Deck of Many Threats: Wilderness Encounters Based on Playing Cards (Plus a Simple System for Provisions)

For my home game, I’ve been using a slightly different method to generate random wilderness encounters than the traditional charts. Although this found its inspiration in a particular Savage Worlds rule, it isn’t really system-specific and could work for any game.

In the Savage Worlds Fantasy Companion, there is an optional rule for overland movement that states “Unless the area traveled is patrolled, draw a card from the Action Deck once per day. A face card or higher represents an encounter.” In case you aren’t familiar with SW, the action deck is just a standard deck of playing cards with the Jokers left in. (They also sell a game-specific action deck, but that’s not pertinent to this post.)

Initially I didn’t necessarily see the point in determining encounters in this way, because on the surface it really isn’t all that different from saying that there is X% chance of an encounter every day. But then I realized that by using a playing card deck, I could determine much more with that single draw then just Y/N to an encounter. The first thing I decided was to treat a Joker as an indicator of some sort of very special event — an unpredicted comet appears in the sky, the players discover a teleporting Scottish village, something like that.

That leaves the three face cards and the Ace. The first thing I look at when I draw one of these cards is the suit. That determines the sort of hazard “encountered”:

  • Clubs = Provisions drop one level (explained more below)
  • Diamonds = Climate-appropriate inclement weather
  • Hearts = Lost / Off course
  • Spades = Hostile being(s)

However, for travel through certain terrain types I want certain results to be more likely than others. I personally use a die to determine this part because I like to make one of the players roll and let their own dice decide their fate, but you could just as easily draw a second card.

On a spade, roll a d20. Low provisions drop, high hostile being(s).
On a diamond, roll a d20. Low lost/off course, high inclement weather.

On a club, roll a d20. Low hostile encounter, high provisions drop.
On a diamond, roll a d20. Low lost/off course, high inclement weather.

“Civilized” Lands
On a spade, roll a d20. Low non-hostile being(s), high hostile being(s).

The next thing I look at is the rank of the card; this determines the general time the encounter occurs if such a determination is appropriate:

  • Jack = Early day
  • Queen = Late day
  • King = After dusk (aka “first watch”)
  • Ace = Before dawn (aka “second watch”)

So far I’ve determined the specifics of the hazard encountered on the fly, sometimes using dice to assist. “Hmm, a bad storm lasting 2d6 days seems appropriate.” Or, “A warband of 15 goblins riding giant spiders sounds fun.” I’ve started to work on charts based on drawing a second card, though, and when I have some examples worth sharing, I’ll do so.

Party Provisions

I’ve always felt that characters planning wilderness treks should have to worry about having enough food and water to stay healthy, but I’m not a fan of too much detailed record keeping. During my last campaign, I came up with this system based on the SW rules for abstract ammo tracking (which I also apply to PCs even though they were written for allies).

The party has an overall provision level: Very High, High, Low, or Out. This encompasses food and water for every member of the travelling group, whether human or pack animal. When preparing for an expedition, the cost for each level of provisions equals 5 gallons of water plus 10 days worth of trail rations times the number of party members. So if the cost of the water plus the rations is 20 silver, it would cost a party of four adventurers and a pack horse 100 silver to go from being Out of provisions to having low provisions. For another 100 silver they could increase the provision level to High, and for a grand total of 300 silver they could have Very High provisions.

Once the party leaves town, their level of provisions drops after each “leg” of the journey. A leg is based on how the characters might describe the journey in-game if they were looking at a map. Generally this means each leg involves a change of major terrain types, but if a particular terrain type covers a very large distance then an intermediate landmark may define two separate legs. For example, “We must bear north, following the Dorgan River, until we reach the Felstead Wood. From there we march until we reach the pass that takes us across the Farpeak Mountains.” This would be a trip with three legs. When the party reaches the Felstead Wood their provisions drop one level, when they reach the Farpeak Mountains it drops again, and it drops a third time once they have crossed the mountains.

It is assumed that the party is doing their best to preserve and extend their resources, so they do have a chance to avoid losing provisions. At the end of a leg, before the provisions drop, the character with the highest Survival skill makes a roll with a negative modifier equal to the total number of members of the traveling party, including any pack animals. If the party got lost during that leg of the journey, an additional -1 modifier applies for every day they were lost. Anyone else with the Survival skill may make a roll to assist at the same negative modifier (characters who successfully assist give the player making the main roll a +1 bonus). If the roll succeeds, the provision level does not drop.

When an overland travel hazard card indicates that the provisions drop, no such roll is allowed — things are going poorly, and the party is going through their reserves much faster than expected.

Once the party is Out of provisions, the normal rules for using the Survival skill to find food and water come into effect.

Author: John Carr

Gamer, comic guy, office drone.

8 thoughts on “Deck of Many Threats: Wilderness Encounters Based on Playing Cards (Plus a Simple System for Provisions)”

  1. That’s a very nice idea. I’ve seen dice rolling engines to the same kind of thing, but your idea gives more scope off one card that would take several dice to emulate, and still leaves a lot of room for improvisation; my favourite bit about being the GM. My next game is city based and won’t have too many random encounters, but will be using this next time I do an open world exploration game.

    1. Thanks! It obviously does cater to a specific style of game, which can be slightly tweaked, of course. One of the implications of the way I currently have it set up is that it creates a feeling of a somewhat empty wilderness. Partially that’s my intention, but I also generally offset it by pre-planning at least one or two encounters during sessions that will likely be nothing but wilderness travel, then let the cards determine the rest.

      1. My mind went to Deadlands straight away. Open empty plains, where days pass without seeing a soul, and then, BAM! bandits and varmints and critters oh my.

  2. Wow John I’m really impressed with this. You’ve got me thinking about making a variant of this and I’m not even running a game now.

  3. Great idea. I like working with cards instead of dice when I play Savage Worlds. I would create a table based on the type of encounter consisting of entries for each card and simply draw a second card instead of rolling dice. Makes events more random though. The provision system is a good idea, consiser it snagged 🙂

    1. Thanks, glad you like it!

      Unrelated, is it weird that when I accidentally tapped back on the word “Thanks,” my iPhone suggested that I may have meant to type “Thanos?” Just thinking out loud, don’t mind me.

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