Monday, June 13, 2016

Action Cards: What the What?

I'm finishing up prep and printing for my two Origins Games on Demand options. Both use Action Cards, the game I'm most comfortable with. I've talked about that homebrew before; it's what I've used for most long-term campaigns in the last decade and a half. You can see a brief overview of it here, though some details have changed. I've been working on a full, complete version of the rules and I'm about 95% done with the rough text. I drew this post from that to act as a companion piece to the overview. I discuss the basics, how Fate fits with AC, and where it came from.

Action Cards is an rpg using individual character decks as a randomizer. Each deck is tailored to a particular character and contains with several unique cards. When you test for an action, you draw a card and check the results. Most cards have results across four categories, while others have special effects, offer choices, or allow you to narrate the results. Your decks can be marked up, modified, or gain new cards over the course of a campaign. It acts as unique dice for your character. It evolves and changes with play.

You have a character sheet to record skills, damage, aspects, and special abilities. Depending on how the GM sets things, this sheet can be minimal. You’ll also have tokens for fate points to spend and possibly dice for damage (depending on the options).
Action cards has two ways to create characters: standard and draft.

In basic character creation you get a deck twenty-four card deck. Six have results pre-written in in the four areas, common to all decks: Social, Physical, Combat, and Mental. Eight have blank results. You distribute ratings among these: Catastrophic, Bad, Just Missed, OK, Great, and Amazing. How many depends on the campaign. Next you have six special cards all decks share. Finally each deck has four blank cards. You’ll create unique cards for your character- one all-around positive, two mixed, and one bad. After assigning results to your deck, you’ll pick skills and stunts based on the setting.

For one shots or short campaigns, you can draft your decks. Everyone begins with a set of common result and special cards. You then draft additional result cards. In this process, you try to grab the best results for your character’s focus. You also draft two good and one bad unique cards to fill out you deck. Draft decks will usually be tailored to the genre and setting, with different effects and card titles. As above you finish out character creation by picking skills and stunts.

When making a test, the GM tells you the result needed to succeed and what kind of draw to make (i.e. a Great Physical pull). You draw and check if you’re happy with the result. If not you have the option to repull by using a relevant skill or invoking an aspect with a fate point. Alternately you can invoke that aspect to raise the result by one degree. You can use various means to redraw up to twice, but have to go with your final draw.

You usually reshuffle your deck after every couple of scenes and after every three rounds in combat. GMs can also call for a reshuffle if decks are getting low. You can spend a fate point to reshuffle at any time. The GM reshuffles their deck more frequently.

Many cards have catches or dramatic options on them. Unique cards may require you figure out how your action fits with the fiction. You always have the opportunity to control this narration, but the GM can also take it over if you get stuck.

When running an active opposition- mooks, bad guys, monsters, etc- the GM uses their own 32-card deck. It contains several unique cards, but mostly result cards broken into four categories representing quality: Average, Trained, Skilled, and Elite. NPCs fit overall in one of these categories. They’re further tuned with Skills (redraws), Qualities (+1 to the result for something specific), Aspects, and Stunts.

Action Cards works as toolkit. In a few places the GM or group decide how you’re going to handle things at the table (skills, damage). There’s a strong core, but plenty of ways to tweak what’s here. We’ve used variations for different kinds of campaigns. Small tweaks- like increasing to decreasing the time between reshuffles- can dramatically impact the tension.

We’ve used Action Cards for many different long running campaigns: a fantasy riff on Battlestar Galactica (The Last Fleet); multi-dimensional problem-solving (Ocean City Interface); steampunk fantasy school (Libri Vidicos); Cyber-Ninjas (Neo Shinobi Vendetta); dogfighting pilots (Sky Racers Unlimited); and standard fantasy (Sellsword Company, Masks of the Empire, Guards of Abashan, Relic Hunters) among others. We’ve adapted it other settings including Fallout, Glorantha, Legend of the Five Rings, Changeling the Lost, HALO, My Little Pony, and Star Wars. It’s also worked for one-shots from capers to superheroes sessions

Reading-- but not getting to play-- two games influenced me to put together Action Cards: Lace & Steel and Castle Falkenstein. The former has a card-driven dueling & repartee system. The latter uses playing cards for resolution. I’d also tried an early attempt at a CCG rpg, DragonStorm but the group didn’t like it. In the background I had my dissatisfaction with Rolemaster, Champions, GURPS, and my various homebrews, all of which I was still running. When I finally sat down to write up the game, I knew I wanted a few things:
  • Players would have their own decks. They’d be mostly the same, but have unique elements. We wouldn’t work from a shared deck.
  • They would be able to mark up, draw on, and change their cards. It would be yours and reflect both you and your character.
  • We’d keep the resolution simple, with basic success levels.
  • It would move fast and part of the fun would be in making choices based on card-counting.
Those elements have remained true throughout the various versions. We’ve bolted a ton of extra modules to Action Cards: action points & countdown initiative, combat styles, traits with global bumps, hit locations, weird deck manipulation, additional factors like mana on cards, wound levels, and more. And we’ve jettisoned those over time. Usually the changes have been to simplify elements. Some have added granularity (like our Damage options).

