Wednesday, December 9, 2009

AC: GM's Guide to Unique Cards

For the rest of this month I plan on using the blog to write up draft versions of the rules for Action Cards 3.0. In particular I need to write up the GM's section- since I'm the one person to have the system, I've never really needed to but I want the game to be playable by others. So here's the first part of that, an explanation for GMs how to create unique cards for the players' decks. This is a draft treatment.

Unique cards in a player's deck represent success or failure based on that's character's personality, quirks, traits and play style. Because they help bring those aspects into the play itself, A GM should write those up with some care. That requires both listening to the player's description of their character and knowing something about the player's own style. Mechanically a player gets four unique cards: one bad, one good and two mixed. Those broad categories present many variations.

One of the key thing to keep in mind is that any card draw is an opportunity for narration, on the part of the player or on the part of the GM. Unique card draws are an opportunity for narration that helps the player show off exactly who they are.

GMs have a couple of options as to writing up those cards. They can design them on the fly during a character creation session, or if the players are submitting write ups ahead of time they can design them early. The former choice offers the opportunity to hear the players talk about their characters with one another and negotiate for role in the group. Another option is to hold off defining some or all of the cards until the game progresses. If they players know the system, you can also offer them the opportunity to design their own cards (and they can always do that later with experience). A GM does gain a couple of advantages through writing the cards up, however. It allows the GM to make sure that everyone has unique strengths and qualities, it reinforces that the GM has been listening to the player's discussion of their character, and it helps the GM remember what cards are out there.

Personal Note: I usually write up the cards during a character creation session. If I get some notes from the players ahead of time I think about it a little bit, but try to do it on the fly. Player's seem to like the surprise of what I come up with.

It is also important to remember that the cards themselves can be literal, but are generally metaphorical. For example, in one of the earliest uses of the system Scott was running a narrowly focused former cop. He simply nodded at strangeness and recorded everything in his little notebook. I gave him a card with mixed results called Frank's Notebook which reflected a certain kind of autism. For information or fear/shock reaction checks it gave him a big win. For other things (especially social), he was distracted by a focus on the mundane or the particular. Of course he didn't literally have his notebook out every time, but it stood for the concept. On the other hand, when he got shot once and drew this card to resolve his dodge, Scott narrated that the bullet had actually lodged in and been stopped by the notebook in his pocket.

Good or “Win Big” Cards
Each player gets one strong card indicating a success that plays into their virtues, abilities or personality. GMs can take this from what the core concept of the character. In the hierarchy of resolutions, the “Win Big” unique cards will usually lose to a Moment of Glory card and but win over a highly boosted standard resolution card. The trick here is that these cards still require narrative input on the part of the player. As with any card, if the GM presses the player to explain or describe how the drawn result plays into the scene, the player should be willing and able to do so. If they can and the results were close, then the GM should give them the benefit of the doubt. If they can't than that balance should swing the other direction.

Some example of Win Big Cards:

Beletan took a lot of joking around during the character creation process for choosing to play an elf in a party of mostly humans. So I gave him Proving Yourself: “They all hate you, so you have to do everything twice as well -- show them your skill and prowess.” On the other hand, developed as a character with a couple of directions. One of those revolved around a certain sense of drama and presence. Since that aspect hadn't been taken up by the other players in the same way, I decided to make that the focus of her Win Big Card-- I Was Acting!: “Ta-Daa! You fell for my magnificent performance!”. I like that card because it does ask her to provide some exciting narration for their character. It has come up a number of times where she's been at a disadvantage and then has pulled this out, being able to turn the tables on her opponent.

For the Changeling game, I made the win big cards a little more complicated, or at least required the players to put a little more effort into resolving them. For example here are some results which require some strong narrating on the player's part:
NOM: “You know how to chew through any problem -- literally and figuratively”; Goblin Tricks: “You've picked up more than a few sneaky moves in your time in the Hedge. Your triumph comes through deception and sheer force of wicked wit.”;
Dark Majesty: “Your brilliant, burning self will out-- you perform the action with aplomb, but cannot contain the force of your own presence. That can be good sometimes, but your necessary monologuing may alienate others or give the heroes a chance to act...”; and Paradoxical Rounds: “You've been trained by example through puzzle, misdirection and complicated choice. If you can provide a complex or labyrinthine solution to your task, you win--otherwise you're stumped by simplicity.”

