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Double Down: Gambling in RPGs

There is a very easy way to return from a casino with a small fortune: go there with a large one. — Jack Yelton

Gambling works for just about every game world. In our world, gambling was so popular in the renaissance that kings and popes banned playing cards. There’s something iconic about Han and Lando playing sabbac for the Millenium Falcon, Croaker’s admonishing the Black Company watchmen for gambling, Mat Cauthon’s constant dicing and fickle fortune as he leads the Band of the Red Hand, Claude Rains announcing “I am shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here”, poker games on the Enterprise, and Skeeve winning Markie in a game of Dragon Poker.

Gambling can lead to fascinating subplots, but can be tricky to handle at the table. There are a number of approaches, from quick and abstracted, to breaking out the actual game and playing it in the middle of the roleplaying game– and between these extremes are several more options. We’ll look below at gambling and discuss how to pick from the many possible approaches.

Is Gambling Important to Anyone?

A character with the gambling skill is the player casting a vote for gambling to be a part of the game and the world. If someone makes it an important part of their character, be sure to treat it like any other character flag and make it matter in your game. It doesn’t have to crop up in every session, but the more the player sacrifices to make gambling important to their character, the more effort you should spend working it into your plots.

That doesn’t mean the character always has to win, or that the whole game becomes about tracking dozens of bets and incrementally increasing the character’s wealth– but if you’re looking for a flaw for the night watchman to have, gambling will serve you well. If the villain needs some quick cash to equip her army of mooks, she might turn up at the gambling tables. Or she might fix a horse race and give the PCs an entirely new avenue of investigation– and new evidence to add to her list of crimes.

Quick Abstracted Gambling

Much of the time, gambling isn’t going to be the focus of a session. It can make a great scene to drop into at the start of a story– characters picking up their friend in the middle of a game, while he protests, “just one more hand”. Sometimes the gambling is incidental; an amateur whiles away a few hours on a stakeout, playing craps as a cover. Or Bond’s gambling in most of the movies– it’s interesting flavor, but we don’t care much whether he wins or loses– it’s just an interesting setup.

For quick games or off-screen gambling, a quick roll using the standard rules of your game is the best way to handle it. Make a quick roll against a Mediocre difficulty, or have the opponents make an opposed Profession(Gambling) check. If the PC loses, the loss wipes out his winning prior to joining the scene– if victorious, the character goes home with some walking around money. This is a great point for the other gamblers to protest the PC leaving– the big guy in the corner can snarl that “you gotta give me a chance to win it back,” or any other bits of flavor that make sense. If the PC was playing a game of pure chance, toss a pair of d6 to measure the net losses (in dollars, silver pieces, or whatever currency makes sense)– and pay the PC the sum if doubles come up.

Long Abstracted Gambling

Often the gambler PC will want to purposefully game; to meet new contacts, raise some cash, or just feed the addiction. There are three major questions you should consider– either ask the player explicitly, or explain clearly (via scene setup or OOC) so you and the player both understand. The three questions are:

Unless the other characters are also gambling, or the other players are interested in the scene, you’ll usually want to keep gambling scenes short. Even in movies with a lot of gambling, you don’t watch hand after hand– instead you get a couple of quick shots of the character and their stack of coins, of characters dropping out of the game, several tension building shots of the room and atmosphere, and the final “for everything” hand. You’ll usually want to do the same; if your system uses extended challenges or a skill challenge mechanic, narrate what’s going on with the other players, how the NPCs are whittled down on PC successes, how the PC comes close to busting out when he misses a roll, and narrating the flow of the game and stack sizes rather than any exact numbers. Eventually it all culminates in the final hand…

If the PC is playing for normal stakes, you don’t need to lavish a lot of attention of the intermediate opponents. You can explain how they rise and fall as simple inverses of the PC’s success– if the NPCs are doing well, most of them stay alive and a few grow wealthier, while incremental successes on the PC’s part whittle down the opposition and the PC’s stack of coins grows. If the game is high stakes, each bad roll along the way should leave the PC on the ropes, scraping deeper and deeper just to stay in. Each victory, on the other hand, is a chance for someone to bust out… and leave strange bets on the table. Wedding bands, minor magic items, treasure maps, deeds to distant mansions, bottles of drugs, a contract for someone’s soul, or other plot hooks make for great high stakes winnings. If the PC loses a high stakes game, how he’s treated depends on if he has the wealth on hand… and high stakes means they usually won’t. So the PC will need to pay out similarly interesting stakes to make it work out, or acquire a new debt and some mobster friends who visit frequently for “interest” payments, or otherwise get in deep trouble.

