Playing Pelota in the Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan
When I wrote the DM’s Guide for the Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan adventure from Tales from the Yawning Portal, I really glossed over Area 29, which is the pelota trap. Well, it’s sort of like a trap, but what it really is is a mini-game. These mini-games crop up occasionally in D&D adventures, and as with anything else, some are done better than others. This particular mini-game is yet another example of a pretty great idea with disappointing execution. So, this article will be three things. First, I’ll explain how the area works exactly as described in the hardcover, partly because I feel a little bit guilty about not giving it any attention in the full guide, and partly so I can talk about why it isn’t very good. Second, I’ll give you a replacement pelota mini-game that you can drop right into your Hidden Shrine if you want to keep the flavor while also getting a mini-game that is entertaining and not pointless. And third, I’ll talk all about how my revised and improved pelota mini-game was designed, because game design is something we talk about here.
This doesn’t really contain spoilers per se, and I can’t think of any really compelling reason to make this a DM’s-only article. All the same, if you’re a player whose DM might be planning to run the Hidden Shrine and use some version of the pelota game, you might want to skip this article, even if you really like mathy game-design content. So, either stop here… or read on, and let’s play pelota!
An Unorthodox Start
This will be a little different, because I’m starting this article by going straight into a blue-boxed sidebar to talk about the actual rubber-ball games played by actual pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures in antiquity. If you don’t care about any of that, skip on down past the blue box, at which point I’ll stop talking anthropology and start talking tabletop gaming again.
A Little Pelota Background
This is where I get to cash in a little bit on an obscure college class I once took because it sounded interesting and because it would fill a requirement for a course with “international/diversity focus”. A lot of the “international/diversity focus” courses fell along the lines of foreign languages (didn’t want to work that hard) or women’s studies (an awkward place to be male), so I latched on to anthropology courses as a good way to get my international and diversity credits.
Apparently even mostly-dead civilizations count towards learning about international and diverse topics, and that’s how I found myself in the Maya and Aztec Civilizations class. Dr. Gillespie was an awesome professor, and I got to make an atl-atl and use it in the actual lecture hall, and I learned all about why the 2012 Maya Apocalypse thing wasn’t actually a thing many years before it actually hit the mainstream. And I learned about the “rubber-ball game” that was played by several pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures, and now I get to actually use that knowledge.
The word “pelota” is being used in the adventure module, probably because we don’t actually know what the “rubber-ball game” was actually called by those who played it in antiquity. In fact, there were probably several names used, both because different societies played “rubber-ball games”, and because there were probably different rules and different names for different games played with rubber balls. Frankly, “pelota” is a lot easier to say and also cooler-sounding than using “rubber-ball game” over and over, and we’ll stick with it.
The word “pelota” is actually one of two common Spanish words meaning “ball”. A “pelota” generally refers to a ball that is solid all the way through, like a bowling ball, or a baseball, or a billiard ball. Just for the curious, the other type of ball, the kind that has air inside it, is generally called a “balón”.
Why are we using Spanish words here anyway? My guess is that because many of the rubber-ball game playing societies were conquered by Spanish-speaking explorers, we’re going with the Spanish word that describes the sort of ball that the game would have been played with.
Besides, it’s got a nice punchy sound to it. For those not familiar with Spanish pronunciations, you say it like “pay-LOH-tah”. Say it enough and it’s going to turn into “puh-LOH-tuh”, and if you aren’t saying “pLO-tuh” by the end of this article, good for you. Okay, sub-sidebar closed.
The problem with bringing a game played by ancient civilizations into a modern context is that we don’t have a lot of really good information on how these games were played, or even why they were played. Imagine future archaeologists coming across artifacts of our sporting equipment and trying to figure out how it all fits together: are they going to be able to figure out that you put a basketball through a hoop with a net attached, and a volleyball over a net, and a soccer ball into a net? You can look at the artifacts and make some guesses, but they’re just guesses. You can also look at playing areas and make some guesses as to the rules of the game, so figuring out that putting the ball through the hoop is the object of basketball is not that hard, but you’re not going to get the rules nuances of three-pointers and free throws, and you probably won’t get gameplay nuances (like what different player positions on the team are responsible for) either.
Don’t even think about tournaments and brackets and point-spreads. Fun fact: some anthropologists think it’s likely that some rubber-ball games were played to determine who was going to be the next human sacrifice… and that sometimes the winners earned the honor of being the sacrifice. Makes you wonder how many people would want to become professional athletes if we sacrificed the Super Bowl champions and the World Cup teams to bloodthirsty gods.
All that having been said, and trying not to think too much about human sacrifice, archaeologists have found sites that they are pretty sure used to be rubber-ball game courts. Some of them look kind of basketball-ish, and that’s why the D&D pelota game is kind of basketball-ish. Anyway, I think I’ve milked about as much use out of that anthropology course as I’m going to get for this article, so let’s get on with discussing D&D pelota, which is what we’re actually here for in the first place.
