Using Playing Cards in Roleplaying Games

Using playing cards in roleplaying games can provide a different feel to a game than dice do. Playing cards can be used to support the drama in the narrative mechanically by leveraging the memory of deck and I have been enjoying my time exploring the different approaches to using playing cards in the roleplaying games I design.

Why are playing cards great for resolution in roleplaying games?

Playing cards may be a little clunkier to use than dice for randomising the resolution of actions in roleplaying games, but playing cards have one advantage over dice: memory.

When I first started to design solo rolepolaying games, I found that I wanted some key elements to help with the narrative demand:

  • A gamified element that had impact to provide breaks from narration but ultimately supported it.
  • Mechanics that elicited tension by providing meaningful choice.

By utilising a deck in my solo journaling game, GRIMOIRE, to act as the health of your wizard and a buffer against game-ending prompts, I treated it as a resource.

Combining the deck as a resource with the ability to view what has been drawn already (the memory), I believed players were able feel the tension in the decision of what action to take next: do they draw more cards in the hopes to complete their quest or do they play it safe to avoid drawing that joker at the risk of not completing their quest?

As Chris McDowall codified in the ICI doctrine, players should always be presented with information, choice, and the impact of their decisions to ensure a game is engaging. At least, that was my take-away.

I have found some systems are very good at supporting the game master with providing players information, choice, and impact through the mechanics such as the tower of blocks in Dread (The Impossible Dream).

The way I utilised cards in GRIMOIRE seemed to achieve the same goals by providing:

  • Information via the cards that had been drawn.
  • Choice via the actions presented to players.
  • Impact via the effect of the actions on the deck of cards and, ultimately, the game.

How to use playing cards to represent a character in roleplaying games?

Though my thoughts here have been focused around my design of GRIMOIRE and solo roleplaying games, I think playing cards can be used to similar effect in group-based roleplaying games by representing each player character.

There have been a few group-based roleplaying games that utilise playing cards such as Unbound (Rowan, Rook, and Decard) or Parselings (Smunchy Games), and each approach playing cards in a different way.

I like to keep things simple enough to reduce cognitive load and allow space for the narrative in players’ minds but not so simple that there is no mechanical support for a game master.

To accomplish this, here is a simple rule-set for quick resolution you could use in your roleplaying games that leverages the advantages of playing cards:

Each player requires a standard deck of cards. Each of these characters has three approaches to dealing with situations:

  • Body – used to resolve situations involving brutish strength or nimble acrobatics.
  • Mind – used to resolve situations involving acute awareness, logic, or verbal manipulation.
  • Gear – used to resolve situations using equipment or tools.

There is some slight overlap between these to provide some flexibility in the narrative. Each of these approachs is represented with a portion of the deck. Player should separate their decks to create new decks based on the following:

  • Body – A to 10 of hearts.
  • Mind – A to 10 of spades.
  • Gear – A to 10 of diamonds.
  • Jokers should be set nearby and clubs are not used.
  • Face cards should be set nearby categorised by suit.

Whenever the players describe their character attempting a dramatic or dangerous action, the game master may ask them to draw a card from a specific deck depending on how the player is describing their character approaching the action.

If a player draws a:

  • 10, they succeed.
  • 7-9, they succeed with a complication.
  • 6 or less, they fail.
  • A, they critically fail with a complication.

Interprety that how you will for your flavour of doom.

Players can elect to exert their characters to draw an additional card from the deck of their choice and choose the card value that is used for resolution.

All cards are discarded to their respective discard piles (including exerted cards), e.g. the body card is discarded to the body discard pile.

If a character takes a wound, shuffle a joker card into the relevant deck, e.g. insulted by someone equal a joker shuffled into the mind deck. When a joker is drawn, the character fails and cannot exert. Shuffle the joker back into the deck.

If a deck would run out and a player is instructed to pull from the deck, they either immediately fail the action or can use another deck by describing a different approach, however, they must always exert in this instance.

To replenish decks, characters must rest in a safe location to shuffle the respective discard piles back into the decks for body, mind, and gear.

Additionally, once all decks are empty, that character is dead.

That’s the simple version of it!

My current project

My current project which is currently having an identity crisis over its name, uses the previously described system above but with a few changes, a few more complexities, and is designed for solo play – It is being designed for the Lone Wolf solo jam 2 after all.

The post is already quite long so here are a few of the changes and complexities:

  • Characters will also have traits that change how they can manipulate the decks throughout play.
  • Characters have boons and banes which are descriptive tags about the the character that can make encounters more or less dangerous.
  • A magic and travel system that involves drawing a card from each of the three decks to make sets which contribute towards success.
  • A combat system that utilises the sum of card ranks to determine the outcome based on the resolution system above.
  • Hex map generation tools along with themed calamities to flavour the hex map as its own adventure site.

You can follow my itch.io page or this blog to be notified when the early version of my current project is released. Additionally, check out some of my other games like GRIMOIRE at itch.io.

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