Tarot readings are an inspirational technique for developing characters. Inspirational techniques are great when an NPC needs more personality, but you don’t have enough of a handle on the character to know what the right answer to a question would be. They are also good when you are in a hurry. Beyond adding detail to a character, tarot readings can also give you new ideas for PCs and NPCs. I’ve also successfully used tarot readings to develop the new plots, often by centering a detailed spread on a major NPC.
On Tarot Reading and Decks
Forewarning: I have no skill at reading tarot and don’t use physical cards. While many are nicely evocative (I liked the Mage Tarot for Mage: The Ascension), it’d take me forever to look up each card’s standard meaning and figure out how it applies to each slot. I cheat and use Llewellyn’s free tarot readings . If you are already comfortable with reading the cards, the advice below also applies to a physical card reading, with the added benefit that you can be comfortable adding your personal interpretations of the cards to the mix.
If you enjoy tarot, it has a rich history and has been tied to many occultists and cultures. I haven’t done any research on its history, but have enjoyed many books with tarot subplots. (Most notably, Piers Anthony’s Tarot  series.) In the roleplaying world, tarot cards are common. Everway’s Fortune deck is crafted to spark roleplaying ideas — in fact, interpreting the cards is the core resolution system. In Amber (the books and RPG), characters use “trump decks” to predict the future and see what hidden influences affect the current situation. The major PCs and NPCs get their own card… and are often exemplars, much like the standard Major Arcana . Adventures for all kinds of games use in game tarot readings — from Ravenloft, to Mage, and many more.
Quickly Generating an NPC
When you’re in a rush and have a basic NPC in mind, but want some personality, this is a quick way to put some flesh on those bones.
In my D&D game, the characters are in the middle of a war between the Dwarven Iron Empire and the other free peoples. The PCs are on the side of the free peoples, and are constantly fighting against the dwarven forces. Some time ago, the PCs killed the dwarf king, who doesn’t appear to have been resurrected yet. I suspect that the High Priest has something to do with it… but that’s all I’ve got. So I decided to do a quick reading for the High Priest.
The past reads: Four of Wands – Reversed. A card in the left position indicates what has happened to affect your question in the past. The specific card meaning is: Small, irritating setbacks. Stubborn snags. Lack of outside interest. Progress, but time and effort could be better spent elsewhere. Being caught in a behavioral rut. Sarcasm.
Aha! I now have a sketchy picture of the high priest. He’s quite old, even for a dwarf. He’s been hamstrung in his advancement, probably due to being at cross purposes with the King and Court. The picture on the card is an inverted castle, which makes me think that his power base is a undermountain cloister, probably well separated from the deeps where the King reigns.
His present is described this way: Four of Cups – Reversed in the Present position. A card in the middle position indicates what is affecting your question at this time. Suspicion. Blaming others for one’s situation. Playing on the undeserved sympathy of others. Insecurity.
Tying that into the campaign current events offers a lot of options. The High Priest probably thought that keeping the king dead would give him time to consolidate his power and that the country would unify around him. But cities are falling to the PCs and their allies, clan allegiances have been much more prominent in descriptions of dwarves lately, and he’s separated from the dwarven court. Perhaps the High Priest doesn’t see his role in undermining the country’s unity — all he can see is the scheming and political maneuvers of his rivals. (He remembers the obstacles they erected in his youth.) He sees the surrender of distant cities only as an attempt to pressure him and is quick to blame the commanders in the field and clan infighting for the collapse. His insecurity forces him to seek sympathy and reassurance from allies, instead of spending his time strengthening his allies and concentrating on the war.
Lets see what his future holds. The Wheel of Fortune – Reversed in the Future position. A card in the right position indicates your questions future. Instability. Temporary fortune. Displacement and roaming. Hounding, demanding people or circumstances. Shifting fortunes make it difficult to set a course. Sheer bad luck born of simple chance.
Man, it doesn’t look good for him. It sounds like his position as leader of the dwarves is about to pass — probably due to the crumbling security of the country. He’ll be hounded from power and will probably have to flee his homeland altogether. Hmm… I wonder what comes next.
Adding Complexity to a Major PC or NPC
I’ve occasionally made up quick characters for one shots that later develop into something more. Or I’ll have a character concept that I want to play, but it’s a system where I concentrate more on advancement paths than on fully fleshed backgrounds. A longer tarot reading (like the Celtic Cross, or Ten Card Spread) will often suggest lots of personality and background. It has a habit of suggesting childhood struggles, old flames, rivals, and can help you figure out why your character became the person he or she is today.
The Reading can only Suggest, not Command
Sometimes a reading will throw something wild at you. Perhaps the “message from the higher self” comes in as the Hierophant Reversed — a liar, or misrepresentation of the divine. If you’re playing a Cleric or Paladin, that probably sounds like a bad idea.
Before you throw it out, see if there’s a way to subvert the idea. Can you come up with a reason why your character’s inner self would suggest listening to a liar? Is the rogue in your campaign terrible and your bitter opposite? Maybe your character is in love with him. That could be a great way to explain why such different people are adventuring together — and it’s certainly not an explanation that I would have come up with unprompted!
If the card doesn’t work for you and you can’t think of a good way to subvert it, just set it aside. You’re doing the reading to enhance your character- if an answer doesn’t work for you, ignore it. There’s no reason to change the way you’ve played the character for the last dozen sessions just because the card that turns up says something different.
If you are very pressed for time — or, if you’re already particularly good at reading tarot, just draw one card. Make the character an exemplar of that card. This is much less subtle than the blending or three or ten cards in a spread, but can make for very vivid characters and can provide great direction to the GM.
Tarot in Your Game
Have you ever used the tarot as a game aid? Do you have a story about a tarot reading affecting your character? Share any hints or advice in comments.