Saturday, March 5, 2016

Card based mission generator for The Grind (sandbox-style, blog version)

Two in a row! Yay! The Grind gets its first GrindMeister tools (as I kind of talked about in my last post). It's basically a card based procedural that will help preparing sessions on short notice before the game and, to some degree, even during the session. It's a bit complex (while easy enough to use) and leaves lots of room for interpretation. As it should be :) 

Missions in The Grind - and why use cards?!

Demons own the world, have enslaved almost all of humanity and killed the rest, leaving them to rot in the ruins. Life nowadays is all about working for the Imperium in giant Fabriken among monsters and machines. It sucks. But there are those working from the shadows, not giving up. Petty Gods form little cells of Widerstand and hurt the establishment wherever they can. Sabotaging, robbing and killing as many of them as possible, where ever possible.

Those are the missions. The Grinders are at war and they are well advised to fight as unfair as possible. But there is no unity among Gods and groups more often than not fight each other instead of coordinating and make them really feel the punch. When you are out there, you are on your own. They will not even blink before they add your corpse to the piles they are sitting on.

So why use cards. Well, the game is basically fantasy steampunk and as that close to the 1890s as we know them: guns, industrial plants and cities with ever growing slums ... and cards. They fit the setting to some extent even more than dice would. And cards are flexible, while already carrying enough meaning that you can totally rely on them instead of using dice and tables (nothing against tables and charts, though).

Anyway, a third reason is that I had an idea that seems to work and fits what I want to have for the game (mechanics-wise). And all I need is a set of 54 cards with an idea how to use them and some d6 to play The Grind, which (lastly) helps keeping it simple in the resources part of things. Definitely something I like to have in this game!

The Basic Rules

A standard set of 52 french playing cards with 2 jokers will do fine for a start. They should be shuffled. Depending on how complex the mission is supposed to be, you either draw 12 (short), 24 (normal) or 36 (complex) cards*. Those cards are now as follows distributed from the top down:
  • The first card is the leading card.
  • Depending on what kind of card it is, others are grouped to that card until the pattern changes.
  • Kings as leading card will get the next 6 cards associated to them (one pile).
  • Queens as leading card will get the next 4 cards.
  • Jacks as leading cards will get the next 2 cards.
  • Every other card (Free Agents, see below) as leading card means that cards are associated with them until a face card or a Joker comes up and starts a new pile (so: one pile from the leading card until a face card is coming up).
What you get are several (at least two) piles of cards where the leading cards influence what the rest of the pile means in context.

The cards and their meaning ...

Each suit carries a different meaning: Hearts are locations, Diamonds are resources, Clubs are sentient beings, Spades are non-sentient beings and Jokers are other bands of Grinders. Aces are always objectives associated with the pile they appear in.

The Hearts (locations):
  • King of Hearts = a underground structure (like a dungeon)
  • Queen of Hearts = a flat structure (like a town)
  • Jack of Hearts = a high structure (like a tower)
  • 2 to 10 of Hearts = sum is the number of rooms, individual number is the state (2 means very much destroyed, 10 means highly functional, protected even), number of cards is number of complexes
  • Ace of Hearts = Information/Survey (possible objectives)

The Diamonds (resources):
  • King of Diamonds = Magic (industrial)
  • Queen of Diamonds = Body Modification (industrial)
  • Jack of Diamonds = Mundane Goods (industrial)
  • 2 to 10 of Diamonds = sum is the Treasure Index (for now just estimate what it means, there will be a system in a later post)
  • Ace of Diamonds = Object/Sabotage (possible objectives)

The Clubs (sentient beings):
  • King of Clubs = Boss Demon
  • Queen of Clubs = Demon Middle Management
  • Jack of Clubs = Demon Operative Management
  • 2 to 10 of Clubs = sum is the Monster Dice, number of cards is distribution (for now just estimate what it means, there will be a system in a later post)
  • Ace of Clubs = Sentient Target/Enemy (possible objectives)

