days months ago on the Lone Wolf Roleplaying G+ Community I inquired as to whom might be using cards in their RPG sessions. I’d started out shying away from cards, preferring to soak up the nostalgia of rolling polyhedral dice, but have recently become more intrigued by cards thanks to playing the Dungeon Solitaire games. I started snatching up cards left and right and now have several decks piled about, including the complete GameMaster’s Apprentice decks from the recent Fantasy Deck Kickstarter.
Cards in Solo RPG
The results were somewhat surprising, to me at least. A good 60% or so have used cards in one form or another on occasion in their role-playing games, with the GMA/Other category leading the pack over playing cards and tarot cards. The G+ gang was also kind enough to share some card game and tool suggestions, which I’ve accumulated here and added in a few others I’ve found. I hope someone finds it useful!
These games involve cards as a core mechanic in some form.
- Castle Falkenstein (playing cards)
- No Dice RPG (playing cards): PDF or Downloads page
- Rewind (playing cards)
- Fortune’s Fool (full tarot deck)
- Fortune’s Childe (tarot major arcana)
- The Fool’s Journey (full tarot deck)
- Swords of the Skulltakers by Joe J Prince is a Tarot-based solo survival horror game.
- Swansong and Swansong Tarot also by Joe J Prince is a Tarot-based RPG rule system and accompanying deck
- Dungeon Solitaire by Matthew Lowes is not an RPG in the traditional sense, but does have Campaign rules
- Tomb of Four Kings – Free PDF (playing cards)
- Labyrinth of Souls: Rules (Print or PDF) and Cards — the “basic” rules are essentially the same as Tomb of Four Kings and can be played with playing cards, but the core of LoS is based on the Tarot
- Devil’s Playground: June 2018 (mine should arrive in the mail any day now!) is another rules expansion and custom deck
- House of Danger (release date: July 27, 2018) card game based on the CYOA novel (loosely an RPG, I suppose) of the same name, for 1 to 8 players
These tools use cards to resolve conflict, generate ideas, or otherwise inspire your game.
- Story Forge
- Game-Master’s Apprentice (Bundle): these cards have 14 generators/oracle and can be a used as an engine for stories or solo play. See dieheart’s review and watch the creator’s videos on Youtube.
- Nine Steps and a Bloody Heart by Riccardo Fregi (aka lino pang / lostpangolin) – investigation rules for solo RPGs that uses playing cards
- Encounter Building Cards by Eric Bright (similar to the GMA cards, several decks available)
- Inkwell Ideas Sidequest Decks available as PDF or cards with map on one side and adventure outline on the other.
- Backstory Cards are system- and genre-neutral backstories for character and world buildling
- Pathfinder Harrow Deck a 54-card divination & card game deck
- It’s Not My Fault! a character and situation generator for Fate/FAE
- Magic: The Gathering and other CTGs (used as visual inspiration).
- John Yorio’s No Budget No Frills Pencil and Paper Dungeon Generator (uses both playing cards and dice — an earlier variant uses only dice and is available as a PocketMod)
Apps That are Card-Based
Not exactly cards, but card-like applications.
- Slide-show app(s) (no specific app recommendation, but any could be used to display cards or images as a digital surrogate for a deck of cards)
- Zero Tarot
Dice that are like cards
Turning the thing on its head — these are dice that emulate cards or serve a similar purpose.
- Rory’s Story Cubes / Story Time Dice
- Tarot Dice (13 dice that cover all 78 tarot cards, includes a “game mat”)
- Poker Dice (six-sided dice, typically with 9, 10, J, Q, K represented on each)
Neither Dice Nor Cards
Along the same vein, these games/tools do not use dice or cards, but some other instrument:
- Fate of the Norns (RPG using Futhark runes — as an aside, the GameMaster’s Apprentice decks include Futhark runes on each card)
If you thought the poker cards with your company’s logo on them were cool, wait til you see these… Most of the below links are affiliate links to Amazon or DriveThruRPG, where your clicks help fund my RPG (and card) habit.
Playing Cards can come in all varieties, and I’m sure you’ve seen your fair share. Below are some neat ones I’ve come across. The Bicycle cards I find to be good quality, but what’s on the box is not always what you get: case in point, the “Black Tiger” cards pictured on this post — the tiger drawing on the box is not included anywhere on the deck, but it’s still one of my favorite decks!
If you like to take your cards camping or are otherwise prone to spilling liquids and dirt on them, then check out a PVC/plastic deck like these Hoyle Clear Waterproof cards (these have a very “slippery”, smooth texture to them compared to your standard coated card stock — so they’re also a little more prone to 52-card-pickup incidents).
- Bicycle Stargazer
- Bicycle Dragon Tome
- Mythical Creatures (PVC/Waterproof, face cards have mythical creatures instead of “royal court”)
- Inked Adventures Map & Dice playing cards (include both dice “rolls” and hand-drawn geomorphs)
- Index Card RPG Deck of 52 playing cards (fairly standard, but drawn by Runehammer and each suit has a theme: People, Places, Monsters and Machines)
Tarot cards originated as early as 15th century as a card game of “trumps” and is still played regularly this way across much of Europe. The word “tarot”, in fact, is a French word with Italian roots, and essentially translates to “trumps”. The ubiquitous 52-card poker deck we Americans are all so familiar with are a very close cousin of the tarot and the “divinatory” purposes of the cards — both Tarot and other playing cards — came about as a secondary purpose, mostly among English-speakers, a couple hundred years after the fact.
There are several Italian, French, and German variations on the tarot, but for the purposes of RPG oracles, you’ll probably want a deck that’s a derivative of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, which carries symbolic imagery on every card, including the numbered “pip” cards of each suit. Compared to your standard poker deck, you’ll find 4 corresponding suits and 10 pip cards per suit (Ace through 10), but the “court cards” or “face cards” of the tarot include 4 cards instead of 3 — these 56 cards form the “minor arcana”. The biggest difference in tarot and poker cards is the “trumps” suit, which consists of an additional 22 “major arcana” cards (bringing the total to 78 cards in a deck). The “little white book” that comes with most decks can explain the significance of each card and suit if you aren’t using a specific game or tool, and this book and the deck can serve just fine as a solo RPG oracle all on its own.
Be careful before venturing down this rabbit hole — there’s as many different tarot decks out there as hairs on the human head (maybe more, I’m just guessing at the math here), and you may end up like me, with several decks with different themes. The Lo Scarabeo decks I’ve found to have some pretty great artwork, but not super high quality cards, so read reviews (and customer photos) before your lay down your hard-earned cash.
- Radiant Rider-Waite (a pretty standard recreation of the original, very popular)
- Osho Zen Tarot
- Book of Atathoth Tarot Cards (Cthulu-inspired)
- Universal Fantasy Tarot Cards
- Night Sun Tarot Cards
- Bright Idea Tarot Cards
- Past Life Oracle Cards
- Madame Endora’s Fortune Cards (more like an Oracle deck, 48 cards with nice artwork)
What Have I Missed?
This is a topic that still interests me, so if I’ve overlooked any RPG-related games, tools, ideas, or concepts that include tarot or poker cards, runes, or other non-standard devices, do let me know! Above all, I hope this serves as a good resource or starting point for your next dice-less RPG session. Happy trails!