The Mysterious World of Tarot, with Designers Who Use Them


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02 April 2023
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It's on the cards – we speak to those in the know about using Tarot Cards in games

Words by Christopher John Eggett

The Tarot, a deck of cards most associated with the act of fortune telling, divination, probably something a bit spooky, started out as a simple set of cards used for a number of European card games like Tarocchini (Italy) or Grosstarok (Germany). That is until some (French) occultists got their hands on it in the 18th century and, more or less, started making some stuff up about the meaning of each card. In many ways, this interpretive flourish of lore-making (a suggestion that the cards are born out from the Book of Thoth, an Ancient Egyptian text which is also an umbrella term for a great deal of unassigned writing) is a bit like a roleplaying game, or a LARP. This isn’t to diminish their use in divination or similar, but only to say that their distance from games in the English-speaking world at least is a slight anomaly. And while there’s plenty of game designers who want to change that, they’re very much approaching it from the point of understanding tarot as an interpretive artform, rather than a deck of cards for playing games.

And once you dive in, as we’re about to, the results are interesting, whether that’s from the interpretive ‘do a reading to create a situation’ in WILD or the more puzzly approach of The Light In The Mist this association with the assumed magic of the cards makes for interesting, weird games.

WILD

A roleplaying game where you enter and interpret the dreams of others.

Who are you?

I’m David F. Chapman , producer at Cubicle 7 Games and designer of Doctor Who: The Roleplaying Game, as well as the writer and designer of WILD. I’ve been writing and developing roleplaying games for many years, working on games such as Conspiracy X, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek Adventures, and the Awfully Cheerful Engine

What is WILD?
WILD is a roleplaying game of dreamshare technology, where characters enter into the dreamrealms of others through a device worn by multiple dreamers. WILD stands for Wake Initiated Lucid Dreaming, and the device allows the characters to remain lucid and in control in the dreamscape, and enter another’s dreams to discover information, help them get over a recurring terror, or for recreation. The technology is new and limited, and its impact on the world is only just being felt, but already reverse engineered tech is appearing on the black market leading to dream-espionage, and memory theft.

How does it use Tarot in the game?

Tarot is used in a couple of ways. Initially, it is the primary task resolution mechanic. When attempting to do something, players draw three cards usually, and the value of the card, and the suit, determines if they are successful or not. The main attributes and abilities in the game are closely tied to the suits and court cards of the tarot, so it means that task resolution is fairly quick and intuitive. The tarot cards are also used to shape the dreamscape, especially when WILD is played solo. The cards determine the location and goals of each scene, and influence any encounters or items you can find. In the solo game, you’re using the device as a training tool to learn dreamshare, recreating the first dreamshare dive, where the creator of the technology sought to wake his comatose daughter by going into her unconscious mind.

How much are we interpreting the cards in the game? Is that key, or are they purely mechanical?

A bit of both. There’s a mechanical element, but also each card has been carefully designed, working closely with the artist (Gareth Sleightholme), to include details and situations that not only reflect the traditional imagery of the tarot, but also incorporate dream imagery from the most common dreams, and story elements from the setting. Each has little details that can inspire the DreamMaster or player to incorporate new elements into the narrative and shape the story. Each card’s primary meaning has been extracted as a keyword that is printed on the card as well, to speed things up, and the WILD book includes images of the cards and their various meanings and interpretations.

What drew you to the Tarot for WILD?

I’ve always had a strange fascination with Tarot, ever since my dad bought a deck and told me I wasn’t allowed to use them. Tarot also has many connections to dreams, and Jungian archetypes, so it was almost like it was meant to be. I was also drawn to the cards as they’re more than a simple Pass/Fail resolution, as you can incorporate the meaning of the cards into the result. 

And more generally? Did you have prior experiences with tarot?

My fascination continued through art college, and I created a tarot deck (just the major arcana) back then that illustrated various parts of my life. Then I bought my favourite deck (The Vertigo Tarot, based upon DC Comics’ Vertigo line) and started doing readings for myself and friends, and found them strangely accurate - though a lot of that is due to the way that the cards can be interpreted by the questioner to mean various things. I still do readings for myself every so often, when I’m unsure of what to do. 

What kind of adventures will people be having in WILD?

WILD allows you to experience anything you can dream. If you imagine the Dreaming from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, but being able to access that collective unconscious through advanced technology, like Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Anything is possible. You can venture into someone else’s recurring nightmare to help them overcome their fears, or relive their favourite memories. But beware – dangerous dream entities lurk in the collective unconscious. Archetypes that can try to follow an unwary dreamer up through the levels of dreaming and escape into the waking world. 

What’s next on the cards?

Most of my time is spent in the TARDIS, working on Doctor Who: The Roleplaying Game for Cubicle 7, but I’m hoping to get a second WILD book finished, looking more at the collective unconscious and the more fantastic dreamscapes.

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THE LIGHT IN THE MIST

Hello, would you mind introducing yourselves?

Rita Orlov: Hello! I’m Rita, a puzzle designer, maker, and creator of PostCurious.

Jack Fallows: And I’m Jack, an artist and creator of Cryptogram Puzzle Post.

How do you explain what The Light In The Mist is?
JF: The Light in the Mist is a narrative puzzle adventure (or puzzletale, if you will) embedded in a deck of tarot cards. We set out to create an experience that blended elements of tarot with art, gameplay
and story.

How do you use Tarot within the game? Is there interpretation, or just a mechanical device?

JF: There is no interpretation of the tarot within the game itself, and thus no knowledge of it is necessary to play. Rather, we used the meanings of the tarot cards to inspire the gameplay. Each of the puzzles and related story passages are inspired by the Major Arcana cards, and as a result we’ve had players walk away saying that they’ve learned a bit about the tarot in the process. One of our goals with this project was sparking that interest in players who have had no tarot experience prior to The Light in the Mist, and at least in some cases it seems it has accomplished that. 

