may need to play it to bring it in successfully. Depending on the method of fishing, a character may have to yank correctly on their line with the perfect timing to hook a fish, and they may have to reel their line in with the right amount of play and tension to prevent a poorly-hooked fish from getting away.
  • Netting - you’ve brought the fish to the boat or to shore, but can you land it? Proper and dexterous netting is sometimes required.
  • Cleaning - Most often this is a simple procedure and skill just impacts how long it takes, but you might rule good cleaning yields more meat
  • Cooking - Again, a simple procedure, but you could rule successful cooking skill removes poison or disease, else eaters may suffer….

You could make your fishing mini game a simple matter of dropping a hook on a line on a stick into the water and rolling. However, I think you should use some of the information above to make catching fish a bit more challenging and flavourful.

Mike, you said you had some specific rules and gameplay ideas for a fishing mini game, so I’ll hand things over to you.

Ask the GMs - Mike

Mike’s answer:

One of the things that I hate is when any sort of competitive process that is being represented in an RPG is reduced to die rolls. A game of darts should be more than a series of attack rolls with the greatest net margin over target being the victor; a game of poker or roulette or craps or blackjack should be more than rolling against a character’s gambling skill; a wrestling contest should be more than a character’s grappling strength; and a fishing contest should be more than a survival skill roll.

It’s for that reason that I applaud the approach taken by Andy S. It’s something that I advocated in A Different Perspective: Changing the dynamic with a different metaphor, way back in May 2009. But for this particular challenge, I’m going to take that discussion a step farther.

What we need here is to devise a game that simulates the process of the fishing contest, and that all the players can participate in. It will need to take into account the attributes of the characters, the skill of the characters, the equipment of the characters, and yet still be a game in which luck plays a big role. In addition, we need to assess the extent to which strategy should be a factor.

With so many criteria to address, die rolls seem a little one-dimensional – literally. Multiple die rolls would be better, but a card-playing metaphor seems like an engine that will give us greater flexibility.

We will need clear victory conditions. If a single “hand” is to represent a single cast of the rod, or a fixed period of time, each “hand” should be fairly quick to play, and since the GM may have to play multiple hands at once (one for each NPC in the contest) the rules should be fairly simple. Finally, we need a mechanism in place to represent “cheating” of various sorts.

Some of the answers to those seem clear to me immediately, but they might not be so clear to our readers, and especially to Andy, so even though I haven’t had to think about them at all, I’ll do my best to reconstruct the logic that I didn’t have to employ!

Step 1: The Mini-Game Metaphor

The first thing to decide is the metaphor. To some extent, that’s already been done in deciding to create a card game to be played as an abstract representation of the fishing contest, but exactly how can the one best represent the other?

There are two kinds of fishing contest: highest single fish-weight wins, or total weight of fish caught wins. [Afterword: I actually came up with 3 more in the attached rules for the finished game! But this is what I was thinking at the time.] In both cases, we’re talking about the results of a single hand being a given weight of fish. In the first case, characters track the best single result that they get, in the second, they accumulate “weights” after each hand and the highest total at the end of the game is the winner.

The same set of rules should work for both.

Step 2: The Mini-Game Round Metaphor

The longer such a mini-game proceeds, the more the results will average out. So for a close contest, where there is very little to differentiate one player from another, the more hands, the better. However, the more hands played, the more game time will be consumed; if a single hand represents the results of a period of time, and the contest has a fixed start and finish time, there will be fewer hands, the mini-game will consume less of the day’s play, and there will be more variability in the results.

To be honest, the latter sounds more appropriate to a fishing contest. So each round will represent a fixed quantity of time. If the contest is 3 hours long, and each hand is 15 minutes of the contest, there will be 12 hands played; 4 hours and 20 minutes would give the same result; 5 hours and 25 minutes, ditto; and the same for 6 hours/30 minutes and 2 hours/10 minutes. That seems like a reasonable basis – it’s long enough for skill to show through, and not so many hands that the game will wear thin (depending on how long each hand takes to play, of course!)