The Spades (non-sentient beings):
  • King of Spades = Alpha Brute
  • Queen of Spades = Pack
  • Jack of Spades = Critters
  • 2 to 10 of Spades = sum is the Monster Dice, number of cards is distribution (for now just estimate what it means, there will be a system in a later post)
  • Ace of Spades = Ally/Prisoner (possible objectives)
Pattern Recognition

Now that we know what the card mean in general, we can think about what it means when they appear in certain contexts. For this the complete set of piles is seen as an area. The order of the piles is the order of significance. So the first pile you create is the main local feature of the area, the rest follows. Order of significance is also order of common knowledge, but lower piles may also well known if they are significant (an army patrolling the area, for instance). An easy rule is that the order of pile determines the difficulty to gather information about it.

To make that first pile significant, multiply all numbers that a pattern generates with the number of piles after determining what they mean (so if you end up having 3 piles and there are 2 structure cards indicating an underground structure (say the 3 and the 6), you'll have 6 complexes with 9, 9, 9, 18, 18 and 18 rooms).

Free Agents

Each pile is now considered separately. If the leading card is not a face card or a Joker, they are considered Free Agents that influence the whole area. Humanoids living there, some sort of pest dominant in the area. Depending on how those cards combine, you can already see how they might be connected. And having no face cards or jokers in those piles lets us interpret them just as features (unimportant people living there, herding animals or collecting some sort of resource, maybe living in ruins ... or just a single feature).

Free Agents always follow the same pattern: Structure before Function before Sentient Beings before Non-Sentient Beings before Objectives. The sums of the different suits give you some indications what's exactly going on there, like if it's underground, what kind of NPCs are there and what they do (see below for details).

Most important thing is, that if it's in one pile, it's also connected in order of significance (higher numbers being somewhat important, too) ...

Face Cards

When a face card turns up to be a leading card, it will always have a number of following cards connected to it and that leading card determines how the rest is interpreted. The leading card is the main feature of the pile, so to say, and all other cards correspond to that.

So if it's the King of Hearts, we have a Dungeon as the main feature. There might be some resources in it or a Boss Demon, whatever, the dungeon is the main thing. If a Diamonds face card is leading, you'll end up having some sort of industry at hand. The associated cards will always tell you what's going on.


If a joker is a leading card, other cards are added to it until a face card is drawn. The reasons for them being in the area are manifold. If their pile came up before an objective in another pile, they are after that, too, and the other cards in their pile are what they already achieved in the area (snitches they might have, safe houses, resources, animals they somehow control). If their pile came after an objective, they have other reasons for being there.

If an objective shows up in their pile, they have already accomplished their goal and are somehow still in the area. Either way, that pile having an Ace means the character are after it now! In such a case they are considered local to the area if also a Heart is in the mix. And that means they'll also have a shrine**.

And finally, if a Joker comes up in a pile with a leading face card, it means that they are in open conflict right now.

Special Rules

If no objective comes up with the draw, destabilization is the mission. Look at the pattern and think about why it could be worth the trouble. If no objective arises but a joker is in the mix, the mission is to contact that other group. If the pattern doesn't help establishing a reason, you could for instance try to convince them to cooperate for the next mission.

If a pile with a leading face card can't be filled (end of the draw), the pile is considered as acting aggressive/destructive. The pattern will help you telling what the reasons could be (a structure could be on fire, demons could be invading). That means on the other hand that complete piles function as they should. Structures are used according to their functionality, demon hordes will patrol depending on their strength and so on ...

Pile hierarchy is always the first place to look at if you try to decide how a pile is related to the others. Basically piles are influenced/depending on higher piles or influencing/exploiting lower piles. The pile strength (the number of cards in a pile) gives you indications how strong those dependencies could be. If a pile lower in hierarchy has more than double the pile strength of the next higher pile, it's also the pile having the upper hand in the relationship.

Finally: if there are demons, there's also always a shrine (only exception would be if the pile wasn't complete to begin with and the demons are invading).

