The Tarot for Gaming
How to Game with the Tarot
Below, I describe several possible ways to use the Tarot in role playing games, but these are only a small taste of how you can use the cards to create stories. Also, as you’ll notice, I tend to draw three cards in my examples, because any three tarot cards gives you about 450,000 possible combinations. Having almost half a million results to work with makes it highly unlikely you’ll duplicate results any time soon! However, you can also use just one or two cards for a quick idea, or try out much more complex spreads as you become more familiar!
Describe a character by drawing cards for their background, their quest, and their personality.
This can be a great way to quickly generate flavorful, unique characters. For example, pretend you drew the following cards:
Queen of Swords: Open Honesty: The Queen of Swords is always honest, direct, and willing to communicate no matter the difficulty of the subject. She represents clarity of thought, open-mindedness, and frank conversation.
The Hierophant: This card represents learning from others, or existing together in a society, but not necessarily in complete conformity to expectations.
Seven of Wands: Making a Stand: The Conviction to stand up and fight for something, not only with valour and bravery, but with the wisdom to take an advantageous position. This card represents assertiveness, moral defiance, and sheer force of will in the face of evil.
Seeing these cards for a character, I immediately rearrange them in my head:
Background: The Hierophant. This person is a—or was—a teacher, priest, or other servant of the community.
Quest: Seven of Wands: Making a Stand: This character has apparently decided they will do what is right, no matter the cost, and is probably already sacrificing for their choice.
Personality: Queen of Swords: Open Honesty: If their primary personality trait is their directness and honesty, I would say it is very likely they have spoken their mind too much, and are now in trouble because of it.
Together, this makes me think of a true believer of a faith who has discovered corruption in their religious order. They could not stomach just doing what they were told, even by their supposed leaders, as they believe too strongly in honesty and truth. Cast out, they seek to redeem their brethren by encouraging others to take a stand against deceit and falsehoods.
Create a random encounter or story beat by drawing cards for what happens, why it happens, and what is at stake.
Whether you just want to mix things up in the moment, or you are hoping to come up with the idea that launches a long term quest, this can concoct some interesting stuff. Consider this spread:
Seven of Coins: Reaping Rewards: After much time and effort, work is paying off, not unlike the reaping of a crop. The investment is repaid many times over. This card represents the fruition of plans, earned rewards, and the harvest festival.
Six of Coins: Altruism: Those who have resources and advantages can do great good simply by sharing their wealth with others. This card represents charity, granting personal assistance, or giving aid of some other kind.
The Lovers: The Lovers can represent any form of strong, loving relationship, romantic or otherwise; the bonds between people give them strength and the power to withstand danger.
Considering how to combine these cards, I first thought I would move the Seven of Coins: Reaping Rewards to the END of the encounter, but that feels too common. Instead, I think I’ll keep them in this order!
What Happens: Seven of Coins: Reaping Rewards: I choose to think of this, for now, as what is happening at the beginning of this encounter. The characters are getting their rewards for a job well done, when something else comes up!
Why it Happens: Six of Coins: Altruism: I interpret this to mean that the characters have an opportunity here to be altruistic. If they do that, they will get an even greater reward (which shouldn’t be apparent before they act).
What is at Stake: The Lovers: This could represent the formation of a romantic relationship, but as a reward that kind of thing is extremely problematic. Instead, I think that it must represent a strengthening of a relationship between the characters as a group and some other power or entity.
Taking them in that order, I think this suggests that, after receiving a reward for a job well done, the characters are leaving with their spoils when they stumble across a family being turned out of the inn they run for failing to pay their taxes—times have been tough. If they characters use their newfound wealth to help these people and ask for a reward other than the free rooms for night they will be offered, the family will happily grant a reasonable request, and that will be that. However, if the characters help without asking for anything else in return, and especially if they insist on paying the family for any rooms they do take, then, when their adult child returns from adventuring and questing, they will seek out and aide the characters at some important moment in the future as a thank-you for saving their parents.
Figure out a possible destiny, or fill in a time-skip, by using the cards to ‘tell the future’ of a character, group, nation, or creature.
When passing large blocks of time for game reasons (or even just world-building before a game starts), it can be difficult to pick a satisfying fate for a character or group; using the cards can provide inspiration! For instance:
Six of Wands (Reversed): Ill-Repute: Failures, actual or perceived, have led to a loss of support and goodwill. This may in turn damage self-confidence and cause a downward spiral. This card represents the results of being perceived as a failure, disappointment, or loser.
