Behind the Scenes

A look at the design behind the cards in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay

I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about the cards from a design and development standpoint. Merging cards with the gameplay was one of the hallmark design milestones achieved during the development of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.

The other installment of this two-part diary, Getting Things Done, talks about the cards from a mechanical standpoint, and I’d recommend reading it after you’ve had a chance to read this diary. Here, I get to share some of the aspects of the development process with you, particularly the development of the action card system.

Actions Drive the StoryActions Help Drive the Story

During a typical game session, the players will be performing a variety of different actions with their characters to advance the story or pursue their interests. From haggling with a merchant over the price of a sword to scaling a steep cliff in the driving rain, the actions of the characters often become the focal point of scenes within the story.

Many of these actions are covered by the character’s skills and characteristics. Haggling with a merchant is most likely a use of the character’s Charm or Guile (depending on the PC’s intentions), which are both based on Fellowship. Climbing a steep cliff uses the Athletics skill, which relies on Strength. In cases like these, when the goal and the skill or characteristics used are clear, the GM will usually ask for a skill check and then narrate the results.

Sometimes, the player is looking to perform a more specialised task, or trying to achieve a specific result. When there are more possible outcomes or effects than a standard skill check would provide, the player may turn to one of his character’s action cards.

Action cards feature a lot of important information, such as any special requirements that must be fulfilled in order to attempt the action, how difficult the action is to perform, the potential effects if the task succeeds, and possible positive or negative side effects associated with the action.

Every character has access to a number of basic action cards, representing the most common and routine actions a character might want to perform on a regular basis. These basic actions can be performed in any stance, and generally have consistent results. In addition to these basic actions, characters have access to specialised actions used to produce specific effects. Some of these are advanced options of basic actions – such as a melee attack that inflicts extra damage, or may knock a foe back – while others are interesting ways to apply skills and talents. Over the course of his career, a PC can learn more actions, and start to build a wide range of options.

Opportunities and Advantages

Many of the benefits to using cards in the game design were clear to us early on. After looking at the different goals we wanted to achieve, and the benefits that cards offered, I knew cards would become an important part of the game design.

First, cards are extremely flexible and portable. Content that would take up an entire book can be cleanly broken up into smaller, bite-size chunks by putting that information on cards. This allows one player to read through a handful of cards that interest him, while another player browses a separate set of cards, rather than being limited to waiting for everyone to look up or compare information found in a single book (or with expansions, across multiple books).

Cards can be quickly sorted, so players can organise and arrange the content based on what’s important to them, rather than being restricted to the layout of a book. The information and actions they refer to the most often can be arranged in a more convenient way.

Miscast CardsCards can be used to create decks to represent random tables that are easily expandable (which is how the Miscast cards are used with arcane magic). To simulate a random check on a table, just shuffle up the appropriate deck and draw a card.

With their strong design elements, cards can quickly convey a lot of information in a short amount of time. To see what I mean, download the Action Card Analysis reference (PDF, 800k). The related article (Getting Things Done) takes a closer look at the design of the card and the information found on an action card, but you can see that a lot of information is available through the action cards by using icons and arranging the information in an efficient manner.

Cards are also extensible – they’re “forward compatible.” This is one of the strongest advantages I considered before adopting cards as a key part of the game development. As new cards are introduced, they can be shuffled into existing decks (for things like wounds, insanities, or miscast results), or added alongside previous cards of the same type (for card sets like talents and actions, or GM tools like locations).

This forward compatibility was a very important consideration. We’ve got a lot of exciting projects lined up for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, so ensuring that the content introduced in future products is easy to combine and use with existing content is a significant benefit.

Other Card Considerations

I realize that a number of players have probably not seen or played other roleplaying games that feature cards as such an integrated (and important) part of the game experience.

For many, it will be a seamless transition, and create a comfortable point of reference and convenient way to manage character abilities and game information. For others, there are concerns about how the cards may affect their immersion, or perhaps see the cards as limitations to what their characters can do – after all, there can’t be a card for every possible thing a player may come up with, can there?

