Here's an important aspect of early D&D I've been meditating on lately: the propensity for it to be an ongoing construction of games-within-games. Let's consider a few exemplary examples that spring to mind, starting with D&D and some of my most-favorite computer games:

(1) Dungeons & Dragons. In some sense, OD&D can itself be thought of as the “discovery” that the CHAINMAIL rules contained an even more interesting sub-game with its fantasy combat at the man-to-man scale (not to mention its even more refined system for jousting competitions). In the initial “White Books” you had both the standard dungeon exploration, as well as separate and distinct rules for large-scale wilderness exploration, castle-building, aerial combat, and ship-to-ship naval engagements.

What do I consider some of my most memorable D&D adventures? How about module X10, with its unique strategic-level world-warfare game (in parallel with PC-based diplomacy/adventure scenarios – including possible sidetracks to other X-series modules). Or M5, with a points-based diplomacy roleplay between imperial powers at the adventure's climax. Or even module S3, with its special system for trying to manipulate high-tech artifacts (among other things).

(2) Sid Meier's Pirates! Man, did I play a lot of this game on my cousin's Commodore 64 one summer. In some sense I consider it to be the near-perfect game – and, a lot of my design efforts wind up looking like attempts at replicating this classic. One of the strengths is that it has a completely different sub-game for each skill you might perform in your career as a privateer in the Carribean. Strategic sail navigation, taking a sun-sighting, fighting by cannons, personal swordplay on the deck, invading towns, choosing crew and cargoes, puzzling over map fragments, and wooing the daughters of prominent mayors, are all simulated in distinct sub-games. And almost all of them are both flat-out wonderful, and interface perfectly with all the rest (to the extent that only at this late date can I recognize them as sub-games at all).

(3) Mechwarrior. The original Mechwarrior was another game I played and re-played a whole lot of times. It's the first game I played that had both (a) “sandbox” play, and (b) “plot” based threads. The “sandbox” allowed you to progress as a mercenary captain, taking randomly-generated combat missions, improving your team and equipment over time. The “plot” (for lack of a better word) allowed you to follow up on clues that you were the member of a deposed royal family, and potentially win back your family's home. Some great (and dare I say Gygaxian) aspects of this: (1) you could play the mercenary sandbox indefinitely, (2) it was actually fairly hard to discover that there was a “plot” based mystery to follow up on in the first place, and (3) you still had to do some random mercenary missions in order to build up the strike team you needed at the end of the plotted scenarios. The exact time and sequence of events is impossible to predict in a game of Mechwarrior.

Now, some of this should be well-known to players of current computer game “sandbox” designs (Grand Theft Auto, anyone?), but since I don't play modern consoles, I can't comment directly on those. The thing I want to emphasize is that we don't lose the willingness to allow games-within-games in our classic tabletop RPGs.

Consider a few other examples from TSR/WOTC. In the old Star Frontiers Knight Hawks space combat game (by Doug Niles, who deserves his own blog acclaim), there was a brilliant scaling rule: for 15+ ships, use the coarse, Basic rules for the game; for 5-14 ships, use the more detailed Advanced rules; for 2-4 ships, use the Advanced rules with the individual characters' piloting & gunnery skills detailed. In the more recent d20-based Star Wars game, the spaceship rules were entirely done by analogy to the stock character-to-character system – which I was rather appalled to see when I read it.

Post-2000, there's been a bit of an over-reaction by my left-brained brothers and sisters, often times feeling that all activities in a particular game need to be abstracted out into one single universal mechanic. While this might be nice in theory, in practice I consider it be an abject failure (see the Star Wars example above). Even AD&D is not immune to criticism – when it converted overland movement rates from hexes to miles-per-day (so as to be usable with any campaign map scale; compare DMG p. 58 to OD&D Vol. 3, p. 16), it should have been emphasized that each DM really needed to manipulate those numbers and turn them back into spaces-per-turn on their personal map scale. Unfortunately, it did not. Here we see how frequently the attempt at abstraction interrupts the gamesmanship that we need at any scale of action.

Hence we have a few criticisms of the current branding of D&D: Action at different scales should have different mechanics that support the distinct flavor appropriate to each. Likewise, character classes that represent very different approaches to adventuring (magic vs. martial arts) should have different mechanics supporting each. We lose a lot when the game is reduced to a single kind of action scale (6-second moves on 5-ft squares), and the willingness to include sub- and super-games is prohibited (such as castle-building, tactical mass warfare, etc.) And, we have even more reason to avoid fetishizing character development, because we have to be willing to lose those characters abruptly if we play out an encounter at a larger scale (see 3E's Tome of Battle for the mangled result of being unwilling to allow for this).

