A game is an organized activity of play with rules and objectives that are determined by a combination of luck and skill. Games turn story problems into tension because they introduce risk. A risk is when someone makes a consequential decision with incomplete information, which is a core element of a game: A test of skill or luck to win an objective within rules. The objective is the consequence, the skill is the decision, and the RPG's use of hidden information and luck provide the uncertainty.
Without games, the outcome of story problems are decided by the GM and players, so the characters may feel tension, but the players won't, because the players get to decide how things end. If there's a game, there's a chance the players will fail or that other, unpredictable complications will arise outside of their control.
Games are where story problems turn into real tension.
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There are hundreds of tabletop roleplaying games on the market, but there are only two games inside of them. The two games are a resource management strategy game and a wagers and dares game. Very few RPGs (or even story games) use improvisational theater (improv) as a distinct game that determines outcomes within their set of rules, but it is worth mentioning.
The Resource Management Strategy Game
Dungeons & Dragons originated from a war game, where units attacked one another, and a "hit" destroyed a unit. Heroes emerged, single powerful "fighting men" and "wizards" who were a whole unit in one person. As it evolved, these heroes became able to withstand multiple "hits" and deal multiple "hits" worth of damage. This led to the first resource management game on the single character role-playing scale.
The kinds of strategic decisions players made were similar. A force of ten cavalry units could maneuver around an enemy force of eight infantry units to conserve their numbers for a stronger attack on the enemy's eight archer units in the rear. A fighting man could sneak past a monster to conserve "hit points" for a harder battle later on. In the newest edition of D&D, a party of Battle Master Fighter, Tome Pact Warlock, Life Domain Cleric, and Assassin Rogue can put on disguises and try to bluff their way past a contingent of drow guards to sneak into the prison and free the High Lord from captivity, conserving their Superiority Dice, Spell Slots, and Hit Points for the inevitable fight on the way out.
A resource management game has several moving parts. In a resource management game, the players choose when to spend their characters' limited resources.
- Their resources might give them advantages in the dares and wagers game (see below) such as Willpower points in the World of Darkness.
- Their resources might allow them to win story elements that they want (usually story victories or advantages) without any die rolls at all, such as wizard "utility spells" in D&D, Fate points in Fate, and so forth.
- Their resources might protect their own lives (e.g. hit points), so that losing resources makes it harder to survive attacks.
- Their resources might determine how well they can defeat enemies, so that as they expend resources, their ability to defeat foes diminishes.
There is no resource management game unless there is time pressure.
Time pressure keeps the PCs from refreshing their resources by having some story event happen after a certain amount of time has elapsed. The story event has to be something the PCs care about preventing. As a result, it limits the resources the PCs have access to.
D&D, the most popular RPG, refreshes resources on a daily (long rest) and hourly (short rest) basis. That means that GMs can use time pressure on the scale of hours or days. For instance, realistically, giving the PCs a day before disaster strikes allows them to take one long rest (6 hours, once per 24 hours period) and several short rests (one hour each). Giving them "until dark" lets them have a few short rests only. Giving them "about an hour" doesn't give them any rests at all -- they have only the resources they start with, nothing more. (The 5th edition Dungeon Master's Guide has guidelines for how many encounters of what difficulty the PCs can handle between rests.)
Most RPGs are designed with a "standard" resource cycle baked in. Some base the resource cycle on story cycles, like GUMSHOE or Fate, while others base it on time, like D&D.
When a game bases the resource cycle on the story, story and time are tied together: You can't get a full refresh of your Investigative abilities in Night's Black Agents until you've completed an operation. If you retreat to refresh your resources, it only works if the operation ends. So unless you want to go into that ruin with a mallet and stake, you have to give up and flee London, ceding Vauxhall Cross to Dracula's control.
When a game bases the resource cycle on time, you have to build time limits into your stories. The orcs are guarding the dragon's hoard for it while it's away. It will be back in 24 hours. The Tremere vampire clan will be hosting Elysium at the manor house in 2 nights, so that's how much time you have to uncover proof of their plot to assassinate the Prince. The secret Renraku illegal R&D facility is aware that they have been discovered. They're packing up right now, and will be cleared out in four or five hours.
A 2-6 hour unit of play with a beginning, middle, and end is typically called a chapter, adventure, module, scenario, operation, mission, or story. During such an adventure, each player will get about 30-90 minutes of spotlight time. That time will include up to 20 chances to spend resources for advantages in the dares and wagers game (see below), to achieve story elements, to survive attacks, and to defeat enemies.
If your PCs have around 100 hit points each (500 total for the party) and the ability to heal hundreds of hit points a day, 10 points of damage to one character is not meaningful. 40 points of damage to one character is meaningful. Consider that the party has 500 hit points and the ability to heal or avoid 300 points of damage. 40 points of damage to one character represents 5% of the party's defensive resources.
Why does this matter? As a GM, your side of the resource management game is to drain the party's resources and make them think creatively to come up with strategies that conserve their resources while achieving their goals
Combat is Intense Resource Management
About one third to two thirds of your typical 20 chances to spend resources will be combat actions. Because of the war game origins of RPGs and the fact that you have to simulate combat (this isn't LARP), combat uses the game system more than other scenes. Combat is also the most rule prescribed part of most RPGs. In other parts of the game, the GM gets to frame die rolls, stating what happens on a successful roll and what happens on a failed roll.
In combat, most of what you do is prescribed, and all the stakes are resource management stakes: If you make an attack with a longsword, you roll Proficiency + Strength Modifier against the target's Armor Class. If you hit, you deal 1d8 + Strength Modifier damage; and if you miss, you do not deal damage. The "penalty" on a miss is that your opponent survives to attack you later (reducing your Hit Points resource). If you choose to use a Battle Master Maneuver to try to turn a miss into a hit, it will cost a Superiority Die. This resource requires an hour of time to refresh, but hitting this monster might kill it and prevent some damage or other problems it might cause, and those problems might be more expensive than losing the Superiority Die. This kind of strategic decision happens every round in combat in most RPGs.
