Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Ain't No Grave - Card-based Combat in the Wild Wild West

One day I should stop making tiny systems and focus the precious free time I have on polishing and publishing. 

(But not today)

Ain't No Grave

Card-based Combat in the Wild Wild West 

The sun is directly overhead, and it's hotter 'n hell. A tumbleweed is the only thing moving through the muddy streets of the outpost. There are only two kinds of people: the quick and the dead. 

Which will you be?

These rules cover shoot outs, carriage chases, bar fights, train robberies, and other matters of pulpy Western action and misadventure. Special rules for one-on-one pistol duels not included. 

Disclaimer: The combat subsystem requires flipping or sliding poker chips. If you're the sort of person who won't find physical dexterity tests fun or appropriate for your games, this system isn't for you.

Set Up

The game begins with two standard poker decks, Joker's included, shuffled together. Everybody shares this deck. 

The dealer (who rotates each combat round) puts four cards, face down, in the middle of the table. This is the River

The dealer deals four cards to each player involved in the unpleasantness. This is the player's hand

Each player starts with a full set of ammo (represented by red chips) and three points of grit (represented by blue chips).

The Game Marshall (GM) should set up a map of the situation, either sketching it out on a dry-erase board or creating a diorama with miniatures. Everybody should be clear where they are and where other obvious combatants are. 

On a separate, but easily accessible surface, the GM should set up a shoot out silhouette. See below for details.

The dealer then flips the first card of the River over. This signifies that the first turn of the combat round has begun. 

Combat Turns

At the start of each turn, each player places one card from their hand face down in front of them. When the dealer signals, everybody flips their cards up at the same time. The player with the highest card numerically acts first, then each other person in descending order. Jokers high, aces low. Players with ties go simultaneously

Once all the actions are resolved in the first turn, the dealer flips the next card of the River. Play continues until all four River cards are flipped and all actions are resolved. If the combat situation continues, the next person counterclockwise becomes the dealer and a new combat round begins.


During each turn, each player selects a card from their hand and places it face down. By doing so, they are choosing to do one of two things: use an action (based on their card's suit) or use a special technique (based on a poker hand available to you). When it's your turn to declare what you're doing, you say what action or special technique you're using and who you're doing it to.

Jokers are wild and high.

Additionally, when you act, your character may move one zone on the map, e.g., from the street to the porch, from the porch into the saloon, from the saloon to the backroom, etc. 

There are four basic actions based on the suit of the card you played. Some actions have a counter. If your opponent has a card in their hand that counters your action, they may play it by spending 1 grit. This interrupts your action in a specific way, discussed below. 

Spades - ♠Shootin'

Counter: Dive for Cover

When you play a Spades card, you take the Shootin' action. You may take one of your ammo chips and slide it or flip it onto the shoot out silhouette. 

  • If you hit the silhouette, your opponent takes a wound on their body corresponding to that section. If the chip is hitting two places simultaneously, the victim chooses which unwounded body part to wound. They mark an X accordingly on their character sheet.
    • A shot to the leg hobbles a character. They must discard a card of any suit to move (instead of moving for free). If both legs are shot, they cannot move at all. 
    • A shot to the arm means that the player cannot toss an ammo chip with the corresponding arm. 
    • A shot to the torso kills the character. A shot to the head kills the character. 
  • A shot character may spend 1 grit to change the hit to a graze. They mark an / on their character sheet to show a graze. Two grazes = one hit. 

If countered, your target places their card over their shoot out silhouette, as if they had preemptively dived for cover. See  the Dive for Cover action for full details.

Clubs - ♣Roughhouse

Counter: Roughhouse

When you play a Clubs card, you take the Roughhouse action against someone in your zone. Choose one of the following options:

  • Your opponent loses 1 grit. 
    • If your opponent has no grit to lose, you cold clock them. They're knocked out.
  • Your opponent is grappled. Neither of you can move zones or use the Shootin' action until you decide to let them go. Your opponent can take the ♣Roughhouse to break free on a later turn, too.
If countered, you and your opponent compare card totals. If your opponent's card value is lower than yours, you tussle a bit but nothing happens. If your opponent's card value is equal to or higher than your ♣Roughhouse action, you lose 1 grit.