These concerns were important to keep in mind during the development process of the action card system. Our challenge was clear: to create an interesting system that provides players with a variety of options for their characters, while at the same time ensuring the design is flexible and accommodates – rather than restricts – their creativity.

One way we were able to achieve this goal was by providing several different styles and types of action cards.

The Different Types of Actions

First, all the characters have access to a suite of basic, fundamental actions. Standard melee and ranged attacks (Melee Strike and Ranged Shot). The ability to assume a defensive posture or protect an ally (Guarded Position). A chance to clear their head and evaluate what’s going on (Assess the Situation). These represent a lot of the basic tasks a character may want to perform, ensuring all the characters in the game have the basics covered and ways to contribute to an encounter.

Second, we created several different categories of actions. Melee and Ranged actions tend to be attacks that inflict damage, impairment, or otherwise modify and influence a combat encounter, from a team-oriented Coordinated Strike to an archer’s Chink in the Armour shot.

Spells cover the wide variety of different effects wizards invoke using the Winds of Magic, from a Grey Wizard’s Shadowcloak, to a Celestial Wizard’s Swiftwing. Likewise, Blessings reflect the many different types of holy powers priests call upon from their diety, such as a Sigmarite’s Divine Assault or a Morr Priest’s Guiding Dream.

Support cards most often represent a variety of things the characters can perform to assist other members of the party, influence NPCs, or represent different social actions, from the ability to Exploit an Opening to using Honeyed Words to surreptitiously sway someone toward your character’s point of view.

Finally, we wanted to make sure players understood that the cards provide a number of specialised options with specific results that a character can attempt, but that the action card system is not a replacement for good ol’ fashioned imagination.

Credit Where Credit is Due

Perform a StuntI credit Dan Clark, one of the key members of the design team, with coming up with a novel way to address this last point. While the rules provide excellent examples and descriptions on how all sorts of actions (both those found on cards and those created by the players) can be attempted and resolved, it’s an easy trap for people to look at just what is in front of them when faced with choices – whether it’s information written on a character sheet, figures on a battlefield, or actions on a series of cards.

With that in mind, Dan proposed we develop a card that literally reminds players they are not bound by the cards! And thus the Perform a Stunt action card was born. The card is simple and direct in its approach. It literally puts an option in the players’ hands that prompts them to think outside the box and flex their creativity – in a clean, consistent manner that dovetails with the rest of the task resolution system.

This is a great aid for new players and GMs, to remind them that there are always options available to the characters. For veteran players, it allows them to apply the flexibility and creativity that they’re already bringing to the table in a consistent format to help adjudicate and resolve all manner of possible actions.

More Player Options

Another neat part about the action card system is that the level to which a character relies upon action cards is completely in the players’ control. If a player enjoys the action card system, and wants to develop a character who relies on a wide assortment of special tricks and exploits, he has a lot of options. First, he can spend creation points during character creation to have his character begin play with more action cards. Second, over the course of the character’s career, the player can spend advances to acquire more action cards to suit his playing style and interests.

However, there are a lot of other enticing options available to the players. One player may wish to invest in skill training and expertise, while another picks up additional talents to provide more situational bonuses and team-oriented benefits. Another player may want to fully take advantage of the stance system and acquire additional stance pieces as quickly as possible. Or a player may wish to diversify across all the different options to create a more well-rounded and versatile character.

The action card system is just one of the many different ways Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay provides the player with a lot of interesting options – both in terms of character development and in how the player has his character respond to and interact with the story.

For those players who haven’t played a roleplaying game with cards before, I hope that after their first few encounters, they’ll come to appreciate the design that went into creating this important part of the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay experience.


Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is a roleplaying game that sets unlikely heroes on the road to perilous adventure, in the grim setting of Games Workshop's Warhammer Fantasy world. Players will venture into the dark corners of the Empire, guided by luck and Fate, and challenge the threats that others cannot or will not face.

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