In the game

The information the grinders get for a mission is determined by the number of successes they have in the beginning (a handler roll*** gives main feature, leading cards and objectives). They'll always get all the objectives in an area, but objectives should be more obscure the deeper they are in the piles and most obscure if that layer of information hadn't been penetrated.

After that it's recon. Players get an idea what the area looks like and how it's structured. A GM will get the outlines (size of area, number of complexes, significant NPCs, resources and so on) by using this system, but not the actual maps. Again rolls will decide how much information they'll gather. For that it is important to keep the order in which the cards are drawn, as their depth in the pile gives the difficulty (number of successes) needed to get that information!

So recon is the players telling a GM how they approach the "piles" they know of. Rolling for that pile will tell them what they find out (like: 3 successes means they get precise information about the first 3 cards in the pile).

Third part is going into the area. If they change cards in a pile (killing bosses, fulfilling an objective, destabilizing free agents and so on), the status of a pile will turn aggressive/destructive sooner or later (depending on stealth and what the characters tried to achieve). This means the pattern will react to what the characters actually do in an area! It also means that by destabilizing free agents in an area, they could create a problem for the neighboring piles. A system here is making opposing checks with the pile strength as the number of dice and the winning pile getting cards from the one loosing. Piles will always try to attack weaker piles, of course ...

There should be ways for the GM to add cards to an area. So if a pile loses more than 2 cards, the GM is to draw one more card from the pile. If it is a black card, it'll mean reinforcements are on their way (card arrives the next turn). A red card would mean an obstacle needs to be dealt with. If it's a diamond, it means it needs a diamond from a neighboring pile, for instance. So they will act aggressive towards another pile to get a card. if that goal is met, they are allowed to draw a new card and the process repeats, but they are stronger now.

Face cards and jokers act exactly the same way they act when building the area. So there is a good chance that acting in an area will summon another element into the area. New areas to explore, new objectives.

But if the leading card of an area is neutralized, the pile isn't active anymore. To get there the group needs to terminate all the other cards first (pile strength) ...

It really needs some tactical thinking on the player's side to navigate an area effectively Stealth might go a long way in keeping thing calm for some time, but turn by turn a GM is to check if the changes (or the group) are discovered and piles turn aggressive/destructive (the pile strength of the pile they are active in giving the indication how many dice are used to oppose the characters).

A pile red flagged like this stays active until he has compensated his losses and hasn't been threatened for at least two turns (or didn't recognize it). The number of red flagged piles telly a GM how active an area is and, in turn, how much trouble the characters are in. If the characters are inactive for more than three turns, the GM is allowed to introduce a new card into the pile they worked on last. If that pile hasn't lost cards before and it's strength is higher than the next pile higher in hierarchy, it might start acting towards that pile.

Anyway, by keeping track of the cards, a GM gets an interactive environment for the players to run around in.

Example of an Area (24 Cards)

I shuffled a deck of 54 cards (standard 52 with 2 Jokers) and draw the first 24 cards without looking at them. Then I revealed the cards from the top down, starting a new pile every time a face card or a joker forced me to do so (as described above). This is the result:

Open in new tab for more details ...
By interpreting that pattern, we get an idea what the characters have to do in the area, what the area is about and how they might be able to interact with it. Let's start with the first pile, as it is the dominant one ...

