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RPGs use rules, usually relating to dice rolls and modifiers, to simulate the world around the PCs, resolve character actions, and provide an interface between the game mechanics and the simulated environment. But this is not the only approach that can be used, and there are times when alternatives should be considered by the GM.

This not only affects the behaviour that can be simulated, it alters the surrounding rules paradygm and has a profound effect on the psychology of the players and hence on their behaviour and choices.

Consider, for example, the paradygm of playing cards instead of rolling dice. Many GMs resolve the results of gambling by characters with die rolls; why not actually play a few hands of poker when the characters play poker? But this is the merest tip of the iceberg; popular games, with well-understood rules, can be used as a metaphor for the resolution of character actions in a similar manner to rolling dice, but can bring additional strategic elements to the encounter, because there are natural mechanisms in the world of card games that are difficult to comfortably simulate with dice (though it can be done). The concepts of a “hand”, of “impoving” that hand by discards and draws, of “matching” sets of related cards in some fashion, can all be employed to simulate more complex behaviour and interactions than simply getting a higher total than an opponant or achieving a target number.

By examining a given situation, an appropriate metaphor can be chosen, and appropriate trappings and interpretations selected, and this is the recommended approach for GMs who are interested in employing this technique – selecting the metaphor to suit the situation.

This article, however, in order to be a comprehensive primer to the concept, will deliberately put the cart before the horse, and cherry-pick applications appropriate to a number of games to illustrate the strengths of each as a metaphor and how best to harness it to the game’s benefit.

You can even change the rules of the card game to suit your needs!

Solitaire: Trial & Error Skill Use

Let’s say that a mage is trying to analyse a strange form of magic that’s never been encountered before, or a scientist is trying to solve a chemical conundrum, or a detective is trying to put clues together to form a convincing theory of the crime, or a starship engineer is trying to string technobabble together in the right order to solve the latest problem his starship has encountered, or a thief is trying to pick a difficult lock. These are all easily simulated by die rolls, and there are any number of ways of interpreting the roll to ascertain not only the quality of the result but how long it takes to achieve it, in game time.

Which leaves one character spending whatever amount of game time working on the solution, and the player twiddling thumbs, while the rest of the party get to roleplay. Or the referee dismisses the waiting time with a hand-wave. As metaphors for the action within the game, die rolls suck at certain types of activity.

Using a game of patience gives an inherant way of telling how long it takes – the game proceeds while the player is trying to find a solution; and it takes however long it takes. A die roll at the end gives quality of solution, or the GM can hand-wave this and get on with the game.

There are all sorts of alterations that can be made to the standard rules to permit a solution to be found more quickly when the character is presented with an easier problem, or vice-versa. Perhaps you permit the game to start with one or more of the aces already out. Perhaps there is a rule that says when a card is revealed in the exposed stack that a card already in play at the top of a chain would follow, you have to either add that card from the stack to an existing chain or pick up the matching chain and add it to the exposed stack (this greatly increases the chance of successfully solving the game). Not clear on what I mean by that? Let’s say there’s a red-six-black-five-red-four chain of three cards. When you expose a black seven from the slush cards, you either have to have a red eight to add it to, or the six-five-four chain gets picked up and added to the slush stack on top of the seven – which has the consolation of revealing a new card, or creating a space for a King.

Characters can roleplay their progress as others interact with them, it gives the player something to do instead of his character being locked away in the lab (or whereever) working on the problem, and it brings the task itself to life.

Blackjack: The Chase

Chase sequences are often difficult to GM well, regardless of the game system in use. Existing rules mechanisms for combat and skill use generally disturb the free flow of events with table after table and modifier after modifier; what’s needed is a metaphor that is quick to resolve and simplifies the interpretation of situations into game-play. Blackjack is perfect for the situation.

It is a 1-on-1 situation, and so reflects the driver-vs-driver duel. It is fast to resolve, and produces easily-interpretable results. Bias can be built into the game as necessary through various rules mechanisms.

Let’s say that an NPC is being persued by a PC in chariots (or Dodge Vipers!) through the streets of a city. Each player gets a certain number of chips, which reflect the degree of difficulty of finalising the chase outcome; if the DM is cleaned out, the PC has caught the NPC, if the Player runs out of chips then the NPC has escaped. The gap between the two can be assessed by the number of chips. Relative character skill levels can be interpreted by the GM as changing the minimum total below which they are forced to draw an additional card, a requirement that the character doesn’t have; under standard blackjack rules this is normally 15. The higher this number, the more likely it is that the GM will go bust on a hand; the lower it is, the less likely, until (at 11), the GM and player are on an equal footing.

If necessary, you can add rules that certain cards require an immediate draw by the other side, regardless of what is in their hand, or rules that certain cards are “dead” and count for zero, or that they only count for zero if they are in pairs. You can play around with the basic rules of the game-within-a-game quickly and easily, to accommodate whatever circumstances need to be simulated.

For example, having a passenger in one chariot/car shooting at the other can be reflected by giving that character a single card that can replace either of the driver’s cards if the archer/gunman hits the target. This gives the side with the gunman a much better chance of a good draw because they don’t have to take the card that is on offer – the game becomes “draw three and choose the best two”. Or perhaps the diver HAS to replace one of his cards with that of the gunman, but if the gunman hits, he has the choice of which; if the gunman misses, it has to be the lowest card in his hand, or the highest.

The difficulty of the manouver being attempted by each side in a given round can be reflected in the size of the bet – provided that the DM (the ‘bank’) is required to bet as well, and the winner takes the pot, not some multiple of the amount that they bet. Limits to the size of the bet prevent all-or-nothing gambits, ie the chase ending too quickly.

