DMing

Fire and Water: A Game of Chance

You step beneath the overhang of a nearby building, out of the bustling street and away from the moonlit crowds. A cacophony of laughter precedes a group of children racing past you in festival masks, the wind from their stampede gently rattling the multi-colored blown glass lanterns above your head. Beaming merchants and boisterous fair folk call out to passersby to tempt them with hot meals and games of skill, while sword jugglers and fire dancers perform their crafts to cries of delight.

You observe the crowds for a while, taking a deep breath of the crisp night air, when a nearby voice calls out to you softly. “Fire and Water, friend” you follow the voice to an old gray Tabaxi who sits innocuously at a small round table around the edge of the building, “do you throw?” With a shake of your head he finishes packing a long silver pipe with gold-flecked herbs and beckons you over.

“It’s simple” he says, placing two identical dice on the table for you to inspect. Carved from bone and lovingly worn, one face is marked with a flame and opposing it is rippling water. The other four faces are bare. The old cat gives you a chance to look for a while before continuing to explain. “First we agree to the wager, and then you roll the dice. Fire is what you want to see. See one flame and double your coin. See two flames and see it quadrupled.” Taking one and pointing out the faces, he continues. “Water puts out your fire. When you see water, you always lose. Blank faces count for nothing, and two blank faces mean you walk away with nothing.” Crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes crinkle through his fur as he smiles and takes a long drag from his pipe. “Want to play?”

“Fire and Water” is a gambling game that I invented for my setting. I wanted to design something simple that could be picked up quickly and would add to the setting’s immersion, but that wouldn’t take too long to play or distract too much from the actual adventure. At first I was going to design a card game, but while I was sifting through loose game supplies to see what I could mock up I came across dice from Magic: the Gathering’s Planechase format.

The most recent version of Magic: the Gathering’s Planechase dice.

I noted that someone who wasn’t familiar with M:tG might see the two symbols as fire and water, and the idea developed from there.

The rules are simple: you pay your wager and roll two dice, called a throw. The passage above reflects how I typically explain the rules, but ultimately one fire face and one blank face scores a payout, two fire faces scores a jackpot, and everything else is effectively a loss (because throwing both fire and water means that the fire is negated).

I like setting the typical payout to a neat 2x and the jackpot to 4x. Admittedly, at those payouts the odds give the house a much higher edge than a typical casino game would, but my reasoning is two-fold: (1) the prospect of doubling or quadrupling their wager should be more than enticing enough to draw in players without needing to balance it in their favor, and (2) once they get a handle on the game they’re going to want to cheat, which I’ll cover later. Here are some quick and dirty odds for the curious:

Result 1 Result 2 CombinationsFrequency Payout
FireFire12.78%4x
FireBlank822.22%2x
BlankBlank1644.44%0
WaterBlank822.22%0
FireWater25.56%0
WaterWater12.78%0

Chance of winning a single throw: 25%
House edge: 44.44%

Formats:
Queen’s Table: this is the only format I’ve tested in game. The player sits across from the dealer and pushes their wager to the center of the table, the dealer will take and count the wager, hand the player the dice, and subsequently handle any payout. The player may play as many rounds as they desire by pushing additional wagers to the center of the table and repeating the above steps. This requires someone to bankroll the house, so this format is the domain of casinos, thieves’ guilds, and persons of means.

Commoner’s Table (untested): this is a hypothetical format that characters might play in a tavern. Played between two or more participants (though two is the most common), all participants agree on an amount of coin, put that amount of coin on the table (their “purse”), and four times that much coin into the center of the table (the “pot”). Play proceeds clockwise, with each participant throwing once on their turn by wagering from their purse and taking payouts from the pot. If someone has no coins in their purse then they are out of the game. The game ends when the pot is empty (being shortchanged on the final payout is called “catching the cat’s tail”), or when all but one participant have nothing left in their purse (in which case they claim the remaining pot as well). It’s customary in some places for the starting player to pay additional ante, or for players to pay additional ante according to their position at the table.

Traveler’s Table (untested): a hypothetical format similar to Commoner’s Table except played by anteing items instead of coin. All participants ante an item of value — a trinket, a weapon, a piece of jewelry, etc. If an item does not fall near the perceived value of the other items, the other participants at the table may call for that person to “sweeten the pot” by adding an additional one along with it. The game is played as above, but with tokens or chits in place of coin. If the game ends by emptying the pot, each player who has tokens remaining may choose their prize from the ante in the order of most tokens. If items still remain in the ante then the participant with the most tokens chooses again and the process repeats until no items remain. If the game ends with only one player remaining then they take the entire ante.

Cheating:
Sleight of Hand. It’s right there, resting provocatively on the skills list between Religion and Stealth. Your players will absolutely want to use it, and I suggest you let them try. Once per throw, after their initial throw they may attempt a Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) check vs. the highest Passive Perception among dealers/participants at the table. If the player is successful, they can re-roll one of the two dice and must accept the new result. If they did this completely optimally, it would increase their chance of winning a single throw to 40.74% and decrease the house edge to 11.11%. If they fail to pass the check, then they’re caught cheating and in the best case they’ll be expelled from the table, their winnings forfeit to the house or returned to the pot. Additionally, if the dealer or other participants start to become suspicious that they player is cheating they may start using active Wisdom (Perception) checks (or other measures) in place of Passive Perception on the player’s turn. A more boisterous NPC might accuse the player outright and force them to deescalate the situation with a Charisma (Deception) check.

That’s it! Let me know what you think. If you get a chance to use it in your game or playtest some variants, I’d really love to hear your feedback.

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