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Isekai’d, part 4: Playing a game within a game

Isekai’d, part 4: Playing a game within a game

While the bulk of isekai takes place in worlds not directly connected to the Earth, a few take place in worlds based on popular MMOs or other video games that you might be familiar with.

Often, something transports the players while they are in the game, but any transportation method mentioned in the second article in this series works for those traveling to a world based on a video game.

Catch up on Isekai’d! from the beginning!

Game Type

When running an isekai tabletop game based on a video game, consider if you are basing it on an MMO or single-player game.

A world based on a popular MMO that one or more of your players has played extensively has more hooks for them. Single-player games are often more niche, with less recognition by the crowd (Skyrim notwithstanding). Be especially careful running a game that only you have played. You’ll need to work to communicate what is special or interesting about a game world that no one else knows.

Another aspect to consider is whether the game is an existing IP, such as World of Warcraft, or one you have crafted expressly for your campaign.

The first option requires less world building, but players might know things about the setting that they otherwise wouldn’t in a standard campaign (see Metagamingbelow).The latter option gives you complete control over the world’s lore and rules, but it requires more world building (not a bad thing, but it does take time), and players might not see any difference between the “video game” setting you created and a normal tabletop setting.

Game Rules

Video games have their own systems and rules that are often radically different from the rules of a standard 5E or Tales of the Valiant (ToV) game. For instance, an isekai based on Elden Ring (check out our Soulslike roleplaying articles if you like that idea!) must contend with Stamina usage, weapon arts, and runes as currency. In contrast, one based on the Monster Hunter franchise must consider things like food buffs, new types of attacks and resistances, and palicoes as a potentially playable lineage or type of companion.

The first way to handle this is to make up new rules for these changes that fit with existing RPG rules. This can be time-consuming and potentially daunting for GMs. Luckily, you’re probably not the first person to try it. A few online sources already have versions of these changes you can try rather than making it all up. Search around for them.

The second way to handle this is to just ignore it or use existing equivalents. For example, the Elden Ring rune system is virtually identical to XP for leveling purposes, while palicoes could simply be Small catfolk. This can get you pretty far, but 5E or ToV might not have easy emulation, which could make it less fun or immersive for players, so think it through.

Metagaming

Another important consideration in creating an isekai based on an MMO or other video game is how to handle metagaming. For this discussion, metagaming specifically refers to characters using knowledge about the video game to cheat the system or gain some other advantage.

For example, the characters might know the location of a secret door in the starter dungeon because they previously played through it in their Earth existence (and their players know it too). They might even have access to knowledge that only a handful of NPCs know, such as the fact that the king is a silver dragon.

There are basically two ways to handle this metagame knowledge. The first is to run with it. Let PCs use their full knowledge of the game. This gives players a lot of agency in how the campaign unfolds.

Don’t worry about upholding traditional fantasy storylines and tropes in this case. For example, if the PCs fought and killed the Demon King in their video game pre-Isekai lives, they might know all its strengths, weaknesses, and plans for world domination. That’s OK!

The second way is to limit the effectiveness of metagame knowledge by changing aspects of the world in crucial ways, such as the expected forest monsters having been wiped out and replaced by new creatures. Use this sparingly. It’s part of isekai for protagonists to be able to talk about and use outside knowledge. If you consistently take that away from them, you’re playing against what makes this kind of game special.

A final thing to note about metagaming is that the PCs’ actions typically have drastic and lasting implications on the game world, perhaps altering stuff in ways that end up subverting or nullifying their existing metagame knowledge.

New Rules

Here are two new options for GMs running an isekai campaign based on a video game. The first is a spell, and the second a skill.

LEVEL SIGHT

1st-Circle Arcane, Divine, Primordial, and Wyrd (Divination)

Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 30 feet
Components: S
Duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute

You see vital stats for the creatures you face.

A holographic display pops up in your field of vision, showing you a target creature’s level or Challenge Rating (CR) and if they are an Arcane, Divine, Primordial, or Wyrd spellcaster. You also see their hit points presented as a line or bar which depletes as they take damage.

You can switch to view another creature’s display as a bonus action.

Note: This is a potent spell for its level! However, this kind of thing is a mainstay of isekai anime and manga. It will change the players’ behavior somewhat, but as long you’re consistent, it doesn’t break anything. This kind of metagame knowledge is just “normal” for the setting. Nevertheless, it is up to your GM to decide whether this spell is available in the game.

INT (Metagame) Skill

One way to control a player’s metagame knowledge is to turn it into an in-game skill, just like History or Religion. When a character wants to use some metagame detail about the video game they’re living in, they must make an INT (Metagame) check to succeed.

If you run with this added skill, make it an available proficiency for every class, so all players have equal access to it.

Find more great advice in the Kobold Guide series.
The Kobold Guide to Roleplaying contains over 100 pages of essays by notable PRG designers.
Get it today!

about Phillip Larwood

Phillip has been writing for Kobold Press and other companies for many years. From multiple articles in the early days of Kobold Quarterly magazine to recent books like Tome of Beasts 2 and Vault of Magic, Phillip is never more satisfied than when he sees his name in print. Something that he points out to his family and friends over and over and over again.

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