This topic is HOT! Har har.

Last month I was asked by my friends over at Dungeon a Day to design a little demi-level for them. I had a lot of fun doing it and it seems like it was well-received, so this month they’ve asked me to take up the reins on the complete Level 17, which Dungeon a Day subscribers will be seeing in April. I don’t think I’m giving away too much when I mention that Level 17 includes the Halls of Hunger, which have been heavily hinted at in past material. It’s known, for example, that those who linger too long in the Halls of Hunger risk a curse that transforms them into a unique form of undead.

(I’ll get to the point in a second, but first an aside: If you haven’t checked out Dungeon a Day, you oughtta. Founded by Monte Cook, it’s a web-based subscription service that delivers a new encounter every single week day. Over the past two and a half years, it’s built a mega-dungeon with (so far) over 450 encounters, which string together as an adventure path leading to an incredible 20th-level finish. But the individual dungeon levels also work well when pulled out of context. You can check it out with just a one-month subscription, which gives you access to the whole thing for less than the typical cost of a single published adventure.)

The Halls of Hunger and their curse bring me to one of my favorite GMing techniques: The mini-game. As part of my work on Level 17, I’ll craft a set of rules that define how the curse comes to afflict those characters who linger too long.

So, first, what’s a mini-game? Really, it’s any subset of rules that are used to specific effect for a specific activity within the game. In a way, an RPG’s combat system is a mini-game: Initiative is rolled, and a whole bunch of special rules come into effect. A skill challenge is another sort. So the idea has a lot of precedent in RPGs.

The kind of mini-games I really love are those that put the players in a position to make certain types of strategic decisions—and particularly those that provoke tension. Let me give you an example:

When I was at WotC, for nearly five years I ran a weekly lunchtime post-apocalyptic d20 game (the campaign is actually still running—we usually get a quorum together every year at Gen Con and play a quick adventure). In the very first adventure, the heroes came into conflict with a cult that was trying to detonate a nuclear bomb. In the climactic fight, the cult succeeded in arming the bomb, and a timer started counting down.

The moment the bomb went live, I stepped up to the white board behind me (we were in a company conference room) and wrote “100d10″ at the top. I explained to the players that was the damage their 2nd-level characters would take from the bomb. For every 50 feet they got from ground zero, I’d subtract a d10. (50 feet is one square at d20 Modern’s chase scale.) I might take a d10 or two off for cover, depending on how solid it was.

And the mad scramble was on! The heroes disengaged from the combat and dashed for their vehicles. They took off, hell bent for leather, using every trick in the book to boost their Drive rolls, pick clever maneuvers and stunts, and seek out the best routes and cover. At the end of every round, I crossed out the damage dice and wrote the new total below.

100d10
98d10
93d10
84d10

. . . and so on.

The players eventually made it down, if I remember correctly, to 4d10 before the bomb went off—a pretty serious result for battle-weary 2nd-level characters, but with the cover of their vehicles and some quick first aid, I think they all survived it. More importantly, the sighs of relief rang through the conference room as I crossed the last number off the board and picked up those paltry four dice. Shoulders that had been hunched over the table relaxed back into their chairs. For the mini-game’s ten minutes, the players had been fully, intensely engaged, with the tension building as the scene reached its peak.

Here’s what made it work:

  • The rules are clear: In any successful mini-game, the players are given, or can quickly suss out, the rules. If they’re shooting in the dark, it’s likely to become an exercise in frustration (and that’s exactly the opposite of the effect you’re looking for). In this case, the rules were simple and I spelled them out at the beginning of the scene: Put as much distance behind you as possible, and cover might help a bit.
  • The rules are not too restrictive: I didn’t say anything about how the players needed to achieve their goals. Quite the opposite—the players were put on notice that the problem was theirs to solve, and they got creative about how to do so. Just as you don’t want to tell the players how they have to win a combat encounter—you set up the environment, the opponents, and their tactics, then let the players approach it as they will—you don’t want to funnel them into a specific solution to the mini-game. What they come up with is half the fun.
  • There are still unknowns: While the rules must be clear, there can still be unknowns. In this example I knew exactly how much time was on the bomb’s timer. The heroes didn’t. This really added to tension.
  • The mini-game is no secret: Finally, I think it helps if the players know they’re in a mini-game. (This is why I  advocate always telling players when a skill challenge gets underway.) It helps them focus on solving the strategic problem at hand, and again helps build a sense of tension that makes the result so engaging and fun.

My example here was a pretty simple one. I’ve used the mini-game concept dozens of times (my post on the fog of war is a sort-of example), so maybe in future posts I’ll outline some other, slightly more sophisticated examples.

Or maybe you’d like to share some examples of your own?

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