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When Squid Games Meet Role-Playing Games

The dystopian Korean series Squid Game is popular on Netflix, building on a genre of survival horror involving contests of skill. Thanks to the lethal nature of the contest, it can easily be tweaked for role-playing games.

squidgame.jpg

By Aniol - Own work, Public Domain, File:SquidGameCryptocurrencyLogo.svg - Wikimedia Commons

The Most Dangerous Game​

The trope of survival as contest goes all the way back to the short story, "The Most Dangerous Game." There have been many imitators since, from The Running Man to The Hunger Games. But they all have a few things in common.

For one, contestants are desperate. In some cases, like the movie Cube, they are unwitting players in a game they never volunteered for. In others, like Squid Game, sheer desperation puts them in dire circumstances. Frequently, criminals find they must compete to gain their freedom, but it's just as common that prisoners captured by a villain must survive long enough to escape.

The contests themselves are often a mystery. In fact, not knowing what game will challenge the characters is part of what makes the challenges so difficult. Without the ability to prepare, certain games may favor certain abilities (a mental game might work better for smarter players, a physical game for stronger ones). If the contest involves enough games, these advantages even out over time ... or simply eliminates the weakest players early on.

The Contestants​

Speaking of players, most contests work best with large number of players whittled down to a remaining few. A large number of potential losers provides an ever-present reminder that failure means death.

Of note in this genre is that competence is not a guarantee of success, and often contestants are chosen at random. In tabletop fantasy games, it's more compelling to have "regular people" play a game and rise to the challenge than established PCs. In fact, a deadly contest may be one way to sort out a crop of first level characters who go on to greater things (assuming they survive of course).

We've Played This Before​

If putting a series of novice heroes in a series of death traps and seeing who survives sounds familiar, it's because that form of play was a large part of early Dungeons & Dragons, in which fragile characters relied on large numbers of henchmen to survive.

Gameplay has shifted considerably since then, with more of an emphasis on characters with full-backstories (and, presumably, living long enough to share those backstories) vs. blank slates who only created backstories through play. Lew Pulsipher discusses how dungeon crawls have a changed as a result in "Which Came First, the Character or Their Backstory?"

Goodman Game's Dungeon Crawl Classics embraces this style of play with a funnel. We discussed how the funnel could be used to manage lower level characters exposed to SCPs in a previous article, but the funnel applies just as well in a survival game.

A game that embraced both the dungeon crawling and competitive play debuted in 3.5 Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, XCrawl. Ironically, it's also from Goodman Games.

For a brief time in 2018, competitive play became a meta-trope in which players would compete for D&D prizes. Of course, D&D has always had competitive events going all the way back to the Tomb of Horrors, but the possibility of Fifth Edition having its own e-sport was raised when Hasbro's then-CEO Brian Goldner mentioned it as a possibility -- a statement the company later retracted.

Most campaigns don't lend themselves to long-term play of competitive games unless the results aren't lethal. Instead, the trope tends to be a one-shot or for tournament play. But for those who want to try it, old school D&D can be just as unforgiving (and as rewarding) as any Squid game.

Your Turn: Have you ever run deadly competitions in your campaign?
 
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
The dystopian Korean series Squid Game is popular on Netflix . . .
Dystopian? Seemed pretty realistic to me.
Goodman Game's Dungeon Crawl Classics embraces this style of play with a funnel. We discussed how the funnel could be used to manage lower level characters exposed to SCPs in a previous article, but the funnel applies just as well in a survival game.
I'm guessing "SCP" was defined in that article too...
Most campaigns don't lend themselves to long-term play of competitive games unless the results aren't lethal.
Psh. That's what clerics are for!

Have I ever run deadly competitions? Not lately. It's not a boring way for PCs to make a little extra gambling cash. One's quest list is running a little thin if there's spare time to go try to win 4,234,940,998,065,201 won though.
 

payn

Legend
I think the issue I take with Squid Game style RPGs is they often lack the tone of the literature/film. Players have forewarned knowledge of the lethality of the game so its difficult to have any attachment to the characters. This lowers the stakes considerably and eventually becomes more parody of peril than fear of it. The dramatic intensity gives way to gallows inspired levity.
 

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
Depending on the frame, you'd need some robust PVP rules for the inveitable time when the player characters turn against each other. Also, I would think it critical in Session 0 to set out expectations.

