Using Tarot To Design Adventures

I’ve been mentionining, here and there, the prospect of using the Tarot as an aid in adventure design.  Zak started me off, but since then the idea has been rattling around inside my poor noggin and accumulating debris, detritus and loose substances from everything I’ve read, thought or done related to RPGs in exactly the way that a rolling stone doesn’t.  This will therefore be a two-part post (it will, stop looking at me like that!); part the first will cover using the Tarot as a sort of general speed-prepping mechanism, which was the original idea, and part the second will be concerned with symbolically and mechanically embedding the Tarot in the design of a homebrew system, which is what I’ve ended up thinking about.  Goes on for a bit but I’ve revised it to include some visual handholds now, so go!  Descend into my word hoard!

The starting point was the idea of the card flip to determine something I’m going to call ‘factional strength’.  Let’s say I’m designing an area for play and I want there to be four factions operating within it, like… ooh, I don’t know, a dungeon inside a dormant volcano which is ruled by a dragon and its lizardfolk attendants, but also houses an expedition from an explorer’s guild (hello player scum and support network?), a competing expedition run by a predominantly dwarven doomsday cult (knowing my friends, they’d probably want to play this instead), and a deranged druid (plus assorted cave-dwelling wildlife) who’s trying to reignite the volcano and chase everyone out in the name of the Balance.

Sample tarot cards

Observe, firstly, how allegiance to this fourfold model forces me to come up with four groups and four motivations for the various bodies active in the area, immediately creating both context and conflict for narrative play if that’s the group’s bag.  If it’s not, then the things they’re fighting and tactically overcoming will have some sort of internal consistency and recurring theme to them, and I notice that even the crunchiest of tabletop Sun Tzus are inclined to call bullshit on inconsistent flip-back-and-forth-in-the-monster-book environment design.  Well they might, too – that’s the sort of thing that should offend anyone’s sensibilities.

Anyway, I’ve got my four factions and I want to establish what’s going to be encountered this evening and in what strengths or quantities, so I shuffle my minor arcana and start flipping cards.  Suit corresponds to faction – swords are explorers, wands are doomsday cultists, pentacles are druid associates and cups are lizardfolk.  Number value can correspond to all sorts of things – number of creatures encountered, challenge rating of encounter, relative difficulty and lethality of a trap, whatever.  In a broader sense, they can also indicate the overall ‘strength’ a faction has in a given encounter – minimal (2) to dominance (10).  Face cards, meanwhile, indicate that something more characterised is afoot; an NPC rather than an encounter or situation.

The particular face card gives basic idea of what the character should be.  If there are character classes available, map each one to a face card, or use archetypes – Kings lead from the front, Queens from behind the scenes, Knights get stuck in, Knaves skulk about, Pages are ‘attached’ to other faces and support them in some way.  Count Aces as faces if you want a broader spread (I tend to see ‘Ace’ as representing an exemplary member of a faction, in the sense of ‘flying Ace’).  However, there’s more to a role than a build; the major arcana flip generates personality and agenda, in accordance with the symbolic properties of the card, and gives me an idea of what that NPC will be like when we get to funny-voices/armchair theatrics/thespian wankery (delete according to your idea of what role-assumption means).

Either flip through the whole deck, adding new encounters and using Major Arcana as and when they come up to characterise NPCs already generated, or split off the suits and Arcana for a more controlled ‘what is each faction doing in this space and time’ approach.  Note that all the Major Arcana stuff is for people who care about characterisation and motive and consequently can be split off or ignored if you, personally, don’t.  You could probably get away with ordinary playing cards for that.

Ruined fortress on extinct volcano
Lemme show y’all a broad example – a session of play in the abandoned-volano dungeon described above, prepped using this method.

