Posts Tagged ‘house of cards’

As mentioned over at parenthesispress.com, we’ll be running sessions at Games On Demand in the Crowne Plaza hotel, Pennsylvania Station C, on Friday and Saturday. Stop by to give the current playtest version of House of Cards a try, and even participate in the playtest process and contribute your feedback. Check out the teasers (on the Preview tab at the top of the page) to whet your appetite if you haven’t already.


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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.

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As has been mentioned before, managing cards in hand is one of the crucial resource-allocation decisions players face when playing House of Cards. They literally represent your ability to act or resist being acted upon. Given this situation, how does one keep from being overwhelmed at the first sign of opposition?

The game adopts the conceit that the unseen forces surrounding a Bearer tend to congregate around like patterns. What this means in practical terms is that using cards to act “correctly” leads to replenishing the card after it is used. When using a card of the proper suit for an action (such as Cups for a social interaction), the player gets to draw a new card from the deck to replace it immediately. The four suits represent very imminent physical matters and concerns: the four elements, mortal professions, and other terrestrial forces, and so their ebb and flow is visible to the casual observer.

On another level, characters who act in accordance with their Archetype for an entire scene get to refill their hand at the end of the scene. Why only at the end of a scene? Because Archetypes operate on grander cosmic scales, and as such are far more interested in patterns of behavior over time than in momentary behavior. (On a meta-textual level, this was a conscious design decision intended to circumvent a perceived problem in some games featuring reward systems for playing in-character that in practice only require players to toss in the occasional action to “hit the button” and get the benefit.)

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Yes, as the subject says, I’ll be at Gen Con 2011, running all of Parenthesis Press’ games, including demos of House of Cards and The Great Challenge…, from Thursday to Saturday. They’re all “off-grid” games, meaning they’re not officially listed in the program with set times and rooms. The best way to get involved? Follow @houseofcardsrpg on Twitter for up-to-the-minute announcements, for one. I’ll also post more details here shortly before and even at the convention, so keep your eyes here.

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So you’re going to need a deck of cards to play. (Well, really, two: one for the referee, and another for the players.) While the rules do provide a translation from Tarot to standard playing cards for the Minors in order to conduct task resolution, the most immersive experience obviously comes from using a full-sized actual Tarot deck to play. From character creation forward, players are asked to interact with the symbols present on the face of various cards; that’s complicated enough, but it bears mentioning that not all decks are the same.

There will necessarily be differing opinions on the importance of various visual cues in any given illustration on the face of a Tarot card: symbols are at once a code for shorthand communication and intensely personal. (Show two people a rose, and one may think of romance while the other recalls a funeral.) Thus, because House of Cards leaves players the actual task of assigning meaning to drawn cards, it’s quite possible to have a wide array of possible correspondences listed on a Bearer’s character sheet. As long as a player can make a reasonable case to the referee or other players to justify that correspondence, no other requirements need be met. One should, however, think on correspondences with an eye toward utility, as a too-narrow list hobbles your character’s magic, even as the referee should consider whether any of the noted correspondences are too broad and subject to abuse.

It also bears mentioning that, given the proliferation of Tarot decks on the market, it’s possible that one or more players may have their own set, and that the illustrations might deviate significantly from what might be considered the “baseline” sets, either the Rider-Waite deck or the Tarot de Marseille. While House of Cards is written with the assumption that these widely-available and familiar decks are the one most likely to appear at your table, they are not necessarily the only ones useful for or even endorsed by the game. During the writing process, I’ve drawn inspiration from the Paulina Tarot by Paulina Cassidy or Stephanie Pui-Mun Law’s Shadowscapes Tarot. Both incorporate novel twists on existing symbology from the Rider-Waite and other familiar decks, but with more evocative and detailed artwork that adds in cues of personal significance to the artists.

Be aware, also, that some decks alter their Major Arcana or their suits for different purposes. This may even mean that non-standard Archetypes appear in your Regalia. As the sage said, “Don’t panic.” As long as your group has a consensus of what to expect from these rogue cosmic forces, their appropriate correspondences, and their Greater Powers, feel free to explore the possibilities.

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The world, and The World

Players in House of Cards play Bearers, humans who have attracted the auspices of one of the cosmic Archetypes. All of the Major Arcana of the Tarot have known Bearers… except for one.

One of the great mysteries of the setting is that the twenty-first Arcanum, The World, has gone missing. Sometime around the beginning of the 20th Century, the last known Bearer disappeared, and none has stepped forward as the inheritor of the mantle since then. All attempts at investigating this conundrum, from exhaustive research to divination magic, have failed utterly.

The referee’s section of the rulebook posits two possible alternate explanations for this puzzling situation and others, but House of Cards does not provide definitive, exclusive answers to such questions. House of Cards is about dreams, and dreams are far more often cryptic than expository. Groups are encouraged to explore these mysteries and come up with their own fascinating twists on these matters, either by consensus or organically through the experience of play.

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Gen Con 2011

If you follow the Twitter feed, you already know that I’ll be at Gen Con this year (and if you don’t follow it, now’s the time to start!)

There are no official House of Cards events on the program, but I’ll be wandering around the show running sessions for those interested, and I’ll be at the Thursday night RPG.net event running a possible sample adventure to be included in the final book.

And if you play during Gen Con, I will include your name in the credits. That’s a promise.

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