Using Cards Instead Of Dice for RPGs

Can a deck of cards be used in place of the normal d20 system?

Most of this Spurs from a recent reading of the no dice rule book which you can find here. But I’ve always been fascinated with cards as a gameplay mechanic so let’s dig in.

At its most basic you could simply draw cards from a deck as your randomizer. Now you have 1-10, Jack for critical fail, Queen for critical success, King as a wild card (maybe they get to take another action?) And joker to signify it’s time to shuffle the deck.

This is probably the easiest way to represent randomness and is roughly the equivalent of rolling a d10 for everything. This will take a little work on your end now to change stat values, armor class, difficulties, etc because you are working with a less granular scale.

For example your difficulties now probably range between 5-15 instead of 10-30. Each ‘point’ on a card is worth about 10% instead of %5. You get the idea.

Alternative Drawing Options


If you wanted to get closer to a 20 point system you could draw 2 cards. Be aware that this also means you have a higher chance to get a critical or a fail… or both? That’d be a fun one. This would be about like rolling 2d10 and adding them together. This is going to give you about .5 higher value than a d20, but I’d guess that is not a big deal.


Along the lines of rolling 2d10 you could look at the cards like percentile dice. The first card could be the tens and the second can be the ones. For example, first I draw a 6 then I draw a 2, my result is 62. This would give you more granularity than the previous two options.

Damage and effort

This does impact how damage or effort is rolled. In the classic D&D sense, weapons have different damage dice, daggers for example are a d4 while a battleaxe may be a d12.

Now with drawing from a deck you’re back to d10’s for everything. Everything becomes much more lethal because your dagger could do up to 10 damage in a hit versus it’s previous 4. A dagger at 1 card versus a battleaxe at 3 cards is still roughly 3x more powerful, but the values are significantly higher than their dice counterparts. Something that needs to be taken into account. Either you leave the health as is and just have a more lethal game, or increase everyone’s health values accordingly.


I’ve been playing Gloomhaven a lot recently which has sparked another thought. Instead of drawing cards to simulate randomness, what if your players played cards from their hand as if they were playing any other type of card game.

Let’s say that each player gets a hand of 5 cards. Whenever they need to make a check, deal damage, etc, the player plays a card from their hand.

In this case, as soon as the check is made, the player decides how to pass a check. Now we have a game with some randomness, but also resource management.

Got a high card? Maybe you’ll save it for a particularly hard check, or maybe you want to use it to deal damage on your next hit so you can take down that bad guy.

I’m curious about how this would change players interactions with the game world. Players may intentionally fail checks that are less important to them so they can save their big cards for when it really matters.

Along with this (I think) I would prevent players from drawing cards at the end of their turn. Make players take a rest action, or only redraw their hand after they end their turn with no cards. If players always draw and continue to get high cards, and since they can always select the good cards, they may be able to drift on for long chunks of time without playing their bad cards.

Forcing a player to either rest to redraw or use an their cards may help keep some of the randomness. This is all subject to testing of course and I look forward to the day I can run a one shot using this system.

I anticipate that most people would use high cards to make their checks (or just high enough to pass) and use the lower cards for damage so they can cycle them out without failing a check. Save for the few exceptions where they really want extra damage, or are ok with failing a given check.

Other benefits of using cards

One of the other benefits of using cards is the color and suit aspect. Dice don’t tell you red, black, clubs, hearts, etc when rolling. This can give you additional triggers for abilities.

One way to look at this is similar to the Star Wars narrative dice. The dice don’t give you just a pass fail but also a good or bad outcome. You might fail but get some benefit, or succeed with a complication.

You can designate a suit to be a good outcome, and a suit to be a bad outcome.

Representing Stats

Another take on this is representing stats with suits. I’ve been throwing around the idea of a 4 stat system using the suits.

Black is the physical realm
Clubs represent Might, your strength, brawn, and dexterity.
Spades represent Mind, your mental sharpness, perception, and knowledge.

Red is the spiritual realm
Hearts represent Soul, your connection to the Divine and Arcane
Diamonds represent Influence, your charisma, command, and persuasion

You can use these cards to drive additional effects. Perhaps you find a Mace of Fire, which does bonus fire damage when you play a heart card for damage. Or an Eagle bow that lets you play an additional Spade card to take aim on your attempt. There are many possibilities to draw from here. (Pun intended)

Interestingly enough all of the D&D classes can be represented by some combination of 2 suits. One primary, one secondary. Which could also trigger abilities based on suits.

Fighter: Might & Mind (Clubs/Spades)
Paladin: Might & Soul (Clubs/Hearts)
Barbarian: Might & Influence (Clubs/Diamonds)
Ranger: Mind & Might (Spades/Clubs)
Wizard: Mind & Soul (Spades/Hearts)
Rouge: Mind & Influence (Spades/Diamonds)
Cleric: Soul & Might (Hearts/Clubs)
Monk: Soul & Mind (Hearts/Spades)
Sorcerer: Soul & Influence (Hearts/Diamonds)
Warlock: Influence & Might (Diamonds/Clubs)
Druid: Influence & Mind (Diamonds/Spades)
Bard: Influence & Soul (Diamonds/Hearts)

As I continue to think about this I’ll probably release more ideas and maybe some items that play on these ideas.

Thanks for reading,