Saturday, September 24, 2016

Pick a Card, Any Card

Few RPGs use cards. Of those commonly seen today, the only one I can think of off the top of my head is Savage Worlds, which uses cards to adjudicate initiative. This is an excellent use and takes good advantage of the strengths of cards.

What are those strengths? First, they’re easy to use: flip a card and you’re done. No fumbling around with a pile of dice, worrying about them rolling off the table, and leaning in close to read it. Your normal playing card is designed to be easily read from across the table (the job made easier since it only needs to convey two pieces of information: suit and value), which means you can flip your card and everyone can see when your turn comes up.

Unfortunately, using a stat modifier on the card ruins things a bit; you no longer use the value shown, but now have to figure out what an adjusted value is. So you want to use the raw card as much as possible (for instance, using multiple draws for characters with a high stat, allowing the player to pick which of the cards they’ll use).

But if you’re just using the raw data on the card, it’s great for random effects that linger. The card can sit there through a turn, a full combat, or an entire session, reminding everyone of its effect on the game. (This is one of the promising things from Invisible Sun; as silly as the weird hand statue is, the idea of having a card in a place of prominence easily seen by everyone at the table means the design is taking maximum utility from its cards.) This makes cards perfect for ongoing status effects, overarching modifiers (“Light magic is half as effective during the month of Capricorn.”), and play states, especially if these are randomly generated and the players can somehow force a new card to be drawn.

Cards work best, as I’ve already said, when they convey very small amounts of information easily gleaned from across the table. However, you’ll also want all the necessary rule info on the card as well, and those two optimizations can be mutually exclusive. It’s best to keep the effects of cards as broad and simple as possible, or as obvious as possible (such as cards describing the day’s weather, for instance).

You can create some interesting mechanics by allowing the players to hold cards in a hand and play them in mechanically interesting ways. I’m not a big fan of that sort of thing, however; it’s deeply dissociative unless the characters themselves have the things the cards represent and use them just as the players are using the cards. The more overlap between the conversations of the players and their characters, the better in my book. Your own mileage may vary.


JB said...

I've worked a lot with card-based game really does offer a lot of possibilities (like a 52-sided die; 54-sided with jokers). One can also adapt multiple meanings to the cards based on color, suit, and value providing a lot of information with a single randomizer.

Other notable card-based games include Castle Falkenstein, Dust Devils, Hillfolk, and With Great Power.

Warclam said...

Generally, I'm inclined to agree about keeping a hand of cards. One place that I've thought of doing that though, is with a shamanic magic system in which you persuade (or bribe, or contract, or whatever) spirits to grant you boons. Under such a scheme, your hand represents the spirits nearby who have responded to your call, and can therefore be implored into performing an action.

trollsmyth said...

JB: Yep, and if you ditch the usual playing cards and do something unique...

Warclam: That's an excellent way around the issue. Even better if you print up your own cards with the spirits' stats and a pic on them.