Written by: Bill Philips, Jeffery Rapp and Lawrence Jung

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I’ve always viewed LARPs as the uncanny valley of RPGs, because you immerse yourself in your character, only to yank yourself out of the immersion by resolving combat through rock-paper-scissors or some such nonsense.  With that in mind, I’d like to make a LARP system where the combat mechanics are woven into the setting, so you don’t have to sacrifice immersion for the sake of the game.

To do this, I want to make a game that extends from the Deadlands RPG setting.  In Deadlands, magic has returned to the world around the time of the westward expansion of the US.  Monsters roam the Weird West while the ordinary people fight back and try to survive.  Of course, not all of the humans are ordinary.  Some have found a way to enter into a battle of wits with the demons in the spirit world and use their power to cast spells.  This battle of wits often takes the form of a poker hand, and so will the magic in my game.


July 3, 1863.   Up until this day, the history of the Weird West is just like the one that we know.  The North and South are at war, people are expanding east, and the Native Americans are being continually driven from their homes.  However, on that day, a group of American Indians from various tribes, led by a Sioux shaman known as “Raven,” performed a ritual to try and take revenge on the intruders.  They went into the spirit realm and freed the Reckoners, extremely powerful and malicious spirits, and allowed them access back into our world.  This act and all of its effects became known as “The Reckoning”.

The Reckoners feed on negative emotions, particularly fear. Sufficient levels of fear in the population of a given location allow the Reckoners to begin subtly altering the environment of that location: the sun shines a little less brightly, trees become stunted and “evil” looking, rock formations take on the appearance of corpses or monsters, and so on. The more powerful the fear, the greater the environmental changes.

The ultimate goal of the Reckoners is to turn the entire Earth into an evil, haunted wasteland — literally a Hell on Earth. However, the Reckoners cannot directly enter Earth’s realm unless the overall fear level of the entire planet becomes sufficiently high. To this end, they use their powers to create monsters, madmen, zombies, and other creatures and villains that will sow fear and terror throughout the land.

The first instance of this occurred on July 4, 1863, at the site of the Battle of Gettysburg that had just ended; dead soldiers from both sides of the conflict rose from the battlefield and began indiscriminately attacking the surviving soldiers and civilians. Since then, undead gunslingers, hostile Indian spirits, strange cults, and deadly creatures have begun terrorizing the world. The American Civil War drags on thanks to the machinations of the Reckoners, and the country remains divided into U.S. and Confederate sections along with “disputed territories.” Federal agents and Texas Rangers struggle to deal with the eldritch menaces while hiding the awful truth from the general public. Seismic upheavals have pushed much of California into the ocean, creating a badlands area known as “the Great Maze.” In the Great Maze, miners discover “ghost rock,” a mineral that burns hotter and longer than coal and is used as the basis for most Deadlands technology as well as alchemical potions and semi-magical materials.

The unleashing of the Reckoners has had a number of important side effects. Magic was revealed to be real, although it involves challenging otherworldly spirits, “manitous”, in contests that are either viewed as a negotiation or a test of will. These same manitous can possess a recently deceased body and reanimate it, creating a “Harrowed”. Harrowed beings are sometimes under the control of the spirit (which uses the opportunity to spread fear) and sometimes under the control of the deceased being. Scientific progress rapidly advances as the Reckoners support experimental designs that normally would not work, allowing madcap steampunk contraptions to become common.

In this game, all players will take on the role of a huckster, a warlock who casts their magic through the filter of a deck of cards.  They are actually engaging a manitou in a battle of wits, and the amount of magical power they get is represented by the poker hand that they draw.


Character:  As this is mostly a skill-based game, there doesn’t have to be very much in the way of character stats.  However, each player may choose 3-5 skill specialties for their character, such as Lockpicking or Intimidation.  The effects of the specialties will be described below in Non-Combat.

Combat: To start combat, both combatants will stand back-to-back and pace off 2 to 5 paces, decided by the GM (see GM Advice).  While walking, they will shuffle their decks.  Once reaching the end of their walk, they will each turn, cut their deck, and show their opponent the card that they cut too.  Whoever has the highest card can choose to go first or second.

From there, combat continues in a turn-based fashion.  The active player will draw five cards and see what kind of poker hand they have.  They will then show their cards to their opponent, announce their hand, drop four of the cards, and throw the fifth at their opponent.  The opponent can attempt to dodge the card.  If it hits, then the person will take damage in the form of discarding cards from their deck.  A duel ends when damage from a throw takes a player down to zero cards, or if a player tries to draw their first card of the turn and cannot.  This means that if a player has less than five cards remaining, they can still attempt to use their remaining cards in an attack before being eliminated.

When attacking or dodging, the player must keep one foot planted on the ground in it’s original spot, or close to it.  However, the other foot is free to move, so attacking players can lunge forward and dodging players can turn sideways.

If you throw a card and it flies back around and hits you, then the manitou that you bargained with tricked you.  You take the full damage of your own attack.


High Card (lowest) 2 cards worth of damage
Pair 3 cards worth of damage
Two Pairs 4 cards worth of damage
Three of a Kind 5 cards worth of damage
Straight 6 cards worth of damage
Flush 7 cards worth of damage
Full House 8 cards worth of damage
Four of a Kind 9 cards worth of damage
Straight Flush 10 cards worth of damage
Royal Flush (highest) Instant Win and rights to a victory dance (Determined by the player)

Example of Play:

Here’s a example duel between Angry McBrowFace and Mohawk Man, presented in glorious Stick-O-Vision.

