Allen Varney, Writer and Traveler



Turning Roleplaying Games into Card Games

by Allen Varney

[Originally published in Gamer #3, October 1996]

Whap! Your "Shadowfist" Green Monk card hits the table, or you slap down a Ventrue Justicar in a hard-fought game of "Vampire: The Eternal Struggle." But what if, instead of just spending tokens and playing the cards, you could talk with them? Learn the monk's name and the way he serves the Guiding Hand; ask the vampire how he likes O-Negative. If you cleverly persuade them, they'll do more than what's written on their cards -- and if you're dumb, they'll pound you into tomato paste.

Sound interesting? Try it! Or rather, don't talk to your cards -- although this can sometimes creep out your opponent -- but to the roleplaying game characters they represent. Many popular collectible card games come from top-notch roleplaying games (RPGs), sold in the same hobby stores that sell cards.

"Vampire," the card game from Wizards of the Coast, sucks its lifeblood from White Wolf Game Studio's RPG of the same name. Likewise, WotC's "Netrunner" hacks into R. Talsorian Games' Cyberpunk 2020 roleplaying world. Chaosium's award-winning Call of Cthulhu RPG spawned its unearthly "Mythos" CCG, and "Shadowfist" fans should get a kick from Feng Shui, an action-movie RPG by the card game's designers. Each of these roleplaying games pulls players deep into a let's-pretend game world with depth, colorful characters, and ever-changing adventure.

Why adapt an RPG into a card game? What do you gain and lose? Why should you stop talking to your cards (looks stupid, quit it!) and try roleplaying? Designers of four popular CCGs talk about turning characters into cards.


Every CCG, like every RPG, conjures a game-world of different people, places, and things. When a designer can borrow a universe ready-made from a roleplaying game, well, why not?

Sometimes picking an RPG to adapt into card format is a no-brainer. Once Chaosium decided last year to do a CCG, it looked no further than its own bestselling Call of Cthulhu. "Mythos" designer Charlie Krank recalls, "Once we began bandying about the notion of a Cthulhu card game, the reaction was great."

On the other hand, Richard Garfield, who invented the CCG form with "Magic: The Gathering" in 1993, had his pick of subjects for his 1994 follow-up game. Seeking a topic completely different from "Magic," Garfield felt a supernatural attraction to White Wolf's Vampire RPG. "Although I never played the game before I started working on the card game, the atmosphere seemed really rich and well developed," he says. "I thought the intrigue and conspiracy elements would work well in a card game."

For the database of his third CCG, "Netrunner" (1996), Garfield chose a science fiction subject he enjoyed: cyberpunk, the gritty near-future genre of cyberspace, human-machine interfaces, corporate states, and film noir romance. In 1993 WotC had licensed card game rights to R. Talsorian's Cyberpunk 2020 RPG, and Garfield says the game "was a flexible enough tool that it could adapt itself to whatever `vision' I wanted to put in the card game. I felt the subgame of running -- computer hacking -- would make a good card game."

In all these cases, the roleplaying world attracted the card game designers. As for "Shadowfist" and its RPG counterpart, Feng Shui, designers Robin D. Laws and Jose Garcia created both together in 1994-95.

"I originally pitched the idea of a Hong Kong action movie game to Jose as an RPG," says Laws. The CCG craze prompted Garcia, president of Daedalus Entertainment, to suggest a card game version as well. "We developed the world of `Shadowfist' as world first," Garcia says. "We fleshed it out, then went to work on the games."


Remaking characters as cards isn't easy, but the design process shows the virtues of each form.

"I wish I had known when I began [`Vampire' and `Netrunner'] just how much work it is to reflect a world inside a card game," says Garfield. "A card game can never provide the complete world immersion and free-form imagination stretching that a good roleplaying game can. There are by necessity more limitations in card games."

In working out their world's Secret War in both RPG and CCG forms, Laws and Garcia found that each effort benefited the other. "Working on `Shadowfist' concurrently with Feng Shui helped us focus our attention on character types and setting details that were easily accessible," says Laws. "If the only ideas you can express must fit on a single trading card, you have to Keep It Simple. Keeping It Simple is also a virtue in roleplaying. I think accessibility has been underrated by RPG designers in the past little while. There's a difference between simple and simplistic."

Laws lists the CCG virtues: "Card games are more portable than RPGs. They require less time to play. They don't require a week-in, week-out time commitment. Once you've learned the rules, a CCG requires zero prep time. Plus there are the ancillary pleasures of collecting the cards." But Laws, who has written for RPGs such as FASA's Earthdawn and Atlas Games' Over the Edge, agrees with Garfield that RPGs "have an entire imaginative and emotional element that card games lack.

"As a Feng Shui player, you get to vicariously participate in an exciting action blockbuster. Your character gets to blow things up. And you don't have to pay for the sets or an expensive team of digital effects experts. Roleplaying games are non-competitive, the players cooperate to have a good time and, as a result, everyone comes up a winner."

