The roleplaying industry was born of dice, coming out of the mechanics of wargames. Card-based accessories appeared pretty quickly, with Judges Guild’s reference Dungeon Tac Cards (1976) likely being the first. However, it was more than a decade later before cards were used to introduce random elements into games and a decade beyond that before they were used as a core conflict-resolution method. Overall, cards most frequently have had one of three purposes in roleplaying games: randomizer, resource, or narrative prompt.
Whimsy Cards (1987). Specialized deck, narrative prompt, player agency. The Whimsy Cards were not actually a card-based game, but instead a gaming supplement that could be used in any game. Their core goal was to introduce player agency into the storytelling of an RPG: perhaps for the first time ever allowing players to join the gamemaster in narration. Each card offered the nugget of a story event such as “something missing” or “bad tidings”: a player could play one at an appropriate time and explain what it meant. There were no mechanics, just story. Minor mechanics appeared a couple of years later, when the Whimsies were revised as Story Paths (1990), but for the most part the first use of cards in RPGs was primarily as a narrative prompt.
Torg (1990). Specialized deck, random events, player agency. The Drama Deck in Torg was the mainstream introduction of cards into the core system of a roleplaying game — albeit via another specialized deck. On the one hand, they were a player-agency aid, like the Whimsies, except this time the agency was mechanical: players could give themselves bonuses. On the other hand, they introduced randomization and color into conflicts, since individual cards might offer advantages to various characters when drawn at the start of an encounter. Call it random tables replaced by cards, which has been a general trend in roleplaying design. The Drama Deck became the MasterDeck in MasterBook (1994).
Castle Falkenstein (1994). Traditional cards, randomizer, resources. It took another four years for a game to use cards not just as a core system element, but as its core randomizer. The first offering, in Castle Falkenstein, would set the standard in many ways. Not only did it use a standard deck of cards, but it also used their suits. The cards were effectively resource/randomizers: each suit of cards could be used for certain types of skill challenges, and each challenge required a certain sum of cards. Got the right set of cards? Then you can accomplish a difficult task. Otherwise, you need to try and push the story in the direction of your resources. One other way that Castle Falkenstein set the standard for card-based RPGs was by making sure the cards were a great match for the game setting: in Falkenstein only riff-raff use dice!
Everway (1995). Specialized deck, narrative prompt, randomizer. A year after Castle Falkenstein, the idea of card as narrative prompt got mainstreamed when it was introduced into Everway’s core system. This was done through a deck of Vision cards, which were solely inspirational and primarily meant to color character creation. There was also a second deck of cards, the Fortune deck, which was in part based on the Tarot. This one was used for task resolution, but not in the highly mechanistic way of Castle Falkenstein (and many future roleplaying games). Sometimes it might offer a simple positive or negative result, but whenever possible, the gamemaster was encouraged to apply the oracular meaning of the Tarot-like card to the current situation.
Deadlands (1996). Traditional cards, high cards, Poker hands, limited usage. Like Castle Falkenstein before it, Deadlands used traditional cards in part because they fit with the game’s setting, here the Wild West. (Poker chips were also an important element in the game.) With that said, the cards in Deadlands were a relatively minor game element, mostly used in character creation and for initiative, with cards drawn showing trait and initiative values. The most interesting use of cards in Deadlands was probably for hucksters casting spells, where five or more cards are drawn, after which the huckster forms the best Poker hand they can to reveal whether the spell was cast and how strong it was. Savage Worlds (2003) continued the use of cards for initiative.
Dragonlance: Fifth Age (1996). Traditional cards, randomizer, resources. The SAGA system, which TSR used for Dragonlance: Fifth Age and for the Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game (1998), was probably their most innovative RPG system since D&D (1974). Like Castle Falkenstein, it used traditional (but themed) cards as resource/randomizer for task resolution, but with players holding more cards in their hand, the mechanic tended toward the “resource” side of the equation — albeit with randomization provided by the play of correctly suited “trump” cards for a skill, which allowed the draw of an additional card from the deck. The cleverest element of SAGA may be that the cards were also a hit-point count, meaning that as a character got wounded, they became less capable at skill tests — but this occurred in an entirely organic way (much as card draws themselves proved more organic for gameplay than rolling on random tables, back when that concept was introduced by Torg).
Dust Devils (2002). Traditional cards, randomizer, high cards, Poker hands. The indie games have generally stepped away from traditional mechanics. Using resource management, previously rare in RPGs, was popular because of the player agency it created. Dust Devils probably settled on card-based resource-management in part because it was another western that could naturally adopt Poker-based mechanics. When there’s a conflict, players draw cards based on their traits and their Devil and redraw if they can use knacks; they then try to make Poker hands; best hand wins, but the highest card narrates the results.
Aces & Eights (2007). Traditional cards, randomizer, limited usage. Westerns just can’t seem to avoid the cards, even if they’re used in a relatively minor role, such as in Deadlands and in Aces & Eights. Here, skills are rolled on dice, but in combat, when a shot isn’t a bullseye, a standard card is drawn to determine in which direction the shot goes. There are also rules for using standard cards for gambling, with variations for character skills.
Freemarket (2009). Specialized deck, randomizer, card counting, personal decks. Another indie release, Freemarket uniquely gave players each their own deck of cards containing four card types: expertise, freemarket, geneline, and hazard. Conflicts were effectively a minigame, with players drawing cards from their deck, deciding to rely on expertise or geneline, then continuing to draw. The mechanic created tension and not only supported card counting, but encouraged it!
The Quiet Year (2013). Traditional cards, narrative prompt. The Quiet Year was yet another indie. A 52-card deck was cleverly used to represent the 52 weeks of a year, with the deck stacked to keep the 13 cards for each season together. When a card was drawn it provided narrative prompts for that week of play.
FAITH: The Sci-Fi RPG (2015). Traditional cards, randomizer, resources, personal decks. An entirely card-driven game: though FAITH’s cards were themed for the setting, a regular deck of cards could also be used. Players earn equipment and tools as cards (drawn from appropriate decks), draw up hands of cards during play, and when engaged in a conflict, play a number of cards based on a skill value and get bonuses when card suits are played that are appropriate to the situation. It generally hit most of the standard mechanical elements that had developed for cards-as-resource-randomizers, albeit with the unique element of equipment-draws made from card decks rather than random tables.
Upwind (2018). Traditional cards, randomizer, resources, personal decks. Technically an indie game based on its mechanics and narrative focus, but Upwind was produced by a pair of mainstream publishers, demonstrating how indie design had infiltrated the mainstream by the end of the ’10s. A relatively traditional resource-management card game, mirroring SAGA or FAITH, Upwind let players collect cards and play them as “bids”. More uniquely, players each had their own private deck focused on their own skills, which was mixed with a more general play deck, ensuring that players are more likely to draw the cards that are best for them. Card play was limited by skill level of the associated suit, which (again) caused players to direct gameplay toward the area where they’re likely to excel.
The use of cards as resource/randomizers and as narrative prompts were pretty well developed and understood by the end of the ’10s. The use of cards to replace random tables was somewhat less frequent, and beyond that there’s probably a lot of room for expansion, because cards can offer a lot more depth than dice: what a difference a randomization medium makes!
This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #59 on RPGnet. It was purposefully written for publication in the next generation of books, most likely in one of the card-related histories in Designers & Dragons: The Lost Histories.