Chess and The Art Of RPG Design

A lot of the gamers that I have met know something about the game of chess. At the very least, they know basic moves,  enough to play a game or at least understand a talk about it. There have been a few things that have brought this concept up in my thoughts lately, starting with God’s Chess from the Vornheim City Kit, where at the end of the chess game the pieces remaining influence the statistical effect for players and enemies in the game. A great idea, and you could even do this automatically with any chess program these days does have automation on various skill levels to select. A little less player involved but not everyone can play a chess game before a tt game.

Some games have chess as a central point but are not completely what I would call pure chess. Mortal Kombat had a chess minigame in one of the console games, as well games like Archon and Battle Vs Chess used Chess gameplay with a combat minigame to take pieces so the better fighter won. It wasn’t really until Watch Dogs where I was considering using a chessboard to plot out a campaign. The game has were Chess minigames, solving puzzles like how to capture all the pieces or how to prevent getting in check. In one puzzle I played as a break from doing some work in a game, my mind wandered to the idea of using the board to map out movements of NPCs. Have a few pieces on the board and as they move that is then carrying out their plans.

There are various designs I’ve seen for how to use chess to facilitate movement of the plot. Both the TV show John Doe and animated series Gargoyles had episodes where a chess game played a major role in the actions. For actual campaign design however, check out The Pattern Of Raindrops, which uses a chessboard style to build a plot. Some very great ideas there for campaign development, and may even make it easier to visualize.

Recently in a quest of the secret world MMO, they brought up the saying “Be the player, not the piece”, which comes from a critical thinking quote about how not to be focused on the single events, as you’ll see in this MMO cutscene.

That cutscene got me thinking about encounters in a roleplaying game. There are a number of rhythms that players fall into, like focusing on specific tactics in fights or the way they approach problems. Each character, whether it be classed or classless system, will have specific strengths and weaknesses and usually players will favor the strengths and minimize the weaknesses in gameplay. For example, ranged fighters taking penalties to melee, characters getting bonus items like magic or tech to offset a penalty such as a character taking a trait to make them easier to damage and then wearing heavy armor to make them hard to hit. Picking combat traits in a low social game is this as well.

However, many guides will tell you to hit the players weak sides with a challenge. Another option is to do something completely out of character for your campaign. If it is about your party dealing with an organization like rebels or corrupt rulers, have a natural disaster happen and the players deal with the act and the fallout. Maybe they are working to find artifacts to stop an evil from awakening, suddenly have the beloved king be assassinated or turn the city to martial law, turning everyone against each other.

These approaches can herald a different path to your campaign, such as a new evil rears its head or having the rebels try to garner sympathy helping civilians or the corrupt leaders are helping people or taxing them. However, these events do not have to be a new twist in a scripted plot. Perhaps they are instead a random event that just happened unrelated to current events as it is a world not a script. Perhaps the act can be justified as a precursor to something larger, such as the natural disaster is a druid king dying and nature was mourning, later the players find people hunting a child who is the new druid king. Remember all your players see is the end product,  not the threads you made it from.

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