Cheating is a significant choice and deserves focus. In most cases, I would allow the character to make an opposed “spot” versus “sleight of hand” check; if the PC succeeds, they can replace their last roll with a new one. Failure, though, should lead to an immediate break from the game– blades or pistols drawn, insults and name blackening are sure to follow. Even on success, further attempts at cheating should have an increased difficulty. But getting out of high stakes failure is hugely tempting, particularly if the Seals of Solinde are on the table…

Break out the dice/cards

Sometimes, it just feels right to break out the cards and play a hand of poker in character. A quick spin or two of roulette can really contribute to the feel of a Monte Carlo scene.

It’s a tricky line; the game can be interesting and help everyone feel the scene from the character’s viewpoint and become a focus for roleplaying; or it become a significant distraction, a whole separate focus that gets people thinking in the mode of the interlude game. If you’re going to play more than a hand or two, you should look for the following warning signs before committing:

Like most subplots, if you have only a character or two involved and everyone else is just watching, you should reconsider spending a long time on the scene. For a quick gambling game, you can get around this if the players enjoy the game– they can play the dealer and random NPC competitors. Still, it will be a large break in the game for them, since they’ll be setting aside their characters the whole time.

If most of the players don’t like the other game, it’s a bit unfair to “bait and switch” them into playing it– they showed up for roleplaying, not blackjack. Most of us are used to making small sacrifices to keep the fun circulating around the room, but be very wary about spending a long time or hanging much on the game if it’s not universally loved in your group.

One of the hardest things to deal with can be players whose characters have vastly different skills. If the PC is brilliant at a gambling game, but the player can barely play, or the opposite– a skilled player with a dim or unskilled character– you’ll probably have some adjustments to make. You might want to consider allowing skill checks or other game mechanic abilities to affect the game; a sleight of hand check lets the character pick from a few extra cards, or a good intimidate check could rattle the NPC and back her off of her killer bet.

Gambling in Your Games

Have you used gambling in your games? Ever played a scoundrel with weighted dice or custom holocards? Let us know how you’ve worked gambling into your games– and if it integrated seamlessly, or if there are cautions we should learn from.

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "Double Down: Gambling in RPGs"

#1 Comment By theEmrys On August 17, 2009 @ 5:55 am

In the game Aces & Eights (Western RPG) they have a mini-system for gambling which is pretty neat. For the most part it’s a straight up game, but the cheating mechanic is well done. It involves getting some extra cards you can add to your hand (from another deck) but even though you may get great cards, much like “real” cheating this way, you have to hope nobody has a similar card in their hand. Now, for a western RPG it makes a lot of sense to have poker rules (and not Texas Holdem!). To this point though I’ve not had a game going where I felt comfortable using these rules, due both to my lack of familiarity with poker as well as the time involved. Still, I can see getting there, especially if a few of my PCs are interested in being gamblers.

#2 Comment By Zig On August 17, 2009 @ 7:44 am

Personally I have only used gambling in an old first edition Top Secret adventure. The mission took place in a casino and the adventure came with rules for a number of games so the players could gamble. Can’t recall the name of the adventure, but it was one put out by TSR, not a home brew.

I’m thinking of adding gambling in as a minor thing in my new second edition D&D campaign. I have a couple players who would enjoy it. Also, I plan to use the 1gp=1xp point for players who blow their adventuring gains in high fashion ala Conan, so gambling would be a good thing. Another Gnome commentator shared that idea in the comments of another article (sorry, I can’t recall who it was, but I thought it a great idea!).

#3 Comment By deadlytoque On August 17, 2009 @ 7:44 am

My issue with gambling at the table — at least in traditional RPGs — is that it takes players away from what they actually came to do: play an RPG. If your PCs have a gambling skill, then it’s only fair to let them use it once in a while, but keep it short and then get back to the real game at hand, especially if not everyone has it. If a PC had Craft (Carpentry), you wouldn’t feel the need to have long asides from the main game or come up with intricate subsystems to allow them to make chairs, would you?

Also, using gambling as a way to give the characters things that they want is illusionist, at best. If you want your players to have the Millenium Falcon and you make them play Sabacc for it, and they _lose_, then you’ve just wasted everyone’s time and you have to throw in a Deus ex Machina to get them back on-track, or else wait until some alternative presents itself. Otherwise you have to cheat behind the screen to give them what they want.

