Games Within Games
D&D players like playing games, chess, cards, board games, that sort of thing. But we forget that D&D character would also like to play games. Fantasy characters shoot dice and play cards, why wouldn’t your D&D character do the same?
There are many situations in D&D where games can come up, as part of a dungeon crawl, to challenge the players, as part of a city setting, where gambling is happening on the street or in a gambling den, on a ship, where bored sailors gamble to pass the time.
Playing games of chance is a way to create alliances, create enemies, gain information and leverage against others, or to add some campaign flavor to the game. D&D itself is built around the idea of “games within games”, e.g. the combat system, psionics, unarmed combat, that sort of thing, so porting in a game is not that difficult.
The key element is that it shouldn’t take up too much time, since games rarely involve all of the party, some members will have to sit/watch while others play. I find that 10-15 min of game play within a larger D&D session is about right.
It’s also fun as D&D is always a blast with props, cards, chess pieces, stuff like that works because you get to handle the pieces and move them around. In a game world where so much is abstracted, having something tangible in your hands holds a certain appeal.
So here’s a list of games that work well in the context of a D&D session:1. Cards - There are dozens of card games you can use in D&D that fit with the fantasy/pulp vibe the game has. Poker, in all its various permutations works well, there is bluffing and betting and lots of potential for RP. Rummy, war, spit, spoons (with daggers instead of spoons…), there are tons of potential games here. 2. Dice - Gygax included rules for dice and card games in the DMG* and I would warmly recommend them. The nice thing about dice games is that you already have dice with you and the players are interested in using them *see below 3. Onitama - This is a variant on chess, it is played on a rolled out surface and has two sides with simple pieces. Because it resembles chess but it a bit different, and it uses animal and monster names for the cards in the game (the cards describe various chess-like moves that your pieces can make) it fits D&D flavor perfectly, and plays pretty fast. 4. Jenga - This is a perfect game within a game, it is easy to understand, fun to play, and doesn’t take too long. It also fits a fantasy setting quite well. 5. Blokus - Since this game has simple block components of basic colors it doesn’t have any of the “trappings” of modernity (e.g. a playing piece shaped like a phone) so it works seamlessly in a fantasy game. It takes about 5-10 minutes to play a round, so it’s a great fit 6. Chess - I would be careful with this one as chess can take a lot of time depending on the players, but it fits the D&D vibe perfectly, so it’s a good choice in certain circumstance 7. Checkers - This is a perfect choice, fast, simple and there is a universal appeal to taking someone’s checkers pieces 8. Cribbage - I include this separately as cribbage has a board, so it requires a prop, but any game with a counting component can work at the D&D table. And again, it’s basic design makes it easier to fit in without anachronisms 9. Backgammon - A nice backgammon box can make for an excellent D&D prop, and the game is simple enough and fast enough to work at the table
10. Crokinole - Popular in the great white north, this is a fun choice as it challenges your player’s manual dexterity, it’s simple, and its fast.
You could no doubt add a ton of other examples to this list, but this can get you started.
And Now… CHEATING!
Thing is, that players and characters will want to cheat sometimes, and you should be able to work this into the game. I came up with a set of rules for cheating at cards that works off of ability scores or thieving abilities, whichever is best for your table.
There are some additional card games I came up with to be found in an article I wrote for & Magazine, you can download it for free here:
And Finally - MAGIC!
I always take a pack of Tarot cards to my D&D games, doing a reading for a party is a super-flavorful way to add to your game, and as DM you can, if you wish, make the “predicted” things happen in game, much to the astonishment of your players!
PCs can run into fortune tellers almost anywhere in D&D, on the road, in a caravan, in a town, at a temple, that sort of thing. Players also love the idea that something is “fated” or “destined” to happen, so they eat this stuff up.
There are standard card layouts and interpretations for many Tarot decks, you can just piggyback off of those, or you can come up with your own. Make sure the categories you use for each card are vague but suggestive, e.g. “Fate”, “Challenges”, “Enemies”, “Allies”, “Near future”, that sort of thing.
You can also play fast and loose with the interpretation of cards in the reading, just try for some internal consistency. So you can decide that “wands” in the card deck indicate something magical, but then be consistent about interpreting major arcana according to that idea.
There are quite literally tons of different tarots around, many of which are a perfect fit for D&D, and even the standard Rider Tarot cards fit the flavor of the game. And since you know things about the PCs it’s easy to build in “personal” details to the reading that make it plausible, and of course magic works in D&D so the prediction can come true! Just keep it vague enough that you have some room to maneuver
So your next session can have the party thief and fighter shooting dice with the city guards while the rest of the party sneaks in through the gate, or the party priest playing cards with the sailors and trying to convert them… Gygax's Gambling Appendix