RPG in a box

Board game request

gaming settings

In my review of the Mansions of Madness board game, I noted that you could play the game with one player running the mansion, making up a story, while other players could play the characters. Like in an RPG. There are a few games like this, but the ones I own and enjoy are Mansions of Madness and Fallout (both Fantasy Flight games, interestingly), and Wrath of Ashardalon. I think this represents a missed opportunity for traditional RPG like Pathfinder or Tales of the Valiant, and I'd love to see an RPG-in-a-box, with a bunch of common assets you could use as a highly structured but unscripted dungeon crawl or RPG adventure.

First I demonstrate how each of the games I've mentioned implement this concept, and then I describe what I think would be a great product for a tabletop RPG-in-a-box.

Mansions of Madness

In Mansions of Madness, there's a clear adventure template:

  1. Investigators go to a mansion.
  2. They investigate and collect Clues.
  3. They uncover unspeakable otherworldly horrors.

The app used for the 2nd Edition of the game, or the book in the 1st Edition, tell you which tokens to use, which tiles to lay out, and generally guides you through one of three unique adventures. But it's all smoke and mirrors.

Whether you meet "Lord Withersby" or "Gravedigger", the NPC tokens on the board don't really have names. Whether it was a cultist summoning Dagon or a scholar reading a forbidden spell on accident, the result is that something bad happened and it needs to be solved or escaped. It's always, basically, the same adventure using some subset of the same assets in a different order than before.

That's really easy to duplicate. Place an entrance tile on the table. Let the investigators start exploring. When a potential clue is found, the game master secretly rolls some dice. Success means the clue is absolutely connected to the mystery, while failure means the clue is absolutely not connected. Either way, the game master connects the clue to the mystery.

Eventually, based on the clues you've randomly drawn from the deck, the players start to form some notion of what's happening. The game master can make adjustments to the backstory to help clarify things, and in the end the players must turn in the clues they believe are connected to the mystery.

The players roll dice. The number of clues they get on the dice are the number of clues they're allowed to get wrong. At the end of the game, as long as players have enough clues to solve the mystery, they win.


Like Mansions of Madness, the Fallout board game is also a tile-based game with lots of story elements added in to make it feel like a an RPG. The choices you make matter to the outcome of a specific quest, and affects how much Influence and XP you earn.

But I often play Fallout using a quest random table I generated. The quest is usually to go to a specific tile (most tiles are placed on the table face-down, so you can only successfully go to a tile once you've explored it) and do some task (roll a dice and get a specific result, or fight some number of monsters, make a purchase from a store, and so on). As rewards, you get Influence and XP.

The game works well in both modes.

If I were going to play it as an RPG, I think it would be a great asset for the Fallout RPG because it's literally a hex map for that world. In some ways, it's more flexible than Mansions of Madness, but then again its usefulness suffers a little from that. Any time you go into a vault or a settlement or ruin, you're no longer using the game assets. Now you're just running an RPG. But you do always have that world map available, and you've got plenty of cards and trackers and enemies to guide encounters.

Wrath of Ashardalon

During the disaster that was 4th Edition D&D, a series of board games came out that used the rules of 4th Edition (more or less) to guide a tile-based dungeon crawl. I guess this was Wizards of the Coast's attempt to [almost] implement what this very blog post is imagining: an RPG tile and miniature set with items to help inspire and track looting opportunities. I can picture somebody buying this game, running through the adventures in the booklet, and then throwing the booklet aside and running custom adventures.

For me, the board game is more a skirmish-level wargame than an RPG, but the box nevertheless contains enough miniatures and game assets for an RPG adventure. There are several characters to choose from, lots of floor tiles, item cards, effect cards, and something like 30 monsters. It's a dungeon crawl. The floor tiles are just the stones of a dungeon, so you can explore hallways and rooms, uncover traps and treasures, interact with NPCs, fight, and loot. It's the physical manifestation of the grid-paper dungeons I've been drawing since grade school. The stories are easy to generate using either a random table or just by following the flow of the cards you randomly draw as you explore.


I'm not a businessperson, so I have no idea about the market, but I think there's space for a physical RPG kit. I think there's a group of tabletop gamers who would appreciate a game set that's limited in scope to a specific setting, and armed with endless combinations of possible encounters and near-infinite story variants.

I know the "right" answer to an RPG is to buy the rulebook and run the game, free from the shackles of physical tokens and cards that serve only to limit your game's possibilities. In my experience, not all tabletop gamers who want an RPG-like experience necessarily want to fully "invest" in RPG. Some players don't want to spend the time learning what they perceive as hundreds of pages of rules. Others don't want to build a character. Ever. Others just don't feel comfortable sitting around a table where everyone is insisting a game is happening even though there's nothing on the table.

Not a kickstarter

I don't know the manufacturing.business, and I'm no good with social media or drumming up excitement about any cause. While I personally quite like this idea, and as I've shown the idea already actually exists in several forms, this isn't something I'm taking to Kickstarter for funding. In fact, the games I've listed provide what I'm looking for, at least with minor adjustments. But you don't actually need one of these games to implement the idea. Here's another option, with example links (not affiliate links, so look to your local game stores):

  1. Buy a set of dungeon tiles
  2. Buy a bunch of miniatures
  3. Buy a few decks of Item Cards from Paizo.com

It's an RPG kit! It lacks rules, and you'll still have to come up with character attribute values, but it's pretty close to my requirements.

Know your limit

What some of us see as limitations are helpful guide rails for others. I might find a tile set of just dungeon floors unsatisfying because I know I'll inevitably want to also travel to a nearby jungle. Or I might find a tile set containing dungeon AND jungle tiles overwhelming, making it impossible for me to choose which setting to use. A physical gaming set seems like a safe and familiar way to empower people to play an RPG that doesn't outwardly look like an RPG.

Photo by Riho Kroll using the Unsplash License.

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