Flip-a-Card Design Doc

December 05, 2019 - 5 min read

I’m updating my design document for this general rule system. The next post will try to assemble these pieces into a workable whole.

The Premise: a game whose rules are all on 3x5 or 4x6 index cards. If a card is in play on the table, any rules for that card apply. Cards can be flipped over, changing their state or the rules in play. Cards have a “topside”, generally advantageous to the players, and a “flipside”, generally either a complication or alternate rule.

Game Design Principles

  • Provide plenty of sample cards for players who aren’t used to writing a dozen or more “succeed at a cost”/soft move outcomes at game start. Let people construct new characters from these predefined elements, then customize to taste.
  • Provide some context and tone so that it’s understood what a failure can cost you in the fiction.
  • The system encourages a lot of tests to see flips happen. Don’t be afraid to call for them.
  • Provide “situation cards”, e.g. a “Kobold Camp” card with a bunch of outcomes, e.g. “reinforcements”, “ambush”, “boss appears”, letting a group pick & choose how a situation unfolds.
  • Provide meatier fictional outcomes that are available for a card, e.g. “if you have this magic bow, you can make shots at amazing range” or other one-off things. These might also be expendable, one-use cards, or things that reset under more specific conditions.
  • Evaluate a policy whereby fiction blocks you from using a card, e.g. “I’m disarmed but I have a Magic Sword card, so can I use it?” Either such things don’t happen, or players phrase them differently.
  • Find ways to establish synergies between cards or otherwise make “character builds” or “combos” an interesting replay element - find ways to avoid mechanical sameness. Like “disarmed inhibits weapons” or “kobolds in kobold lair gets one more d4 at start of game” or something.

The Role of the Cards

  • You can have several cards, but none of them are dominant or unchangeable.
  • The cards are intended to operate at a more granular fictional resolution. Characters have Magic Swords or Grandfather’s Spellbooks or Super Strength, but that’s not expected to pack as much meaning as a typical Fate aspect like “Wielder of the infamous Magic Sword of Mythtopia”.
  • You ought to be able to benefit from a card without flipping it, in the same manner that Fate aspects continue to be fictionally true even without invocation.
  • There’s no guarantee of failure tied to the flip-side conditions, unlike a Fate compel. The benefit is also immediate, rather than at end-of-scene.
  • You can say “my Magic Sword helps me defeat the bad guy (flip), but I’m wounded in the process (flip back)” and be back where you started, in one action.

Card Creation Principles

  • Card creation demands poetry. You need a good turn of phrase for the card text and evocative twists that sell your setting immediately. Some phrases I’m personally proud of: “Stand in defense of another’s dreams”, “Take an exciting risk”, and “Strange, beautiful, mad things will happen if you use your power.” all hopefully tell you something about the world you’re in. But those phrases are just about all the space you have to make that sale.
  • Create a few standard rules, use them everywhere, then encourage exceptions. There’s a few cards, particularly combo cards, where the card is just gonna make up some nonsense for you to do. But most of the time, your character & scene cards should be pretty conventional: flip me over to succeed, flip me back if I complicate your life.
  • There’s a sweet spot for number of unique mechanics. Right now I have three basic ones: tests (and how you succeed at them), whatever flipping a particular card does, and recharge. Would more hurt the game? Am I at the right point? I need to find out.
  • The mechanics feel like they’ll encourage a style of play. But what is that? This is the big unknown. I’m pretty okay building a new game around a mechanic, rather than a fictional theme, I just want to make sure I build the right game out of the mechanic I have.

Card Types

Character: traits that you have as a PC. Expected to be stable. Flip over to succeed, flip back to recharge.

  • Card front: description of the quality (“Magic Sword”, “Virtuous”), along with writing prompts for how that quality might be used
  • Card front rule: Flip over to succeed at a test if this card would help you
  • Card back: list of twists, complications, or flaws
  • Card back rule: Recharge if any of these things are narrated

Condition: temporary indicators of injury or other badness. Flip to aggravate, discard when treated.

  • Card front: minor condition (“Hurt”), along with prompts describing specific forms of that condition
  • Card front rule: Flip to succeed at a test, and aggravate the condition. Discard if you spend a scene attending to the condition.
  • Card back: major condition (“Wounded”), along with prompts describing aggravated forms of the condition
  • Card back rule: Discard if you spend downtime attending to the condition.

Scene: places or adjectival modifiers, lending flavor to an encounter

  • Challenge: NPCs, monsters, dangers, and other stuff to overcome
  • Combo: synergistic cards that let you customize your PC. Most of your custom game rules should live on these cards. Flip to invoke, spend a recharge to flip back.
  • Card front: rules for the combination.
  • Card front rule: Flip to invoke this ability (might include test success)
  • Card back rule: Spend a recharge to flip back

Challenges and Situations

  • Building enemies out of adjectives. I’ve got a “Barbaric” “Boss” “Kobold” made of those three cards. “Barbaric” has flip-side text like “lick blood off your weapon”, “bellow savage challenges”, and the like. “Boss” says stuff like “can absorb a few hits” or “has minions”. If you run out of interesting things to do with an adjective card, it’s gone. These adjective cards are intended to act as shields for the real target - basically, more interesting opponents are also tougher.
  • PCs should also be able to pull in cards like “barbaric”, either as guest cards or as regular characteristics.

Tests and Success

  • Tests: hit or miss. Hits come from dice, if you can’t generate a hit, it’s a miss.
  • If you pass a test, you should get a payoff - usually (but not always) what you asked for via narration.
  • If you fail a test, you should get a setup - some new tension is introduced, and something about the scene or your character is illuminated.