Diamonds - Dive for Cover

Counter: None

When you play a Diamonds card, you take the Dive for Cover action. Choose one of the following effects:
  • You may move two additional zones this turn (for a total of 3). 
  • If your zone has any physical cover (tables, columns, horses, gallows, etc.) the next time you are shot at, you may place this card on top of your shoot out silhouette
    • If an ammo chip lands at least partially your cover card, it misses you completely. The cover is destroyed. Remove your card. 
    • If the ammo chip does not hit your cover card, the cover remains where it is until you move zones or it is destroyed. 

Hearts - Recover

Counter: None

When you play a Hearts card, you take the ♥Recover action. Choose one of the following effects:
  • You fill your ammo allotment back to your weapon's full capacity.
  • You regain 1 grit (to a maximum of 3).

Miscellaneous Actions

Counter: None

You may discard a card of any suit to do literally anything else the Game Marshal allows. You can jump from one carriage to another. You can pull the train's breaks. You can shoot your horse to create cover in an open field.

Shoot Out Silhouette

I'm picturing a laminated small poster sized page like this:

I got this off of Walmart dot com. I'd imagine a few different silhouettes being included in the game to represent different scenarios. Maybe some overlays like "Window" or "Behind horse." If you want to try out this ruleset at home, there's a million Google images for "cowboy silhouette." You'd have to print it out large enough to let you flip your chip onto it. 


OK here's where things really get complicated/interesting/fun. At the beginning of a turn, you can play face down as many cards from your hand as you want to make a poker hand. You may, if you want, also create combinations with cards in the River.  

For example, if you have a 5 of Hearts and a 5 of Clubs in your hand, and the River has a 5 of Spades, you may play both of your 5s face down. When you declare your action, you may activate your Three of a Kind special technique. 

(In a full version of this game, different characters might have entirely different sets of special techniques they could trigger. These are just examples.)

Each poker hand triggers a technique:

Pair - Thrillin’ Heroics

You can perform some unlikely feat: shooting a hangman's rope, jumping into a conveniently placed hay wagon from a third story window, or swinging on the chandelier across the saloon. This technique allows you to edit the details of the scenery somewhat to accommodate your thrillin’ heroics. 

Two Pair - Fast Draw

You take the ♠Shootin' action but it can't be countered. 

Three of a Kind - Catch Your Breath

You take the ♥Recover action and regain all grit (up to the max of 3). 

Straight - Greased Lightning

You interrupt another player’s action to perform your own. You can use any of the main actions and it will resolve before the current player’s. 

Flush - Trick Shot

You take the ♠Shootin' action and can remove a cover card from the silhouette. Alternatively, you take the ♠Shootin' action on someone you don't have a normal line of target on, e.g., shooting around corners. 

Full House - Dead Eye

Take the ♠Shootin' action and call what part of the body you're aiming for. If you hit, it can’t be turned into a graze. 

Four of a Kind  - Fan the Hammer

Take the ♠Shootin' action and you can spend as much ammo as you have against different targets. You may only take one shot per target.

Straight Flush - Ace in the Hole

You automatically hit your enemy on a body part of your choice. They take a wound there. It cannot be turned into a graze. You can use this technique to blast a gun out of their hand or leave ‘em dead standing. 

Royal Flush - Dead to Rights

You have your enemies dead to rights. You (or an ally) may make one demand of each varmint you have cornered. If they agree, you feel cocksure they'd never violate this oath. If they disagree (or if you just want to) you can waste ‘em. 


Self Plug

My currently in-development dungeon crawler HIS MAJESTY THE WORM is another card based game. If you think flipping over cards dramatically and choosing your actions based on the cards you've drawn sounds fun, I hope you'll check it out (soon).