A Peculiar Combat System

I’m supposed to concentrate on writing TSoY, but a short note about something else should break the pace nicely. The following came to me yesterday when I pondered the system aesthetics of fantasy adventure games: if I were to design a beginner-friendly fantasy adventure game, I would consider the d20-based D&D mechanics and pool-based Tunnels & Trolls mechanics both too dependent on special tools – strange dice shapes or too many dice, to wit. So I started thinking of how I’d create a traditional fantasy rules set using only a deck of playing cards.

Deck of Wonders

Each combat round the players draw a hand of N cards from the deck. Each player arranges these cards into sets as he pleases and lays the sets face-down on the table. The permitted sets are as follows:

  • Defenses are a series of the same value (doubles, triples, etc.). A defense cancels attack cards valued equal or less to the defense, but at most as many as there are cards in the defense.
  • Attacks are straights (consecutive cards by value) of different lengths. Each attack card that passes defenses causes injury.
  • Maneuvers are flushes (same suit in all cards) of different sizes. Maneuvers are used for everything else apart from fighting – simply moving about on the fictional battlefield, rearranging the battlefield conditions, swashbucklery, activating some special conditions of the battle, escaping and so on. Presumably a larger maneuver is better – perhaps they’re compared to each other, or you get to do one thing per card or something like that.

The thing here is that while the other players can see how many sets you’re putting forth, they can’t know what type they are before they are revealed. A straight flush may be activated as either an attack or maneuver for an added bit of flexibility. Single cards can be activated as any of the above, they just are not very powerful. Most importantly, it is likely that you have to make choices as to what type of action you’re going to take in the combat: all sets you lay down limit your options as to the other sets you could make.

When the players have laid down their cards, they start revealing them in turns. Timing has some significance, as attacks and maneuvers happen immediately, while defenses stick around to hamper others if and when an attack comes for you. I’ve yet to figure out how damage would be tracked and what the consequences of getting hit would be, but that’s details – the important thing is whether the probabilities of card play work to map out a nice fiction. Might be that defenses need to stick around even after being activated; it’s pretty difficult to get triples or four of a kind from a single deck, after all, even with jokers.


The basic system would be simple in this hypothetical beginner-friendly fantasy combat rpg. Perhaps each character gets five cards in battle, or perhaps it depends on bit on your competence: fighters get eight, normal adventurers five and civilians only three. Something like that. Further combat competence would come in the form of redraws: a really competent character could put down some sets and then fill his hand one or more times, thus potentially developing some even stronger sets.

Special maneuvers could come in many forms in this card-based combat system: players could trade cards to represent characters cooperating, a character could have some permanent cards he always gets from the deck at the beginning of the battle, a character could be able to activate special maneuvers with the right sort of set (a fireball spell with a straight of three red cards, whatever) and so on. Pretty easy to hang elaboration on something like this.

The actually interesting question to me is, however, whether a system like this would be doable as a more beginner-friendly alternative for something that requires you to either make a box set or require the players to buy funky dice separately. Everybody has playing cards, sure, but the above system might feel somewhat more abstract than the traditional roll-dice-to-hit thing is.


3 Responses to “A Peculiar Combat System”

  1. Ken St. Andre Says:

    The card-based combat system just goes to show a competent designer can any use any mechanic for settling game conflict questions. It does, however, becomes as complicated or even more complicated than a dice-based mechanic very quickly, and you didn’t come up with a damage system, or an armor system. So, yes, if your hypothetical game is Watership Downs and bunnies fight foxes with tooth and claw, cards may work–otherwise, it gets unsimple very quickly. Plus, you have the complication that each player, to insure fairness, needs their own deck of cards, which must be cut by other players regularly to avoid cheating by stacking the deck, etc. Sorry, I don’t think the deck of cards beats just having a lot of 6-sided dice which is all T & T really needs, and we haven’t even started on magic.

  2. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    Well, yes, I do partly agree. Still, the reason I got aversive of the otherwise attractive T&T dicing system this time around was that it does require quite a bit of summing together for even moderate amounts of combat. I really like the math of the system, but even a low-level combat requires you to sum or deduct a dozen or couple dozen dice from each other. It’s not difficult, but it might be tedious for a showcase game intended for beginners.

    Then again, a card-based system probably isn’t the answer to that, at least this one gets too abstract too quickly. Luckily I’m just scribbling notes here, not really doing anything serious.

  3. monjeguerreroWarriormonk Says:

    I haven’t played T&T, but I think there’s a lot of potential for a card based combat system. Give lvl+2 cards to any player / npc, red cards are for defense, black cards are for attack, high beats low. Give each class a set and whenever they play a card of that set, they can use any of their special abilities (area attack, cleave, precise attack, etc). Whevener anybody gets a double, triple, flush, etc, counts as a critical, the higher the better. Give one more card on the first round to whoever won initiative, let players who collaborate exchange cards and have all players and GM draw from the same single deck.

    And that’s it. This has potential to become a really tactical combat mechanic, combined with some good old fictional positioning, though again, I dunno if it would exactly work with T&T.

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