Making up a tabletop RPG

One day I wanted to keep the kids (6 and 8) busy, I suggested we play a game, I made up the rules and we used playing cards as the source of randomness. Thus was born PlayingCards-RPG.

Growing up in a town in Italy in the ’80s, I never got the chance to play tabletop RPGs. There might have been people who played them, but I was an introverted kid, a nerd without a like-minded community, so I never got the chance.

This means I don’t actually know how tabletop RPGs work. I have skimmed a couple rulebooks, and D&D’s rulebook clarified that roleplaying is about storytelling and make-believe.

Those, I know.

Character building

Kids are naturally apt at making up characters (more than their parents), so they can easily invent a character. But they are also bad at having them balanced.

Some popular RPGs have emphasis on character stats or classes, attributes such as strength, dexterity, agility, intelligence etc.. and all those are properly codified. But you don’t need that.

In PlCRPG there are 3 stats: Health, and Two Others. The others are Strength/Attack/Defence/Whatever and Intelligence/Dexterity/Agility/Magic/Whatever.

The goal is not to be realistic, is to have something where you, as the adult master can just balance them out. Examples we played:

  • Black Skull, the tiny alien with laser eyes: low Health, very high Attack, low defense, can fly.
  • Vanilla, the Elven Mom: average Health, average Intelligence, average Health, has an invisibility cloak.
  • Blooddrop, the saber-toothed mouse: low Health, low Strength, high Speed, starts owning some potions.
  • Almei, the werewolf cub with fractal fangs: average Health, average Strength (it’s a cub), low Intelligence, attack-only bonus.
  • Luna, the forest girl: average Health, low Strength, average Intelligence, but talks to animals and travels with a pet rabbit.
  • Grunt, half-orc: average Health, high Strength, low Intelligence.
  • Fire Spirit: low Health

Can I do something?

I think these are called checks in D&D. You should use a variety of dice with different probabilities but we just had playing cards. Most Italian playing cards use the latin 4 suits (Clubs, Swords, Coins and Cups, these are pretty well suited thematically!) and have 10 cards each. You can use the French or German ones (or tarots, or UNO cards or whatever) sticking with the 1-10 cards, and re-use the others as characters or equipment.

The system is simple: average stats means you use 1-10 cards. High stats mean you use 6-10, low stats use 1-5, buffs through objects or spells change the set of cards.

Some examples:

  • The party wants to break a door: that requires a 5, the kid player pulls a card, and if it’s above that they manage to break it.
    • the Half-Orc has 6-10 for Strength, will always succeed
    • the Elven Mom has 1-10 so she’ll succeed half the time
      • the Saber-toothed mouse has 1-5 so it just can’t do it (but could lockpick it)
  • The party is in a room looking for a book: I think this is a bit harder so I decide it requires a score >6
  • Elven mom has a 40% chance to pass
    • …but she found a spell that makes light, so instead of using cards 1-10 she’ll use 3-10
    • Werewolf cub is dumb, so even with the light he can’t do it

Fights and stuff

Fighting happens card-on-card: you attack with what you draw, defend with what you draw, subtract the difference from remaining health. Each player attacks in turn, the master makes up the order . To deal with extreme disparity, a “best” draw still does something.

For example Half-Orc fight a fire spirit:

  • Half-Orc has High Strength (cards 6-10), random Fire Spirit is tiny (cards 1-5). Half-Orc draws a 8, fire spirit draws a 4, takes 4 damage.
  • Fire Spirit attacks the Half-Orc, draws a 5: it could never damage the other which will always get a draw >6, but to make this mildly interesting a 5 (best draw) sets the other on fire, so they lose 1 health every round.

Experience, levels and such stuff

I did not bother with this. The kids will pick new characters the next game, and if they want to keep the same and “get better” I’ll just let them find some equipment.

Exploration, maps and such

I just draw on a bit of paper, I pre-planned dungeons but sometimes I just add stuff as we go on. My kids can’t be bothered to count steps and such, so I just have them move from one place to another instantaneously, it works well enough.


This is not a lot of rules. It’s barely more than not having rules, but the point is to get creative while spending time with your family, which we all enjoyed. There will be plenty of time to play with big rulesets when they grow up (and then there won’t be, as they’ll think playing with Dad is lame).

But do let me know if you have your own made up game, I’d be happy to play that too 🙂

On Culture, Food, Games

Today, I realized I have lived abroad most of my adult life. Yet, I feel as much Italian as I always did.

Culture, in the sense of one’s heritage, language, customs and so on, is such a weird thing. For example, some things we just consider old, or passé, while some others are traditions.

Nobody gives a damn about last year’s clothes, but people will happily wear traditional clothing for special occasions, even tho there’s nothing that makes them particularly different from the clothes of a hundred year before or after.

But some things get frozen in time, and become a paradigm of something, and then people start considering them as the real thing, and deviations are bad.