D&D From Here On
Okay, if you’re skipping the ancient civilizations part and waiting for the D&D part to begin, it’s beginning now. We’ll start off with an explanation and description of how the book says to run the pelota game, and I’ll try not to editorialize too much on the problems that crop up with the way you’re supposed to do it. I’ll bring up the problems, of course, because that’s what I tend to do, but hopefully I’ll manage not to harp on them too much.
Pelota by the Book
In the hardcover, the pelota game is more or less an optional part of the adventure. If the party finds the sealed tomb (with its inscribed warning/challenge) and decides not to open it, they don’t have to play or win the game. If they find the sealed tomb, open it, but then decide not to touch anything in there, then they can walk away and not have to play or win the game. But, if they open up the pelota tomb and touch something in there, then they have to play the game. And they have to play it either until they win or until they are all killed (the only options the book gives, although there are other possibilities, just wait), because that’s the way the mini-game works. But back to that later. Let’s talk about how to run the pelota game as written, and why it isn’t a very good game.
Step One: Being Attacked by a Ball
We start off the game by having the magically animated ball rise up out of the uncovered tomb, located at the south end of the hallway that forms the playing field, and move 30 feet (its movement speed) north from that end of the hallway. Initiative is rolled. Then, the ball uses its first couple of turns to take a few pot-shots at the characters. The point of this is to get the characters to try to hit it back, which has to happen twice before the game actually starts. Why do the characters have to hit the ball? I guess because we want them to realize that hitting the ball is how to play the game, although hitting a ball into a goal doesn’t really follow from hitting a ball that’s hitting them. Anyway, after the ball is struck twice (not that there’s any particular reason why twice), there’s a flourish of trumpets, and the game begins.
Step Two: Hit and Hover
After the ball has been struck twice, it stops trying to bash the characters up, and spends all of its remaining turns flying exactly 30 feet towards the north end of the hallway, which has a fairly obviously glowing goal for the ball to go into. The PC’s also spend the rest of their turns trying to hit the ball with whatever weapons they happen to have; when they hit the ball, it moves exactly 15 feet toward the south end of the hallway, which also has an obviously glowing goal. It’s not clear whether the ball provokes attacks of opportunity; if its speed is actually 30 feet, and that’s how far it moves, then maybe it always takes the disengage action… if a magical ball can do that sort of thing. We’re not even sure at this point if it’s a combat encounter, although it is in an initiative order and has attack rolls… so who knows?
Step Three: Scoring Goals
The ball can put itself into the north goal by making a successful attack roll against AC 15, as long as the north goal is within 15 feet of the ball. The players can put the ball into the south goal by making a successful attack roll against AC 17, as long as the south goal is within 15 feet of the ball. And, whenever a goal is scored, the ball moves to the middle of the hallway, 70 feet from either goal, and the game continues.
Step Four: To The Death!
Whenever the ball scores a point, all of the PC’s get hit with a magic missile. The game ends when the PC’s have scored two more goals than the ball has scored… or when magic missiles finally kill them all.
And that, dear readers, is how the hardcover tells you to run the pelota game. I feel better now, because I have made amends for my previous treatment of this area in the DM’s Guide, where I pretty much said “make sure you read about the pelota game carefully, or else just don’t tell the players about the door.” But we’re not stopping now. Now we move on to why the pelota game as written is pointless, and then we get a better pelota game to play instead.
Going To Extremes
Here’s the problem with the pelota game as written: it’s too easy to win, but there’s too much at stake if you lose, and there’s not even any good reason to stick around to win or lose. And in the middle is tedium.
Projecting the Numbers
If you have a party of four fifth-level characters, which is what this module is designed for, then you have at least four chances for the PC’s to hit the ball and move it 15 feet towards their goal. If the PC’s manage to get two hits against the ball for any round, then they have prevented the ball from making any progress towards its own goal. If they get three or more hits, they make progress towards their goal.
The AC to hit the ball is 13, which makes the odds of an athletically untalented character hitting the ball about 50%: with a weapon attack proficiency bonus of +2 at fifth level, and with an unimpressive Strength or Dexterity of 10 or 11 (so a +0 to weapon attacks from ability scores, and therefore a +2 to weapon attacks overall including proficiency), your player will have to roll an 11 or better to make contact with the ball. So, if you have a party of 4 characters with kind of lousy stats and average luck, this game is basically a draw: during most of the rounds, the party will move the ball 30 feet in their direction, and the ball will move itself 30 feet in the other direction, and around we go again.
But, if you have characters who are good at whacking things with weapons, and especially if some of them have multiple attacks, the ball really has no chance of winning unless the players get really unlucky rolls, and a lot of them in a row. There is that complication that you need to hit AC 17 to actually score a goal, but still… as long as you have some characters with physical aptitude (and pretty much every party has at least one character from a martial class, with good weapon attacks) this game is a losing proposition for the ball, and it shouldn’t take very long for that to become apparent.
Excitement At Risk
That having been said, it’s possible for this game to bog down very easily, with the PC’s making slow progress with average luck, and still rather unimpressive progress with good luck. And they’ll have to score at least two goals in order to win the overall pelota game. The first one should be easier, because the ball starts 30 feet from their goal instead of 70, but the players will still need between two and four good hits within the first round of play to score that goal. For the second and all subsequent goals, it’s more like twice that many, and that’s assuming a fairly even fall of the dice.
