What's In The Cards? Looking At Some Card-Based Tools For Your Game

Let's talk about using cards in your role-playing game sessions. I don't mean as an alternative to task resolution systems, but as a tool for players and game masters at the table.

Recently, I ordered a Deck of Fate via OneBookShelf's sites. I ordered it because I've wanted a Deck of Fate, and also because I have wanted to see what the cards printed by the OneBookShelf POD services for cards was like. I am going to digress from the substance of this article for a bit to talk about the cards physically.

While the cards have the familiar mix of stiffness and flexibility familiar to regular users of playing cards, they are made of "regular" card stock, rather than the woven feel of standard playing cards. The cards have a slight gloss finish, without the lamination of playing cards. Obviously, this is due to the print on demand process, and the types of machines that the cards get printed on. How this will impact the long term viability of the Deck of Fate, it is hard to say, because I have only had them for about a month, but even the tougher, laminated stock of standard playing cards, can peel and split after enough use. The POD Deck of Fate aren't fragile feeling, and they look like they will stand up to the type of long term use and wear that a deck of cards utilized in regular play would get.

Card-based role-playing game accessories will fit (much like any RPG accessory) into one of two categories: player-facing or GM-facing. But, there are different uses within each category. Cards can be used as an aid in character creation and task resolutions, for both players and GMs, and they can also be used as a narrative aid, and again for both players and game masters.

Accessories like the Deck of Fate fall into the more popular category of player-facing. You can use them as an alternative to the Fate dice. There is an 81-card sub-deck of "dice cards" that serve this purpose. Instead of rolling dice, you draw one of the dice cards for a result. This gives you a result, like the dice, that ranges from -4 to +4, and also like the dice, the results are weighted towards the middle. You are more likely to draw a card with a +1, 0 or -1 than the other results. But this is the case with the dice as well.

All of the cards in the Deck of Fate also have very short phrases and words that can be used as aspects. One of the uses of them with the dice cards is help the players and GM interpret the results of that task. For example, one of the -3 cards has an aspect of "Bad Omen" on it. This can be used to show that the particular task's failure is a harbinger of bad things to come, or the GM can make a notation and refer back to the failure at some point in the future. Either way it makes task resolution more interesting than a simple pass/fail, and it gives failure (or success!) some interesting narrative depths.

It looks as though the main use for a Deck of Fate is to assist with character creation. All of the cards have two aspect-like phrases that can be used to flavor the results of tasks (as mentioned above) or as a way to quickly come up with aspects for characters. For both players and GMs, this is an aid for quick character creation. If you're playing a pickup game, or have someone new dropping in for a session or two, and you need fast character creation, you can draw a few cards use the aspects on them as the basis for your character. The aspects on the cards are both positive and negative, which would give you a good spread of choices for a character.

One of my favorite card-based tools to assist with character creation is the Short Order Heroes cards. Each card has some internal or physical trait that can be used to describe a character. In a Fate-based game, these traits can be uses as aspects for characters, or as the basis for aspects.

The best use of Short Order Heroes cards for me, as a GM, is using them to flesh out a random NPC, making them into something with motivations outside of "I must stop the player characters." You can have a stock Castle Guard #2, or draw a card or two from the deck and have guard who is Loud or who is Cowardly and Nefarious.

Even if you're GMing an old school dungeon crawl game, Short Order Heroes can make for a great GM's tool if you're looking for NPCs that aren't just cookie cutter. I've used my deck off and on in games over the years since they first came out about five years ago. You can also pick up expansions for the basic Short Order Heroes deck at OneBookShelf sites. I don't have any of these yet, but it looks like I should, because these expansions look like they would be useful additions to my GM's toolkit. The deck of Event cards look like they are a way to put a "fork" into a game session that has stalled out. This can be a "And then they kicked in the door!" technique to spark action from players who have stayed in one place for two long, or who have spent too much time analyzing a situation. This type of accessory isn't any different than using a wandering monster table, when the player's characters spend too much time arguing in a corridor when they should be doing something.

