Turn of a Friendly Card

Posted on June 20, 2010


Most tabletop roleplaying games make use of some kind of random element to inject tension and determine the answer to questions such as, “Can I open this lock?” or “Do I hit my enemy?” With a few notable exceptions (like the Amber Diceless RPG), tabletop RPGs use dice of various kinds for this random element. Some games, however, make use of cards, either standard playing cards or special cards designed specifically for the game. I do not mean games like Everway, which includes a tarot-like Fortune deck which does not offer specific results from any card and is not required for gameplay in any way. The SAGA games from TSR (Dragonlance Fifth Age and the Marvel Super Heroes game) are prime examples, however.

I am not a fan of card-based resolution. While I admit that a small portion of this is simply because I came into the hobby with Moldvay Basic D&D and thus dice were a part of the formative experience for me, I have other problems with using cards that I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about. My difficulties with the use of cards in RPGs are based primarily on how they tend to be used by games. It isn’t that I dislike not using dice; it’s what the use of cards, specifically, does and encourages.

For example, I do not like players holding a hand of cards and then laying down whichever cards they want, (generally) one at a time. It feels like a half-assed attempt at compromise between classic GM-centered narrative and new-school narrative sharing. If players can decide when they succeed and fail, why should they be given a random allotment of successes and failures to distribute? If the player can make use of easy tasks so that low cards will also be successes, that encourages metagame thinking from players in two ways: trying to make the GM call for a card play so you can ditch a low card, and avoiding card plays to preserve a high hand.

Additionally, if one player holds and/or plays a card from a communal deck, it either removes the possibility of that result for another player before the next shuffle, or reduces the probability of another player being able to get that result. Even if all players have their own decks, results are still used up, and as decks get to the bottom, careful players could know what’s still waiting to come up.

So my problem is apparently not with the cards themselves, but with how they are used. There are some things about cards that I think are enjoyable and useful. They can offer multiple points of information that can be used separately or even together in a single draw/play. Cards can offer information, such as phrases or pictures, that can be interpreted in multiple ways depending upon the current situation, the needs of the story and the characters’ abilities. Dice have a more difficult time offering this wealth of information; the One Roll Engine is a good example of an attempt at this using dice, but it requires a dice pool, which many people do not enjoy.

The aforementioned SAGA games made use of the multiple information points on each card. In particular, the Marvel cards had suit, number, a positive / neutral / negative axis, images and inspirational phrases on each card. That’s five points of information, three of which (axis, image and phrase) could be interpreted by the GM with a large degree of freedom, beyond the “is this the right suit” and “is the number high enough” questions.

However, the reliance on suit and number to resolve tasks brought into play the metagaming and result-depletion aspects that I dislike so much. Results could come back to haunt the players in the form of the Doom suit (or the Dragons in Fifth Age), as cards of that suit would be given to the GM when played and placed in a pile for the GM to use against the players. However, even with multiples of each number in a suit, being dealt a certain number lowered the probability that another player could get the same result before the discard deck was shuffled. This does not happen with dice or diceless resolution, and I cannot bring myself to think of it as something that should be happening.

My question is this: can I get around the bad narrative compromise, the metagaming and result-depletion caused by the use of cards, encourage the information wealth offered by cards themselves and still have the mechanics feel distinct from dice? I want to know if cards can be used as a central resolution mechanic without causing those issues. I’ve had a few thoughts, but no solutions:

* It could be as simple as dealing the acting player fresh cards, having the player choose one and then shuffling everything back into the deck, but then the player is always going to play the highest card anyway. Shuffling also slows things down.

* Players could be dealt hands at the beginning of a combat and turn them all in when it’s over, but that brings up the question of how to handle non-combat actions.

* The metagaming could possibly be removed by removing numeric values from the cards. If the cards are simply interpretation vehicles in the vein of Everway’s Fortune Deck (and the Vision Cards used in creation), then players won’t be itching to dump certain cards while hoarding others as much as with the numeric values. This leaps toward storygaming, however, which again some people don’t care for.

* Cards with multiple information points could be “balanced” in such a way that a card with a low numeric value could, for example, carry another info point that is much more beneficial to the player. That way the holding player would have a reason not to want to ditch the card as soon as possible. I do not know exactly how this would be done, though.

I’d like to hear what other people think about this issue. I know that many folks are absolutely fine with cards being used as they are, but I’m interested in what other people who don’t care for them as-is would do about it.