A few ideas that have been swirling around in my head lately converged into a thing that isn’t quite like any of them and I’m liking it enough that I’d like to toss it out to everyone here for input.
Note that while this version is fully playable it’s also a first draft so some parts are bound to be a bit rough. There are some ideas for further development at the end.
Case in point, I should probably have used “you” a lot more and “your character” a lot less and not given in to my pedantic drive to keep those two separate.
This is a solo storytelling game using an ordinary deck of cards. You will be portraying a character pursuing a goal, but during play your priorities are likely to shift. Will your end be hopeful or tragic? Let’s find out!
Take an ordinary deck of playing cards. Remove the face cards and Jokers; they will not be used.
Choose a setting for your game, but don’t create a character yet.
Each suit represents a sphere of success or values your character can pursue. The default is listed below, but feel free to change this.
Diamonds: Creativity and satisfying work
Clubs: Security, wealth, and material possessions
Spades: Reputation and social standing
(The split between primarily internal and external circumstances/drives is intentional but not necessary.)
Shuffle the aces and place them face up in a column. The top ace shows in which sphere your ultimate goal is located, the second ace shows what your intended method is for reaching that goal, and the third ace shows a first stepping stone. The fourth ace shows which sphere you are currently ignoring.
This column is your hierarchy of values.
Note that this hierarchy is always an ordering of the cards - if your hierarchy is spades, clubs, hearts, diamonds and you are to move hearts up a step your new hierarchy is spades, hearts, clubs, diamonds. Two aces never share a row.
Example: You’ve chosen Renaissance Italy as your setting and you’re using the default suit values. Your aces come up diamonds, clubs, spades, hearts. You decide that you are a young ambitious artist whose ultimate goal is to create truly beautiful paintings (diamonds - creativity) but to do this you must find a patron (spades - social standing), and to be considered you will first need to get the money to create pieces you can show to the wealthy (clubs - wealth).
Shuffle the remaing cards, which should be all cards ranked 2-10, and place them face down to form your draw deck.
Draw the top card of the draw deck and play it in front of you, then draw cards until you get one with a different rank, discarding any that match the rank of the first card. These cards show your initial situation interpreted according to the rules below.
This line of cards (currently consisting of two cards) is your storyline.
Playing the Game
If a card on the storyline is higher than the preceding card, it’s rising, and if it’s lower, it’s falling. A card of the same rank as the preceding card is flat. A rising card shows success or progress towards your goals, a falling card represents a setback or failure, and a flat card prompts a reevaluation of your priorities.
Each turn you will draw two cards from the draw deck and choose one of them to play on the storyline and then interpret the result in the story. You can play this as your character choosing between two outcomes or as external events dictating the outcome, or you can mix and match these as you like.
To interpret a new card you need to know if it is rising, falling, or flat, and you need to know if the preceeding card is rising or falling. Flat cards on the storyline are skipped over when checking if the preceding card is rising or falling. The suits of the cards will give additional details as explained below.
Note that the absolute ranks of the cards don’t matter when deciding if a card is rising, falling, or flat, only if they are higher, lower, or the same rank as the preceding card. However, feel free to let the rank guide your interpretation.
Journaling, whether in short fragments or longer form, is optional but encouraged.
Interpreting the Cards
There are several different cases listed below but interpreting a new card should soon come naturally. (I hope - otherwise I’ll have to cut down on the complexity here, I suppose.)
Note that flat cards are skipped over when determining if the previous card is rising or falling. I.e., if your storyline is 2, 4, 4 and your new card is a 5, your current card is rising (since a 5 ranks higher than a 4) as is the preceding card (the last 4 is ignored and the 4 before it is higher than the 2).
The new card is flat
This causes your character to change their priorities. Show this by moving the ace of the same suit as the flat card to a different position in your hierarchy of values, then describe how your character’s goals have changed and how the previous events have brought about this change.
Example: The last card on the storyline is a rising seven of spades and you play the seven of clubs. Your hierarchy of values is spades, hearts, clubs, diamonds. You decide to shift clubs up one, representing how your character’s growing reputation causes them to start seeing their new friends as a way to get wealth and material comforts.
Both cards are rising
Your character goes from success to success!
If the cards are of the same suit, they continue to reap rewards in this sphere. You may move the ace of this suit up or down one step in your hierarchy of values.
If the cards are of different suits, your character uses their success in the sphere represented by the suit of the preceding card to make gains in the sphere represented by the suit of the new card.
Example: The previous card is a rising heart and your new card is a rising spade. You describe how your character’s recent marriage has improved their social standing.
The new card is rising and the previous card is falling
If the cards are of the same suit, your character rebounds from their recent setback in this sphere. Whether this is a partial recovery or they reach even higher than before is your choice, or you can let the ranks of the cards guide your decision. You may move the ace of this suit up one step in your hierarchy of values.
If the cards are of different suits, your character is spurred on by their failure in one area to move forward in a different sphere.
Example: The previous card is a falling club and your new card is a rising heart. You describe how your character’s ties to the other members of their gang grows stronger when they get out of prison.
The new card is falling and the previous card is rising
If the cards are of the same suit, your character suffers a setback after a recent success in their current pursuits. Whether this is a minor or major setback is up to you. You may move the ace of the same suit up or down one step in the hierarchy.
If the cards are of different suits, your character’s success in the previous sphere costs them in the sphere of the new card.
Example: The previous card is a rising diamond and the new card is a falling heart. You describe how your novelist character spends all their time writing, neglecting their friends and family.
Both cards are falling
If the cards are of the same suit, your character’s fall continues. You may shift the ace of this suit up or down one step in the hierarchy to show how they get obsessed with getting back what they have lost or abandon their pursuits for something else.
If the cards are of different suits, your character’s setback in one area leads to further setbacks in another.
Example: The previous card is a falling heart and the new card is a falling club. You describe how your pirate character’s recent betrayal of their shipmates leads to their capture by the Spanish.
Ending the Game
Continue playing until you’ve reached a satisfying conclusion. If the draw deck runs out, the last card ends your story; figure out a way to make it interesting. Or reshuffle the discards and keep going; I can’t stop you.
I think the face cards could be used to represent other important characters tied to their respective spheres. A jack could be a rival, a queen a friend, and a king someone influential for example. Maybe just shuffle them into the deck and introduce them as they show up? I’m not sure if it’s necessary, but it could help with creativity perhaps.
Or maybe you have a hierarchy of important characters as well? Like, at the start of the game you draw four of them, when you draw a new one it can replace one of the others, and at certain points you can shift them around? Hm, that could be something.
Likewise, perhaps the jokers could be used as act breaks? Like, insert them roughly one third and two thirds into the deck, and when you draw a joker you describe how the stakes are raised? So then perhaps all the important characters should be introduced in the first act? This feels like an optional rule.
Anyway, let me know what you think!