As the famous song goes, games just want to be fun.
If a game isn’t fun, no one’s going to be jazzed about playing it. Of course there’s many different types of fun, and a game won’t provide all of them, but at the end of the day, games try to be fun – enjoyable, engaging, satisfying, whatever.
This is true across all different types of games, to some extent. Tabletop RPGS (like D&D, or my own Hexed) and board games are pretty different in ideology and execution, but they can agree on this point. I’ve made a conscious effort to play more board games lately, and even tinkered with a few designs of my own. Time and again, I see parallels between what makes board games fun and things that make TTRPGs fun. I’d even go so far as to say that playing board games can make you a better TTRPG player (or game master). And here’s how.
1. Social situations are a source of fun
Both styles of game are largely social activities. It doesn’t matter if you’re delving a dungeon with your squad in Gloomhaven or in Dungeon World – your allies are part of the fun. The constant stream of in-jokes, sarcasm, strategizing, and shit-talk that fills every game table I’ve ever played at is a huge portion of the experience of playing.
This is pretty self evident. Nothing revolutionary. But to take it a step further, what about games that are nothing but social situations? There are plenty of board games with essentially no “hard” mechanics. There’s no currency to track, no engines to build, no cards to draft – just the way your friends are talking. The entire fun of the game emerges from a limited framework that guides your conversation.
There are a million Werewolf/Spyfall/Chameleon/Coup/Skull style games that are, fundamentally, relying on your group to be fun. Like poker – the fun is in the interactions, and the rules only serve to drive those interactions.
Now how can you bring this to your RPG table? In a sense, mechanics are to board games as plot is to a TTRPG – they guide the actions of the players. When those mechanics step out of the way, the social element can flourish. The same is true for your plot.
The next time the party rests at a campfire, maybe there’s no wolf attack. Maybe there’s no barrow or shrine in the next clearing over. Maybe the fun thing that party does right now is just… social. Lulls in the plot of a TTRPG give the party a chance to engage with each other just as people talking about their interests. Discuss the latest fight. Ask about a character’s parents. Compose a battle hymn. The plot can wait – the fun’s right here.
2. Marry theme to mechanics
This one gets into a little bit of advanced GM-ery. So modern board games generally have a theme – and the best ones generally tie that theme to mechanics. This connection is magical – it gives players touchstones to follow a game’s flow, it creates emergent narratives, and it helps us forget that 99% of gameplay is choosing a path through a sequence of random odds. Let’s take a super simple mechanic and break down how much work the theme is doing.
The mechanic in question? “I can trade a resource for a bonus.”
DULL. Few modern games are simple or dumb enough to put no theme on an action. How about – “I can build a House for 3 wood.” Exact same mechanic, but the theme already creates a totally different experience, even in this simplest-possible example. It is a logical touchstone to help players learn and remember how building works. It creates fun little mini-stories (My favorite meeple, Paul, comes home with a day’s lumber harvest and can finally build the third shed he’s always wanted).
So how does this apply to TTRPG? Well, most TTRPG mechanics do have a theme, but sometimes those theme can be forgotten or ignored. How often does a character at your table suffer the “frightened” condition, but then makes no attempt to act frightened? To that player, the mechanics have separated from the theme – they see frightened as “I can’t move closer to the Tentacle Bear and I have disadvantage while I can see it” instead of “Holy shit a Tentacle Bear, keep it away from me.”
Fixing this gap is mostly a matter of good narration. Shops aren’t the equivalent of pushing a button (unless they are of course), they’re a transaction with a person. Crafting isn’t a minecraft-esque pushing together of objects, it’s a process of working, reshaping, and attaching components.
As an advanced step, you can change or remove mechanics that don’t match the theme. These insidious little buggers sneak into even very good designs. If you’re ever interacting with a game mechanic and having some difficulty justifying it in the narrative or theme of your world, maybe the mechanic is at fault.
I change how party’s rest in 5e because the theme (Big Damn Adventurers Save the Multiverse) clashes with the mechanic (Take a Little Nap After Every Fight). Cognitive dissonance can actually cause players to disassociate from the theme or setting – when faced with the ridiculous, it it easy to think that the game is ridiculous too.
3. Simultaneous turn taking
Not all board games do this, but many good games are at least passingly concerned with keeping players involved. Even in some games where turns are independent, the mechanics clearly focus the non-active players on what is happening. This is a true stroke of genius, and something that good GMs will already do at their table, but it bears repeating.
Minimizing downtime at the table is a super simple way to improve your game, and you can do it as a player or as a GM if you focus on overlapping simultaneous actions when possible. Here’s a few easy examples;
If you’re going to cast a healing spell, do it at the end of your turn and tell the next person to go ahead and start while you roll and sum the dice. The exact amount of HP you recover probably won’t influence their choices. Similarly, as the GM, you can also roll for the opposition while a player is taking time on their turn. On rare occasions these rolls will be incorrect or invalidated, but then you can just roll as normal.
