Wild Cards – a Narrative Luck system for any game

Many players and GMs like the idea of players having some ability to influence the narrative, but balk at the idea that players can suggest just anything. Players too get stymied when they are told they can invent anything. The Wild Cards system, suggested in an earlier post, solves these problems in part by providing players guidance and constraints.

Card and Deck Description

Each card has two pieces of information – the value (1-13, or Ace to King), and the suit (Clubs, Spaces, Hearts, and Diamonds). Each has a different effect. When playing a card, choose which effect you want. They are described below.

Holding Your Hand

At the start of an adventure, each player draws a number of cards. Exactly how many changes with the system.

One method is to assign the players a Luck score, which can go up and down (reduce it for each Value card played!). Draw up to that many cards whenever you refresh your hand.

The really simple method would be to just have every player roll 1d6 at the start of each adventure, and draw that many cards. No Luck score needed. This method should place an extra cost on Value cards.

Card Suits

There are four suits. Each represents a different action you can perform.

Interruption (Clubs)

Play this to take an extra action at any time. Ignore initiative. Describe what causes you to take this action, but it’s a great way to have a character act out of sequence but where they should act.

Lucky Escape (Spades)

Play this card immediately after something happens to you and neutralise it. Describe what happens – but you can’t inflict the effect on another PC or major NPC (the GM can veto that). Maybe the snipers bullet hits your pocket badge, or their gun jams. Maybe a haycart is there and catches your fall from the battlements.

Assist (Hearts)

Help an ally in some way. If the system has a helping mechanic, you can get that befenfit as a free action. Or you can use a Lucky Escape (saving them from a disaster).

Describe how you do this. You are now present in the same scene and conflict as your ally – how did you get there?

Revelation (Diamonds)

This is a great way to discover clues and make progress in other mysteries. Ask the GM to reveal the answer to one question you could have learned somehow. “What was the last secret door we missed? Is this magistrate involved in the conspiracy? Is there a conspiracy to murder the queen?”

If the GM can’t answer honestly, this is a Veto (see below). The GM should answer in the fiction if possible, by revealing a clue you missed, having an enemy give a dramatic monologue, or something else spawned by play events.

Alternatively, you can use this card for a second attempt at a task you have failed. Describe what circumstance allows you to try again.


Each deck has two very Wild Cards. When played, pick an effect from any Suit or or any Value, other than Face cards. Then, after playing it, immediately draw a new card to replace the Joker. It is effectively free.

Playing a Card

You have a hand of cards, each with both a Value and a Suit. You can choose to play a card at any time, and when you play it, choose which event to get – the Suit or the Value. You don’t get both.

Suit cards are expected to be common. At the end of the scene, they are replaced with new draws. (The GM might grant a different bonus in some games.)

Value cards are more costly – when you play them, that card is gone. They are each more significant. If a Luck score is in use, reduce it by one.

Shuffling The Deck

Shuffle the deck (taking back any cards discarded) at the start of each adventure and after any veto (discard and draw new cards first ).

You just need one deck per adventure and don’t shuffle it very often.

Card Values

  1. Abandonment: Narrate something that removes you from the scene. Maybe you fall into the river and are swept away, you receive a court summons, etc. You take no damage and suffer no consequence, but you can’t participate in the rest of this scene (you can’t use Assist to return.)
  2. Acquisition: Choose a piece of equipment that is reasonable for you to acquire (this will vary with the game – it should be something you could have gotten during downtime), and describe how you acquire it.
  3. Attachment: an NPC in the adventure forms an attachment to you. This might be a romantic or a platonic desire. If an enemy, they want something from you, but that means they want you safe and protected, at least until they get what they want.
  4. Contact: create an NPC from your history who at least starts out an ally. This might be an NPC from a previous adventure with GM approval. They are helpful for a current task, provide a safe haven, or some other immediate benefit, and they are still here after that – they have their own motivations and are played by the GM.
  5. Deception: Something is not as it seems. Someone succeeds at a deception (for instance, passing yourself off as someone else, or forging documents), or someone is innocently mistaken for someone else. Choose the specific deception and cause mischief!
  6. Glitch: Choose an item or a type of item, and it starts malfunctioning, possibly for the rest of the scene. Describe why, which affects what can be affected and how it can be countered. An electrical storm might affect all electronic devices, an opponent’s rifle might jam, etc. It might affect the PCs own equipment or be tailor-made for an opponent (affecting at least one action).
  7. Nemesis: pick a named NPC in the scene, and describe why they hate you specifically. They abandon their current target and try to take you down. If you both survive this scene, their enmity continues, though it’s less all-encompassing. This is a great way to help an ally.
  8. Reprieve: Something immediately ends the current scene. Say, you are in a fight and are losing, you suggest that your opponent hears that their boss has arrived, and they have to quickly return to camp to meet her.
  9. Substitute: You can solve a task in a different way. Say. the door is locked, but if you charm the guard they open it for you. Or you want to attack someone and so use a social skill to trick them, and then roll damage as if a combat attack succeeded. A substituted skill lasts for the rest of a situation, up to a scene.
  10. Opportunity: Create an opportunity for a specific goal. You want to get into the crime-lord’s quarters and so suggest he is holding a party which needs entertainers and you have opportunity to pass yourself as those entertainers.
  11. Self-Sacrifice: Choose a particular immediate goal. Your group achieves this goal through your actions, and you die achieving it.
  12. Swap: When another card is played, by anyone (including yourself), you can take it, swapping it with this card. (Watch for Jokers!) You don’t have to describe how it happens in the fiction.
  13. Discovery: Something with the potential to derail the adventure is discovered locally, and is now in play. This is an “anything can happen” card, but it doesn’t happen immediately – people learn it has happened, and can respond to it. The player can instead play this as a Joker.

Vetoes and Refreshing Your hand

The players and GM will have to give some thought to how Vetoes work. Some events might be too big or impactful for the game, and players might suggest events that just don’t fit the tone of the game.

The GM might not be the one who vetoes cards – they might ask the players if it can be vetoed, and then a group vote takes place.

In practice though, if a GM doesn’t want to play a certain event, it won’t get played so it might as well be vetoed.

When an event is vetoed, refresh your hand: discard this card and discard any other card you want to, then refill your hand with new cards to replace each discarded card.

The Luck Score

If using a Luck Score, you’ll need more ways for it to increase and decrease. Personally, I recommend giving Luck when you inflict things on the players that fit their characters, or rob them of agency. You want this NPC to survive the encounter? Ask the players if she can escape without any rolls, and if so, grant them all a Luck point. This PC has a known enemy? Now he turns up and the player gets a Luck point. One PC has a known fear of spiders, and the entrance to this timb is swarming with spiders. That character refuses to enter and looks for another way in – so the GM awards them a Luck point. Things like that.

Final Thoughts

This post presents a way to give players narrative options, to influence an adventure in a similar way to the GM but from the players perspective. It also gives ways to influence a character’s immediate fate.

You might decide that players can each play only one Value card per adventure, or create different restrictions, if you want a player’s ability to direct an adventure more limited. Or maybe they can play one per session, if it’s a long adventure. The Suits are effects that can each be played many times without messing up a GMs adventure.

The cards are drawn ahead of time, so players have a few options sitting in their hands through the session that they know they can use. This should focus the mind, and players will be looking for opportunities to use effects that catch their fancy. While this gives the ability to make big changes, it also creates constraints. It’s not the open “You can do anything,” type of system that tends to get ignored.

I hope you’ll use this system and have fun with it. Let me know how it goes.

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