Who put their card game in my RPG? It may not be a question you’re asking yourself today but it could be a question you’re asking yourself a year from now. The “deck building RPG,” Genesis Aspyrias, is currently in development and puts a new twist on the evolution of RPG mechanics.

Previously I’ve discussed the collectible card RPG and some general trends within the industry, as well as their potential impact as a GM. One of those games we’ve unboxed here, the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay RPG by Fantasy Flight Games. A noteworthy game in that it brings board game counters and cards to the RPG table. Personally, I love the system (don’t much care for the setting), in particular its innovative die mechanic.

Specialized dice are all the rage these days, although Fudge really started the trend back in the day. Now you can’t walk down the aisle at Gen Con without stumbling onto an RPG with custom dice. Fantasy Flight’s new take on Star Wars, Edge of the Empire, looks to continue that trend.

But sneaking ahead of this transformation is a new game currently seeking backers on Kickstarter soon to be relaunched on Kickstarter that hopes to integrate some of the mechanics of deck building games, like Dominion, into an RPG.

Background

Originally called the Genesis Roleplaying System by Alea Publishing Group, the name has just this week been changed to the much more difficult to pronounce Aspyrias Adventuring System due to legal objections by Fable Streams Entertainment, creators of the Genesys Universal Roleplaying Game. Naming arguments aside, the decision has also been made to relaunch the Kickstarter at an undisclosed period after further development work is completed and more promotion is done. Call me cynical, but re-launching an unfinished Kickstarter — a re-Kickstarter? — seems like a dubious proposition but I can understand the reasoning.

Having done design work myself in the past, and being a big fan of innovative mechanics at the table, I was personally intrigued by the concepts shown by Joshua Raynack, creator of Aspyrias. While I did not have the benefit of seeing the entire game in its totality — only small bits in discreet packages — there are some interesting concepts to consider when running such a game.

The Fine Print

And, in case I wasn’t perfectly clear, this is not a review — I’d hesitate to even call it a full-blown preview with the small snippets I’ve been able to glean thus far. Imagine trying to describe a scenic vista while only being allowed to look at small bits for a few seconds at a time. Also, as the game is currently in development, the contents of this article could quite easily change in the future. If you’re intrigued by what you read here, by all means reach out to the Kickstarter and see if you can be involved in a future playtest of Aspyrias.

Untold Dominion

If you are unfamiliar with deck building card games, the most popular one of them all would be Dominion, having spawned several expansions and becoming something of a trendsetter in an entirely new segment of board/card games. The basic concept of a deck building game is that there is a common pool of cards that all players select from, building their own dynamic deck of cards. As they use the cards and discard them, they refresh from their self-created deck. The cards include the mechanics that have an effect when played. After each turn, your hand is (typically) discarded and you redraw from your deck. Thus, you have control over what’s in your deck and while you don’t know for certain what you’re going to draw for your next turn, you’ve a decent idea of what’s coming as you have created the deck.

Negative effects (cards) can be introduced into your deck — typically involuntarily — in an effort to “clog” your deck and make it more inefficient. Normally there is a mechanic to cull your deck as well, eliminating (destroying) cards you no longer want/need, making your deck more efficient.

In steps Aspyrias, where your character is the deck.

In truth you do have a character sheet with five attributes, scored from 0 to 4. A typical character will likely have a score of 1 or 2 in Agility, Charm, Insight, Strength, and Willpower. These numbers are used to build your starting deck. Have 2 Strength? Your deck starts with 2 Strength cards in it with random power values.

Your class — Mage, Priest, Rogue, or Warrior — also provides you with two bonus cards. A Mage would receive an additional Charm card and Insight card, for example. Being a dwarf provides you with +1 Strength and +1 Willpower cards.

So you’ve a series of attributes and a 12 card deck? Now what?

Resolution

Upfront for the entire group to see are the five stacks of cards and their discard piles (see illustration). Each of these stacks represents the five attributes. Typically players will be drawing an unknown card from the relative stack that guides the task. Doing something physical will call on you to draw from the Strength stack, for example.

The Strength card will have a power score on it. The player will add their Strength value as well. Now each card also has a set of boost icons on it, allowing the player — or allies if applicable — to discard like cards to add the relevant score. So a Strength card with a Willpower boost icon on it allows the player to discard a Willpower card from their hand to add their Willpower to the roll.

The total of the result is then compared against the difficulty. So how is that determined? The GM draws an opposing card, say Willpower based on the situation, and uses that power number. The boost icons come into play but instead of having to discard anything, the difficulty of the task is automatically raised by the face up discarded cards that match the boost icons.

The game calls this the “advanced” resolution mechanic and it looks to be the one most often seen for meaningful decisions or those that are contested.

