Card crawls, part 1: the Great Salt Marsh exploration game

My selfie

James Turner,

Tags: RPGs

In this post:

Designers of tabletop RPGs over the years have come up with lots of different ways to simulate a group of adventurers exploring a large area. Dungeon crawls, hex crawls and point crawls have all been described and discussed in game products, magazine articles, blog posts and YouTube videos over the history of RPGs. In this article, I'm interested in another tool that I've been trying out recently, which uses a standard deck of playing cards. In keeping with tradition, I'm calling it the card crawl.

TL;DR: You can model a series of encounters by drawing from a deck of normal playing cards. The number, suit and colour of cards can represent all kinds of different levers, including encounter type (combat, RP, skill challenge, etc), encounter difficulty, environmental effects (such as rising or falling temperature), and so on. A joker placed or shuffled into the deck can represent the objective. Drawing from the bottom of the deck represents a delay, such as getting lost.

Where it comes from

I'm sure others have come up with similar systems, but I got the idea when I was running a solo game (which is definitely a thing; if you've never heard or thought about it, start with the solo role-playing series by Tabletop Diversions). I was playing in the Lankhmar, City of Thieves setting for Savage Worlds, and my party of heroes had to venture into the Great Salt Marsh to stop a snow witch from turning the city into an ice pop. The problem was, I didn't have a map of the Great Salt Marsh, and even if I had, as a player in a GM-less game, I wouldn't have wanted the spoilers.

Meanwhile, this year, my partner and I have been getting into modern co-operative boardgames. We had a lot of fun playing Castle Ravenloft, and a great mechanic in the game is the tile deck. Rather than playing on a static game board, you draw tiles from a deck and lay a new tile down on each turn when a player explores. This creates an emergent, procedurally generated game board which is different every time.

Also, Eldritch Horror has a cool countdown system called the Doom Track. Adverse events during the game cause the doom token to move down the track. When it hits zero, the ancient one appears and the investigators go insane. This countdown mechanic adds a lot of tension. The few times we've won the game, the doom track was nearly at zero and we were on the edge of our seats to see if we would win.

The Great Salt Marsh Exploration Game

So, I wanted a system that would give my party a hexcrawl-like experience as they explored the Great Salt Marsh without necessarily having a map. The system needed to be easy and quick to use, so that I only needed a minute or two to generate each encounter. I wanted it to include dangers such as getting lost, and the environmental threat of the witch's ice magic getting stronger with time. And I also wanted a clear endpoint, which was when the heroes would finally reach the witch's lair. Here's how I played it.

What you'll need

In addition to your RPG rules of choice (Savage Worlds in my case), you'll need a standard deck of playing cards and a set of random encounter tables. I picked some of the tables from Matthew J Finch's Tome of Adventure Design.

Setting up

Remove the jokers from the deck of playing cards and shuffle the deck. Set aside the top eight cards. Take another three cards from the top and shuffle one of the jokers in. Place these four cards back on top of the deck, and then place the eight cards you set aside earlier on top of these. The joker should now be shuffled somewhere between the ninth and twelfth cards. Also, make a note of the temperature, which begins at 42°F: pretty chilly and about to get even colder.

Taking a turn

Each card represents a four-hour block of travel, so you can draw up to three cards per day for twelve hours of travel, before the group must make camp. Before drawing a card, each party member makes a Vigour test to see if the cold gives them a level of fatigue. Then, the party navigator makes a Survival test to see if the group gets lost. If they succeed, draw a card from the top of the deck. If they fail and become lost, draw a card from the bottom of the deck.

The colour of the card represents a change in temperature. Black means the temperature stays the same, but red means the temperature falls by 10°F. In Savage Worlds, lower temperatures make fatigue more likely.

The number of the card represents what the group encounters. Each number is keyed to a table in the Tome of Adventure Design, and you can roll percentile dice or just pick something from the table.

Card What's encountered
Ace Table 7-72: Unusual Trees
Two Table 4-74: Unusual Plants
Three Table 4-75: Unusual Feature of Animal
Four Table 4-76: Weird Terrain Features
Five Table 4-98: Swamp Map Features
Six Table 4-98: Swamp Map Features
Seven Table 4-98: Swamp Map Features
Eight Table 4-100: Swamp Dressing
Nine Table 4-100: Swamp Dressing
Ten Table 4-100: Swamp Dressing
Jack Monster
Queen Monster
King NPC

So, most cards indicate interesting terrain features that the party can stop and interact with, but some indicate a monster or NPC. I think it's important to include a fair number of non-combat encounters, which give opportunities for the party to experience and interact with the world without having to kill something all the time.

How it went

In practice, it took a couple of turns to remember all the mechanical stuff, like the Vigour and Survival tests, and to interpret the cards quickly, but it got easier each time.

The encounter results were sometimes a bit mundane at first glance (“overhanging trees”, “wooden ladder built into tree”, etc). When I got a result like this, I tried to think of ways to make it more interesting, but it wasn't always possible. The Tome of Adventure Design is fantastic and it wasn't designed for this purpose, so there's no blame there. If I was going to do this with a group, I'd spend a bit more time before the game to come up with fun results in the encounter tables, perhaps cherry-pick the best ideas from ToAD and other random generators (I've since got hold of the d30 Sandbox Companion by Richard J LeBlanc Jr, which is similarly awesome). I feel like this is a topic for another post, so watch this space.

I didn't think about how long all this was going to take, and in the end, it needed a few sessions to get through. That was fine, since I didn't have a time limit. If time had been an issue, I could have placed the joker higher up in the deck, say between the 6th and 9th cards.

The falling temperature mechanic certainly added a Doom Track-like tension to the game, but it also created an unexpected “death spiral”. In Savage Worlds, every 20°F below freezing adds a -1 penalty to Vigour tests to avoid fatigue. As the weather got colder, the heroes failed their Vigour tests more often, they got fatigued, the Survival checks to avoid getting lost became more difficult, they got lost, the temperature got even lower, and round it went. At first, I thought this was a flaw in the system, perhaps more suited to one-shot boardgames, where character death is more likely to be met with a shrug. But as a player, I ended up inventing ways to mitigate the effects of the cold and avoid getting lost, such as climbing that wooden ladder in the tree to survey the lay of the land.

On the whole, I'm pretty happy with how the card crawl went, and I now that I've used it a few times in other solo scenarios, I'm interested to see how it plays with a group.

Conclusion

So, a card crawl is an alternative way to model some kind of exploration scenario in a tabletop RPG. A normal deck of playing cards is set up at the beginning, and each draw of the card represents a unit of time or distance travelled. Different aspects of the card (colour, suit, etc) reveal various things about what the heroes encounter, such as terrain features or monsters, and certain cards can influence a countdown mechanic that adds a sense of urgency to the scenario.

In part two, I'll set out some ideas on how this structure can be adapted and extended to a whole range of other situations in RPGs.

References

Running a card crawl has a lot in common with running a hex crawl, and there's already a fair amount of information out there on this style of play. Here are some of my favourites:

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