tarot

I used to be really into the tarot.

Let me clarify though. I used to own a few tarot decks. I used to be very interested in the symbology and the methods. I used to do a lot of readings. I have never believed that they have any predictive powers, which is simply part and parcel with my lack of belief in pretty much anything supernatural. The tarot does have many great and entirely natural powers, though.Tarot_MorganGreer2_USMG78

My preferred deck was the one pictured here, a Morgan Greer. It’s colourful, well illustrated, and has fairly good symbology. The detail’s a little light in places but it has a hippie vibe that suits me fine. Anyway, super powers.

I started playing with the tarot at the age of 17 or so. About the same time as I started going to house parties. So let’s be perfectly clear: giving tarot readings at a party pretty much guarantees that you will be surrounded by women and that you will drink for free. As a teenager I really needed very little (none) more advantage from a deck of cards or anything else I might bring to a party. I had similar effect bringing sake to house parties since it was exotic and I had to warm it up in the kitchen and a man at the stove in the kitchen was, at least in the early 80s, a magnet for women. Add exotic liquor and stir vigorously. Anyway this was all fabulously successful and if the tarot had no further power it would still have a warm place in my heart forever. Pro tip, though: readings can only indicate that the supplicant dump their boyfriend so often before it wears thin. In fact once is pushing it — stick to strict readings. It works great without intervening.

Of course the 80s had pretty strong sexist subtext in everything and so this might not work today. I don’t know if you can sub in a modern, progressive human into both the tarot reader and the supplicant and get similar results. But I bet you can: doing a reading is about paying attention to another person in a very intense and emotional way. It’s super personal. There’s a lot of eye contact. Many knowing looks. Some shared surprises. I would bet it remains erotic as hell even in the most egalitarian and pan-sexual of environments. Let me know.

Later I would discover that a competent reading for oneself was a powerful way to trick yourself into genuine introspection. Having a set of oracles that do not so much say “this happened in your past and was influential” but more asked “does this grossly generalized and vague symbol when placed in the context of your past trigger any particular thoughts” is in fact an extremely good way to make you wonder honestly about yourself. It lets you ask questions you wouldn’t have thought of asking in the same way that oracles in games (see how I got us back to games?) like rolling stats randomly or generating random words to seed adventures do. When left entirely to our own devices, starting from a blank page, we tend to ask the same boring questions and tell the same boring stories. External cues kick us out of the rut and these is really, really powerful for spurring genuine introspection. If I had to speculate I would guess that this is because we never really start from a blank page but rather from a set of suppositions. And that might indicate one of the powers of meditation as kind of an anti-oracle: done right it genuinely clears the page.

In addition to those powers, as if one needed more than teenage sexual success and high quality self-inspection, learning the symbology of the tarot has been good for game design.

For example, what can you do with cards? Well obviously you have draw-with-replacement which is a novel randomizer if you’re used to dice. That has power dice cannot easily have. But tarot tells us little here. You have suits and colours and numbers and face/non-face axes to play with. Again, same thing with tarot. But the tarot informs the content of the cards. It adds imagery.

So it wasn’t until I studied the tarot that I learned that hearts, clubs, diamonds, and spades, mapped directly onto the tarot’s cups, rods, pentacles, and swords. And those suits have all kinds of baggage. Cups (hearts) are about emotion, love, compassion, sharing. Okay that’s an easy one. Rods (clubs) are about spirituality, duty, piety. Okay that’s new and useful. Pentacles (diamonds) are about commerce, wealth, and materialism. And swords, well that’s all kinds of obvious but tying it to spades was not. So suddenly a deck of normal cards is that much richer.

Then I learned that these suits are also tied to the traditional four western elements: water (cups, hearts), earth (pentacles, diamonds), air (rods, clubs), and fire (swords, spades). And these associations are bi-directional! If you want to go all out, your elemental plane of water can take on these features of compassion, emotion, and warmth and now you have this kind of symbological continuity and I think it’s something people can sense even if they don’t know the relationships. And even if they don’t sense it, you can fall back on this to maintain consistency. And consistency is gold currency in fantasy.

Coming full circle, the tarot also make for a great set of oracles to build a campaign from. Even the simplest reading sets up a whole story — a protagonist, a past, a present, a future, a form of conflict, a possible resolution. An adversary. Tarot are really all about story telling and so it would be daft to assume they had no value in building stories in any context. Maybe especially RPGs.

So for a variety of reasons, all of them really exceptionally good, learning and tinkering with the tarot is a good plan. Go get yourself a deck. And a couple bottles of sake.

2 thoughts on “tarot

    1. This is obviously only the most superficial discussion — the symbology, both real and fabricated, is extremely rich, occasionally contradictory, and constantly fascinating. I recommend reading further if only to better understand your regular playing cards and see new dimensions in them.

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