How Cards Bring the Awesome

So my ruminating about Gamma World and its use of card decks as random story elements got me thinking about one of the best constellations of the concept of cards as an RPG element: Torg: The Possibility Wars from West End Games.

My game group played the hell out of Torg back in the day. We’ve even got “sendings” in the Infiniverse newsletter and playtest credits in the Orrorsh sourcebook. Submitting creatures for the two fan-written monster books was one of my early published credits. Some things about Torg really grabbed us. Part of it was certainly the multi-genre stuff; I’ve always loved genre mash-ups, and Shadowrun was also a big hit with my group. Some of it was the die rolling mechanics; the open-ended re-rolls on 10s and 20s in Torg created a certain level of excitement, and the use of a d20 make the game cinematic and unpredictable, mitigated by the use of the conversion chart to mute the extreme ends of the rolls somewhat.

But one of the biggest awesome elements of the game was and is the Drama Deck. For those unfamiliar, Torg uses a deck of cards—the Drama Deck—to handle a great many elements in the game that would otherwise be handled by die rolling or some other mechanic. In particular, the Drama Deck controls the flow of combat (initiative), introduces random elements into the plot, encourages a variety of actions, serves as a narrative countdown, and gives the players various bonuses.

That’s a lot for one game element! Part of the success of the Drama Deck is the ability of cards to pack-in a lot of information. A single Drama Deck card has two ends: one an Action side, detailing round-to-round initiative and modifiers, the other a Player side, providing either a game bonus or a subplot. So already the cards have a dual purpose. Include the Dramatic Skill Resolution line in the middle, and you have a triple purpose. Let’s look at some of their more clever applications:

Initiative: Long before Deadlands, Torg used a deck of cards to determine initiative in combat. Whereas Deadlands deals individual initiative cards to players, Torg uses a single card, which lists who goes first—the heroes or the villains—based on whether the scene is “standard” (favoring the heroes) or “dramatic” (favoring the villains).

But more than that, each initiative line often has different modifiers for either side, like “Setback” or “Rally”. These impose different bonuses or penalties, so one round the heroes might each get an extra card while the next, the villains get a free bonus to all of their rolls. This gives combat a real back-and-forth element and makes the process of controlling what card is on top of the Action Stack part of the drama itself. I recall a particular Torg game where our heroes fought against overwhelming odds and we players pulled out all the stops to keep a good initiative card on the top of the stack for as long as we possibly could. Just seeing if we could do that from round-to-round was a nail-biter, to say nothing of the combat!

Approved Actions: Each initiative card also includes an “Approved Actions” line. If a player character performs the approved action for that round, the player gets a bonus card draw. While sometimes the approved action is “Any” more often it is some sort of non-attack action like a maneuver, taunt, or test of wills (all skills in Torg). This really helps to encourage players to declare actions other than “I attack … again” and provides a clear game benefit for doing so. Our group used to joke about the degree of “card whoring” that would go on around the approved action line in order to get more cards.

Timed Resolutions: The action side of the card also has a sequence of letters, from A to D, used to resolve multi-part challenges where dramatic timing is a factor. Basically, divide the challenge into up to four steps (A through D). If the card shows the letter of the current step, the character can attempt to complete it. If it doesn’t, you have to wait (reflecting timing, hesitation, pre-work, etc.). The line might also show a “Setback” meaning the task gets more difficult (the timer jumps ahead, a tool breaks, etc.). The trick is to get the task done before a certain number of card flips, reflecting the “timer”. It adds a dramatic element to the classic “defuse a ticking bomb” scenario beyond just “make a skill roll” and I strongly suspect systems like Skill Challenges in D&D are descended from it.

Pools: The other side of the Drama Deck cards each have an in-game bonus for a character, ranging from a plus with specific abilities (physical, mental, or spiritual), bonus re-rolls, and a variety of other things. The diversity of the bonuses also tends to encourage diverse actions; if you’ve got a card with a bonus to mental actions, you’re more likely to try and trick your foe than make an outright attack, for example.

The real brilliance of the card bonuses shows up in how they enter play: During action scenes, players can’t use cards directly from their hand. Instead, each round their character does something, the player can lay down a card into their “pool” making it accessible for use. Thus, action scenes are a slow build-up of useful resources that give the players the upper-hand. A lot of choice goes into what cards to put into your pool, since pool cards are also potentially vulnerable (see the following) and there’s a dramatic tension in working up to having access to the right combination of cards to pull off the action you have in mind.

The fact that playing cards into your pool is keyed on doing something also means the characters can’t just stand around. They have to get involved if they want the added benefit of using their cards.

Trading: The game takes the card pool concept one step better by also allowing players to trade cards during play. This is one of the most dynamic elements of the game. In my experience players were always on the lookout for opportunities to swap useful cards with each other, focusing them on helping the other players to be awesome during the game (another concept that has found its way into D&D 4e with the leader character role).

The story payoff of card trading is that you need to explain what your character does in character to provide the benefit of the card you’re offering. So if I want to trade my Willpower card to a friend, how is my character helping to improve his willpower and determination? Is it a word of encouragement? Getting him mad enough to shake it off? Leading by example and personal daring? When you need that explanation in order to swap a vital card, you get creative fast.

Dramatic action scenes in our Torg games would often pause for flurries of tactical card trading. Far from stopping the action, this added a real element of excitement to it as the players came up with killer combos and teamwork to help them carry the day.

Subplots: Some of the cards, rather than having a specific in-game bonus, list a type of subplot, like “Enemy” or “Romance”. Players can put these subplots into play and earn additional Possibilities (in-game bennies or action points) for the scenes featuring their subplot(s). This gives the players some narrative control and lets them introduce subplot elements into the story.

I found subplots both useful and occasionally bothersome. In my experience they worked best when players suggested possible subplot elements, rather than simply playing them and relying on me (the GM) to provide the plot. Indeed, I all but required players to provide some idea of what they wanted the subplot to be in order for them to play the card. The explicit bonuses of the other cards tended to overshadow subplots, and some players considered them very disappointing draws, while others loved them as an opportunity to get their characters more “screen time”.

Vulnerability: I’ve saved one of the best for last. An interesting wrinkle to the card play element of the Drama Deck was that it also provided a game benefit for the GM to take away in certain situations to make the players feel more vulnerable and challenged, without “directly” affecting their characters’ game traits. In the core game, villains can use taunts, threats, and intimidation to snatch vital cards away from the players before they are used. This is a great representation of shaking a character’s confidence and reducing the player’s options. It also puts some pressure on the card pool; put a card out there and you have to use it before it can get taken away from you.

This concept reached its full flower with the fear rules in the Orrorsh horror supplement: supernatural monsters could, amongst other things, steal multiple cards from the players, severely reducing their options, until the characters build up enough determination to overcome their fear of the creature and confront it. The first time it happened in play, the looks on the players’ faces were priceless and it was clear the rule had the desired effect of giving them just a small taste of the fear their characters felt when confronted with eldritch evil.

Deal Me In

With all of the options you can build into a deck of cards, rather than railing against the “CCG” aspect of new games like Gamma World, I hope that their use of cards as a game element inspires some additional experimentation with the concept. I’ll note that, while the Torg Drama Deck cards weren’t “collectable” as such, there were bonus cards included in various products and in the Infiniverse newsletter to add to or expand the deck. That offered just a peek at the tantalizing potential of customizing or “tuning” the Drama Deck for particular types of adventures and genres as well, which never really emerged in Torg (to my knowledge) but offers a lot of, dare I say, possibilities for RPG development.