Admittedly I’m not clear as to when or how the players refresh their hand or whether they are discarding into the common pile (unlikely) or a personal discard pile (likely). The preview material I’ve read makes mention of the GM having the ability to manipulate the discard piles, potentially putting a large obstacle in front of the players or digging out a useful card. This is pretty standard fare in Dominion as well.


Evil Pointy Hat On

From a GM-perspective there appears to be a degree of ability to manipulate the deck and have narrative control. (Again, these specific rules were not made available to me.) Conversely, it looks like the players have equally as much control over the game, in fact part of my concern is that the players may have too much control. I’d need to run the system a bit to see for certain. For example, since the opposed GM resolution mechanic relies on the face up discard pile, clever players could “pre-seed” the discard pile with low value cards, making their next actions much easier.

As it stands today, the game is designed to ship with 100 ability cards, meaning each ability will have 20 cards. I’m unsure of what the power score range will be, but I haven’t seen a non-experience card with a value higher than 4. Assuming an equal distribution, that’s five cards per 1 to 4 value. That’s not a terribly hard distribution to track in one’s head during play. In essence, Aspyrias removes one of the key cornerstones of RPGs: the randomness of the die roll.

In Aspyrias you won’t see the three critical hits in a row. Of course, you also won’t see that string of fumbles either. Instead you’ll have a predictable — daresay, a fixed — distribution curve. For every high card (success!) you know you will see a low card (failure!) just as often. Without having seen it in practice that sounds, well, boring to me. And if I can pull out a 4 from my discard pile when I want, be it through a trait or ability, then that leaves even less opportunity for drama at the table.

Now, this opens another can of worms in would you rather your game’s drama and tension come from the adventure, the play, or the dice? Why have to pick, I say? There are benefits to all three.

Experience in Aspyrias is handed out real time in a clever mechanic of giving the players experience cards. These cards are wild. What I’m not clear on is what happens when they are spent in play. I would presume they are lost (uncertain), which then puts us in a situation of short term benefit versus long term gain. Is it better to spend your experience during play or horde it for after play to raise attributes, thus increasing your deck size?

Based on my experience, most recently with Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, most players focused on the long term game will choose the latter, not the former. However, keep in mind the distribution curve I spoke of above. Is it necessarily better to have a hand larger than 12 with more, for example, Strength cards? There’s a strong case to be said for the smaller hand with the higher value cards. Again, not having seen the entire system — in particular the player hand dynamics and refresh mechanics — that may or may not be an issue.

Much of the game system is shockingly generic. With four rather uninspiring class options, and the traditional gambit of fantasy races there is a hefty burden upon the GM and players to seed the game with their own color. For some groups this is fantastic, for others — especially those with new players — a bit of a hinderance to being pulled into the game. Now, the re-Kickstarter will apparently tie Aspyrias to Alea Publishing’s house setting, Feudal Lords.

Honestly, after spending time with Aspyrias, I think it’d work better to be divorced from the fantasy heart-breaker setting — and all the baggage that comes with it — and is probably better suited to a modern or near-modern setting.

Finally, speaking of same-same potential problems, the tight distribution of ability scores (0 to 4) could also lead to characters and monsters feeling very much alike. Traits and skills would have to be the defining characteristics. As traits appear to be class-based — and there are only four classes — that doesn’t help the issue much either. And, based on an experience preview, different classes can cherry pick from other classes, meaning there’s no niche protection to boot. Issue or not? You decide!

One area I really like is the wound mechanic. There isn’t a harsh death spiral nor a binary fine/dead mechanic. Instead, your hand size represents your health. Taking damage seeds your deck with wound cards. As you draw wound cards, that “clogs” your hand, reducing your options. If you receive a number of wound cards equal to your Willpower score then you’re Injured (condition). At that point even more bad things happen, but the important bit is that the wounds have a mechanical effect that encourages players to clean our their hand. This introduces concepts like empathic healers taking your wound (cards) onto themselves and cleansing or spending your wound card to incite a berserker rage. It’s clever and I’m excited to see it in play.

Draw!

This should, hopefully, give you some insight into a new type of RPG mechanic coming to you next year. Personally, I think there are a number of interesting concepts in Aspyrias. For a segment of the gaming population I wonder if the game tries to go too far, too quickly? I’d rather see something like the aforementioned Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay where the card mechanic lives along side the die mechanic, rather than pulling the rug all out at once.

If you’re intrigued by the concepts included herein I’d encourage you to check out the Kickstarter, perhaps get involved in the soon-to-come new iteration, and share some real-world feedback on Aspyrias in the coming year.

What say you? Would you be willing to give a deck-building RPG game a shot at your table? What are your concerns?

(I’d like to thank Joshua Raynack and Alea Publishing for making available portions of Aspyrias for the purposes of this article!)