That last one falls into a class of what I'll call “story-spinning” cards, which I'll come back to when I talk about the Mixed Unique type.

Bad or “Curse” Cards
These cards result in failures, but failures based on the character's own flaws. Action Cards doesn't have “disadvantages” per se. Instead players can define their major personal weakness or tragic flaw. This system means that the player doesn't feel that his or her disadvantages get imposed from the GM, but rather function as part of the character. They become something the player has to roll with and also once again provide the opportunity for the player to illustrate something about themselves and take the spotlight.

Unlike the Egregious Humiliation result, a player can narrate on these bad unique cards. They can do that to try to ameliorate that failure or even to turn a negative into a positive. The GM should allow this where it is dramatically appropriate. However, if a player is constantly able to make that shift and suffers no downside to it, then the card needs to be reworked. A good player will roll with the punches and suffer the slings and arrows of failure in a dramatically entertaining manner. Failures are just as interesting as victories-- and the GM should make them so.

Some examples: in a high fantasy game, Raythe ended up with a "Dark Secret" about a betrayal he'd committed to get to his present position. I created a Guilty! card which had him flashing back to that incident and freezing in place. For Candy the mage we created Plum Wine, a reference to events of the prologue sessions of the campaign. It represented his attempts to impress another character which failed comedically. Ori, on the other hand, ended up with a curse that tied into a couple of missed opportunities (including a lost love). She'd touched a broken shard of destiny in the prologue sessions which should used as an explanation for later problems. Her bad card is Broken Fate where she fails not from any fault of her own but from some external factor or element interfering.

In the Libri Vidicos campaign we have a couple of negative cards which sometimes get turned to positive ends. Leather Blunt, the half-Orc trying to live among humans has Life Among Eggshells where he can freeze because everything around him is so delicate and easily broken. That card's a little too easy to turn to a positive in combat situations. If I allow it, I try to make sure to have some consequence later-- perhaps post-combat shakes or an increased difficulty to tasks afterwards. Sergei's Weight of Expectations card: “You find yourself frozen... if you fail... embarass yourself... then how will you face your parents?” can also be turned narratively positive, so I have to watch and manage after-effects. Others are more classically negative. Sokka has Fell For It: “Wow. I can't believe you bought that. Just wow.” which comes from his somewhat gullible nature. Lucy's distratibility comes through in Oh Look, Ponies!: “Your sense of wonder and appreciation of life makes you stop and smell the flowers. Your choice of what constitutes an appropriate moment and object of attention remains...questionable.”

Bad cards can also be used for special purposes. For example, one option for handling sanity, fear or shock is to restrict players in those states from redrawing (via skill or drama point) if they draw their personal bad card. In the case of the Changeling game, each particular group suffers from a shared disadvantage, their Curse. Instead of having those as an abstraction on the sheet, I integrated them into the player's decks. In the case of two players of the same group, I tried to create some thematic difference between them-- showing how the Curse could appear differently for different people.

For example both Sarah and Pisca are Wizened, Changelings with a focus on role and internally focused. For Sarah she has the more classic version of the Wizened curse in Raging Injustice: “The world overwhelms and you become frustrated and enraged - losing control with a fury of venom, spite and lack of focus.” Pisca on the other hand has a more mechanical nature to him, so his version looks like this Disconnect: “Everything comes to you at a remove - viewed through a fish-eyed lens. You lose your sense of coherence and purpose momentarily - resulting in failure through distraction.” While they're pretty close in terms of literal effect, there's a strong difference between them in terms of narrative.

Mixed Cards
Each player gets two unique cards which represent their success in some situations, but not in others. Again these come from the player's explanation of their character. There are many ways to handle theses.

The easiest way is to come up with cards which have successes for two result types, and failures for the other two.

For example, Goin' all John Woo!!: “Physical / Combat : Sergei has a moment of glory with such style and grace it leaves any on-lookers awestruck. Social / Knowledge : The brooding young hero has other things on his mind just now and it no time for romance.”, From the Toy Box: “Going supercute can be an asset if you are attempting a social or combat action. For Physical or Knowledge, not so much.”, and Gears within Gears: “You sometimes manage to see things in the abstract language of forces, interactions and vectors. This gives you a good result for physical and social - but becomes confusing for knowledge and combat.”

