GURPS Dramatic Card Play

by Brian Reeves

Art by Dan Smith and Colored by Keith Johnson

Using Cards

GURPS Dramatic Card Play

GURPS was designed to be a straightforward, "realistic" roleplaying game, where often the best choice in a combat situation is to avoid combat altogether. Players have a wide range of capabilities, and are encouraged to use ingenuity to stack the odds in their favor; however, when it finally comes down to a simple roll they are ultimately at the mercy of the dice. Having the ability as a player to push the odds in one's favor, especially for those oh-my-gosh-please-roll-a-one moments, can be a lifesaver.

Introducing cards to game play can be a simple and effective way to give players that lifesaver. Players draw and collect cards, each with a different effect, and may play these any time they see fit to briefly improve their odds. This can heighten drama and provide players with the sense of control, however tiny, over the cold odds of luck. Dramatic card play can always be useful, and may be especially appropriate for cinematic-style games.

The basic premise is simple: at the beginning of the game, each player draws three cards, which form their hand. Players may also spend one character point to draw three more cards -- either to replenish an empty hand or to increase the size of their own hand past the original three. GMs may (or may not) want to limit the maximum size of the hand, depending on the tone of the campaign and how many options they want the PCs to have. Each suit corresponds to a different character attribute: strength, dexterity, health, and intelligence. Players may only apply the effects of each card to its corresponding attribute (for example, a player with a 5 of cups cannot use that card for a Dexterity skill attempt).

Included are rules for using both standard card decks and exotic Tarot decks. The benefits and drawbacks of each are explained, followed by a breakdown of individual card abilities. It is suggested that Gamemasters allow trading of cards among players, but only in particularly dramatic scenes and when the characters are physically near one another.

Playing with a Standard Deck

While not as colorful and interesting as Tarot cards, the typical card deck, the one used for Poker and other common card games, is certainly more accessible. Many grocery stores sell decks of cards, often in a variety of styles (Bridge, Go Fish, etc.) and sometimes even with cartoon characters. Gamemasters may even already have several decks around the house. Using a standard deck has more benefits, however, than being easy to find -- there are also fewer cards. The standard deck is derived from the Tarot, but the Minor Arcana (the suits, or all the cards from Ace to King) have changed slightly over the years and the Major Arcana has totally been dropped. That is, with the exception of The Fool, which has become the Joker card.

Playing without the Major Arcana does speed game play. Major Arcana cards have specific, individual effects, and players will need to consult a chart for a while to remember what each card permits. Without these special cards, abilities are limited to straight numeric benefits attributed to one of four suits (see below).

The Deck

As mentioned earlier, every "suit" corresponds to a GURPS character attribute: ST, IQ, DX, and HT. They break down as follows.

All suits contain a range of numbered and "faced" cards ranging from Ace (representing the number one) to the King. In this case, standard number cards include the Ace card. The value of all number cards is used instead of a regular skill or attribute roll by adding the face value of the card to a roll of 1d. In other words, the number on the card takes the place of two dice out of three in a skill or attribute roll; the third die must still be rolled and added to the card value.

Example: Greg is attempting to roll a skill use for Stealth, with no penalties or bonuses. Ronen has a 10 Stealth skill. Greg possesses a 5 of Spades cards and decides to use it. The five on the card now counts as the sum of two of the three dice. Greg must roll the third and final die to determine the outcome. He does so, and rolls a 4, giving him a Stealth attempt of 9 (5 + roll of 4 = 9). He succeeds! If he had rolled a 6, the result would have been 11, greater than his Stealth, and he would have failed.

Obviously, players holding Ace cards and those of low number have a strong chance of succeeding most actions. The opposite holds true, though, of higher number cards -- a player with a 10 of Diamonds needs a 16 or higher in a mental skill or risk failure!

Face Cards

"Face" cards refer to all suited cards showing a character, which are the Jacks, Queens, and Kings. These cards work by temporarily adding points to the character's skill level. A player spending a face card may apply a bonus, but again, only to the attribute associated with the card's suit.

The Joker: The Joker is a Wild Card; that is, players may use Joker cards to substitute any card in the deck. A player with a Joker card may use it as a 5 of Hearts, a Jack of Spades, or an Ace of Diamonds, etc. Some decks do not include a Joker; to be safe, Gamemasters wishing to incorporate the Joker should be sure to purchase a Poker deck.