  1. One resource card, relatively high, but not a face card. This is a resource as a dominant feature. Seeing that the second pile (that means: depending on it) is an Alpha Brute would make it logic to have a big natural resource here that the Alpha Brute needs, so I'll make this a Forest. Since this is a fantasy game and I don't want the resource to be that mundane, I'll make that a crystal forest.
  2. Next up we have an Alpha Brute with some smaller creatures associated with it. They live from the Crystal Forest and the first thing popping up in my mind are giant lizards, so I'll go with that. The Heart gives them somewhere to live, let's say those lizards are cave dwelling. There is lots of additional resources and some sentient being in between. So I'd say those lizards eat the crystals and whatever comes out at the end is valuable to men and there is a group of them mining that deep in the forest (fourth card in the pile could mean they are well hidden).
  3. Third pile is a location with some resources with some sentient beings threatened/depending on pile 2, so this could be a small village at the border of the forest, maybe trading with some of the miners or living from the caravans coming through from and towards the forest.
  4. The next pile has as many cards as 3, but is superior. The leading card is the Queen of Diamonds, so we have an industrial plant for body modifications needing the town for supplies. There is a Boss Demon and the first objective: kill an enemy. Let's say the characters are to kill that plants accountant to hinder production. The Jack of Hearts indicates that the plant is in a tower and the Queen of Spades adds some pack of creatures to it. Since a Boss Demon is managing the place, I'd say those are his flying ... ape demons, the stupid creatures guarding the place. There is a demon, so there is a shrine, too.
  5. Fifth layer is another group of Grinders active in the area. They have another Ace with them, so there's another objective connected to them: an Ally. The group is to contact them. The third card is some sentient beings. All this connected to that industrial plant indicates they have some people in there (cards associated with Jokers are always cards they achieved in the area).
  6. And finally we have an aggressive group of demons lead middle management demon in the area (incomplete Queen of Spades). Them being aggressive and the former pile being a Group of Grinders, means they are hunting them (only pile they could be aggressive towards), but are at a draw with them. Here is the last objective, at the very end of the piles and it is about survey. So finding the base of them is another objective in this area and the other group of grinders is looking for that, too (as they appeared before the objective appeared, see above). That second demon means there is a second shrine in the area!

There is a lot to do for the group and the area came together quite nicely, I think. The GM is now to hammer out some details and the characters are free to roam that little sandbox as they please. Maybe they make a deal with that other group and help them against the demons hunting them to get some intel about that industrial plant or contacts to get in there ... I'd play that :)

Now you got an idea what's happening in The Grind!

So this is it for now. Post is long enough as it is. But I will test this some more and I could post another example. This was very productive so far, producing lots of information every time. Another thing that needs to happen is testing it in the game, but I'm confident that it'll work as I think it will. And finally, what's missing is an exact key for what the numbers actually mean in the game. I have some ideas about that, but it would have made the post so much longer that I skipped it for this one. There will be a pdf of this system as soon as I get to make it (and tested it a bit more).

There's now a second example ate the end of this post. Have fun!

So what do you people think of this method for creating adventure locations? Is this helpful? It should translate well into other systems, right? Comments, impressions and ideas are, as always, very welcome!

* Or anything in between, but at least 12. I think it's good to have a pattern like described above and you will need additional cards later in the game, so don't burn them all.

** That's something specific for The Grind (the shrine, that is). If you use this system somewhere else, just treat them as local and ignore the shrine. Or let them have one. Whatever :)

*** The players will decide in the game how powerful their Petty God should be. One way to make him more powerful, is dedicating him more shrines. But the group is also allowed to give from their own resources to make him stronger, which will mean, of course, they won't have those resources (called "Solids" in the game). But the benefits should be obvious ...


  1. This is really neat. I definitely want to try this, especially in my Savage Worlds games since it already uses a deck of cards!

    1. Thanks, Ed! I'll whip up a pdf soon. Name will be "The Story of the Four Kings" and it will have the whole thing in a more condensed from. If you get to test it, please feel free to share how it went. Would be happy to hear it!

    2. Hey I was rereading this article. I was curious if you ever got the pdf together? I've had decks of cards and adventures on my mind for a couple of days now and I'd love to see what you've come up with.

    3. Not yet, I haven't. Right now I'm finishing that module I'm writing on. Once that's out of the door I will take a closer look at this here again (project title right now is "Tale of Four Kings"). Main problem is that I hit a wall with The Grind at the moment. I hope this knot is cut as soon as it gets a bit less stressful irl ... So I didn't forget about this, it's just a little lower on the priority list.


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