As an Italian, I see this all the time with food. As most of my countrymen I will be annoyed if I order a carbonara and you put cream and dill in it§. I will cringe at some of the ready-made “italian” monstrosities sold in foreign supermarkets, and of course there’s the Japanese spaghetti napolitana (with ketchup and wurstel) which could make people from Naples punch you§.

But beyond the immediate disapproval, I’m open minded enough to understand that it does not matter. Sure, I would prefer if people named things differently to avoid confusion, but I also understand that our strictness with food is a very modern development. Until a few years ago nobody would give a shit if you made carbonara using pancetta rather than guanciale, for example. The modern pizza napoletana has as little to do with the pizza from 100 years ago as an american deep dish thing, but now the recipe has been written down, and it can’t be changed anymore.

So I see this crystallization process happen in real time, and I find it so, so interesting. But change will happen, anyway.

My kids are italo-hungarian, and mostly I like to think of them as european but it is clear their culture will be mostly magyar. They’ll think it’s normal to take off shoes when you enter someone else’s house§, or that it’s reasonable to have only sweets for a meal§. At the same time they also expect latte e biscotti for breakfast rather than eggs and sausage. And hungarians have decent pizza and coffee these days. The kids will be their own culture and will be alright.

Food is a clear story of homogenization and globalization too: every big city has access to decent curry or sushi these days, if not khinkali and injera§. Yet a bunch of older hyperlocal recipes are disappearing. I have never seen any Italian pastry place make sweet ricotta ravioli as my grandma made them.

And the rest of culture is the same. Probably these days a youngster in Brazil has more shared culture with one in Norway than 20 years ago. They played similar videogames, watched the same blockbusters, have similar comics and books available, hanged around in the same online communities. They may have enjoyed different porn, tho.

But I would guess, when they were little, they played different games, cause children games are not as heavily internationalized yet. But careful, those are being homogenized too. I remember my dad teaching some of the games they played as kids, such as Lippa. I have never seen anyone else play it.

Hungarians kids play a shitty version of hide and seek where you hide and someone finds you and that’s it, you just take turns counting. Italian kids play a hyper-competitive version where once you spot the other person you have to race them to a base point and that captures them, but then the last one to be found still has a chance to free all the others, forcing the counting person to go again. You also have cheats and counter-cheats, such as standing behind a person to touch the base as soon as they are done counting, or having special rhymes that preventively capture those standing behind you. It’s an arms race. It’s a much more entertaining game, and I hope it survives for the sake of future children.

Anyway, culture is drifting, and becoming less diverse overall by becoming more diverse in every single place. Which begs the question: should we care? Should we make an effort to preserve some of our ancestors’ culture, and pass it on to the newest generations? Should we reject novelty? I am pretty sure the last question’s answer is a resounding no, but I think the others are tricky.

For example, should I teach my kids the sort of games my father thought me? What for? Some them made sense in a place when urbanization was mild and dirt roads where more common than asphalt, what would my kids do with them?

I think in a sense it’s always worth preserving something. But we all have limited learning capacity, teaching my kids the child rhymes I knew as a kid would come at the expense of not teaching them something else, and I mean, why would I chose 70 year old italian children rhymes?

When you are physically detached from your parent culture, you feel some need to stick to it, I think. This might be why the USA has this thing of saying “I’m Italian/Irish/Whatever!” meaning “some of my ancestors ended up on these shores coming from there!“. Immigrants felt nostalgia, and passed it on.

It’s also worth considering what is the culture you want to keep or ditch. Italy has a traditionally macho culture, which probably we should not keep in the next century. But it also used to have a very welcoming culture, which we should strive to keep. Hungarians are not particularly friendly and extrovert, we should probably change that. But they also are not very inclined to damage public property, which is good. At the same time, everytime we harmonize the behaviour towards some average expectation of “good” we’re losing something. But I still I hope we won’t have infibulation and the death penalty anywhere in the future. I am not sure what we should do with holy mountains forbidden to women but I have to say, I personally hope they stick around, because I like weird things.

Finally, it’s probably worth thinking about what happens when a culture buds off another one, and becomes separate, and you should stop evaluating it in the same terms. Italian poetry is not read in terms of Latin forms. Espresso should not be considered a bad arab coffee, nor italians should complain about third generation coffee being hipster bait. When does that the split happen? Does it even matter? I have a whole different post to write on english language haiku vs japanese haiku.

I am not sure there’s an answer to any of the questions here, I’ll just keep doing what I feel is best, every day, cause that’s the best I can do. Maybe everyone.

I did build my kids a rubber band gun, as my father did for me. Because it was fun, and because I loved my father and I miss him a lot. Maybe that’s why people stick to their culture, because they loved their parents, and grandparents, and wish they were with them.

Go tell your parents you love them, and your children too. That is some culture all mankind seem to share. And humbly, I think we should keep it.