My TTRPG Generic Minigame Mechanics
One of the great things about TTRPGs is that pretty much all of them allow players to try doing things that aren’t codified in the rules. With that, though, comes a need for ways of actually handling such attempts that don’t break the feel of the game. Often, these can be handled satisfactorily either by fiat or with a single roll, particularly for acts that don’t have much potential impact beyond whoever is involved directly. Sometimes, though, a situation comes up that is complicated enough that having just one or two decision points feels unsatisfactory, simple enough that they’re closer to an encounter-scale obstacle than a full adventure, unique enough that a dedicated minigame wouldn’t likely get reused, regular enough that you might need to deal with them on-the-fly mid-session, and could benefit from having some structure to avoid falling into boring or inconclusive gameplay with the game’s normal combat or socialization subsystems (to whatever degree those exist). If the game is D&D (or similar), examples of these situations might be interrogating a dying captive/ally, performing or disrupting a magical ritual, conducting a legal trial, hurdling down whitewater rapids, or, most relevant to my last TTRPG post.
This post will go over my general approach to handling all that stuff and more in a system-agnostic generic minigame. Longtime readers might recognize many or all of the parts; this isn’t about presenting some novel idea but rather about collecting my thoughts and providing specific examples to applying the system to both kinds of chases that I’d mentioned before.
Before getting started, I do have one note of warning: while I won’t describe anything tied to a specific game’s rules, most of my TTRPG experience is with games where a PC’s chance of succeeding at a single “normal”-difficulty task is around 50-60%. If you’re playing something quite different (like games based on Chaosium’s Basic Role-Playing system), you might need to adjust the guideline numbers for the success track accordingly.
The first step is to recognize that you’re dealing with a situation outside of the dedicated rules (to avoid violating the players’ understanding of the imagined world) that warrants a multi-step resolution (to avoid introducing complexity for no good reason). That should go without saying, but a reminder never hurts.
Once you’ve made that choice, the rest of the minigame follows these general steps:
Identify how many sides are acting
If there is more than one side, can they each make progress towards their goal independently, or does one side’s advancement come at another’s expense?
Set up the success track(s)
One side makes one attempt to influence the situation in their favor
Update the progress towards success based on the results of step 3
Take turns repeating steps 3 and 4 for each side involved
Repeat steps 3, 4, and 5 until one side achieves success
1. Identify how many sides are acting
This is usually obvious from the situation. In cases where the PCs are acting against the environment (like hurdling down whitewater rapids) or against passive resistance (like interrogating a dying captive/ally), their side is the only one acting. In cases where the PCs are acting against obvious opposition (like escaping pursuit), there are multiple sides (often two, which is what I will assume going forward for simplicity, but there’s no great difficulty in dealing with more).
Sometimes, it’s less clear. Suppose the PCs come across a cabal offering the lives of some captives as fuel for a magical ritual. If the cabal is unaware of the PCs’ presence, I would treat it as if there was only one side involved, at least until the cabal realizes something is wrong and begins risking progressing the ritual in order to ward off interference. Suppose the PCs are trying to sneak past an overwhelmingly-powerful foe (or at least one that they think is overwhelmingly-powerful), and you decide quite rightly that a binary hidden/detected check would be a poor way of handling it. Unless the foe is going to change its tactics for finding them in an interesting way based on what they do, I would once again treat it as if there was only one side involved. I’d still narrate how the foe reacts as it notices hints of their presence, but there’s no need to attach rolls to those descriptions if there isn’t going to be any real improvement in the game experience for doing so.
Handling those ambiguous situations is something that comes with practice, though. If you’re just starting out with trying this minigame, make a choice and move on. It’s easy enough to switch between the cases as needed, anyway.
a. If there is more than one side, can they each make progress towards their goal independently, or does one side’s advancement come at another’s expense?