None of these techniques are new to gaming. We have been using techniques like this since the first time we rolled on a wandering monster table, or used a random encounter to motivate players. Using events on a playing card has the additional benefit of using imagery that can help to set the tone for a new encounter or event, giving that little extra bit of aid to a GM. There are times when we all need a little extra bit of help in running our games.

Another tool that I have used in my games for a long time, longer even than the Short Order Heroes cards are the old StoryPath or Whimsy Cards originally created by Lions Rampant and published by White Wolf back in the 90s. The StoryPath cards were like the event-based cards that I mentioned above. The cards could be used by players at any time during a session, and could introduce a new direction, item or theme to a scene. This might actually be the earliest shared narrative power tool that I have encountered in a game.
The power of the StoryPath cards was not an absolute one, which is what made them a good tool. The GM didn't have to accept the event on the card that the player offered up, or they could "edit" the card to make it better fit into the scene where it was being played. Obviously, the idea of a shared narrative tool isn't for everyone, but they can be a good way to encourage players to get more encouraged in a game.

The StoryPath cards are also making a return from Nocturnal Media. The Kickstarter projects was waylaid by the death of company founder Stewart Wieck, but recent updates to the project page show that the cards have finally been printed and are in transit to the company's fulfillment houses. The decks that were Kickstarted are based upon the two original decks published back in the 90s and offer more styles and themes for gaming groups. The StoryPath cards are also system neutral, so you can use them with any game, or genre for that matter.

This is all just the tip of the iceberg for card-based tools for your role-playing games. As we get older, and the amount of time that we have for game prep becomes more and more limited, I think that we will see a growth in tool that help a GM create and shape adventures and NPCs. One nice thing is that these tools are available for a number of different play styles, so regardless of how you play a game you should be able to find tools to help take some of the burden off of the group.

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Von Ether

Probably the company that's the biggest user of cards as game aides is Monte Cook Games.

Almost every monster and quite a few NPCs are in card decks (pic on front, stats on back). There are also card decks for magic items, crit fails, random bonuses and tracking XP. Two of the card products come in boxes that provide more storage.

But I'm surprised we didn't touch on the SAGA system from TSR. While both decks were used for resolution, both had essays on how to use the decks for inspiration.


Staff member
Interesting read.

Besides using a standard Hoyle deck for a Deck of Many Things, I have used card-based tools 4 ways in RPGs:

1) as part of gaming in Deadlands (Hoyle deck)

2) as a resource of designing a M:tG campaign for Fantasy HERO (M:tG cards, obviously)

3) as a visual inspiration for campaign or adventure ideas (Hyborean Gates, Everway and M:tG)

4) as a visual inspiration for character ideas (Hyborean Gates, Everway and M:tG)

Note: I DO own the spellcards from D&D 2Ed, and a few from 4th, but I never used them.


I don't like card-based resolution systems, and particularly hated what it did to Marvel Super-Heroes.
As I am currently writing a game using standard playing card-based resolution, I'd be interested to know why you don't like it. Is it simply a love of rolling dice, or something more? Is there something that a card-based game could do to get you to like it?

One of the features IMO is the ability to have a small hand of cards (3-5 per player) that they can then use to alter their chances in certain situations by substituting it for a drawn card, redrawing cards, or a bonus. Another feature is the ability to use suits, colors, and face cards vs number cards to add additional options and depth to a result that a simple die roll can't do.

Von Ether

I don't like card-based resolution systems, and particularly hated what it did to Marvel Super-Heroes.

In replacing FASERIP, it was a crime. But as a stand alone supers RPG, it wasn't too bad.

And I guess we'll have to agree to disagree about card based resolution since I've been waiting for someone to crack the code on making a completely card based RPG with long term play that was strong seller to boot (carrying a whole game in your pocket or purse sounds cool.)

Then again, maybe the key to unlock that puzzle would be something that changes your mind and I'd dislike?