This is where DM’s need to be asking themselves how long the players’ patience for this sort of thing will hold out: if you look at most of your round-based combat encounters, they’re over in three or four rounds, which is about as much as is entertaining. Even the really exciting combats against high-CR enemies with interesting abilities and spells get boring after not that many rounds. If dragons and vampires don’t keep up players’ interest as combat rounds start to pile up, how is a floating ball going to manage that trick?
Essentially, deriving entertainment value from combat is largely predicated on combat being an interesting activity, and the thing that makes combat interesting is action that is varied. Different damage amounts, different damage types, spells cast, abilities used, enemies that take interesting actions or use variable tactics: that’s what makes combat interesting, and that’s what this pelota game doesn’t have. Every PC hit moves the ball the same distance in the same direction. Every “enemy” turn, the ball moves the same distance in the opposite direction. Yawn.
Unto the Bitter End
All of this being said, the pelota game has only four ways to end, some of which make more sense than others. One way to end the game is for all of the PC’s to be killed very gradually by magic missiles fired off whenever the ball scores a goal. Another way is for the party to score a goal that puts them two points ahead of the ball. Those are the only options that the book presents as far as how the pelota game is supposed to end.
If we want to reach beyond those two possibilities and get creative, it’s also possible for the party to destroy the ball, which does have an AC, hit points, and damage resistances given in the book. Destroying the ball would certainly bring the game to an end, even though the book doesn’t really tell the DM what to do if the players take that option.
And there’s also no stated reason why the party couldn’t just make a run for it, get down the playing-field-hallway in the north direction, around the corner, and through the door to Area 30, closing it behind them; that’s assuming that the ball would try to chase down those who decided they didn’t want to play with it anymore. Maybe it’s a sensitive ball whose feelings are easily hurt, or a vindictive ball that can’t accept a thwarted chance for victory. Whatever kind of ball it is, I still bet it can’t open a door, so game over.
So now we have the possibility of victory that takes up several rounds of uninteresting ball-whacking, the possibility of defeat along with a TPK, the murder-hobo possibility of killing the ball instead of playing the game, or the option to just quit the entire exercise because it’s gotten too boring or too risky.
None of these are really compelling outcomes, but that’s okay, because we can do better. And the way to make the pelota game better is to look at the reasons why the version in the hardcover isn’t that good, and then fix those problems.
A Better Game of Pelota
This section, on my improved version of the pelota game, will also come in three parts, which seems to be a nesting theme in this article. The first part will be general commentary on mini-games in D&D, giving the basic design model that my improved pelota game is based upon. The second part will be a straight exposition of how to run it the new way, with minimal editorializing about why the new elements were designed the way they were. After that, I’ll get into the gritty details on the design of this mini-game, because mini-games are a good thing to occasionally include in D&D, and I think there’s some educational value in the process I used for this one.
What’s a “Mini-Game”, Anyway?
The general idea of a mini-game in D&D presented here is: “a separate and discrete challenge for the party or players that uses fewer rules than are in the overall rule set.” That’s my definition, by the way, not something from any official source. Let’s break that down.
“Separate and discrete” means that the mini-game is self-contained, and doesn’t bleed over into the overall adventure much, if at all. The party may come out of a mini-game with more gold or fewer hit points than they went in with, but for the most part the action in a mini-game is isolated. It might form an important part of an adventure or campaign, or advance a plot, but ultimately the internal gameplay of the mini-game doesn’t interact with the overall gameplay of the adventure.
This is a good thing, because another mini-game feature is not using all of the rules that are used in the game in general. A certain subset of the rules are used, and often function just as they normally would outside the mini-game, but most of the rules of the overall game don’t really apply to playing the mini-game. You can find examples of this in pretty much any RPG video game that has opportunities in it for the player to get into races with NPC’s: you control your horse, car, or other conveyance just as you normally would outside the race, but the rest of the game is pushed into the background so as not to interfere with the race. When the race is over, the normal gameplay resumes, but during the race you aren’t fighting, having conversations, or exploring. You’re just racing and ignoring the rest, until the race is over and things return to normal.
Those are the features we’re looking for when defining a mini-game: a starting point and an ending point, and gameplay in the middle that doesn’t follow all the same rules as the rest of the game.
So, here’s how my modified pelota game works. Again, I’m going to keep the commentary to a minimum, just enough to explain my basic reasons for making individual changes. Details which are not essential to actually playing the mini-game will come later, for those who are interested.
New Pelota: General Changes
First, the way in which the pelota game begins and ends has to be changed. There are too many options in the hardcover version, some of which seem to exist just because nobody thought that players might try them, and therefore didn’t provide for that contingency.
I recommend using the pelota game essentially as a locked door: you have to play, you have to win, and then you can proceed forward. You can retreat backwards if things aren’t going well, but you’ll need to figure out how to win the game if you want to move past the end of that hallway. Yes, the pelota game in the hardcover gives some treasure as a reward, but the hardcover also keeps the pelota game hidden among spooky bones stashed under a stone with a warning telling people not to open it.
