Minigames in roleplaying games

Sid Meier's Pirates! Recently I have started playing Sid Meier’s Pirates! again. Pirates! is a single-player, open world game set into the Caribbean during the late 16th and early to late 17th century. You play a ship captain working as a privateer for either the English, French, Dutch or Spanish.

During the game you can freely choose your allegiances, choose to attack enemy ships or towns, hunt pirates, seek treasures, rescue family members, court and marry a governor’s daughter, etc. A major part of the gameplay are the various minigames. In the original 1987 edition you had ship combat, fencing duels, turn-based strategic combat and a treasure finding minigame. The 2004 edition added a dancing minigame.


Playing that game got me thinking. In some of the roleplaying game campaigns I have been participating in the past had featured several minigames. In the Mechwarrior RPG, combats were usually played using the boardgame rules, in several D&D campaigns we had large battles that were fought using a simplified tabletop battles game, even puzzles that have to be solved by the players and not their characters can be called minigames in this context. If done well these activities can spice up any roleplaying game.

If the aforementioned Pirates! computer game was in fact a pen & paper RPG a lot of the minigames would be part of the normal roleplaying experience. The only exceptions are probably naval combat when played out as a tactical miniatures game and the strategic battles when raiding towns. The dreaded dancing minigame could easily replaced by roleplaying and some skill rolls.

In the firearms rules for Dungeonslayers I designed rules for Western duels using a deck of cards. Instead of rolling the dice the competing players used a modified version of Blackjack to resolve the duel. This might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I thought this might be a fun way of handling the duel. That said I also included alternative rules which work a bit like a D&D 4E skill challenge since not everyone loves the idea of using cards in a roleplaying game.

There are countless ways of introducing minigames in one form or another into your roleplaying games. It might not work for every gamemaster or group but it’s definitely something you should keep in mind. After all it’s always good to have a few tricks up your sleeves.

Have you used minigames in your roleplaying campaigns before? As always I am very interested in your thoughts on the subject. Every comment is highly appreciated.

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

6 thoughts on “Minigames in roleplaying games”

  1. I love incorporating minigames. In my Palladium Fantasy game, we often used to bring in this arena game called Pegs that was our version of the Game in that Rutger Hauer movie, “The Blood of Heroes.” Sometimes our RPG sessions would consists of little more than that.

    I have also been a fan of incorporating dice and card games into RPG sessions. Puzzles, not so much because I myself do not enjoy them.

    Some RPGs have done a good job of designing into them things that felt like minigames. Classic Traveller’s oft-maligned character generation system was, I thought, a highly enjoyable minigame, as was its random system generator. Likewise, I have always found rolling up treasure to be a fun minigame for the GM.

    As for Pirates!…well, that game is just awesome. Played it originally on my old Apple and then again on the Xbox. Just loved it. One of my first sandbox gaming experiences. I just wish there had been a Fountain of Youth to find so you could run your character without aging.

  2. I haven't actually thought about Traveller's lifepath character creation but you're right, it was another great minigame in itself. It's funny you actually could die during character creation. 😉

    Newer games like for example the Dresden Files RPG make use of minigames, too. FATE's character creation is almost a game in itself as is the Dresden Files' city creation. Diaspora's cluster creation comes to mind, too.

  3. When it comes to minigames it really is all about the execution. A good portion of the move from AD&D 2e to 3e/d20 was about removing the minigames. Psionic combat is another much reviled minigame where the complaint was often that the psionic character would be off playing a little combat to themselves while everyone else waited.

    Though I've never actually played it out, there is part of me that has been interested doing a… I don't know what to call it… Macrogame? Like do an Alice in Wonderland style world where the characters are normal mortal types on one side and superheroes on the other. To emphasize the difference you could run 'normal' in say Storyteller and then 'superhero' in Mutants and Masterminds. Someone clever could then find cool ways for the rules to influence each other.

  4. @Darktouch: I fully agree with you. Another example of bad execution of minigames are the hacking rules in games like Shadowrun where the hacker is doing his thing while the rest of the party dozes off.

  5. Great post. Essentially skill challenges are forms of mini-games and they can be fairly flexible, although many feel like you're doing the same thing.

    You could try using dominoes, since there is an almost limitless variety of games that can be played with them.

    I did have a minigame at one time, which was a game of bluff using a skill challenge, but I've never replaced the usual mechanics for something entirely different, like a duel with rock, paper, scissors.


    Scott M
    My recent post 10 free RPGs you must play

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.