World Building 101: The Games We Play

All across the world, games and sports have existed almost as long as humans have been able to conceive of them. Whether as a means of entertainment, of keeping critical physical and mental skills finely honed, or as a pursuit of gamblers and thrill-seekers, all manner of different games have been invented throughout history. It may seem strange to think about what games may be part of your D&D campaign world—after all, your players more than likely want to play D&D, not chess. However, as in the real world, the various peoples of your campaign world will more than likely have various ways to pass the time, and what tavern is complete without a bit of high stakes gambling?

Games and sports can be broken down into several main types:

  • Games of prowess include any game where the key to victory is superior skill or strength. Darts, arm-wrestling, stylized combat, and most modern sports fall into this category.
  • Games of fortune include games where one must rely on chance to win. Dice games, card games, and wheels of fortune fall into this category—though a good bluff or an understanding of the rules can help even the odds, the largest part of the game is out of the control of the players.
  • Games of the mind include games which rely on out-thinking the opponent or demonstrating a keen grip of strategy. Chess and its many variants belong in this category, as do many board games.

There are, of course, games that could count as being more than one of these basic categories—many card games require varying degrees of strategy in addition to luck in order to win, for example. For our purposes, though, these categories will serve well enough.

Finding a place for games in your campaign world should be easy enough. As mentioned above, gambling is a common pastime for adventurers with too much loot—a rousing game of fortune in the common room of an inn may be just the thing to encourage a bit of roleplaying. Games can be used to illustrate elements of different cultures in your campaign setting—Maybe an aggressive race of warriors favors games of prowess, while a cerebral race of scholars prefers games of the mind, and the fickle fey prefer games of chance in keeping with their trickster natures. What if the warrior culture holds experts at strategy games like chess in high esteem, as well? Using games in this way can add flavor and communicate nuances of cultural values in your campaign setting.

You could also use games as story hooks. Perhaps a mysterious traveler uses a set of cards to tell a player character’s fortune—possibly even while playing a hand at the tavern. What if strange magical beings have a contract with a local village that they will leave the people in safety as long as every hundred years a champion of the villagers defeats their champion in some game? Perhaps a fantastic prize or particular macguffin the player characters need is being offered to the winners of a tournament—a golden arrow to the best archer in the land, for example? How about a religious ritual to honor the god or goddess of chance?

When you include games, you may want to keep it simple and stick with the games your players already know. Being familiar with the rules of a game like poker or chess means they have a good chance of being able to play out a round of the game in character if you choose to include that as a possibility, and you will more than likely either already have or be readily able to obtain the requisite tools to play with. A game of chess with a wizard or a game of poker or darts in the tavern feel familiar, but may not tickle the sense of wonder, even if you change the name of the game to something more fantastic.

A method that may lead to more exotic-feeling results is to use real games from different cultures. Depending on where your players hail from, chances are they are more familiar with chess than with shogi, a Japanese game of similar heritage. Likewise, they may be familiar with throwing darts or knives at a board on the wall, but the Korean game of tuho, in which an arrow shaft is tossed into a vase, might strike the same chord while feeling more fantastic. Other “exotic” games might include mancala, a bead game common to many African societies, yut, a traditional Korean game, or senet, an ancient Egyptian board game. To make these games fit better with your campaign, you can alter the name and cosmetic details of the playing pieces to be more suitable to the setting if need be.

Finally you may wish to use a completely invented game, or something inspired by fiction. Instead of poker, perhaps the most common card game in your setting is Cripple Mr. Onion, or Three Dragon Ante (which technically does exist as a real world game, as well, and particularly well suited for this very purpose.) The existence of magic in a setting allows sports to potentially be quite different from what human players in our world can achieve—for the most obvious example of how magic can create a new sport, think Quidditch. Obviously this type of game involves the most work, as you must create the rules and all the materials needed to play (or in the case of magical sports, to represent play) as well as determine whether there are effective strategies or exploitative techniques that were not immediately obvious. This may well exceed the scope of your D&D game and spill over into actual game design, but you may end up with a hit that all your friends love to play, as well.

Ideally, games should feel like they belong in your campaign world, and almost definitely should have some place therein, but remember, before you set out to illustrate a deck of custom cards for your campaign, that your friends gather to play D&D, and that any other game may be fun, but should not distract or detract too extensively from the pursuit of the campaign. Always be willing to truncate or abstract a game in your campaign, even if you’ve determined the full rules, if your players seem bored or antsy to get back to the main attraction.