Welcome to the Waterdeep Field of Triumph! Today I will be presenting a D&D gambling game involving horse races for your use and enjoyment, to take place within this iconic colosseum. All you need is a deck of standard playing cards and your imagination.
Not in Waterdeep? No problem. This horse race mini-game mechanic will work in any open space available to your players. Let’s get to gambling!
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed here are my own. This post may contain affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I may earn a small commission.
Horse Racing: Intro and Overview
One of the best things we can do as Game Masters is choose NOT to reinvent the wheel for everything we do. It saves time, and it prevents failing, untested game mechanics from hurting the fun quotient of our game sessions.
I love to use already created mini-games within our play space to enhance our sessions together. I don’t have to spend hours figuring out game design and balance, and my players aren’t test subjects to a system that might prove to be too tedious to be fun. (I have a tendency to overcomplicate things.)
This gambling game can be used as an interlude into your normal campaign, as a side adventure for your players to enjoy, or as a sort of one shot experience. It’s a great option if a few players are missing from the table for the evening, too.
I’m not much of a box reader, but I know a lot of people love to use these either to paraphrase or read directly. Here’s an opening description you could use, courtesy of ChatGPT (though heavily edited). If you haven’t considered using ChatGPT as an assistant Dungeon Master, I highly recommend it.
As you step into the dusty colosseum, you are greeted by an exciting scene. The arena is teeming with nobility and townsfolk of diverse social backgrounds, creating a vibrant tapestry of colors in their dress and mannerisms. The early morning sun paints a warm, golden glow, casting long shadows across the sandy racetrack. Stands tower over you, already filling with excited citizens, eating all manner of delicious street foods as they wait for the festivities to begin.
The air carries the scent of hay, mingling with the earthy aroma of horses. The colosseum buzzes with excitement as people engage in lively conversations, placing bets on the upcoming horse races.
What would you like to do first?
D&D Gambling Game: Horse Race Mechanics
The horse race game itself is very simple, and I did not invent it. Below is a video from Board Game Museum on YouTube explaining the basic rules of the game. It goes over how to set up the cards, the odds for setting up bets, and how to determine a winner all in less than four minutes. I also have a written overview below for your convenience.
Rules and Setup Overview
If you don’t want to watch the video, the basic overview is this:
This game functions by drawing cards to indicate which of the four horses moves forward for each draw. Cards are drawn until one of the horses reaches the finish line. There are four horses, one for each suit.
Line up the four aces vertically to the left of your intended play space. This is the “race course,” and the aces represent each of the four horses.
Take out the Jokers.
Shuffle the deck and deal seven cards horizontally along the top of the play space. This creates the race “loop” and sets the odds for each horse. These cards remain out of the deck for the course of the race. These are not a secret, and should be visible to the players. (If you do an additional race, you can re-do this step to change the odds if you want.)
The more of any one suit you have along this row, the LESS of a chance that horse will have to win, since those cards are already out of the deck.
If there are no cards of a suit along the top horizontal rows, the odds are 1:1 for that horse’s suit.
If you have one card of a suit along the top row, the odds are 2:1 for that horse.
Two cards along the top row in a suit is 3:1.
Three cards in a suit along the top row is 5:1.
Four cards in a suit is 10:1. That is considered a “long-shot” horse, which means it’s really unlikely they will win, but the payout is very high if they do.
Five cards in a suit: Re-deal the row.
D&D Gambling: Set Betting Amounts and Limits
Once you determine odds for your race, you may want to set a betting maximum limit. I never do this.
I always have a minimum bet, but never a maximum. I want my players to lose money.
I load them up with riches in their adventures. They love this cycle of being richly rewarded and then wasting it all away in our mini-games. It’s fun for them, and I want them to bet as much as they feel comfortable losing. You may have a different setup and want to minimize their losses (or potential winnings).
Running the Horse Race
Once your “board” is set up and you have set the odds, it’s time to execute the actual horse race. You’ll do this by drawing cards and placing them in a discard pile just to the side of your horizontal top row of cards. For each card you draw, that horse moves forward one space. The first horse to get to the space directly below your discard pile wins.
If you want a visual example of how this looks in play, in the video above it begins at 2:15.
This sounds so simple, but if you have betting folks in your group, it can get VERY heated and exciting.
Preparing to Gamble
Before you begin, you’ll want to name the horses. You can allow your players to do this if you’d like, but I prefer to have names ready. In real life, we don’t get to give the horses their crazy names so I didn’t think they should get to do that in our Dungeons & Dragons game, either.
I chose names that made me happy and were inspired by things I love or have loved in the past. You’ll need only four: one for each suit. Here are some examples of names I’ve used — feel free to use them yourself if you’d like.
