Abstract Orienteering: playing cards and Int modifiers

For when you don’t feel like tracking the constant geo-location of your players. This system works for hex-crawls, urban exploration, or abstracted subterranean movement.

The bones

This system is designed to allow the orienteer to push their luck and risk running the group into trouble.

Note: in my game, I use a small packet of cards called the meat deck.  It is constructed from the two to eight of each suit from a regular pack of playing cards, along with one of the jokers.  If you don’t want to use a meat deck, gather a pool of at least eight d8 of at least three different colours: note which colour represents spades (threats) and which represents diamonds (discoveries).

  • Each day is split into three watches of eight hours each. Each watch is split into a variable number of reaches determined by the orienteer’s skill and the luck of the draw.
  • For each reach, the orienteer draws a number of cards from the meat deck equal to one plus their Intelligence modifier, then selects one of these cards:
    • the value determines how many hours this reach lasts
    • the suit determines if there’s an encounter during the reach:
      • hearts and clubs: no encounter
      • spade: a threat
      • diamond: a discovery (esp. the keyed location for the hex)
    • treat the joker as wild: the orienteer may choose any value or suit for this card
  • Keep the cards that have been selected for each reach separate from the discard pile.
  • The orienteer may choose to end the watch at any point between reaches, unless:
    • If the total number of hours combined from all reaches exceeds eight, the party will recognise that they have become lost at the end of that reach. Becoming lost ends the watch.
  • Once the watch is over and any encounter has been resolved, shuffle all of the cards back into the meat deck.

The party may choose to press on once this watch is over. PCs may explore for a number of successive watches equal to their Constitution modifier before risking exhaustion.  (Low level groups will typically travel for one watch before resting.)

What if we want to work together?

If the orienteer wants to take useful advice from her peers, she may make a Charisma save (made one step more difficult for each PC she wishes to consult).

  • If this is successful, she may add each PCs Intelligence modifier to her own when drawing cards each reach during this watch.
  • If this is unsuccessful, she forfeits her own Intelligence modifier for this watch.

Overland standard time

This system assumes PCs travel overland at an average of three miles per hour, working with six mile hexes.

For urban or underground exploration, instead set watches to two hours total, made of eight 15m turns.

Abstract Orienteering: playing cards and Int modifiers

INTO THE CARD — a variant for fifty-two friends

I’ve shared before how much a fan I am of Chris McDowall’s INTO THE ODD.  It remains my go-to when I’m interested in light-investment exploratory roleplay.  Coupled with the fact its rules can fit entirely within my mind and that I tend to run dungeons through a memory palace anyway, I’ve been looking for a way to make the game more portable.

I don’t tend to carry dice with me.  (If you’ve seen my Slick Thames hack of ITO, you’ll see how I also collapse the 3d6 stat generation into d4+d6+d8 {that way I only need one set of polyhedrals}.)  I do tend to carry playing cards.


Take a regular pack of playing cards.  Remove the twelve court cards (each Jack, Queen and King).  Introduce one of the jokers (I recommend the guarantee one).  This will form a communal pile that’s drawn from whenever players would roll a dice.  Once a card is drawn, a communal discard pile builds; this is shuffled whenever the joker comes up in play.

  • Aces are always low (they always score 1).
  • The joker will always be the optimal value for the task at hand (4, 10, or 14 damage; 1 for Saves); drawing the joker also shuffles the discard pile into the stock (as in Savage Worlds).
  • If you would roll d20, instead draw two cards and combine the values.
  • Ignore differences in weapon strength.  All weapons draw one card for damage equal to the value.
  • If a draw is Impaired, instead use the suit as value: spades have 1 point, hearts have 2 halves, clubs have 3 segments, diamonds have 4 edges.  With weapon attacks, look to Impair many more than you usually would.  Players should be encouraged to use their weapons effectively and imaginatively.
  • If a draw is Enhanced, instead add the suit value to the pip value.  (The 10♦️️ is the best card in the pack: ten pips plus four edges for a diamond.)

Character Generation

  • Draw seven cards.
  • Create three pairs in any order that you choose & assign each score to STR, DEX & WIL.
  • Treat the unpaired card as Impaired.  This value becomes hp.
  • Consult whichever INTO THE ODD starter package system you are using.

This is slightly meaner than regular ITO.  The probabilities pool towards the middle of the spread (essentially 2d10 vs 1d20, though that shifts as the discard pile grows) and more damage is likely to be dealt.  Consider having it that Critical Damage will typically enable only an Impaired draw’s number of actions until you pass out.

INTO THE CARD — a variant for fifty-two friends