Tarot cards are one of those tools that have a history stretching back into the depths of forgotten lore. They have been shunned by the mainstream as a form of "devil magic" or a simple folk-tool for focusing guesswork.
In general, they've copped a bad rap.
In roleplaying circles there are probably a few reasons for this. One of the biggest being the Judaeo-Christian "moral majority".
I've already posted about my upbringing in a Christian household and how a good friend of mine had his roleplaying library burnt because his parents believed that they were the first steps on a path to Satan. (You can find the post here.)
So I might partially be transferring my experiences onto other game designers, but not entirely. I remember designing a few game in the mid to late 1990s, thinking about Tarot Cards and bringing the idea up with friends from a few different circles (old roleplaying buddies from high school, GMs from the local convention circuit, workmates who were interested in gaming). In general, these different groups had the same response to Tarot Cards...
"Roleplaying has a bad enough stigma in the eyes of the media and the moral majority. Why make things worse by linking a game to a blatant symbol of the occult?"
Roleplaying was a low profile activity. Something that kids did in basements, in their back sheds or in the privacy of their bedrooms...parents didn't understand it, and they jumped to conclusions based on what they might see when a door was casually opened.
A board looks OK....some figures moving across it are fine as well...dice are alright because it's a game...right?
"Hey that' board's got a pentagram on it!!"
"Don't worry Dad, we're fighting against an evil monster. We're not being evil ourselves."
"But who let that monster into our house..."
And thus the confusion spreads, especially when some people take things literally, and other people believe in the spiritual significance of words. Once you bring Tarot Cards into the picture, certain religious fanatics will start to use this as "Proof" that roleplaying games were subversive forms of occultism from the start...then you can only imagine the problems.
And that's truly a shame, because the inherent symbolism on Tarot cards makes them a great resource for gaming.
Here's another 10 reasons why this resource might make a great basis for some gaming mechanisms:
- The Minor Arcana have suits and ranks like a regular deck of cards. Suits are great for linking type of actions into the narrative, each of the Tarot suits is linked to a specific concept so actions of that type could be easier with the draw of a suit matching the action's agenda. (I played with this a bit in my game "The Eighth Sea", linking suits to action types.)
- Tarot cards have distinct meanings, with threads of theme running through them. This is great in itself because a player can look up a listing of tarot cards on the internet to get the big interpretation, but a lot of cards have secondary meanings. When two or more cards are combined, then some of those lesser nuances come to the fore.
- Tarot Cards can be looked at in upright or reversed configurations to give two different perspectives of their meaning.
- Tarot Cards evoke an instant atmosphere of mystery. I know that this seems to go against everything I wrote in the introduction, but I've written both just to make you aware of the ramifications. If a game is deliberately being written about the occult world, sometimes it makes sense to use a game mechanism that links into that atmosphere, it's creates less of a disconnect between the fictional world and the players. Daniel Solis has coined the phrase "Mechaphor" to cover this sort of effect (a "Mechanical Metaphor").
- Tarot Cards can still be played using the mechanisms of regular cards, developing effects for pairs, triples, straights, flushes, etc.
- Tarot cards can be laid out in spreads; with the placement of a card impacting on its meaning. Simple spreads include three cards designated "Past, Present and Future", or "Health, Wealth and Wisdom", five card spreads might followed traditional elemental correspondences, more complicated spreads can really delve into the heart of a situation or person. Take a look at Perilous Realm for an example of this.
- A deck can be specifically divided into major and minor arcana. With one side handling the physical activities of the world, while the other handles the ephemeral/spiritual/conceptual aspects of the setting.
- There are many types of Tarot Deck, from the traditional forms to newer decks of oracle cards. If you choose to incorporate a Tarot mechanism into a game, you can recommend specific deck with symbolism to reflect the concepts within the game.
- If you really want to get esoteric, there are plenty of methods for linking Tarot Cards into other forms of mysticism (such as Kaballah).
- Since they are cards, they can be manipulated in these ways as well (see also this storygames thread).