Tell us about the puzzles and the way they interact with the story?


JF: There are 22 puzzles in the game, each solving to an English word (or in some cases multiple words, as there are several puzzles with more than one possible solution.) Each solution word leads to a different story passage reflective of the Major Arcana card that was used to get there. For example, solving The Lovers card reveals two pieces of the story that involve a particular relationship of the main character and her choices around trusting that person. Players can decide for themselves whether to only read one passage per card or try to find all the possible answers and experience more of the story. These individual vignettes are discovered in a non-linear fashion and gradually weave together to form the complete tapestry of the narrative.

 

What was the draw to using Tarot for The Light In The Mist?
RO: What interested me most was the idea of using the tarot deck as both the inspiration and the vehicle for delivering the gameplay. Designing the mechanics and trying to find creative ways to use nothing but cards for solving the puzzles was an exciting challenge, but we definitely also wanted this to live on as a tarot deck after the game was finished. Even if most of our players don’t end up using it to practice tarot, we hope the deck will be kept as an art object and a way to remember the experience. 

 

What was your previous experience of tarot?
Both of us had dabbled in tarot before and had been interested in various forms of divination since we were teens, but this project certainly took our understanding and appreciation to a new level.

 

What’s next for you, or rather, what’s on the cards?
JF: My next big release will be a collection of the first 18 issues of my ongoing witchy puzzle series ‘Cryptogram Puzzle Post’. The collection is called The Stormlamp Rituals and will be released by Liminal 11 in 2023.
RO: My next release is called Adrift—it is a puzzletale full of dreamy poems, artifacts, and watercolor illustrations. It is due to deliver this December and is currently available for preorder. Following that, I’m looking to crowdfund a second edition of the first PostCurious game, The Tale of Ord, in spring of 2023.   

HIS MAJESTY THE WORM

A dungeon crawler that uses tarot cards as the engine of the game

Can you introduce yourself?

My name is Josh McCrowell. I’m an indie RPG writer and I maintain a blog called Rise Up Comus.


Tell us about your game that uses Tarot?

His Majesty the Worm is my forthcoming Tarot-based dungeon crawling game. I’ve been slowfunding its development for the last five years, releasing appendices as PWYW titles to generate interest and income to fund the game. A full release, both digital and print, is planned for the end of the year.

His Majesty the Worm is designed to make the “boring parts” interesting. It is a new-school game with old-school sensibilities. It zooms in on a slice of life inside the dungeon. Tarot cards are used as a randomizing element. Combat encounters are handled with an action-packed subsystem that ensures that all players have interesting choices every minute of combat: no downtime! Often-ignored subsystems, like food, hunger, light, and inventory management, are central to play and actually fun.

 

How does it use Tarot? Are we interpreting or is it mechanical?


In a basic way, the Tarot cards are just used as a random number generator. There are not interpretive elements in the core subsystems of gameplay. But cards are a wonderful resource to design around. The cards are persistent. The discard pile can be used as a result for random tables, keeping gameplay moving without extraneous dice clattering.

For example, the combat subsystem has each player draw a hand of four minor arcana. Each player takes a turn where they spend any card to take an action (move, attack, etc.). When it’s not your turn, you can still play cards to take actions if your action has the appropriate suite (e.g., Swords cards are used to attack). The result is a Dark Souls-esque feeling, with a mind towards timing of dodges and parries. A lot of games promise fast combat, but since everybody is taking turns all the time, it really hums along in playtesting.
 
What’s next for you?
Getting His Majesty the Worm to print is my primary focus right now – a boxed set game of this size was a major undertaking and I’ll be happy to finalize it. 

GOBLINS & GARDENS

Can you introduce yourself?

Hello my name is Jon Sacha and I’m the creator of Goblins & Gardens. I’m 34 and I live in Kalamazoo, Michigan with my partner and our demonic cat. 

 

Tell us about Goblins & Gardens that uses Tarot?

Goblins & Gardens itself is not specifically a game. At the centre of this project is a 78 card tarot deck that I collaged together by using elements of old Dungeons & Dragons books and Gardening Encyclopedias. The world of G&G exists as a place that houses every D&D story that’s ever been told and subsequently left behind. I have started updating my Patreon with mini-games that use Tarot and as those continue to develop I’ll be releasing physical and pdf versions of those games and guides.

 

How does it use Tarot? Are we interpreting or is it mechanical?

Some of the work I’ve done so far uses Tarot in a mechanical way. I have a simple fishing mini-game that could be incorporated into any RPG that uses Tarot in a predominantly mechanical way. But when I use Tarot with my friends in an RPG we’re using it as a storytelling device that is most often interpretative. 

 

What’s the draw of using tarot cards?

Tarot is a lot of things to a lot of people, and that’s very beautiful. As a game it’s a deck of cards. As an artform it’s an unbound collection of symbols, scenes, and stories. And with that you get to hold in your hand another person’s artwork, and you get to shuffle it and interpret it in new sequences and formations everytime. So G&G is a window into a world where these monsters live together peacefully. And you can shuffle the deck and ask the question: What happens when a story is left behind?  Every time you draw cards you’re going to have an experience that’s unique. 

 

What’s next for you?

I have a few things in the works that would either support current RPG systems like ‘Troika!’ or are direct hacks of other games like ‘A Quiet Year.’ My three best friends and I are also working on a guide that would collect our experiences using Tarot in RPGs and then provide outlines for how other people can use it as well. It’s very freeform when we use it so the guide would be very rules light. We’re all really excited about it. I’ll probably start sharing early drafts of those things on my Patreon before the end of the year. 

 

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