Cards Done Right

Mark Rein*Hagen has a new game on kickstarter called I Am Zombie.

You are a Toxic, a victim of an age-old disease, the Scourge. The cycles of your life revolve around picking up and getting rid of Odium, a by-product of that which ravages your body. Odium build-up threatens to transform you into a mindless zombie – a Skag – whilst granting physical prowess. You might half-dead, but if you control your Odium, you can retain your humanity, at least some of time.

Also, it has artwork.

Setting aside the WoD-by-numbers and unnecessary naked breasts, I wanted to talk about this:

Stay tuned for some cool videos and amazing graphics that will prove to you… that finally someone figured out how to make cards in RPG’s, work. After all, they do work in EVERY other kind of game right. I proved everyone wrong when Vampire came out, so let me prove you wrong now! I dare you.

There’s a bit more detail in comments on his post to the G+ Story Games “Pandering” thread.

In terms of cards I was trying to say, no one has done cards RIGHT in the roleplaying world, though many have come close. Torg wasn’t close, Pondsmith was much closer with CF, D&D 4th wasn’t close at all. I was WAY OFF with Cantrip cards for Changeling the Dreaming. However my first product ever for gaming, was Whimsy Cards, created with Jonathan Tweet, nearly 30 years ago. I’ve been obsessed with cards ever since, working on it nearly the whole time. Time will tell if this is the right approach, I am convinced its the best try yet.

I’ll say this first: if Mark Rein*Hagen loves cards, he’s a man after my own heart.

Now, about these cards specifically. IAZ cards supposedly do something never before tried in roleplaying games: they free us from the tyranny of the character sheet.

A bit like 6d6 does.

They look nice, though:

Basically it looks like Chrononauts mashed up with 6d6. That’s not a bad thing at all. I like the idea of cards as flippable, and cards as hit-point currency. That’s a good idea.

But back to those “cards done right”. Cards are a tool. Sometimes they are a pictoral tool. Sometimes they’re a resolution tool. Sometimes they’re currency (temporary of permanent rep of a spell or item).

These are the games I can think of right now that use cards (and I haven’t played them all, so could be wrong in a couple of places):

  • Lace and Steel
  • Savage Worlds
  • Torg
  • Changeling the Dreaming
  • Castle Falkenstein
  • 6d6
  • Traveller (slight cheat; but I used to fit Traveller characters on an index card)
  • WFRP 3e
  • Mouse Guard
  • and, of course, Everway.

Add to that a few games that damn well should have cards, like Exalted. I made index cards for Exalted Charms, which I never used (gah). I made my own cards for Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Cards are fantastically useful for spells, powers, items of power, and so forth–although some restraint is needed to avoid turning your game into a session of Arkham Horror that dominates the kitchen table. Such games are not cat proof.

Anyway, let’s think of the three different advantages of cards:

1. Pictoral

The vision cards in Everway are optional, but they’re really great. Furthermore you can buy fantasy art cards in the same format–I have some by Jeffrey Catherine Jones, Christos Achilleos, and others. They slot nicely into MtG binders.

Obviously the pictoral quality of your cards is going to affect the tone of the game. Therefore if IAZ relies on grindhouse art, it will feel like a grindhouse game. I see a lot of Apocalypse World in the IAZ art, and neither appeal to me much. Still it’s useful for the designer to impart a coherent image of their game onto the end user.

As an aside, since we’re talking about Mark Rein*Hagen’s game, I much prefer the tone of the 1e Vampire art over the 2e. If I’d been forced to brand my vampire games with the 2e S&M superhero art, I think I would have dropped it earlier.

2. Mechanical

Cards have a few advantages over dice.

  • you can store cards in hand and deploy the good results at critical points. This creates a card management metagame–something I recall Castle Falkenstein being criticised for, but it could be considered a feature as much as a bug.
  • you can’t cock cards like dice, or accidentally scoop them up as easily (when you should have left them on the table).
  • they’re tactile. OK, so are dice, but they’re tactile in a different way.
  • they’re much more readable than dice, with potentially better seek/handling time.
  • throwing down multiple results is fairly easy for the GM. I believe this is a feature in Lace and Steel–something my GM used to represent a massed battle with cannon and muskets on the battelfield.

The disadvantages of cards as a randomiser tend to be the need for a single, central deck–so everyone needs to sit in reach of that deck. You can overcome this by assigning a dealer (usually the GM) or otherwise putting each player in charge of their own deck.

3. Currency

The obvious currency supported by cards are items, spells and other ephemera. Much less common are point-based currencies like hit points. Even card games like MtG rely on a counting mechanism for life points.

I have to say if IAZ delivers on hit-point currency by tracking Odium build up with card flipping, then that claim of “cards done right” may actually be backed up.

4. Character Representation

This is a subset of Pictoral function, and something featured in Everway–but Everway’s use was only imagery, not numbers.

IAZ and 6d6 both appear to represent character crunch through decks. IAZ looks more elegant but at the same time more restrictive in language and art, which will limit the kinds of character available.

Now, if IAZ were more generic in its approach, I would probably leap at it. As it is, I can take or leave it. If I were running a zombie game I’d use AFMBE and have the zombies as the threat. The human aspect of how horrible it is for a person to be gradually turned by disease can still be there, without the silly rotting corpse superheroes. But hey, that’s my choice.

One final comment: I do wonder about game balance. We expect our games to be broken and for the GM to make up the shortfall. Sometimes we find that emphasising one attribute at the expense of the others yeilds disproportionate advantage.


p>In this instance, I reckon the promenece of the cards will make any game imbalance stick out even more. I forsee cases where it’s desirable for some cards to stay flipped to “monster” because they give specific powers that are more useful than others. Maybe that’s a desirable feature, or maybe it’s an interesting social experiment. Like VtM before, the initial flexibility and logic of character generation may give way to min-maxing and disproportionate, one dimensional characters. I will watch with interest.