A Fistful of Aces - playing card RPG

Playing cards have been used for RPG randomisation before. I've read none of those other systems - so any toe-treading is entirely coincidental - but the idea seemed sort of cool, so I thought I'd make my own card-based RPG.
After a bit of toying around, it seems that such a system lends itself very well to relatively rules-light but flavourful gaming. Jolly good - I mean: Yee-haw! Saddle up!

A Fistful of Aces

This is a story-telling role-playing game, played with an ordinary deck of playing card. Leave the Jokers in. Shuffle them well.

The Lowdown

Here's how the game is played. There'll be more nitty gritty below - this is just the jist.

One player is the Dealer, who sets the scene. Other players portray characters in the story.
We're telling a story together. The Dealer sets the scene, and the players tell the story of their characters. The Dealer may seem like he's the narrator most of the time, but each player gets to narrate their character's successes and failures.
When the player tells a tale of an outrageous success based on just a little win of the cards, she's raising the stakes - we all now know just how far that player will go, and we can go there too.
Careful how you boast.

The Dealer deals out 7 cards per player, including a hand for himself, which he sets aside until he needs it. The remaining cards are placed on the table face down - this is the draw deck.

When the Dealer describes a task that the players want to resolve - shooting down a bandit, jumping onto a train, bluffing the local deputy, or whatever - the player plays a card from their hand.

If the task is to beat an inanimate object - like jumping onto a train - then the Dealer declares the value of the card that will beat the task.
If the task that the Dealer has described is against another person - a non-player-character like the deputy - then the Dealer usually draws a card from the deck. If the player's card beats the Dealer's, then the player has succeeded. But if the Dealer's card beats the player's, then the Dealer wins, and the task has failed.
On the other hand, if the Dealer's character is a serious adversary - the sherrif, or the bandit chief, or some other key person - then he takes up the hand of cards he dealt himself, and chooses which cards to play.

If a player finds they have a good hand of five cards among their seven - a poker hand - she can play her hand to try to win the scene outright.
The Dealer plays the best hand he's got. The other players may choose to play their hands - for example, if the first player is beaten by the Dealer.
If the player wins, she gets to narrate the outcome of the scene. If the Dealer wins, he tells the tragic tale of the loser.

Each time a player plays a card, they pick up one to replace it. When the Dealer plays a card from his hand, he picks up to replace it.
When poker hands are played, each player and the Dealer picks up to replace the played cards.


The four suits represent four broad aspects of a person's character: Black suits are physical, Red are mental.

  • Spades represent strength, power, toughness and all aspects of prowess
  • Clubs are speed, maniual dexterity, agility and all aspects of skill
  • Hearts are persuasion, charisma, appeal and all aspects of social
  • Diamonds are cleverness, knowledge, learning and all aspects of smarts

Rank the suits in order of your character's aptitude. You get to have three specialities for your top ranked suit, two for the next, one for the next, and no speciality for the lowest ranked.

Specialities can be anything you like: brawling, shooting, science, doctoring, intimidation.


If you play the right suit for the task, you get to add +2 to the face value of the card.
If you play the right colour for the task (but not the right suit) you get to add +1 to the face value.
If a task involves one of your specialites, you get to add +2 to the face value of the card you're playing.
All the picture cards - Jack (J), Queen (Q), King (K) - are worth 10: but in a tie, K beats Q which beats J. Aces are 11.
Jokers are wild - they can be played for the value of any other card.

The targets for an uncontested task - like jumping a gap, or climbing a wall - are ranked Easy to Amazing
  • Easy: 5
  • Average: 7
  • Difficult: 9
  • Very difficult: 10
  • Amazing: 12
Once cards are played, they are left in the discard pile. When the draw deck is finished, the discard pile is shuffled and becomes the draw deck.

If a player wants to assist another palyer, they offer their hand for the first player a to draw two cards. If the assisting player has a specialism that is applicable to the task, the first player may draw three cards.
The first player then selects one of the cards to keep (and play if they wish) and returns the other to the assisting player. The assisting player then draws enough cards to make their hand back up to seven cards.

Poker Hands

In order of value, from the least to the best, poker hands are as follows:
  • 1 pair: two cards of the same face value
  • 2 pairs
  • 3 of kind: three cards of the same face value
  • Straight: five cards in sequence order
  • Flush: five cards of the same suit
  • Full house: a pair and three of a kind
  • Four of a kind: four cards of the same face value
  • Straight flush: five cards of the same suit in sequence order
  • Royal flush: 10, J, Q, K, A of the same suit

If two hands are of the same type (two hands of three of kind, for instance), then the higher value cards win. If a task involves one of your specialites, you get to add +2 to the face values of the cards you're playing.

