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Breaking the Rules

Rule-Breaker Cards

My previous article on rewards mentioned ‘rule-breaker cards’ (also known as ‘swash cards’ or ‘adventure cards’). Put simply, a rule-breaker card is a one-shot exception to the normal rules of the game. Some gamers find that they add a welcomed element of chaos and opportunity to the game, and provide everyone with a ‘spotlight moment’. But some gamers don’t like that they also mess with established tactics, and may apply to the NPCs as well.

Rule-breaker cards are nothing new, although they may be new to a fair chunk of the gamer population. Many of the RPGA’s reward cards are rule-breakers. Pinnacle publishes the Savage Worlds Adventure Deck (currently a PDF, actual cards should be available at Gen Con). And a number of home games have unofficial cards or tokens as well.

I’d suggest only giving one card per session at first. Cards are only good for one use, and unused cards are returned at the end of the session. But there’s nothing that says you can’t get creative: Get two cards per session, but you can only use one. Gain one card per encounter, and swap them with the rest of your party. Players may trade in an Action Point for a card, or vice-versa.

In keeping with the previous article on rewards, I prefer to give cards as ‘spot rewards’ for excellent roleplay, feeding the group, cracking everyone up, exceptionally brave actions, etc.  Of course, everyone would also start the session with one card…

So let’s put the rubber to the road, and break down the concept for D&D 4E. As I mentioned previously, non-traditional mechanical rewards could include something as simple as additional Action Points (and the commensurate ability to use more than one per encounter), but these sound so much more fun. Here are a few 4E-specific cards off the top of my head. Remember, they’re only good for one use, so use them wisely!

Some of these are definitely more powerful than others. Some are more useful to certain classes than others. But that’s the luck of the draw (and the possibility of trading with the rest of the group).

Like the idea? Hate the idea? Got more ideas for cards? Sound off in the comments and let us know!

About  Kurt "Telas" Schneider

Kurt Schneider played D&D in 1979 at summer camp, and was hooked. He lives with his wife, daughters, and dog in Austin TX, where he writes stuff, and tries to stay get fit. Look for his rants under the nom de web Telas or TelasTX. Quote: “A game is only as balanced – or as good – as the GM."

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20 Comments To "Breaking the Rules"

#1 Comment By frostryder On July 16, 2009 @ 7:19 am

Very interesting, I may have to make a chart for something very like this, to go with my Deck of Many Things that I bought :) I love the look of fear and loathing on my player’s eyes when I take it out

#2 Comment By Zig On July 16, 2009 @ 7:27 am

I really like this idea, and plan to use it in my 2nd edition D&D campaign. Though I am thinking of using a slightly different dynamic.

When appropriate the player will get to pick a card at random (made a great idea, tries something outlandish, role plays above and beyond, or get the table to crack up laughing. Each will have some small benefit (re-save, re-roll initiative, etc) and the player can hold 2 or 3 at a time. The cards would carry over from game session to game session (each player has a folder for their character sheets and notes, so the cards wouldn’t be lost between sessions). If the player gets the opportunity to draw another card while at max they can either skip drawing or give up one of their held cards for a new pick from the deck.

I think most of the cards I would make would be along the lines of the following:

1. Re-roll an attack or damage die.

2. Auto-Succeed in a non-weapon proficiency.

3. Take a +2 (+10%) to any roll they are about to make.

4. Escape from a fumble (roll of 1 on attack die).

5. Do max damage on one attack that hits. (though maybe this would be too powerful if a mage with Fireball got a hold of the card…

6. Charisma boost — let a character interact with NPC(s) in that one encounter as if the player’s character had an 18 charisma.

7. Unexpected ally — have someone or something show up to assist the player with a problem be it combat, skill usage, whatever.

8. Fleet of foot — Allowing the PC to move twice normal distance in one round.

9. Strength of the Ogre — give the player 18(00) strength for one encounter or scene.

10. Fortitude — PC gains 8 + level temporary hit points.

I can think of many more, but plan on adding some from the article. Also would love to hear the ideas of other DM/GMs. My goal is to have a large and wide number of “Boon” cards for the deck I intend to create.

