Decks of prompts are one of my favorite design elements in storytelling games. They are incredibly versatile in how they can be combined and deployed to shape storytelling experiences. The following is an incomplete list of ways you can use decks in your game design.
Types of Prompts
A deck of prompts can serve myriad roles: character generation, scenes, enemies, quests, encounters, backstory building questions, dilemmas, locations, resolutions. You can design an entire game solely on prompts or you can choose to make prompts small part in a much larger game.
Prompts can be answered individually or collectively and in first person or third. You might answer a prompt about a specific character you control or about the shared world or story.
Sequencing Prompts: Ordered vs Shuffled
Decks can be pre-arranged to a specific order or they can be shuffled. An ordered sequence can provide instructions or convey a pre-written narrative. A randomized deck introduces novelty and uncertainty – each playthrough will be different. For the Queen introduces the rules via an ordered deck and then uses a shuffled deck to generate prompts for the rest of the game.
You can randomly insert cards into a shuffled deck to add some uncertainty to when a key event will happen or to regulate the length of a game. For the Queen has players add a card which triggers the ending into the center of the deck for a short game or the end of the deck for a long game.
Using multiple decks opens up a vast design space with many possible approaches. Here are a few:
- Sequential decks: play proceeds through one deck at a time, in a fixed order (e.g. the seasons in The Quiet Year or the act structure in Clash at Ikara). You can have short, ordered decks in between shuffled decks to provide new instructions for how to use each deck.
- Phased decks: play rotates among several decks in a loop (e.g. travel, escapade, and city decks in Around the Realm).
- Composite: You can assemble a prompt by drawing from multiple decks and combining the result. For example, you could generate a scene by drawing from a location, an enemy, and an ally deck.
- Player’s choice: players can choose which deck to draw from on any given turn. Depending on the game, decks might be location based or thematic.
- Asymmetric play: each player has their own deck to draw from. The decks could be tied to character archetypes, factions, or perhaps GM vs Player Character.
Ways to Draw
There are multiple ways that players can draw cards from decks, which give players different amounts of agency. Some options:
- Just pick the top card of the deck
- Draw the top card, but you can keep redrawing until you find something you like
- Draw multiple cards and pick one to use
- Draw a hand of cards and on your turn, play one of your choice
Decks and Game State
Card prompts can easily affect other parts of the game. You might have cards explicitly say which part of the game state they affect or you can give players a choice of what values to change. The video game Reigns shows off how you can tie card-based prompts to a simple game state in a powerful way.
Cards vs Random Tables
Drawing from a deck of prompts and rolling on a table are very similar activities. Consider which approach is optimal for your specific game – cards are shareable and can remain out once drawn; tables can be skimmed at a glance and the reader can choose their favorite option.
Standard Playing Cards
You can always pair a standard deck of playing cards with a reference table that tells you how to interpret each card. If you’re using this approach, consider assigning meaning to the different suits and to face cards vs number cards.
Check out Story Synth!
Interested in making deck based storytelling games? Story Synth is a free platform for designing, playing, and sharing games and it supports most of the deck formats discussed above. Check it out at StorySynth.org.