Defile, the Mountain Pass Race

Continuing to ponder and play around with games, I came up with a race game inspired by the royal game of Ur, an ancient game that has recently been rediscovered by historians.

In defile, two players try to be the first to move their pieces up a mountainside and thru a defile (a narrow pass) to the other side. This is played on a chess board using eight pieces for each player.

The object is to move your pieces out onto the board along your home row, turn up and along the far column, and off the board into the opponent’s side at the opposite corner. The opponent’s pieces go the opposite way along his or her home row, up the same far column, and off onto your side. The first to bear all their pieces off the board wins.

On your turn, you roll a normal 6-side die (1d6) and move a piece out onto the board that number of spaces. The opponent rolls and moves. You roll again and move that piece or bring out another.

  • You can jump your pieces or the opponent’s pieces, but you cannot land on a square occupied by one of your own pieces, nor can you move a piece backwards.
  • If you land on a square occupied by one of your opponent’s pieces, that piece gets knocked off the board back to the start.
  • You can only bear a piece off the board to home on an exact roll.
  • If you have a valid move, you must make a move. If you have no valid move, your turn is wasted.

In this example, white, at bottom, has two pieces borne off while red has one. In this case, white has interesting moves for most of its rolls.

  • If white rolls a 1, it can move white 3 to knock red 5 back to start.
  • If white rolls a 2, it can bear off white 5 to red’s side.
  • If white rolls a 3, it can move white 4 up to knock red 4 back to start.
  • If white rolls a 4, it could bring on its last piece or move white 1, white 3, or white 4.
  • If white rolls a 5, it can move white 2 to knock red 5 off the board.
  • If white rolls a 6, it can move white 1 to knock red 5 off the board.

Battle of Wits Game

I got intrigued by the idea of the “duel of wits” mechanic from the TTRPG The Burning Wheel, which has since been reused in Torchbearer and Mouse Guard. It’s also used for some combat as well, but reports are that it is crunchy, requires substantial setup to work well, and can be somewhat unsatisfying dramatically, despite being clever.

It’s based on an expanded rock-paper-scissors idea, with four to six choices and three or more outcomes, but the core requirement seems to be that you must specify three plays at the beginning, which leaves you something of a spectator as the conflict gets resolved.

A battle of wits is a great idea that can be useful for resolving a negotiation with a nobleman or foreign emissary, a civil or criminal trial, a peace treaty, a surrender or ransom, a trade dispute, a negotiation with pirates, or even a romantic entanglement. So I wanted one of my own.

My idea is to base the mechanic on tic-tac-toe and let the players play out the conflict in real time. The strategy of tic-tac-toe is very simple, but the game generates drama by making each choice contested. Hollywood Squares introduced drama to tic-tac-toe by requiring the contestants to answer trivia (or, rather, agree with trivia answers). My version requires the players to engage in a roll-off or contested skill check for each square. This mechanic allows characters with negotiation, deception, or even entertainment skills to gain an advantage for some plays.

Role-Playing a Battle of Wits

You can role-play making (brief, simple) appeals using persuasion, intimidation, or instruction combined with a rhetorical skill of charm, shade, or dismissal. If preferred for simplicity, you can merely quote the square in the layout.

Persuade: You appeal to the facts, justice, honor, and fairness. Relevant skill: negotiation.

Intimidate: You appeal to the law, rights, authority, or, in subtle ways, even might and wealth. Relevant skill: hearten/dishearten (or the law, pirate code, etc., where relevant to an NPC).

Instruct: You appeal to logic, consequences, tradition, history, and common sense. Relevant skill: lore.

Charm: You make your point with an attempt impress, charm, delight, or trick the audience or opponent. Relevant skill: entertaining (any verbal version).

Dismiss: You make your point by an attempt to dismiss, sidestep, belittle, or reject the opponent’s arguments. Relevant skill: gambling.

Shade: You make your point by casting doubt on the facts, witnesses, evidence, or motives of the opponent. Relevant skill: deception.

