Card-based TTRPG Oracles

Recently I purchased the flash cards from Exalted Funeral's Herbalist's Primer set. I did so in the wake of attempting (and not yet succeeding) to create my own set of cards for use in my games, but my perspective was for oracle use. The Herbalist's Primer flash cards are very useful, densely packed sources of information and inspiration that, among other things, can help flesh out the foraging options available in a campaign world. I intend to use them to offer real-world plants for my players to find while on my West Marches style islands. I believe this will add some appreciated realism to the islands without giving away overpowered treasure, etc.

Now, these cards are useful for certain things, but on their own, they don't work as oracles. Or, rather, they will require additional work on my part to serve as oracles. This is what I get for cheaping out and buying only the cards and not the $50 book that has tables in it. No matter. I may buy the book later because the illustrations are quite lovely, and the promised additional detail is also attractive to me. The additional work required will be to put them into tables, with biomes and such as one of the key accessors. For me that means glancing through the cards and pulling out the ones that match the biomes I'm targeting, then putting those on foraging tables for each of my hexes.

What kinds of cards can serve as oracles, and when might you use them? Well, that's one thing I have been developing. Unsurprisingly, most things that can be articulated in tables can also be articulated in oracle cards. You might want cards when you have long tables of things to choose from, especially where each entry in the tables might have detailed descriptions. Not only will cards in this case provide more space to elaborate on the entries, they do so in a relatively compact manner. In some cases, you want to use these cards at the table, and in others you will get better mileage using them in your preparation (such as hex building).

In all cases, the cards are random procedural generation engines. For my money, the apotheosis of an at-the-table random procedural generation is the maze. Mazes are a staple of fiction and mythology, and while they can be fun games on their own, they aren't easy to pull off at a TTRPG table. The reasons for this include the need to create, describe, and populate the maze with interesting things while ensuring that the maze feels interactive and is solvable.

Before delving into the approach I take with oracle cards for maze building, let's talk briefly about the maze as an abstract concept. What purpose does a maze serve in a TTRPG, and how do we make it an interesting challenge?

  1. A maze is a means of presenting players with a set of branching or uncertain paths between two points, where there is or can be no foreknowledge of the best path through, on the whole (i.e., a global optimum), while perhaps offering some predictability in terms of next best segment (i.e., a local optimum).
  2. This uncertainty in turn serves as a source of resource drain (time, food/water, light sources) and increases the chances of encountering points of interest, hazards, combat, etc. How many resources the party uses and how many encounters they find depend on how long they stay in the maze.
  3. On the flip side, a maze presents an opportunity for players and their characters to observe their environment, take reasonable (and affordable) precautions, scout and predict what's coming, and attempt to exercise meaningful choice over the direction they take without sacrificing the sense that something could always go wrong.

Using oracle cards allows the game master to build the maze in real time, as the players navigate it with their characters. Oracle cards offer a situation in which neither the game master nor the players can know the state of the maze ahead of time. Proper preparation and diligence on the part of the players can uncover the likely hazards inherent in the maze, and can offer clues on how to mitigate (usually with money) those hazards, but cannot prescribe a path through the maze.

Once a path is documented (mapped), however, it can usually be re-used, and additional branches could be mapped out via exploration, unless there is some supernatural or technological means of altering the pathways (but that introduces a slightly different game). This requires attention on the part of the players, of course, but also puts demands on the game master, to allow the maze itself to be made legible this way and consulted later. Such an outcome is a reward, however, for diligent players, a validation of their preparatory and observational efforts.

Since the maze exists in all possible states entailed by the oracle cards, and only collapses into a static state once the path has been laid out (i.e., observed by the players), the oracle cards offer a high degree of replayability, which means other sections of the same maze can be uncovered and offered to players, or new mazes using the existing (or expanded/tweaked) cards can fill in when some new circumstance warrants the inclusion of a maze.

My efforts at distilling such maze rules are currently encapsulated here. I started with the idea of cards first, but decided that building out the tables would be more fruitful in the short term. Once I am satisfied with this set of tables, I will condense the information in them into cards. I hope to be able to offer the cards as a product in their own right, perhaps as a print-on-demand affair. But we'll see how things develop.

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