One other idea is to use a tarot deck and attach a boon/rule breaker to each of the cards. Saves you the trouble of making them by hand and they’ll be of hardy card stock. Anyone think this is potentially a good idea?

#3 Comment By Zig On July 16, 2009 @ 7:29 am

@frostryder – I love the deck of many things as well as the wand of wonder. The players both love and hate them. Great fun to watch them use either one!

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#5 Comment By farfromunique On July 16, 2009 @ 2:32 pm

@Zig – re: tarot deck – make sure that no one at your table would feel that modifying a tarot deck this way would be an affront. I know that while many people consider an off-the-shelf tarot deck to be “just more cards”, there are some out there (and they have a higher representation among Role-Players) who almost revere the cards. In short, as with any type of new rule, check with your group.

In general: I like the idea of these cards, although I usually go with “Bumpies” – a token that will bump any die roll (of any kind) by 1 to 5, depending on severity. The great thing about bumpies is that they are very general purpose, and can be tweaked; normal bumpies give a player +1 to +5, but they can also e used by players to lower a GM’s roll by the same amount.
My other type of rule breaker card is the Ebberon Action Point, which allows a player to roll a d6 in addition to a d20, before the result of the check 9or attack) is known.

#6 Comment By Patrick Benson On July 16, 2009 @ 3:16 pm

I played a Savage Worlds game at Gen Con two years back where the GM gave each of us a rule-breaker card (not the SW version). Mine was “Cause an item to break.” In the middle of the big battle the super evil bad guy was engulfed in flames due to his fire powers. He was on a wooden platform preaching to a mob of cultists under his spell and ordered them to attack us.

I played the card. The GM asked what item should break. I said the “The platform. Just the part the leader is standing on. His flames weakened it.”

It was a great! The GM rolled with it and described the platform giving way and the cult leader falling with a heavy thud onto the hard cobblestone beneath it. It was comedic, yet it also made sense. It also gave us an opportunity to organize against the mob and to help us win that battle.

Most important of all though was that it was fun. We enjoyed the results, and it had a very positive impact upon the game. A rules-breaker deck can generate some interesting results in your game.

#7 Comment By Zig On July 16, 2009 @ 4:11 pm

@farfromunique – That’s a good point. Though I think my players would be fine with using them.

If I used them I wouldn’t be defacing them at all. The boon each granted would be on paper and I’d tell the receiver what it was for them to take note of. They’d hold onto the card until they decide to plop it down on the table and make use of it.

I really like your idea of bumpies and action points. I can see how they would be neat to add to a game.

#8 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On July 16, 2009 @ 7:39 pm

Thanks for the comments. A couple more:

– Roll 2d20 for initiative; use the highest.
– When making a Death Saving Throw, roll twice and use the higher die. Good for as many rolls as needed, but for only one “near death experience”.

@farfromunique – I’ve played with Eberron Action Points, and I was a bit underwhelmed by the primary use of them (+1d6 on a roll before you know the effect).

Mathematically speaking, this allows you to “act heroically” about 17.5% of the time. (If a +1 is good 1/20th or 5% of the time, then a +3.5 (the average of a d6) is good 17.5% of the time.) Even on a ‘natural 6′ or 30%, I don’t find that very heroic…

On the plus side, I did like the other ways that they worked with the rules (an additional use of an ability, automatically stabilize when dying, etc).

#9 Comment By AndreasDavour On July 16, 2009 @ 9:04 pm

What a coincidence! I just blogged about something like that myself.

I think the idea of Action Points, or Hero Points is indeed a relative to these kinds of features. They all try to stir the pot a bit. Personally I never found AP or HP very interesting, though. “Game breakers” of the more hands on kind, are much more appealing, especially if they will allow you to do something out of the ordinary.

One of these days I’ll have to try it in play. Maybe I just need to break out my copy of Savage Worlds and play…

#10 Comment By Jharviss On July 17, 2009 @ 3:04 am

Consider this post raided and this idea looted. I’m already making cards for my next session.

These are the types of rewards that players would get excited about, yet they’re are completely within my control. It’s perfect.

#11 Comment By pseudodragon On July 17, 2009 @ 11:20 am

I was inspired by the original article to come up with my own list of rule breakers for my players. I even gave them special titles to reflect the nature of the boons. Some of these have already been mentioned, but here is what I have so far.

