Shades of Grey: From RPGs to Board Games

The recent announcement of Fortune Cards for D&D has caused a flurry of excitement and anger. As the designer of a card based RPG this issue resonates with me and highlights a growing trend in games design. The old designation of board game, card game and RPG no longer apply.

In Days of Yore

Once, everyone knew what was what.

A board game had a board that two or more people sat around, and played a game according to a tightly defined set of rules until someone won. Whether it was Monopoly or Axis & Allies, a board game had a board at is heart.

Cards games were very similar with fixed rules but with no playing area. Until Magic came along, card games meant a game with a standard 52 card deck. Magic introduced the collectible card game but it was still a card game where winning was the ultimate aim.

War Games were equally obvious. The rules were fixed but generally more complicated and open to interpretation. However the focus was on historical accuracy, tactical game play and beating the opponent.

RPGs broke the mould in that winning was not the goal, or at least the definition of winning did not necessary mean beating your fellow players. There were rules but in a game based on unlimited imagination, rules could never be comprehensive. Some, and often much, of the game was left up to the people around the table to decided.

These were the good old days when everyone and every game neatly fitted into its own niche.

Change Happens Slowly

When D&D came out in 1973, it created a new genre of games. When Warhammer Fantasy Battle came out in 1983, it was notably different from the wargaming tradition of historic reenactment and instead relied on its own universe. Likewise when Magic came out in 1993, it was different from other card games and other fantasy games like D&D or Warhammer.

Notice how each of these is about ten years apart? Notice how each innovation drew on certain aspects of existing games but could be clearly defined as something different?

And what happened in 2003? Nothing, it happened in 1999 or 2004 depending on your point of view.

1999 was the year Everquest launched. 2004, World of Warcraft launched.

Neither of these were the first of their type but they both are landmarks because they defined a type of gaming. Certainly Everquest was the leader in the field but WoW took it to a huge new level and became something non-gamers have heard of.

Critically, these games took existing ideas from RPGs and computer games, combined them into something new. Exactly what Magic, Warhammer and D&D had done before them.

2011 – The Year Everything Changed, Again

The latest generation of role-playing games, such as Warhammer RPG, Gamma World and the 6d6 RPG all use cards to some degree. Board games, such as Ravenloft, use ideas such as co-operative play and mechanics from RPGs. War games like Frontline: D-Day use cards. In the last few of years, D&D borrowed heavily from computer game for 4e. In short, everyone is borrowing ideas from everyone else.

This is how innovation and capitalism works. Clearly defined boundaries between products types get knocked down as each company or designer tries to produce their recipe for success using ingredients from other products.

With the internet, concepts like print-on-demand and technology such as iPads and Kindles, there is even more even more cross-breeding between products types than ever before. The old concepts of board game, RPG, card game, war game or computer game are dying. They should be thrown onto the scrap-heap of history.

What About the Fortune Cards?

4e has been a remarkably innovative system, possibly too innovative for its own good as innovation will always alienate some people. Fortune Cards are just part of this innovation and part of the process of the merging of different types of games. Anyone who rejects the cards just because they are cards, is living in the past.

We need to stop judging games and defining games by the simplistic idea of whether they use cards or boards or splat books or computers or dice.

The questions we should be asking of games are “Is it balanced?”, “Are the rules well written” and above all “Is it fun to play?” Until we know the answer to these, Fortune Cards and all other game innovations should be given a chance.


  1. Though card support is new to D&D, this kind of thing has existed as far back as Torg’s drama deck. Lately, I’ve used the Adventure cards for Savage Worlds and they’ve been fun. And in the past, I’ve been keen to inject games (boardgames, wargames, whatever) into role-playing sessions. Wait… I know I’ve written about this. Yes, here.

    Point is, I agree with you that the tools you use to tell the collaborative story are just tools. Cards are no different from dice, or splat books, or miniatures. The questions you ask us to ask are the right ones.
    .-= Siskoid´s last blog ..Stuff You Notice During an Ed Wood Marathon =-.

  2. While I’m a bit leery of the Magic-style format of Fortune Cards, my main concerns are about their ‘optional’ inclusion and adding complexity to an already rich mixture. And 4E is already packed with ingredients. Having already blogged about it here, let’s move on shall we?

    The concept of mixed mode has been around since Monopoly. Cards have been used in RPGs with spell cards, power cards, whimsy cards and similar. Evolution is not always neat or gentle and transmedia gaming offers some fascinating vistas to explore. Old forms will persist – chess, backgammon and Go endure despite limited play environments. Call it long tail or legacy support, history is still written by the victors – a sobering thought for those tending the digital compost heap or trying to suppress fan sites.

    Let’s see what’s out there.
    .-= satyre´s last blog ..the year the game changed =-.

  3. @Satyre,

    From a design point of view, I agree with you. 4e (like all D&D most editions) is somewhat bloated. It is also difficult to see how the cards can be balanced when the same cards are used for 1st level and 30th level characters.

    From a marketing strategy point of view, it looks opportunistic following the success of the Gamma World cards. Being opportunistic is part of business but coming only 6 months after the Red Box you have to ask questions about the overall strategy for 4e. It currently looks a bit desperate.

    However, I suspect the cards will be very popular amongst the D&D Encounters crowd. In these types of games the issues of balance and complexity do not matter a lot less. Where as the benefit of having a ‘pocket money’ level item players can regularly buy is very significant to the FLGS running the games.
    .-= Chris Tregenza´s last blog ..Shades of Grey- From RPGs to Board Games =-.

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