Playing Out the Battle

To begin, each side makes an opening argument that states their case, such as adventurers vs a nobleman: “We should be allowed to keep all this treasure, because we found it,” as opposed to “I should be able to claim all this treasure, because it was found on my land.”

Then the opponents alternate selecting and contending over squares. Use your TTRPG’s contested skill checks or the shambles rules I posted previously to see who makes the better point in the back-and-forth of appeals and rebuttal. The winner takes the square, and the loser chooses the next square. An official may remark on the insightfulness of the point; an audience may laugh and cheer.

One side can even try to overturn a square taken by the other (effectively rebutting the point to make a point of their own). If overturned, that square should then stand. In casual disputes, the GM may allow only one overturning; in formal court argument, the opponents might try to overturn nearly every point; in courtly intrigue, a square might be overturned twice.

Winning a Battle of Wits

In the end:

  • If one side has three in a row, the opponent is likely to concede, or the judge or audience is likely to come to a conclusion heavily favoring one side.
  • If neither or both sides complete three in a row (possible, since both get to have their say each turn), they have both made a good show, and there should be an even compromise.
  • If the winner makes three in a row vertically (using all shade, charm, or dismissal techniques), the argument is weak, and the judgment may include some compromise.

Shambles: A Game for Opposed Checks

Another game I have come up with is a simple dice game called shambles. In shambles, two players try to best one another’s rolls for points. On each play, both players roll 1d6. The player with the higher roll gets a point. If the rolls are equal, both get a point.

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When one of the players has four points, rolling matching values ends the round. If the players’ point totals are equal, roll again until one player has has more.

This matching feature makes for drama, because you are in a position to win but need the matching roll to clinch it; and you can lose a round or two just when you thought you had it made.

If playing for fun, you can play three out of five. Or you can record the score and play again, and the first to 20 points wins the match.

In D&D

In tabletop role-playing games, this can be used to decide the outcome of a wrestling match, non-lethal duel, wizard dual, footrace, gambling, or other contest. Just give one character a +1 to represent having some advantage, such as wrestling or athletics skill or one duelist being higher level. Since such bonuses are strong on a d6, avoid any advantage more than +1.

Wizard Duels

For wizard duels in D&D (if you want to get rid of Counterspell), spellcasters can try to counter each others’ spells with any of their own, as long as both spells target the opponent or an area of effect around the opponent.

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So if Rahm casts a 5th-level spell targeting Salda’s area, and Salda counters with a 2nd-level spell (she didn’t know what level Rahm’s spell was), Rahm gets a +1 to his shambles rolls.

Then the magical energies collide, swirling and crackling as the duel is fought. Other characters must stop their fighting and shade their eyes.

First Rahm gains ground, then Salda—back and forth in a magical shoving match until one wins out.

The loser’s spell fails—diverted into a minor wild magic effect that affects the loser… or even both characters. (More on my wild magic effects tables before long.)

You might be tempted to raise the dice to d10s or d12s and give more bonuses for spell level and/or intelligence. But the power of the spells themselves should be more important than technique. Don’t go nuts, it’s meant to be simple!

Death Saves

dicing with death

You can even use this to replace disease, poisoning, and even death saving throws. A character reduced to 0 hit points is brought to limbo by the Lord of the Underworld and invited to “dice with death”. The character is at -1 against death unless getting aid and comfort from companions.

The two battle it out with the dice while everything around them pauses. If the hero wins, he or she is left barely alive and semi-conscious. If the hero loses, the Lord of the Underworld takes the character down…

Jurassic Park breakdown

A paleobotanist, a paleontologist, and a couple of kids try to survive a night in a dinosaur park with the security out.

Many years ago, I did a commentary for this movie.

I’m breaking down movies by their three-act structure. What is three-act structure? I explain it here.

Note: I break the story down into five-minute blocks to make it easier to see the length of each section. Rough time codes follow.


