A Survey of Tarot Decks for Roleplaying Purposes

… a supplement to the Plot and Person Creation installment in “The Color of Adventure” series of adventure-writing articles.

In an article in The RPG Times, I discuss how you can use tarot decks (as well as other means) to come up with new and interesting plots and characters for your roleplaying games. To summarize, the methods that apply specifically to tarot decks are:

  • Use “readings” for NPCs to create interesting details that will make your characters more involving and “real.”
  • Lay out spreads to help you detail plots.
  • Pull a card during game-play to help you fill in a detail–an encounter, how a plan works out, what an NPC decides to do, etc.

I suggested at that time that you might want to keep several decks around, because after a while your associations with the cards become repetitive. A new set of cards with a new symbology and new interpretations can do wonders for you. Now I will also suggest that you keep multiple decks around because different decks are useful for different things.

Here I will survey a handful of different tarot decks and discuss their usefulness with regard to the three methods listed above. I apologize if I don’t happen to discuss your favorite deck; I unfortunately don’t have the money to buy every tarot deck, and you should certainly feel free to use other decks. I hope that this discussion, however, will give you some idea of what to look for in a deck that you will use with your roleplaying. Included are a decent handful of tarot and other decks, one additional non-card fortune-telling mechanism, and a useful web site or two. Keep in mind that in a pinch you can use any old deck, but if you haven’t bought one yet then you might as well get one that’ll work best for what you want from it.

Divination Books

Books on the tarot (or other fortune-telling methods), particularly ones that offer in-depth interpretations for the cards (or whatever), are primarily useful as adjuncts to the actual fortune-telling items. You can never be truly random when opening up a book to a “random” page. After a while your fingers will know which sorts of cards come toward the front of the book, which toward the back, and which on that page you accidentally bent back the corner on. So opening up the book randomly in place of drawing a card only works until you’re familiar with the book. In addition, books are bound in sets of a certain number of pages. Because of this books will open preferentially to certain pages.

These books are, however, very useful in providing new interpretations of old cards when you’re stuck in a rut. They’re also useful for providing in-depth material when your set of tarot cards only came with one of those tiny booklets with the two-line interpretations. In fact, if you have to choose between a tarot deck and a tarot deck that comes with a companion book, get the one with the book. You’ll get far more out of it than if you just had that dinky little interpretation booklet. You won’t have to rotate decks nearly as often, and the information you get will have much more depth and possibility to it.

Note that you can often buy books on the tarot separately from tarot decks. There’s certainly nothing wrong with using the book from one deck to enhance your use of a different deck. Most sets of tarot cards have similar meanings from card to card, so you’ll primarily miss out on additional description of the symbology.

Purchasing Decks and Books

In some places it can be difficult to find tarot cards. Believe me, I know — I grew up in Vermont. I had to go to New York to get my first deck, and I didn’t get any of the others until I moved to Boston. You now have two things that back then I did not, however. One is online booksellers. Places like Amazon.com sell tarot decks as well as books. The other, perhaps more important, advance is that U.S. Games Systems now has an online catalog. I would be willing to bet that USGS is probably the largest manufacturer of tarot cards that you will find, and they have almost everything. If you want to linger through a catalog and find something that suits your own personality (and I highly recommend this), then visit US Games Systems and try not to spend too much money!

The Decks

The Rider-Waite Tarot

The Rider-Waite is perhaps the most well-known tarot deck you’ll ever find; nearly everyone has seen one of these decks at some point in their lives. This also makes it the easiest to find.

The RW deck is a good, solid deck, and you could certainly do worse. It has the advantage that there are lots of books written for it, so you’ll have no trouble finding a supplementary book. In fact, one might say it’s been analyzed to death. It was also specifically designed to have symbology and interpretations that were easily accessible to the public, so many people find it easy to relate to.

