Gaming Steampunk TTRPG

Dev diary – It’s tricky

One of the key mechanics I want to include in the system uses playing cards.

Now, I’m aware this isn’t the first game to use a deck of cards as a mechanic. Deadlands is one in the ttrpg space, and Malifaux is another in the skirmish wargame field. Interestingly, both have a steampunk/weird science/weird west vibe, so there must be something in the setting that lends itself to designers thinking of how to use playing cards in the system.

My setting is no different (though it’s in the weird Victorian space rather than the wild wild west). To me, the playing cards speak of chance, fate, fortune, gambling and – with a little bit of artistic license and some creative imagineering – magic.

And it’s that vibe I want to play with here.

I’ve done a playtest of my ‘trick’ mechanic, and it is by no means perfect, but it does seem to have legs. It has some similarities with Deadlands and co, but it feels different enough to be worth developing further, and feels like it has potential to be a core mechanic rather than a tacked on gimmick.

So here’s how it’s currently working…

My, what big hands you’ve got

At the start of an ‘episode’ (my current working term for a scenario), each player is dealt a ‘hand’ of cards from a single shuffled deck of 54 cards (the four suits, plus two jokers.)

All characters have a default hand size of 5, though some professions may have a larger hand size, and some talents may also increase this.

Cards can be ‘spent’ (played) in three main ways:

  • to modify rolls that players are about to make
  • to negate adverse effects that players are about to suffer
  • to augment magic, or to overpower weird science

Cards then get replenished in a number of ways:

  • after a successful roll (players are dealt one card)
  • between ‘acts’ of an ‘episode’ (players are dealt cards up to their hand size)
  • at other times, based on some talents and special abilities (varies depending on the talent/ability)

Modifying rolls

This is the main mechanic. Before making a roll, a player can – if able – play a ‘trick’ from their hand. These correspond to the standard 5-card poker hands, ranging from five of a kind (jokers are wild, so this would be possible), to a pair, with flushes, straights, and full houses in between.

Each ‘trick’ would have a specific effect on the roll, the details of which I’m still fleshing out. A pair would likely give a +2 modifier to the roll, for example. Three of a kind will likely give a +3 modifier. A flush might give a +2 to this roll and all subsequent rolls made during the same encounter, where a royal flush might give an automatic critical success. You get the picture.

These effects can be made during and outside combat, and will therefore have slightly different effects based on the situation.

But at the end of the day, hands become a resource. Spending/playing them may well end up making a roll a certain success, but there will be less cards left in a player’s hand (which will take time to ‘fill up’ again.)

In the playtest, this worked pretty well, with players weighing up whether to burn cards for an increased chance of success, or holding on to cards in the hope of getting dealt better ones (and thus getting better tricks) in the future.

Negating adverse effects

Combat in the game is currently quite lethal, with a small pool of hit points. In the playtest, I let players ‘spend’ a court card to negate one point of damage (or stress).

This also worked, and saw some more weighing up of options, sacrifices (of cards that might have been used to make tricks) and desperate choices made in desperate situations.

Augmenting / overpowering

I never playtested this aspect, but I also plan on having cards able to be used to ‘power up’ certain things. To make an ‘aether effect’ do more damage or work over an increased range; to enable a scientific device to keep on working or to effect more targets etc etc.

These effects will likely be invoked by discarding any two or three cards, with increased effects being activated as a result.

Again, the intention is that this becomes a choice of how to spend limited resources, and adds weight to decisions made in the midst of dangerous and tricky situations.

Talented gamblers

There’s more as well. I anticipate having abilities, feats and talents that change the ‘default’ rules for playing tricks. Ones that make other cards ‘wild’ as well as jokers; an ability that allows two players who ‘trust’ each other to swap cards in their hands; a talent that allows a character to be dealt two cards instead of one and choose which to keep.

Et cetera, et cetera

But for now, I’m satisfied enough that the mechanic works, without introducing too much in the way of complexity and rules to remember (though a ‘cheat sheat’ of tricks and their effects will definitely be a near-essential play aid).

And like everything, it will change and be refined as the design and testing continue.

Next time, I’ll be digging a bit deeper into that ‘trust mechanic’. In the meantime … look to the skies, citizen!

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