Three of Wands: Leadership: It takes energy and foresight to take charge and persuade others to follow, especially into new endeavors. This card represents the strength of character, and confidence, to lead others down untrodden paths.
Nine of Cups: Satisfaction: Short-term pleasure is sometimes derided, but it is important to emotional well being. Finding enjoyment in life can make it much easier to weather the storms. This card represents celebrations, small victories, and wish fulfillment.
This seems to tell a story almost without needing any interpretation at all:
Current problem: Six of Wands (Reversed): Ill-Repute: Some person or group has developed a bad reputation; they are falling out of favor.
Tactic to use: Three of Wands: Leadership: The same person or group should start taking charge and lead by example.
Outcome: Nine of Cups: Satisfaction: This is notably not a card about repairing the damaged reputation, but it suggests that the subject will feel better about themselves, and take pride in what they have accomplished through their leadership.
Considering this spread, I actually think this might be the start of a redemption tale for a villain who didn’t originally realize they were the bad one. The head of an evil megacorporation turns out to be the head of a badly misguided megacorporation, or similar. Having been shown the error of their ways, they divert their resources to fixing problems they helped create. They may not ever be loved by the populace, but they eventually feel like what they are doing is giving them new meaning.
Move the story ahead by using the cards to foretell each new scene, or even moments within a given scene, drawing new cards as each one is resolved.
Essentially, you can let the deck act as a GameMaster all by itself, as long as you do some interpretation for it! For this example, I’ll take a slightly different approach, and provide a premise that we then advance using the Tarot:
The story begins with a group of adventurers entering a tavern, having recently completed a dangerous quest. They want to relax; I, as a GameMaster, want to interfere in fun and interesting ways… I draw one card (and the next two are also pictured below, even though I did not draw them at the same time):
Queen of Cups: Empathic Intuition: The Queen of Cups is intuitive to an almost psychic degree, such is their knowledge of emotions and behavior. They can often get right to the heart of underlying issues. They represent empathy, understanding, and instinct.
I think this suggests that, as they drink and talk and boast about their accomplishments, someone with a very keen sense for motivations is listening. I describe a traveler who asks them a few questions about where they have been and what their plans are next, and who seems to smile knowingly to themselves at the end. This is, of course, enough to get the characters curious. Who is this person, and what do they want? I draw another card!
Five of Swords: Intimidation: Action may not always be necessary to prove strength; intimidating an enemy into backing down defeats them as surely as violence. This card represents demonstrations of power, confidence, and danger.
This could theoretically mean that the traveler tries to intimidate them, but… why would they? Instead, I choose to have this mean he sees the adventurers as a potential threat: well-meaning, but prone to violence, and likely to bring danger to their friends. The traveler tells the story of another, similar group of wanderers who, in the name of honor and glory, slaughtered a nearby but relatively peaceable goblin tribe, and then killed some of the local youth who had taken up banditry in order to survive the oppressive taxes of the distant monarch who supposedly rules this land. The traveler is slightly saddened, but not surprised, to see more such characters come through.
The adventuring party takes some umbrage at this accusation, and defend their motivations—they even offer to take care of these other, apparently evil, adventurers. But what does the traveler say about that? I draw a card.
Two of Coins: Adaptability: Being able to shift to accommodate changes in circumstances is a key skill for success. This card represents flexibility, balance, and taking measured chances.
The traveler is skeptical, but not unwilling to give them a chance. In fact, they are flexible enough to say that it might actually be worth trying, but only if the party is equally flexible in their offer: they must try diplomacy first, and even if a fight breaks out, they must not kill their opponents, as justice must be served. If they agree, the traveler will join them and record their story for posterity! And that, apparently, is how the characters got their next quest, and met a lawful-good bard who will immortalize them as either champions of justice, or lying and deceitful menaces to society!
Draw cards to arbitrate the action in a role playing game, drawing multiple cards to oppose each other when relevant, or otherwise drawing a card and deciding success or failure based on the meaning, or the suit and number combination, or both!
This is a topic that would take more than this quick introduction to do justice to, but remember that whether you want to arbitrate something numerically (draw a card for each person; higher numbers win, Major Arcana beats Minor Arcana, and perhaps the most relevant Suit breaks ties!) or narratively (draw a card, and use the meaning to try and justify success or failure, or just to describe what actually happens), there are nearly infinite ways to use a Tarot deck, and none of them are wrong!