Another way is to do it like Hunger Games, where the protagonists are going to team up, in spite of the rules/traditions against that. Still Session 0 would need to cover expectations again around the fact most folks wont' make it out alive, even when working together.

A final way I can think of is to have it be a team sport - start with X teams (High number), with winner take all at the end. That might be really fun. I can imagine there being some magical score board over the arena where as teams get eliminated, their team name light winks out... Things like "what if my team gets reduced to only 2 of 5 original members" questions can be solved in various ways. I sort of feel like this is what the 90's XCrawl RPG was like?
 


Richards

Legend
My last 3.5 campaign had two such instances. In the first, the PCs had been knocked out and woke up in separate rooms and had to all solve their way out through a series of encounters set up like in the "Saw" movies. In the other, they were hunted by an astral stalker through a series of planar gates very much like "The Most Dangerous Game."

Johnathan
 

AtomicPope

Adventurer
The contests themselves are often a mystery. In fact, not knowing what game will challenge the characters is part of what makes the challenges so difficult. Without the ability to prepare, certain games may favor certain abilities (a mental game might work better for smarter players, a physical game for stronger ones).
Not to get off topic but this was my biggest complaint about the "Clash of the Titans" remake from 2010. In the original story, Perseus only knew that Medusa could kill anything with a glance. He needed help. It was his task to come up with a plan and execute it. In the 2010 remake he was trained to defeat her. That takes away all of the suspense, and removes all of the heroism from the hero where he ventures into the unknown facing certain death.

Your Turn: Have you ever run deadly competitions in your campaign?
Years ago I played in a game with a very smart DM who came up with an idea to have a rival adventurer group on the same adventure. He gave them classes we didn't have, and therefore some advantages we didn't have. They had a Ranger that helped them move quickly through the jungles and get a head start. They placed traps along the way to slow us down. Like Rene Belloc, they were on good terms with a local tribe and used them against us. I've stolen this for my own campaigns many, many times. In my last campaign it turned into the creation of a long term super villain I hadn't even planned on using except as a comparable rival for the first few levels. At the same time, two of the adventurers from the rival group became close friends and helped the PCs along the way. I highly recommend using this as it adds another layer your campaign. This isn't exactly like Squid Game but it has some elements of Running Man or Hemingway.

In a Mage game I had the PCs stuck in the Bedlam of a Mad Mage and trying to escape. Each scenario was autobiographical. So like Squid Game it may involve a children's game but deadly. Since the Mage in question was old the settings were emblematic of the 50's. The campaign was set in our city so I was careful to choose locations that existed in the city for the past 75 years and were still relevant today. The PCs had to relive certain moments of the Mage's life. They had to navigate the living dreams, and nightmares, of an old wizard's past. As a necromancer, he unconsciously conjured actual ghosts from the Underworld to relive the past as scenes of his life played over and over again. The PCs were in an abandoned delinquency center that still exists today. There were the ghosts of bullies and teachers occupying classrooms, swimming, and games. They had to go through all of it one by one, in no particular order. Sometimes they would be noticed, like in the classroom where they left into the hall without a pass. This lead to a particularly hilarious scene where the ghost of a security guard scared the PCs and chased them around. They all failed their contested roll against a powerful Fear Numina. The PCs scrambled down the hallway and hid under a bed like scared children. It was too perfect. When the PCs would fail the Ghosts would drain their Willpower. Once their Willpower was gone the Ghosts would drain their life. Losing a game of Jacks had nearly killed the combat monster PC.


Normally I don't do this as I find RPGs do not make good Board Games. However, there are times when you can construct a really good narrative like in the Mage game. My advice for doing this:
1. Never Force the Narrative: have a story to tell but leave enough room for the players to maneuver. You should allow for more than one way to win. Also you need to ask yourself: What if the PCs don't want to play? What if they cheat? What if they don't get caught? What if they just get up and leave?
2. Leave Room for Roleplaying: there should be dialog between the NPCs and PCs that transcends the game. That means between rounds the NPCs should have things they can say both commenting on the game and speaking personally. I will write 3 to 5 things I want the NPCs to say. That way when the moment comes up I can say it, allowing the story to progress naturally.
3. Use Props: In the Jacks game I gave the player 6 clear crystals. He didn't realize that was his Willpower until he lost them and it drained him.
 



dragoner

Dying in Chargen

That said, I don't like to waste time before the meat of the game, like sifting characters. I even prefer characters to be competent, so as to be "in media res" start playing.
 

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