Step 3: Scoring Cards and The Deck Size

We want to simulate the potential to catch nothing in a round of the game, because that happens. The easiest way of doing so is to limit the ratio of scoring cards to deck size to something small. The number of players in the contest is obviously also going to be a factor, but the concept of a qualifying round might permit that to be reduced to a manageable number.

Another factor to be considered here are the number of cards a character will get to see in the course of a hand of the mini-game.

Face cards (Ace, King, Queen, Jack) represent 4/13ths of a deck. So if each hand involves 13/4ths or 3 1/4 cards, on average there will be one face card amongst them. That seems too few cards in a round for a reasonable card game, it won’t have the flexibility that we need – doubling it to 7 1/2 cards a hand and reducing the scoring cards to Ace and King keeps the odds the same. Since you can’t see “half a card”, we can either round down to 7, and give characters a slightly greater chance of catching nothing that round, or round it up to 8 to give characters a slightly better chance of catching something.

But the game process that I have in mind suggests that still more cards per hand will be needed – ten-to-fifteen. I know that’s sneaking ahead of where we are, but that’s what happens when you get a flash of inspiration and see the whole solution, or a large part of it, all at once.

That requires a further reduction in the scoring opportunities in a round. So, the logic of a hand size of up to ten cards seen in a hand reduces the number of scoring cards to the Aces.

I also want to keep all players in a state of uncertainty as to each other’s hands throughout a round; something that’s difficult with a single deck when 10 cards are seen. I also have an inkling that the value and suit of the cards will be important, so it would be advantageous to have more than one of each card in the playing deck.

For that reason, I think that a 2-deck-minimum is the right way to go. 2 x 52 = 104 cards; so that supports 10 players of the mini-game, i.e. ten participants in the fishing contest. However, with that many, the ignorance factor is a little vague; so let’s say three decks. That’s 156 cards, which in theory means that 15 participants in the fishing contest at a time can be handled; but to preserve the uncertainty of result, it should be limited to 8 participants, so that roughly half of the deck each round is never seen.

Involving other Players

A brief diversion here: if not all the PCs are participating, what do the rest of the players do? Answer: they fish as NPCs, of course! If all of them are participating, the GM has two choices: he can either play one hand for each NPC at the same time – a lot of work – or he can invite “guest players” in for the fishing mini-game. Why not?

Scoring

So we’ve determined that only Aces represent a scoring opportunity. That seems a little low to me – I want the opportunity for a greater variety of result. So let’s say that King plus Queen, or King plus Jack, or Queen plus Jack, (all the same suit) also score. However, they score less.

If the suit represents a particular species of fish, then these four scoring combinations can represent the weight range of the winning fish, and we can use the remaining cards to select the exact weight in the range. Or, if there are more species of fish, we could assign each scoring opportunity its own weight range – ultimately, it doesn’t matter much, the game result (a certain weight) is the same.

To counterbalance that increased opportunity to score, we need to redefine each combination as the opportunity to score, not the act itself. In other words, we require each combination to be converted into an actual success with a die roll.

What that die roll will represent remains to be determined. There are a lot of factors to be taken into account when actually catching a fish: the character’s strength, the strength of the equipment, the type of lure, it’s success rate, and the skill of the fisherman – and even the opposed strength, weight, and “skill” of the fish.

I want to build as many of these as possible into the gameplay, leaving this final roll to be as straightforward as possible.

The key point to be made here is that there WILL be a die roll to convert, and that the higher the score that the card combination represents, the more difficult the required roll will be – thereby introducing an element of strategy into the game. Does a player go for the potential of scoring a high-end result, or does he take a more certain opportunity at a worse result?

The Other Cards & Scoring

If each scoring combination represents a specific weight range of a specific species of fish, then we can use the other cards to determine where in that range the actual fish’s weight lies.

Let’s say that up to three non-face cards are used for this purpose. They have to be a run in a specific suit, and you add up the best three that you can put together – so 10,9,8 (= 27) would be the best possible score in a round (the highest weight result in the indicated weight range) while a hand of all 2′s (=2) would be the worst possible score.

