VAM Design: Fate and the Poker Deck, Part 1

Fate and the Poker Deck: Spheres of Influence in Vegas After Midnight

David and I have shared before about the use of a poker deck and its influence over the nature of characters and factions in Vegas After Midnight, both on the VAM site and on TGTMB, but this is the first time this topic will actually be codified into an article. Since I need to write this into the playtest packet anyway, I figured it might be fun to share it with those of you who follow the progress of VAM, and invite you to comment and give feedback if you like.

This topic will be written in two parts. The first part will cover how the concepts of nature and fate are expressed within the setting through the symbolism of suits and ranks in a deck of cards. The next part will focus more on how we plan to try to make that work mechanically.

For me, the first part is the fun part, and it’s what I’ll be sharing today. The other part will come later. So here goes…


Part 1: Setting and Situation – the Metaphysical Reality of the Madness

The premise of the VAM setting establishes that there are metaphysical forces at play in the world, and that they are in some sense sentient and active. They may or may not be personified or material in nature, but they are nevertheless real forces with real agendas that have an effect upon the world. There could be many of these forces, depending on how one might interpret the various facets of what they represent or symbolize, but at the very least, we have a force of chance and caprice, a force of order and stability, a force of chaos and dissonance, and a force of passion and zeal. And of course on top of that, there is the Madness. Whether the Madness is an altogether separate entity or rather an unstable amalgamation of the other four basic forces is anybody’s guess. But it is real, it has sentience, power and influence over the other forces, and it WANTS something.  What does it want? Who knows? It’s up to you to go out there and find out, baby.

Heh. See, that’s what the Madness does to me. I try so very hard to write this in proper grammatical English with a neutral voice, and the Madness comes into it and I go all VAM-speak.

So here’s where the cards come in – they represent the push and pull of these forces on the setting and specifically on the people and communities that inhabit it. Like cartomancy, tarot, astrology, and such things, the card suits and ranks allow for “the spirits” to communicate, via symbols, broad concepts about the nature of things. And also like those other forms of divination, the interpretation of these symbols can be very broad. (i.e. no matter what you might see on old cheesy TV shows, somebody flipping up the Death card during a tarot reading doesn’t automatically mean that somebody is going to die.)

The breadth of interpretation allows for fortune elements to come into the mix while still giving characters a lot of leeway in deciding how to approach what fate gives them. That’s key to both the color and mechanics of VAM – a balance between structure and freedom.

So, characters and factions (and anything else that could be considered to have a “nature” like the sword Excalibur or the King’s Guitar) will have aspects that are tied directly to card suits, and those suits will signify a broad metaphysical influence over the nature of the thing. There are several different schools of interpretation and belief in cartomancy, and varying assumptions about what a card suit ought to symbolize. But we’re going with a sort of amalgamated setup that matches our concept of the four basic forces I mentioned above. Here’s an outline of how it will shake out in VAM terms:

Card Suits – Spheres of Influence

  • Spades (Swords) [Disruptive Power]
    • Chaos
    • Change
    • Discord
    • Dissonance
    • Anarchy
    • Instability
    • Corruption
    • Flexibility
  • Clubs (Wands) [Mental Power]
    • Luck
    • Fortune
    • Imagination
    • Chance
    • Caprice
    • Panache
    • Style
  •  Diamonds (Coins) [Material Power]
    • Resources
    • Connections
    • Stability
    • Order
    • Authority
    • Power
    • Law
  • Hearts (Cups) [Spiritual Power]
    • Courage
    • Sacrifice
    • Zeal
    • Passion
    • Devotion
    • Healing
    • Hope

The current plan is to give all characters and factions – and certain objects and locales –  a Strong Suit.  Yes, if you’re wondering, “Strong Suit” is a Bridge term, not a Poker term, but it is otherwise too perfect to pass up, so we’re going with it.

Essentially the Strong Suit will be whichever of the four suits best represents the sphere of influence a character/faction is naturally attuned to. For example, a character with Hearts as a strong suit might have a courageous nature, or a zealous or passionate one, or possibly be an impulsive hot-head who wears her heart on her sleeve. Now I want to again point out that none of this is meant to act like a D&D-style alignment. Maybe your character IS by nature an impulsive hothead, but that does not mean you’ve got to go around acting that way. You can resist, you can try to be cool and chill. That’s all fine. I mean, we’re talking about the Fate system here, right? You want to wear your heart on your sleeve and give in to your impulses and passions? Hey, that makes for good story – you get compelled, and you get a Fate chip for it. You want to resist your impulses and passions in order to accomplish something with a level head? You resist the compel and give up a Fate chip.

In addition to the Strong Suit there will be another suit-related aspect called a Tilt. This is what I was calling a Vulnerability in an earlier essay on TGTMB – but the term “Tilt” fits my idea even better and it’s also a poker term, so that’s a win-win.

In poker parlance, Tilt is “a term for a state of mental confusion or frustration in which a player knowingly adopts a sub-optimal strategy, usually resulting in the player becoming over-aggressive. Placing an opponent on tilt or dealing with being on tilt oneself is one of the most important aspects of poker. It is a relatively frequent occurrence, due to frustration, animosity against other players, or simple bad luck.” [definition taken from Wikipedia’s entry on the term]

So in VAM, the Tilt Suit is meant to indicate the type of behavior that a character or faction tends to drift toward when under overt pressure or frustration or, more importantly, when under the influence of Madness. In some sense it does represent a weakness or vulnerability, because by nature it is a “sub-optimal” attitude – but I think it’s also important to point out that even though the strong suit represents the most optimal side of one’s nature, and the tilt represents the most likely place where your Achilles heel is, it is also the tilt suit that represents what type of so-called mystic abilities one might have when under the sway of the Madness.

At this stage, my plan is to have every faction assigned a Tilt Suit – but I am NOT intending to have the Tilt Suit be a required aspect for characters. A character CAN choose to take a Tilt Suit as part of the character creation process, but in that case, it will come in through one of the phases, and it will be chosen by the player to suit the character’s concept, rather than assigned by drawing from the deck, as the Strong Suit is by default. The choice of a Tilt Suit will be important for characters who plan to take a mystical ability as a Stunt– because that’s the suit that will determine the sphere of the ability. But for other characters, it will be entirely optional.

And one more thing in case any of you are wondering – There is no expectation that a character’s suit(s) of influence will have to match up in any way with the suits of influence of her faction of origin or her current loyalty. The odd possible combinations, in my mind, are all part of the potential for making interesting situations. So go ahead and play that Spades character in a Diamonds faction! It is, after all, the Madness, baby.

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Vegas After Midnight by Mick Bradley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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