Card crawls, part 2: pimping the crawl

My selfie

James Turner,

Tags: RPGs Solo RPGs DM Advice

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The Great Salt Marsh exploration game (GSME), described in part one of this article, is a tool I used to simulate a group of adventurers exploring the eponymous wilderness environment in a solo session of the Savage Worlds RPG. I talked about how I set up a deck of cards with an objective shuffled in, and each card represents a four-hour block of travel. The number and suit of each card are keyed to trigger certain events, such as a drop in temperature and a type of encounter.

If you squint hard enough, you can see how this “card crawl” structure can simulate a wide range of situations in tabletop RPGs. In this part of the article, I'm interested in exploring the different levers that you can tweak to customise it to your own scenarios, and some general thoughts and gotchas that I've come across so far.

What a card represents

The two most obvious things a card can represent are a unit of time or a unit of distance travelled. But it could be something more abstract, such as a conversation, an object, or some other event of note. Whatever each card represents, it should probably be something that either complicates your PCs' lives or gives them an opportunity to develop. If too many cards indicate that nothing happens, then you might as well hand-wave the exploration that your card crawl is simulating and get back to more familiar RPG fare.

Types of deck

A normal deck of playing cards provides 52 opportunities for unique encounters, and if the DM needs to decide what each card means, then deciding on the significance of the 13 numbers and four suits isn't too onerous. Playing cards are usually cheap, widely recognisable and, importantly, easy to shuffle.

A tarot deck provides more options: 14 numbers and four suits in the minor arcana, plus 22 cards in the major arcana for a total of 78. You can incorporate the established meanings of the cards, as used in cartomancy (pentacles for wealth, cups for relationships, etc), or ascribe your own. In tarot reading, the orientation of the card (normal or reversed) has meaning, too, and the artwork (body language and facial expressions of figures, presence or absence of features such as water, the sun, objects, buildings and animals) can all be used to generate ideas.

Also, there's no reason why you can't use a deck of cards from a boardgame. The flavour text alone from cards in a game like Castle Ravenloft is often a great way to spark ideas. And if time is really no object, you could create your own custom deck of cards.

The countdown

It can be fun if there's some kind of ongoing countdown mechanic that cards and player actions can influence. In GSME, every red card causes the temperature to fall, making fatigue an increasing concern. Perhaps certain cards indicate a rise in the water level, wild magic becoming more chaotic, dwindling food stores, or a space station hurtling towards a planet's atmosphere. The purpose of a mechanic like this is to create a gradual build-up of tension in the game, so that by the end, everyone has the feeling of a being on a runaway train about to derail.

Position of the objective

The position of the objective can be random or fixed. In GSME, I shuffled the joker between the 9th and 12th cards to add an element of uncertainty to the game. Other games might draw a fixed number of cards, for example, twelve cards, where each is a month of in-world time.

You can also have multiple objectives, such as a number of keys or passwords that need collecting. In this case you can use both jokers, or use another type of card, such as aces, if you need more than two. In terms of setting up, I would set aside the top four cards, take three cards from the top and shuffle the first joker in, take another three cards from the top and shuffle the second joker in, and then return all three stacks to deck.

Multiple objectives don't need to be of the same type. One objective card might represent an item that needs collecting (a wooden stake), while the second represents the appearance of a villain (the vampire).

Positive and negative objectives

If your scenario has an objective, then broadly speaking, it will involve either seeking something, such as an item, location or person, or trying to avert disaster. These two types of objective will determine the way you run your card crawl.

If the objective is to seek something, the heroes are the active agents, and the objective is assumed to be waiting passively for the heroes to find, rescue or murder it. In GSME, the heroes were actively crossing the marsh to find the witch's lair. Let's call this a positive objective.

Conversely, the heroes might be trying to avert a looming disaster, or shore up their resources before disaster hits. This is a negative objective. The heroes are anxiously waiting for the goal to reach them, not the other way round, and in that sense, it's the objective, not the heroes, which is the active agent in the game. In a game with a negative objective, the arrival could mean the world explodes, game over, TPK, or it might signal a final boss fight encounter.

Resource accrual and depletion

The type of objective, positive or negative, will probably influence the steady-state world (i.e. the condition of the world at the beginning of the game) and what needs to happen as the game proceeds.

If the objective represents something positive, such as a quest to find an object, then the steps leading up to it will tend to involve depleting the heroes' resources somehow. In GSME, heroes start alert, happy and in full health. Encounters and the falling temperature all conspire to make the heroes cold and miserable by the time they reach the Snow Witch's lair.

On the other hand, if the objective represents averting a calamity, such as a volcano erupting or a spaceship exploding, the heroes will probably start with no resources. Each card should give an opportunity to gather the resources necessary to prevent or at least survive the ultimate event. For example, does the starship crew gather enough dilithium crystals before the Borg cube arrives?

Games can include both elements, accrual and depletion, at the same time. In GSME, the heroes are losing health and bennies, but they're also gaining treasure and experience from encounters to help when they finally enter the snow witch's lair.

