Playing in-character games at the gaming table — having the players themselves play a few hands of poker in a western RPG, for example — can be a lot of fun, and they’re a neat way to immerse the group in the game world. Depending on how you use them, though, they also have the potential to be a distraction.

Here are 3 tips for getting the most out of games within games.

As a general rule, I enjoy playing in-character games — heck, I’ve written a few of them: I wrote “Three Games of Chance” for Poor Gamer’s Almanac #5, and the Idle Hound section of Nightmarket – Games of Chance. These 9 games are all designed to be played using a mix of player skill and PC skill, and can be incorporated easily into the party’s trip to a fantasy gambling hall.

Three Dragon Ante, a card game based on a tavern game played by D&D characters, is also a great example of a game within a game. Need a break from killing monsters? Get the party together in an inn for a game of Three Dragon Ante — and play it out with your group.

In a way, these kinds of games are a lot like mini-games in video games: They break up the flow, challenge you in different ways and don’t tend to have a major impact on the main portion of the game.

Based on my experience playing games within games, here are 3 simple tips for using them well:

  1. Mix PC skill with player skill.
  2. Keep it short.
  3. Cheating is fun!

By allowing both player skill (how the game is physically played) and PC skill (“Samwise has Gambling 7”) to influence the outcome, you accomplish two things: Players who aren’t good at the mini-game can still have their characters do well, and you can incorporate elements that are tough to handle at the gaming table — like cheating.

Keeping in-game games fairly short — and not using them too often — will help you stay on track within the session. Playing out a full game of poker, for example, can take several hours; playing a couple of hands is probably a better approach. Games within games tend to work best as a change of pace (although you could make them the centerpiece of an adventure centered around a gambling hall).

And last but not least, cheating is the best part. Nothing makes some players (myself included!) happier than hoodwinking hapless NPCs — and getting caught is half the fun. Having the NPCs cheat is also a great way to get a rise out of the players, and the consequences can be a springboard for adventure in their own right.

What do you think of games within RPGs? Do you enjoy including them in your games, or do you find them to be too much of a distraction? Have you ever used one and had things go exceptionally well — or poorly?