Dealing the Wildcards

In past columns I have talked about how DMs are the best friends of both players and adventure designers.  The DMs possess the power and the means to help the players have fun, while at the same time making the adventure designers look good.  (And believe me, we need all the help we can get!)  In subsequent columns I plan to talk about how DMs can adjust pre-made adventures to fit their players’ needs and expectations while still remaining true to the story.  However, before I get there, I want to talk about some steps adventure designers can take to make life easier for the DMs.  In particular, this column will discuss what I call the “wildcard.” In card games, especially poker, a wildcard is a card that can be used by the player to represent anything.  The same versatility offered by a wildcard to a poker hand can make an RPG session awesome.

Wildcards: What and How?

I started thinking about wildcards in RPGs because I dislike using a DM screen.  Bear with me, this will get somewhere. Also I prefer to roll in the open where players can see the results.  Because I do not want to fudge die rolls and have no screen to hide behind, I needed another way as a DM to tailor the play experience without ruining that experience with obvious fudging.  I don’t like to kill characters, but I also let the dice fall where they may.  However, I always have the fun of the players in mind.  I am willing to take the adventure in any direction, be it story-wise or combat-wise, if I think the players might have a better time.

Since I don’t want to fudge die rolls, and I don’t want the game to be cheapened with obvious stunts like deus ex machina or the like, I had to come up with tools that I could use as the DM to influence the game more subtly.  I learned about wildcards in the first D&D adventure I ever ran, way back when I was just a wee lad.  (People who know me can insert the short jokes here.)  I was too young and inexperienced to be able to put a name to it and recognize it for what it was, but I was using a wildcard nonetheless.  That adventure was The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, and the wildcard was a wily assassin named Ned Shakeshaft.  For those young’uns who don’t remember that adventure, the PCs are investigating a supposedly haunted house, and they find Mr. Shakeshaft tied up in one of the rooms.  He knows how to use a sword, so the PCs might welcome him into their group to help with the investigations.  Of course Ned is a bad guy, and he turns on the PCs at some point.

Ned is the perfect example of a wildcard that a DM has in his proverbial game-mastering poker hand.  If an adventure is too easy and the players are getting bored, Ned can attack the PCs at the worst possible moment for them, making the adventure more challenging for the PCs and exciting for the players.  If the PCs are having a rough go of it and the players are getting frustrated, Ned can continue to fight on their side, biding his time.

Of course, these wildcards can be used for far more than just regulating combat difficulty.  Ned is a wildcard in terms of story progression as well.  Although the adventure says Ned is an assassin planted there to protect the secret of the haunted mansion, an enterprising DM could make Ned into just about anything: criminal mastermind, misunderstood hero, link between a PC’s past and future, etc.  Because he could be anything, he is a wildcard for the DM to play as needed.  (And we all know that generally a dead NPC is a boring NPC.)

NPCs as Wildcards

The most prevalent kind of NPC wildcard is the role played by Ned: the turncoat.  Turncoats are wonderful wildcards for the reasons stated above.  They can be used at any time the DM needs them.  They can be used in both directions: to make a combat harder or easier.  They make a plot, and the direction that the plot takes, more interesting for the PCs and more flexible for the DM.

The antithesis of the turncoat is the enemy who get a conscience.  This is the enemy of the PCs who, at some point during a fight, realizes that what he is doing is wrong and gives up, or even starts to fight on the side of the PCs.  Again, good for helping regulate combat (although making the PCs use skill checks to help this conversion makes the switch feel more organic).  And like the turncoat, the enemy with a conscious opens up a variety of roleplaying and plot options that would otherwise be unavailable.  Was the enemy really an enemy at all, or was she part of a good organization that infiltrated the evil guy’s plot?  Is she still supremely evil but sees that pretending to be good is better for the belt pouch and life expectancy?  Is the truth currently unknown even to you as the DM, but the players’ actions will help complete the story?

If you are not into the whole “switching sides” action, there is another NPC who is a great wildcard: the friendly but threatened NPC.  If you are playing this season of D&D Encounters, you will recognize this.  Rodney Thompson has done a great job in giving NPCs a prevalent role in almost every combat thus far.  In the first session, the PCs had to fight off a swarm of stirges who attacked the caravan the PCs were traveling with.  The encounter was not difficult enough to really challenge the PCs as a head-on assault, but that was not the point.  The stirges wanted to attack the horses and drovers, which meant the PCs had to use different tactics than they normally would have if it was simply them under attack.

In the second session, the PCs had to protect the wizard Faldyra from an attack.  Faldyra was a great “friendly but threatened” wildcard.  As the DM, I could move her or the attackers on the board in a variety of ways, making her either a help or a hindrance to the PCs in the overall scheme of the battle.  If the players were bored because it was too easy, I could move her into a position that forced the PCs to use imperfect tactics because they had to protect her.  If the battle was too rough, she could use her powers effectively to remove some of the pressure.  Again, no rolls were fudged in the making of this battle, and it could all be done within character: Faldyra is not skilled in combat, so she panics.  Good roleplaying can be done, and it fulfills the in-game necessity of tweaking the combat.

NPCs like this are also valuable as story tools when a party might lack certain skills, powers, or roles.  You might be running a game where a great deal of the background and fun relies on PCs knowing the history of a place, yet none of the PCs have high Int modifiers or are trained in History.  An NPC can easily be introduced who can provide all that historical data that adds to the enjoyment and playability of the adventure, while also introducing a wildcard who the PCs must now protect during combats and in other dangerous situations.

Not All Wildcards Are People!

