“Layers” of character creation

Generating characters for House of Cards is a matter of knowing two things: the ability they have to directly impact the plot, and how powerful they need to be. Different layers of the character generation process apply at different levels: at the lowest level, for minor characters with no powers, one only needs to generate their motivation. The narrative motivation system in House of Cards gives characters four “poles” around which their personality can be quickly defined; an average mortal could be sketched out simply by answering four questions about their priorities and values.

For a sample adventure, we might need an extra to give the characters information, but nothing more. We draw a card to represent her personality: the Page of Cups. She’s empathic and creative. We sketch out who she is: a music student named Dana. What is she passionate about? Her compositions, mainly, but she’s also in a very committed relationship. We’ll say that her burgeoning career hasn’t really taken off yet, but she has a strong drive to be a world-famous composer, so her work falls under Pentacles while her partner is assigned to Cups. Those are going to be her two main suits; she doesn’t have the time to pursue causes, even though she feels them keenly, so Swords and Wands may only get a point or two. We’ll say she likes pets and helps out with charities to prevent animal cruelty, but it’s not something she has the means to get involved with. Assigning her points, we might go with:
Cups – 3 (her partner)
Pentacles – 4 (her songwriting)
Swords – 2 (animal rights)
Wands – 1 (abuse)

Some characters are more influential to the plot and have the ability to act directly. These characters may have a card, though typically not a hand, but they may replenish that card upon use if they are adhering to their suits. Through this system, it is possible for a lucky mortal who’s fighting for something they truly value to face down foes they might otherwise not be able to match. They may lack the direct force of even a Lesser Power, but can at least offer resistance to a contested action. In our sample adventure, Dana might point the Bearers in the direction of Alice, a writer friend of hers who is unknowingly enmeshed with the plot they are investigating. We expect Alice to actually participate in the adventure with the Bearers, so besides going through the process described above to discern her motivations, we also give her a card. Even a simple reflection might give her some pause if she encountered one alone, but she isn’t completely passive.

Characters with any sort of magic tend to have both multiple cards in hand and Powers to employ. Chimerae and Commoners mark the beginning of this echelon, but others may occupy it as well: mortal magicians attain these benefits as they master their craft, for instance. Lesser Powers extend the ability of the character to use cards in specific ways; this is both an advantage and a drawback, as Powers often only assist under a particular set of circumstances, whereas having more cards to act gives a broader, more flexible ability to respond at the expense of the focus of a Power. The grimalkin’s power to curse a target, for instance, is very effective at preventing a character from taking an action – often more so than directly interfering with an opposed action – but in any situation, the card used on it could perhaps be put to better use.

Castellans have the special abilities granted to them by their Esssence, their defining card, which are roughly on par with one another. They are created as with other characters, just as described above, but the initial card drawn for their personality remains in their hand and generates their power, making it more than just a starting detail. Otherwise, their motivations, cards and powers are a function of where they fit into your story. Beyond the Castellans, the Comtes await, with the ability to reshape dream-lands at will; the Archetypes would likely wield such power as well if they chose to act directly instead of through their Bearers.