Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Note On Using Playing Cards Instead of Dice Tables As Random Generators

Let's say you need 4 random elements fast. (What will be the 5 main monsters in this dungeon? Who are the most important NPCs in the town? etc.) You're either prepping fast or are trying to do this during play.

You could roll 4 times, or draw 4 standard-deck playing cards with things you wrote on them in sharpie.

-Here's an advantage to using the cards instead of a die roll:

Since there are suits and numbers, if you use them, cards not only can give you results, they can automatically create relationships or connections between the results.

For example: You can assume any 2 cards with matching suits are on the same "side"--part of the same faction or the same race, etc. and any 2 cards with matching numbers are on opposite sides--enemies, vying for the same goal, etc.

This also makes it easy to draw additional cards and add them to whatever's already going on--any new card has a chance of being related, but not an overwhelming one.

-Here's another advantage: The relative numerical values on the cards you pick can be used to establish things like which monster the PCs meet first, or the status or power levels of a handful of NPCs relative to each other. Like if you get ace 4 7 king you know the Ace is the mook, the king is the boss, and the 4 shows up before the 7.

(Note this isn't as true with tarot cards--unless you know the tarot well, the various major arcana--half the deck--have no obvious connections between them.)

Drawback: This method will only create connections that were waiting there when you wrote the cards to begin with. i.e. the 10 of clubs and the 9 of diamonds will never be automatically connected using this method. Obviously you could create your own connection, but this is the kind of random generator (Simple, Complete) where the point is it does all the work itself.


  1. Nice idea. They use cards in a table in the scavenging in the Savage Worlds adventure Zombie Run. In general Savage Worlds uses cards for many stuff, most prominently for Initiative, but there are many more uses in specific settings and supplements.

  2. The temptation is strong to bugger about with this and use the plain deck of cards to determine factions and relationships in a given location, which I see you sort of hinted at before.

    Let's say I'm running a game-world with four major factions (convenient!) and need to set up narrative tensions for a session. Each suit corresponds to a faction, the number indicates its local strength/influence (possibly even the actual number of dudes to be encountered), and a face card indicates some sort of major NPC personality.

    Mentioning Tarot makes me want to use that as a sub-deck for determining the personalities of NPC personalities, sort of by association.

    That two-tier split with major and minor arcana could lend itself very nicely to generating magic items as well - suit indicates item type, number power level, and face card that the item has some sort of history or personality, with the major arcana flip generating the actual effect of the item (so a King of Wands + Fool would be a wand that does something very very confusing indeed).

    Hmm. Food for thought here, I think. Nice on.

  3. @Von

    yeah, been thinking along the same lines--just trying to get the ideas right before I deface another deck of cards.

    I'm trying to make decks general enough that they apply to situations the PCs will run into more than once, yet specific enough that they actually tell you what;s going on rather than just saying "Hey, go improvise!" which, frankly, I got a million tools that do that already.

    Haven't got there quite yet, but thinking on it...

  4. I hear you with the improvisational tools. Personally I don't mind making up one that works for me and is pretty much guaranteed to get my brain going, but that's for pre-play: you want something that works on the fly during play and I can see why that needs to be more specific in its guidance.

  5. A better approach might start with blank cards: more room, and no pre-determined relationships between cards. For the cheap among us, 3x5 cards cut in half would work; otherwise, several companies make blank cards.

  6. @semiprometheus

    Having "no pre-determined relationship between cards" removes the main advantage of using playing cards that is described in the post.

  7. Cards are fun to use, but you can also use dice beyond just the numbers rolled:

    You could also randomly choose two dice (my dice are in a small bag) where the number of sides have a meaning, the colour another, and the roll result, yet another thing.