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January 13, 2016

Cards on the Table

Today, I'm offering an optional rule set for D&D 5th edition that lets you play with playing cards instead of d20s (you still need the other dice).  It gives you and your players a bit more control over whether you succeed or fail, and adds another layer of tactical/game complexity.

Cards on the Table for 5e D&D

This system replaces the d20 for players and DMs with a system where the players choose how well they (and their opponents) fare.  It adds an extra tactical game layer to D&D.


Build a deck of playing cards based on how long the game will last:

  • Up to 2 hours:  Play with only one black and one red suit, and remove the Jokers.
  • 2-4 hours:  Remove 1 King and 1 Queen (of any suit), and remove the Jokers
  • 4-6 hours:  Standard deck of 52 cards, no Jokers
  • 6-8 hours:  Standard deck of 54 cards, including both Jokers
  • 8+ hours:  Break the game into two sessions of play.  For example, if you're having a 12 hour game, play a six hour game (full deck with two jokers) twice.  At the end of each session of play, tally the experience and treasure, then reshuffle everything and start a new session.

Shuffle the deck.  Place it where the players can reach it.  Designate a space beside it for the discard pile.

Deal 12 cards out on the table, face up (a 4x3 array is easiest; or 6x2 if space is needed).

Deal 5 cards to the DM.  If the DM gets any face cards or jokers, they must put them in the discard pile and draw again until the DM has only number cards.

Source: Wikimedia Commons


Instead of rolling a d20, players select their die result from the cards on the table.

DMs select their die result from the cards in their hand.  The DM will only have number cards.  The players sometimes have the option to choose face cards or Jokers.

You always select one card, unless you have Advantage or Disadvantage (see below).

Number Cards

For Cards on the Table, aces are number cards.

  1. Red number cards represent a roll value equal to their face value.  Ace = 1, 2 = 2, and so forth.
  2. Black number cards represent a roll value equal to ten plus their face value.  Ace = 11, 2 = 12, and so forth.  If you're comfortable defacing your playing cards, write +10 in permanent marker on all your black number cards to make this obvious.  

If players take number cards, they hand them to the DM after resolving their action.  Then they draw a new card at random from the deck to replace the card they took.

The DM puts the number card(s) the player handed them into their hand.  This is how the DM gets cards.

The DM has a hand limit of 12 cards.  The DM can never have more than 12 cards.  If the DM gets more cards, those cards go to the discard pile instead of the DM's hand.  The DM doesn't need to tell the players how many cards are in their hand - that can be a secret.

When the DM plays cards, they go into a discard pile to be reshuffled later.

Face Cards

  • King:  Succeed at cost.  You automatically succeed the roll (in combat, it results in a hit), but some complication, error, or unintended consequence is introduced by the GM.  After playing a King, do not give it to the DM.  Place it in the players' discard pile directly to be shuffled back in if .
  • Queen:  Failure, gain 1 treasure, placing the Queen in the score pile for the rest of the session.
  • Jack:  Failure, gain 1 experience, placing the Jack in the score pile for the rest of the session.
  • Joker:  Critical failure, gain 1 experience and 1 treasure.  The GM describes how your action went horribly wrong or caused additional foul consequences.  Place the Joker in the score pile for the rest of the session.

Advantage and Disadvantage

If you have Advantage or Disadvantage, you draw two cards from the table, just as if you had rolled two d20s.  It works the same as dice:  With Advantage, select the better of the two and hand any number cards to the DM.  With Disadvantage, select the worse of the two and hand any number cards to the DM.  If you draw two face cards or jokers with Advantage or Disadvantage, place one in the discard pile, unused and unscored; and then use and score the other.

The order of value for face cards, when drawing with Advantage or Disadvantage is as follows:  King is best, then Queen, then Jack, then Joker.  Face cards are all higher value than number cards.

Example:  If you have Advantage and select Queen and Jack, your roll result is based on the Queen and the Jack is placed in the discard pile.  When the deck eventually runs out, it will be shuffled back in, so you might have a chance to draw it again later, but chances are you won't.  

Example:  If you have Disadvantage and select Joker and the 10 of Spades, you play as if you had rolled natural 20, and place the Joker in the discard pile.  Again, when the deck eventually runs out, the Joker will be shuffled back in, so you might have a chance to draw it again later, but probably not.  Be careful throwing away face cards like this!


The cards on the table add a new element of tactics to the game.  They also give the players quite a lot of narrative control over the winds of fortune in the game.  Because a player can choose their die roll result, they can often choose the minimum number required to succeed.  With a +5 Stealth, the player can choose a red 10 to beat a DC 15 Stealth check, for instance.  This means the players will succeed more often than with a random d20.  To counteract that, the face cards all result in failure or success with a cost or consequence.  The players are motivated to choose these quickly, to get treasure and experience, even if it makes them fail rolls.

As you can see, the flow of cards between the players and GM becomes a tactical consideration.  The players can choose mediocre rolls, forcing the GM to keep making mediocre rolls.  Or they can choose great rolls, but the GM will then have great rolls, too.

Treasure and Experience

Experience:  Every time the players score a Joker or Jack, they gain 1 experience.  They keep track of these points on their character sheets, or appoint one party member to keep track (since the points go to the whole party).  When the party collects 10 experience, they all gain a level, including players who missed a session or just started.  It will probably take about 10-20 hours of play to gain a level this way.

Treasure:  Give the players a treasure table result appropriate for their level, per the DMG, when they score a treasure.  This can come any time before the end of the session, at the DM's discretion.

Alternate Rules for Treasure and Experience

Treasure alternate rule:  If you are running a module with pre-selected treasure, you might not want to muck with the treasure parcels designed by the module writers.  In that case, treat Jokers and Queens as Kings.

Experience alternate rule:  If you don't want to use the experience rule here, treat Jokers and Jacks as Kings.

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