A Card-based Duelling System

This simple card-based duelling system can be grafted onto most rules-light RPG systems. It does not handle any actions other than attack and defense in the context of a duel, so an underlying system is necessary, and the parameters of the card-based duelling system will need to be determined from character attributes in that underlying system in some manner established by the GM.


Each duellist needs one full deck of ordinary playing cards, including jokers (2 per deck), and a character sheet and any necessary randomizing implements for the underlying system.

Structure of a Bout

At the beginning each bout, each duellist draws and reveals a number of cards appropriate to her initiative or speed rating in the underlying system (1-3 is probably a good range). Whoever has the higher card (aces above kings, jokers above aces, spades beat hearts beat diamonds beat clubs) makes the first attack of the bout. If both sides have the exact same card, each draws one more and the high card takes iniative; redraw on further ties until someone wins. All cards drawn for initiative are discarded.

Each duellist fills her hand to the maximum size allowed by her fencing skill in the underlying system (3-6 is probably a good range).

An attack consists of playing any number card from 2-10 or a King, possibly accompanied by an Ace. To defend, the target plays any number card from 2-10 in the same suit as the attack (if the attack was a number card) or a Jack or Queen of any suit (against any attack). If the attack is a number card and the defense is a number card of lower value or a Jack, the attack is parried, but the attacker may attack again. If the attack is a number card and the defense is a number card of equal or higher value or a Queen, the attack is parried and the defender may immediately make an attack (thus becoming the attacker). If the attack is a King and the defense is a Jack, the attack is parried but the attacker may attack again. If the attack is a King and the defense is a Queen, the attack is parried and the defender may become the attacker.

If no defense was played, the attack is successful and the unfortunate target takes damage as in the underlying system. If the attack was enhanced by an Ace, it deals extra damage or may have some other special effect such as disarming the target or driving her back, at the attacker's option, as permitted by the underlying system.

In a formal duel, a hit ends the bout (and may end the duel if it was to first blood). In a less civilized match, the attacker may immediately make another attack.

A joker may be legally played in place of any other card. When it is played, the duellist discards it, draws three cards from her deck, and plays any one of her choice that could legally be played in that circumstance, discarding the other two. If none of the three cards can be legally played, they are all discarded, and the player is treated as having played no card. Failure to play an attack card ends the bout; failure to play an Ace accompanying an attack has no effect; failure to play a legal defense card means the attack succeeds.

If the defender has no cards that may be played as a defense against the current attack, she may draw one card from her deck and play it if legal; cards which cannot legally be played are discarded. If she played a joker as a defense but drew no legal cards, she does not have this option: the joker was legally played, it just didn't help.

When whoever is attacking (a position that may pass back and forth over the course of the bout, depending on the defense cards played) has no card with which to make a legal attack, or chooses to cease attacking, the bout is over.

If further conflict is still desired, all attack and defense cards played and both hands are discarded and shuffled back into their corresponding decks, and the sequence of action returns to the initiative draw.

Summary of the Cards


Considerable elaboration upon the basic system is certainly possible. Two obvious areas of expansion are additional card effects (which would require distinguishing face cards and aces by color or suit; number cards should probably be left as the simple default) and special abilities based on character attributes in the underlying system (keep one of the initiative cards for your hand if you win initiative, draw a new card during the bout, keep one or more cards from your hand for your hand in the next bout).

Customization of decks to better represent each duellist's individual style is also feasible (discarding some cards from one suit to represent a weakness in a particular style, or adding extra Jacks or Queens to represent a strong defense). The GM will have to construct a system for deriving the custom deck structure from the character's attributes in the underlying system.

This file was last modified at 1024 on 22Aug00 by trip@idiom.com.