Thursday 31 May 2012

Hanafuda and the Seasonal Random Effect Device

I have a fascination with all different kinds of games. This blog is mostly about RPGs, but I also play a lot of wargames, some board games, and, especially, card games. Card games are, of course, very different from RPGs on many levels, but they have one deep, shared, philosophically important characteristic: without randomness they are nothing; indeed they are shit. With RPGs the randomness comes from the dice, with card games it comes from the shuffle and draw, but the principle is exactly the same. Indeed, I don't think it is too much of an exaggeration to say that card games and RPGs are basically the same pursuit: reacting to randomness. In this, they say something very profound about the nature of our lives. Yes, I'm being serious (mostly).

But I digress. What I really wanted to talk about was Hanafuda. Hanafuda is a Japanese card deck whose design is based on the months of the year; there are 12 suits, one for each month, each containing 4 cards. It looks like this:

Each suit is comprised of, usually, two "normal" cards, a "ribbon" card (either red or purple) and a one "special", though this varies slightly from suit to suit. The "specials" are as follows:

January: Crane with Sun
February: Bush Warbler
March: Military Camp Curtain
April: Cuckoo
May: Water Iris with Bridge
June: Butterflies
July: Boar
August: Full Moon with Red Sky
September: Sake Cup
October: Deer with Maple
November: Swallow, Calligrapher with Umbrella and Frog, Lightning
December: Chinese Phoenix

These are, as you can tell, very evocative in character.

One day, I plan to come up with a system for using Hanafuda cards in an RPG. I have a number of ideas, but one is the Seasonal Random Effect Device.

Here, each month in game time the DM or one of the players would randomly draw a Hanafuda card from the relevant suit for that month. If the card drawn is "normal" there is no effect on the game. If the card is a red ribbon, this has some positive blanket mechanical effect - perhaps, for some reason, magic is especially strong due to some motion of the cosmos, and all saving throws versus magic are at -1 for the duration of the month. If the card is a purple ribbon, likewise, there is another blanket mechanical effect which is negative - for example, maybe the weather is particularly bad (either oppressively hot, or unseasonably wet) and consequently everybody is weak and lethargic and function at an effective -1 to STR. Whatever.

If a special card is drawn, it means that at some stage during that month something related to that card has to be thrown in to the game by the DM. For the Cuckoo, this might mean that some ally or henchman of the PCs will turn traitor. For Military Camp Curtain, some sort of military event might take place. For Butterflies, it might mean that some major social event happens. For Boar, maybe some mighty spirit Boar will be spotted in the forest. This should be seen as something for the DM to riff on, rather than something fixed.

This would add a lot of flavour to an Asian-flavoured fantasy game. Something similar could also be done with the European Tarot deck and more European-style fantasy games, particularly, I think, Pendragon or Ars Magica.


  1. Oh yeah ... spent way too much time with the Hanafuda flash game.

    May I suggest a table where:

    The "plain" cards drawn out of their month have no meaning, and in month signify some event typical of that month.

    The "fancy" cards always have a meaning for the current month when drawn, but get much more intense if drawn in their month ...

    Animals = natural event
    Scrolls = political/military event
    Brights = event of celestial significance

  2. Aside from the flavor element, I've thought a lot about using cards and how they are or are not mechanically better than dice. I came up with this..

    -The suits and numbers mean you can create connections between results.

    -You can use that in a number of ways, including a binary "is this result connected or not connected to the last result" mechanic.

    -Unlike rolling dice, you pick cards and the entire array is right in front of you, so you can create mechanics based on the internal numerical order of the set of cards you just picked (if you roll 3d6 and want to do this, each 6 needs to be a different colored die and that color must have meaning)

    I don't know how many of those things apply to Hanafuda but there you go.

    1. Yes, and I like the tactile nature of drawing cards, as well. In the early days of this blog I wrote some entries about an idea for using whist as a resolution mechanic. See here and here.

  3. The only important distinction between cards and dice from a mathematical viewpoint is that with cards you are drawing *Without Replacement* and with dice you are drawing *With Replacement*. That distinction crucially affects the probabilities. Imagine rolling dice in sequence where if a die throws up a number already rolled then you must roll again.

    1. That's not the only interesting thing about them, mathematically speaking or otherwise. As Zak pointed out, they have suits. They also have historical and cultural resonance.

    2. I didn't say anything about how interesting cards were. They are pleasing to handle and have a different psychological effect. Much of this effect comes from the sense of owning a card once you draw it and this characteristic of cards comes from the fact that they are drawn without replacement which contrasts with how dice are used. I pointed out the important mathematical distinction between cards and dice and Im sure you didn't mean to contradict me about something mathematical so I'll let that go.

      Suit and rank are independent in probability so a suit is just a face of a d4 and you can stick pretty pictures on d4 now.

      Cards are enjoyable to use. I was making a poitive comment I thought you were smart enough to appreciate.

    3. Come on Kent, don't get your knickers in a twist. I was just stressing that there is more to cards than just interesting mathematics.

  4. I love this idea. I lived in Korea for 2+ years and I learned to play their version of this game, which they call HwaTu. I'll have to noodle out how to add something like this to my games. Thanks.

    1. Is the Korean version exactly the same as the Japanese?

  5. I like these cards a lot (I am going to head down to Uwajimaya this weekend and see if they have some) and I like your idea as well. I'll probably use them as some sort of daily weather determinator for D&D... I am semi-obsessed with weather in the game.

  6. Those cards are amazing, I love the idea that you can determine suits by the general patterning of the cards, rather than specific symbols on them.

    In some ways it's the same as red cards/black cards, but we don't tend to focus on that distinction, the two symbols are usually more important.

    Weirdly, these seem like a more artistic and subtle version of those specialised snap cards you get, which blows my brain with possibilities:

    Normal playing cards are distinguished by suit and number, two dimensions that cover all the cards, as the picture cards are basically 11-14.

    But with custom cards, you could have all kinds of overlayed possibly incomplete systems of colour, background pattern, creature vs person vs place as the subject.. The amount of setting information you could encode in that!

    1. It would be an efficient setting supplement, wouldn't it? A pack of cards and a few instructions on interpreting the results?

    2. Hmm, taking that as a design challenge..

      Encoding a whole setting on cards would be daunting (thinking about settings I like, especially my own settings). There'd be stuff better expressed in other mediums I think. So to accompany the cards, I'd want handouts that cover:
      Fables - to cover social taboos and tactical quirks of play

      Character descriptions - to cover the tensions of the setting, because characters can live those overlaps most obviously, and plus, they're good starting examples to the GM

      and the descendent of a price list and a tourist guide - to cover privileges and economic stuff, what players can get access to off hand, if it differs from our society.

      That's the sort of thing I think'd probably be a stretch to fit into cards, but other than that yeah, embody the structure and mindset, as well as the aesthetics, of a whole setting in a lovely I-ching like framework + cards. Lovely!

      You could create maps by giving certain areas certain cards as their own, do the same for NPC characters and compare to their location for tensions etc..

  7. I'd be really interested to see cards used to support lots of types of game mechanics. I looked back at your whist ideas and think there is something in them. Also I think Zak's STACK game idea (I know I have it bookmarked somewhere but can't find it now) was neat.

    My own interests lean towards story games with consequences, random generation and seeding... And I'm sure that cards can fit in there somewhere. Having a whole game where the random stuff/"rolling" is done with cards really appeals to me.