If all the significant cards of that hand are the right suit, then your hand trumps the next better type of hand. If all your significant cards are the right colour, then your hand trumps any hand of the same type.
So for a Social task (Hearts), a flush of Hearts beats four of a kind (which will be a mixed suit hand), and a straight of all red cards beats a flush of black cards.

When you play a poker hand, you must put up a stake of at least 1 chip, which the Dealer matches from the Bank.

Gambling with your Life

Player characters start with 5 chips. Players can give their chips to each other if they're feeling generous.

When you play a poker hand, you must bet at least 1 chip. The Dealer matches your bet from the Bank. You can up your stake by adding another chip, until you run out. You can fold before you run out, but you lose the stake you've bet so far.
Each adversary the Dealer controls will have a limited of a number of chips they can bet before any further increase forces them to fold - to back down and lose their stake.
If the Dealer runs out before you, they must fold (back down) or play their hand. If the Dealer folds, you gain back your stake plus one chip. If the Dealer plays their hand, the winner takes all the pot. You choose whether you want the Dealer to fold or play.

You can also gamble chips to avoid failing a task - you put a chip in the pot before you attempt the task, and if you fail, then instead of your character failing the task, the chip is lost and your character completes the task.

Chips are also lost when failing a task causes injury, such as in a fight.

You gain a chip when you defeat an adversary, and you gain all the chips in the pot when you win at a poker hand. You don't gain chips for defeating extras, only for significant adversaries.

When you've run out of chips, you cannot play any poker hands. Any task failure that would cause you to lose a chip ends with you knocked out, in jail, or dead.
You and the Dealer can thrash out the details - remember we said to be careful how you boast?

High Stakes Games

As you win chips, you can take on tougher challenges, because you can bet higher and force the Dealer to fold more often.

You can also spend chip to gain new specialities. It costs 1 chip for every speciality you already have in that suit - but it always costs at least 1.

Dealer's rules

Who goes first?
Usually, contested tasks are simultaneous. Even in a duel, the quick draw and shot of the duelists is resolved by the opposed plays, not by taking turns.
But if you need to decide who goes first, it's a Skill task. Have the players play a card from their hand, and turn over the top of the draw deck for their opponent (or play from their hand). If a player chooses not to play from their hand for this Skill task, they go last (they might not want to spoil a powerful hand).

More than one adversary
When there is more than one named adversary against the players, then they may assist each other, just like the players.
Pick one adversary to take the lead. For each other adversary assisting her, draw two more cards, and pick one to put in her hand.

Central Casting

Extras in a scene are usually handled without much need for rules. If you need to, pick a suit to rank high, and a speciality to go with it. The extra gets +2 to tasks of that suit, and another +2 to that speciality, just like a player character.
Extras don't have chips to bet. When a player plays a poker hand to defeat multiple extras at once, the number of extras in the scene dictates the number of "virtual chips" the Dealer can stake against the palyer. For these virtual chips, use a distinctly different token. 

Named adversaries are made just like a player character. The Dealer sets their difficulty by giving them a number of chips from 1 to 8 (or even higher for High Stakes Games).

Example extras
  • Brawler: Spades high - fistfighter
  • Saloon drunk: Hearts high - carousing
  • Bartender: Hearts high - rumourmill
  • Deputy: Clubs high - arresting
  • Bandit: Spades high - robbery
  • Cowpoke: Clubs high - ranching
  • And many more...

Example adversaries and named allies
  • Doctor: 
    • Diamonds high - doctoring, medicines, one other book learning; 
    • Hearts - polite society, gossip; 
    • Clubs - pick one
  • Marshall: 
    • Clubs high - shooting, horse skills, tracking;
    • Hearts - streetwise, gossip;
    • Diamonds - law
  • Gang boss:
    • Spades high - brawling, toughness, maiming;
    • Hearts - streetwise, gossip 
    • Clubs - shooting


  1. Of course, this system doesn't have to be used for an Old West setting - it could equally transfer to Prohibition era gangsters, suave high society spy tales, or any other setting with flavour of conflict and gambling.

    1. Consider variant games using different card sets - Fantasy gaming with Tarot, wuxia adventures with Mahjongg tiles.

  2. More than one bandit?
    When you and your posse are facing a host of bandits, unless you can lay down a good poker hand against the lot of them in one go, you'll have to pick them off one at a time.
    You don't get the chance to hit more than one enemy at once unless you play a poker hand.
    The Dealer lays out one card for each bandit, face down. You pick which one you're aiming for first, and play your card against that one. If you beat it, that bandit is down - but you need to dodge the others, too. The Dealer flips the other cards over to see if they beat your card - if any of them do, you've been hit.