Much of the addictive beauty of the original D&D game comes specifically from its flexibility as a model of developing games-within-games, both above and below the “normal” scale of action. It's a more interesting and more challenging enterprise than writing either "story" or "sourcebook" supplements, which add nothing concrete to our gameplay. But likewise, we should avoid being dogmatic, and try to engage our expansion systems only when it makes sense to do so (perhaps taking Doug Niles' SFKH as a canonical, concise example).


  1. I agree with games within games points (although I'll say many people want to roleplay and aren't interested in the more overt wargames/mass combat systems) The s3 tech flowchart mechanic was brilliant Wish I remembered to use that more.

    But, I (to a degree) like universal mechanics. And see mechanics / rules and there universalness as unrelated to whether there are games within games.

    Rules should be consistent. If high is good, it should always be good. It shouldn't flip flop around. Don't make some skill checks d20 and some d100 and others d6. Make them all the same. If you really have to have combat use some other mechanic then ok.

    Less rules == better. Consistency reduces rules bloat. There's a point though for universal mechanics were it actually leads to more rules because your mashing it somewhere it don't fit.

    "Action at different scales should have different mechanics"

    Is a good rule. One I intend to follow in my next campaign. If a character reaches name level they can retire or build castle/tower/church/whatever and we can play a land management/barony game within game. But the character's going dungeon crawling career is more or less over.

  2. Character creation is a huge subgame too, though not in the sense of being a part of the world that gets explored and simulated (unless we're talking Traveller).

    I'd love to have a travel subgame with standardized hex scales that automates getting the characters there and takes ranger bonuses into account, etc. More than just some miles/day rates and an admonition to make up some encounter charts.

    I'm still surprised that WotC did not insert a CCG aspect into 4E. Card systems can handle resource management and random events (and fairness!) well, much more within the tolerance of the average lazy RPG-er. Ask them to track food and encumbrance and they'll scream. Ask them to track some cards and they'll have fun.

    Or they could have used it for their blasted skill challenges. The DM flips a card off the "Social" deck. "Suspicious Guard. Half the players must make Disguise, Bluff or Streetwise checks." After that, "Hungry! All players must pay for food." Put some of the gruntwork and time management stuff in there too. Just let the DM run the deck and take a load off.

    Mix up the cards, keep selling new ones.. play to WotC's strength. Heck, replace maps with a deck. Sell "Encounters in the Dark Forest" as a deck of cards instead of as a boring module. Has your group found the Haunted Ruins card in there that leads to module H10?


    I remember TSR's Indiana Jones game had chase scene flowchart map that was interesting. And Savage Worlds has a chase scene subgame within it that some people like IIRC.

    Having more of these pre-canned things is good, so that in the heat of the moment the DM doesn't have to try to improvise something that is just a boring old skill roll.

    The problem is that most RPG designers don't have one good subgame in them, much less several. It's difficult stuff to design, especially with the limited resources that you expect at the RPG table and the limited ability of the DM to act as the opponent.

    For example, I once had some players defend a village from attack, which I played out as a chess game. I'm not as good at chess as the bad guys were at attacking villages, so I had the players face a computer opponent. Various pieces on their side corresponded to certain NPCs, and they were saddened by that bishop sacrifice, I tell you.

    Some things that WOULD work at the table are cards, as above. Push-your-luck dice mechanisms would also work (as for example yoinked from Reiner Knizia's Decathlon). I'd like to see more fun dice mechanisms in RPGs.

    I've toyed with the idea of giving tavern puzzles to a thief player instead of having the skill at all. Or replacing all the dice with little player challenges a la Cranium. E.g. toss a chip into a cup instead of rolling ranged to-hit; solve mastermind-ish puzzles to cast spells, etc.

    Sorry for this amorphous comment... This is a pretty large topic and perhaps I am missing your more specific point. I think RPGs could stand to steal a little fire from the larger world of gaming.

  3. I have no experience with X10 or M5 and I'm intrigued. Love to read more about those specific sub-games, or any homebrews of your own for OD&D.

  4. Great stuff, I'll be linking to your post in my series about the new 3.x/old school system my wife and I created.

  5. Inspired post! You sir, have been added to my feedreader.

  6. Huh. Never thought of that before, but you're right. I have learned over recent years that I kind of like having different sub-systems and "side games" that you can engage in, but I had never put it all together as well as you did.

