Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Cards as Randomizers

I had a meeting with the Tactics people over in Pori yesterday.

Had a tour of their factory, too. (4th largest manufacturer of board games in the country; they make millions of copies of hundreds of different games every year, I was told).

I was there to discuss options and the feasibility of a LotFP screen, but they also manufacture playing cards and I've been tooling around with ideas for card stuff for OSR games.

The issue is matching the right types of randomizer with the results they give.

Need a number? Roll a die, read the die.

Have random results with each result being a very short snippet of info? Roll the die, reference the die's result on a chart.

But what if there's a large number of randomized results, each with a considerable amount of information (enough to spread it over more than one page spread), or a number of randomized items that must be referenced together?


Cards are their own randomizer as well as able to contain the result.

Critical hit and fumble tables are an excellent example of something that should be on cards (imagine my chagrin when I discovered Paizo already does this... argh!). Roll a 1 or 20? Don't roll another die and then consult a chart, just draw a card and read it.

A monster generator with multiple card decks instead of pages and pages of charts is another. Get all the info you need instead of needing to write anything down or flip a single page.

A random dungeon generator - hell, for a solo game - could also work better this way.

The issue is simply what the fastest and easiest tools to do the job might be at the table.

Something to think about when coming up with game aids...


  1. I've used cards for our recent games. I think they work very well for spells and monsters, and reasonably well for streamlined character sheets and monsters. If you had combat maneuvers they would work for that - but it's changing the system considerably.

  2. I could find a use for cards used to determine wandering monsters. I have the Paizo crit cards, which were fun to use in play.

  3. I've thought once or twice about a treasure deck. Treasure types would converted to draws (Eg. "Type H = draw seven cards, keep five").

    The best thing about a card deck is you can slip things into that the players don't know exist.

  4. Spells absolutely belong on cards. This helps keep track of ongoing effects (keep the card on the table 'til effect is over). They can be used for a spell duel system. Cards minimize flipping through books. And let's face it, spells are essentially a "trump" system grafted on to a more traditional chart&dice combat system. Spells should be on cards.

  5. I agree with you in theory about spells belonging on cards, but practical issues come up:

    Some spells that can't fit on a card. Spells with tables would especially be a problem.

    Multiple characters may be in play using the same spells; how many decks should a group be expected to have?

    And one character can have the same spell twice, so that they either need multiple decks to allow for that, or else the "this card represents a spell in use" isn't so clear cut.

    The idea if a publisher can get the same group to buy multiple decks, but that's pushing it. :)

    Or is there something else with the idea I'm not seeing?

  6. I have a couple of card-based GM aids over at my blog. Right margin. http://carjackedseraphim.blogspot.com. They might be of some interest to folks. Enjoy!

  7. I created torch cards when I ran DFD. That way we knew who had them without asking. Also, there were circles that could be used to tick off time. Some other counter would be in order for nice, printed cards.

  8. I just acquired the AD&D2e Cardmaster Adventure Design Deck a couple of weeks ago. Hadn’t heard of it before. Haven’t had a chance to look through it yet, though.

  9. Thought about some advantages of using actual playing cards, but they would apply equally well to cards done with any kind of heading or color code system added to just the basic info.


    Another advantage to cards for the GM: whatever info is generated can be laid side to side (like Poag's monster generator) and compared/consulted/combined.

  10. Mr. Weller,

    I am totally stealing your idea for light source cards. You know who else needs a card? The guy holding the map. I love asking "Do you drop the map to cast your spell?" but I can't always remember.

  11. I like having cards on the table for those awkward items you want to keep track of, or things that might be "bad" that one of the players has elected to carry, like a decapitated metal head or something. The problem is you need to make them all ahead of time and you're never quite sure what you'll need.

  12. Another advantage with cards is that you can arrange decks. So if you have encounters, traps ,or magical effects of various vileness, you can arrange the deck to taste for different dungeons.

    Take the undead out for this one, put in demons in its place.

    Another cool thing you can do with cards, though difficult to design, is combine them like the Tarot. I've been working for a while on a deck of monsters that would function this way. Draw a rot grub and that's what it is-- draw rot grub as a secondary card and whatever the first monster is is also infected, etc.

    @Jeff: Having players draw treasure from a deck at the table could be crazy fun!

  13. Time cards would be great for wandering monsters:

    Have two types of card-

    1. One Turn cards that are otherwise blank.

    2. Wandering Monster! cards that also say One Turn.

    Just mix in the appropriate ratio of encounters to cards (1 in 6, check every turn means 5 of the first type for each of the second, for example) and you're good to go. I bet players would pay even more attention to how much time they're spending on fluff activity when they see the cards flip and start dreading a monster result.

