Making a Hunger Games Tabletop Part 2: Mechanically Speaking

With all the buzz around the upcoming Hunger Games movie, it seems like a good time to see how surprisingly easy it is to make a roleplaying experience based on the popular novel. In the first part, we looked at three distinct elements of the Hunger Games: dystopia, survival, and death matches and talked about how you could integrate those features into your own game.

In Part 2, we’re going to discuss specific mechanics that could be adapted from different tabletop gaming systems to help round out the experience. These are not the be all and end all for mechanics, but rather starting points for adaptation or as inspiration for you to create your own.

Dystopia

There are a couple hallmarks of dystopic literature that you can bring into your campaign. The first is corruption, which has a number of D&D sources of inspiration including Thay in the Forgotten Realms, Darguun in Eberron, and any of the city-states in Dark Sun.

You also want to convey a sense of helplessness for the PCs which can be difficult. In theory, a lightning maul +4 should do very little against the crushing inhuman machinery of an totalitarian regime, but in game it can do an awful lot to the servants of that regime and prevent the characters from feeling like they have to respect the government at all.

Getting stopped by the gestapo should be a frightening event in the campaign, but an upper-heroic tier barbarian can twist the neck off each officer and make a trophy from their jackboots. An answer to this is to make the fight not fair, and not really a fight. Sure you can give the gestapo even shinier toys than the characters have, but doing this too often just creates a treasure Cold War that is all the players against one lonely DM. Instead, raise the stakes a little and make it so that killing won’t really solve anything.

For instance, if the party knocks off a patrol they might feel fine and dandy until they see their faces on Wanted posters. The more cocky of the characters might still not care (it’s a rare player who hasn’t been wanted by the law before) but in this case the system works and it’s pissed.

In a totalitarian regime, there are not just police but secret police and the party never knows when their Wanted status will result in a slammed door, a plotted ambush, or a poisoned ale. That tavernkeeper may be just an honest soul or he may be an informant for the government. And that magic shop owner may sell them fine blades but include a dweomer that tracks their movement for the inquisition.

Paranoia has an armor class that will never be hit and if you play it right you will drive your players nuts. What’s more, honest folk just trying to do their jobs or maybe even help the party can disappear or be killed because of the party’s status. If they’re talking to a beautiful elven mage who gives them info they need only to see her fall to the floor with an arrow in the neck, just killing the policeman who killed her still doesn’t bring your poor collateral damage friend back.

Some groups will be content roleplaying paranoia, but others might want a mechanical system. There are a number of games where sanity loss and derangement play prominent roles (the World of Darkness, Eclipse Phase, Call of Cthulhu, Cthulhutech and, of course, Paranoia come to mind) and “borrowing” those systems for your game might work. If you find a full sanity system too much, you don’t have access to these games, or you prefer something simpler, consider the following.

Every time characters in the party make a Perception or Insight check (or Sense Motive for our 3e friends) the DM rolls a d6 behind the screen. Players who meet the DC set get a sense of what the NPC is thinking or up to, those who don’t can’t tell anything for sure... unless the paranoia die comes up 6. In this case, the characters see what they want to see which contains only a kernel of the truth.

The tavernkeeper really hasn’t seen any patrols recently, but he’s looking out the back windows a suspicious amount. The gem merchant genuinely doesn’t know about the duke’s plan but that’s definitely an inquisitor’s seal on the papers she put away in the desk. If it comes up 6, the DM will feed the flames of suspicion and if the PCs keep getting in deeper this might increase to a 5-6 or 4-6 in extreme situations. When you try this, remember that you aren’t trying to stop the players from making rash decisions you’re trying to encourage them. Eventually they make so many that they’ve been burned and broken and they will be cautious and keep a low profile once more.

The other thing that always comes up in dystopic fiction is the greater populace. For this, we suggest dusting off the older, more complicated alignment system from previous editions, the one with nine different alignments. This is not necessarily for the characters or NPCs of the campaign (unless you want) but as a gauge for the population. Any player with a half-sense of ambition when faced with a cruel and unusual government wants to free the huddled masses under its heel, but how do the masses feel about the PCs?

In the Hunger Games, not every district feels the same way about the government and the same can be true of cities, provinces, nations, factions, or other divisions in your game. One might start off truly neutral, just trying to get by, while another might struggle to hold onto its morals and maintain a neutral good alignment as a group. Some in those divisions might be chaotic evil and some lawful good, but overall there is a character to the organism of society.

When designing encounters and chapters in your campaign, think of how the outcomes will affect the general mood. The party might have to make a choice between sneaking out of the evil baron’s keep with arms full of magic items or they can make a public escape leaving some loot behind but bloodying the nose of the powers-that-be.