I believe that the RW deck is one of the best starter decks anyone can buy; it’s a comfortable way to get familiar with the tarot. But I also believe it’s one of the less useful decks with relation to roleplaying uses unless you’ll be sticking to very mundane details. The RW deck may be the most accessible, but it’s also the most mundane. You’ll get plenty of information about inheritances, jobs and relationships, but not so much about the spiritual or supernatural side of things.

  • People: This deck is best for constructing NPCs, particularly if you have a bunch of relatively mundane NPCs to put together. There’s plenty of detail on harvest, marriage, jobs, relationships, and inheritances.
  • Plots: This deck is so-so for plots. It’s true that you can free associate great plots off of very random stuff, but after a while it would be difficult to pull out of the very mundane feel of this deck. The less supernatural and weird your game, the more useful this deck will be.
  • Game-Play: This deck is reasonably good for making snap decisions during game-play, but not great. You won’t find a whole lot of very exciting stuff here, but you’ll find material that you can apply to most situations, if just because it is so generalized.

Buy the Rider-Waite deck or the book and card set.

The Native American Tarot Deck and Book Set

I find this deck interesting for the fact that unlike the RW deck, this one is very specialized. This deck comes with a decent-sized book and it goes into quite a bit of detail on the cards, including stories and quotes. It also includes more than the usual number of alternate card spreads, which can be very handy (particularly for NPC creation). Not only does it help to have inspiration on different details now and then, but the standard 10-card Celtic Cross spread can get boring after a while. Then again, maybe I get bored too easily!

The quotes are wonderful, and I find them very inspirational. The interpretations for the cards are almost as interesting. As these cards touch on mythology, legendry, mysticism, and the cultural legacy of the Native Americans, they can inspire even very unusual games with high supernatural content. The Native American flavor is wonderfully strong, so be prepared to have Native American plots pop up in your game before you realize it. If this would severely clash with the style of your game then you might start with a different deck.

  • People: The authors of the book for this deck have a very strong sense of people’s character and a lot of personality comes through. It’s easy to get details for NPCs from this deck. The extra spreads also help with this.
  • Plots: Plots are a little more difficult, but this deck is still useful in this arena. You’ll have to work the free association a little hard, but oh, the things you’ll come up with!
  • Game-Play: This deck is not particularly useful during game-play. When interpretations can run two pages long, you won’t want to take the time to stop and read up on a card. Even the interpretations in the smaller booklet are unusually long.

Buy the “Native American Tarot Deck and Book Set.”

The Silicon Valley Tarot

The Silicon Valley Tarot is (obviously) rather technology-oriented, and as far as I know has no extended book associated with it. This is probably because this deck started out as (and still is) a joke, a coffee-table piece, not a serious tarot deck. The interpretations are very short and pretty generic, but contain the occasional gem. This deck is primarily useful for a game that involves a lot of business and/or technology plots. Bureaucracy figures prominently in its themes, as do computers and the people who work with them.

  • People: This deck is so-so with regard to people creation, but particularly useful with regard to details of technology and bureaucracy careers.
  • Plots: This deck is also so-so with regard to plots. You’ll get a few interesting things out of it, but it will get repetitive fairly quickly. However, if you’re playing with political or corporate intrigue plots, then you may get quite a bit of use out of this deck!
  • Game-Play: This deck is best for in-game decision-making. It can give you that spark of direction that you need to decide what happens next.

Buy the “Silicon Valley Tarot“. You may also see and use the Silicon Valley Tarot online, if you don’t mind not having a physical deck.

The Ancient Egyptian Oracle (The Cards of Ra-Maat)

This deck also comes with a book, which is quite useful. It doesn’t have lots of reading patterns, but this is not the traditional Celtic Cross (which you can find anywhere), so it’ll still give you a little variety. This deck is primarily concerned with personality traits and people.

