Archive for July, 2011

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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Any foe of significance in House of Cards has a hand, and can use cards to take or contest actions. This means that, despite the awesome power a Bearer has at his or her fingertips, one can’t afford to be careless with crossing even a lowly dream-eaten Commoner; a starting Bearer’s hand of five cards goes quickly when a Commoner can throw three cards in defiance (and use Dreamthief to steal the enemy’s cards as well). A poorly-handled skirmish could leave a Bearer with an empty hand, vulnerable to more dangerous foes.

Bearers can avoid this scenario in several ways, fortunately. Rather than the brute force approach of burning cards on empowered actions, Greater Powers give their users ways to affect multiple characters or a location over a span of time. Not only is this often far more efficient than direct action, but such Powers often change the parameters of the encounter, allowing Bearers to take actions they normally wouldn’t or preventing others from acting against them. Judicious use of a Greater Power can shut down a potentially dangerous foe with minimal effort (as the short fiction in the second preview demonstrates).

Bearers are heroes, however, and should not shy away from facing down their nightmare foes. A referee is likely to confront a group with an unavoidable foe at dramatic moments, leading to a pitched combat. When facing a truly dangerous enemy, like a venerable Chimera or a Comte in its own domain, a player can expect to have to expend a number of cards – and lose them to the blows of the opponent as damage. The Archetypes continually reward those who act in character, however, so a Bearer hewing to his or her Archetype closely can mitigate the toll of a heated battle with the card replenishment that comes with staying in-character.

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House of Cards‘ parent site is now online. You can visit ParenthesisPress.com and download some of our other experimental RPGs for free!

In actual news on HoC, we are still looking for artists interested in contributing to the book. Black & white line art suitable for a 6″x9″ page please. As this is a self-funded venture, donations are obviously very welcome; we will try to scrape together something to compensate artists, however.

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