Burst of Insight-The Intersection of Tabletop RPGs and Board Games

When our regular game night fizzles because someone can’t make it to play or we’re just looking for a change of pace we often turn to board games for the evening. A couple weeks ago two of our players brought the board game Roll Player to the table and we squeezed in a quick game before our regular session. Roll player is a fun dice drafting game that (sort of) simulates making a character in a tabletop RPG. The obvious connection between this game and RPGs got me to thinking about where the mechanics of the two types of games intersect already and where board game mechanics or components could be used in RPGs. Now, board and card games typically focus on visual and tactile elements more so than most RPGs; but that doesn’t mean GMs can’t draw on their experiences with other types of games to improve their RPG experiences.

Pathfinder’s use of miniatures and a tactical grid is probably the most obvious similarity to board games (particularly if you use their flip mats) but not the only one already supported. Paizo also provides a number of card products that aid play. Condition cards, buff cards, and critical hit (and fumble) decks are just a few examples that use or add to the rules. While the Face Card and Item Card lines can add visual elements to your table.

Beyond Paizo’s offerings, you can add a number of other accessories to your table. Glass beads, poker chips, and replica coins, pretty much if you’ve seen it used in a board game you can probably imagine a use for it in play.

Some Examples

  • The GM of our Friday night campaign is running Kingmaker. We’re still only in book one and already the hex exploration feels like a game within a game. We have a blank hex map “board” we log our progress on and poker chips for tracking our food reserves. We hunt or purchase rations for additional food tokens and spend those as we eat and explore.
  • If you have a table you don’t need to clean up regularly you could lay out a “hexploration” board one hex tile (similar to the tiles found in Settlers of Catan) at a time and mark the PCs current location with a miniature, glass bead, or meeple.
Catan Hex Tiles

Catan Hex Tiles

  • If you’re using the Hero Point rules you could pass out replica coins whenever a player earns a point. You can use the deluxe metal coins or cheap plastic party favors depending on your budget or style.

Cheap plastic novelty coins I found at a local party store.

  • I have a mountain of Paizo’s item cards but no longer use them as a GM. I recently decided that I’d use a card or two to track specific expendable items such as ammunition. I’ll lay an arrow card near my character sheet and keep a couple of dice on it as counters.
Paizo Item Cards with dice counters

Consider giving those d12’s something to do. Use them as counters.

  • Another board game our players have introduced us to is Clank which incorporates two of my favorite mechanics, deck building and an “impending doom timer” like you find in Pandemic or Forbidden Island. Most of the games that use timers do so by advancing it randomly. Another RPG I’ve recently come across (The Index Card Role-Playing Game) recommends using timers regularly. The author suggests GMs use a large d20 where all the players can see it and tick it down as rounds slip by. In Pathfinder you might use this method in an altercation with a dragon ticking down to the next use of the monster’s breath weapon or perhaps the PCs are in a flooding ruin or sinking ship and so you make a flood tracker like is found in Forbidden Island advancing it at regular intervals.

Flood Tracker from Fobidden Island

Whatever board game elements you add to your game should enhance your play experience not over complicate things. Try things out but if they don’t work retire them and get back to what works.


Big d20 with extra die and mini for scale

Andrew Marlowe

placed in the Top 16 of RPG Superstar in 2012 and 2014, one of the few contestants to get that far in the competition twice. Since then, he has contributed to many Paizo and third party Pathfinder products, including one of the network’s favourite releases in the Pathfinder Player Companion line, the Dirty Tactics Toolbox. Every other Tuesday, he will be sharing his Burst of Insight, with design tips for would-be game designers from a decorated freelancer.