Originally posted December 2008

This idea is meant primarily for games like D&D 3e that expect PCs to have a quantifiable average challenge to party resource ratio. That is, the party will generally be able to be successful in X encounters of Y difficulty per day. It uses Poker card hands and a variation of the Texas Hold’em flop method to create drama, while largely free-forming the actual rules.

At the start of each game day, each player draws randomly from a standard 52-pack of cards, being dealt, face-down, one card for each average challenge the party is expected to overcome in a day (e.g., four cards if the average fight is supposed to consume about a quarter of the party’s resources). Adjust accordingly for more or less than five players.

These cards represent an abstracted idea of the player character’s potential. While they drive the actual impact on encounters, players and GM should strive to describe the actions taken in line with the character’s actual stats (e.g., a high-level mage playing a high card might cast a fireball, while a rogue would be backstabbing up a storm).

For each encounter, the GM draws five cards from the remaining deck and plays them in a line, face down. The number of cards played is adjusted based on the threat of an encounter (e.g., a party of seventh level characters facing a fifth level challenge would only face three cards, while the same party facing a level eight challenge would face six).

For each exchange of the combat (which might encompass multiple rounds, and is, instead, a measure of dramatic give and take), the GM flips over one of the cards. The players must then consult amongst one another and choose one of them to play a single card to add to the party’s hand. The group then determines whether the GM’s or party’s hand is superior (this will likely be a matter of high card or pairs for the first few exchanges).

If the GM’s hand is higher, he gets to describe the slow erosion of the party’s fighting stamina, or how the party is being pushed into a dangerous situation. If the party’s hand is higher, the player that just played the new card gets to describe the awesome stuff that her character did that round to bring the party ahead.

Once all of the GM’s cards are played, a final tally is made of success or failure for the party, based on the best hand that can be constructed by either side. If the party’s hand is better, they win, with a final description of how they were awesome by the last player to play a card. If the GM’s hand is better, he gets to describe their loss (which may be having to flee, being captured, or having one or more characters die depending on the gravity of the situation).

Over the course of a day, the players should be able to judge what is left in the GM’s deck based on their own cards and what has already been played. They should also have to judge whether to use up their good cards early, or risk setbacks to save good cards for later. They could even get the sense that “today is an off day” if none of them have very good cards (of course, it’s hard to have nothing that can make a good poker hand with nearly half the deck to choose from).

This system should serve to create drama, rising and falling action, and a fair rules framework, while still vastly simplifying conflict in an RPG. It is reliant on players having a fair assessment of their capabilities based on stats, but not minding much that they’re largely decorative.