It’s All in the Cards: Let’s Talk About Combat

Last week I began what will be an ongoing series here on the blog, talking about a tabletop RPG I want to create. This game will use playing cards rather than dice as the randomizing tool, and the cards will be an integral part of not just the gameplay but the setting. If you want to read in more detail about the basic ideas driving this game, check out my article on the subject. Today, we’re going to focus specifically on the aspect of the game that I currently have the clearest idea about: combat.

I’ve included card-based combat in a tabletop game before, but I certainly didn’t want to just rehash the ideas I used then. For one, that system was blatantly ripped-off of the video game Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, and I want to avoid stealing mechanics from existing games (at least not ones that aren’t public domain!). Additionally, my method of recreating those mechanics definitely had issues. It worked fine for one session of a game where that wasn’t the focus, but I need something more balanced and more engaging for an RPG that will use this mechanic every session.

I also went back and forth about how active I wanted the combat system to be. I initially was drawn to the idea of a combat mechanic that drew elements from very active card games like nerts or egyptian rat screw/slaps. If you’ve never played either of these games, they are games that are fast-paced and in constant motion, and they require some reflexes on the part of the player. Ultimately, I was turned off to the idea because I don’t want someone with poor reflexes to suck at combat, or at any other aspect of the game for that matter. So once I realized that the cards simply needed to be a method of generating random values, it helped guide my thoughts a little more. I think the system I have come up with should be unique compared to other RPGs and lend itself well to a compelling setting.


The basics of the game are similar to the rules of games like Uno, Rummy, and Mao. The players (not the GM) all share a deck of cards and draw a hand of three cards from it. Whoever is highest in the initiative order begins play. That person lays down a single card and then draws a card. Play passes to the next player, who needs to play a card that is either of the same suit or has the same face value.
Each card that has been played is part of a mechanic called the “attack chain.” The attack chain is a series of consecutive attacks executed by the player characters against their enemies. The more cards there are in the attack chain, the more damage is dealt to the opponent. The attack chain essentially represents control of the battlefield – as long as the players keep it going, the GM-controlled enemy character is taking damage and unable to take actions.

This hand doesn’t have any cards that play on the attack chain, so the chain would break.

The attack chain can break in a number of ways. The most common way is when a player can’t play a card onto the chain during their turn. That ends the chain and gives the enemy an opening to attack the party. A player can also end the attack chain by taking actions that essentially “give up control,” such as taking a defensive position or using up their turn to heal. Of course, losing the chain in these ways can have tactical advantages – defending places more cards into your hand so that you’ll be more likely to keep the chain going next round!

Now that the chain’s broken, I have a card that plays. Naturally. Still, defending sets me up well for the next round because now I have five cards to work with instead of three, making it more likely I can keep the chain moving.

Defending is not the only way to increase your hand. The best way is to catch the opponent off-guard with a sneak attack; ambushing the enemy lets every party member start with a full-sized five card hand instead of the typical three card starting hand. I also envision including character abilities that allows drawing without interrupting the attack chain as long as certain conditions are met. This would probably be the result of a successful combo attack.

Full House, Straight, and Royal Flush will all likely be devastating combos.

A combo attack is executed when a series of cards within a chain create a classic card game hand. Three examples are shown above. Combo attacks will naturally increase damage, but they’ll also be key to activating class abilities. This could include effects such as temporary stat boosts or inflicting status problems, drawing cards or altering hand size, or allowing the player greater control of what cards are in his/her hand. Players around the table will be able to work together to try and set up these combos. While letting them talk about what cards are in their hands may seem to be metagaming, these combos would be nigh-impossible otherwise and honestly it’s fun to discuss strategic options at the table. Players will be encouraged to accompany their out-of-character discussion with in-character strategizing to keep the fiction active during planning.

Speaking of the fiction, what does the game world actually look like while cards are being played? Well, just like how the players have control over the gaming table while the attack chain is active, they also have control of the narrative. As each player lays down his or her card, they describe the actions they are performing and the impact that they have. As long as the attack chain is going, players have creative freedom to describe events. Once the chain is broken, the GM takes back over and lets them know just how much of an impact their actions really have.
Let’s say a group of four players create the attack chain pictured above, executing a Two-Pair combo, and then Player One sees that he doesn’t have any cards that play. Here’s how the roleplaying for that sequence of events might look:

Player One: As soon as Reddiger shows his ugly face, I zip towards him faster than the eye can see and punch him square in the gut, sending him flying towards Elyssa!