  • People: This deck is one of the best for creating NPCs with complex personalities and goals. Almost every card is interpreted and oriented with respect to what it says about people, and what’s going on in those people’s lives.
  • Plots: This deck isn’t particularly good for plots, except by implication (for example, if you know that an NPC has drive and ambition, then you know that he’s probably plotting to gain power).
  • Game-Play: This deck is very good for figuring out what an NPC might do in the middle of game-play, but it isn’t particularly good for determining random events.

Buy “The Cards of Ra-Maat.”

The Haindl Tarot

Where the Rider-Waite deck tends to concern the physical, the Haindl deck deals primarily with the emotional. From this tarot you may find the emotional makeup of a situation without the single-minded person-oriented focus of the Ra-Maat deck. It does not come with a book (other than the little booklet), however, so the interpretations are not particularly deep. (There are a couple of books available separately, but of the oneI’ve looked at, the material doesn’t seem as gorgeously evocative as that in the short booklet.)

This deck does have some interesting and unusual pictures on the cards; you will find descriptions of the symbols along with the interpretations. These descriptions are often enough to associate entire plots from. I don’t know about you, but I can immediately think of several very interesting plots from the following lines: “Stones push up from the surging sea. An ancient rock has a dark hole at its center, signifying mystery. The black dirt is fertile.”

This deck provides one new spread, the “Hagall Spread.” This is also the most beautiful deck, in my opinion, that I’ve ever seen.

  • People: The Haindl deck is somewhat good for NPC creation. The emotional cues are useful, but do not have enough depth.
  • Plots: I find the Haindl deck perfect for plot creation, thanks to the rich descriptions of the symbology.
  • Game-Play: This deck is good for use during game-play. During a game short descriptions with a brief hint of direction are often an asset.

Buy the “Haindl Tarot Deck” or the tarot and book set.

The Mage Tarot

The Mage Tarot was created by White Wolf Games Studio for use with its game, “Mage: the Ascension.” I thought it necessary to include it, as it was specifically designed for use with a roleplaying game. This is a marvelous accessory for those who play games set in White Wolf’s “World of Darkness,” whether they’re Mage games or not, although obviously Mage imagery and interpretation predominates. The cards have a very strong personality and reflect very clear archetypes and groups from the games, so they aren’t entirely useful for other games.

One real advantage of these cards is that they specifically interpret with a supernatural slant, and thus if you at least know your way around the WoD it might be worth doing translation into similar concepts in other games. The strong archetypes work both for and against you, however. They enable very powerful character creation, but they also tend to retain their associations very strongly in your memory; thus, you’ll want to rotate decks relatively often.

  • People: This deck is good for NPC creation, primarily in the World of Darkness–but only for supernatural critters, or mundane people completely caught up in the supernatural world. If you want to create mundane characters you’ll get distracted by all the references to Vampires, Mages, etc.
  • Plots: This deck is very good for plot creation within the WoD, but again it’s best to use it only for supernatural plots. Otherwise you’ll have to do an awful lot of creative interpretation.
  • Game-Play: This deck is particularly good for use during game-play, partially because of those very strong associations I mention above. If you’ve strongly associated a particular card with a particular NPC and you draw it during game-play, then you have a great suggestion for who should show up and get involved.

I would actually use this deck in conjunction with another. Use this one to come up with a lot of your supernaturally-oriented plots, and use the other to come up with more mundane material. Once in a while perform a reading using cards from both decks so as to mesh the two sets of material.

Buy the “Mage Tarot.”

The Way of Cartouche

Overall, I would call this the most versatile and useful of the decks I’ve surveyed here.

The book provided for “The Way of Cartouche” gives several new reading layouts, so it will certainly be helpful in that regard. The cards themselves are fairly stark and unadorned, so they’re unlikely to inspire you visually. There are only 25 cards in this deck.