Instead of burying the pelota ball (and really the entire mini-game) under a floor tile that might never be lifted, I would recommend placing the ball right at mid-field, halfway between the north and south ends of that 140-foot hallway. Have it hovering there in a very obvious fashion, as a challenge. Not a very clear challenge with information as to what to expect next, but an adventuresome challenge: “let’s poke at this thing and see what it does.”
The victory conditions will be very simple. The goal at the north end of the passage will be the characters’ objective. When they score a goal, the pelota game is over. It doesn’t matter who has how many points; as soon as the PC’s put the ball in the north goal, the game ends and the hallway leading forward opens up as the reward. Eliminating the whole winning-by-two-points requirement makes the whole situation more reasonable, and easier to balance, because it isn’t possible for the party to get too far behind in the score to catch up and win. With the two-goal rule, the party has to score two consecutive goals in order to win, with no way around that requirement, and they might have to score multiple consecutive goals if the ball gets the best of the situation early on. We’ll just get rid of that altogether, and a victory is a victory.
The defeat conditions will be very simple. Every time the PCs’ opponents (yes, there will be opponents, and more on them in a minute) score a goal at the south end of the hallway, the magic missiles come out and strike each of the PC’s. The party can retreat from the pelota game, exiting without obstacle at the south end of the playing field, but eventually they’ll have to return if they’re going to score their goal and progress forward through the shrine. If they leave, the ball returns to mid-field and waits for the party to return and resume the game. Remember that this part of the shrine has that poisonous gas in it that makes resting very difficult, so retreating from the game only has limited benefits; using healing spells or potions to either regain HP or buff up abilities is possible, but doing a short rest is not as effective as usual, and a long rest is pretty much out of the question without poison immunity for everyone.
Let’s Have Actual Opponents
I thought the idea of competing against a magically floating ball was really rather boring, because all the ball can do is float in the direction of its goal. It has no limbs, so it doesn’t do anything varied: you can’t even really provide interesting narration, because the ball just hovers around. Also, an animated ball has to follow different rules than the characters, because it can’t take the same kinds of actions as they can. A better solution is to create an opposing team for the party to contend against: it provides a better competitive atmosphere than playing against a ball, and it allows us to have general rules of the game that apply to all of the players (PC and NPC) equally.
The revised game of pelota will be played against a team of Spectral Athletes, wearing suitable attire to fit with the theme of the Hidden Shrine. There will be one Spectral Athlete for each PC participating in the pelota game, and certain rules will apply to them.
Spectral Athletes will be sort of like enemy combatants, except they won’t need a full stat block, because they’ll have a very limited scope of actions. Essentially, the Spectral Athletes will not be able to interact with anything in the physical world except for the pelota ball.
The only numbers we need for them are:
Strength(Athletics) Check: they get a +2 bonus to all Strength(Athletics) checks. It really doesn’t matter how much of that is Strength and how much is Athletics proficiency; we just need a modifier to compare to the PC’s modifiers.
Speed: they have a walking speed of 30 feet, like almost all medium-sized humanoids.
Wisdom: these are undead creatures, so it might occur to the players to try and turn them. The entire group of Spectral Athletes rolls just once to resist turning, with a +4 bonus to the saving throw. A successful turning will stun the entire team, stopping them in their tracks, instead of the usual effect of causing them to run away in fear. Any turned Spectral Athlete immediately drops the ball, which can be picked up and passed three times without giving the Spectral Athletes any opportunity to reclaim the ball. After three pass attempts, the Spectral Athletes recover and the rules go back to normal.
Spectral Athletes don’t need AC or hit points, because they can’t be harmed by the PC’s. They don’t need a lot of other ability scores, because they won’t be using them to play the pelota game, which is all that they exist for. The Spectral Athletes are special-purpose monsters, and the only stats they need are the ones that the pelota mini-game uses.
So now we have an opposing team. Probably one of the players is going to want to try to destroy a Spectral Athlete, but the simple answer here is that it can’t be done: if a PC takes a swing at a Spectral Athlete, their weapon just goes straight through as if through thin air. Under normal circumstances, that would be a bad thing, but these aren’t normal circumstances, because we’re not really under D&D rules anymore. We’re into a very specific subset of the rules that govern the gameplay of the pelota mini-game, and that subset does not include rules for combat. What does it include? Let’s take a look.
Playing Pelota as a Team Sport
Having an opposing team means that the PC’s and their opponents can follow the very same rules of play. The contenders (meaning PC’s and Spectral Athletes) are arranged along that 140-foot hallway, and can move either north or south, but east-west movement is irrelevant. They can’t occupy each others’ spaces, but they can move through/around one another freely.
At any given time, one team is in possession of the ball, and has to move it down the field and into the goal, while avoiding losing it to the other team. Because this is a team sport, the gameplay is focused on actions by teams rather than by individual characters, so not every character needs to have an individual turn as the competition proceeds. Instead, the teams take turns.
The play goes something like this.