Drawing from the bottom

Drawing cards from the bottom of the deck can represent something positive or negative, depending on the game objective. If the objective is for the heroes to find something, then a card from the bottom might represent a delay or obstacle that causes the objective to get further away. For example, it could mean that the group got lost, or that their quarry was aided somehow. If the objective is to avert a looming calamity, a card from the bottom might mean something positive, such as the enemy being delayed or an additional opportunity to acquire resources before the world blows up.

The death spiral

One health warning about ramping up the complications: as penalties accrue, the chance of failure gets higher and higher. In RPGs, this is sometimes called a “death spiral”. In GSME, for example, as the temperature got colder, the heroes' chances of becoming fatigued grew. This meant the heroes were more likely to get lost in the next turn, which meant the temperature might have fallen again, and so on. This kind of situation is great for that gradual build-up of tension typical in action movies. But in tabletop RPGs, you never know how the dice will fall, so I'd recommend being generous in allowing the party to mitigate penalties by coming up with creative ways to exploit encounters or the environment. In GSME, the heroes used encounters like “overhanging trees” to climb up and survey the local area, which gave them a one-time bonus to their checks to avoid getting lost.

Game duration

It's worth thinking about how long you want the game to last in real-world time. If you're running an RPG session over four hours and the cards represent combat encounters, you'll probably be aiming for 2-4 encounters. In this case, you can say that only red cards indicate a combat encounter, or you could shuffle the objective higher up the deck (between the 3rd and 5th card). On the other hand, you might be playing a game where each card only needs a couple of minutes to resolve, in which case, nine to twelve cards should take 20-30 minutes of real time.

I didnt't think about this too much when coming up with GSME as it was designed for a solo role-playing experience. In practice, it ran over the course of several sessions, which was a lot longer than I'd anticipated. Some encounters took a minute or two to resolve (“hanging vines”), while others required a whole game session (“a half-sunken tower”).

The element of surprise

I've only tried this with solo games up to now, and I really liked the unpredictability of the cards. When my characters had just had a difficult fight, and then the next card was a red one (drop in temperature), I really felt like things were about to go to hell.

In a group game, I suspect that if the drawing of a card is done in front of everyone, it'll ramp up the tension. You'll have to at least tell your players what you're doing, and either tell them what the cards mean or leave them to work it out. But eventually, once everyone knows that red card equals bad, it'll no doubt be fun to watch their faces as their doom gets closer.

Repetition in cards

Drawing consecutive cards that create poker-like hands, such as a pair, three of a kind or a straight could indicate a stroke of particularly good or bad luck. The probabilities of these appearing are pretty low: around a 1-in-4 chance of getting two cards of the same suit, 1-in-17 of getting the same number, and around 1-in-400 of getting three cards of the same number (these aren't quite accurate as it depends how many and which cards you've already drawn). Unless you'll be using card crawls a lot, you won't need to worry about the very low probability hands, but it might be fun to add a special event if you get a pair the same number. This could indicate the appearance of a recurring villain or rival, the way Gollum keeps showing up in Fellowship of the Ring; a chance of finding a valuable item; the opening of an extraplanar gate, ala Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion; or some other weird or zany aspect to the encounter.

Non-exploration scenarios

The card crawl can simulate a range of non-exploration scenarios, too. Here are a few examples that I thought of:

Random treasures. Instead of representing encounters, cards can represent random treasures that the heroes find during their adventures. Maybe the number of the card is keyed to the power level of the item and the suit indicates the type of item (weapon, armour, implement or wondrous item).

Navigating a social gathering. Each card represents some kind of role-playing challenge (I'm thinking of the noble's party in Dragon Age: Inquisition) to gather clues or rally people to the heroes' cause. The objective card might signify the end of the soiree, or perhaps something more dramatic, such as an assassination attempt on the host's life.

Simulating a year in the life of a faction. A card crawl can represent twelve months in the life of a lord's stronghold, a thieves' guild or a megacorporation. Each month, a card is drawn that corresponds to a key event and a potential change in the power centre's fortunes. Alternatively, it might model a year in a prison or school. Cards signify random events, and the countdown track represents some indicator of chaos, corruption, morale or favour with the institution's leaders.

An attempt to hack a corporate mainframe. The objective is either to gain a particular piece of information or full, blanket access to corporate databases. Cards can offer short cuts or throw up speed bumps that might influence the final hacking attempt.

A chase encounter. If the heroes are the hunters, the objective card represents their quarry. A countdown track indicates the quarry's distance from the group. If the track dips below a certain level before the objective is reached, their quarry escapes. You can come up with similar rules for the heroes being the hunted.

Layered dream sequences. The ultimate card crawl! To model a scenario from Inception, multiple layers of a dream are handled by different decks of cards at the same time. The objective is buried somewhere in the third deck, and for each card drawn from the first deck, you draw two or three cards from the second, etc. If cards across multiple decks align in some way (e.g. same suit or number), a Significant Dream Event takes place.


There a lots of ways that you can customise the card crawl to your own scenarios. It'll need a bit more testing, but I think it would be useful in any scenario where some kind of randomness is desirable, and where you don't necessarily want or need a map. I had a lot of fun both designing and playing through the Great Salt Marsh exploration card crawl. I've since tried it with a few different solo scenarios, but not yet with a group, so I'd be interested to see how that plays out.

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