Twist of Fate
You may redo one roll of the dice, but you must accept the second result.

Stumped? Ask the DM for a clue.

Convert a fumble into an unlikely success.

Avoid one trap before damage is rolled.

Glancing Blow
Halve damage sustained from one attack before damage is rolled.

Grace Under Pressure
Add +5 to one skill roll before the dice are rolled.

Confirm one critical hit automatically.

Out of the Blue
Automatically spot the next secret door or compartment you come across.

Avoid being surprised once.

Diamond in the Rough
One seemingly mundane treasure item turns out to be much more valuable.

I’m Not Dead Yet
Automatically stabilize at 0 hit points.

Change the target of an attack from you to another character.

Clean Escape
Avoid one attack of opportunity.

Close Enough
Add +2 to one die roll after the die is rolled.

Heat of the Moment
Gain one additional action for one round.

I will probably try to come up with a few more before I put them into circulation, but I’m really excited about the possibilities!


#12 Comment By Bercilac On July 19, 2009 @ 12:01 am

“For this round, the laws of physics do not apply.”

#13 Comment By adam On July 21, 2009 @ 2:26 am

This looks a lot like Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies’ “style dice.” Except, you know, with cards.

I had a GM one time in a 3.5 campaign that rewarded the party periodically with “Hero Points,” which allowed us to make some crazy idea of ours work in spite of the rules. They usually ended up being pivotal scenes, like the time the barbarian literally went out in a blaze of glory. He’d just taken lethal damage, and used the Hero Point to make one last attack, which killed both him (engulfed in the flames of his own fiery spirit) and the BBEG (cleft in twain by the barbarian’s mighty axe). We ended up having to sidequest for his soul in the underworld. That scene, and the aftermath, defined both the character and the group dynamic for the rest of the campaign.

@pseudodragon: Nice list! I especially like Diamond in the Rough. Seems like there’s all kinds of potential story hooks in that one.

#14 Comment By Tacoma On July 21, 2009 @ 3:14 pm

I like this because each resource is clearly defined. Effectively you could just have the PCs find one-shot magic items that perform the same results so there’s an in-game excuse. But I can roll with the player control of the situation.

And I like it because you can tailor how they use the cards. Hero Points / Save Your Butt Points always end up getting used defensively. On the label it says they encourage cinematic gameplay and unexpected events, but smart players just use them to keep from dying. Not in this case: your cards can be environmental and interesting rather than a die roll modifier. I especially like the “break one item” type of idea given above.

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#16 Comment By zencorners On July 22, 2009 @ 7:31 pm

Love the idea, and implementing it in my house game, along with some other “Deadlands” favorites:


#17 Comment By Alberand On July 23, 2009 @ 1:30 pm

This is an awesome idea! I already have a system where players are awarded Creativity Points for good roleplaying or descriptive combat (players have a limit of 3 points at a time which can be traded for a +1 to any die roll). I love the unpredictability of this idea though, as well as giving the players some situational narrative control.

I took most of the ideas here along with a few of my own and made a set of 32 cards using Magic Set Editor. I posted a PDF of the cards at https://docs.google.com/fileview?id=0B5bZQwTzfvYUN2IxNmJlZDUtMGJlNi00MjMyLThjN2EtNmRlMmE3OGU1ZDY2&hl=en. It should be publicly accessible if I did it right. If not, post here and I will fix it.

#18 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On July 26, 2009 @ 8:16 am

@Alberand – Works great. I like your titles and quips on the cards. Downloaded and saved…

Nitpicky technical point, simply because I’m a geek with some MMA background: It’s ‘duck and weave’.

#19 Comment By Alberand On July 26, 2009 @ 11:22 am

Thanks! Hope they work out well. With regarding to the nitpicking, I didn’t realize there was an MMA connection with that one. I went with “Dodge And Weave” because one of my players often says that while trying to earn a creativity point for describing his action. There is also another card in the deck called “Duck!”, and I tried to keep the titles unique.

#20 Pingback By Key Our Cars » Blog Archive » Player Bonus Cards On October 12, 2009 @ 1:36 pm

[…] official RPGA ones (and some ideas were based on those cards obviously).  Other ideas come from this article which I’d posted about […]