Let’s twist this around a bit…
I know that Tarot cards are linked to very specific mystical traditions, and Mage is a game about wider beliefs and the clash of paradigms rather than the specific rules of hermetic mysticism in the modern age, but cards can be instantly read in a few different ways. Tarot cards have the bonus of “feeling” mystical, their marked faces indicate ranks from 1 to 10 before heading into the faced cards, then you’ve got all the potential embedded within the major arcana. Tarot cards even feature prominently in the game text, chapter titles, and front pages of most books from the classic series.
It seems like a fit too good to pass up, something I should have thought of earlier; and with Tarot Cards in mind, a new core mechanisms comes into effect.
You want to do something, you draw a card. If it’s a major arcana, it counts as an “and (upright meaning)” or “but (reversed)”. If it’s a face card minor arcana (Page, Knight, Queen, King), it counts as a potential extra success (as long as there is at least one success) or an extra failure (if none of the other cards explicitly succeed). If it’s a numbered minor arcana (Ace,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10), compare the rank to the difficulty.
If we draw a hand of cards to resolve tasks, does the hand size equal the total of the attribute and ability used in the task? Does the total hand size depend on the attribute, while the skill determines which of these cards count as successes? Maybe an equivalent to the roll and keep system, draw a number of cards equal to attribute + ability, then keep only a number of cards equal to the attribute.
Or we could go an even more unconventional route using a 3-card spread…Past-Present-Future…where the future and present cards start each action face down. As the action is resolved, the present card is turned face up. The past card is then discarded, the present card shifts back to the past, the face down future card shifts to the present, and a new future card is added to the spread. It’s a cute idea I’ve wanted to play with for a while, but I don’t really know if it works for this particular project.
Given I really want to keep the magic system basically intact (because that’s what I love about the game), I can’t deviate too far from the system of Dice Pool vs Difficulty. I think I’ll go with the draw (attribute+ability) and keep (attribute) option for attempting mundane tasks, while for mystical tasks this will translate across to a hand of cards equal in size to the character’s Arete score. Cards in the hand equal to, or greater than, the difficulty become successes. Face cards count as extra successes as long as there is one general success. Major arcana count as “and” or “but” effects; if they count as an “and” effect, they add something positive but increase the difficulty by one immediately before resolution. If they count as “but” effects they add something negative to the result but reduce the difficulty by one immediately before resolution. If any Major Arcana are drawn, they modify the outcome, but do not count toward the final hand size.
Veronica is playing a mage named Zoe. When Zoe needs to quietly slip past some guards, Veronica looks at the character’s Dexterity (3) and Stealth (2), and considers if it’s still worth pursuing. The Storyteller/GM says that the difficulty is a standard 6, but that the guard will make a counter challenge to accumulate successes of their own to spot her. Veronica will draw five cards, then choose any three of them to make her hand. The Storyteller/GM draws four cards and keeps two.
Veronica: [4 of Cups], [5 of Pentacles], [7 of Staves], [Queen of Swords], [Temperance].
She has to keep the [Temperance], if she plays it as an “and” she’ll increase the difficulty from 6 to 7, if she play’s it as a “but” the difficulty will reduce from 6 to 5.
Choice 1: Veronica chooses the [Temperance] card as an “and” option. The difficulty increases to 7, meaning that the [4 of Cups] and [5 of Pentacles] are failures. The [7 of Staves] counts as a success, and because there is at least one success, the [Queen of Swords] counts as one too. The final hand [5 of Pentacles]/[7 of Staves]/[Queen of Swords] gives a result is 2 successes and some kind of unexpected positive side effect due to the “and” effect.
Choice 2: Veronica chooses the [Temperance] card as a “but” option. The difficulty decreases to 5, meaning that only the [4 of Cups] is a failure. The [5 of Pentacles] and [7 of Staves] count as successes, and since there is at least one success, the [Queen of Swords] also counts as one. The final hand [5 of Pentacles]/[7 of Staves]/[Queen of Swords] gives a result is 3 successes and some kind of unexpected negative side effect due to the “but” effect.
The Storyteller/GM plays out his cards and gains two successes. That means Veronica will end up with either no successes but a positive side effect, or a single success with a negative side effect.
Such choices are in the hands of the player. The tricky bit will be making a few general side effects both positive and negative for each of the major arcana so that they can manipulate the narrative in ways that make sense. If we’re typically drawing four cards (a better attribute level of 3 with a single ability point, or an average attribute of 2 with a pair of ability points), we’ve got a 70% chance of scoring at least one success (at difficulty 6), and an 81% chance of earning at least one major arcana. It fits our general goal zone of 75% success rate on typical tasks, and fairly common appearance of “ands”, “buts” and player choices.
Theoretically, everything else could be left intact and the game is already pulled toward a more modern narrative approach. But I’m not done yet.