Review – PACS (Pocket Adventures Card System)
Mike Eaton, Play Unplugged
The RPG, or Roleplaying Game as it is known in certain circles, is one of the backbones of unplugged gaming. Roleplaying fulfills our ancient desire to transcend the lives we were born into, and the ones we’ve tried to create for ourselves, and just straight-up imagine a ton of much cooler stuff. (Often with swords.)
The Pocket Adventures Card System, or PACS, is an RPG built into a deck of cards. Quite simply, it’s the RPG companion for those who might not like lugging all the necessary books for a classic dungeon crawl, or who just want to knock out a couple of bad guys on a long trip, or while waiting for a movie to start. You character is represented by a class card, complete with stats and abilities, and you can fight your way through an array of monsters and their masters, collecting loot and advancing your abilities as you go.
The first striking thing about PACS, as compared to other RPGs, is how much control the Game Master has. Now, you’re free to play the game any way you want, since the rules are simple and easy to tailor, but your group should be warned of a few things: there are no experience points and no hard and fast rules about how to run an encounter. You can use the Lair cards as examples — they function as individual battles, with enemies and loot spelled out — but at the end of the day, there are no Encounter Levels or Challenge Ratings to sort-of keep your GM in check. The foe cards have difficulty numbers associated with them that you can use to rank them against each other, but it might take a bit to feel out how hard an encounter should be.
The counterweight to this is that PACS doesn’t seem to want you to have to start over. Death is not permanent if you and your GM don’t want it to be. Once you’ve been hit twice, you’re counted out of the battle for a time, but each round you have a random chance to get up and fight again. Every character has the same amount of hit point (2), in essence.
Which brings us to the randomization system. PACS employs a very simple idea: flip three coins. Each “heads” adds one to your score for whatever you’re attempting. The system reminds me a lot of White Wolf games and the Legend of the Five Rings RPG, in that pretty-much anything you do requires a certain number of successes added to your base score. But unlike those games, you’ll never have to flip more than three coins, because your base scores are always considered positives toward your goal. You use coins and your stats for any of the myriad things you might do in any other RPG, from climbing walls, to sneaking past guards, to picking your party member’s pocket. The difficulty for a check ranges from 1 to 6, so that almost any hero will be able to accomplish the most difficult task for their best ability with the right combination of coins.
One excellent thing about the nature of this game is that you can play it generically, to kill time, and never have to be married to the idea of your hero — like a conventional card game — or you can personalize your hero and play a series of games as a continuing campaign. It’s that adaptable. We’ve looked at Sets I and II, and within those, you have a dozen base classes, as well as customizations. Granted, you can only customize when you level up, and you can only level up when your GM says so . . .
Eh. To be fair, most of the playgroups I’ve been in have functioned that way, anyway; the numbers are often a formality. But those have been trustworthy groups. PACS is a game that can be great fun to play with strangers at a shop, but maybe not in a continuing campaign, unless you know your GM and what he or she is doing.
You can get PACS by downloading and printing the PDF, which of course is the cheapest way, or by ordering the cards themselves. If you don’t feel comfortable getting them professionally printed or trying it yourself, it might be worth it to order the cards. The base price to order the cards is $15.99/pack, though you can get each one right now at Drive Thru Cards for $9.99, but you can check out both packs in PDF form for as little as $5.00!
+ Flexible enough to allow many ways to play and varying lengths of game time
+ Incorporates complex concepts like encounter rewards and levels into a compact card game
+ Focuses on the adventure of encounters, and not on amounts of hit points, tricking out spell interactions, or “Min-Maxing”
+ You can always create your own character on a blank card if you want to “roll stats” instead of taking the pre-made ones
+ The simplicity of encounters means it’s not difficult to play solitaire, which is hard to find in an unplugged dungeon crawl
- Self-printing can be complicated and isn’t for everyone
- The amount of control the GM has means there needs to be lots of trust per game (if your game uses a GM)
- Two hits per character and a system with no definite kills means a lot of coin-flipping and knockout-recovery cycles before an encounter ends; it’s an obstacle to your suspension of disbelief
Overall, PACS accomplishes what it sets out to do, which is admirable for any game: it ports the RPG experience into a deck of cards. Magic: the Gathering was commissioned as a card game that people could play between roleplaying games, or at conventions — basically, to kill time — while maintaining the experience of fantasy roleplaying. Honestly, PACS probably accomplishes that original idea better than Magic ever did; it feels like an RPG, rather than imposing a lot of terminology and making you say, “Oh, I get it, these are my spells . . .” So if you’re looking for that experience with minimum clutter, maximum customization, and the ability to quickly kick butt and move on, PACS is a fine accessory to Play Unplugged.