These interpretations are some of the longest and most complex I’ve seen, even more so than those with the Native American Tarot. They include “the spiritual, transpersonal or superconscious level,” “the psychological, mental or subconscious level,” and “the material, mundane or conscious level,” as well as the associated hieroglyph, the symbol’s use as a talisman, and any symbology or legends behind the cards. This makes this one of the most flexible decks in this listing. Even more, there is a list of “key words” at the beginning of each interpretation, the standard short interpretation. So this may be used for quick readings as well as long ones.

  • People: As you can see by the above categories of interpretation, this deck is strongly associated with mental processes. Thus it will make a good source of emotional information (goals, motivations, etc) for NPC creation. The section on the material level makes this deck also useful for the mundane details of an NPC’s life.
  • Plots: The only lack here is in visual symbolism for free association purposes. There is much to suggest plots, particularly in the legendry, and it will likely be useful for more than just the mundane aspects of a game.
  • Game-Play: The key words make this deck useful for game-play decisions as well. As there is also a list of other quick associations above the key words (symbol, identity, and nature), it may provide some very useful quick suggestions.

Buy the “Way of Cartouche.”

The Crowley-Thoth Tarot

The Crowley-Thoth deck contains many visually rich cards, most of which are rather abstract. Thus, you may not find them as useful as some decks for visual interpretation. The booklet that comes with the deck provides several interpretations of the symbology and short interpretations of definition. There do exist several books to go with the cards, but I haven’t looked at any of them yet.

  • People: As in most decks the court cards are very good people-cards, describing full personalities. Other than that, however, this isn’t a very good NPC creation deck. Most definitions are simply lists of words.
  • Plots: The decent amount of symbology provided makes this a useful deck for plot creation. It deals quite a bit with spiritual and “heavenly” matters, so it may provide good supernatural plot matter.
  • Game-Play: This isn’t a particularly useful in-game deck for the same reason that it isn’t a very good NPC creation deck. It has the advantage that it provides a good selection of words to free associate from, but those words aren’t particularly connected to one another, so it gives little guidance or direction.

Buy the “Crowley-Thoth Tarot.”

Companion Books:

The Voyager Tarot

The Voyager Tarot sees itself as a more universal tarot set, inclusive of a much wider range of symbology and meaning than traditional tarot sets. It uses a very striking (sometimes absolutely beautiful, sometimes just okay) collage-art that makes heavy use of photography. It also draws heavily on “new-age” sensibilities. It robs all but the Major Arcana cards of the traditional reversed interpretations (almost halving the given set of inspirations), and draws heavily on what the book refers to as “practical optimism.” In other words, these cards won’t help you rain down destruction and doom on your party all that much. The interpretations are comparatively long, however, not the traditional one-sentence found with many decks. They lend themselves to highly supernatural interpretation, as they call upon a great deal of metaphysical imagery.

  • People: As this tarot set was designed as a sort of tool for “personal growth,” it deals heavily with issues of personality and personal direction. This makes it fairly useful for the creation of characters. I personally find that it tends to push me into the creation of some very odd, supernatural, weird characters.
  • Plots: I find this deck less useful for plot-creation. As most details concern personality, most plot inspiration is found second-hand, through heavy extrapolation and interpretation. Again, this deck lends itself to highly supernatural and mystical material.
  • Game-Play: This deck is less useful for the middle of game-play. The amount of interpretation and extrapolation necessary (as already mentioned) would probably slow down game play more than you’d like.

Buy the “Voyager Tarot Kit.”

The Celtic Dragon Tarot

The artwork of this deck is perfect for high-fantasy games. It’s quite beautiful, and the dragons on this deck don’t look silly, like those in many other decks. Also, thank goodness, not all of the dragons in this deck are of a uniform style. So you’ll find some of the fat European-style dragons, and some of the tiny Anne McCaffery-style dragons, but you’ll also find some of the gorgeous Eastern dragons as well.