I think the first game to make use of cards in a storytelling way was Ars Magica's 'whimsey cards'. These can still be downloaded somewhere, but I can't remember. The Once Upon A Time.. card game, and similar types can be a useful storytelling aid, while the Everway game which used tarot like cards for resolution, and visual cards for backstory and scenario design are also noteworthy.


I've always liked cards. I do have Short Order Heroes and still have my box of Everway. I remember having some of the Story Path cards at some time.

The latest ones I got are the Adventure Location Cards which are really nice. There is a deck for Fantasy, Modern and Sci-Fi. You get small locations with a map, map key and adventure ideas. The back side has a bigger, unkeyed map you can show the players. They are pretty useful when the PCs go off track and you need a map of where they go. Good for improv too.

When I’m stuck on adventure ideas, I’m fond of grabbing either the Tarokka or Harrow Decks, picking three cards, and challenging myself to work those three ideas into the adventure.


Final Form (she/they)
I know Keith Baker's new game, Phoenix: Dawn Command, is strictly card-based, but I haven't heard much about it so far. Anyone have any experience with it?

Bill Mize

I really want to get a deck of Chaosium's Keeper Decks:
The Phobia Deck – 46 cards, each detailing the effects and consequences of a phobia, mania, or episode of madness.
The Curious Characters Deck - 46 cards, each providing game characteristics and backstories for a range of characters that the players could meet during a game.
The Unfortunate Events Deck - 46 cards, with all manner of strange, ill-fated and disastrous situations that will land the players in deep water.
The Weapons and Artifacts Deck - 46 cards, each detailing a hand-to-hand, firearm or Mythos artifact.
I think they would be a fun addition to our games.


I think it would be interesting to have the Fate cards, and add them to a D&D campaign session. Draw three or five cards from the deck; you can spend one card per encounter, however you like. Bonus/Penalty to AC, accuracy, damage, saves, whatever. Alternatively, you can "spend" the card to activate the words instead. Maybe allow negative cards to be used on the enemy - but the negative descriptor is then available to be used on the players.

Also, I like what Legatus_Legionis said about the wizard laying his spell cards out, so everyone (including the GM and the wizard herself) knows what is prepared. Leaving aside the "players should be trustworthy" discussion, it allows other players to help strategize with the spells available, to be involved, instead of everyone sitting around waiting while the wizard reads his spellbook again. (The GM can also, perhaps, make subtle adjustments, like making sure there is a secret door to Detect, or perhaps increasing the Cold Resistance of a BBEG that isn't BB-enough...)

aramis erak

But I'm surprised we didn't touch on the SAGA system from TSR. While both decks were used for resolution, both had essays on how to use the decks for inspiration.

Both really play well when players are open to them; it's been hit-or-miss for me with players.
The system makes excellent use of multiple features of the cards:
  • Action success/failure
  • side initiative
  • damage resistance of PCs
  • Yes/no answers
  • Yes/no/maybe answers
The inspirational use is documented, but not of great use for me due to not knowing all the iconics, in both games.
Great fun to run.

Love the "draw 12 and arrange them" character gen. Great way to do it.

The trump suit mechanic tends to shape player actions, it's like having your next 5 dice rolls to pick from.

One of my favorite uses custom cards was in Torg/Shatterzone/Masterbook. Unfortunately my player group at the time didn't like any of the settings and/or the rest of the mechanics. They don't replace the dice; they serve as a form of fate point, as an initiative card, an event trigger, and help in resolving extended tasks.

Another great use is Hobbit Tales cards replacing the encounter type rolls in The One ring.

Least favorite card driven game was Freemarket. Beautiful, but the storygame mode was unfamiliar to my players, and they wanted to resolve far to many things mechanically, as did I, so the game slowed to a creeping crawl. Maybe I should break out the files and run it again. Love the setting, and the mechanics are interesting.

Army Of Darkness allows using standard cards as a dice replacement.


First Post
I have been trying out using my old Magic: the gathering cards as a way to generate random encounters. i get a stack of monsters to fight, maybe some npcs fro them to find, and even some artifacts to represent items to keep it interesting.

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