In other words, does a successful check by one side always make it harder for another side to achieve success? If it does (like conducting a legal trial), you’ll need only one success track which will measure how much better one side is doing than the other. If it doesn’t (like if the PCs are racing to get to a hidden temple before a group of NPCs reaches it), you’ll need to have separate success tracks to measure how close each of them is to achieving success.
2. Set up the success track(s)
The simplest case here is a situation where only one side is acting. You just need to pick the number of successes and failures necessary to complete the minigame. My suggestion for this is to pick the number of required failures first and then scale the number of required successes off of that based on how difficult the overall situation should be. I usually go with 3 failures to fail the event, since I find that strikes a good balance between giving time before individual failures result in an overall failure and keeping the minigame from feeling like it’s dragging on. Based on that, I usually require 3 successes for a fairly standard minigame, 5 successes for a moderately challenging minigame, or 8 successes for a very challenging minigame.
The next simplest case is a situation where opposing sides are trying to advance at each other’s expense. For this, you need to pick a margin between the sides necessary to complete the minigame. Here, I usually go with a margin of 3 points. There’s no reason why it has to be symmetric; for a crooked trial weighed against the PCs, maybe they need a margin of 4 while the opposition needs only 2. It might not seem like much, but that is actually a huge difference in play, so I’d suggest erring on the low side until you have a feel for how these minigames go in actual play.
The most complex case is a situation where opposing sides can make independent progress. This essentially requires picking numbers of successes and failures for each, with the added step of considering if it makes sense for both to fail. If not, you can probably forget about counting failures (there are some edge cases where counting failures for just one can be reasonable, but those are pretty rare in my experience).
3. One side makes one attempt to influence the situation in their favor
While this step is pretty much exactly what it says it is, there are still a few things to keep in mind about it.
“One attempt” doesn’t mean it has to be a solitary effort. A group of underlings searching through haystack for a hidden needle can still be one attempt. The exact boundaries and mechanics on this are up to the game system and specific situation.
An attempt doesn’t have to include a roll. Particularly for cases of spending limited resources meant to invoke reliable effects (such as spells or potions in most D&D-type games), it’s fine to rule that something will work.
Contrary to most GM advice, this is one place where I’d suggest erring on the strict side of what is or isn’t reasonable. Consider what the player has to say if they put forth an argument for why they think their proposed act would influence the situation, certainly, but in my experience, hewing closer to the fiction of the imagined world has three clear benefits: it disrupts the usual power dynamics from “standard”/codified conditions (providing a palpably different experience for the players), it pushes players to give some more thought to the imagined world (providing a different profile of fun aesthetics), and it presents a unique set of obstacles and boundaries (providing impetus for creative thinking).
In terms of how to adjudicate the attempt itself, that’s up to the details of the particular game system in play. Skill rolls, attribute checks, flat percentage rolls, modifiers, target difficulty, etc. are all irrelevant to the overall process.
4. Update the progress towards success based on the results of step 3
Again, this is a pretty self-explanatory step with a few wrinkles.
One successful attempt at influencing the situation doesn’t have to count as one success. Be open to allowing something to count as multiple successes or even to shortcut past the minigame entirely. If there’s no potential variety in the amount of reward, players have no reason to think beyond the first obvious thing to try.
On the other hand, I’d suggest being wary of having anything count for multiple failures unless it’d clearly render the situation unwinnable (and I’d strongly suggest warning the players of that possible consequence before making them commit to the attempt). The whole point of generally needing 3 failures to fail the minigame is because you’d thought at the start that a single pass-or-fail check would be a poor approach.
If the situation has more than one side and one of them completes the success track before the others have all acted, you need to decide if that grants them victory or if the others should have a last-ditch chance to act (either to prolong the struggle in the case of a margin-based success track or to achieve simultaneous victories in the case of multiple independent success tracks).