One contender (meaning a PC or a Spectral Athlete) is holding the ball. That contender has to pass the ball to a teammate, and after passing the ball can then move to a different position on the field. To pass the ball, the contender has to choose a teammate to pass it to, and then make a Strength(Athletics) check to accurately throw the ball across the distance. If the check beats a DC of 12, the ball travels a maximum distance of 5d6+15 feet; if it doesn’t beat the DC, it only travels a maximum of 5d6 feet.
If the named teammate is within the rolled distance, the ball is successfully passed. If the named teammate is too far away, the ball travels the specified distance and falls to the floor there.
In either case, the contender who just passed the ball can move up to his speed, to the north or to the south, before ending his turn.
After a successful pass, a member of the opposing team can move to the new ball holder (provided there’s a member close enough to make it there using walking speed) and try to grab the ball away with a contested Strength(Athletics) check. After an unsuccessful pass, a member of the opposing team can move to the location of the ball (again, within range) and pick it up with no check required. With a successful grab, or a recovery of a dropped ball, the opposing team gains possession of the ball, and can attempt to pass it to a teammate as previously described.
Scoring a goal works just like passing the ball to a teammate, except the DC for the check is 15 instead of 12, and has to be made successfully for an accurate throw into the goal. If a contender fails to meet the DC 15 check, the ball either comes up short of the goal, or lands next to the goal, depending on the distance rolled. When the party scores a goal, the game is over, the Spectral Athletes vanish without a trace, and the door to proceed to the rest of the shrine opens. When the Spectral Athletes score a goal, each member of the party is struck by a magic missile (1d4+1 force damage), and the ball returns to the middle of the playing field.
Summing Up the Rules
When you have the ball, try to throw it to a teammate: if you do well on your Strength(Athletics) check, you get a long throw, otherwise you get a shorter throw. Hopefully your throw makes it all the way to the teammate you chose, so they can catch the ball; otherwise, the ball comes up short and lands on the floor.
After the throw, the other team gets a chance to get the ball away from your team, either by grabbing away a ball that was caught, or by picking up a ball that missed. If they fail to get the ball away, your team gets another chance to pass the ball.
So, you have a pattern of offense and defense, just as in many real-world sports. The team with the ball makes offensive plays to pass the ball down the field and into their goal, and the other team makes defensive plays to try to get the ball for themselves before that can happen. You just go back and forth, and the back and forth is between the teams, instead of using a cycle of individual characters moving independently using a standard initiative-based round.
With good rolls, bolstered by strong and athletic characters, a team can move the ball close enough to their goal to “pass” the ball into the goal. It’s also acceptable for the players to use creative solutions based on their characters’ abilities to give themselves an advantage, because frankly that should always be allowed, mini-game or not. The PC’s only need to score once to win the mini-game, but every time their opponents make a goal, the PC’s get pelted with magic missiles, gradually wearing down their hit points.
And that’s how to play a better game of pelota. If you don’t care about how all that was designed, you can stop reading here and go have fun playing D&D rather than listening to me go on about numbers and dice and averages for hundreds or thousands of words. But, if you like all of that design geek stuff, by all means continue.
Mini-Game Design and Pelota
The design for the pelota game, and really for any mini-game, is actually fairly simple. Every mini-game needs an entry point and an exit point, to define when the mini-game rules are in force and when the overall game rules are in force. After that’s figured out, what’s left is to select the rules that are needed for the mini-game to work, and leave the rest of the rules out. Note, here, that the mini-game rules should not be a major departure from the overall game rules, but rather should be a carefully selected subset of the overall rules; part of the selection process should be making sure that the mini-game is much less complicated than the overall game, because complex mini-games often are better handled by using the complete rules. And if you’re going to use the complete rules, you really aren’t having a mini-game at all, but instead an encounter or side adventure.
Riddles and Puzzles
Just to be clear, you might consider complex riddles and puzzles to be a type of mini-game, but that’s not what this sort of design applies to. If you have levers that need to be moved in a certain order, or floor tiles to be stepped on sequentially, that’s a little like a mini-game, but it doesn’t use a selected subset of the rules.
Instead, those kinds of activities generally have their own rules that have nothing to do with the overall game rules, like telling how a PC can step around on a puzzle floor, or how a time limit ticks down based on how many tries it takes to pull the levers into the right arrangement.
That being said, if you need ability or skill checks, or elements that introduce random or variable results, you probably are dealing with a mini-game situation instead of a riddle or puzzle situation, and you should consider designing it as such. A complicated locking mechanism that is opened by making investigation checks to identify important cogs and thieves’ tools checks to adjust the cogs is almost certainly a mini-game, for example.
Running the Numbers
One of the nice things about mini-game design is that it’s fairly simple to use odds and stats to tune the difficulty of the challenge. A lot of the overall game rules and mechanics require extensive playtesting and adjustment to get them just right, but that’s mostly because there are a lot of rules involved. When you don’t have many rules to consider, it get a lot easier to run the numbers on your mini-game and decide where to set your bonuses and DC’s.