We started playing Action Cards in 1999, beginning with a swashbuckler mini-campaign done for a friend’s group, and then two modern urban fantasy campaigns. From there I kept refining, tuning, and changing the game to fit many different campaigns. In 2011-2012 I tried to play around with Strands of Fate. I’d read Spirit of the Century & Diaspora but I couldn’t figure them out. I missed something. But Strands, a game I ultimately didn’t like, finally gave me insight into Aspects. That idea fit with many things I’d been trying to do with Action Cards and took over for a whole range of messy mechanics. Eventually I brought over other elements: action types to establish a clear language, stress & consequences, a set skill list, and stunts as an organization system for feat-like things.

Why play Action Cards?
…if you like the idea of a card-based rpg.
…if you dig the concept of marking up cards Legacy-style.
…if you like Fate but hate the dice.
…if you’re intrigued by the thought of card-counting and push-your-luck in an rpg.
…if you want toolkit relatively easy to tweak to various genres.
…if you like goofing with new systems.

The beta version I'm finishing up is intended to get the basics down in one place for Action Cards after years of play and multiple iterations. I've added options throughout the book. It is a toolkit. All of that with terrible layout and minimal art! So far I’ve only included a few of the campaign frames, enough to give you a feel for how they operate. They’re also the ones I have draft deck versions available for. A full version will have more. Even more importantly the next version will include a discussion of how to adapt the idea of Action Cards to a more conventional Fate game. I hope that will serve the additional audiences of GMs who like reading new setting material and people who really dig Fate but want to tweak it.

  • Aspects: We embrace this idea. Characters have aspects and the players can use these to define actions, environments, and many other elements. You can invoke aspects for a bonus to a test or to add and element or effect to the fiction.
  • Fate Points: In game also gives PCs fate points which they can use invoke aspects, power certain stunts, and a few other tricks. The GM have a pool to use for adversaries within a scene. A character’s fate points reset to their “refresh” at the beginning of most sessions. In play, characters can gain fate points by accepting complications and compels, often based on their trouble aspect.
  • Skills: As in Fate, skills define a character’s expertise. Different Action Cards frames will have different skill lists, but generally aim for about 20-24 skills to cover the genre.
  • Stunts: We call special powers and abilities stunts and generally follow Fate’s pattern for these. They’re listed under affiliated skills.
  • Action Types: We use Fate’s four basic actions (Create Advantage, Overcome, Attack, and Defend). We add a fifth, Discover, which can be seen as a tweak of Create Advantage.
  • Success Ladder: Like Fate, we use descriptor words for success and failure levels. Action Cards actually invests more heavily in that, skipping most numbers in favor of descriptors.
  • General Approach: Action Cards shares Fate’s general approach: collaborative creation, success with costs, looser conflict resolution.
You’ll see other bits and pieces as well. We draw from the Fate SRD so several major concepts.

  • Cards: That’s pretty obvious. There’s the Deck of Fate, but Action Cards operates differently with each player using a unique and tuned deck. The cards act as an individual randomizer. It also varies from many other card-driven games in that there’s no hand-management.
  • Card Counting: You don’t reshuffle after every draw. Let’s say there’s a “Moment of Glory” card still in the deck. You got a decent result, but could do better. Do you use a skill to keep drawing? This might seem like a meta-distraction but it adds tension and choice in play.
  • General Attributes: While it doesn’t exactly function the same way, the results for the four areas (Combat, Social, Physical, Mental) can be imagined as conventional “stats” from other games. That’s complicated by the presence of other cards in the deck, but you can picture it that way.
  • Skills: Fate Core focuses on skills. They shape and define a character’s abilities. All tasks fall back to these. In Action Cards skills become more a bump or add-on. Skills allow redraws from the raw results of the cards.
  • Loose Skills: In Fate a skill has a solid definition of what you use it for. For example, you buy a stunt to use a skill in a new context. Action Cards operates more loosely: if you can justify it, you can use it. We do have parallel stunts which allow you to draw another category for an action type, i.e. Mental for Defenses.
  • Decoupling Refresh and Stunts: Fate points aren’t connected to stunt limits. We use other mechanics to control these. Generally it means characters will have more stunts and can even choose to focus on that over skills or developing their deck.
  • Granular Advancement: The system doesn’t use milestones. Instead players spend experience to buy things. WAIT! DON’T RUN AWAY. It has worked for us. Players buy up results on their cards, write in “edges,” purchase skills, acquire new stunts & powers, add new cards to their deck. That supports one of the most important parts of this game…
  • Ownership: Players mark up and own their deck. They cross out, erase, and scribble on these cards. It might sound odd, but our players have dug this- even more than doodling on their character sheet. Edges, result buy-ups, and unique cards all make a deck feel like your character. You learn and appreciate other player’s decks over time. You can add different color inks, stickers, and card sleeves to this. If you’re doing a Print-and-Play version, you can tailor the cards even further.
  • Stress & Condition Cards: Action Cards uses a granular stress system. Boxes on a stress track are one-for-one. Rather than consequences, players can reduce damage taken via condition cards. These go into your deck and clog it up.
  • Damage: Rather than margin of success for damage, Action Cards offers two options. The first uses the cards themselves and the second requires dice. Both offer more granularity. Using dice for damage seems weird, and my only justification for offering this is that players like rolling damage.
So that's the basics. I hope to have a "beta" document (plus deck files) up on DriveThru in the next couple of months (before Gen Con I hope). I'm not under any illusions this is the greatest rpg out there. But it is the system I've tuned to my GMing style. At the same time, I've seen other GMs successfully tweak it to their approach. I want to put together a version for interested gamers which they can run or borrow ideas from for their own games.