04 May 2013

Kickstarter: Character Cards

At the beginning of the month, three different playing card game aids were launched within a very short time frame. Clearly there is an unmet need for a deck of cards at the table with descriptions to help the GM (or players) out. Particularly when running off script (otherwise know as: most of the time). The three projects are Short Order Heroes, Character Cards and Toolcards. I've already reviewed Short Order Heroes and  was asked if I was willing to do a review of Character Cards. Based on that, it seemed like a good idea to cover all three of them, as each brings something different to the table.

This review will focus on Character Cards, by Stephen Coffey and Laurence Hensel, a crowdfunding project currently ongoing on Kickstarter (closes 17 May 2013).

The basics: For £9, which is $14, you can get a deck of Character Cards. Shipping is free to the US and UK. That deck is a standard 52 card deck with 2 jokers. Stretch goals may expand those numbers, but not yet. You can get the deck in tarot sized cards for £17, and additional standard sized decks are £8.

What you get on each card is an entire, but brief, character. Explicitly, a fantasy character. Each character is based on the suit of the card, with the four suits representing vague attributes:
  • Clubs: Social - connections, charisma, etc.
  • Diamonds: Physical - beauty, fitness, strength, etc.
  • Hearts: Desire - drive to achieve, willpower, etc.
  • Spades: Profession - skill, money, etc.
The number and suit determine the primary defining character of the card with a description to match. Each of the other three suits is represented as well, having a specific trait associated with it and a description of the trait. Everyone also has a secret that modifies one of the suits.

Aces and Jokers have a special roles. The Aces modify other cards. So each Ace would have another card associated with it. The Masked Vigilante would have their other persona with its own attributes. The Jokers each modify cards in a similar fashion. One of them will switch the number of a suit from low to high, or high to low. The other will change the suit that defines the character, so the King of Diamonds may be defined by Hearts instead of Diamonds, making his defining characteristic a glory hound instead of a perfect physical specimen.This is an interesting way to mimic the role that Aces often hold in card games, being simultaneously the highest and the lowest card in the deck, and Jokers which change the nature of the game itself.

All together, this is an interesting package. It could be used to generate characters on-the-fly, between sessions when trying to fill out a cast, mix-and-match to create unique characters not in the deck, or as a game unto itself. It should be noted that it can be used for a trick-taking game, but I have a special dislike for trick-taking card games, so let us not speak of that anymore.

Honestly, I don't really see myself using this during a session. There is simply too much information of a specific nature to process and include on the spot without things slowing down more than I would like. It is a similar scenario with taking a single trait from five cards (including the secret) - I simply don't think I would use them in that fashion. Which is not to say there is something wrong with it, I've just met myself before and don't see that happening. The most common use I would get out of it is to add some more color to a setting. Just need more warm bodies with a little character. It is perfect for that. 

However, the more compelling use, as I got to thinking about this project, is to generate a complete setting using only the characters in the cards. All NPCs have already been written, and simply shuffling and drawing can easily populate a scene. While it would work for only one game, it is an interesting idea to pursue.

Physically, the layout of the cards is clean and easy to read. The new suits, see Update #10, look much more compelling than the standard suits, which also have the downside of not necessarily being intuitive for what is associated with them. While not entirely indicative, the simple fact that are more memorable and unique, while still being familiar, should make the associations easier to create. At least for me.

My biggest criticism, perhaps only, with the card layout is the upside-down text for the secret. While I understand the explanation, that displaying the card to players makes it harder to read the secret, anyone that wants to will find it simple to read the text while upside-down. It just makes me, as the GM, a little irritated to either read it upside-down constantly, or turn the card. A little thing, but even little things can negatively impact the tempo of a game.

In the end, I think that the strongest uses of these cards (for me) are to either flesh out a scenario, scene, or setting with some premade characters, or to use the deck to build a setting around. The nitpick above regarding formatting is minor and doesn't detract from the ability to use the cards at the table. While it would be awesome to have tarot cards with the game text at the bottom and art in the top half, art is expensive. Perhaps a successful run would allow a reissue down the road with that inclusion. Right now, I'm contemplating how to implement a campaign built around a deck of characters that I didn't create.