The book that comes with this deck is fairly complete. Each card’s section starts out with a long passage about the symbology. This portion is more high-fantasy useful, but contains plenty of material that can be interpreted in other directions. It also contains a short divinatory intepretation which is more generically relevant. If you tend to riff off of artwork more than written material then you might want to avoid this for non-high-fantasy games. If going by the interpretations is good enough for you, then this deck would be useful for almost any game. Perhaps the only negative I found with this deck is that it provides no reversed meanings at all, thus halving the interpretations.

  • People: As there are people present on many of the cards and the symbology is described very well, this deck is useful for NPC-creation. Many of the characters on these cards could be taken almost wholesale and interpreted into your game.
  • Plots: There’s some fantastic plot material in here. Some of the quotes will even help you structure your plots, not just come up with the general concept: “Whatever plans are put into motion, whether magickal or mundane, require the four Elements… If one Element is missing in the equation, there will be no manifestation.” I could design an entire plot structure around that simple passage!
  • Game-Play: The short divinatory interpretations are absolutely perfect for game-play use. It’s very easy to quickly interpret such phrases as “Success may give you a reason to celebrate” into game-play.

Buy the “Celtic Dragon Tarot.”

The Book of Runes

This isn’t a tarot deck, but I wanted to give a brief overview of a related product. For those few people who don’t yet know what runes are, they’re the symbols of an old alphabet. Sometimes they get inscribed on stones and used as a divination device. (Okay, I know there’s a lot more detail to it than that. It isn’t relevant here.)

As with some of the decks described here, the book that comes with this pouch of runes describes both the abbreviated associations and the longer ones. The theme is one of self-transformation and the cycle of life. Thus it isn’t particularly useful for the mundane details of life, but is very useful for anything in your game that relates to a spiritual journey or a quest for wisdom or enlightenment (which would probably make this the most specialized item on this list). There do exist books that go into the legendry behind the runes, so you may be able to get more use out of them by acquiring a few extra books.

  • People: The runes are useful for figuring out what broad direction and stage of life people are in, but it won’t help you much with the details.
  • Plots: The runes are useful for archetypal plots and spiritual concepts, and would be fabulous for use in a game with such themes. Otherwise, they aren’t particularly useful here.
  • Game-Play: The runes are most useful during game-play. The brief associations at the beginning of each rune’s listing are quite handy, and may inspire some unusual directions.

Buy the “Book of Runes.”

Everway

The RPG “Everway” comes with cards to help you determine what happens during game and create characters, plots, etc. I decided to take the cards completely separately from the game to see whether they would work for any random RPG you might choose to use them with.

First, there is a tarot-like deck that has such traditional cards as “the Fool” and “the Priestess” along with less traditional cards — “Overlooking the Diamond,” “The Usurper,” and “Fearing Shadows,” to name a few. The cards have nice scenes on them, which may well inspire your plot creation or snap decision-making. They also have a quick one-word interpretation (for both upright and reversed positions!) printed on them to further inspire you.

The second and third sets of cards are “source cards” and “quest cards.” These are more strongly connected to the game than other cards and thus less portable, although they’d work for most fantasy games on one level or another, and some clever re-interpretation could make them work for other games. There aren’t many of these cards, so their reliance on the game system won’t get in your way.

The largest set of cards is the “vision card” set. These cards consist of a picture and a number of questions about the picture. I find that the questions tend to encourage speculation as to the exact disposition of everything in the picture, rather than encouraging interpretation outward, and of course the pictures are somewhat oriented toward a fantasy game. However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t get a heck of a lot of inspiration from these cards. Also, there are far more cards in this stack than in your average deck of tarot cards, so they’ll take you a long way.

  • People: These cards are reasonably good for creating NPCs from, although not in the traditional manner. I find I tend to flip through the vision cards until I find something that looks right, rather than simply drawing some at random and extrapolating outward.
  • Plots: All of the card types are useful for creation of plots. The pictures alone could give you quite a few ideas, and the questions and commentary will give you even more.
  • Game-Play: I would suggest using only the tarot-like cards during actual game-play. You don’t want to have to sit flipping through a stack of vision cards for just the right one in the middle of a game.