Jurassic Park staff member is killed by a dinosaur (introducing the conflict: “we want to see dinosaurs but not be eaten by them” and NOT “we must escape dinosaurs”). 5

Act 1

As Dr Ellie Sattler looks on, Dr Alan Grant explains that dinosaurs were terrifying killers. (This actually introduces a secondary conflict in which Ellie wants children and Alan does not. This is played for laughs thruout and used to maintain tension.) 10

John Hammond invites Alan and Ellie to Jurassic Park. Dennis takes a payoff for stolen dinosaur embryos. (Introducing the villain.) 15

Alan, Ellie, and Ian Malcolm reach Jurassic Park and see live dinosaurs. 20

John Hammond explains Jurassic Park. 25

John gives them a tour of the lab. Ian warns that “life finds a way”. (This seems to reinforce the conflict, but the fact the dinosaurs are managing to breed is actually not relevant to escaping them; it only speaks the the fact that John Hammond is playing with forces he doesn’t understand. This way, John’s hubris is just as much at fault as Dennis’s greed.) 30

Act 2

The guests witness a feeding and hear Muldoon’s concerns about velociraptors (introducing the secondary villain). 35

The guests express their concerns. John’s grandchildren arrive. 40

The guests go on the automated motor tour but see nothing. 45

The guests leave the SUVs and wander thru the park. 50

The guests find a sick triceratops. The staff is evacuated for the oncoming storm. 55

Midpoint Crisis

Dennis steals the embryos. His program shuts down security and stops the tour. (This is the first actual danger the heroes are in!) 60

The t-rex breaches the fence next to the stopped SUVs . 65

The t-rex attacks the SUVs . Alan helps Lex escape, but the SUV ends up in a tree. 70

Dennis runs off the road and is killed by a dilophosaurus (killing the villain but not ending the conflict!). 75

Alan helps Tim escape the SUV in the tree. Ellie searches for them. 80

The t-rex chases Ellie, Ian, and Muldoon. 85

John waxes philosophical over ice cream. Ellie condemns his vision. (This is the emotional bottom, but it’s unusual because it does not really seem like all is lost. It works because we laid a lot of pipe about John’s hubris, making it a substitute villain for Dennis’s greed.) 90

Act 3

Alan and the kids flee a herd of gallimimus pursued by a t-rex. Ray goes to flip the breakers. (A false turn!) 95

Ray having gone missing, Ellie and Muldoon go to flip the breakers. (The real turn!) 100

Alan and the kids climb over the perimeter fence as Ellie turns it on. Tim is injured. 105

Alan revives Tim. He leaves Tim and Lex in the main building, but raptors stalk them. 110

The kids evade the raptors. Alan, Ellie, and the kids reboot the system so they can call for a helicopter. 115

Raptors break in. The guests escape but encounter the t-rex and slip away when it fights the raptors. (The end of an extended climax with the secondary villain, and John even gets a line rejecting his own park and therefore his earlier hubris.) They reach the helicopter (resolving the conflict). 120


They fly away. (Very brief and resolves the secondary conflict of Alan not liking children. Unfortunately, this is thrown away in sequels.)

Tangled breakdown

A thief meets a captive girl in a tower and agrees to show her the world, but they are betrayed.

I’m breaking down movies by their three-act structure. What is three-act structure? I explain it here.

Note: I break the story down into five-minute blocks to make it easier to see the length of each section. Rough time codes follow.


As a baby, Rapunzel was kidnapped from the king and queen by the witch Gothel for the power of her magic hair (introducing the conflict and villain). 5

Act 1

Rapunzel occupies herself. Flynn Rider steals a treasure from the palace with the Stabbington brothers. 10

Rapunzel fails to convince Gothel to let her leave the tower to watch the annual floating lantern ceremony. 15

Fleeing the palace guards and his partner with the treasure, Flynn meets and is captured by Rapunzel. 20

Gothel returns, and Rapunzel tricks her into leaving for three days. (Note that it is Rapunzel and not Flynn who accepts the call to action.) 25

Act 2

Rapunzel demands Flynn take her to see the floating lanterns. 30

Rapunzel leaves the tower and feels freedom and guilt. 35

Gothel returns early to find Rapunzel gone. Flynn takes her to a ruffian tavern. 40

Ruffians and Rapunzel sing about their dreams. The palace guards arrive. 45

Midpoint Crisis

Flynn and Rapunzel flee the palace guards, including the extraordinary horse Maximus, and get trapped in a flooding cave. 50

Gothel offers the Stabbingtons revenge on Flynn. Rapunzel heals Flynn with her magic hair/song. 55

Flynn and Rapunzel get to know each other. Gothel dares her to offer Flynn the treasure. 60

Rapunzel pacifies Maximus. They all go to the palace. 65

Rapunzel and Flynn watch the lanterns. She offers him the treasure. 70

Flynn gives the treasure to the Stabbingtons, but they betray him. Gothel takes her home. (All seems lost!) 75

Act 3

Rapunzel realizes (the turn) and confronts Gothel about the fact she was kidnapped. 80

Flynn escapes. Gothel stabs him. He cuts Rapunzel’s hair. Gothel falls to her death. 85

Rapunzel revives Flynn with her tears. She reunites with the king and queen. 90


They live happily ever after. (very brief)

Pirates of the Caribbean 1: Curse of the Black Pearl breakdown

A swordsmith and a friendly pirate chase a pirate ship to rescue a pretty girl and get more than they bargained for when they learn the pirates are cursed.

Many years ago, I did a commentary for this movie.

I’m breaking down movies by their three-act structure. What is three-act structure? I explain it here.

Note: I break the story down into five-minute blocks to make it easier to see the length of each section. Rough time codes follow.


Young Will is rescued at sea. Young Elizabeth hides his gold coin. 5

Act 1

Elizabeth wakes up. Will delivers a fine new sword. 10

Jack Sparrow makes port at Port Royal. 15

Elizabeth falls into the sea. Jack saves her from drowning. 20

Jack is defeated in a duel by Will and sentenced to hang. (introducing a subplot and secondary conflict before the central plot?!) 25

Barbossa’ Black Pearl attacks Port Royal (introducing the villain). 30

Elizabeth is captured for her gold coin (introducing the central conflict). Port Royal is sacked… by undead pirates. 35

Act 2

Elizabeth offers her gold coin. Barbossa keeps her for her blood. 40

Will frees Jack in exchange for help rescuing Elizabeth. 45

Will and Jack steal the Interceptor. 50

Jack and Will make port at Tortuga to find a crew. 55

Midpoint Crisis

Elizabeth learns about the pirates’ curse. (This is several minutes early, and that should have been fixed by cutting a few minutes from the second half, which is a little flabby.) 60

Jack recruits a pirate crew and sets sail for Isla de Muerta. 65

Fearing betrayal, Will knocks Jack out again. 70

Elizabeth’s blood fails to lift the curse. Will rescues her and leaves Jack. 75

Jack tries to barter information for the Black Pearl. 80

The Black Pearl pursues the Interceptor. 85

The Black Pearl destroys the Interceptor. 90

Will negotiates the release of the others for his blood. But Barbarossa maroons Jack and Elizabeth on an island. 95

Act 3

Elizabeth signals Norrington’s Dauntless for rescue. 100

Back on Isla de Muerta, Jack convinces the pirates to take the Dauntless. 105

Barbossa has his undead crew attack the Dauntless. 110

Jack frees Will and fights Barbossa. The pirates take the Dauntless. 115

Elizabeth frees Jack’s crew. They steal the Pearl. 120

Will lifts the curse. Barbossa dies. The pirates surrender. (resolving the central conflict) 125

Will declares his love for Elizabeth and saves Jack from hanging. (resolving the secondary conflict) 130


Jack escapes to the Pearl. Will is released to marry Elizabeth. 135

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