Pandemic: The Roleplaying Game

The Story So Far

Since there aren’t many examples of roleplaying games based on board games,  I set out to create one.  It’s been an interesting design exercise. If you are interested in RPG design, definitely give it a try.

Staring at my shelves, mulling board games over took some time.  Which one has the best potential?  Which one has an engaging setting?  Which one has a large scale and would still be interesting at an intimate scale?  Abstract games are too–abstract.  There will be no Chess: the Roleplaying Game.  Battle games would be too easy.  That rules out Earth Reborn, Mythic Battles, Mage Knight, and their pugalistic cousins.  Economics make fun boardgames but lack that personal touch I’m seeking.  So long, Web of Power, Acquire, and Rolling Freight.  How about Monopoly: the Roleplaying Game?  Please no.

I finally chose Matt Leacock’s excellent Pandemic.  Pandemic has all the elements any roleplayer could want.  It features high stakes–virulent diseases have simultaneously broken out all across the world.  It features epic characters–each player takes the role of a world class disease fighter.  Characters naturally form into diverse parties–each utilizing their talents to treat hot spots, prevent outbreaks, and research cures.


The Game Engine

I favor highly narrative games with quick task-resolution systems.  The clever Strike! RPG (Get it here) achieved this goal far better than most.  I used its concepts as a starting point for my game engine. This game will feature no attributes in the normal RPG sense of the word.  Instead, characters will use skills to differentiate them from one another.

Gameplay will be focused on the high drama of working to cure fatal diseases.  Interpersonal conflict and social strife are likely to feature in the game so the system needs to handle these situations smoothly.  Combat won’t happen often and when it does, it will be deadly.

When a character attempts a task, the player will describe what they are trying to achieve and which skill they intend to use.  Under the GM’s judgment, one or more standard six-sided dice are rolled.  If the character does not have an appropriate skill, roll one die.  If the character is skilled, roll two.  If the task matches the character’s type, roll three dice.   After rolling, take the highest among them.  The GM then describes the result of this action by using this narrative chart.

Highest die Narrated Result
7 Amazing success
6 Success with a major bonus
5 Success with a minor bonus
4 Simple no frills success
3 Success but with a cost
2 Simple failure
1 Abject failure.  Opposite result achieved.

Why is 7 on this chart?  Good question.  If two or more of your dice roll 6, the result is treated as 7 and your character gets an amazing, perhaps even unprecedented success!



This game will not need a formal skill list.  Instead, each player gets to create six skills for his or her character during creation. These skills represent the talents and abilities each character has beyond his or her primary career.  Because this game is narrative rather than exhaustive, players are encouraged to create narrative skills.  To help inspire you, here are a few:

Accountant Bus Driver Camper Chef
Diver Geology Mechanic Programmer
Runner Sewing Woodcrafts


Character Types

A character’s type is his or her primary career.  These types were drawn directly from the Pandemic board game.  Each type lays out an area of specialization for your character.  In game terms, this means you roll 3 dice on any task related to your character type.  Each type also brings extra advantages and challenges.

Dispatchers coordinate movement.  Dispatchers get people and supplies where they need to be when they need to be there.  As an extra advantage, a dispatcher may announce once per session where an item or person is without rolling dice.  If this advantage is used, then later in the same session, the GM may announce that a different item or person is unavailable.

Medics cure people.  Medics are the people who live on the front lines of infection.  As an extra advantage, a medic may gain entry into a restricted area once per session without rolling dice.  If this advantage is used, then later in the same session, the GM may announce that a quarantined area has suffered a breakout and the disease has spread.

Researchers collect the pieces.  Researchers collate data and identify how disease is spread.  As an extra advantage, a researcher may ask the GM for a clue once per session without rolling dice.  If this advantage is used, then later in the same session, the GM may evolve the disease to spread in a new way (bloodborne evolves into fluidborne, for example).

Scientists put the pieces together.  Scientists explore treatments and discover cures for the deadliest diseases in the world.  As an extra advantage, a scientist may find a cure once per session without rolling dice.  If this advantage is used, then later in the same session, the GM may introduce a resistant substrain which spreads less easily but is immune to this cure.

Operations Experts build facilities.  Operations Experts make the field hospitals, research stations, and fabrication laboratories the other characters use.  Dispatchers may stock the shelves but without Operations Experts, there would be no shelves to stock.  As an extra advantage, an operations expert may declare the presence of a supply depot once per session without rolling dice.  If this advantage is used, then later in the same session, the GM may cause an equipment malfunction.

GMing the Pandemic RPG

It’s hard to roleplay a virus.  They’re pernicious but also rather mindless.  This will be your biggest challenge as a GM for this game.  People, however are rather more familiar ground.  If I were to run this game, that’s where my stories would start.  

Story Seed: There’s an immunodeficiency outbreak in central Africa.  The warlord controlling the region doesn’t want the “corrupt influences” of the CDC in the area.  Before the team can treat the sick or find a cure, they must find a way to get in.