In the first case, the baron is pissed, but still maintains a fearsome reputation and he comes down hard on the population afterwards driving them from cautious (true neutral) to angry and selfish (neutral evil). However, if the party goes out of its way to make the baron look silly then the population is heartened (neutral good). There will be many opportunities over a campaign to affect the mood of the world around the party (like a Mass Effect game) and the players will need to decide if they need a 20-pound jade statue now or a dozen willing guerrilla volunteers in a few weeks. Decisions, decisions…

Survival

When we think of survival mechanics, one of the first things that comes to mind is Dark Sun. The desert based D&D campaign setting put a big premium on making the world around you just as dangerous as any villain or monster.

It helps when the world around you is a never ending desert with a distinct lack of resources. To that end, things like prepared and unprepared states were introduced, along with survival days, sun sickness and other ways for players to track their survival out in the wastelands of Athas. There are even stats for the type of rationing characters need to have in water every day to function, based on size.

These can all serve as the basis for your own system to track starvation, dehydration and rest. These mechanics could easily be introduced for a Hunger Games scenario, which forces players to decide between seeking out food, hiding or fighting. Things like exhaustion either from ignoring food,water or rest, or just from trying to forge ahead and constantly fight, could lead to stat penalties and really put pressure on the party to be smart and strategize.

Check out the Dark Sun Campaign Guide for the details on specific mechanics, as well as some skill challenges, terrains, and hazards that really put players on edge.

You don’t have to stop at the environment either. If you would rather avoid the desert trappings of Athas, you can put just as much fear into the hearts of your players with a deadly dungeon such as the classic Tomb of Horrors. You’re unlikely to die of thirst or starve to death in this labyrinth of pain but that’s just because you’re much more likely to fall to the whirling blade traps and invisible enemies.

Besides the 4e version there is the Gygax original, and the AD&D Return to the Tomb of Horrors which should give you plenty of hellish catacombs to send your players through.Other horrific dungeon options include the Temple of Elemental Evil (the original series of adventures by Gary Gygax, the AD&D version, and the 3e update), the upcoming Halls of Undermountain sourcebook, the demon-infested ruins of Vor Rukoth, the jungles of Xen’drik and other locations in the 3e Eberron Explorer’s Handbook, and other wild places in various campaign settings.

Remember, it’s not the location that forces survival on the player characters, but rather the distance from other locations that could provide aid. If it’s remote, it doesn’t matter the terrain or denizens.

Death Match

Like with survival, we point you back toward the Dark Sun campaign setting. The campaign guide has a very nice chapter in the back of the book that discusses arena combat, and gives some great tips on how to create exciting and unique gladiatorial scenarios to help you raise the profile of your death matches beyond standard swords and sandals game play. There are skill challenges and terrain effects as well to spice up death match combat but the real challenge for these matches will be motivation. As an older resource, the Fight! article from Dungeon 368 (way back in ought eight) has some good gladiator resources and ideas.

Remember with death matches that you don’t want things to devolve into a slugfest with monsters. As we said in Part 1, motivation is key and that goes for the opponents as well. Try to break down enemies into two categories: poignant and opposite. Poignant enemies are those with motivations like the characters that remind them how horrible this whole experience is. Use character class templates (from the Dungeon Master’s Guides) and PC-appropriate races to subtly draw connections and you can do it more overtly by making them not evil but desperate. Players will gleefully hack through a swarm of goblin assassins without a second thought, but a group of desperate half-elven fighters, rangers, and druids who need to ensure that their people survive will leave a much more lasting impression.

On the other hand, opposite characters are those who symbolize the world in all its nightmarish harshness. They are unfathomable and heartless and take grotesque pleasure in killing strangers for the amusement of others. Use bizarre races (umber hulks, trolls, manticores) and strange traditions (templates are great like death knights or elemental creatures but also monster themes) to create memorable champions. If you make these enemies mighty and utterly unlikable you can polarize your players to despising the forced combat they are in: players who previously thought it was kind of fun to trade blows with crazy creatures will recoil from the fiery umber hulk’s enjoyment and resent the whole thing.

It may go without saying as well, but villains that return time and again (aka nemeses) are really great for this sort of thing. The troll warlord that just won’t die, the scarred hogoblin priest that seems to keep coming up with goblin and worg servants, the dread necromancer with increasingly nasty undead… these are the meat to the potatoes of one-off foes in a death match series. Of course, you need to ensure they can get away so plan an escape route (better yet, several) when things turn against the villain and make sure they can’t be held back. Solo creatures are good for this and make sure they aren’t actually alone, and that they have efficient powers and ways to shake off effects and keep from getting killed outright. Nothings worse than a dramatic exit quickly becoming a so-so death scene. Seriously nothing, not even world hunger.

So there you have it, all the mechanics and fluff you need to take the very best of the The Hunger Games and turn it into a role-playing experience. May the odds, and the dice be ever in your favor.