Monday 23 March 2015

Tarot as an esoteric artefact, Tarot as a game mechanic

When you've spent maybe 25 years (and holy crap it really has been that long) mucking about with dice, dice become familiar to you, you start to understand their little quirks and things. You expect things of them.

And here is a thing: using an alternative means of generating numbers can be an unknown quantity. Which is by way of saying, Tarot cards, eh?

There have been, over the years, a fair few games that have used regular playing cards as their main mechanical vehicle, with varying degrees of success. Deliria, for instance, had a system where black cards subtracted from your stat and red cards added to it. Savage Worlds uses dice for everything except initiative, which is what the cards are for. 

Tarot cards don't get used so much. Partly, I think, this is because in English speaking countries they are tied very strongly to the occult. Not in France though - it's a legit card game there, so much so that there are packs themed for kids. Which is instructive because it's a reminder of how normative Anglophone ideas aren't.

But, let's face it, since the 1980s fantasy games have had a bad rap with the occult. Americans who are old enough will no doubt remember Patricia Pulling. I clearly remember one summer evening when I was maybe 9 looking up from my copy of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain to see a news report about how Fighting Fantasy books had been labelled Satanic by the Evangelical Alliance.

My parents ignored it, I mean, my mum spent her entire life being called a satanist by people, and some silly games that she viewed with an undisguised contempt weren't going to bother her. I got labelled a satanist in school myself (seriously, they called me the Devil Worshipper, and if those privileged assholes actually ever paid attention to anything other than screwing underage cousins and spending daddy's inheritance on smack, they'd have gone mental).

I mean, I grew up in an odd demographic, that old school working class occultism that was offbeat back then and is pretty much gone altogether now. I'm talking tea leaves and Doris Stokes, mediums and chintz. My mum used to tell fortunes with playing cards but thought Tarot cards were evil (they were "occult" -- in her book, doing the same with regular playing cards and tea leaves, drawing horoscopes and, oh, channelling spirits wasn't. No, I still can't get my head around that). However, my dad's Prediction magazines, which I used to sneak looks at for the awesome terrifying it-happened-to-ME supernatural stories and urban legends told as if they were actually true ("Necronomicon: THE ULTIMATE GRIMOIRE?" is an honest to god article in an issue I still have), had this regular Tarot column, and I suppose I soaked it up.

Yes, I am the only real kid who both dabbled in the occult and played Dungeons and Dragons. In my defence, though, it was actually that I dabbled in D&D because I was into the occult first, so the cause and effect still isn't there. As an adult, I am not a dabbler; while I believe strongly in the divine, I don't believe in magic like this as a real thing, and I see the Tarot as an interesting way to explore one's own psyche and desires. But man, nothing interests me like esoterica. Nothing. 
I digress.

No actually, I don't. All this is actually relevant.

The point is that about half of the whole central theme of this game is that it's my game, and in some ways writing this is therapeutic, because it's about my history in a lot of ways. I mean, I hope the background appeals to you, the reader, but if there's a lot in my developed childhood world that speaks about the struggles of class and privilege, well. All role-playing games in some way reflect the biographies of their writers. We're kidding ourselves if they don't.

The Tarot theme is encoded in the name of the game. Chariot is the seventh card in the Major Arcana. It's arguably the single most auspicious card in the pack. It's the card of victory. The card of success. Also, chariots as a thing are pretty brilliant. They speak of speed, and charging around, and racing, and the wind rushing in your hair. The chariot is a picture of exhilaration.

(There will be a lot of chariots in this game. Do not be mistaken.)

OK, anyway, what that means for the nuts and bolts of this game, right is that having Tarot cards rather than dice carries with it brilliant opportunities, but also challenges.

Imagery! Every single card in a half-decent Tarot pack looks amazing. Off kilter and unsettling, and with its own narrative. Someone sits up in bed, hands over their face, with a row of swords beside them on the wall. A man strains to carry a bunch of staves across a lonely plain. A happy man with a bundle steps over the edge of a precipice, a dog snapping at his heels.

They speak. They're exciting.

Variety of Result! So you can have 1-10, each graded four ways, meaning that you can have fun things like bonuses if a suit comes up. You can include special modifiers or events, too; both the court cards and the trumps of the Major Arcana can be used to create special events, and I don't need to think of the details for these all that hard, because the divinatory meanings of these cards are encoded in long traditions. You can't really do this with dice, at leat not without extra steps in the process.

You draw a card, and your result is there. Number, Court or Trump.

In my first go at the game rules, I decided that a Trump won the conflict. End of contest. But there are 22 Major Arcana in a 78 card pack, and that's more than a quarter, meaning that contests kept ending abruptly, because there is quite a good chance in a decently shuffled six-card hand you'll get one. It was a terrible idea. Terrible. Schoolboy error, frankly. In my current iteration, I've got three, and only three conflict-ending Trumps: The Chariot (you win), The Tower Struck By Lightning (you lose, and yes, you lose when you play it, which makes for interesting times, because it's a card you don't want to play, and you may have to), and Death (it's a draw).

Hands! You can have a hand of cards. Now while Dogs in the Vineyard, which is a game I like a lot, does this with dice (as in, you roll your dice all at once, have them in front of you, and use them up piecemeal as you go), a hand of cards is an exciting thing, and brings with it a strategic element, an element of skill. Can you win with a bad hand? Can you change the game? Quite possibly.

Modularity! So among the decks I have (four, since you asked) is this lovely set called Tarot of the Silicon Dawn with great comic-booky illustrations and nineteen extra cards, including some extra Major Arcana cards (including 4 different Fools, a transgendered divinity numbered 13 and a half, History, the Vulture, some others), a card for each suit that's numbered 99, and a suit of Void with a 0 and four courts. And I could use this deck if I wanted in my game. The new Trumps are still Trumps with great imagery, I can't think of anything cooler than playing a 99 (and still having it beaten) and a suit that doesn't benefit anyone doesn't really change the game that much, aside from a slight adjustment of probabilities. There are non-standard Tarot decks out there, and it's simple enough to use them.

On the other hand...

Unfamiliarity! My first playtest, a good two years ago now, collapsed after two sessions for "back to the drawing board" reasons. Part of that was that my players simply had no idea what they were looking at. You can't assume that people are going to understand why a card that's as ornate as the Ten of Swords is different to the Hermit, for example. One of my players couldn't get their head round there being what amounted to two Jacks, and didn't even know what I meant by "a Court card," let alone what the Major Arcana meant. The other didn't like the idea of playing with Tarot cards, period, because they'd been brought up to think they were a Bad Thing. 

My error was that, being steeped in this stuff since I was a kid, I forget that there are a lot of people, particularly gamers, who, because they paradoxically often have narrower cultural horizons than many people, often have simply never seen a pack of real Tarot cards or could name any beyond Death and the Lovers because they were in Live and Let Die. I appreciate that some hand holding is going to have to be done, because just chucking your players into it without spending some time explaining these weird-ass cards... is a recipe for disaster.

Fiddliness! On the one hand, each card does a thing, and boom, there it is, on the card. On the other, that's 78 cards, including 22 Trumps and 16 Courts. Each Court Card refers to a person, each Trump to an event. While Tarot experts and habitual users of the cards might be comfortable, I'm anticipating that most people will find it a bit tough. To be honest, this is part of the reason why the character stats and the generation thereof (and yes, yes, I'll get to that) are so light: because the learning curve is elsewhere.