Oct 24

Skuld Cards: A GM’s Themed Improvisation Deck


TalesOfAGM Dice Sq SmI have written before about the use of Wyrd cards in my game.


Originally, the cards used for Wyrd were from Everway, a visionary RPG by Jonathan Tweet, published by Wizards of the Coast in 1995. Over the years, Players have kindly bought me sets of artists cards to use. By changing the selection of images, this helps to differentiate the campaigns in my long-running Tales of the Hero Wars campaign.


Wyrd cards are popular, flexible and evocative. The Players enjoy the narrative options the cards allow. I wanted to create an equivalent version for me to use.


Thus was born the Skuld deck.


Origins of Skuld

In keeping with the Anglo-Saxon origins of the term Wyrd, I needed a similar Northern European mythological term for the GM’s cards. I firmly believe in the power of words and labels, so it was important to find the right name.


After some consideration, I chose to call the cards my Skuld deck. Skuld, in Norse Mythology is the youngest of the Norns. This trio of women determine the fate, or Wyrd, of everyone. The name Skuld can be translated as debt or future.


All of these associations work for me. My cards affect the future of the Heroes, are linked to the fate of the game, and feed into the Wyrd awards received by the Heroes.


Card Options

My first thought was to adopt an existing set of cards to use as Skuld. There were several options available, but none of them gave me exactly what I wanted.


Firstly, I tried using the Fortune deck from Everway. These cards are similar to Tarot cards, although with a different set of images. Each Fortune card has a short piece of text describing the meaning of the card. The illustration is suitable inspiration for improvising a narrative outcome. These cards served me well for several months, but over time I found the themes on the cards did not always match my setting.


One alternative was to adopt a set of artist cards. However, back when I started this journey, I did not have so many to choose from. Furthermore, these cards are better suited to be Wyrd cards, as they are just illustrations. The text on the Fortune cards had proved useful during the early games, so I wanted to retain that feature.


A further option was to use unwanted Magic: the Gathering cards. I have a large collection, which means plenty of spare common cards. This offered me a wide range of images, so matching to the campaign themes would be easier. Yet, the cards were cluttered with too much irrelevant game text. Nor did I want to start the Players chatting about Magic during our game of HeroQuest.


Creating the Cards

Yet, the basic layout of a Magic card was very appealing. Title, image, classification and text were the basic parameters I needed for my Skuld cards. The obvious solution was to make my own cards, adopting the format of Magic cards.


The software I used was Magic Set Editor. Their helpful website describes the software as follows:


Magic Set Editor, or MSE for short, is a program with which you can design your own cards for popular trading card games. MSE can then generate images of those cards that you can print or upload to the internet. Magic Set Editor also has a statistics window that will give useful information about your set, like the average mana cost, number of rares, etc. When you have finished your set, you can export it to an HTML file to use on the Internet, or to Apprentice so you can play with your cards online.


Learn more about MSE here.

Anatomy of a Card

TitleThis sample card shows the layout of a Skuld card, as created by the Magic Set Editor. MSE will create other types of CCG card, but I stayed with Magic as it is the one I prefer, and the layout of the card gave me what I needed.


I used different colours and frames to divide the Skuld cards into categories. The exact groupings are not important to this article, but help to link together different themes within the deck. This category was also printed as the Rune Type on the card.


Title is an obvious label, being the name assigned to the Rune. The large text box on the card contained two pieces of information. The first was a brief list of the Rune’s sphere of control. Even just a list of traits can be a starting point for improvisation.


The second piece of text was more flavourful. As it does on the Magic cards, this text captures the essence or spirit of the Rune. Sometimes it was more of an explanation, at other times I used a suitable quotation to elucidate the more abstract Runes.


Skuld Deck at the Table

Having devoted so much effort into creating my cards, I ensure they see regular use at the table. Firstly, as my Skuld cards, they play a similar role to the Wyrd cards used by the Players. I have a hand of cards, which I can use to alter the flow of the game. This practice limits the use of GM fiat, and contributes to the collaborative nature of our game.


The use of Skuld by the GM is probably also worthy of an article.


Beyond serving as a way to limit my input into the game, the Skuld Deck fulfills the following purposes:

  • Reinforcing Theme
  • Improvising Story
  • Random Element


Reinforcing Theme

On a broad level, the contents of my Skuld Deck reinforce one of the core principle of my setting: the influence of the Runes. These are the building blocks to my setting, and play a central role in the cosmology. As such, they should play a similar role at the table.


I believe if something is important to the setting, then it also needs to be important to the Players. It is all very well for the GM to assert the centrality of runes, or gods, or dragons, or whatever, to the setting. However, if the runes were absent from our table, then it undermines this assertion. My Skuld Deck illustrates the roles of Runes in my game during every session, and helps create a different feel to my game.


Improvising Story

The next use of the Skuld Deck is triggered when one of the results on my Narrative Outcomes table requires a random element introduced into the story. I draw a card, and then improvise a twist in the story according to the card drawn. The Skuld Cards cover a wide range of thematic and physical elements.


Depending upon the card drawn, this can be quite an challenge to my improvisation. However, this unexpected runic input adds fresh twists to our game, and creates surprises for everyone at the table.


I also use these cards to help me when creating impromptu locations. The Rune can influence the physical nature of the environment, the inhabitants or just the ambiance. For any narrative improvisation, the addition of a random Rune can help focus my creativity.


Random Element

Finally, as already alluded to, the Skuld Deck allows me to select a random Rune for any purpose. This can represent an elemental creature, the style of an arcane spell or the disposition of a GMC. So many things in a game require some degree of random input, and my Skuld Deck keeps this process on theme with the broader campaign.




It was a long journey to my Skuld Deck, but the final product matches closely with my needs. The Deck allows me to add a thematic random element to any part of the game. It has proved an excellent prompt for my improvisation and we have all enjoyed the randomness added by the Deck.


How do you add a random element to your game? Have you experimented with themed cards? How else could I use my Skuld Deck? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.


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Happy Gaming



Something for the Weekend last week: October RPG Blog Carnival, The Midnight Hag


Something for the Weekend next week: Elemental Types


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