(Originally posted August 2009)

A few years ago, I wrote a system for using playing cards instead of a D20 to give more player control over the result and prevent players from feeling like they’re having large runs of bad rolls. I’ve now had the opportunity to use it as both GM and player, and found a few flaws: being able to hold a hand of cards and play the one needed resulted in several non-fun behaviors such as bad card hording, players getting stuck with only failing rolls, and fear of playing good cards for potentially inconsequential rolls. It also made PCs way too effective.

So I came up with a modified version that has most of the benefits and eliminates a lot of the flaws. I’ve been using this version in my semi-weekly D&D game for the past couple of months and it seems to play very well.

For this method, each player starts with an individual deck of playing cards with the face cards removed. It has four sets of Ace-10 and two Jokers, for a total of 42 cards. At the beginning of each session, the players shuffle their decks and set aside 5 cards without looking at them. This is the “bank” and the size can be adjusted based on how much leeway you want the players to have to undo bad rolls.

Whenever a D20 roll is called for during the game, the player turns over the top card on the deck and uses it as the result. Ace counts as one and all other cards count their full value. Black cards represent 11-20 (i.e., add 10 to the face value of black cards). Jokers have a special rule noted below.

If the player fails a roll, he or she may flip over the top card of the bank and use that card instead. The player may choose to continue flipping cards from the bank until getting a successful result or running out of bank cards.

If a Joker is drawn, the player immediately sets it face up to the side, moves the top card of the deck onto the top of the bank without looking at it, and then flips the next card. Saved Jokers can be used to add +2 to any other roll (even damage rolls) after rolling, and are discarded once played for this effect.

Once the player plays the last card in the deck, all cards in the discard pile are reshuffled. The bank retains its size, and does not get any new cards added to it after the shuffle: after play begins, only flipping a Joker adds cards to the bank.

The DM’s deck works the same way, but the bank should typically only be used for important NPCs or “boss” monsters designed to challenge the party.

This system has several advantages:

  • Players are completely aware of their runs of luck. A series of bad rolls only makes the player realize that better cards are becoming more likely.
  • Players have a reserve of what are essentially rerolls and modular bonuses that can be used when a failure feels dramatically inappropriate.
  • Card flipping can be faster than rolling a D20, and is more visible across the table.
  • Despite the player controls, it maintains enough of a sense of randomness to feel comfortable for those that prefer dice.
  • It provides a convenient way for GMs to differentiate major threats from minor ones.