Sometimes, PCs get stuck in an inn for an extended period of time. They might be waiting for an NPC to arrive or for something specific to happen, or they might all be breaking up to do different tasks of their own while they’re in the city. You might also have a metagame reason for stalling, if you only have so much time left in your gaming session and want to keep the PCs from starting a new major storyline. As a GM, any of these can leave you with some odd narrative time to fill.

At times, I like to use games within the game to fill that narrative time. There are a number of reasons for having your PCs sit and play out a card game instead of just rolling for its outcome:

  • It can be a fun change of pace.
  • If most of the party has personal business in a city but one or two PCs don’t, a quick game can give them something to do and give them a chance to shine.
  • Games can let you distribute treasure or information as a reward for winning, and games can give your PCs a chance to get to know some NPCs who might not otherwise be available to them.
  • Games can give NPCs a good reason to pick a fight with PCs who otherwise might not warrant it.

When I’m choosing a game to play within my game, I look for a few things. The game should be:

  • Easy to learn and easy to explain. Having to spend twenty minutes of your RPG session explaining another game isn’t a good use of session time.
  • Thematically possible. Your favorite game may be a joy to play, but if it’s got a twenty-first century spy/tech theme, the players will find the mismatch jarring.
  • Relatively quick. Again, you want this to be a quick distraction from the storyline, not the main activity for the day. If your players don’t like the game-within-a-game thing, at least a short game will be over quickly. If they do like it, they can opt to play again or ask you to do it in another session.
  • Something you know well. Often, you’ll have players opt out of the game, and you may want to be running a scene about what’s happening elsewhere in the inn while you’re playing the game. At the very least, you’ll want to be playing the NPCs also participating in the game in ways that drop hints about who they are and what they want convincingly. You’ll be most effective at that if you know the game well.

With that in mind, here’s a short list of quick and easy games that you could insert into your campaign–with you controlling one or more NPC players, of course. At the moment, I’ve only included card games, since they require less setup than board games and make the most sense in a tavern setting. None of these games will amaze the serious board gamers or card players in your group, but all are fun and would work for a quick interlude. I’ll talk in a later post about how to reshape an existing game to allow for betting and/or to allow an NPC to cheat or use magic to manipulate a game.

Slugfest Games’ En Garde! simulates a fencing match between 2-6 people. It takes 20-45 minutes, depending on how many players are participating. Players play cards to attack their opponent, but must manage to keep “poised” while doing so; attack cards reduce your opponent’s poise, but heavy attacks may reduce yours as well. Luckily, adjusting your clothing or wiping your brow may help you get some of your poise back! With only a handful of rules and all of the important information on the cards, your players can easily pick up En Garde! and play a quick round.

Looney Labs lets you play dominoes with cards in Seven Dragons. In it, 2-5 players try to make a set of seven dragons of the same color touching one another; a player wins if she can finish a set that matches the color on her Goal card. Unfortunately, other players can force her to trade Goal cards, so that string of dragons she’s been building may get rendered useless at any point! This game takes between 10 and 40 minutes depending on number of participants and luck of the draw.

In Fantasy Flight’s Letter of Marque, 3-6 players use their cards and little plastic ships to steal and secure treasure. Players must decide how heavily to defend their own shipments of cargo, and they must guess whether their opponents’ ships are guarded or unguarded when they attack. This game often takes over half an hour, but it tends to move fairly quickly, so it’s a good choice if everyone at the table wants to play. It’s also easy to determine first, second and third places if you want to give out prizes to your PCs.

Z-Man’s Grimoire is undoubtedly the most challenging of the games on this list. In it, each player gets a tiny spellbook and secretly chooses one spell each turn to help him get gold, items, or companions. Players may also attack other players by keeping them from using certain types of spells each round. Each round, the number of spells from which you can choose gets longer, so later turns have more strategy. Again, though, all relevant info is clearly marked on the cards and in the spellbooks, so new players can easily participate without feeling left behind.

I have to include FFG’s Dragonheart, even though it’s just two players, because…I love it. (If you know me, you already knew this was going to make the list. Sorry.) It’s an embarrassingly simple game for a regular gamer to love, but I can’t help it. Of course, nobody else I know is as crazy about this game as I am, so you may want to disregard this suggestion altogether. In Dragonheart, players place cards on a game board, creating sets; when a set is complete or a card is played that has “dominance” over another set, (white dragons capture treasure cards, for instance,) the player who played the last card takes the set and scores it. All of the sets are laid out on the board so that you can easily see which cards take which other cards. Once you’ve played it, this game’s quick–maybe 15-20 minutes.

Finally, The King Commands lets players try to take over the kingdom (and gain sacks of gold) by battling other knights with sets of sword cards or defend themselves with sets of shield cards. Different sets are more or less powerful, and cards like Excalibur (which you could rename for your own game) and the crystal ball make for simple rules-breakers. This game holds up to 6 and takes a little under a half an hour. Helpful cheat sheet cards let players look at the different hands as they play.

I haven’t listed Slugfest’s Red Dragon Inn trilogy here, even though it was created for use with RPGs. When my players and I tried it, we found the rules to take a bit too long to explain and the gameplay a bit too meta to fit neatly into our campaign. (Did the wacky things that went on in the game happen to our PCs or to PCs our PCs were playing? Was this the time to create dramatic irony by having the Warhammer PCs comment on D&D PCs?) I know others love it, though, so take our findings for what they’re worth.

And I can’t help but mention, too, that if you’re running a Steampunk game, Mad Zeppelin would make an excellent choice.