You know what seems to always go over very well in RPGs? Playing games. You know, a game *within* the game world. People love it. Whether it’s as simple as a knife throwing contest or as complex as a game of whist, it’s a classic RPG tradition.
I remember the first game-within-a-game I played – back in the 1980s, with my very first RPG, Star Frontiers. In “Starspawn of Volturnus,” you have to play a kind of Buzkashi (mounted ball-carrying game) to get the Ul-Mor, a primitive race of land-lubbing octopi, to help you against the Sathar menace.
Most recently, the Curse of the Crimson Throne adventure path had three such mini-games! You can play “knivesies” in Escape from Old Korvosa, where two competitors get on a table with a knife and money from everyone betting. You can guess the victory conditions. Here’s a blow by blow of our knivesies game.
Accordingly, Malcolm decides to play some knivesies! This popular game involves two combatants standing on a table, with a knife and a bunch of gold from bettors placed in the middle. The game ends when one person’s dead, unconscious, off the table, or there’s no more gold on the table. No rules other than that. The gold’s split between the winner and the bettors standing on their side of the table. “I’m the baddest bastard in the hizzouse! Bigger then old King Kong, badder than a junkyard dog!” exclaims Malcolm, to whip the crowd into a betting frenzy and to intimidate his opponent.
He faces off against Thugly the Thug Leader (apparently this gang is so low rent that its members don’t even have proper names), who moves first and grabs the knife. He slashes at Malcolm, missing him, and Malcom hauls off and punches him in the face. He stabs Malcolm but Malcolm beats him like a red-headed stepchild with a pimp slap and a throat punch. “Never bring a knife to a fistfight,” growls Malcolm. The thug swipes feebly at Malcolm, and Malcolm hauls off and belts him twice in the face, “Every Which Way But Loose” style. The thug collapses to the floor. Bets are paid off.
In A History of Ashes, you get to play sredna with “Krojin Eats-What-He-Kills,” a Shoanti barbarian. This involves strapping your heads together with a rawhide thong and pulling until someone breaks down or gives up from the pain. Needless to say, Malcolm couldn’t resist this either…
Krojin challenges Malcolm to “sredna,” where two people stand forehead to forehead and then a leather cord is tied around their ears and the back of their heads, and when the match starts they back away from each other, incurring great pain. He accepts on the grounds that it sounds more painful than knivesies, even. The braves bind Malcolm and Krojin together, and they stay forehead to forehead for three rounds, gnashing their teeth and intimidating each other.
They both scream and gnash. Malcolm wins 3 of 3 Intimidate checks. “So fierce!!!” says Annata. Krojin starts pulling on the cord, but Malcolm resists and pulls back. He’s doing quite well. “He is so good at tugging on another man’s ears!” Annata says to Thorndyke. Thorndyke smacks his palm to his forehead.
They vie for supremacy for another couple rounds. Malcolm is doing well; he seems stronger than the barbarian but may give out quicker due to a lower fortitude. “Put the squeal in Squeal-Quah!” cries Annata. The crowd is eager and cheering. Malcolm pulls again and Krojin gives in, bowing his head to let the cord twang over the back of his skull! Annata hops up and down, cheering. Krojin “Eats-What-He-Kills” rolls around in the dirt to get his mind right, and ends up complimenting Malcolm. “I never knew they had hobbies besides rape and arson,” reflects Annata.
Apparently there’s another game in Escape from Old Korvosa called “Blood Pig.” It is one of our greatest regrets that we never got to play this. In short, these mini-games were very well received and everyone got to enjoy participating, betting, or snarkily commenting on them.
What brought this to mind? There’s a Cracked article called “5 Modern Sports That Started As Excuses for Sex and Violence.” It hearkens to lovely things like medieval football. Imagine the PCs wandering into a village where the whole populace is doing anything within their power, up to and including assault, to get a ball to the other side of town.
So add one to your next game! Or write a “20 Violent Medieval Games” supplement. In any event, consider that games add competition and rules crunch without requiring actual killing (in most circumstances), and those lessened stakes mean more character interaction and roleplaying.