While NPCs are often the easiest wildcards to maneuver and use, many other elements of a game can act as wildcards.  For GenCon and PAX Prime last year, I joined a team of awesome designers (Eric Menge, Craig Campbell, and Derek Guder) in creating the Dark Sun Arena: Glory and Blood event.  We each took two city-states in Athas and created an arena battle for that city.  In the event for Gulg, I placed a muddy trench between the two sides, and in the pit were giant frogs.  I gave instructions for the DM on when and how the frogs attacked anyone who approached the trench.  However, the frogs were in reality a wildcard: they could be used by the DM to make the combat easier or more difficult as needed.

Terrain or terrain powers (and in some cases hazards or traps) also make handy wildcards.  Whenever there is something in an encounter that the PCs or the monsters can interact with, there is a question about how that interaction is explained to the players.  Sometimes you just come out and say what the element does and how the PCs can use it or avoid it.  Sometimes you might call for skill checks to reveal bits of information about those elements.  But often the most powerful and fun way to reveal that is to see it in use first.  That magical raygun of doom the PCs are supposed to figure out how to use?  Have the orc run over and say the magic words and use it against the PCs first.  You are using that wildcard to increase the challenge for the PCs at first, but also giving them the means to take back control of that wildcard.  A battle going badly against the PCs?  Have a monster accidentally enter the area of the hazard, setting it off and alerting the PCs of its presence, while at the same time slightly lessening the challenge of an encounter that might be too difficult.

Although they must be used carefully, intelligent items like artifacts can be wonderful wildcards.  Although PCs use them, they are essentially plot points and NPCs under the control of the DM.  If an artifact gets “upset” at its owner, it can just as easily cause more problems for the PC than help.  Along those same lines, the artifact can be more helpful when its wielder is in a terrible situation.  (But always at a price, of course!)

Tactics are the Most Fundamental Wildcard

Designing content for organized-play campaigns and general use, I often get feedback from DMs stating their trepidation at changing the adventure from what is in the text.  Sometimes they claim to be unsure of the best way to make those changes.  Sometimes they fear making changes because of what the players might say or do if they find out changes were made.  I understand these concerns.  All of the wildcards mentioned above are elements that adventure designers can add to an adventure or an encounter to give even the most worried DMs both permission to make choices and leeway in how the adventures play at the table.  The more tools that the designers can offer DMs in adventures to tailor the experience easily, the more comfortable the DMs will become in doing exactly that.

While there are certainly many more types of wildcards that I did not touch upon, it is important to remember that the most important wildcard in a DM’s toolbox are enemy tactics.  What the monsters do, and when they do it, are often all the DM needs to tweak an encounter into line with what that encounter is meant to be in the overall flow of the adventure.  Using the right power at the perfect time can make the adventure harder, while not using the most tactically advantageous power when it is called for can really save a group of PCs when things look the most grim.  As with anything except exact sciences, none of this is an exact science.  But players will appreciate DMs who know how to put the pieces of an adventure together into a great experience, and having those wildcards placed throughout an adventure can only help.


  1. Great advice. I wish all DMs kept it in mind, although I know it is not always particularly easy. For example, I have a tendency to always use the best tactics possible as a DM. I have to actively pay attention and take a step back to change this. There have been a few fights that had the PCs end up loosing way too much resources where I realized after the fight that I should have been a bit less tactical savy or more prone to ignore the written word on NPC behavior* 😉

    * As such an adventure probably should never include a NPC turn coat changes sides on the worse possible moment, because the DMs suffering mostly from the RAAW (run adventure as written) would interpret that as “do it when things go badly for PCs”.

  2. Gargs454 says:

    A wild card I used recently was a three way fight between the PCs and two different enemy factions. When things were looking dim for the PCs, the enemy factions concentrated a little more on each other. When the party started doing well, the enemy factions put more attention on the PCs. It all felt pretty organic and the PCs even began trying to place members of one faction between them and another faction so as to encourage the two factions to fight.

  3. Really great advice, along a line of thought I really hadn’t pursued before. I will definitely keep this in mind for the future.

    Among other things, keeping a wildcard in mind is a way to mitigate potentially swingy encounters–the type that the players could blow through or which could turn toward a TPK.

  4. Good advice all around. Although I’m not above lying to create a better game (i fudge rolls all the time), I often put companion characters in my games. They create all sorts if drama, if you want them to. My current group has been traveling with a six year old girl for 5 levels. There’s a bond there for me to manipulate at-will. Next they have to escort a group of 12 refugees through the desert, the first step is making the players love/hate each one of those 12. Companion characters are great.

  5. Is it strange that I use a screen AND roll in the open? I generally like to hide monster figs/tokens and books, etc. behind the screen so no one has any idea what’s coming, but I always roll attacks in the open. The only things I roll behind the screen are things like opposed stealth checks, rolls that might affect monster decisions, etc. Maybe I’ve been lucky, but I haven’t had a need to fudge things.

    It is nice to see these kinds of wildcard options built into the adventure– I remember last season of encounters (Keep on the Borderlands), the dragon, Moxy, had a built-in “change sides” option simply because she didn’t want to die.

    If DMs are concerned about making changes to adventures, I recommend running at least one session where you have done almost no preparation. Once you’ve ridden by the seat of your pants, you don’t feel so bad making significant changes in advance, or on the fly.

  6. In my current campaign, I’ve also used wildcards (without knowing this concept). At several places around the world, there appeared strange discs. They are non-magical, and noone really knows yet, what they are and where they come from.

    And these discs randomly trigger different things. For example, teleporting the party around, teleporting enemies to the party, resurrecting a fallen character, and so on. So I can actually use them as a a wildcard.

    I never planned to let them resurrect a character, for example. But that character died in a situation, where there was no possibility to bring him back to life. So I decided that the disc would disappear and resurrect the character.

    Mostly, the discs do nasty things. So by now, I guess, my players really hate them. 😀