"The Silicon Valley Tarot," Scoville and Ross

Pros: Fun pictures; enjoyable and amusing perspective
Cons: Seems a little low-budget for its retail price
Rating: 4 out of 5

First published 6/26/2000

The Silicon Valley Tarot started out as an over-the-internet thing, but everyone wanted real cards. So Steve Jackson Games produced a real deck. It contains 70 cards, instructions for playing a game called “RAM,” and a 44-page booklet with oracular interpretations for the cards. The Silicon Valley Tarot started out as a joke – Mr. Scoville drew the first card, “The Hacker,” as a prod at Silicon Valley culture. Somehow the project took on a life of its own, and now there are little decks running around with suits of Cubicles, Hosts, Disks, and Networks.

The Tarot

S. John Ross draws an amusing metaphor between computers and tarot: neither can do anything without a person to instruct it, and both need a human to interpret the results and act on them. He offers the Silicon Valley Tarot not so much as a means of divining the future, but rather as a way to look at situations from a fresh perspective. It is a means of prodding yourself to think of things you might not have thought of otherwise.

In this it succeeds as well as any other deck of tarot cards. Scoville obviously put a lot of thought into the marvelous interpretations of the situations depicted on each card. The pictures seem a little low-budget for a $20 deck of cards, but they’re fun, and in this case that counts for more. More importantly, the content of the cards is hysterical. “Double Latte” is my favorite, with “Flame War,” “Bugs,” and “Spam” coming close behind.

The Game

RAM is fun. It’s a demented hybrid of Concentration and Black Jack, meant for two to six players. It’s one of those games that feels complicated until you actually play, and then it’s marvelously simple. It won’t carry you through long summers of boredom, but it’ll amuse you now and then.

The Roleplaying Angle

I think there are two particularly good uses for fun tarot decks like this in relation to roleplaying games. First, they’re a great prod for GMs. When you can’t figure out what to do for a plot, or you need a new character, you can shuffle, draw a few cards, and see what new perspective they give you. Second, when a character does something in your game and you aren’t sure what should happen as a result, make the player shuffle and draw a card – use the description on the card or the “interpretation” to give you a hint as to where to go next.

Obviously the Silicon Valley Tarot is oriented toward technological subject-matter. This shouldn’t stop you from using it for other games, however. Some true, chilling gems of inspiration can be found within the booklet. For example, “Intelligence from an unlikely source.” In the context of a roleplaying game this conjures up all sorts of plot twists. Such random bits of wisdom can breathe true life into a campaign by pushing you to come up with plots and people you wouldn’t have thought of on your own.

Two types of spreads are detailed. A simple five-card line spread, and the traditional 10-card Celtic Cross spread. I find that five-card spreads work better for simple plot questions. When you need to create a character, simply lay out a 10-card spread as though you were a fortune-teller doing a reading for the character in question. There are few better ways to come up with truly original characters.

Ultimately, the Silicon Valley Tarot can be a lot of fun; if nothing else it makes a fantastic conversation piece. $20 seems slightly on the high side; I would have preferred $15. But $20 isn’t outrageous for an amusing coffee-table piece that can double as a wellspring of inspiration – and even an RPG mechanic.

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