I’ll get into this in more detail soon, but if you take a look back at the stats for the Spectral Athletes, you’ll notice that they really only have one salient number: the bonus to Strength(Athletics) checks. They don’t have a Strength score or modifier per se, and they don’t actually have a proficiency bonus either. They don’t have a variety of actions they can choose on their turns, and there are a very limited number of ways in which they can interact with the PC’s.
Almost all of the complicating factors which require balancing when you’re figuring out how tough to make a monster aren’t needed in the mini-game, and that means we’ll be able to figure a lot of the numbers out on paper instead of sitting down with pre-generated characters and dice and playing through it until it’s just right. A caveat right up front is that we will not be doing a drawn-out analysis of all the odds and probable outcomes that might be involved in the mini-game; we’re going to do enough math to get to a point where we can fudge the rest into place, and not any more than that.
The Entry Point
Entry points for mini-games are fairly simple, as far as game design goes. All that needs to happen is for the players to realize that they are now in a mini-game, and to get a general idea of how the game is played.
Mini-games can definitely be optional, as with the original pelota game in the Tales from the Yawning Portal hardcover: open this tomb, fiddle with the contents, and you’re in the mini-game. Leave the tomb alone, or open it and decide to back away slowly and not touch anything, and the mini-game never happens.
But, there’s no reason why mini-games have to be optional. There’s a certain inclination towards saying that because mini-games are kind of outside the normal game, it’s not a good thing to make them mandatory for the adventure. There’s no reason, though, that you can’t use a mini-game to create a plot point that has to be dealt with. It might be along the lines of a really complex lock to open a door, or having to participate in a jousting tournament to impress the regent, or winning a series of games at the village fair to get some MacGuffin or other as a prize.
Point is, you don’t have to hide your mini-games, leaving them as just interesting side notes. You can put them in with the rest of the adventure, and often with really worthwhile results: a mini-game is an opportunity to take a little break from the status quo and do something different for a while.
So, with the pelota game as an example, we can see where the entry point is: as soon as the party approaches the ball, or touches it, the mini-game begins. That’s the easy part of the entry point, because it’s just setting some condition that triggers the mini-game. The tricky part is conveying the rules of the mini-game. Or, at least, it’s possible for it to be tricky.
It can be very non-tricky if you just explain the rules up front, and often that’s a decent way to do things. The downside of being very transparent with the rules is that you’re depriving the players of the opportunity to surmise how best to play the game and act accordingly. There’s a certain satisfaction in realizing that you’ve figured out how to handle a challenge effectively without being told exactly how it works.
With pelota as an example, if I just explain the rules before the game starts, the players will know that characters with good Strength scores and Athletics proficiency will be the stars of the show. But, if the Spectral Athletes appear and just start playing the game, the players have to react and make their best decisions on how to compete effectively, and that can keep things interesting. In the original version, the part where the ball starts attacking the characters in order to get them to hit it, thereby discovering something about how the game is played, is an example of this.
Either way, once the players realize that a mini-game has begun, and when they have a basic understanding of how the rules of the mini-game work, you’ve accomplished the entry point requirement. We’ll skip the middle part, which is how the mini-game actually plays out, and talk next about the exit point; before we actually get to the gameplay, we need to know when to stop.
The Exit Point
Exit points are more complicated than entry points. Part of the reason for that is the possibility of different ways to end the mini-game, some of which might not result in a triumph or a progression of the adventure. The other part is that a lot of the danger and risk involved in the mini-game is going to ride on how difficult it is to complete it successfully.
Considering the Options
With the revised pelota game, the obvious exit point is to win the game by scoring a goal. It might also be possible to break free of the mini-game by destroying the ball in some way, and there’s probably the possibility of running away from the game if things are really going poorly. Many mini-games will have a failure condition, like losing the jousting tournament, but the pelota game’s only real failure condition is a TPK.
The thing to remember here is to try to consider all of the ways the game might be ended or delayed. That might not prepare you for everything that the players might throw at you, but knowing the intended ways for the game to end is a must, because the most probable outcome is for the players to complete the game in the way that it’s obviously intended to be completed.
It’s important to be prepared for non-standard responses to the mini-game when you’re running the mini-game. But, when we’re designing the mini-game, we only have to concern ourselves with the way it’s supposed to be played, because mostly, that’s how it will be played.
Boredom and Death
Aside from any unusual or clever exits, there are two reasons for the game to end: players getting tired of it, or characters taking too much damage.
Players getting bored with the game is an ever-present danger in D&D, and mini-games are no exception, but it’s hard to design around boredom in a general way. Players are different, groups are different, and even the random factors in the mini-game create different boredom conditions. For example, six rounds of pelota might be far too many under normal conditions, but it might still be exciting and worth continuing if the characters are having a lot of near misses… or it might be frustrating and better to end sooner for the same reason. The point here is that trying to design around psychology is problematic, and might as well be put to the side. If you’re designing a mini-game, you’ll just have to use your own knowledge of your own group to tailor the boredom aspect as best you can. And, if you’re designing a mini-game for general use, I suggest that you estimate player attention span on the low end of the scale.