"Mythos" adopts storytelling ideas from roleplaying and, more important, from fiction. Krank adapted Call of Cthulhu's monster classifications, spells, and Sanity points, but "Mythos" mostly goes back to the RPG's own source: horror writer H. P. Lovecraft. "It seemed only proper to give the greatest weight to [Lovecraft's] works," says Krank. "If we tempt someone into reading Lovecraft's fiction, then we succeeded."


What did the jump from roleplaying to CCGs teach these designers?

Laws and Garcia emerged the happiest, probably because of the simultaneous design of "Shadowfist" and Feng Shui. "I'm very pleased with the results in each case," says Laws, and Garcia adds, "Feng Shui is selling on the basis of very strong word of mouth. Many card gamers are lapsed roleplayers anyway, so it isn't as hard as many might think to attract them to an RPG."

The others found that fitting a world onto cards makes for a tight fit. Krank says, "My biggest regret in 'Mythos' is that we weren't able to get more of the background story from Lovecraft on the cards. Otherwise, I am greatly pleased that players of traditional card games are attracted to 'Mythos.' I wanted a system that echoed that style of game, though 'Mythos' still has plenty of complexity."

Garfield: "In 'Vampire' I tried very hard to reflect a world as completely as I could. I was rewarded with a rich game that was so ornate that the barrier to entry was prohibitive. With 'Netrunner' I put first priority on making a flexible game system rather than reflecting some other world. The game system was the canvas upon which we painted the world.

"The games should first be true to themselves, and if that means stretching the truth of the game world, so be it. In general, people who play card games don't want to play a simulation." Garfield is carrying this lesson into the design of his next CCG, "Battletech," based on the FASA Corporation boardgame.

Garfield, a devotee of all kinds of games, still enjoys both RPGs and CCGs. "Naturally which [form] people prefer is a matter of taste, but the media are so different people could easily prefer both, as many prefer both dinner and dessert."

[BEGIN SIDEBAR - A description of all these games]


Ki-yaaahh! The high-flying "Shadowfist" world, with its weird factions -- martial artists, mad scientists, Chinese sorcerers, high-tech anarchists, evolved frogs -- gets even weirder in Feng Shui (Daedalus Entertainment, 1996). Your characters struggle across time for control of the feng shui sites that guide history. Learn who all those "Shadowfist" folks are, why they're fighting to change history, and most important, how to blow things up real good. If you've seen high-speed Hong Kong flicks like Jackie Chan's Supercop or the heavy-ammo gangster films of John Woo, you know the kinds of characters you play in Feng Shui: Karate Cops, Old Masters, Ninja, Ghosts, Cyborgs, and Transformed Animals. Fast, loose rules emphasize action, action, action.


"That is not dead which can eternal lie, And in strange aeons even death may die." This couplet from a sinister tome, the Necronomicon, hints at the mind-shredding truths that lurk in the horror stories of American writer H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937). Lovecraft's "Cthulhu Mythos" stories tell of inhuman godlike beings that once occupied the Earth and may soon return, aided by insane cults, eldritch artifacts, and sanity-blasting magic. These stories inspired Chaosium's "Mythos" CCG and its precursor, Sandy Petersen's 1981 Call of Cthulhu. The first horror RPG and still one of the best, CoC casts players as brave but fragile 1920s Investigators who defend Earth -- or try to -- against the inevitable return of Mythos nasties like Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, and Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos. Unfortunately, characters lose Sanity points just by seeing these monsters, and as your Sanity score goes down, you act weirder and weirder....


"A beast I am, lest a beast I become." You play the monster in Mark Rein-Hagen's stylish and moody Vampire: The Masquerade RPG (White Wolf, 1991), which inspired Richard Garfield's "Vampire: The Eternal Struggle" card game (WotC, 1994; formerly titled "Jyhad"). After the Embrace turns you into one of the Kindred (vampires), you're immersed in a dark, highly detailed "Gothic-Punk" world of intrigue and manipulation. Thirteen cynical Clans wage endless, unseen political struggles for dominion over their Herd, the living. Angst, atmosphere, and Anne Rice-style storytelling make Vampire: The Masquerade a great trip for tragically hip Generation X gamers. You may have glimpsed this world in the short-lived Fox TV series The Kindred.


Attitude is everything -- well, attitude, firearms, and Kevlar armor -- in the down-and-dirty Night City of 2020. Mike Pondsmith's Cyberpunk 2020 (R. Talsorian Games, 1993) makes you a rockerboy, fixer, nomad, newshound, or corporate mercenary, complete with cybernetic implants and romantic backstory. The combat system features ten levels of death, and you'll explore them all as you fight the good fight against faceless megacorps and fascist governments, cyberspace terrorists and Black IC (intrusion countermeasures). WotC's "Netrunner" (1996) is a distantly related contest of hacker vs. corporation.


Copyright ©1996 Tuff Stuff Publications. Posted by permission.

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