In a more narrativist resolution mechanic, you can get away with stuff like this a lot more. I’m thinking specifically of shifting-narrative-control games like Houses of the Blooded or Polaris. In games like that, gambling becomes simple a dramatic/narrative exercise, because it’s just as much part of the greater system, with as much room for consequences, as anything else (fighting, infiltration, politics).

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On August 17, 2009 @ 10:30 am

[1] – Aces and Eights has a system for everything! More seriously, it sounds like it’d be fun to try out. If you do, let us know how it works out.

[2] – Yes, gambling is a great way to lose money– which is great if it means XP. I like the “GP wasted = XP” thing too.

[3] – Yes, if your players don’t want to play a different game in the middle, don’t play the other game. I suspect LARPs are the easiest to work a gambling evening into– particularly if there’s one or two tables setup and roving GMs for other interactions as normal.

If a PC put lots of points in Craft(Carpentry), then it’d probably have some impact on the game– crafting mobile siege engines and shields, making petty cash or impressing noblemen with crafting, figuring out how to find and disassemble complex wooden objects– yeah, if the player wants to “waste” points on it, it’d be nice if it came up in the story. If he dedicates a skill point or two, sure it can be minor background. If they make it a major investment, it’s a vote for it to be important to the game.

#5 Comment By MountZionRyan On August 17, 2009 @ 12:03 pm

One of the most fun evening we had in a Deadlands game was when the PCs entered a gambling den in the Maze. A real hive of scum and villainy. As only two of the players were gambling, I quickly gave out the few neccesary stats and one or two hooks (needs to make $100 or always cheats) for the other NPCs at the poker table. The Players not directly involved got to play the NPCs and we had a lot of fun doing it.

That said, we used the Savage Worlds simplified gambling rules instead of actually playing cards, because the results were more important than the cards.

#6 Comment By John Arcadian On August 17, 2009 @ 2:06 pm

[4] – Scott, I think you are right that gambling is easiest to do in larps. I was in a Cthulu larp (first larp ever) at this years origins. While waiting for action to come back around to us, we decided to break out the cards and play for sins. It brought out a chance to do some really good roleplaying. Most people played to their characters personality traits, as opposed to their cards. It worked really well.

#7 Comment By Zig On August 17, 2009 @ 2:34 pm

[5] – That’s a good idea letting the players not involved play the NPCs. I’ve done that in other circumstances and my players seem to enjoy stepping into some other shoes for a short time.

Also, gambling rules in Savage Worlds? Now I really need to read that book I picked up a month or so ago after hearing other neat things about the system.

#8 Comment By Scott Martin On August 17, 2009 @ 5:19 pm

[5] – How is the SW gambling subsystem? It sounds like it might be a nice way to get through some abstracted gambling without making up your own system.

[6] – Sometimes the best roleplaying happens when your hands are busy and you have a good reason to be in the same place, not killing each other. Gambling’s one good way… well, at least until you catch the cheater. 😉

#9 Comment By Rafe On August 18, 2009 @ 7:09 am

Strangely, I’ve never had gambling come up in a game before, despite the possibilities for fun and further intrigue/hooks.

However, it’s funny you mention Croaker and the mercenaries gambling because the rules for Tonk are in the back of the Black Company Campaign Setting book (Green Ronin). I’ve always thought that was an awesome addition to the setting.

#10 Comment By BryanB On August 18, 2009 @ 4:12 pm

Gambling hasn’t come up that much in my games.

I once had a group of Star Wars PCs gamble but the Jedi cheated and manipulated the “chance cubes.” Too bad the casino manager picked up on what the Jedi was doing. The game went rapidly downhill from that point, kind of validating the theory that cheaters never “prosper” or something like that…

#11 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On August 19, 2009 @ 12:47 pm

Never done it, but this is getting me thinking. (Which is usually a bad thing.)

#12 Comment By Scott Martin On August 19, 2009 @ 3:53 pm

[7] – Probably or something. 😉

[8] – Yeah, thinking is when things get dangerous. It should be avoided at all times!

#13 Comment By Knight of Roses On August 20, 2009 @ 2:36 pm

I have often had rogues who ran floating craps games to score petty cash between adventures.

And my priestess of Tyche did some heavy duty gambling to raise fund to help the party build fund to improve the town she lived in.