Followup: Damage Decks and the use of Playing Cards in RPGs

Wait what is the “damage deck” rpg called?


I was thinking, specifically, of two games. One was the FFG version of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, the other was Decipher’s Star Trek: Customizable Card Game. Both games are out of print, (The Star Trek: CCG went out of print nearly 20 years ago, and FFG lost the Warhammer license back in 2017.)

With Warhammer, I misremembered how the damage rules work, and it’s something of a hybrid system. Damage inflicted becomes “minor wounds,” which are tracked by face down damage cards. Under certain circumstances, a minor wound can become a “serious wound,” by flipping the damage card over, and at that point it has a persistent effect until the character is healed. The primary way minor wounds become serious ones is if the character is knocked out, in which case, one of their minor wounds will flip face up.

It’s a little unusual to see a mechanic like this in tabletop RPGs, but the mechanic of taking a persistent debuff after being downed in combat is significantly more common in CRPGs. Both the Dragon Age series and Pillars of Eternity use that exact mechanic to penalize characters who have been downed in combat.

It’s also worth pointing out that FFG is primarily a tabletop game publisher. This is very apparent in their Warhammer RPG, which features a lot of items you’d normally associate with a tabletop game, rather than an RPG. Player characters, their items, their skills, and the things they’ll fight are all tracked with cards. Keeping track of player characters between sessions was accomplished with custom tuck boxes. There are also a mountain of tokens for tracking many other things. So, in that environment, the use of cards to track damage isn’t that strange. It’s also why the box was nearly $100 USD when it was still in print. It’s beefy, and there’s a lot of stuff in there.

The Star Trek: CCG was one of the first imitators of Magic: The Gathering, and significantly, one of the first to really depart from the game structure of Magic. Where M:TG is about dealing 20 damage to your opponent before they do the same to you, Star Trek’s victory condition was acquiring 100 points from completing missions. Combat was not a primary focus of the game, and there was no direct victory condition through combat.

Over the years, Star Trek reworked its ground combat to be almost passible, but ship combat got a significant rework with the Blaze of Glory expansion. This saw the introduction of the “Battle Bridge side deck,” constructed from Tactic cards. Tactics had two parts to the card, the top was a combat modifier that you would select, and the bottom was the damage effect. Ship combat occurred once per turn, with your ships having the opportunity to attack your opponents, at which point, both players would draw the top two Tactics cards from the BBSD, select one, place the other underneath the deck, and then both players would reveal them at the same time. Tactics had varying effects, frequently increasing attack and defense values. If your attack was greater than the target’s defense, that was a “hit,” and if your attack was greater than twice the target’s defense that was a “direct hit.” At the same time, your opponent would make the same checks with their attack against your defense value.

Tactics cards would define what you did on a hit or direct hit. The default was to deal the top two tactics from your deck to your opponent’s ship on a hit, and the top four on a direct hit, but there was some variation. For example: One Tactics card (“Maximum Firepower,” I think), would deal the top three cards on a hit (if you were using one of a small subset of ships), but also had a defense penalty instead of a bonus. An entire subset of tactics (“Target Weapons/Shields/Engines”) would direct you to deal the top card off your deck (or top three on a direct hit), but was also placed on the target as a damage card when used.) (In the case of Target Shields, it would be applied even if you didn’t score a hit.)

As with Warhammer this is, technically a hybrid damage system. Each Tactic card’s damage section had a small text box which indicated what it did to the ship, this included disabling systems (such as the transporter or tractor beam), killing a crew member, causing the ship to be vulnerable to boarding parties, ect. It also applied penalties to the ship’s stats, and applied a “-%” to the ship’s hull. If the cumulative damage exceeded -100% hull, the ship would be destroyed. So, there is a health pool, but it’s gated by cards.

Now, significantly, this was not in the RPG that Decipher developed for Star Trek.

The use of cards as a game component in RPGs is pretty rare overall. The most prominent example I can think of is Deadlands, which used cards during character creation, and also when casting spells. Though, that was with a (mostly) standard 54 card poker deck. The only unusual element was the Jokers which were distinct from one another, and one had a special significance. Including, if I remember correctly, killing the player character if it was drawn during character creation.

The reverse is also unusual. You don’t often see card games which trend into roleplaying territory.

The (also, now, long out of print), Babylon 5 card game actively encouraged players to roleplay as their various characters during sessions session, and many of the cards in that game are primarily only useful as roleplaying aides. (There is a serious difference between competitive decks and casual ones.) However, there is no persistence between sessions. The game (unsurprisingly) has a card based consequence system, but, damage is just points assigned against a character’s highest ability.

FFG’s Arkham Horror card game is the inverse of B5 in many ways. You’re not actively encouraged to roleplay at the table, but your characters (or at least their decks) are intended to grow and change over the course of a campaign. Additionally, the game structure is more in line with an RPG, it’s cooperative between the players, with, “self-playing,” scripted scenarios that you work together to overcome. As with B5, there are persistent card effects that can linger on a character, but damage is simply measured against a health pool. (Technically two distinct health pools, Health and Sanity, but, this is H.P. Lovecraft inspired title.) (Also, there is an Arkham Horror board game. Same publisher, same setting, most of the same characters, but it is a different game.)

Now, my background with board and card games is not absolute, so I could easily be missing some other examples. (In particular, I haven’t played the board game version of Arkham Horror.) But, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and the Star Trek CCG’s ship combat are the two examples I was specifically thinking of when I mentioned that system.


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