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Photo Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

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Real Deal

Creators are making their own IRL cards based on Inscryption’s deck-building video game

I was watching a stream of the card game Inscryption the other day. Leshy, the mysterious game master, had just grabbed a mask of a grotesque angler fisherman. “You give me good fish,” he said menacingly before laying out a card for his opponent. As foreboding music played in the background, Leshy and the player pitted their intricately designed cards against each other in a long battle until the player finally achieved victory.

Except I wasn’t watching the Inscryption video game. Instead, two actual humans were playing the card game from the video game using real props and an elaborate streaming setup. And they’re not the only ones; just months after the game’s October 2021 release, there’s already a growing community putting their efforts into bringing the digital card game to life.

First, a brief overview of Inscryption, or more precisely, its first act, which is what a lot of the IRL community is trying to replicate. You begin the game in what appears to be a dimly lit wooden room. Leshy, who serves as a Dungeons & Dragons-like game master, sits across the table, and most of the time, you can see only his eyes. He plays the game with you, weaving a tale for your journey, laying out maps with branching paths, and even taking on the roles of different characters using masks. The game has a lot of strategy, and once you grasp the rules, it’s quite fun. But there’s a dark undertone to it all, as one of the primary mechanics is sacrificing your cards so you can play others.

A screenshot from Inscryption. Leshy’s in the back.
Image: Daniel Mullins Games

The thing is, there are some aspects of Inscryption that work best because it is a video game. The number representing health on each card ticks down as opponents attack, which isn’t something you can easily do with a physical card. One item, a pair of pliers, gives you an extra point, but your character has to pull out a tooth. A dagger gives you even more points, but at the cost of cutting out an eye. (Your character even loses part of their vision.) And one of the game’s signature mechanics lets you make a card whenever you lose against Leshy — but it’s a card of you, the player, and it can appear for later runs of the game.

Those challenges haven’t stopped people from trying to bring the game to life in physical form, though. With the blessing of game creator Daniel Mullins, Kevin McKayven and his brother hosted live Inscryption games at Love Burn, an event that describes itself as “the official regional Burning Man event in Miami, Florida.”

To re-create Inscryption’s cards, McKayven told me he extracted files right from the Inscryption game. One card in-game is made up of many individual assets, including things like the card’s main picture, symbols on the cards, and the design on the backs of the cards, so he composited those files together to make cards he could print out. In a few places, he even had to fill in gaps where he couldn’t find an asset and redraw them himself.

The first batch of cards took about three weeks to put together, and they were ruined by a gloss that didn’t dry and caused the cards to stick to each other. Sanding the cards down didn’t work — they were still stuck — so McKayven had to reprint them all again. The second batch was much easier to create, without the gloss and the rounded corners he added to the first batch.

As for running the games themselves at Love Burn, it was a lot of “rolling with the punches,” McKayven said. His brother had made masks to replicate the ones Leshy wears in the game, but they didn’t work out. The two had gotten a big tent that they were going to decorate and host their games in, but their station was far enough out that they wouldn’t have had foot traffic and had to improvise.

“We made some signage, but people mostly walked by,” McKayven said. “Most of the people didn’t recognize what the game was. They didn’t have any experience with it. But they were still intrigued. They’d walk by, they’d see the candles lit, we had this big sign — we didn’t actually call it Inscryption, we used the original name of the game because I thought it was more evocative for the event, which is Sacrifices Must Be Made.” (That game is available for free on Itch.io, though it disappointingly didn’t work on my Mac.)

He made some changes to adapt to playing with another human in the real world. One was to tweak a mechanic in the video game where you sacrifice a card to take an aspect of it (called a sigil) and apply it to another card. While that happens on an altar in the video game, for the physical game, McKayven and his brother instead had players physically shred the cards they were sacrificing in a paper shredder. “People seemed to really enjoy shredding the cards,” he said. “I think they expected it to just be passed through [the top of the box]. And then they realized that it was actually being destroyed by them.”

McKayven also let people make death cards. “They absolutely loved it. They got really into the whole death card thing. People [were] sitting down and asking me if they could just make a death card.” He used an instant Polaroid camera to take the photos, and incorporated the death card into the lore of his game.

