Flip-a-Card Philosophy

June 24, 2020 - 3 min read

I spent a couple hours talking with another game designer today, and I think I did an okay job articulating how I think flip-a-card works, or why I hope it works. Here’s a summary of the important things, written as advice to a GM.

People don’t need much to have fun. Just permission and a little push. I’ve said variations of this before, like “mad libs are easier than blank sheets”. The idea here is that creativity or storytelling can be compared to flowing water. Sometimes it gets blocked up, or clogged, while other times it flows freely. One thing that clogs the flow is hesitation about putting your ideas before the group. The rules give you permission to do that, and a starting point for speaking. After that, the water should usually keep flowing on its own.

“So what?” is the most important question the GM has to answer. If the players aren’t invested in something, it’s not going to be fun. This doesn’t mean you should cater to what the players are asking for every time. It does mean that you should connect what you’re saying with what the players find interesting. How do you know what that is? The players told you, through their choices during character creation, and everything they’ve done after that.

The rules are just another player sitting at the table, who will give objective opinions on what to do next if you ask them. You don’t communicate with other players through the rules. They aren’t a medium for running the game. Instead, when everyone else at the table isn’t sure of what happens next, look over at the rules and ask “what do you think?” The rules will reply with something like “check this card, or do this thing, or answer this prompt”. If the rules are good, this will be enough for you to continue.

The randomizer is in the heads of the players - every situation will be different. Throwing dice is one of the least varied things you can do. The dice answer every question in one of two or three ways: you pass, you fail, or (sometimes) the situation is complicated. Asking a human being “what do you do?”, on the other hand, gives very chaotic results, because they’ll take the total situation into account. You can substitute chaos for randomness.

People have an intuitive sense for stories and narrative. The encounter is over when people understand it’s over. The rules can give you tips for how to pace an encounter. But even when you’re rolling dice in other games, the most critical decisions will be made by the players anyway. It’s okay to just acknowledge this.

Example: the 16 hp dragon is a story that illustrates the value of fiction, but at every point you could ask questions like “why didn’t the dragon chase the party into the forest?” or “why aren’t there two dragons?” or other questions that would affect the outcome of the fight in big ways. And the answer is, “because we as players already know the answers”, and that’s because we know that this approach makes for better story.

Character cards are plot beats. Good thing happens, then bad thing happens. Kurt Vonnegut talked about feeding a story into a computer, and the “shapes” of stories. Flip-a-card feeds the shape of stories into game rules. As he points out, humans love stories like “man in a hole” and “boy gets girl”, and if you play this game as written, I hope that the resulting shape of the story will be something like these things.

Your character cards are elements you want included in the story. Anyone’s failings or complications, not just yours, can flip them back. The character cards are not just how we define, or simulate, our characters. They are us telegraphing to everyone else the kinds of things we want to hear about in a game. If I’m playing the Farmer, I’m probably okay coming along for some city-bound detective fiction and political maneuvering, but uh, maybe you could include some.. farming? Have the murder mystery and politics include the fate of farmsteads, for example.

You don’t take conditions (harm) for failing an action. You take a condition so you can succeed at an action. “You fail” is bad. “You fail and you’re punished” is worse. I feel like players will be much more receptive to bad things happening to their characters if it’s their idea. Other people can still suggest a condition card, but if the choice is “you fail or you’re punished”, putting agency for the decision in the player’s hands, I hope it’ll be more interesting.

Play until the encounter’s narrative juice has been squeezed out, and everyone’s had a drink. I talk more about this here.

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