If you’re shopping from the standard item list, don’t make it anyone else’s business. Tell the GM – “Hey, I’m going to buy some mundane provisions while we’re here” then let another player start their actions. Similarly, if you’re the GM, when someone wants to buy some basic items for the prices listed in the standard table, tell them what they can buy, then move on to the next player.
If multiple party members want to interact with the environment in different ways, break those interactions down into their components and step through them in distinct rounds – rather than Request -> Roll -> Result -> Follow-up, try to flow things between players like Request1 -> Roll1 -> Request2 -> Roll2 -> Result1 -> Request3 -> Roll3 -> Result2 -> Follow-up1 -> etc.
Anytime someone needs to turn to the books, try to let someone else move on with the story. If a player is looking up something critical (“Am I dead here? Can you catch me?”) then a pause may be required, but a player is looking up what bonus they get to identifying beetles in a rainforest, maybe the rest of the party can keep engaged with the story during the page-flipping.
Even if a player isn’t active, they should engage with what the active player is doing. This is mostly a result of good showmanship and a powerful story, but there are some shortcuts you can take – if the current action is 1. Brief 2. Important 3. Funny or 4. Debated, then the non-active players are much likelier to stay invested.
Keep seperate scenes short, make the consequences of such scenes steep enough that the table pays attention, try to interject moments of humor or absurdity, and don’t be afraid to play contentious scenes with fewer active players – If the rogue spent two weeks debating the paladin about if they should tell her church about the crypt monster, then the rogue will logically be more invested in watching the paladin’s visit to her church, to see the results of their debate.
A pivot point, as I’m defining it, is a moment where any appraisal of the situation changes radically. Things that were important are now irrelevant – powers that were forgotten are now critically important. If your team has been searching for components, when you find the last one and must make a mad-dash to the airship, that’s a pivot point. The rules of the game haven’t changed, but their relative significance does change.
In a tabletop RPG, pivoting happen constantly. A poor party finds a treasure and no longer counts their coppers. The mausoleum opens and suddenly Turn Undead becomes the party’s all-star ability. The party finds a chasm, and the wizard’s fly spell is perfect. These moments are so rewarding for two reasons.
Firstly, the entire game serves as a sort of puzzle, where players place value on their powers and resources, then try to achieve their goals using those values. A pivot point makes players reevaluate their appraisal, without ruining their previous understanding or discounting their rules mastery. Bob is crazy strong, which was really important for bashing down doors, but the locked iron door requires Sally’s lockpicks. Bob is still strong – and that power will likely have a greater value in the future – but now the story sits at a pivot where the group has to place a higher value on Sally’s skillset.
Secondly, a pivot is a natural escalation of tension. Things were one way, and now they’ve changed! A huge pivot will define a session, combat, or dungeon scenario by itself, and serves as an immediate indication that it is time to pay attention. Change is often exciting just by itself, even without other factors.
So your game will logically pivot between these points constantly – different challenges require different skills – but with a little intentional focus, you can make some truly awesome pivots.
Maybe players reach the end of a dungeon and pick up the artifact, only to find that every foe they fought on the way in has reanimated and is coming straight for them in a huge group! Suddenly, the mission isn’t making careful progress towards the artifact – the party has to flee or make an epic last stand.
Maybe the party fights against a troll queen that is sloshing a huge cauldron full of scalding stew. When she gets enraged, she smashed the cauldron open on the ground, scattering shards of metal and scalding stew across the battlefield in pools. Now, tactical movement and push-pull powers are pivotal, to stay out of these painful zones.
5. Asymmetry within symmetry
Many modern board games – and damn near all TTRPGs – use asymmetry within a symmetric framework. What I mean by that is that there are differences between the player’s characters, but fundamentally they’re all playing by the same, symmetric, rules. And this combination is just… So. Damn. Fun.
Every role in the board game Pandemic gets a moment to shine – a moment to do their thing, the thing that no one else could ever do, and those moments are so important to saving the day. Similarly, each player in Elder Sign brings a different investigator’s skillset to the job, and whenever their skill makes the difference between glowing success and dismal failure, it is a triumph for that player. These are both cooperative, but this experience is not constrained to coop games by any means – the different faction AND economy cards in Scythe make each player’s character quite distinct.
This contrasts strongly to an older tradition of games, like Monopoly or Stratego or Chess, where all players are identical in play. Everyone has the same skills. Everyone has the same strategies. And that isn’t always a bad idea, but for tabletop RPGs, it actually kinda is.
The reason that asymmetry within a symmetric system is so satisfying isn’t hard to understand. Breaking rules is fun – and what are class/faction abilities besides specific ways to break rules? Getting an exception to some rule, or getting a new way to accomplish some benefit, lets you cheat the system just a little, and that unique boon lets players explore their own corner of the rules without compromising the group’s understanding of the whole.
If every player had totally different rules, it would be total anarchy. But by using powers/perks/classes/races/whatever to create slight asymmetries, you build in niche protection that keeps each player’s character relevant and interesting throughout the game.
Those are my top five, but I’m sure there are plenty of other good takeaways from modern board game design that might improve a TTPRG table. If you have any ideas, feel free to let me know in the comments below!