  1. Nine of Wands – the doomsday cult is very strong in this area, indeed it’s probably quite close to their headquarters.  Nine members, or a CR9 encounter, or nine class levels among the cultists encountered.
  2. Knight of Wands – a fighting member of the cult.  We’ll need a major arcana flip for him, which comes up as the Hermit, a seeker for prudence and wisdom.  Maybe a sort of ‘doomsday paladin’, a warrior on a sort of apocalyptic vision quest who’s joined the cult convinced that the world is ending and death in battle is the only way out (that’s ‘wisdom’ from the perspective of a doomsday cult, y’see).
  3. Queen of Swords – an allied character who leads from behind the scenes – let’s say she’s a cleric, part of the same explorer’s guild as the party.  Major arcana flip: Temperance.  Combining all opposites in general peacefulness… she was trying to negotiate with another faction in the cause of exploring the dungeon peacefully, when something happened.
  4. Six of Cups – moderate lizardfolk presence, maybe they’re making a raid on the cultists, or they’re slaves/captives or something and the PCs have to choose whether to help them or not.
  5. Page of Wands – an associate for our fighting cultist, maybe an apprentice or something.  Major arcana flip: The Magician.  Every act is magical?  That’s a priest of the doomsday cult who’s helping the above ‘doomsday paladin’ do whatever he’s trying to do down here.  It evidently involves capturing lizardfolk or otherwise rousing their ire.
  6. Two of Swords – the strength of the explorers in this area is low.  Evidently the cleric didn’t do too well at that whole ‘peaceful entry’ thing.
  7. Two of Cups – oooh, more lizardfolk.  Here’s an idea – the two represents lizardfolk slaves and the six the other lizardfolk coming to break them out during the session.  Maybe the allied cleric was attempting to negotiate with the lizardfolk and is now under arrest, since two of their own have been captured by ‘outsiders’ and the lizards don’t realise there are several factions invading their space?  The six (or sixth level, or combined level six) lizardfolk lack the punch for an actual rescue mission but might take advantage of the disturbances caused by the PCs, or even approach them for aid once it’s clear they’re slaughtering cultists.

I think that’ll do for an evening.  All we need is a reason for the cult to have taken their lizard prisoners in the first place.  Hmm.  Maybe we could use the Tarot to generate a magic item?  Take the Minor Arcana flip, with numerical value corresponding to mechanics (for D&D example, a +N to a resolved action, either including or not including what the item does normally, or an Nth level spell, in which 10s represent epic level shit goin’ down), with the suit determining the item’s type (swords are weapons, pentacles are armour, cups are ‘trinkets’ and wands are, well, wands, or other tools).  Face cards generate a more complex and subtle effect; a King of Wands might be a magic wand that restores morale and bolsters courage, while a Knave of Swords might be a magic dagger that only works if used sneakily?

Two Greek warriors, one of whom has a pentacle on his shield

Since I dislike generic +4 polearms and much favour the Sexhaving Banghalberd (an item with a certain degree of implicit backstory and context, as I’m sure you’ll agree), a Major Arcanum flip and cross-referencing of symbolic value can give us that backstory and also help us name the item if we need to.  A couple of examples:

    • 4 of Pentacles, Fool = Shield of Fools, a buckler that only affords its magical protection to those willing to take risks.
    • 7 of Swords, Death = Blade of Passage (since the Death card is all about transition), perhaps enabling the fabric of the world to be cut through and movement into other spaces made.

That’s what our cultists are after – a sword that will let them begin carving up reality and no doubt unleashing some sort of apocalyptic terror.  It’s in the possession of the lizardfolk, who have no intention of slicing the fabric of space and time wide open, and the cultists are after its location.  The shield, meanwhile, is in the possession of the female cleric, who evidently finds that sort of thing useful when negotiating with hostile reptilians.

Ta-da.  One session of play, with gratuitous backstory or without, all done with Tarot cards.  Incidentally, since I’m too cheap to buy a Tarot deck (anyway, the local Pagan Tat shop scares me), I use this random generator instead.  Doesn’t quite give the control that you might get from a proper deck (no sorting by arcana or suit, for instance) but it’ll do the job.

Author: Jon

Sententious, mercurial, and British as a bilious lord. Recovering Goth, lifelong spod. Former teacher and amateur machine politician, now freelance writer and early-career researcher.

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