  14. @stuart:

    I had one player carry a manticore head around on a spear for about three months of in-game time, and she just couldn't figure out why everyone acted so strangely around her...

  15. If a spell description can't fit on a card, rewrite it!

    But yeah, to use cards for everything, you also need a card for everything. You can't say no to third wizard just because you've run out of floating discs.

    We've been using cards for everything in our n20 game project, and end up having a stash of something like 500 cards including all equipment, character traits, hit locations deck and some random system specific stuff. You basically don't need any sheet to play with cards, but then you do need a printer to get that missing chainmail and your character portrait cards out.

    So I'm pro cards, but still don't think a preset set of card, however huge, can work in tabletop games without restricting player freedom at some point or requiring crude proxies.

    Randomizer decks, then again, are a whole different thing. We use hit locations deck, and it totally rocks (my socks). Absolutely no turning back there. I'm currently working on a weather deck for my campaing world.

    Random NPC or monster generating deck could be also nice tool along the lines of X parts combine into 1 thing and cards would definitely work with it. Probably won't ever get anything done though.

  16. Many folks have tried to add card elements to games with mixed results. I was not a fan of any of the cards Hasbro produced for 4e nor for Gamma World. I think Savage Worlds' deck worked very well for them. I know Hacktastic/Black Pidgeon Press tried collectible cards called Hack EFX. I think it bombed - could be wrong. I know I had no interest in buying them.

    I am not sure trying to get folks to buy a deck or this then a deck of that will work. Having one deck that does a wide range of things could work.

    An exmaple

    Each side of the card could have a different color representing some value that will generate something random, or a combination of color and position reading the card clockwise or counter clockwise red blue green black or red green black blue.

    Having the cards decorated with LotFP artwork would be cool, or maybe the artwork combined with some other factors on the card could help generate something. Maybe the images on the card are in categories - Monster, event, item, persona. These could help in randomization and determining results.

    Creating a Deck of Many things could sell very well - versatility and utility being key.


  17. I am a fan of using cards to help the gamemaster design, monsters, dungeons, and treasure.
    I probably would not let the player's use any sort of cards in game. Player cards tend to limit role-playing options in my experience, as players view carded spells and abilities as their primary actions and basic attacks and maneuvers as beneath them. This is very evident in games like 4e or the D&D boardgames.

    I also tend to avoid critical hits, fumbles, and specific hit locations. I feel that player crits require monster crits for balance, and to keep the combat more grounded and less super-heroic. Some players love them, but the story changes when a monster crits them back for huge amounts of damage.

  18. Remember also that cards and dice represent two different distributions of randomness. When you roll a d20 and get a 20, your chances of rolling another 20 are exactly the same as they were before. When you draw a nine of diamonds from a standard deck, (a) the chances of drawing a nine go down from 4/52 to 3/52, (b) the chances of drawing a diamond go down from 13/52 to 12/51, and (c) you can never draw the nine of diamonds again until you reshuffle.

    For this reason, cards represent a different mode of resource management than dice do. (The otherwise fine game Primetime Adventures uses cards when they would be better off using dice; I can only speculate about the poor motivations for doing so.) Just one thing to think of when you're selecting a randomizer.

  19. Personally, my preference for something like DnD would be to restrict cards to spells. The idea is to speed up and clarify in-game actions. So there is no reason to provide the entire written spell description. Just a symbol or key-word for spell type, brief blurb about effect & duration, and boxes for "Number memorized" and "Number used." Make it a pdf-only thing, and it's not a big deal (although maybe not worth the effort as a publisher).

    That said, I've run a 10 y.o. daughter in DnD, and giving her cards for all sorts of things (weapon, torches, magic items, etc) really appealed to her. I used cards from the boardgame Runebound, and a few of Paizo's cards.

  20. @degenerate elite:

    Oh, but critical hits on both sides (and fumbles) can really spice up a session! In my most recent Labyrinth Lord game the party was fighting a large group of fire beetles they had just lured into triggering a pit trap for them. In my game, critical hits don't deal extra damage (except incidentally sometimes), they change the advantage of a combat situation against the character that's the target of the crit.

    Thus, in this instance a fire beetle tackled the player into the pit trap (separating him from the party and leaving him to fight several injured beetles on his own)--it was arguably his own fault for standing near the pit while fighting.

    Definitely made for a more exciting battle than it would otherwise have been.

    Plus, I allow my players to sacrifice their helmets to negate the "added advantage" of a critical hit, as an extra gamey bit of balance.