Combat skills: opinions on their place in role-playing games vary wildly, and one’s stance is often taken (correctly or not) as an indicator of your overall attitude towards the current state of games. It’s probably the lack of overtly combat-centered mechanical systems that pegs House of Cards as what one terms a “story game,” a term with no lack of either ambiguity or baggage. It serves, however, since House of Cards descends from a paradigm that arose perhaps twenty years ago as criticism of the “kill them and take their stuff” model of gaming.
After one of the demos I ran at Gen Con last week, one of the groups stuck around to ask questions and give feedback about the game. In the sample adventure they played, the Bearers were faced with a group of minor chimerae undertaking a mysterious task. When the Bearers came into conflict with the dream-creatures, the mostly mindless beings continued about their appointed task unless directly attacked, at which point they tried to flee. Why didn’t they fight back?, one asked. I responded that it was in character for the creatures – in thrall to a Comte and bereft of volition – to act this way, but the scene puzzled the players for another reason, I think: the world of House of Cards operates on a narrative frame closer to fairy tales than other role-playing games, and combat is not considered an optimal way to deal with problems. Think of the plots of the Grimm brothers’ collected tales, and you’ll note that very rarely does violence occur outside the denouement of the story. Instead, stealth and guile are the preferred modus operandi. Jack doesn’t leap forward to put axe to the head of the sleeping giant, but rather waits and uses a cleverly indirect method: chopping down the beanstalk.
To continue the example from our demo session, one of the Bearers used the Evocation power to summon forth a weapon and face off against one of the chimerae. He swung, using a Swords card in hand, and hit; the chimerae had no Pentacles with which to defend, so the creature took the hit and discarded a card. Later, on another swing against a different creature, he again spent a Swords to attack, but the defender had a greater Swords card and so resisted the attack. What was truly accomplished, however? In the former case, the only difference in outcome was that the opponent had one fewer card, but is that really a success? When one considers that a Bearer can spend one card to inspire an entire crowd of mortals to follow a cause or search every book in the world, using that same card to deal one stroke in combat seems downright parochial in comparison.
That’s not to say that physical violence doesn’t have its place – it very often does, as part of the climax of the story. The woodsman does eventually chop open the wolf’s belly with his axe to free Riding Hood, after all. The dramatic confrontation with an ancient chimera or facing down a Comte in its stronghold at the end of a story arc provides plenty of opportunity for satisfying action. But those climactic showdowns are often more a matter of placing a precision strike at the antagonist’s plans rather than its armor; in a way, Bearers fight and triumph by wielding stories, not weapons. The creatures of dreams are perhaps more vulnerable to a satisfying epilogue than a stroke of the blade, it seems, and the Bearer who learns that lesson will never want for cards.