These Drama Cards were thrown my way by the awesome folks at Penny-Arcade's Critical Failures Forum some months ago now and I've been using them with great success in my 4e D&D game.
A Quick Note on 'Fortune Cards'
I know Wizards of the Coast has their official 'Fortune Cards' and these follow some of the same ideas. However, WotC's idea doesn't grab me half as much for a couple of reasons. Firstly, WotC's cards are about increasing player power. Secondly, they're put in the hands of the player. Those two facts combined are fine in themselves but not what I want, even if I took the control of them back from the player via houserules.
The Power to Change the Story
What I love about the Drama Cards is the fact they give the player the power to change the story. I don't run a totally open sandbox. I try not to railroad either but there is a story the players are working their way through. These cards let the players shake that up a bit more than the usual player/DM relationship might normally allow. Last week an encounter happened that really got me thinking about these cards and how they change the player's influence on the game.
My players were walking through the treetops of a Feywildian forest, taking part in a treasure hunt set up by an eccentric Eladrin noble. They were a little bit lost. One player smiles and hands me a card. It was the 'Strangers in a Strange Land' card. The card called for me to come up with a group of strangers that were also in the area, with the one caveat that they must be 'from a far-away place'.
Taking a minute to think, I eventually decided on a group of drow. Honestly, it wasn't the most original idea I've ever had. The players came to my rescue though, discussing where they came from in the Feywild and whether or not they may be 'good' drow. All those elements together created a great little encounter; the players were suspicious but forced to concede that they needed the drow's help to find their way. In return the drow needed help tracking the eladrin noble in the search of a lost artefact. Unwilling to betray someone that hasn't been at all hostile to them to a group of drow, the players gave the drow false information.
Now I've got hooks to work with I might otherwise not have considered. The drow, their artefact, their relationship with the eladrin and their relationship with the party. I know this is going to enrich the story and add layers of intrigue that simply wouldn't have been there before.It got them involved in building the story and in a way that went beyond the reach of their characters.
Using Drama Cards as Rewards
I wasn't able to print out the (very) large amount of cards suggested by creator but I did get four decks made - Copper, Silver, Gold and Platinum. To simulate rarity I've been having my players roll a d10. 1-4 for a copper, 5-7 for a silver, 8-9 for a gold and 10 for a platinum.
How and why you hand them out is up to you. I decided against using them as a reward in-character actions, or even for something like 'good roleplay'. The in-character rewards already exist within the game-world (treasure, XP, renown), mechanically or otherwise and 'good roleplay' is such a difficult thing to define I wasn't convinced I could judge on that basis and remain fair.
What I have done is use them to reward helpful Out-of-Character behaviour. I give cards out for running companion characters, for writing up a page on the wiki and for writing up the diary entry for the week and for anything else that makes my life, as a DM, a little easier.
To say it's worked would be an understatement - I'm not sure I could stop some of my players writing on the wiki even if I wanted to and now, in a total reversal of what used to happen, the players now dice off to see who gets to write the diary!
Not everything has gone perfectly though. Whilst I've got my players keen to get cards, getting them to use them has been a different matter. I have a horrid feeling they're just saving them all up for the final encounter! I'm thinking of setting a limit to how many they can have at once. Around 3 or 4 sounds about right but we'll see - that's something I'll discuss with them.
Put Some Drama in Your Game
If you're looking for a great reward system, or want to give your players a way to influence events in a different way, I say give these cards a shot. Just be careful not to let your players hoard them!