From The Archives: In the Cards

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Earlier today I ran across a post on reddit about using Tarot cards in RPGs. That reminded me that I’d written a DC article about that many years ago. When I went looking for it, I found two, so I’m going to post both of them. I’m not exactly sure when they were written, but the second one mentions that I’d recently seen the movie Bandits, so that one was written sometime in 2001, and this one was written before it, which is why some of the references may be a tad bit dated.


There’s a wonderful old country/gospel song called (I think) “Deck of Cards.” I’m not sure who wrote it [Editor’s Note: Recent research reveals it was written by T. Texas Tyler], but I think Roger Miller sings the version I’m familiar with. The lyrics of the song relate the story of a soldier explaining that he doesn’t need a Bible because all of the important parts can be found in a deck of playing cards. I liked it in part because it’s a neat song and in part because it’s a little (unintentionally, I’m sure) subversive. After all, playing cards, in addition to being a tool of Satan used by gamblers, are based on the Tarot Deck, which I’m sure Jerry Falwell doesn’t support.

What does this have to do with RPGs? Simple. The song illustrates how useful cards can be. In addition to the obvious uses, a deck of cards can be a mnemonic and a point of inspiration. If you don’t believe me, take out a face card from any deck of playing cards and look at it for a while. Notice the details. Are you still thinking “This is worth 10 points in Rummy”? Probably not. The great thing about a deck of cards is that it’s portable. You can stick it in your backpack or the Crown Royal bag you keep your dice in. Even if you don’t use it in your game, it never hurts to have a deck of cards lying around. If the game bogs down and you call an early end, you can always play a few hands of poker.

We’ll start with regular playing cards. A few years ago, Shadis magazine ran several articles about using a regular deck of playing cards instead of dice for NPC generation, random encounters, and such. The articles generally included a chart with a list of NPCs, encounters, or whatever and a card value for each one. You’d draw a card, look at the table, and throw the thing listed into your game. Even without the tables, a deck of cards can be used as a random number generator and, in a pinch, for inspiration.

For example, let’s say you want to come up with a quick NPC personality. You draw a card. Maybe a club means the NPC is belligerent, spades means he’s a hard-working sort, hearts means he’s emotional or overly dramatic, and diamonds means he values material possessions. The value of the card represents the strength of the trait. For games without a Luck trait, you can use a deck of playing cards for “Luck Checks.” If the character wants to try something that none of his skills and abilities will help with (such as finding a book of matches quickly), just have him draw a card. If the card beats the “Difficulty Level” (face value) you set, it works (or you can draw your own card and just let the high card determine what happens).

Next comes the Tarot deck. Since the poker deck is based on the Tarot, you can use it for the same things as a regular card deck. The Major Arcana will probably have special effects, but the general idea is the same. A Tarot deck has the added advantage that the cards of most Tarot decks have more inspiring pictures than just a few hearts or spades. We’ll continue the above example of assigning NPC traits. Let’s say the card you pull is a Seven of Wands. The picture shows a young man with a spear running into 6 spears coming from the edge of the card (I’m using Clive Barrett’s Norse Tarot for this example). You may decide that the NPC in question is foolhardy or determined to fight whatever the odds.

The Tarot can also be used to get players in the mood for the game. I’ve known a lot of GMs who have the players draw a Tarot card at the beginning of a game and write about the card in character. In addition to getting some creativity flowing, this exercise makes the players actually think about their characters. Keep up with these writings, as they can also be a good source of subplots in the game.

Finally, the Tarot can be used as a prop. If an old gypsy reads the characters’ fortunes, you can actually lay out some cards to punctuate her divination. Don’t worry about the “real” meanings–just wing it. If you know what the divination will show, you might want to stack the deck. If not, the cards you draw might help you bullshit something. For those of you familiar with the Tarot, the deck should be even more useful.

The third type of card deck that can be useful to the GM is one that many gamers already carry around with their gaming stuff: CCG cards. By now you should realize the obvious uses–inspiration and random numbers. The advantage of CCG cards is that you can get even more detailed, especially if the CCG in question is similar in genre to the RPG you’re playing.

Want to know how an NPC will react to a moral quandary? Pull out your Legend of the Five Rings deck and draw until you get a personality. Use the Honor rating on the card to make your decision. Not sure how well the NPC fights? Use the swashbuckling skill of a randomly chosen 7th Seas: No Quarter crewman. If you’re playing the RPG on which the card game is based, you may even be able to use the name and other information directly from the card, as long as it fits the situation. (As you enter the town of Gomorrah, a man on a horseback wearing a tin star rides up. He introduces himself as Sheriff Nate Hunter. . . .) Knowing a little about the CCG’s mechanics may be helpful, but isn’t necessary. Are the PCs bugging you about what the mech they’re fighting looks like? Show them a Battletech CCG card. You may even be able to get some use out of those Guardians cards you bought but never actually got to use for their intended purpose.

The final type of card deck that I find useful is the deck created for use in RPGs. I think TORG was the first game to use a specialized deck of cards as a part of the mechanics, but don’t quote me on that. The Masterbook series (which is based on TORG’s system) used a similar deck. Everway and others followed suit. Many of these decks are fairly generic and can be used for just about any game. The decks that I’ve found most useful are the ones from TSR’s SAGA System, used for Dragonlance 5th Age and the Marvel Superheroes Adventure Game. The nice thing about these decks is that they have several uses “built in.”

I’ll use the deck from the Marvel game as an example. First off, each card has a value and a suit: either Mr. Fantastic (intellect), Spider-Man (reflexes), Hulk (strength), Dr. Strange (willpower), or Dr. Doom (bad shit); these can be used in the same way as ordinary playing cards. There’s also a trait (such as Majesty or Outcast), whose use is obvious. Then there’s an event (Explosion, Unlikely Heroism) which can be used to throw a surprise into the game or get things moving a little faster. Each card also has a plus, a minus, or a dot. These can be used to determine an NPC’s reactions or the answer to a question that arises in play. (For example, “Is this beer any good?” A minus means it’s bad, a dot is average, plus means it’s pretty good beer.) Finally, each card has a picture of a Marvel character. This can be used for general inspiration or, if you’re fairly familiar with Marvel comics, as the basic personality of an NPC. Both the Dragonlance and Marvel decks are pretty good, but I’d recommend going with the one that’s closest to the genre you’re running. The main advantage of the Dragonlance Fate Deck is that you can purchase it without buying the whole 5th Age boxed set.

These aren’t the only things you can use to help inspire you and liven up your game. Got a bunch of baseball cards? Use the batting average as a percentage chance to hit. Is there a set of Larry Elmore collector cards sitting around collecting dust? Use the titles as inspiration for tomorrow’s session. And you don’t have to stick with just cards. Leighton Connor has run entire games using nothing more than a Magic Eightball. But that’s a story for another time.

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