Stormwind’s Favor (for the Alliance!)
Nightmare’s Final Call
Link to the Winnings
Terra’s Magic Tech
And, for your convenience, here are descriptions of four different horses for you:
- A jet-black stallion with a sleek, muscular build, emanating an air of mystery and power.
- A chestnut mare with a fiery, vibrant mane and tail that seem to flicker like flames.
- A dappled gray horse, its coat shimmering like moonlight, moving with a graceful and fluid stride.
- A dark bay stallion exuding raw strength, its thunderous hooves pounding the ground with each powerful step.
You Will Be Narrating the Horse Races
This is THE HARDEST part. I am not a horse person, I am not a race person, and I am not a “sports” person, either. I have exactly no experience narrating sporting events or anything similar, and I’ve watched as little of this as I’ve been able to get away with in my lifetime.
It doesn’t matter.
If you simply try to describe what’s going on, and you are excited, your players will likely feed into that enthusiasm. They are already excited: you picked this event because they want to GAMBLE, and gambling is fun! (Especially with loads of fake money that can buy fun, fake things.)
Explaining the D&D Gambling Rules to Your Players
Generally speaking, you’ll want to keep this part as simple as possible. Humans by nature need to hear things several times before remembering them, and statistically only absorb about 70% of what they’re told—when they’re listening.
Unless you play with the sort of lovable nerds that are used to game rules and want to know it all up front, tell them only what they need in order to make educated bets and get started. You can explain additional rules as they become relevant.
Horse Races: Setting the Mood
You’ll want to have some kind of music and background noise going for this. Here’s what I like use use, all from YouTube:
Horse Galloping and Crowd Cheering Sounds: at 100% volume
Music Playlist: at about 30-40% volume; this playlist will last about 25 minutes before beginning a 10 hour looped version of Rossini’s “William Tell Overture.”
Horse Race Bugle: at 100%, as needed, the sound starts at 0:10
D&D Gambling Game Props to Consider
The following items are unnecessary, but I use them during our D&D gambling games and my players love the additional immersion and realism they lend for betting. It does help for players to place physical items on their selected horse’s card for this game. It makes keeping track of bets a little easier and it requires less note taking. If you have a player that *may* lean towards cheating, it can help with that as well.
Real Poker Chips: This is a link to the heavy, real poker chips I use at my table. They feel substantial in hand, and a set comes with 50 chips for less than $8 as of this writing. The brand sells a lot of different colors so you can customize your set.
Metal Coins: I have a set of these and would love to get more, but they’re not as economical as the poker chips linked above. It costs closer to $30 for a set of 60 mixed coins, but they look and feel so awesome. They do come with a storage bag, as well. Check them out using the button below.
If you need a deck of cards, here are a few links to some fun ones on Amazon. (You will need a deck of cards for the game.)
D&D Gambling: Winning the Race
You may choose whatever prize feels appropriate to you for the final victor in addition to any of their gambling winnings. This might be a fun way to introduce a quest hook related to an item or a new NPC, too.
Real life horse racing is surprisingly complicated. I initially thought it would be cool to incorporate real-life rules, and as soon as I looked them up, I noped out of that and decided to keep it simple. If you’re interested, here is the simplest overview I have found.
If you would also like to keep things easy, here’s how I deal with payout math: Bet Calculator
To use this calculator in the simplest way possible, leave all the settings as is and change the “stake” field to whatever your player bet on the race. Then change the odds fields to their horse’s odds and you’ll have your answer. Easy.
Horse Races Storyline Side Note
These horses are raced until they cannot bear it any longer. After this, they are donated to the (extremely corrupt) charity “Horses with Hope” run by vile NPC Victoria DeBulbonc. Check out the details here, if you’re interested.
“Horses with Hope” also features prominently in The Children’s Race event.
If you want to set up your colosseum or festival events on a calendar, check out the one I linked below. I also use it to record play sessions and plan other events, too.
- Faerun Calendar: This is the calendar I use. It’s a little clunky, but once you get used to it and get it setup, it works great.
The horse races are a great opportunity to give players something a little different to enjoy in a colosseum setting. Everyone loves a pit fight, but sometimes mixing it up can be a memorable experience for the people at our tables.
This event allows players to gamble some of their hard-earned gold away. It also gives them a chance to play a different sort of game as a group, and provides them an opportunity to compete without combat. It can be a great roleplaying opportunity for players to interact with townsfolk, other nobility, and the party members themselves in a lighthearted scenario.
Interested in other fun homebrew events? Make sure to check out the Field of Triumph overview page.
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