Flip-a-Card: Encounter Pacing

May 09, 2020 - 5 min read

With permission, I’m quoting a friend who helped playtest Flip-a-Card. I want to talk about how to pace encounters, and how to tell if there’s too few or too many challenges.

On one hand, you don’t want every encounter to be, “Do you want to flip a card to win this?” - that’s way too simple and lifeless. But you also don’t want the game to be me just randomly throwing problems at you until you’re out of cards and full of conditions.

I feel like an encounter should play out until it feels settled to everyone involved in it. In other words:

“Play until the encounter’s narrative juice has been squeezed out, and everyone’s had a drink”.

This might sound like a bullshit cop-out, so later on I’m going to provide tools to help handle it more concretely.

Are the cards resource-management? If so, what is the randomizer that makes it more than just Candyland? If they are not, then what IS the play mentality I should have?

Character cards function as plot beats. Flip from front to back and you get an “up” beat - something good happens. Flip from back to front when you make something “bad” happen. There’s no explicit randomizer here, like a die roll. What makes things non-deterministic is the interaction between players, about when to pose challenges and how to meet them. So in that sense, cards are a resource management tool: things can only go well for you for so long.

There’s a tactical dimension in that a single narrated action can flip multiple cards back to front. And people who don’t have a way to succeed can take condition cards. So there’s ways to give your story more up beats than down.

How do I know what a good challenge is? Like, in D&D, you can say, “To stay hidden, make a stealth check.” Am I supposed to draw out a map for this game, and make them do 2 or 3 flips to get close enough to the enemy? Once they do, is there a benefit to them being close to the enemy that I should offer them? What advantage would they get from that? or is all of that… not in play in this system?

A good challenge spotlights a character, the situation, or the themes of your story. A good challenge also has a fun failure condition.

  • Is the character good at something? Bad at something? Trying to overcome something personal? Let’s give them something that shows those things off.
  • Is the environment dangerous, hazardous, or weird? Is there a monster that’s nasty, that’s huge, that’s clever? Are we in a gloomy forest, a haunted forest, an enchanted forest? Use a challenge to tell us something about where and when we are.
  • Is our story about something, like redemption or vengeance or environmentalism, that we can say something about via the challenge?
  • If the player doesn’t meet the challenge, would the other players throw up their hands and express frustration? Or would they lean forward, like “yeah, now some shit is about to go down”?

What should the challenge be, specifically? The encounter cards provide writing prompts that suggest ideas. For example, the “Flying” card says “Strike targets on the ground without risking counterattacks”, so avoiding being struck can be a challenge. For encounters that don’t fit onto the existing cards, you’ll have to come up with your own ideas. If you do, write a new card!

I was flipping cards on Jake the whole time which made me realize, “Oh, snap, every time I ask them to face a challenge, I’m 33% closer to them HAVING to fail or take a condition.” And that felt in the moment like i was doing too much, maybe?

Listening to that voice is what the game wants you to do. If posing a challenge feels unfair or unfun, you know it’s time to stop.

Alright, tool time! Here’s three ways to pace encounters.

ACE system

This is suitable for fighting singular monsters or overcoming big threats, in a rapidly evolving situation. Pick a star rating for your encounter, 1-5. Multiply that by 3. That’s your challenge budget. For example, you have an Armored Flying dragon that’s a four-star encounter. This means it will pose about 12 challenges.

You pose challenges to make the characters do these three things:

  • Analyze the encounter for a weakness
  • Create an opportunity
  • Exploit the weakness

The weaknesses are governed by the encounter cards, or by the nature of the encounter. For example, the characters must bring down the dragon from the air, then somehow pierce its scaly hide.

For Flying, we budget 2 challenges to analyze (“hey, it keeps swooping at us”, “hey there’s a tower over here, and some chains”), 2 to create an opportunity (“you get its attention, I’ll grab the chains”), and 2 to exploit (“I got the left wing, you got the right”). To get through the armor, the adventurers might only need 1 challenge (there’s a siege weapon nearby), but 4 to set up, and 1 to exploit.

In this case, a total of 12 successes was needed. That would exhaust the character cards of a party of 4 PCs, assuming all their character cards could effectively be leveraged. If we assume that only half their cards were applicable, that’d be a mixture of 6 conditions and card re-flips. Those card re-flips might also pose further challenges (“Basler fell off the wing!” “I got him!”).

Either way, the conclusion feels like a group that’s exhausted and out of resources, which feels narratively appropriate to me.

Hit points and progress clocks

This is like the ACE system, but much more freeform. Rate the challenge from 1-5 stars, as before. Roll 1d6 per star, and add up the numbers. That’s how many challenges are necessary to get through the encounter.

How do you pick challenges? Alternate between the categories given earlier:

  • A challenge that spotlights the character’s strengths or weaknesses
  • A challenge that tells us about the encounter or the environment
  • A challenge that pushes on the story’s themes

For example, we have an Armored Flying dragon, a four-star challenge. We roll 4d6 and get 13, so we want about 13 challenges. We can imagine those playing out in the following ways:

  • Four character challenges (the mage getting to use her magic; the nimble thief diving onto the dragon’s back; the brave knight provoking the creature’s attention; the wary archer taking careful shots)
  • Six encounter challenges (finding cover against the dragon’s fiery breath; ascending a crumbling tower, but almost falling through it; the dragon swooping down over the party, almost knocking someone off the tower roof; and three incidental challenges from PC action)
  • Three story challenges (the mage pushed her magic harder than she should; the archer took a surprising risk; and one other, depending on campaign)


This is the simplest way to pace an encounter. Everyone gets a whack at it, at least once, and then the Storyteller does a gut check to see if people seem satisfied or not. If not, people get another round, and so on. This is extremely artificial, but is sometimes the best method for something like a social situation, where every PC might have something to say to the evil vizier or the alien emperor.

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