If there is a gap, cards below the gap count as +1 to the total So 10,9,7 would score 19+1 = 20.

That introduces a further strategic element to the game-play – characters have to build up runs of suited cards. These all have to be of the same suit, but not necessarily the same suit as the scoring combination.

I have to admit at this point that I don’t have access to the research that Andy has done, nor the time to replicate it for all types of fish. I’m tempted to suggest that each point above 8 represents a tenth of a pound or a tenth of kilo and forget the research. That in turn means that the range of results in a given hand for a single scoring value are 27-2=25. Wow, that works out well, doesn’t it?

If this model is used, then our scoring combinations (suits chosen arbitrarily) could be:

Ace Of Hearts: 9.3 plus 0.2 to 2.5 = 9.5-11.8
Ace Of Diamonds: 7.5 plus 0.2 to 2.5 = 7.7-10
Ace Of Clubs: 6.0 plus 0.2 to 2.5 = 6.2-8.5
Ace Of Spades: 4.0 plus 0.2 to 2.5 = 4.2-6.5

King + Queen Of Hearts: 7.5 plus 0.2 to 2.5 = 7.7-10.0
King + Queen Of Diamonds: 6.0 plus 0.2 to 2.5 = 6.2-8.5
King + Queen Of Clubs: 4.5 plus 0.2 to 2.5 = 4.7-7.0
King + Queen Of Spades: 3.0 plus 0.2 to 2.5 = 3.2-5.5

King + Jack Of Hearts: 5.3 plus 0.2 to 2.5 = 5.5-7.8
King + Jack Of Diamonds: 4.0 plus 0.2 to 2.5 = 4.2-6.5
King + Jack Of Clubs: 2.8 plus 0.2 to 2.5 = 3-5.3
King + Jack Of Spades: 1.3 plus 0.2 to 2.5 = 1.5-3.8

Queen + Jack of Hearts: 4.5 plus 0.2 to 2.5 = 4.7-7
Queen + Jack of Diamonds: 3.0 plus 0.2 to 2.5 = 3.2-5.5
Queen + Jack of Clubs: 1.9 plus 0.2 to 2.5 = 2.1-4.4
Queen + Jack of Spades: 0.8 plus 0.2 to 2.5 = 10-3.3

I admit that these numbers probably bear no relationship to real fish weights. But the table has other virtues: the weight of each species gives a rough dumbell curve, which is appropriate for a population grouping, and there is some overlap between the weights of different species.

But, if I were even less interested in reality, I would make it a more abstract score:

Ace Of Hearts: 93 plus 2 to 25 = 95-118
Ace Of Diamonds: 75 plus 2 to 25 = 77-10
Ace Of Clubs: 60 plus 2 to 25 = 62-85
Ace Of Spades: 40 plus 2 to 25 = 42-65

King + Queen Of Hearts: 75 plus 2 to 25 = 77-100
King + Queen Of Diamonds: 60 plus 2 to 25 = 62-85
King + Queen Of Clubs: 45 plus 2 to 25 = 47-70
King + Queen Of Spades: 30 plus 2 to 25 = 32-55

King + Jack Of Hearts: 53 plus 2 to 25 = 55-78
King + Jack Of Diamonds: 40 plus 2 to 25 = 42-65
King + Jack Of Clubs: 28 plus 2 to 25 = 30-53
King + Jack Of Spades: 13 plus 2 to 25 = 15-38

Queen + Jack of Hearts: 45 plus 2 to 25 = 47-7
Queen + Jack of Diamonds: 30 plus 2 to 25 = 32-55
Queen + Jack of Clubs: 19 plus 2 to 25 = 21-44
Queen + Jack of Spades: 8 plus 2 to 25 = 10-33

And then leave it to a GM’s knowledge of fish species (if any) to translate the winning result into actual species and weights. This makes scoring a lot easier, and the game a lot more user-friendly.

Appropriate Fishing Skill

The need to construct a run of consecutive suited cards gives us our first opportunity to build skill levels into the game-play, by permitting a character to substitute his fishing skill for a missing card in his run, avoiding the penalty.