Player Two: I see Reddiger flying towards me and I’m already in position. I motion to Calix to get above me, and as soon as Reddiger is in range I kick him straight upwards at full force.

Player Three: Yeah, I totally followed Elyssa’s command and got into position on the cliff face above her. After her awesome kick Reddiger’s helpless body is floating right in front of my face, and I know I can set up Tillden for the ultimate combo. I jump up into the air and kick out both legs, my body parallel with the ground as my two feet smash into Reddiger’s gut and send him soaring.

Player Four: While everyone else has been keeping Reddiger busy, I’ve been looking for the perfect place to put his grave. I see a skyscraper off in the distance and I know that’s exactly what I’m looking for. The force of Calix’s blow sends Reddiger hurtling towards me, and I put all of my energy into a beam attack. As soon as I have the right angle, I fire the beam. The blast tears chunks of metal off of Reddiger’s armor and pounds him into the skyscraper’s outer wall. He pierces right through it, shattered glass flying everywhere as the building’s integrity is compromised. The whole skyscraper crashes down on him and I cheer in victory, sure that Reddiger must be defeated.

Player One: I sure hope he is, because I can’t follow that move.

GM: Okay, so you all feel pretty confident after unleashing such a powerful attack on Reddiger. The skyscraper has totally collapsed now and this monster is buried underneath a ton of scrap metal, broken glass, and burning debris. Suddenly, though, you see the pile of rubble start to tremble. With a mighty roar, Reddiger bursts upward through the chunks of shattered building, sending shards of torn metal flying in every direction. He appears totally unscathed, and when he looks at you, he simply smirks. “Gonna have to do better than that, lovelies. My turn now!”

See how the players had total narrative control until the attack chain broke? That’s the idea. Now this description of events was very DBZ – super sensational combat with Herculean blows that leveled buildings and energy beams flying around. That’s not necessarily how combat has to flow. In fact, each card in the attack chain may not represent an attack, but rather a set-up, some kind of offensive maneuvering like changing positions or feinting in order to create an opening. Here’s the exact same series of cards played, but with the events described in a totally different way:
Player One: Duke Alredd readies his sword and stands erect before the throne. I’m eyeing the layout of the throne room looking for anything we can use to our advantage. I see that there’s a rack of weapons along the wall with a loaded crossbow. I take off as quickly as my legs will carry me, running towards the bow. But Duke Alredd is fast and he’s right on my heels. I call to Elyssa for help.

Player Two: And I’m right there to provide aid. I intercept the Duke along his path and we cross swords. He’s lightning fast and it’s hard for me to parry his attacks, but I deflect each blow carefully and succeed at keeping him distracted.

Player Three: I decide to use the opportunity to see if I can’t get the upper hand on the duke. I move carefully towards the Duke, trying not to alert him as he strikes again and again at Elyssa. Just as I step up to attack him, he whirls around and makes a daring but wicked slice towards my legs. I just barely manage to jump over the slash.

Player Four: While you all have been engaging the Duke directly, I’ve been in the process of preparing a spell to fling at him. The spell itself will likely cause him little harm, but it should create an opening for someone else to do some serious damage. I hope you’ve got another 9, Huntington, we really need that Full House! I unleash my spell, and the magical energies weave around Duke Alredd and twist his body around. He moans in pain but seems to be resisting the spell more than I anticipated. Now’s your chance to hit him with that crossbow!

Player One: I don’t have the right card…I can’t do anything. I pick up the crossbow and aim the bolt right for Duke Alredd’s exposed heart, but just as I pull the trigger – nothing. The crossbow is jammed!

In this situation, the players described the battle in more strategic and subtle terms. They, not the GM, took responsibility for portraying Duke Alredd as a powerful force to be reckoned with, and they represented how difficult it was to struggle against him. This freedom to describe the fiction in your own terms allows for lots of different genres to be explored within this game. Let combat be gritty and realistic, stylized and fanciful, or totally sensational and gory, whatever appeals to the group that is playing.
And that’s what I have so far for the combat system! Naturally I plan to expand a lot more on combos and their specific effects, something that will probably happen as I design the classes for this game. I also need to go into more detail about exactly what happens on the enemy’s turn – what are villains capable of besides just dealing damage? Should they be able to attack during mid-chain, interrupting a series of cards that could have become a combo? There’s still a lot of thinking to do moving forward, but I am pretty fond of the concept that I have right now. Thanks for reading, and I hope this post piqued your interest in the idea of a card-based RPG!

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