Art by Jeffrey Rapp

1 A challenge is issued.
2 The duelists pace off
3 Witty banter
4 Each duelist draws a card….
5 And they compare to see who has the highest card.
6 Angry McBrowFace had the higher card, so he decides to go first
7 He draws his first hand…..
8 and sees that he has a Full House
9 He drops four cards, keeping one to throw
10 He yells a challenge, putting the fear of The Reapers in Mohawk Man.
11 Angry throws his card….
12 But Mohawk easily dodges it.
13 This makes Angry even more purtubed.
14 Time passes.
15 Angry gets hit right in the face with a card from Mohawk.
16 This forces him to discard his last couple cards, taking him out of the match.
17 Which makes Angry very sad…..
18 And Mohawk very happy.

Non-Combat (Skill Checks):  When a player has to make a skill check to accomplish something in the world, they have to shuffle their deck and draw 5 cards.  If the highest poker hand that you can make from those cards is higher than the difficulty rating set by the DM, then you succeed.  If the player took that skill as a specialization, then they get to draw 2 extra cards.

Example 1: The player encounters a locked door.  The DM informs him that the lock requires a hand of two pairs in order to unlock it. The player shuffle his/her deck and draw 5 cards. If the the player drew a hand of two pairs, the player unlock the door and the DM informs the player what is beyond that door. If the player drew a hand without two pairs the unsuccessfully unlocks the door.

Example 2: The player encounters a gap between areas that they would need to jump across. The DM informs the player that he will need a hand that contains a pair. The player shuffle his deck and draw 5 cards. If the player drew a hand that contains a pair, the player successfully cross the gap to a new area. If the player hand did not contain a pair, the unsuccessfully make  the jump and falls. The DM will determine any effects caused by this event.

Social Conventions:  Don’t steal another person’s cards.

Area Setup:  Always play inside, in a relatively clean area.  The fewer places you have to lose cards in, the better.

If you have a lot of scenery pieces, you might want to set up a separate area for duels to take place.  Alternately, you could let the fights happen in amongst the scenery, and the players can use the stuff as cover.

GM Advice:  Use the number of paces to help people of different skill levels enjoy the game.  When people are relatively new to the act of throwing cards, only have them take two paces.  If you’re dealing with a pair of experts, go the full five.

The combat system is designed for duels between hucksters, but those duels are just abstractions, even in the setting.  Two hucksters fighting each other are really trying to bend the power of the manitous into a force that kills the other person.  The cards aspect of it is just a filter that they use to comprehend the magic power.  Therefore, don’t be afraid to have other supernatural aspects in the game other than hucksters.  After all, all monsters in this setting are caused by manitous possessing things in the world.  While the actual actions taken by the monster might be things like trying to hit you with a claw, it’s still technically a manitou trying to use its will to inflict harm.  Therefore, you can still use the same combat system, using colorful descriptions to cover when the monster hits a player.

On the topic of monsters, never use labels.  Even if its something that they players would all know, like a dragon or a wendingo, just give them the absolute minimum amount of description that you can.  Keep the monster mysterious.  Monsters in Deadlands are rare, often unique, and should be absolutely terrifying.

For large climatic encounters, you can have multiple players fighting against a single very tough monster.  There are many ways to increase the difficulty of such a boss fight.  First, you could simply give the monster more decks to shuffle together.  This will give them more life, but also make them more random and mess with the probabilities that players have come to expect (Not necessarily a bad thing).  Second, if you know a really ninja-like guy, you could give him just one deck and watch as the players struggle to hit him.

Skill Checks:  In general, keep the difficulty class for skill checks somewhere between a 10+ high card and three of a kind, with pair being slightly tricky and three of a kind being really hard.  Anything higher than that will be extremely unlikely for anyone without a specialization to achieve, and even people with the specialization will have to be pretty lucky to succeed.

This shouldn’t be surprising, but playing this game will get cards all over the place.  Picking these up after a duel doesn’t take too much time, but it’s enough to be jarring.  You should heavily consider having some stage ninjas to pick up cards after a fight, and advise players to have more than one deck so they can keep the game going. Another option to consider is to have hucksters stand on a sheet or tarp of some sort to aid in recollecting cards. Some material, such as a cloth, may be dangerous for traction, so be wary when choosing the collecting agent.

On the topic of decks, plastic cards give the player a significant advantage when throwing them.  They aren’t terribly common, so you probably won’t have to deal with it, but be aware of the advantage they can bring.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  If one player is having far more trouble than the others at combat, then you might want to suggest getting some plastic cards to help them out.  Just make sure that the rest of your group will be okay with it.


Huckster – A magician that uses the methods hidden within Hoyles Book of Games to bargain with manitous for magical power.  They often use a motif of poker hands to frame their spellcasting.  In this game, all players will be hucksters.

Manitou – A demon in the service of The Reckoners.  The source of a huckster’s power.

                Stuff that would be cool, but might not happen:

Classes and/or talents – It would be nice to give combat talents to the players to differentiate between players during combat, such as having wild cards or taking less damage or what have you.  However, such an addition would take significant time to balance, so we’ll have to see if we have the time.

Ruleset for alternate decks:

* (Uno) – This is honestly here to be silly, but it would be fun to play this with alternate types of cards for a laugh.
* (Tarot) – More of an aesthetic change than the Uno deck, but still an interesting concept to consider.

Physical interactions:  Can people use their accesserous clothing to interact with cards during battle?  For example, deflect cards with a cape twirl or catch cards in a top hat.

From Playtest:

Rule for all-in attack?