Using the tarot cards in RPG

I’ve been mildly fascinated by the tarot cards since I saw Live and Let Die, and even taught myself how to read them in fortune-telling, twenty years ago. I’ve often felt that they had something to offer the right RPG, such as a resolution system like that in Castle Falkenstein but better. But in fact I’ve very seldom found any use for them at all, and never anything worthy.

Has anyone out there found a good use for the tarot in RPGs?

Everway RPG had cards inspired by the tarot major arcana plus their own additions (summer, law, etc). IIRC the game mechanics were a choice of:

  1. Whoever has the highest score succeeds in the thing they were attempting.
  2. Draw one card and interpret how things went from that card.
  3. Draw 3 cards and interpret how things went from those, with the 3 cards representing a beginning, middle and end to the action.

I tried to run it, but it foundered on a combination of:

  • Lots of head-scratching as we tried to figure out if The Fish, The Priestess and Autumn meant you had succeeded or failed. (There was a ‘guidebook’ but knowing the Fish is linked to water and mysteries didn’t often help).

  • An arsehole player who wanted to pick fights or arguments with an PC who had lower stats than him, on the grounds that he would automatically win.

  • When we switched to card draw for inter-party bickering/fighting, we discovered that not only did we not know if The Fish meant if you had succeeded, we now had the problem that the deck is not designed for PvP, so we had no idea if a successful Fish beat a successful Sun.

There were lots of conversations like this:
PC1: Aha! My Sun will evaporate the water to beat your Fish.
PC2: But this is happening at night, so the Sun is no use at the moment.

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In the only superhero campaign I ever played, there was an organisation called the Tarot. They had a super-being for each of the major arcana, and the other cards were agents. It worked fairly well, but we never found out what their purpose in the overall campaign structure was.

There is an anime from the early '90’s called Sol Bianca. The titular pirate ship (also sometimes referred to as el Barco del Sol) was shown to be one of a fleet of similar vessels and used The Sun as a jolly roger and calling card.

I liked the idea so well that my next space campaign featured a privateer called White Rose that used Death as a jolly roger and calling card – hence, the avatar I use here and on SJ Games’ forum.

I also started to write a live-action roleplaying setting where the competing factions were represented by the suits of the minor arcana and the player-characters by major arcana. The numbers of each major arcana would represent their relative strength in direct (not necessarily physical) confrontations, with The Fool (naturally) as a spoiler. My opportunity to run the session collapsed, however, so I never got beyond the concept stage.

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Fortune-telling techniques, used on oneself, can be an effective way of bludgeoning adventure ideas out of an uncooperative subconscious. But I haven’t used cards in-game.

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I use sometimes Story Forge cards for bludgeoning plots/adventures out of my subconscious.

I have long wondered about that.

It’s actually a pretty positive card. The traditional interpretations of the Death card involve “rebirth, creation, destination, renewal, and the rest.” (Waite, Pictorial Key to the Tarot, 123)

It occurs to me that we also had a crew in one of my campaigns name their ship after the Wheel of Fortune, though they were thankfully uninterested in game-show allusions.

Visionary Entertainment Studio published a set of books in a line called The Everlasting. It was a pretty oddball World of Darkness re-envisioning by a White Wolf freelancer.

The Everlasting had both dice and playing card systems baked in and then added a special section on using tarot cards. It is absolutely a use of tarot cards in the RPG but this is a book that refers to the act of play as “legendmaking” so your personal tolerance for university bar discussions of Jung and Campbell is going to come into play a lot.

It boils down to separate minor and major arcana, pull out the pages (because they didn’t feel like re-numbering from a standard set of playing cards) use the minor arcana deck as a draw deck like the normal card rules. For the major arcana, have each player pull three (or more if few players) and play them at their discretion “in a manner such that what it symbolizes is central to how the participant affects what is going on.”

My group of friends who expressed an interest in The Everlasting did not manage to get through the character generation process and the unusual tone of the book.

I’ve used tarot symbolism a number of times occasionally assigning cards to players and NPCs for short hand as I worked on plotting. The group I ran Mage the Ascension with really liked having the set of Mage tarot cards at the table for the nifty art.