RPGs, for the most part, use dice to determine the outcome of events in dispute. This has the salutary effect of heightening tension, but can also put game progress at risk when nearly every action in the game comes with a chance of failure. A few games have gone a different route, using a mechanic that removes some of the tension via mystery, but creates challenges for the players in organizing their own fate – cards.
I recently listened to an interview with Keith Baker about his new RPG, Phoenix: Dawn Command. In it, he discusses a few elements of what drove him to make the game card-based. He also referenced one of my favorite RPGs of all time, Castle Falkenstein. Falkenstein actually weaves the use of cards over dice into the gameworld narrative, pointing out that, according to the mores of the period, only ruffians use dice and this is a game for genteel folk. Once upon a time, even TSR got in on the action, creating the original SAGA system, with decks made especially for both the Marvel Super Heroes and Dragonlance game settings.
The interesting thing to me about card-based systems is the amount of narrative control that is given mechanically to the players. If I’m playing cards out of my hand, restricted perhaps by suit or number of cards I can play, I immediately have a reasonable idea of what I can succeed at, what I cannot, and what it might cost me to meet certain difficulties. The hand can also then get reflected in roleplay, as a hand full of high-powered cards might reflect my character at his confident peak, while a rubbish hand could reflect exhaustion or even just having a bad day. As a system, cards are unique in their ability to inform and reflect a character’s current state of mind.
But that’s a tradeoff – a player with a handful of cards has a notion of how well his or her character will perform in a contest, but that knowledge also means that at least some of the character’s capacities for the next few challenges has been dictated. With dice, we always have a chance for great success along with the chance for great failure. If my card hand is 1,2,1,3,3, I have little chance of succeeding at whatever challenge comes next, and I know it. I conjecture from this that the gamer’s general preference for dice (card-based games never seem to last in the market) may be related to the same line of thinking that leads us to buy lottery tickets – the eternal optimism of man, even in the face of math.
Rhetorically speaking, if dice are constraints in presenting the risk of failure, cards mark out the boundaries of what is possible, especially in interpersonal challenges. My hand tells me whom I can persuade and of what I can persuade them. From a game-playing perspective, I might get involved in more low-level or low-threat challenges to pass off weak cards, or hoard high-point cards, avoiding challenges with little obvious narrative meaning. Overall, cards bring a very different dynamic to the table, and they raise questions about how players craft their own narratives and what role they see the adjudications system playing in that narrative.