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Sometimes my players want to engage in gambling or other games of chance within the role-playing game itself (I know, vaguely meta). The question is two-fold:

  1. How can I approach this without squashing their aspirations to be the next Poker King, indulge them, and not have it become an obsession or throw off game balance due to poverty and/or extreme wealth given their current place in the world?

  2. Does anybody have any good, easy/quick games that could be played in a casino/gambling-hall type locale? I'm thinking something similar to Dragon Dice, an older, briefly manufactured dice game. It should have a fantastical element but be simple enough to learn within 15-30 minutes. I'm not looking to play craps at the gaming table, but having a few alternatives should wet the party's thirst for casino-style action.

Importantly, I want to avoid a Chocobo-racing scenario (I'm referring to Final Fantasy 7 wherein players would become immersed in breeding and racing wingless birds, rather than actually spending time winning the game).

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Welcome to the site! Please take a look at the tour and the help; they're a useful introduction to the site. And since you have 20+ rep on another SE site, feel free to join the chat! –  BESW Aug 28 '13 at 23:00
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Note that Spell Compendium has a 1st-level spell on the Sor/Wiz list, cheat, which is likely to give any savvy mages a big advantage in any game of chance, excepting perhaps those played in the presence of other savvy mages (perhaps a likely protection at fantasy casinos). –  KRyan Aug 28 '13 at 23:29
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4 Answers

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Ah Dragon Dice... I still use the dice bags from that. Nostalgia aside, the biggest problems you're going to encounter is when you hit the difference between players and their characters. With Diplomacy/Bluff it's easy to roll and if the results don't match the RP you can say that the character just said it a certain way or that the target took it just the right way. When you play a game, especially one that uses the Bluff skill or the more specialized Knowledge(Gambling) or Knowledge(Games), or even Sense Motive and use a real representation you're taking the power from the skills. A player can't be coached or play better than they could normally. They can't be told how to anticipate without tipping off other players what's going on. So unfortunately these games become more like attack rolls but with GP instead of HP at stake.

But! If the rolls aren't important, some simple games include Blackjack, Pirate Dice (to refer to the Pirates of the Caribbean movies), and Baccarat for quick play.

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I think you've hit the crux of the matter: removing the skill mechanic makes the players reliant on themselves for their gambling/dice abilities. While I'm sure my players are capable with dice and games of chance, their characters are much more skilled at gambling - thus, using Bluff or some kind of abstracted gambling skill is more realistic. I'll make sure to throw out the caveat that if they want to engage in dice or other games of chance in the meta-sense, then we can throw down for a few rounds of Baccarat or Pirate Dice. Many thanks for an elegant explanation of the core issue. –  William M-B Aug 29 '13 at 15:56
    
Dragon Dice is pretty awesome. –  acolyte Aug 30 '13 at 14:53
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You may want to consider involving a level of abstraction. For example, rather than resolving a hand of poker by actually sitting down and playing a hand of poker, you could simply allow all participants an opposed bluff roll. If the game is truly random, then just roll for the outcome.

Abstraction of this type allows you to include fairly complex games of chance in the campaign fiction without them being too much of a distraction from the main (role-playing) game. It also opens up the field to players who aren't necessarily interested in playing the game of chance in question, but who recognize that it makes sense in the campaign's fiction; As much as I like playing poker-playing rogues, I've never really cared for poker.

As for how to avoid imbalance due to high or low wealth - you're on your own. I'm not familiar with Earthdawn, but 3.5rd edition D&D really doesn't handle income from non-adventuring sources well. You'll either have to artificially adjust your player characters' wealth back into the normal ranges for the party level, denying them any advantage from gambling - or accept that the the balance of the game will be altered if you let them gain from gambling, and let them have whatever advantage they can manage. Perhaps consider switching to a game where monetary wealth isn't a meaningful part of game balance, or where balance isn't such a fundamental part of gameplay?

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I like the abstraction idea. If you're having a PC or two play against an NPC, you could even crib from the 4e "Skill Challenge" rules: have each player make a Wisdom roll for each hand with a DC corresponding to their level to decide whether they should fold or not, then have each player make a similar Bluff roll to see if they win the hand. After a certain number of successes, they have "won" the game (all their opponents' chips), and after a certain number of failures, they have "lost" the game (all their chips). –  ilinamorato Aug 30 '13 at 17:50
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Unless you really want to play the game-within-the-game, you probably need some game mechanic to add a level of abstraction. Otherwise, characters can only be as good or as bad as their players when gambling. Here is a simple and fun way to simulate about a half-hour of gambling without having to roll for every single toss of the dice or hand of cards. If the focus is on the story and the characters winning/losing money (rather than at the game itself) it may be right for you. It is adapted from a similar skill on Savage Worlds.

There is a Knowledge (Gambling) skill that depends on Intelligence. It is used to play and gamble. It can be used untrained.

First have everyone agree on the stakes, such as $10, 10 gold coins, etc. Now have everyone in the game make a Knowledge (Gambling) roll. The lowest total pays the highest total half the difference times the stake (rounding down). The next lowest pays the second highest half the difference times the stake, and so on. If there are some odd characters left in the middle (with the same roll plus/minus one) they break even.

Example: Everybody agrees on a stake of 10gp. Lidda rolls highest with a 15 and Tordek rolls lowest with a 4. The difference is 11, so Tordek pays Lidda 5 x the stake of 10gp, or 50gp.

Cheating: A character who cheats adds +4 to her roll. The GM may raise or lower this modifier depending on the particulars of the game or the method of cheating. All the other players make an opposed roll of Sense Motive against the Knowledge (Gambling) roll of the character. If they pass it, the cheating character is caught. The consequences of this depend on the setting and the intentions of the character who noticed the cheating, but are usually quite harsh.

This mechanic is simple, fast, and it allows you as GM to control how much your characters win because they cannot bet more than what the GM thinks is appropriate for a given situation. For example, after they win 30gp in their first roll you could say that "nobody wants to bet against you anymore tonight".

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I mostly agree with sergut's answer, but I will try to expand it a little. Saddly I am not familiar with the campaign setting you are using, but on my party's last campaign, the party's wizard wanted to take the FateSpinner prestige class, which has a perequisite of the Profession(Gambling) skill. He decided to justify the skill by gambling on every chance and that made an interesting character trait, as with time the wizard actually became addicted to gambling. As we were running a forgotten realms campaign, we tried to use games proposed by the setting's book. So most of the time, the wizard played a game called Old Man's Bones. It is a jenga-like game, where the players throw on the table many white pieces of wood and try to remove one per turn without moving the remaining. We decided that this was a delicate process, so a dexterity check. The wizard added on his role, the skill Profession(Gambling), as we decided that this should justify any experiences won by playing the game before. And from there we proceeded. He played chess with bets (Int check + Gambling), or pure luck games like roulette or craps (Just a d20+Gambling). I believe that this is the fastest and most efficient way to deal with gambling. Just an ability check or a random check (depending on the kind of the game) plus a skill for gambling. Profession gambling is a valid 3.5 skill btw :) And lastly about the gamebreaking $$ winnings, you should try to keep the players on balance. Remember that a 100 gp is a great deal of assets for the middle-low class people that usually hang on casinos and a bet greater than that would not find someone willing to risk it. So try a little less money, arrange a maximum bet amount. This will let your players endulge on gambling, without breaking the in-game economy!

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