5. Take turns repeating steps 3 and 4 for each side involved
The enforcement of a regular “my turn”/“your turn” cycle here is intentional to allow each side multiple chances to influence the situation before the minigame is resolved. I find that, for situations where weight of numbers could be a significant factor, it’s better represented by allowing easier rolls (in step 3) or counting a roll as multiple successes (in step 4) rather allowing multiple consecutive attempts. First, I think that’s easier to forget in the heat of the moment. Second, it’s more likely for either the players’ or the GM’s mind to wander during the other side’s turn if they’re worried about thinking of multiple attempts for their own turn instead of a single one. Lastly, the constant back-and-forth tends to do a better job of maintaining tension than being unable to respond while one side goes through multiple attempts.
I know this type of thing can seem very gamey to some people when they’re just reading about it, but in practice, I’ve not found it to ever be a problem.
6. Repeat steps 3, 4, and 5 until one side achieves success
Other than repeating the point from step 4 of deciding whether to allow desperate responses and/or simultaneous victories, there isn’t much more to be said about this step.
With all of those procedural details out of the way, it’s time for some examples.
Example 1: Race to a destination
To bring back one of the examples from my previous post, suppose the PCs are chasing a group of cultists to stop them from reaching the ritual site in time to summon the Dread Lord Vomitus.
1. There are two sides here: the PCs and the cultists. In this case, I’d treat them has being able to make progress independently, since that gives both the options of either trying to reach the ritual site first or to slow down the other’s progress.
2. In this case, either the cultists will reach the ritual site in time or they won’t, so there’s no situation where both sides can fail. Thus, I wouldn’t bother with tracking failures. Depending on the circumstances, I might impose a limit on the total number of turns (which would essentially be an automatic success for the PCs if it’s reached), but for the sake of simplicity, I won’t deal with that here. Assuming there’s nothing granting either side a particular advantage (such as only the PCs having mounts/vehicles or the cultists no longer needing to sleep), this sounds like a standard situation, so whoever reaches 3 successes first will win the minigame.
3. Based on the situation, pretty much anything reasonable goes. The cultists can try to find effective paths, motivate themselves to keep pushing further, scrounge for supplies to minimize downtime, or leave behind hazards to slow pursuit, just to name a few general ideas off the top of my head. The PCs can try to acquire faster transportation along the way to get ahead and obstruct a bottleneck, take measures to confound the cultists’ navigators, alert authorities to the cultists’ presence to make their flight more difficult, or race ahead to render the ritual site unusable before the cultists reach it. Clearly, some of these ideas (for both sides) wouldn’t be able to end the minigame sensibly, so those simply wouldn’t be valid options for that side’s final necessary success.
4-6. I’m not going to play through this example in full detail, but I will mention that I’d allow a chance for multiple victories in this case, if the cultists get their 3rd success while the PCs are still at 2. This could represent the cultists reaching the ritual site in time but the PCs arriving there as well before the Dread Lord Vomitus is summoned, giving the PCs a final chance to disrupt it.
Example 2: Escaping pursuit
To continue from the previous example, suppose the PCs succeeded in delaying the cultists. Realizing this, the cultists try to escape pursuit and disappear.
1. Unsurprisingly, there are two sides again. In this case, however, one side’s progress will come at the other’s expense.
2. This is a contest of margins. Again, assuming there’s no reason to favor one side over the other, I’d go with a margin of 3 to achieve success, starting at 0.
3. As always with this procedure, any reasonable action goes. The PCs are trying to contain the cultists to force a confrontation, and the cultists are trying to throw off pursuit.
4-6. In this case, there are two ways to assess success. Either both sides’ attempts can be taken as a binary pass/fail, with their margin increasing only if they pass and the opposition fails on the same turn, or the margin can be adjusted on each turn based on who gets the best results for their action (which would require assigning an equivalent roll value for actions that wouldn’t normally require a roll). I prefer the latter approach in almost every case because it goes much faster, but systems with relatively low chances for success on any single roll could go better with the former approach.
And there you have my (current iteration of my) generic minigame mechanics. Questions, comments, criticisms, and/or suggestions are welcome. I know this is a pretty abrupt and weak ending, but in all honestly, I’m just trying to finish this up and post it rather than getting caught up with making it any better.