In fantasy games, taverns are often full of patrons drinking and playing cards. It strains our suspension of disbelief when we hear them draw the King of Hearts or play a game of Spades or Blackjack.
While it would be nice to have a fully developed deck quite different than our standard 52-card deck, it would not be compatible with most of the games we know, so we would also have to come up with new games. Some have the time (or money) for that, but most of us don’t.
Instead, a simple re-skinning let us draw the Empress of Arrows or play a game of Shields or Black Knight, adding a little bit of fantasy flair while still keeping the real-world cards and allowing us to play the games we know.
The inspiration for doing this came when the player in my current campaign started running card games where patrons had to guess the suit. It was a little jarring to me when real world cards were drawn and announced by this character who is clearly from a fantasy – not pseudo-historical – world. So, I’ve made some simply changes to the 52-card deck, basically just changing the face cards, the ace, the joker and the suits. I hope you enjoy them.
If you want to personalise the card deck and use it as a plot device, then in your world, like in the real world, you could have the face cards of different suits represent figures from in-game myth or history.
Empress replaces the King. I liked the idea of female royalty being the highest card. I think it lends a little history to the deck, especially if there are no empires in your game. It alludes to a former Empire ruled – openly or in secret truth – by women. Empress cards would be strong and powerful looking women atop a throne in royal attire with a sceptre.
Priest replaces the Queen. Religion is often at the forefront of fantasy games, whether there is one god or hundreds. Including a priest as a face card indicates the importance of religion in the society that uses the deck or the one that invented it. Priest cards would be men (and/or women, depending what you want to go for in your world) dressed in robes and holding holy symbols matching their suits or perhaps even matching those of deities in your world.
Knight replaces the Jack. Knight is an actual French Tarot playing card with a picture of a young man riding a horse, with a value between Jack and Queen. Knights are usually an important part of Medieval-style fantasy worlds. If your game world skews more towards Renaissance than Medieval, perhaps the Knight could be called the cavalier or chevalier instead. Depending on the importance of horses in your world, this card could have a man (or woman, if women are or formerly were knights in your world) on a horse, or more a swashbuckling sort of figure for the chevalier.
Fool replaces the Joker. It is a common trope that the fool or court jester is actually extremely intelligent. Replacing the Joker with the Fool was an obvious choice and the card being variously low, high, wild or simply ignored speaks to the Fool’s adaptability and the way they are perceived by others. Fools would look a lot like the Jokers we use now, though some areas might depict them with a donkey’s head or some similar bizarre and foolish representation or even depict them in the colours or clothing of a rival nation.
Dog replaces the Ace. Not really a face card, but I like it because it adds another little change to things, rather than just sticking with a large single representation of the suit. Dogs can be seen as useless strays and dangerous mongrels or as loyal guards and man’s best friends. Because of these varying perceptions, I though it would be interesting to replace the Ace with the Dog, seeing as Ace can be high or low (or both) depending on the game you’re playing. Dog cards would have a simple picture of a dog coloured either black or red, depending on suit. Perhaps various regions depict the dogs differently – scruffy where dogs are disliked and strong and noble where they are favoured companions. If you’re using the goddess Tarsis, this card could be linked with her faith.
I wanted the suits to seem appropriate to fantasy worlds, but not covered in dragons and wizard hats. I ended up deciding that the black suits would be defensive representations and the red suits would be offensive representations.
For the Black suits, Shields replace Spades and Helms replace Clubs.
For the Red suits, Maces replace diamonds and Arrows replace Hearts.
I thought about using Swords instead of Maces, but the latter is a little non-standard and again adds a bit of flair to the deck (perhaps Maces were a common weapon in the ancient Empire where Dogs were also common). Mainly though, Mace heads are a lot easier to draw than Swords and still keep them around the same size as the other suits.
As mentioned, the deck is usable for any 52-card game you know, but the offensive/defensive dichotomy also presents hints of other games. Maybe there’s a rock-paper-scissors sort of card game where:
- Shields beat Arrows
- Arrows beat Helms
- Helms beat Maces
- Maces beat Shields
Not sure about the other combinations, like Shields vs. Helms and Arrows vs. Maces. Maybe suits of the same colours can’t hurt each other? I haven’t thought it out thoroughly, but I think there’s something there.
So, to wrap up, here’s our real-world card annotation compared to this new fantasy deck from lowest to highest, without Jokers/Fools:
A 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 J Q K
D 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 K P E