Friday, June 19, 2009

Why no love for the play area? Improving the tactile element to RPG's

This is a personal peeve of mine in role playing game design so I apologize if this comes off as a bit of a "rant".

Role Playing games feature a large amount of minute details to micromanage in comparison to the medium they suggest to track them, pencil and paper. Boardgames however often have even more to keep track of, but they are far easier to manage. Why? Effective use of the play area. You don't have an inventory section on a sheet in monopoly to manage you money, you have bills. You don't write down how many armies are in each province in risk, you have army tokens. And when we get into advanced and euro board games one gets even more tokens, markers and playing pieces.

And this isn't a foreign concept in RPG's, many players prefer miniature use because it enables them to better keep track of whats going on. So rather than relying on constantly writing an erasing on a piece of paper (and thus needing to redo your character sheets periodically) allow me to suggest some of the tactile elements used in Piecemeal (and Adventuring Party! actually) to keep track of things. And yes, the tactile element is important, you can't spell funny dice without fun after all.

1.) Poker Chips
What they are used for:
I use poker chips to keep track of "Luck Points", which are in D&D Terms hitpoints. In Adventuring Party! they are even explicitly called "Luck Chips". This is a vastly superior way to keep track of something that changes frequently. When a player heals you toss him more chips, when he is injured he tosses in chips to you. It immensely adds to the tactile fun of the game and allows the GM to both reign in potential "phantom HP" cheating as well as keep a very quick gauge of how the party is doing.

2.) Coloured Beads
What they are used for:
I use coloured beads to keep track of "Mana" (or power points if you play mazes and minotaurs or some other game) in both Piecemeal and Adventuring Party!. I use one colour for "fives" and one colours for "ones", when a spell is cast the player throws some of his precious mana into the pot. You can even get coloured plastic crystals from dollar stores if you are a fan of the "Warpstone" feel of WHFRP. This allows much less accounting from mages and has the same benefits as poker chips described above.

3.) Play Money
What they are used for:
This is in my case somewhat system specific, but I'll bring it around to be more generic. With the priest magic system in piecemeal one earns "Piety" which they spend on miracles. So It allows me to collect piety without any accounting on the players end, and more importantly allows me to reward it immediately and not at the end of the game (where we may forget all that occurred). This system can just as easily be used for Experience Points, thus removing the need for the "Experience Point Calculation" post game wrap up. As players do things you can immediately hand them the XP and forget about it.

4.) Playing Cards
What they are used for:
I use these to keep tabs on my "Fate" and "Destiny" points players earn. These are basically re-rolls and there is a large discussion about that going on right now actually. They thus have their hand of cards and can play a card to get a re-roll. I use the Aces specifically to represent Destiny Points, so when times get really tough its nice to see a player literally pull an ace out of their sleeve and slap it on the table. It really adds to the fun. I can't help but feel one of the drivers of the enduring popularity of the "deck of many things" is that you get the tactile fun of drawing from a deck.

So I ask you, what are YOU doing to improve the play space and reduce accounting? Hopefully these will at least spawn some ideas.


  1. I am a huge fan of using tokens and other items in play, especially as player rewards. Players really get into them and you can use them to reward specific types of play, thus aiming the game and helping to establish a consistent feel to it.

    I use poker chips or glass beads for a dozen different things, depending on the game. Blood Pool in vampire, luck points in cyberpunk, Blood (hit points) in 1PG games, and so on.

  2. Im glad to hear I am not alone, you'd be surprised how many people simply use pen and paper and erasers.

  3. I'm a huge fan of bit and pieces. I've used all the things you've mentioned. I especially like cards. Here are some magic item cards I made.

  4. I've reduced my entire dnd campaign to blank index cards which have either the stats of PCs, NPCs, monsters or random encounter settings. We just draw a card from the homemade deck at random and there you have it - instant adventure, random and magical. Some samples are at