The example given earlier was 10,9,7 – with a missing 8, giving a total of 10+9+1 =20. If the character takes 8 points from his fishing pool, the 7 counts in full – so he scores 10+9+7 = 26 for the hand.

To keep this from becoming a blank cheque, the character would roll his fishing skill at the start of the game and use the result as a pool from which he could draw. If this skill pool is to provide a “7″ card for the player, it reduces the pool by 7. This provides another tactical element in the game-play: is it better to blow a large chunk of this advantage on a single big result, or to use it to pad lesser results more frequently?

Characters without the appropriate skill would make an unskilled check – if there is some predetermined system for such things in the main game’s rules, that would be used, otherwise it would be a straight dexterity check (or the equivalent).

Obviously, if the total pool is about 30 points, the character would have to choose when to use his bonus very carefully – a high weight score on a low-value scoring combination like Queen-Jack is a big difference, but saving those pool points for a mid-weight result on a high-scoring combination (an Ace) is obviously more valuable. Therefore, the way a player handles his bonus should change over the course of the game, as the chance of getting a better hand in a future round would slowly drop – to zero in the last hand.

Some GMs may wish to make intelligence a factor, or may feel that the fishing skill should be based on INT instead of DEX. In either event, the GM can rule at the start of the game that characters get an additional bonus to their pool of the bonus on which the relevant Fishing skill is not based.

Characters who have a fishing skill other than the specific one required may be awarded a reduced total by the GM. For example, Deep-sea game fishing is quite different to trout fishing! A character with skill in the latter should not get the full benefit of their skill, but neither should they be treated as completely unskilled; some sort of compromise between the two pool sizes is warranted. The easiest approach would be to average the two and round up.

Lure Quality

There are two ways to work this into our contest simulation. The first is to assume that Lure Selection is a function of fishing skill, and make characters purchase “lure quality” from their skill pool, which confers some advantage in game play. The second is to assume that it’s a matter of luck on the day which type of lure works best, and that this is already built into the random element already in the game.

Personally, I like the first option as it provides an even greater tactical ingredient, and really gives characters with good skills an advantage.

This mini-game currently involves players getting five or more cards (two face and three non-face) and handling a maximum of 10 cards in a hand. All of these would normally be thrown back into the deck to be shuffled in for the next hand; what if the character could purchase the ability to keep one or more unused cards in their hand from round to round, to be used as the centrepiece of a subsequent scoring attempt?

There are three alternatives:

  • face cards only
  • non-face cards only
  • any unused card

The first means that a “good lure” can attract a better chance of scoring a bite; the second means that a “good lure” attracts a larger fish; the third gives the greatest benefit, and guarantees that the character will get some benefit from the expenditure of their pool on this advantage. They all come with a price tag, since they don’t increase hand size.

The first is an obvious simulation of what a good lure is actually supposed to do, so immediately options 1 and 3 commend themselves. The second, at first glance, seems to fly in the face of what we are trying to simulate, but it’s not enough to have a good lure, it should also be manipulated correctly, and this is a good way of ensuring that the character gets some benefit from the expenditure of their skill pool. So option 3, any unused card, is the best choice.

How much should this ability cost? It shouldn’t be cheap, but shouldn’t totally consume the character’s skill pool. On the d20 scale (d20 + skill ranks + stat modifier) – about 20-40 points for most PCs – a price of 10 points each for a maximum of two cards kept seems reasonable. That’s high enough that the ability will not totally dominate play within the mini-game, and low enough that most skilled characters can afford it.

Breaking Strain

Another factor that needs to be taken into account is the breaking strain of the fishing line. This should be the player’s choice; a high breaking strain should improve the chances of a big weight, but should make the character’s strength check (which we have still to implement) more difficult. Instead of specifying actual breaking strains, let’s stay with the very abstract system that’s been emerging: a +0 to the STR check target, +2, +4, or +6.

What benefit should be matched against these penalties? The obvious area to target is to make it easier for a character to get a run, ie land a heavier fish weight.

