Gambling is a staple of fantasy roleplaying, from elaborate games of chance in a glittering high-end casino in the wealthy part of the city to a dangerous high-stakes card game in a tavern’s back room. RPG rules aside, the players and the Gamemaster can play a gambling game between themselves, without the interference of wildly disparate levels and skill modifiers—just get some dice or cards, and play.
However, no one coming to your house for an RPG session is going to be satisfied if you just play croupier all night long. You need to make your players’ trip to the Gold Goblin Gaming House rich in fantasy if you’re going to have a successful gaming experience, in both senses of the word “gaming.”
Characters don’t walk into gambling halls for the thrill of a slightly worse-than-average chance of breaking even. They come in for the camaraderie, the tasty beverages, and the much smaller-than-average chance of winning very big. Thus, your gambling environments should be fun and rich in character. A high-end casino can have elven dancing maidens on stage, specialty dwarven drinks, and rich patrons sitting at the tables offering wild adventures. A low-end gaming hall can be wall-to-wall with reprobates, staffed with ogre bouncers, and carry the ever-present threat of a table-tipping bar brawl.
When the player characters walk in, describe the action. Have the house wizard cast detect magic as they enter, allknowingly wagging a finger at the PC with the crystal ball in her backpack. Show a halfling noble leaping with joy as he hits the jackpot at 3-crown imperial poker. Let them see a goblin tableboy chucked out the window for smuggling players’ winnings out between his pointy teeth. Make the characters want to be there.
When they sit down to play, make sure it’s something they can win. Long slogs are fine at the nickel slots, but they’re no fun in an RPG. Play something with wild swings, chances of devastating losses, and the occasional powerhouse victory.
In the end, offer them an adventure no matter how it turns out. If they lose big, have the club owner give them a chance to win back what they’ve lost by taking out the kobolds in the nearby sewer. If they win big, have some half-orcs attempt to jack their winnings in the alley. There are many types of gambles in the world.
There are thousands of gambling games, but all of them fall into a few basic categories or types. Many games combine elements of these types. Different players like different kinds of games, so it’s a good idea to have a wide array available.
Beat-the-bank: In games like baccarat, the house determines a certain result for itself, and the player must endeavor to beat it. Sometimes a judgment call must be made, such as in blackjack, where both the player and the bank could go above a 21 and fail.
Bluffing: The only true skill on this list, bluffing requires a player to guess what another player has, and judge whether he should try to beat it. Poker is a bluffing game, and thus is not a gambling game in the true sense. Luck is important, but in the long run, skill is much more significant.
Lottery: Each player buys one or more stakes in a large pool. Randomly, one stake is determined the winner, and most of the wagered money goes to the owner(s) of that stake.
Match game: The player wins when certain preset patterns appear, such as on a slot machine. Some may be more valuable than others, so in a game where 3d6 are rolled and the goal is to hit triples, 1-1-1 may be less valuable than 6-6-6.
Pick-a-number: In a game such as roulette or keno, each player picks one or more target numbers, and then a result number is determined. If the result is the same as a player’s target number, the player wins; otherwise, the player loses.
Proposition betting: Prop bets are bets on the outcomes of events for which one has imperfect knowledge. Sports bets are the best known of these types of bets. The house sets a line on which it believes half the bettors will pick one side and half will pick the other. The proposition then happens, and the people who picked correctly are paid off.
There is a reason you don’t see the word “Gambling” in the Pathfinder RPG skill list, and that’s because gambling is not a skill. With the exception of mislabeled skill games such as poker, a gambling game is by its very definition based on seeing what lucks brings you. You cannot bring your own luck, unless you cheat. And since the house always has an edge, you cannot make money gambling against the house. There is, however, the Profession (gambler) skill. Like all Profession skills, this Wisdom-based skill is about making money over the course of a week, not about winning a particular spin of a roulette wheel. It’s about figuring out where to play, when to play, and whom to play with. A character with high ranks in this skill is playing a lot, minimizing his losses, and probably using many other skills.
In a hand of a skill game like poker, you can use a player’s Profession (gambler) skill to adjudicate it, in the same way a character’s Profession (fisherman) skill might be used to catch a fish for dinner. However, it need not be the only skill a player could use. Bluff, Intimidate, Sense Motive, and (for cheating) Sleight of Hand can all be used to win a single hand of cards. These rolls, along with some roleplaying, can make a card showdown into an interesting encounter.
In games of pure chance, luck should rule the day. Neither the player nor the house is in control—the dice are, and no ranks in Profession (gambler) will help a character win. But this is as it should be. Players don’t want to win at craps because their characters have high Dexterity scores—they want to win because the dice are hot tonight.
Of course, cheating is the only way to change your luck in a game of chance. If someone at the table wants to cheat, Sleight of Hand is the most useful skill, but Disable Device might also be allowed. In addition, magic can be quite useful for cheating. Spells like mage hand, silent image, and modify memory can turn bad results into good results. Getting caught, however, can turn these good results into much, much worse outcomes.
A gambling game has five distinct elements: the house, the equipment, the mechanic, the odds, and the payout.
House: The house is the source of the game, and determines the game’s style. A “tight” house runs games where the house edge is higher, and where player influence is minimized. A “loose” house wants much more gambling to occur, and is willing to maximize its risks so that players will bet more. The standard deviation of loss or gain is higher if the house is loose. As long as the house has an advantage in all games, the other important number the house must care about is its exposure, which is how much it can lose if everyone suddenly wins at once. A house that can’t cover all its bets won’t be successful for long.
Equipment: This is what you need to play the game. It’s not just dice or cards—you often need markers, coins, and even miniatures. You should also determine how many people are necessary to run the game. Usually it’s just one dealer, but a game like craps requires four people to run it: a boxman, two base dealers, and a stickman.
Mechanic: The mechanic is how the game is played. A mechanic should be simple and easy to grasp: place a chip on the board and roll a pair of dice, choose a number and spin a wheel, use some of your hole cards and some of the ones on the table. However, the variation of results can be much less simple; the sheer number of possible places to put your money on a craps table is dazzling.
Odds: The odds are the percentage chances that a player will win money. A player’s percentage chance of winning should be somewhat less than 50 percent for the house to make money. In any casino, the house will retain some “edge,” which is the profit the house will make on a long series of bets. So if a player plays a game where he wins 9 silver pieces for every gold piece he gives the house, the house edge is 10 percent.
Payout: The payout is the rate of return a player gets when he wins, usually double the odds. It’s important to understand that for a game of pure chance, all choices must lead to the same payouts over time. Think of the roulette board. A straight-up bet on a single number has a 37-to-1 chance of hitting, and pays 35-to-1. A bet on all of the numbers 1–12 has a 2.167-to-1 chance of hitting, and pays 2-to-1. A bet on red has a 1.111-to-1 chance of hitting, and pays 1-to-1. Doing the math on these bets show that they all have the same rate of return: a player loses 5.3 cents for every dollar bet.