The Wagers and Dares Game
A wager is when you risk something against someone else's stake based on the outcome of a future event. A dare is when one person defies another to test their courage. The wagers and dares system in RPGs is commonly called a "check" as in "skill check" or "Charisma check" or "Sanity check" etc.
This is the simplest part of an RPG, but GMs miss opportunities to make checks into wagers and dares all the time. Without a wager or dare, there's no game.
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A wager is something that the player character can lose if the check fails. The dare is the thing that the player character takes a risk to achieve. Often there's a dare without a wager: "Make an Athletics check with a difficulty of 15 to climb the wall." Where's the wager? What happens if the check fails? The character doesn't climb the wall. So what? They'll just try again.
The stakes have to go both ways, or there is no wager.
In the example above, the stakes only go one way: On a 15 or better, the character climbs the wall. On a 14 or lower, nothing happens. The GM's job is to have the world respond to the player characters' actions. "Nothing happens" is failing to GM. It's also weak stakes, since the PC can usually try again. Even when that PC can't try again, another PC can usually try in their place. It's also failing to include a game. Why roll the dice if not to play a game? So let's fix it.
"Make an Athletics check with a difficulty of 15 to climb the wall..."
- ...and if you fail, you try for several minutes and realize it is impossible for you to get up to the alcove (story).
- ...and if you fail, you get to the top after several close calls and falls, scraped and bruised, suffering 1d10 damage (resource).
- ...and if you fail, you waste 15 minutes, and have to try again (resource).
- ...and if you fail, you get to the top but make enough noise to alert the guards (story).
As you can see, the stakes don't have to be "fail to get to the top of the wall." The stakes can be all kinds of things.
The stakes have to be things the player or character cares about, or there is no dare.
The best dares are story dares. Two of the wall climbing examples above are story wagers. The player character wants to advance past an obstacle in the way of their goal. To do so, they have to risk failing to achieve their goal ("impossible for you to get up to the alcove") or risk adding a story complication ("make enough noise to alert the guards").
Resource Management Dares
Something neat happens when you have a resource management game in full effect: You can make resource cost dares! Two of the wall climbing examples above are resource cost dares. Remember, a resource management game is only in play if there are limited resources, and if limited resources refresh over time, that means a resource management game is only in play if there is limited time before the PCs lose something they care about. The wall climbing example provides two such wagers - one for resources assuming there's a time limit ("suffering 1d10 damage") and another for time ("waste 15 minutes"). If the PCs have all the time they want, wasting 15 minutes is not a meaningful wager. Nor is 1d10 damage, because with unlimited time, there is unlimited time to rest and heal.
Combat is full of resource management dares -- the combat system in most traditional RPGs is designed to give the players at least one resource management dare every time their turn comes up. Combat without strategic resource management decisions can be pretty boring.
(One of the biggest complaints about 4th edition D&D is that past level 5 or so, PCs have too many resource management dares each round, slowing combat to a crawl.)
Meaningful Resource Management Dares
OK, so you've got time pressure. Now, how many resources should you force the PC to wager as stakes? Remember, the stakes have to be things the player or character cares about, or there is no dare.
A D&D fighter with 120 hit points is climbing up a 20 ft. wall. The worst thing that can happen is that they fall 20' and take 2d10 damage. That's not a meaningful dare - that's a waste of table time. Here are some better options:
- Hand wave the action. "You climb up the wall." You skip past the situation so you can get on to the next, more meaningful opportunity for a wager.
- Change the resource. Hit points aren't the only resource stakes. "Make an Athletics check, difficulty 15. If you fail, you waste 15 minutes and have to try again." OK, now we're wagering time stakes, and those don't scale with level!
- Change the stakes. Don't use resource management stakes. Use story stakes. "Make an Athletics check, difficulty 15. If you fail, you make enough noise to alert the guards."
The Improv Game
A third game-within-the-game exists, but is rarely used in tabletop RPGs because it requires giving players director-level agency (meaning, players get to control the game world, not just the GM). Some story games have included improv as a game (e.g. Microscope, Fiasco), while other story games and RPGs have instead taken aspects of improv and incorporated them into the resource management game (e.g. Fate, Vampire) or the wagers and dares game (e.g. Monsterhearts, Call of Cthulhu).
The difference between improv being used as a game and improv aspects being incorporated into resource management or wagers and dares is complicated. Improv is part of all role-playing, after all. So, to what degree can a player's role-playing actually achieve their character's objectives?
Improv is play, but it's not very game-like: It's not a competitive exercise, and you aren't playing toward an objective other than to be entertaining and genuine. A character in an improv game may be trying to achieve something, but the improv player is playing to "see what happens."
Improv prompts are often wager outcomes: "Make a Sanity check or become paranoid and afraid of your friends." But rarely are procedural outcomes driven by improv acting.
Role-playing (Improv) usually contributes to the two other games. My favorite improvement made in 5th edition D&D is that good role-playing of your character's traits, ideal, bond, and flaw earns Inspiration, a resource that gives you Advantage on the wagers and dares rolls in the game.
Two story games I know actually use improv acting to determine story outcomes, as opposed to using improv prompts as outcomes: Microscope and Fiasco (and probably some other story games - I haven't played them all!) use improv acting to resolve procedural questions, rather than dice or resource management.
What have you seen?
Let me know if you've found other games-inside-the-games or other RPGs that use improv as their primary procedural task resolution mechanic. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts.