My favorite type of larp rules are those intended to enhance the player’s skill a little, but not to completely overshadow the underlying skill or make it so that others without the mechanical advantage are unable to compete reasonably. I refer to these sorts of rules as me+ rules.
I like gambling for fake money in larp games, but I have yet to see used a way to enhance the skill of the player in a way that is fun and works well. Having recently pondered this problem, I came up with the following solution that seems likely to work, though I haven’t had the opportunity to test it yet.
There are 2 skills – Spot Cheating and Cheating. Spot Cheating can be a prerequisite for Cheating. In a game with extremely few skills, they could be folded together into a single skill – if you can cheat, you can spot it also.
Spot Cheating lets you notice when someone else is cheating and have the proof to call them on it. Characters without this skill are free to be as suspicious as they want when they see someone use the Cheating skill, but without the Spot Cheating skill, they can’t prove anything in-game. Allowing the players to be suspicious in character reduces the IC/OOC dissonance of the mechanic as much as possible – as a player you don’t have to pretend that you didn’t see someone invoking the Cheating skill.
Cheating lets you invoke the skill to use the visible bonus present in the game. For card games, this will usually be an extra card placed face up where everyone can see it. For dice games, this will be an extra dice (in an alternate color) that is thrown and that can be swapped out for one of the regular dice. These effects may not work well for every single gambling game, but whatever method is chosen should involve a visible opportunity that is not activated until the skill is publically declared. In other words, dealing an extra card up front to a player with the skill should not be used, because it requires the player to declare the skill before they are actively using it to influence a specific outcome.
As an example of play, let’s look at how to implement it with the ever-popular Texas Hold’em. Deal the 2 hole cards first and do the first round of betting, as normal. Then deal the flop, but before doing the betting, place a 4th card above the deal line. This is the cheat card, which can be used by those with the Cheating skill, if they invoke their power. The remaining deal and betting is done as usual. At the end of the hand, if it goes to a show (rather than all but one player folding, which is resolved normally), any players with the Cheating skill may claim the cheat card to use in their hand. More than one cheater can be active in the hand and they all get to use the cheat card to form their poker hand. The highest hand wins as usual.
There’s one aspect of the technique I haven’t decided how to implement yet – how to deal with the timing of cheating. For dramatic purposes, it seems like it would be fun to finish the hand, then have someone say “no wait, I want to use the cheat card”, thereby invoking their ability. However, this seems like it may be too risky to use in play this way, because it’s relatively easy to get caught. A better solution might be to declare cheating just before doing the show, so that everyone who wants to use the skill needs to declare that they are doing so just before they know whether or not it will make them win. This seems like it would be more likely to have double and triple uses of the Cheating skill in the same hand, which would be good for those with the skill – if someone else is cheating when you cheat to win, you have some sort of defense if one of the players with Spot Cheating decides to call you on it. Also, it would be better for those players without the skill, because even when you use the skill you often can’t be sure that a player without the skill doesn’t have a better hand, but you’re taking the risk of getting caught.
The reason to not invoke the skill until it is actively being used to improve a specific hand/throw (and for structuring it as Cheating, rather than Gambling) is that it adds an extra layer of bluffing to what is going on, which offers extra opportunities for roleplay. If someone has the Spot Cheating skill, they don’t necessarily need to use it to call someone out at the table. They can instead use it to, for example, blackmail them into a cut of the profits as a fee for staying silent. Or Joe could not use the skill at all while Susan used it several times, until Joe was able to lure Susan into a particularly large pot that he could win by finally using the skill.
An interesting edge case would be to determine whether Spot Cheating could be used to quietly point out to another character that cheating was happening without doing a full public reveal. For example, if Joe, who has Spot Cheating, stood next to the Sheriff, who didn’t, and they were both watching a game being played, could Joe indicate to the Sheriff when he saw the cheating happen in a way that would let the Sheriff be certain in character (rather than just suspicious, which everyone is allowed to be when they see the cheating mechanic invoked). I don’t think this type of thing would happen very often, but it could have an interesting effect either way on the potential roleplaying outcomes.
In theory, the Cheating skill could have limiters – it could be usable a certain number of times per day or per reset or whatever. It could use up energy resources or thief power points. Any of the common ways that skills are limited would work.
However, I would argue that this is not necessary. Because the skill is identified as Cheating, and because there is a corresponding Spot Cheating skill, it already has a significant limiter.
Also, it should be noted that gambling is (almost always) a voluntary character action, and the characters are allowed to be suspicious when the player sees the mechanic in action. This will also provide a huge limiting factor – people don’t like to play with a suspected cheater. Even if there are not any people around with the Spot Cheating skill, you’ll have players not want to participate in gambling with people who make heavy use of the Cheating skill, so its use will already be severely limited.
However, if you are running a game with GM-controlled bank games and you don’t have any characters on the NPC side of the game with the Spot Cheating and you don’t have any reason for the NPCs to employ PCs in that regard (which could potentially hold some fun), then you might want to limit the uses of the Cheating skill in order to keep a player from destroying the game economy.