Damage and death are much easier to quantify than boredom: you just have to decide what’s the acceptable level of danger. In this instance, we’re talking about fifth-level characters, so figure about 30 to 35 HP for a character with a d8 hit die and so-so Constitution stats. Assuming that they’ve already taken some damage, and also assuming that they haven’t been able to restore HP by resting because of the poisoned air in the shrine, we’ll estimate that they each have about 20 HP left. Some will have more, some less, but that’s the ballpark. It’s also worth considering what opportunities the party will have to regain HP, and how soon those opportunities will be available. If you know that an HP boost is right around the corner, you can cut the danger element a little closer than you otherwise might.
We’ll be doing damage exclusively with magic missiles, which makes it easy to average out how much damage it’s likely for the characters to take. Each magic missile is 1d4+1 damage, and they always hit, which means that each character will take about 3 damage or so for each goal the opponents score, and they’ll never take more than 5 damage. This is another nice thing about mini-games: we don’t have to fiddle around with different weapons, spells, areas of effect, or whatever, because they just aren’t part of the mini-game. This one is even easier because magic missiles always hit, so we don’t have to account for attack rolls and different AC’s for different characters. Simple is good, because it makes it possible, or even easy, to predict consequences.
So, if we have characters with about 20 HP, and they’ll lose probably about 3 and no more than 5 HP every time they lose a point, then we want the opponents to score three or fewer goals before the PC’s manage to score one and bring the mini-game to an end. And, even though we aren’t specifically designing this to avoid boredom, three isn’t really too many. If it were going to be more like six, I might use two magic missiles per character instead of one. This is, after all, a mini-game, and it ought to be a short detour from the normal action, rather than a full-on side adventure.
In the Middle
Now that we’ve decided we want this game to run for no more than three opponent goals and one party goal, what’s left is to create the opponents in such a way as to make that a likely outcome. Since there are only two “moves” in the game, we can figure out fairly easily how likely it is for either side to score a goal: we know the odds of a successful throw, and we know the odds of a successful grab. Granted, there’s the possibility for the players to “lay up” and attempt shorter throws in case the Athletics check comes up short, but shorter throws mean more throws needed overall, and therefore more chances for missed throws and grabs, so I’m not planning on figuring out how things change if they opt for safe tactics over standard tactics. Probably the safe tactics would work less well, but I would be very surprised to actually see a group of players decide to approach a challenge timidly.
We’re going to need an assumption about the general level of skill that the PC’s are going to bring to the game, and then we’ll use that as a baseline to create opponents who will be better at the game than the party, but not too much better. After all, we want challenge and danger, but we also want the opponents to score three goals or less during the whole pelota game, so they need to be good but not too good.
As far as PC’s go, we’ll posit two different types: athletes and non-athletes. Athletes will have decent strength and Athletics proficiency, and will be adding about a +4 to all of their checks during the pelota mini-game. Non-athletes will be adding nothing to their checks, so +0. And, for safety, we’ll assume that the entire party is made up of non-athletes, because that definitely happens.
So, if we start off with opponents who are just as good at the game as the non-athlete PC’s, the goal-scoring situation works about half and half. The odds of a successful throw by a party member are about 50%, and a successful throw will move the ball 5d6+15 feet, which is about 35 feet down the court, and result in a successful catch. By the numbers, even an unsuccessful throw should move about 20 feet on average, but not having that solid 15 added on makes it possible for an unsuccessful throw to really go poorly, whereas a successful throw can’t go less than 20 feet even in the worst case.
After the throw, there’s the grab opportunity, and because it uses a contested check, equally matched opponents will have a 50% chance of grabbing the ball, or of avoiding a grab. If you think of the throw and the grab as a “play”, that means that there’s about a 25% chance of a fully successful play, meaning one with a good throw and no grab. And that play will move the ball about halfway from the middle of the field to the goal. So far so good.
The problem starts when you consider that you’ll need about two or three good plays to score a goal, and that it’s quite unlikely that you’ll get those plays all in a row. That’s not as bad as it seems, though, because the party doesn’t need multiple good plays in a row, or even any good plays in a row. As long as the opponents aren’t making good plays, the party isn’t actually losing any ground on the playing field. But, if the party and the opponents are evenly matched, we’re at an impasse. And that makes excitement into boredom, and turns the game into essentially a competition of who can win the most coin flips in a row.
Wait, No More Numbers?
At this point, I could start really slinging math around. We could work out the odds that a team would score a goal from midfield by making only sequential successful plays. We could figure out how many total plays we should expect if we figure in the possibility for the ball to be grabbed away and then grabbed back. We can come up with the overall probability of the party scoring a goal if they get possession of the ball. We can even change all of these calculations up by deciding how many party members will be playing, and how many will be athletes, and how many will be non-athletes. After we do all of that, we can come up with the probable amount of damage each party member will take before the party wins the pelota game.
But we’re not going to do any of that. Why not? Because it doesn’t matter enough to go through the effort.
The point of knowing the general odds of the game is to have a place to start when you adjust the difficulty. We can see how the game works out when you have all contenders at an equal skill level, and we can see how that changes when we increase the skill level of different contenders. It doesn’t need to be exact; it just needs to be a place to start. If going into all of the probability implications is your thing, go for it. Have fun with it. If that’s not your thing, you only need to do a little calculation to see how your mini-game rule set works, so you can add or remove rules if it seems too far off.
