Why use cards? About player activity

One thing I did at pax was try to talk to a designer who’s panels about rpg’s I have really appreciated. It was Sunday, and pax had drained me to the point where I was fairly incoherent, but the guy was still very nice to me, even still I felt a little silly for starting the conversation without a good idea of what to say. I think the spirit of the game design community is great, experienced designers are usually very open and sharing with new designers. It’s a tradition I hope to continue.

We talked about the difficulties of producing cards. There are very good reasons you dont see many rpgs use custom cards, and even more reasons why you dont see rpgs go whole hog and format everything as cards. It’s hard hard work, take a look at any card game you own. Each card in that deck was probably assembled individually in a graphics editor, back when I started prototyping card games I figured there would be this great program that made the process easy. Nope, the only thing that makes it happen is sweat. (i’m sure some people use data bases, as if I could figure that out)

I don’t want to complain about the work, I want to explain why cards are worth this effort. In his panels the designer I spoke with drove home the idea of player activity. No one at an rpg table is actually fighting a war or being an elf. They are reading a book, contributing to a story, rolling dice and writing on a piece of paper. The war and elfdom are the fictional action, not the player activity. While cards do not change the fictional action they dramatically effect player activity.

Books as a form of entertainment are usually linear, and usually enjoyed alone. They can be discussed in groups but the physical arrangement of pages makes comparing two distant pages in a single book a little tricky, using books to play a game is a very specific kind of player activity. Take a look at something like trading cards. Cards don’t do linear stories that well, but it’s easy to compare information on two different cards. This is one reason why sports fans enjoy cards, they can look at a player’s stats on one card and compare them to another player’s stats on a different card. Using cards to play a game is also a very specific kind of player activity. This is just one small point to illustrate the differences between cards and books, there are many others.

Trying to take a form of entertainment like an rpg and make it use cards brings up a lot of questions. What information do you take out of the book and make into cards? How do the cards function on the table. Finally how do you organize these cards into sensible products people can actually afford?

Most RPGs that use cards as content and even miniatures games that use cards still lean on the same book formats these genres were built on. This is fine but I feel trying to have it both ways is often more work and expense then is necessary or even enjoyable. Seed rpg does not lean on it’s rule book as a source for game content. The rule book is much like you would find in a modern board game, it’s only real job is to guide you for your first few games. The hart of the game’s content is in it’s deck of cards.

Cards deliver enough content to inspire your stories. Cards make your choices clear and keep the rules accessible while in play. It’s this format that has inspired the whole of how SeedRPG works. When it comes to player activity the messenger is the message.


7 responses to “Why use cards? About player activity

  1. Have you looked at a program called Magic Set Editor (http://magicseteditor.sourceforge.net/)? It is open source and, though it mentions Magic the Gathering specifically in its name, it actually supports totally custom layouts, and then provides the database backend to make many cards using a few custom templates. Take a look, for example, at all of the various data sets you can download for it, such as 4E power cards, and so on. Decent little program (though Windows only).

  2. Thanks for the link! I will give the tool a good look.

  3. Hey, since you pointed me in the right direction to making cards, I found (a little too late, after completing a rough draft of my deck) that Variables in Photoshop is the bomb.


    I’m not sure how to give this to Superior POD – they want all the cards on one sheet, but gamecrafters seems okay with a bunch of separate files.

  4. WOW good find! I wonder if illustrator has something comparable?

    If you have a bunch of individual files for cards it’s very easy to lay them into sheets using indesign, it’s also doable in photo shop. just make a new file and import each card’s file and then arrange them according to their template.

  5. Nice tip on InDesign.

    If Illustrator can’t do it you could still bring your Illustrator work into photoshop for final assembly – I think an Illustrator file could even be referenced by the variable data set.

    Smart Objects are another useful thing in photoshop – I make reusable stuff like logos and symbols a smart object, so when I decide to change the object, it’s just a couple of clicks on each card to update them to the new object.

    I’ve ordered prealpha decks from both Superior POD and TGC – I’ll let you know which I like better.

  6. awesome, I would love a comparison of Superior POD and TGC cards.

    I found the variables panal in illustrator and am using it for another project. i had never thought to use smart objects like that, I wonder if it would fix some of the problems i have been having with linked files.

  7. Hey Jamie,
    so which did you end up liking better?

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