This set earns one of my highest recommendations. Its only drawback is that it costs $35, a hefty price (you are buying a game after all, not just a bunch of cards). So unless you plan to play the game or have some money to throw around, I’d suggest that you buy something less expensive instead, like “The Way of Cartouche” or the Haindl deck.

Buy “Everway.”

Web Site Tarot, I-Ching, and Rune Services

Facade offers free readings of almost any variety: I Ching, Runes, Tarot, Bibliomancy, Biorhythm, etc. If you have a laptop connected to the web or don’t mind doing all of your readings ahead of time, this is a much cheaper way to get varied and interesting material than buying a bunch of tarot decks!

  • People: This site offers something like 7 different tarot decks and 4 sets of runes (the last time I checked). So whether you want information about mundane matters or the spiritual, you can find what you’re looking for.
  • Plots: The readings include pictures as well as the interpretations, so you’ll find plenty of visual imagery to work with. The interpretations given are only the short ones, however, so don’t expect a lot of depth.
  • Game-Play: This is not useful during game-play unless you have a laptop connected to the web and a fast connection.

The Facts

To summarize some of my findings:

What kind of game do you play? How supernatural, spiritual, or just plain weird is it, and how mundane? The deck you choose should have a similar level of weirdness to it.

If you only want to buy one deck, it should be fairly all-purpose. “The Way of Cartouche,” “Rider-Waite,” the “Haindl” deck, or “Everway” might work well for you. If you have the money and desire to buy more than one deck, get at least one appropriate specialized deck, such as the “Silicon Valley Tarot,” the “Mage Tarot” or the “Native American Tarot.”

NPC Creation

This depends a bit on what sort of game you’re running. You’ll always need at least a few mundane details for your NPCs. Just what ratio of mundane to supernatural, mystical, spiritual or emotional depends on the genre and the way you play. Since spreads for NPC creation tend to use a greater number of cards, you’ll go through the cards faster. If you make a lot of NPCs this way you’ll probably want a larger number of unusual sets. Because most NPC creation is done in advance, web tools may serve you well here. If you really want great depth of plot to go with your NPCs, however, you’ll want a deck that comes with a book of some type. If all you care about is a few quick details, then you should be fine with the web site or a deck with a quick-interpretation booklet.

You’ll want a deck that deals with personal issues–one that has a strong sense of personality, character, and emotion. Luckily this is pretty simple to find. It’s just a matter of ratio: how much mundane detail to how much emotional detail to how much spiritual detail. It’s always a good idea to have a deck that deals with a few mundane issues; it can be particularly tough to come up with good mundane details over and over.

As NPC creation tends to use actual “spreads” more than other aspects of tarot use in RPGs, you’ll want a deck or book that comes with additional interesting card spreads. This is one way to make a deck go farther.

Plots

Visual imagery is particularly useful here, as well as descriptions and interpretations of symbology. So tarot cards are much more useful than runes. You’ll want some depth, so the web site might be less useful here. Again, which deck you choose depends on the flavor of your game, just as for NPC creation. The more random odd stuff your deck has, the longer the interpretations, the more cool quotes you can find, and the more complex the symbology and the descriptions of symbols, the better.

You’ll want to make sure that your deck discusses more than just people-oriented information, more than just emotion and character.

Game-Play

You want almost the opposite for game-play than for plot and person creation: you want quick-reference, a brief riff on the world. Short, intense material. You don’t want a complex, three-page-long interpretation of your card or rune; you want something you can pick up and deal with in sixty seconds or less. Some tarot books with long descriptions also have quick-reference bits. Runes are useful here. The web site is useful, but only if you have a laptop at the table.

I hope this gives you some idea of what to look for in an RPG-aid. If you’re interested in a flexible, home-made alternative to tarot cards that serves some of these purposes, check out our inspiration cards article.

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