The Cardinal game system uses polyhedral dice (four-sided, six-sided, eight-sided, ten-sided, and twelve-sided. Each character has their abilities (physical power, mental acuity, willpower, etc.) rated in die sizes from d4 to d12.
For some tasks, characters will do things "by rote" -- if your dice have enough sides, you simply succeed. When things are uncertain, dangerous, or "dicey", the players will roll their dice. High numbers win out over low numbers. The more dice you roll, and the higher you roll, the better you do.
At the tabletop, players can tend to move towards one axis or the other. Let's call them the "informal" and the "formal".
A player who prefers INFORMAL play wants a character who matches their description. They want to be the strong-jawed hero, the lemme-fatale, the jaded grifter, etc. This player will focus on informal descriptions like "tough as nails", "sly and sultry", "not as dumb as they look," etc. The informal player is not as interested in juggling numbers, in reading complex rules, or in maximizing effectiveness for minimal point cost.
A player that prefers FORMAL play enjoys the challenge of a game. They like to work within the framework of the rules to make someone who is the best at what they do... or maybe just good enough at a lot of things... or maybe they have a surprise or two. A formal player will make sure their detective has high numbers in investigation abilities, that their combat statistics have respectable numbers, that their talent trees line up to give them extensive abilities... all in the formal framework of the game.
The formal player and the informal player are both players. They want to have a fun time, and they want some ground rules on what can happen and what can't happen in the story. They both enjoy the random elements that die rolls can produce. They're both here to have fun.
The difference is that the formal player enjoys working with numbers and with rules more than the informal one does. A game that caters to the formal player — with lots of rules, numbers, combat modifiers, multipliers, etc. — risks losing the informal player, who might be confused by all this math that gets in the way of their creative enjoyment. A game that caters to the informal player — with few rules, and lots of "make it up as you go along!" — will lose the formal player, who can be disappointed that all these rules don't make much difference, and that the fun of building a character is just a trifle when the game rules are so slight.
And like many things, many players won't fit into these neat categories. One player might want more rules than another, who in turn might want even more rules than someone else. Or some players might like some aspects of play to be very formalized (such as lots and lots of combat rules) but prefer that other aspects be very informal (such as very few rules for social interaction).
The Cardinal engine doesn't just strike a balance between both styles of play. It IS both styles of play!
A player who prefers an informal style can simply build a character using Species and Career as their guide, and simply build those numbers higher as they get better. Just build all your traits up to d12 and off you go, no special rules to learn, you're better at everything you want to do.
A player who prefers a formal style can choose to tinker with the talent trees, Cardinal's free-form, point-buy system lets the player decide how "crunchy" they want their character to be. There are lots of lateral abilities to buy, such as: improved fighting, shooting, and combat abilities; unusual influence among the criminals, the upper class, and other insider groups; special talents such as shadowing, safe-cracking, detective-work, etc. Rather than just have broad, general power, a formal player can build a character with unique abilities that take a little more work, but can have surprising payoffs.
And since many players will fall somewhere in the middle... those players can decide how much they want to pursue the different threads of the talent trees for things they care about.
And that design carries over to the poor game host who has to referee the game — the non-player characters can be as simple or as complex as they want them to be. Cardinal will let you have simple walk-on characters who show up for one scene and are then done... all the way up to recurring villains with long dossiers of power and influence. And all using the core system.
The core of Cardinal is "what you see is what you get". There's no system of byzantine, obscure modifiers to your rolls. If your character is better at something, they roll more dice with more sides. If your character suffers some setback or penalty, the game just gives your opposition more dice to roll against you. There's no, "you rolled an 11, but after the -5 penalty that's really a failure". The game doesn't make you do math problems in the middle of the action to grind things to a halt, just to find out if you made or not. You'll know as soon as you rolled if you did good or bad.
The popular Cardinal game engine was first seen in IRONCLAW, and seen later in MYRIAD SONG and NOGGLE STONES. We're excited to bring a new iteration of the game into the genre of 20th-century noir.