A +2 permits a card of the same colour but a different suite to be counted amongst the three; +4 would permit one card of a different colour to be counted amongst the three; and a +6 would permit the cards to be of completely different suites. A +0, of course, means that the player has to play the cards in front of them.

It can be assumed that a character who has opted for anything less than the maximum +6 modifier may well have caught a bigger fish in the course of a round of play than the one they eventually attempt to land, but that if they did, the line broke.

Breaking strains should be decided at the start of each hand and revealed simultaniously. Poker chips are a good mnemonic device to use as an indicator of the breaking strain chosen for the hand. This in itself adds an interesting tactical decision to the mix: take chances early with a heavy breaking strain, and you may well land the occasional big fish – but potentially fewer of them. Or play it safe and accumulate more, smaller, fish caught. Throughout the game, there will be pressure both ways: to go for a heavier breaking strain in hopes of getting lucky, or to be more conservative and get a more certain but almost certainly lower result than a lucky player.

This will have the effect of building each fishing mini-game to a climax in the final hand or two – will the leader win, or will someone come from behind to overtake them at the last gasp?

Gameplay

At this point, much of the gameplay is becoming aparrant. The hand starts with characters declaring the breaking strain of the line they are going to use. Each player is then dealt cards to bring their hands up to 5 cards, then discard up to 2 of them, which must include any unused face cards. They then draw additional cards to bring their hand up to 7 in total, and must discard one; and finally, they draw 2 additional cards to bring their hands up to a total of eight.

That’s a maximum of 11 cards seen in a round, which is pretty close to what is expected. The power of the Ace as a scoring card is that it means the player has as many as 7 other cards to try and get a run of three suited cards. The odds are low that they will succeed, and will often be forced to settle for a run of two, or even a single high card.

Play should proceed around the table to the dealer’s right, so that everyone draws their first group of cards before anyone gets to discard.

Players then declare their scoring cards, presenting them face up. Each then attempts to convert that potential score into an actual result by means of a roll that is yet to be determined. Each person who succeeds gets their score added to their tally by the dealer, and the face-up cards are then discarded.

From the cards they have left, characters may then choose which (if any) they can/will retain until the next hand, and the remainder are discarded. The deck is reshuffled and the next person to the left of the dealer becomes the dealer for the next hand.

Character Strength – converting a potential score

Okay, so we have a measure for the weight of the fish, and we need to have a strength-vs strength or strength-vs-weight evaluation somewhere in our picture. Since we have no way to actually determine the strength of any given fish that is not more trouble than it’s worth, let’s use the latter. The GM rolls a d20 and adds 1/tenth of the value of the hand (ie the fish’s weight), and adds the modifier for the breaking strain of the line. The result is the total needed by the character.

Then the player (who may also be the GM, in the guise of an NPC) rolls a d20, and adds the character’s strength modifier. If this total is equal to or more than the required target, the character scores the points, ie catches the fish they had on the line; if not, the fish gets away, and the character has to try again in the next hand.

A complete fishing mini-game

Because this discussion of the reasoning behind the different elements of the mini-game has intermixed mini-game rules with commentary and verbose utterances of logic, it would not be all that easy to actually play the resulting game; this has been a behind-the-curtains look at exactly how I would go about creating a game to represent a fishing tournement. So I have extracted the game rules that I’ve come up with in this reply (plus a bit of spit and polish, and some afterthoughts) and provided them as a thirteen-page PDF that can be printed out and given to all players. You can download it from the link to the right – just right-click as save the file. It’s 320Kb.


I have also provided a version with no graphics which can be downloaded by those few readers struggling with slow connections (and there are a few of you) – again, just right-click and save the PDF. Without the graphics, it’s 12 pages and just 73kB. You might also like to make a permanent copy of the discussion here – just so that if one of your players asks why things are a certain way, you can pull up the article and locate the explanation!

One thing that I left out was most of the discussion of game tactics that took place along the way. So if you’ve read all this as well as the finished rules, you’ll have an advantage.

More importantly, you’ll have some notion of how to take a tricky game situation (a fishing tournement, in this case) and create a means of simulating it within your game.

Have fun!

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