The Living Card Game: a New Mode of Epic Performance

Let’s start with the cards themselves. They work like epic formulae (e.g. the “cunning” in “cunning Odysseus”) but with game-mechanics, and with pictures, some of them lovely and some merely serviceable.

In homeric epic, certain formulae — the epithets every student remembers, like podas okus “swift-footed,” periphron “thoughtful,” and polumetis “cunning” — are reserved for individual heroes. Shadowfax is reserved for Gandalf, in The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game. Celebrian’s Stone can be played on any hero, but it gains special attributes when attached to Aragorn.

I’ve spent a good deal of time, here on Play the Past and elsewhere, describing the manner in which videogames reawaken the ancient narrative platform of oral formulaic composition. In the present series of posts I want to discuss the fascinating corollary to those arguments to be found in a still-recent development in tabletop game-design, the “living card game” (LCG) developed by Fantasy Flight Games (FFG). 

I mean to trace the LCG’s antecedents in collectible and trading card games like Magic: The Gathering, in cooperative deckbuilding games like Dominion and Legendary, and in roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons. I mean to describe its particular flavor of immersion in relation to ancient epic on the one hand and other games — adventure videogames, tabletop RPG’s, CCG’s, and deckbuilders in particular — on the other. I mean to explore the unique kinds of stories its mechanics allow players to tell, and how differences in those mechanics among the games I analyze create sometimes startlingly different narrative effects. I mean to discuss the robust online communities of practice that arise around these games, and to wonder whether we might find in those communities hints as to how to do humanities today.

So, again, I want to start with the cards themselves. I’m going to use LOTR LCG as my prime example, but in future posts I will also make forays into the other two FFG LCG’s that have similar models, Arkham Horror: The Card Game (AH) and Marvel Champions: The Card Game (MC). Both these games feature above all the cooperative play and episodic narrative structure that distinguish them from competitive card games (some of FFG’s own competitive card games being designated, unfortunately for my own attempt to clarify the matter thoroughly for the reader, LCG’s themselves). I want to save a full description of the genre for my next post, however, and to try to get you excited about reading cards as epic formulae. (In the meantime, the LCG section of Wikipedia’s article on FFG has a reasonably-well constructed description).

The rules of these games tend to be pretty complicated, involving complex timing mechanisms and various tokens and card-effects the players must keep track of in various ways, but all of it comes together to activate the narrative performance potential of what a player sees on the cards when they take them out of the box: a hero, and their allies, and the things that hero can use, and do; scenarios that define the choices a player can make for what their heroes do; encounter cards with enemies, and locations, and treacheries.

Player cards have this back:

Scenario cards are double-sided, with a setup stage on the front and a scenario stage on the back:

Encounter cards have this back (the Eye of Sauron, which stares at you, lidless, from the top of the encounter deck)::

Examples of player cards (hero, event, ally, attachment)

Examples of encounter cards (location, treachery, enemy):

The bards of an oral-recompositional tradition like that of the homeric epics had exquisitely-trained memories full of elements just such as these. 

In a passage like the following, a shield rather like the Gondorian Shield shown above, plays an important role:

Ajax came up bearing his shield in front of him like a wall — a shield of bronze with seven folds of ox-hide — the work of Tykhios, who lived in Hyle and was by far the best worker in leather. He had made it with the hides of seven full-fed bulls, and over these he had set an eighth layer of bronze.

(Iliad 7.219-225, trans. Butler.)

As I’ve argued in the similar case of videogames, the systems of oral poetics within which the homeric bards and the South Slavic guslars studied by Albert Lord worked depended on narrative recomposition from themes precisely analogous to game mechanics in an adventure game. The LCG reifies those themes in a way that players find utterly captivating, to judge from the funds they devote to purchasing new content. (I admit to finding it so myself.)

