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Deep as a Puddle: Character Development with Tarot

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 [1]. 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 [2] 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 [3]. 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.

lltarot_card26_rev lltarot_card54_rev lltarot_card11_rev

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.

Instant NPC

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.

20 Comments (Open | Close)

20 Comments To "Deep as a Puddle: Character Development with Tarot"

#1 Comment By Rafe On June 4, 2009 @ 7:15 am

Fantastic article, Scott — I’d say one of the best from Gnome Stew, and that’s saying a lot! A simple tool for lots of options, with as much depth as you want to ascribe to it.

#2 Comment By John Arcadian On June 4, 2009 @ 8:47 am

That’s a great idea! It’s been a long time since I’ve owned a Tarot deck, but I can see it as a great way to grab some personality ideas for a character on the fly.

#3 Comment By drow On June 4, 2009 @ 11:24 am

nice. i’ve been stuck writing up backgrounds for a few (okay, most) of the NPCs for my next campaign, this might help.

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On June 4, 2009 @ 12:16 pm

Thanks! Does anyone have tarot or other interpretive tricks they’d like to share?

#5 Comment By robinmotion On June 4, 2009 @ 6:08 pm

I love it. Might be fun for PC development, too. Shameless plug here … in addition to being an ex-RPG developer and a lifelong gaming addict, I now work at [4].

We have free Tarot readings, too, though you have to jump through a few more hoops (signing up as a user) to get them. The plus side is that, once you’re logged in as a member, you get full-on, long interpretations of the cards instead of just the one-liners that Llewelyn has.

On the other hand, if one-liners are what you need to just generate ideas, Llewelyn is great. I love how quick and easy Llewelyn is for doing stuff on the fly.

Tarot.com would probably be better for folks who want more layers for their NPC interps, or want to be able to pick and choose from among a bunch of different ideas for their NPCs. Maybe you use the basic idea behind the card when you first begin using the NPC, and as the campaign develops, you use other parts of the interpretation?

Anyway, if you’re interested, go to [5] and use the “free 3-card Tarot reading” module on the left. After you’ve gone through the process and set up an account, it’ll change the “free” module to a paid module … but don’t be fooled ;). You can still select “free Tarot readings” from the pull-down menu.

Robert Vaughn

#6 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On June 4, 2009 @ 8:48 pm

Sean Patrick Fannon’s Shaintar campaign setting for Savage Worlds has an adventure design tool called MACS, which uses a Tarot deck to design adventures. I haven’t used it, but it’s gotten good reviews.

#7 Comment By DocRyder On June 4, 2009 @ 10:32 pm

When I ran Mage: the Ascension, I used the Mage Tarot to generate plots with the aid of the booklet that came with it.

Having a reference to the Tarot is definitely a good idea if your going to use them in the game. WWGS just put one out for Mage, and it would likely work for other games as well.

There are also a couple of fantasy decks available out there, too. There’s the Harrow deck from Paizo for Pathfinder, the Tarokka deck for Ravenloft (but good luck finding one), and in one of the last print issues of the Dragon, there was a character creation system using the Three Dragon Ante deck.

Like connection between the Tarot and our modern playing cards deck (aka the Minor Arcana), an enterprising DM could create a prognostication method that uses the Three Dragon Ante deck. Call it something like Dracotta, and away you go.

#8 Comment By Scott Martin On June 6, 2009 @ 2:57 pm

[6]– Thanks– that’s a nice looking site. More layers of analysis is interesting; it sounds like you could use a simpler spread and still wind up with very detailed characters.
[7]– I’ll have to look MACS up. Is it in a specific book or just on the web?
[8]– I’d be interested in seeing what someone came up with for a 3 Dragon Ante deck character, campaign, or future reading.

#9 Comment By Martin Ralya On June 7, 2009 @ 1:38 pm

This is brilliant, Scott. I did some research and ordered a tarot deck and guidebook on the strength of your article.

I think this technique will be ideal for me. I often have trouble deepening my NPCs, and what I tend to struggle with is coming up with the initial germ of an idea that gets me rolling — which seems likely to solve.

I also love the idea of using tarot to deepen my PC backgrounds, too. It usually takes me forever to come up with a PC I’m really happy with, and this seems like it would help there, too.

Just fantastic — thank you!

#10 Comment By jcdietrich On June 7, 2009 @ 6:27 pm

Those impressed with this technique should check out an older RPG also from Wizards of the Coast: Everway. 🙂

#11 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On June 7, 2009 @ 6:53 pm

[9] – The MACS (Modular Adventure Campaign System) is in the [10] campaign setting. I was mistaken; it’s designed with playing cards in mind, although I’m sure you could adopt it to a Tarot deck. It does use Tarot-like spreads, hence my confusion…

#12 Comment By Martin Ralya On June 7, 2009 @ 9:30 pm

[11] – Scott mentioned Everway, but I think despite some fundamental similarities there are some real differences here, too.

For example: I did Everway chargen at GenCon several years ago, and it was entirely interpretive. (It was also awesome.) Scott’s technique combines the best of that approach with the utility of the standard tarot meanings — I really like that aspect of it.

#13 Comment By Scott Martin On June 8, 2009 @ 10:45 am

I’m glad the technique looks like it’ll work for you Martin. Hope it provides litters full of interesting NPCs for your upcoming games.

#14 Comment By Sewicked On June 8, 2009 @ 3:48 pm

I do demo games and it gets very hard not to make up the same 3 or 4 pre-gen characters. Using 3-card Tarot spread is a great way to get inspired to make up something different.

I had a copy of a Japanese-themed Tarot deck and used a 10-card spread to get an idea for the past for my Legend of the 5 Rings character (so she ended up with a dead father & a mother so obsessed with revenge that she neglected her children). It took me in a novel, for me, direction.

#15 Comment By Sewicked On June 10, 2009 @ 7:21 pm

And I completely forgot about Blue Rose using Major Arcana for a character’s calling and then two minor arcana for a character’s primary light and shadow aspects.

#16 Comment By Martin Ralya On June 10, 2009 @ 10:38 pm

I saw today that WW has released one Mage: The Awakening tarot-related product, and has another on the horizon.

The one out now is Secrets of the Supernal Tarot, which looks at cartomancy in WoD and provides two game elements for each major arcanum (plus a few others, apparently).

On the horizon is another take on the Mage tarot deck; the original is insanely expensive these days, so that’ll be nice.

#17 Comment By Mairkurion On June 23, 2009 @ 10:33 am

I’ve been amazed by how much the Harrow Deck
has added to our game in terms of character and plot. The player running the gypsyesque picked up how the cards worked really quickly, and every time she did a reading, I was amazed at how easy it was to take advantage of any reading that came up, and creatively use it. I think it would be easily worked into any kind of game, and I highly recommend it.

#18 Comment By Mairkurion On June 23, 2009 @ 10:35 am

Sorry, “gypsyesque character,” that is.

#19 Comment By Scott Martin On June 23, 2009 @ 12:34 pm

[13] – I remember reading about that in Blue Rose– I’d like to try it out in play.

[14] – Working it into play is great. It sounds like the readings keep you on your toes, but that it really contributes to the overall game. Very cool!

#20 Comment By Shriss On December 15, 2010 @ 8:41 pm

I think I should offer this to players as a tool to help build character backgrounds and goals. Some of my newer players could really use some help getting inspired.

#21 Pingback By Designer Interview: Martin Ralya from Gnome Stew & Engine Publishing | Game Knight Reviews On September 22, 2011 @ 5:02 am

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