  7. It seems to me like there are good reasons to both use universal mechanics and to build games within games.

    Games within games contrast the moods between types of action, as you said. They can keep the activities at the table mixed up and add a lot of general flavor, which keeps the gameplay from getting stale. That said, constantly looking up the rules for how to do X action gets pretty old and takes bogs down the action pretty bad.

    Universal resolution mechanics do have a bit of a glossed-over feel to them, but they have a few big advantages. The most obvious thing is that they're simple, which can be (although isn't always) a plus for some people. The big thing for me, though is that they're amazingly flexible. Games within games only cover specific types of occurrences, and trying to do something unexpected or unusual even inside a covered conflict-type can be very hard to integrate. Pulling the rug out from under someone in a swordfight, punching an open wound in a wrestling match, whatever. Specific combat rules have a lot of trouble with this sort of thing, but (some) universal systems handle them completely in stride.

    I really enjoy playing with both kinds of systems, but they both absolutely have their weaknesses. They also have some pretty fun strengths, though.

  8. I think both universal mechanics and sub-games have their place.

    When I started my RPG career, I started playing MERP and RM and was totally sold on the universal d% roll mechanic. I think a game should have a central mechanic, and that it should be possible to do everything that way.

    For some that would feel like "glossing over" the interesting parts, but I'd say that for them there might be a sub game that can be plugged in. I remember how MegaTraveller had a mass combat system (in the Referee's Companion or was it the Rebellion Sourcebook?) where you just added up the stats of the characters that made up a unit. You could even fight a mass combat and then "disassemble" your unit afterwards and the damages were portioned out. Fold in and fold out. Very neat.

    Games where you have to use different dice for different things, or have to look up how to do that specific thing is a fun killer for me.

    I agree with Norman that different scales is a good divider, though. Sub-games shouldn't be something that stop the regular flow of the game, but if you change the scale you're probably adjusting your mind set anyway, so then it would feel ok to look up a new mechanic.

    The flora of sub-games is actually something that have kept me from picking up Aces & Eights. Hmm. Well. After reading this post I might have to rethink that. Maybe.

  9. I remain unconvinced, but am open to further enticement.

    I am normally rather irritated by ad hoc systems created by a design GM that then made their way into later editions of games, to become institutionalised as 'standard' rules.
    It just feels like it is simply sloppy design work.

    I'll ruminate and see if any of my fave systems have noticable sub-systems/sub-games, and then ruminate some more.

    Interesting topic, though.

  10. Thanks for the comments, all. I agree that action at different scales is the most likely thing to justify different mechanics.

    A few points of clarification: I dislike pure abstraction for abstraction's sake. For me, games need to have a "simulation/ modelling/ educational" component to make them concrete and really interesting. That is, some thought as to what traits are truly important, and representation of those traits by the game mechanics.

    Thus, I would not be in favor of using chess or checkers or some other card game to represent skills or battles in D&D. Nor am I satisfied by "obvious" mass-combat systems (like adding stats), in that it doesn't model the actual results that would occur at the lower scale.

    For example: I frown on "Puzzle Pirates". Here you perform things like sailing and combat by Tetris/Bejeweled-like puzzle-games. However, I highly approve of Sid Meier's Pirates! Here you perform sailing by actually setting sails in the advantages angle to the wind, and sun-sightings by tracking the actual angle of a rising sun in first-person.

    The advantage here is that Sid Meier's Pirates! taught me a lot about actual sailing technology, how a sextant works, etc., while Puzzle Pirates could not. That's why the former seems like a full "game" to me, and the latter like only half a game.

    So, just any game will not do. We have to take up the opportunity to actually model the things that are important in our gaming.

  11. @Delta,

    Thanks for the clarification.
    In light of that, I am more inclined to welcome such a sub-game component, as it aids in immersive verisimilitude. But am still cautious of an RPG mechanic which renders the player's skill as trump over the character's.

    Heaven knows I may be able to play a successful particle physicist, but couldn't write out such an equation to save my life. :D

  12. A light hearted game within a game is presented in the 3E Book of Challenges. A dice game (boneyard) and a card game (gold digger) allow the DM to run a little casino for the players, with a slight house advantage of course.

  13. A light hearted game within a game is presented in the 3E Book of Challenges. A dice game (boneyard) and a card game (gold digger) allow the DM to run a little casino for the players, with a slight house advantage of course.

    See, this I approve of highly. You can see the same thing in 1E DMG (Appendix F: Gambling), and an old Dragon article that simulated chess played in-game (one of my faves).

  14. Hi, nice post! It inspired me to do a little meditation of my own on the subject of 'games-within-games'....


    Just in case you're interested.