I wanted the possibility for a team to lose the ball, but I had to consider how that decreased the likelihood of that team making progress toward their goal. If I had decided that 25% as the baseline probability for a fully successful play was too low, I could have changed the rules of the mini-game to mitigate the problem… but I had to figure out the 25% before I could make intelligent choices about what (if anything) to do about it.
So definitely run some numbers. Mini-game rules are usually simple enough to make it possible to get some meaningful results without a double major in computer science and statistics. Just don’t slide down the slippery slope and get bogged down in too many percentages for too many possibilities.
Unless you get your jollies off from that, of course, in which case go to town.
The impasse between equally matched contenders is solved in two ways. First, we make the opponents better at the game than non-athlete PC’s. That’s why the Spectral Athletes get a +2 to their checks: we want them to outplay non-athletes. But, we also want them to be outplayed by athlete PC’s, and that’s why their bonus to the check is only +2. Remember, it’s okay for the Spectral Athletes to beat up on the party at pelota, as long as they don’t actually kill them all, and killing them all is pretty unlikely.
The second solution to the impasse is to remember that, overall, D&D 5E is weighted in favor of the players. After all, the players are the ones who are supposed to come out of almost all of their battles still alive when all of their opponents have been killed, and they do this very regularly. Even when we strip down the rules of the mini-game to the very basics, PC’s are still special, and it’s worth remembering that those non-athlete PC’s are more likely than the athlete PC’s to have interesting tricks that make them outclass their opponents. If you can pass the ball to a teammate who is flying or spider-climbing out of the reach of your opponents, they don’t get a chance to grab the ball away. A cleric turning the undead Spectral Athletes can incapacitate the entire opposing team. If you time your misty step right, you can probably pass the ball to yourself. Long story short, characters who have unimpressive Strength stats or lack that Athletics proficiency have their own advantages, with a little creativity. It might take a few missed opportunities or opponent goals before the really innovative ideas come out, but again, we’re expecting the opponents to have somewhat of an advantage. And, again, the party needs just one goal to win the day, so there’s room for some trial and error for the players.
Miscellanea On Number Psychology
A couple final notes are in order, but those are the basics on how the new version of pelota was created, and hopefully they’re instructive concerning mini-game design in general. So, odds and ends.
The DC for the throws is set at 12 only because a DC of 10 is boring. Even when the characters don’t have any bonuses from stats or proficiency to add to their d20 roll, the players never seem to take a DC of 10 seriously. Even though making a DC 10 is fifty-fifty when you don’t get to add anything, the D&D-player-brain writes off a DC 10 check as being hardly worth rolling for. This might have something to do with lingering memories of the old concept of “taking 10”, or maybe it’s just a cognitive bias in which numbers perceived as “low” are dismissed as inconsequential. Whatever the reason for chronic DC 10 contempt, I want players to take the game seriously, so I set the DC at 12 instead. That doesn’t make a lot of difference for the math, but makes a world of difference for the aesthetics of the thing.
The throwing distance is also a bit of a numbers trick, because the substantial benefit of a successful throw is being able to guarantee at least 20 feet of distance, and that guarantee comes not from the dice but from adding a solid 15 feet no matter how the dice come up. Why 5d6, then? Partly because the average result on 5d6 is around 20, and when you add 15 to that, you get 35, which is half the distance from the middle of the playing field to the goal, but that the maximum distance you can get is 45 feet, which limits the possibilities for “hail-Mary” scoring attempts (an American football term for a desperately long pass). Mostly the reason for 5d6 is that rolling a fairly large number of dice gives a lovely sense of risk. The math says that you’re going to get about 20 most of the time, but the individual ones and sixes on the actual rolled dice scream good and ill fortune to the person rolling them, and providing that feeling of excitement in randomness is good psychology in design. I could have gotten the same average of about 20 feet using 4d8 instead, or even 3d10, but rolling five dice is another nod to aesthetics. You might contend that rolling 8d4 (or 10d4, because averages on d4’s come out a little wonky) would be even more exciting by reason of having more dice… but everyone hates rolling d4’s because they’re so bloody hard to pick up, so we’re sticking with d6’s.
The End, Finally
And that, dear readers, brings us to the end of my ramble about the pelota game from the Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan. I felt badly about having given it such short shrift in the original Hidden Shrine guide, but now you’ve gotten not only an explanation of how it works as written in the hardcover, but also a version that should actually be fun and rewarding to play.
If you like anthropology trivia about Mesoamerican civilizations and speculation about “rubber-ball games”, you got some of that into the mix. And, of course, there was the exposition of the design process for the new pelota game, which isn’t a bad approach to other mini-game designs. It’s possible that I might eventually expand this into another article, with some actual examples of useful mini-games of a more general sort.
But, for now, I am closing the book on pelota. I managed to keep this article under the big ten thousand word mark, and I’m stopping while I’m ahead. Cheers.