Each of the cards depicted above represents the operation of a mechanic within the game, and a theme within the narrative created by the player-performance of that game. (A mechanic may be usefully defined as a bundle of rules that controls the relationship between player-peformance and game-state.) When a player plays the Gondorian Shield card, paying its resource cost, they slide it under the hero card (Aragorn, above, for example) to attach it to that hero. From that point on, the hero will more easily withstand the attacks of enemies like Ungoliant’s Spawn, depicted above. 

The player may at some point be forced to discard Aragorn’s shield, for example at the command of a treachery card from the enounter deck. Until then, however, it will shape the outcome of combat and it will give the player different choices to make from those they had before they played that card. A bard who deploys Ajax on the battlefield with his famous shield has analogous choices to make as the battle continues. Here’s what the bard of Iliad 7 sings just after introducing Ajax’s shield:

to prosthe sternoio pherōn Telamōnios Aias
stē rha mal’ Hectoros engus, apeilēsas de proseuda:

In a close-to-word-for-word translation:

This thing in front of his chest carrying Telamon’s son Ajax
stood right near Hector, and boasting addressed him…

Iliad 7.226-7

Having “played” the huge shield gives the bard the opportunity to deploy Telamōnios Aias, with Ajax’s standard patronymic epithet, in a more forceful way. It’s impossible to convey the majestic music of to prosthe sternoio pherōn (carrying it in front of his chest), but the translation does I think make clear the connection between apeilēsas “boasting” and the hugeness of the shield. Above all, the way that the system of homeric poetics uses various and ever-evolving formulae to give the performer meaningful choices that immerse their audience further in the system clearly anticipates the choices embodied in an LCG player-deck.

Thus the central idea I want to explore, now that I’ve established the foundation of this comparison, is how living card games enable humanistic narrative performance. For an anticipatory parting gesture, consider the following from the blog Tales from the Cards by Ian R. Martin. Don’t worry about the technical jargon, but do note its esoteric — professionalized, even — flavor, and notice how it gives way to Martin’s narrative.

ROUND 1 (3 threat in staging area, 0/10 progress on 1B, 0 victory points, Active Location – Eastemnet [0/3 quest points])

**Staging Area – Ugluk**

DECK ONE PREPARATION (First Player) – 30 Threat

Resources: Theoden – 1, Glorfindel – 1, Aragorn- 1

Draw: Elrond’s Counsel

New Hand: Astonishing Speed, Hasty Stroke, Light of Valinor, The Riddermark’s Finest, Mustering the Rohirrim, Helm! Helm!, Elrond’s Counsel

Planning: As usual, the first order of business is to play Light of Valinor onto Glorfindel. I will then make use of Theoden’s ability to play The Riddermark’s Finest for only one resource. This ally can serve as a chump blocker, help to quest, or aid in getting rid of a location, if needed.

Resources: Theoden – 0, Glorfindel – 0, Aragorn- 1

Aragorn and Glorfindel stood on the overlook, surveying the land before them. The plains of Rohan stretched before them, seemingly endless, but they were not able to spy their quarry. However, the signs of their passage were everywhere, and it was no great task to pick up the trail.

As the two reached the bottom of the hills and entered the Eastemnet, they were soon greeted by the sound of hooves and several riders overtook them before they had time to hide. Several appeared to be soldiers of Rohan, but one was set apart in his bearing and dignity, despite his advanced age. Aragorn recognized him at once.

“Hail Theoden, king of Rohan!” he called.

The oft-repeated saw that Vergil’s Aeneid is homeric fanfiction receives an interesting corollary here. Interacting with the living epic system of the game, Martin gives us a wonderful vignette that builds on Tolkien’s epic legacy in a way that feels utterly immersive and up-to-the moment. As I wrote at the outset, I’m hoping to find in this exploration of a new kind of epic life a way to see one way the humanities are constantly reshaping themselves in the world around us, whether or not those of us in the ivory tower (Orthanc?) would place their products in the canon.

In these LCGs we can observe three massively popular transmedia storyworlds — Tolkien’s, Lovecraft’s, and Marvel’s mythic universes — developing before our eyes and under our fingertips. If we are going to find new ways of doing humanities, this could well be a good place to look.

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