Playing with the Tarot

Gamemasters looking for more atmosphere, and who are not overly superstitious, may find the use of a Tarot deck to be more atmospheric and dramatic than a standard card deck. The Tarot cards are used in a similar fashion -- three form a hand, and may be played for the corresponding attribute -- but bring added benefits with the Major Arcana. The drawback to Tarot use is that decks are much harder to find and can be expensive. A standard Rider-Waite deck, the most common Tarot set, can run anywhere from $10 at a chain bookstore to $40, $50, or more at a magic shop or spiritual bookstore. This added investment may compel Gamemasters to be overly sensitive about the condition of the cards in their deck. Another drawback is that, since the Major Arcana are used, players and gamemasters alike must memorize more effects (or have a chart handy). Tarot decks work especially well, though, with In Nomine campaigns and other games based on the supernatural or spiritual.

As with the standard deck, each suit corresponds to a GURPS attribute:

The Minor Arcana

The term "Minor Arcana" refers to all numbered cards and face cards of the suits Cups, Swords, Wands, or Pentacles, including Aces and Face cards. Numbered Minor Arcanum have a worth based upon face value of the card, which may be used instead of a regular skill or attribute roll by adding the face value of the card to a roll of 1d. Aces have a face value of 1.

Example: Michelle has the 4 of Wands card in her hand, and is attempting to roll Acrobatics, which she has at skill level 8. She plays the card and rolls 1d, getting a 3. These add to 7 (Wands 4 + roll of 3), providing a successful result. If she rolled a 5, the result would have been above her skill, and she would have failed.

Minor Arcana face cards provide temporary (one round) bonuses as per following:

The Major Arcana

"Major Arcana" are those cards which do not fall into a suit, and have an individual name (such as Heirophant, Magician, Tower, and Fool). Each of these cards has a special application which may or may not directly affect an attribute or skill roll. There are 22 of these cards, and each has a different effect -- these effects are listed below. The numbers for each card, located on the face of the card itself, are given for ease of reference. Following each title is a one-word description of the card's representation, as one might hear in a fortune reading, and this is followed by the card's application. Major Arcana are unsuited; that is, they have no connection to a specific attribute, and so may be played for any attribute or skill.


The Fool: Folly.

Provides +1 bonus to any skill that carries the risk of immediate drastic results upon failure.


The Magician: Diplomacy.

Adds +1 to any skill used to persuade or convince another.


The High Priestess: Mystery.  

Provides +1 to skill used to extract information from an intelligent subject.


The Empress: Action.

Adds 1 point to Passive Defense for one round.


The Emporer: Protection.

Adds 1 point to Damage Resistance for one round.


Heirophant: Alliance.

Provides +1 each for two or more characters performing the same action simultaneously.


The Lovers: Attraction.

Adds +1 to any Reaction roll.


The Chariot: Providence.

Any one action taken to rescue or prevent harm to another character is at +1.


Strength: Courage.

Player may roll one Will roll or Fright check at +1.


The Hermit: Treason.

Provides +1 to any skill used to conceal an item or person from discovery.


Wheel of Fortune: Destiny.

Allows character to take first action in combat round sequence.


Justice: Equity.

All players may refill their hands to equal the person with the most cards.


The Hanged Man: Wisdom.

Player may ask gamemaster one yes-or-no question and receive a truthful answer.


Death: Mortality.

Allows a critically injured character to void one HT roll for death.


Temperance: Frugality.

Player may retain one card after spending it.


The Devil: Violence.

Adds an extra die of damage to an attack roll.


The Tower: Calamity.

Allows character second attempt for failed action at -3.


The Star: Privation.

Adds +1 to any skill used for purposes of theft.


The Moon: Hidden Enemies.  

Provides +1 to skill attempt to discover hidden objects or adversaries.


The Sun: Fortune.

Player may roll four dice and choose best three for one action.


Judgement: Renewal.

Player may refill hand (not exceeding beginning maximum).


The World: Voyage.

Character's Move score at +1 for one round.

Note: Some Tarot decks may contain a blank card which gamemasters may wish to incorporate as a wild card.


The use of cards in game play does not need to be confined to the players. Gamemasters may elect to hold a hand of their own, to be used as an "NPC hand" from which any non-player character, good or evil, may play. A system might also be devised by which one card is flipped every round, changing the flow of the action (perhaps using a standard card deck to determine initiative, morale, luck, or other changing fortunes of combat). The most important consideration, though, is whether card use is enhancing the game. It should never be allowed to destroy the flow of an adventure or to add fuel to already over-powerful characters. As with any rule, if it isn't fun, don't allow it!

Article publication date: October 20, 2000

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