“I did a little bit of flavoring to it: ‘Now that you’ve played our game, a bit of your soul will have to stay here forever as part of it,’” he said. “And when they found my death card in the game, I would explain that I had played more than once and I had enough bits of my soul wrapped into the game that I was now consigned to host it.” He also allowed players who won a round to take a death card with them, thereby “freeing” one of the souls trapped in the game so that the person could possibly reunite it with its original owner.

McKayven even had a creative alternative to Inscryption’s in-game pliers and knife items. “Obviously, we were not going to do either of those,” McKayven said. Instead, he made the “blood needle.” If people drew a drop of their own blood into a bowl using an actual needle, they could play any of the creatures in their hand. One person was able to make a comeback after using it, McKayven said.

If you want to see McKayven’s photo essay about the experience, check out his Imgur album.

There’s an entire Discord server with more than 500 people dedicated to the idea of physical Inscryption games, where people share tips, ideas, pictures of their cards and props, and more. I spoke with the person who runs the server. His real name is Scott St. Onge, but in the community, he goes by LeshyIRL, and not only does he run the Discord, but he also livestreams physical games of Inscryption on Twitch on Fridays and Sundays. (His stream was the one I was watching in my story at the beginning of my article.)

St. Onge’s setup is impressive. Players call in so they can participate in real time. He handles almost everything for them: he has a board where he places the cards, a way to stand up cards so the person playing (and all of the viewers) can see their “hand,” and he even switches camera angles to a hand-drawn map for people to select where they want to go next. And like Leshy the Inscryption game character, St. Onge takes on different personalities as needed throughout to make the game more immersive.

“Ultimately, my goal as dungeon master is to give the player a good experience,” St. Onge said. “I’m not trying to beat them in my streams. I’m not trying to throw the hardest cards. I’m trying to give them the best experience possible, which I think coincides with what Leshy was trying to do in the game.”

Like McKayven, St. Onge has also made changes to how Inscryption plays. For example, he got rid of totems, a mechanic in the video game that lets you apply major changes to a single type of card, and replaced them with potions, which can have more wide-ranging effects. “I felt like totems in the game were unbalanced, and also, physically, it would be hard to re-create every single totem.” He’s incorporated dice rolls for things like attempting to sneak past an encounter. He’s even introduced his own lore and story, which he says people have been very interested in.

Part of his goal is to keep the community involved as much as possible. The first stream I watched did this in a clever way. Inscryption is typically played by just one person and Leshy / the dungeon master, but St. Onge had two players play as the mind of one individual, and they had to work together to make decisions about how to proceed.

“I noticed a lot when I was doing these streams that besides the lore, the one thing that everybody loves is when I get them directly involved in the game. Even if it’s just as simple as having the challenger ask Twitch chat for advice.” On the Discord server, he put out a call for people who might want to play when there were around 100 people in it, and “I instantly got, like, 15 applications to play my game,” he said. And that was when the server was much smaller. “I can’t imagine what it’d be like if I did that form now.”

I asked if St. Onge would want to do the Inscryption work full time, and while he says he has no plans to quit his day job, he wants to give the project the time and attention he thinks it deserves. “I really love working with everyone in this community so much, so it is not hard for me to spend a lot of time and money on this outside of my normal job since it has been such a rewarding experience,” he said in a Discord message.

If you want to make cards for your own Inscryption game, you may not need to go to the same lengths as McKayven and St. Onge, since somebody has released an entire downloadable collection of cards from Inscryption’s first and second acts that you can print, for free. “The idea is that someone with just a printer would be able to print this out and just have something they could play with,” creator Vladimirs Nordholm told me about the collection. You can also participate in the Discord, where St. Onge tells me the server has begun to put more of an emphasis on custom card designs. And I’d also recommend checking out some of the links, artists, and projects featured on a website created by people from the Inscryption IRL Discord server.

I asked the creator of Inscryption, Daniel Mullins, what he thought about people working to bring his game to the real world. “I love seeing IRL versions of Inscryption!” Mullins said in an email. “With these projects, and fan art in general, the most exciting part for me is being able to see my work reflected back through the filter of a different artist. It’s deeply gratifying to know that my game could inspire such efforts, especially from such talented people.”