Story Seed: Several cases of Cholera have appeared in the southwestern United States and Northern Mexico.  Diplomatic tension between the two nations makes it difficult to coordinate efforts.  The team may need to navigate international relations before they can get at the real problem.

Story Seed: Several atypical cases of pneumonia have appeared in East Asia.  This may be a new strain of SARS.  A member of Doctors Without Borders is related to one of the team and may have already become infected.  Can the team find an adequate treatment in time to save his life?

Final Thoughts

So that’s the Pandemic RPG I would write if I were writing a Pandemic RPG.  Since roleplaying games are the best for exploring personal experience and emotion, I took the global setting of Pandemic and personalized it.  Overall, I’m pretty happy with the results.

What do you think of the Pandemic RPG? What did you find most interesting?  What would you have done differently?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.



The 10 Best Mechanisms You Aren’t Using, Part 5

As we get closer and closer to the top spot, we take on increasingly maligned game mechanisms.  Today, we look at two mechanisms with particularly poor reputations–fetch quests and player elimination.

3.   Fetch Quests

A fetch quest looks something like this: You need a screwdriver.  Merchant A has a Screwdriver but you’re broke.  So Merchant A says you can have the screwdriver if you see can get a new set of earrings for daughter B.  You go to jeweler C and ask for earrings D but since you still don’t have any money, jeweler C will let you have earrings D if you can eliminate the rats E that have invaded his shop.  So you eliminate rats E and get earrings D from jeweler C which you give to daughter B so merchant A gives you the screwdriver–whew!

Fetch quests are quite common in computer roleplaying games.  They are a handy tool when plotting tabletop roleplaying games as well.  They can be a quick, slick way to wrap a bit of plot around the core roleplay experience.  They can also serve as a nice way to introduce new characters into the setting.

Fetch quests are also derided so much so that when I mentioned to my friend Jenny Gracin they were to be featured in this article, she snarled and spat.  Clearly some folks have had bad experiences with them.  And that’s fair too.  Much like memory, fetch quests can enhance or destroy a design depending on how they’re employed.  At their worst, fetch quests in a CRPG can be little more than an evening scrolling through meaningless dialogue boxes until all the appropriate points have been hit.  tsk.

Appropriate use of fetch quests in RPGs requires that the fetch quest enhance the roleplaying experience rather than replace it.

Appropriate use of fetch quests in tabletop board games requires that Merchant A and Jeweler C be players at the table.  When it is other players who have what you need, these fetch quests drive you to interact with them.

Players in Uwe Rosenberg’s wonderful Klunker sell gems to one another, working to collect sets.  The game plays in alternating phases. During phase A, you must put gems into your window that other players will want to purchase. During phase B, you attempt to buy the ideal set of gems before someone else beats you to them.  Rosenberg’s approach uses these fetch quests to keep you constantly working to read the other players.

Players who wish to build rail in the second half of Martin Wallace’s Brass must first find a connection to a coal supply.  You are allowed to supply your own coal but more often you will be fetching it from another player’s coal mine. Because coal must be shipped along a rail line, you will often find yourself building rail to destinations you don’t particularly care about, just to establish the fetch line you need for the coal.

Again, the key to good use of fetch quests in tabletop board games is that these quests must enhance player interaction.


2.   Player Elimination

Player elimination is the red-headed stepchild of game design.  At best, it is dismissed as a useless residual from the bowels of American game design.  More often it is spat upon, beaten and kicked across the message boards.

Working from this attitude, most modern Werewolf-type games focus on eliminating player elimination.  This has led to some great designs–Resistance Avalon is a personal favorite.  Even wargame design has been similarly restrained by either banning player elimination or terminating the game at the moment a player is eliminated.  The era of player elimination seems to be over.

Two years ago, I realized just how limiting such an attitude can be.  A group of teenagers was being introduced to Werewolf and it was my job to narrate. Even though the “dead” players were forbidden from speaking or interacting with “living” players in any way, they remained and observed with great intensity as the game played out.  Even though they had been eliminated from the game, they were still highly engaged in its outcome.

This was the day I discovered the depth of my misunderstanding.  Player elimination does have its place in the game designer’s toolbox.  Proper implementation simply hangs on whether players can be kept engaged beyond their participation in the game.

Yatsutaka Ikeda’s Shadow Hunters–another Werewolf game–makes this approach completely clear to players.  You win if your team wins.  It doesn’t even matter if your character is dead. Because of this emphasis on the success of the team, the game allows opportunities for deliberate sacrifice. A player can remain engaged to the end of the game, waiting to see if her sacrifice brought victory to her team.  Ikeda made player elimination an asset rather than a liability.

Terry Goodchild’s Formel Fun is a racing player elimination game which is extremely popular among my gaming group. Each player has a team of cars.  At the end of each lap, the rearmost car is eliminated and the race resets. The race has a heavy hand management element that makes it necessary to sacrifice one of your cars to preserve the other members of your team. Even when their last car is lost, players tend to remain in the audience, eager to see who pulls the victory and how.


Have you seen any great board games with explicit fetch quests?  What’s your position on player elimination?  Add your comments below!

I’ll see you Thursday for the top of the chart–roll and move!