It’s All in the Cards: My April RPG Project

Greetings, adventurers! If you were here on Tabletop Tuesday a few weeks ago, you might have seen my post on tabletop games I’ve wanted to create. Well recently I’ve been thinking about what I wanted to do for my upcoming editions of Tabletop Tuesday. I’m not playing any tabletop games and probably won’t be in the near future. So if I’m going to keep writing about tabletops, I’ve got to be thinking about them some way or other. Then it hit me – if I’m not going to be playing a tabletop, why not focus my energy on designing one?

I’ve got lots of different concepts kicking around in my head for possible pen-and-paper RPGs. So narrowing it down has been a bit tricky. Should I do one that’d be more of a hack, like a Paper Mario or Legend of Zelda adaptation of the Apocalypse World engine? Maybe I should finally pick up and keep going with Sixteen, the Myers-Briggs RPG? Ultimately, though, I decided that I want to put my efforts into the idea that is more uniquely my own. Perhaps the most challenging of them all, but hopefully the most rewarding as well.

Adventurers, I’m going to try and create an RPG with playing cards.

A good number of April’s Tabletop Tuesday posts may focus on this concept, though of course I will always leave room for breaks when other ideas come to me. My intent, if circumstances allow, is that by the end of April I have some kind of rough system in place that’s ready to playtest with a group of unwitting guinea pigs – er, people, lovely people. So today, I wanted to talk about the very basic ideas that I already have in place for this game.


Baten Kaitos Cover.jpg
A great card-based game whose fiction explains the cards very well.

Have you ever played a card-based game that made you question why cards were involved in the first place? This applies more to video games than tabletop games, but it’s something that sits with me when I notice it. Cards drive the game mechanics but they aren’t necessarily a real part of the game, or given justification that really makes sense.

A go-to example for this is Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories. No KH game before or since has used cards (except maybe the mobile game? Didn’t play that one), and the explanation of how cards got involved is pretty flimsy. Everything turns into cards in Castle Oblivion because of magic powers, or something. Even people turn into cards, except Sora, and bad guys, and people who don’t get involved in confrontation. What even is this?

Conversely, the Baten Kaitos games (the cover for the first one is pictured above) have a pretty solid explanation for why everything is dealt with in card form – convenience. The technology of that society allows them to capture the “essence” of a thing and contain it in a card called “magnus.” Goods so captured are lightweight, safely contained, and easy to transport, and you can carry way more around than you normally could with the real object. Even substances that normally need a container, like water or an open flame, can be safely contained in magnus to then be placed wherever you need it later. Think of the implications for shipping goods, for grocery shopping, for moving – a society based on cards that can conveniently transport objects actually makes some sense (in a science fiction kind of way). When you’re using cards for their combat applications in this game, it feels like something that makes sense because the cards are fully integrated into the game fiction.

THAT’s the effect I want to achieve with the setting for my RPG. Ultimately, playing cards will drive the game mechanics primarily because that’s what I want to happen. But I’d like for people who play to feel like using cards is a very intentional choice that makes this game world possible. If the game is just D&D with cards instead of dice, what’s the purpose? The cards need to be integral to the game in both story and gameplay in order for the game to feel truly unique.


Mario Party Cover.jpg

Think of it like mini games, except with less backstabbing and bloodshed.

One aspect about creating a card-based RPG that has intimidated me in the past – in fact stopped me from pursuing that approach for Sixteen – is that it seemed very difficult to create one game mechanic that would make sense for all situations. I’ve done card gameplay for a tabletop before, but it only ran combat and wouldn’t apply very well to other situations like traps, puzzles, bartering; pretty much every other situation where you would still be making rolls in a tabletop game. Rather than continue to bash my head against that barrier, I decided it would be easier to take a different approach entirely: use the cards differently for each situation.

Now what exactly this will look like is hard for me to say at this point. But I picture it as a sort of mini-game approach where anytime a new type of situation pops up for characters to deal with, they’ll shuffle their decks and then start a new game within the game. I envision specific card games inspiring these mini-games based on what seems appropriate for the action. For example, a solitaire approach for puzzles/traps could be pretty interesting, where players have to work together to obtain a solution in order to pass the obstacle. A game of betting and bluffing in the style of poker could be fun for playing out interactions or haggling situations. Escapes from traps or environmental hazards could be a fast-paced experience similar to nertz; if you’ve never played, think multiplayer competitive Solitaire with multiple decks where everyone is playing at the same time – it’s chaos. By taking and incorporating ideas from lots of different card games and utilizing them at different times, it would be easier to represent different situations in the game fiction and add some variety into the gameplay.

Of course, it’s important to me that incorporating all of those elements doesn’t impact this next idea:

While I want to draw inspiration from card games when making design decisions for this game, I don’t want to just create an RPG where you play poker to a story. First off, that’d be a little silly. Why read a manual on how to roleplay characters while playing poker? Second off (and this is more important), I don’t want this game to be unplayable for someone who is bad at cards.

Honestly I’m thinking of myself when I say this. I am only good at card games that require a strategic mind, but that also require little to no physical dexterity and minimal bluffing. I am a pretty terrible liar and I have an expressive face that makes me easy to read. I’m also a slow, methodical sort of person, so I can’t quickly place a card on a stack faster than someone else looking at that same stack, or smack a pile of cards faster than someone else can. If I made an RPG where those skills were actually pretty important, this game would be unplayable for myself and for everyone like me. Or at the very least, we’d suck at everything that wasn’t a puzzle or combat.

Look at it this way. Dice are the usual method of randomization in tabletops, and they require no skill to use. Sure, you can have bad rolls, but you can’t be bad at rolling. There’s not a trick or technique – dice are just tools that create random values in order to represent the odds of success or failure when taking an action. For this game, cards would be used as randomizers instead, but ultimately the same purpose is there. The cards are just creating random values in order to represent the chance of success or failure in the game world.

Now cards work differently than dice, so it is inevitable that skill will play a factor in this game in a way that isn’t normally present in the tabletop world. But at no point should this game’s need for skill stop someone from being able to enjoy the full experience. I don’t want to create a game where only players with quick hand-eye coordination can play thieves and only those with strategic puzzle-solving abilities can play wizards. I want this game to be enjoyable for all players and for anyone to be able to play whatever class they want, without their personal abilities (or lack thereof) getting in the way of their experience.

Those are the basic concepts I am going to be bringing with me when working on this project: a varied and compelling card-based game that’s accessible to all types of players. Of course, there are some other ideas I’ve been kicking around too, but I addressed those in detail pretty recently in the article linked at the beginning of this post. If you’re interested in seeing how I handled card-based gameplay in the past (as well as some other RPG concepts), be sure to check that one out. Thanks for reading, and be sure to come back next Tuesday to see my progress on this idea!

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