Road conditions, temporary circumstances (dodging around a donkey-pulled cart in the street or whatever), etc, can be described by the GM simply by interpreting the cards showing at the start of each hand, letting the flow of the blackjack game dictate the flow of the action in the same way that a series of die rolls would. You don’t need a table for this – make it up to suit the moment.

By combining the flexibility conferred by house rules with such a simple metaphor for the action that is occurring, what was abysmally slow action becomes fast and furious (especially if a time limit is imposed on people considering their choices)!

Poker: Negotiations

Trade and diplomatic negotiations are, almost by definition, dull. Endless repetition of the same statements, time after time, varying just a little bit every now and then. In an RPG, the GM usually abbreviates the whole process, making all sides more willing to strike a deal and less obstinate than they are supposed to be. Often, the hard grind of negotiation is simply hand-waved. And much of the unpredictability, the give and take, the unexpected twists in the bargaining, the very essence of the plausibility – is lost. How much better – more beleavable, more interesting – would it be to find a way to simulate all that competition and unpredictability in a way that is both a more accurate metaphor and more entertaining to the players?

Every negotiation has at least two parties to the agreement, but innumerable factions, each with its own objective and agenda, its own idea of what will achieve the overall ends of the faction – or satisfy their own personal ambitions. The negotiation is a labyrinth of offer and counteroffer, of twists and turns, of people giving way on small things that are more signifiant to another party until compromises acceptable to all are achieved. Inevitably, some people will have the better negotiators or the stronger bargaining position, and will end with a result more to their liking.

All this is practically synonymous with poker. Heck, a “stronger bargaining position” is commonly referred to as having “the better hand”! Each player can represent a faction (for a large negotiation between multiple parties, such as the terms of the German Surrender at Versailles) or can represent a splinter of one of the major factions – defence minister, trade minister, etc etc. Multiple rounds of poker represent the multiple rounds of diplomacy.

As with Blackjack, the rules of the game can be changed to suit the situation. The relative strengths of a faction at the negotiating table can be represented by changing the number of chips the player starts with. Alliances and side-deals can be depicted by players swapping cards AFTER bets have been made – until then, one player can lie to his partner about what he’s got in his hand. Does the player really have the Jack he just offered me (which would improve my hand) or is he lying to strengthen his own splinter faction’s strength by sabotaging progress toward the ultimate goal? Perhaps cards can be bought and sold between factions.

Interpretation is everything. Using chips of two colours, worth different values, permits one to be labelled “political capital” – if the player wins a bet using one, he doesn’t get his “political capital” back, so he has to be sure that he will gain enough from victory over the opposing factions (as distinct from his allies) to recoup his expenditures. Perhaps he can gain additional political capital by folding a winning hand on an issue he doesn’t care that strongly about, or can “buy” an extra card with political capital to better his chances of a winning hand?

In order to make this all work, the GM has to to a bit of prep work; he needs to spell out the agenda for the negotiations, he needs to list the issues to be discussed and ensure that each representative has his own priorities, and that these are opposed. He needs to spell out loyalties and relationships between the factions, as well as points of disagreement. A couple of guidelines as to the personalities of the negotiators would not go astray, as well as opinions of each about the others.

The result is a game within a game, and the cut-and-thrust of politics coming to life in a way not otherwise possible without plot trains to direct the course of negotiations.

Poker 2: Character Construction

Heck, for that matter, why not let players build their character’s stats from the total value of their poker hand? +5 to the total for a pair, +10 for three of a kind, +20 for a full house, etc. This is similar to the ‘roll x dice and pick the best 3′ approach, but it lets players customise the characters towards what they want to play while bringing literal meaning to the expression “Play the cards you’re dealt”. Allow one card per stat, and you’re set. The number of discards and redraws permitted controls the ultimate likelyhood of successfully getting high-value stats.

Note that I’m not advocating this approach, or dismissing it either – just suggesting it as an interesting alternative that transforms character construction into something more interesting! Especially if the process of discarding and redrawing hands can be interpreted somehow into the character’s life story…

Roulette: Divine Intervention

Perhaps the ultimate example is using a miniature roulette wheel when a character seeks divine intervention. The character could just roll percentile dice – but it doesn’t quite have the same desperate flavour or symbolism of spinning that wheel and hoping for 00 to come up…

Practice Makes Perfect

Of course, there is one caveat to this approach. The GM must be able to simulate all skill levels of “player”, and that means practice.

Solitair is easy – there are a host of computer versions, and you can always fall back on an ordinary deck of cards. There is no need for an opponant, so this is something that the DM can do anytime.

Blackjack is similarly easy – in fact, it’s even easier to do on your own, because you can try all the alternative courses of action and record the results, and so learn what works, and how often, and hence what sort of risk is entailed.

Poker is quantitatively different as a game. To practice on your own is to practice less than half the skill involved. Even practicing against the same opponants all the time is insufficient. What you need is a real competition, preferably one where you can learn without it costing you an arm and a leg. This site should be very helpful, with strategy guides, beginners tips, links to free sites where you can learn one of the most popular variations of the game, and a rating of many Online Poker Rooms.

And of course, roulette is simple – just buy a cheap plastic roulette wheel and play (I’ve seen them just this last week for only $5 Australian)! But there are also various downloadable roulette sims and even some flash games that you can use, if you search around for them.

So there you have it – a new way to change up your game, and simulate things that are difficult to do with die rolls, or where the die roll mechanics become intrusive and break the mood that the situation should engender.

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