Dungeons and Dragons but with a Deck of Cards instead of Dice

The other day I was on a train heading back home with some friends. We were kind of bored so I fumbled around my jacket looking for something to entertain us in lieu of everyone retreating to their phones. I pulled out a deck of cards and we started talking about what we could play. We didn't have a table or anything to put the cards on so most of our ideas fell flat. Being a game designer though, I wouldn't let that stop me and figured that I could come up with something.

Recently some of my other designer friends were trying to demake popular games, and it was neat to see how they took the complexities of something like Overwatch and boiled it down to its core elements. So I thought why not try to do the same thing with Dungeons and Dragons?

Thus "Dungeons and Dragons but with a Deck of Cards instead of Dice" was born. 

Sort of. That first time we were on the train I was just kind of making things up as we went, and I'm still trying to figure out a solid set of rules. Dungeons and Dragons (or DnD) is far from a simple game, and if you've never played before, looking at something like a character sheet for the first time can be a little intimidating with all of the information that's on it. 


I still have no idea what half of these things are.

For the first run of "Dungeons and Dragons but with a Deck of Cards instead of Dice" (or DnDbwaDoCioD if you wanna be cool) I didn't worry too much about... well, anything, really. I dealt people a couple of cards each and we jumped right into it. The main idea was that people would use the cards in their hands to replace dice rolls. Non-Player dice rolls would be done by drawing a card from the top of the deck. Using the face value of the cards we has a system to approximate the dice rolls you would find in normal DnD.

I figured that the core of DnD was the interactions between the Dungeon Master (DM) and the other players, the dice and stats were just a medium to facilitate that interaction. I still think that's correct, but, I think there are other mechanics that also need to be present for it to feel like DnD.

At the start, I think I focused too much on the value of the cards. While it worked out well enough for that first session, players were able to basically do whatever they wanted as long as they had a high card. This is also true to a degree in regular DnD, where rolling a 20 will let you do pretty much whatever you want, but otherwise the DM will decide if your roll was high enough to be successful. For that first session we just took the top card of the deck for any challenge that came up, and thinking about it now it was a terrible idea. It didn't give the DM any sort of control over the situation and basically just relegated him to being a card dealer.

If you think about it, cards are really just two sided dice.

One thing I did like that came out of this first test is the way we handled health. Whenever a player took damage, instead of keeping track of hit points, they would simply lose a card. A part of me feels like having your health be the same resource that you use to engage is somewhat problematic, but it also makes things more interesting.

Getting cards back after you'd lost them on the other hand, didn't end up working so well. In the first test, I would deal players cards whenever they healed themselves or rested. Once players realized this they would rest after every little thing they did if they could. While it was kind of hilarious to have people try rest mid combat, it definitely didn't feel right.

I tried fixing a bunch of things in the second test about a week later when some friends and I were waiting for an appointment. This time I wanted to limit the freedom players had when using cards. Previously, players would confidently just do whatever as long as they had high cards, and I wanted players to think a bit more about the cards that they had. I had planned to try taking the 6 character stats from DnD- Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma, and tying them to cards in players hands. My initial idea was to give players a hand of 6 cards, each one representing a stat. My biggest worry with this was keeping track of which cards represented which stats, but before we got started, one of my friends suggested using the suits to represent the stats instead.

Did you Know? The suits that appear on most playing cards originate from France. Other countries however have their own card suits, for example German playing cards use Hearts, Bells, Leaves and Acorns.

Using the suits was actually a pretty neat idea because now if we deal players their hands randomly that will change how they have to react to any given situation. Sure, you might want to bludgeon the goblin to death, but how are you going to do that when you have nothing but charisma cards?

We don't have 6 different card suits, so to convert the stats to suits we had to do a bit of simplifying. Clubs are for any sort of physical action, like your bashing someone over the head with a club. Hearts have an obvious connection to hit points, so those are used to resist damage. Diamonds are for persuasion and talking because you charm people with your sparkles. And Spades are used for magic things because its black like clubs, which also can do damage. If I had to tie them directly to the DnD stats I'd say Clubs are Strength and Dexterity, Hearts are Constitution, Diamonds are Charisma, and Spades are Wisdom and Intelligence.

It's not perfect, but it gets the job done. Something I didn't think about, until we started playing, is how this correlation applies to enemies and non-player characters, who also make rolls. The first time we played I just took the top card of the deck for non-player character rolls, but if a goblin trying to attack you pulls the queen of diamonds, does the goblin suddenly try to charm the player?

Pulling a Joker or instructions card is the equivalent of a rolling a 20.

Like I said, I'm still working out the details. One idea was to have NPC's pull cards from the deck until they hit a card of the same suit, but then you run into issues with the number of cards. If a players attacks a goblin with the queen of clubs and the goblin needs a club to resist, then the goblin has to get the king of clubs or a wild card to do so. At the same time however it does add an element of chance similar to what dice would have.

The second test of DnDbwaDoCioD was unfortunately cut short, but I think using the card suits is a step in the right direction.  It's still far from done however. I still need to figure out the loop of how players use and get back cards. I also had some other ideas that may be interesting, like using multiple cards at once to deal with greater challenges.One other big thing I need to do is figure out how to work character classes into the game. Right now anyone can fill any role as long as they have the cards for it, but it doesn't give players the same sort of agency over their characters that DnD does. Perhaps something like different classes having bonuses towards specific suits?

I'm going to keep at it, and hopefully, by the end of all of this I'll have something to show for it.



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