These cards are similar to those above, but specify certain situations or events rather than the specifics of the Result type. Basically they work great for some things, but not so well for others. These kinds of cards can be more or less difficult for a player to narrate, depending on how specific they are. For example, You Handsome Devil: “Women love you... but men envy you... your result depends on the gender of your opposition,” is pretty specific. In situations without an obvious gender to the opposition the GM can give the player the benefit of the doubt, based the decision on the majority of onlookers, or have the player redraw. Another example of something fairly specific would be O.K. Computer: “If the action you are attempting doesn't involve a physical interaction with someone else, you succeed. If you have to interface with another being, you fail.”

More general contingent cards allow more room for the players to turn things positive. Consider the Tin Man card-- “You've hardened your heart - if what you are doing involves breaking down, undoing, damaging or deconstructing you win big. If you are attempting acts of creation and growth you freeze up”. Some results will be obvious, but some will require the player to explain why the situation is deconstructive, rather than creative. Other examples include Heroic Surge!: “The blood of heroes runs in through your veins. You leap forward, Shout out and seize the day ! Great in some situations... but social or in the classroom...”; On Your Own: “If you're flying solo, you marshal your skills -- however, in a crowd, you lose focus and attention.”, and At Home Outside: “In the great outdoors you are a master, under the stars you have no equal. Inside...indoors...not so good.”

Some cards require narrative input on the part of the players for success to occur. If the player can't come up with a story in time, then the action stutters or fails. GMs should generally allow new players more time for coming up with these things. They should also recognize that some players aren't as good or as comfortable with this kind of improvisation as others. The GM should avoid dropping these kinds of unique cards on them as it can become discouraging-- with the player spending drama points to avoid having to come up with something.

A couple of examples-- Great and Mighty Elvish Lore: “You can call upon the lore of the Elves...which could be helpful in some situations, but in others it could be a hindrance.”, Tales from the Steppes: “This situation reminds you of a story your mother told you. Think quick to seize control of the situation.”, Right Thing for the Right Moment: “You have something for that - a fact, an opportunity, an object - allowing you a situational advantage.”, and Making the Impossible Everyday: “You often fail at the commonplace and mundane...but when attempting something bizarre or over-the-top, you win.”. This last one falls into the category as the player can be given a chance to describe or rephrase the action in more complicated terms.

Some cards fall into more than one of these categories or even don't fit at all. The GM should be willing to experiment with new kinds of cards in the game. Since players can make and add new cards to their deck, you may see entirely new forms. Some examples:

Make Your Own Luck: “You may reshuffle your choice of cards (except this one) back into your deck and then continue.” and Perfect Defense: “You have a parry for every stroke, an evasion for every question, and an excuse for every mistake,” Hamhock Assault: “Why was the GM so specific about an attack with a hamhock? Even he doesn't remember. Describe the results of action as if the GM had forgotten some detail(s) important to the scene.” and Bow Before Me! "Sometimes you cannot control the force of your presence... that can be good sometimes, but you may run the risk of monologuing."

[After this I would have a section with full examples from the campaigns and the NPCs.]


  1. Specifically with "Life Among Eggshells" during combat, the GM gets to add something else that gets broken. A precious treasure, valuable equipment, a barrier holding back the enemy, or even an ally getting broken.

  2. I think you might be thinking of "Crawling from the Wreckage" which is a special card in everyone's deck. The action succeeds, but something breaks in the process (literal or metaphorical). The player can narrate the break or the GM will take over if they cannot.

    Leather's card "Life Among Eggshells" reads "Everything around here is so delicate- chairs, tempers, people...sometimes you find yourself freezing for fear of accidentally destroying something."

  3. I'm just saying that if the Life Among Eggshells card turns out too useful in combat, let Leather smash his opponent. But to keep it from being a regular combat advantage, occasionally embroider that account with other things getting broken. Make it a mixed blessing to emphasize his distinctive problems.

  4. Agred-- a consequence of some kind in response to a successful narrative negotiation. And that's probably something I'm going to have to talk about as an option in my section on adjudicating results.

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