Sunday, July 11, 2021

The Magic Pyramid: A Tarot Card Generator for Creating Monsters


If an adventure is a wheel, the monster is the hub (whose actions and motives form the core of the adventure), the encounters are the spokes (the interactive elements that put the party in danger), and the map is the rim (the space through which the party moves). It’s essential, then, to have a good monster at the core of your adventure to set off the action and get your sessions rolling. While there are a number of monster generators out there that I love dearly (especially the Random Esoteric Creature Generator by James Raggi IV), my goal with this tarot card generator was a structure that leant itself to monsters less chimeric and more cohesive. The tarot card generator I will be describing is designed to create complex monsters around which you can create an adventure.

Using The Magic Generator

Deal ten cards in a pyramid shape as shown in this illustration:

  1. The Form

The card at the top of the pyramid dictates your monster’s physical form. In general, the court cards (i.e. pages/princesses, knights, queens, and kings) are monsters which take on a more or less human form such as vampires or zombies, minor arcana (the cards with numbers on them such as “ten of coins”) tend to be monsters that swarm in large numbers such as orcs or goblins, and the major arcana tend to be more exotic. Of course, this will all vary based on your mood and your deck.

  1. The Human

The left card on the second row of the pyramid is called “The Human.” I would argue that the appeal of creating a paper avatar to fight horrible monsters is not to fight the evil without, but to confront the monster within. I’m not sure I can think of a good monster design that does not have some element of humanity, whether that is in its behavior, the personification of an abstract human trait, or even just its form. The card in this position contributes the human element to your monster. In general, court cards tend to signify an element of the monster’s form, minor arcana some aspect of human behavior, and major arcana a bit of both...but of course this will again vary.

  1. The Inhuman

The right card in the second row of the pyramid is called “The Inhuman.” In order for the monster to evoke feelings of the weird, it must be at the very least supernatural—meaning a transgression of the natural order. The story goes that each morning a farmer comes and gives a group of chickens their feed for the day. The chickens all decide that the farmer is a benevolent deity and that this morning feeding ritual is simply part of the natural cycle of life that will never change... until the day comes when the farmer does not bring feed, but an ax. The monster is the ax in this scenario. The card in this position signifies the aspect of the monster that is utterly inhuman.

  1. The Cycle 

The three cards in the third row are called “The Cycle.” The idea for this generator came to me while reading Junji Ito’s Tomie. I was struck by the manga’s interesting structure—the work is composed of a number of discrete stories which are stitched together by the common thread of the book’s titular monster, Tomie herself. I wouldn’t dare spoil the manga, but each of the stories contained within Tomie follow a similar pattern, with much of the interest in the book coming from the variations on this central theme. Monster stories are frequently built this way— stories containing vampires, for example, have many of the same broad plot points, but are still interesting because of the infinite possible variations within that theme. The three central cards of the layout are meant to generate this central theme around which the players can create their variation during play. 

The three cards are read left to right individually, each forming a sequential part of the monster’s story. Again, this is meant to be a broad and loose scenario, not a series of sharply defined plot points lest the referee inadvertently commit the cardinal sin of railroading. Each of the cards are individually named after the stages of an insect’s life cycle like so:

  1. The Larva 

The leftmost card of the third row is called “The Larva” and represents how the monster first presents itself to the party. While this can be dramatic, it is more often subtle, with the party initially only encountering the secondary effects of the monster’s presence. The card usually designates a sign of the monster’s presence, an adventure hook, or a mystery.

  1. The Pupa

The middle card of the third row is called “The Pupa.” This is when the monster first starts to exercise its power over the party. This phase of the adventure tends to be more investigative as the party pieces together the whys and wherefores of the situation caused by the monster. The card tends to designate a special ability by the monster, some kind of complication it causes, or an event that deepens the party’s involvement in the scenario.

  1. The Imago

The rightmost card of the third row is called “The Imago.” This card represents the monster at its full, climactic power. Since this card tends to designate the monster’s ultimate goal, it is sometimes best to read this card first and work backwards towards The Larva.

  1. The Encounters

Thinking about some encounters at this stage will usher you into the next stage of the adventure writing process—the drawing and keying in of maps. After all, it's difficult to create a realistic place without knowing the kinds of things that can happen within it. When using tarot cards to create encounters, I like to read them in “clumps” or groups of three cards, taking an element from each card to create a single encounter. The top three cards can be read as one encounter, the three cards on the bottom right as another encounter, and the cards on the bottom left as a third encounter. 

Creating a sample monster

This generator probably requires more of an explanation than the other generators I’ve posted, so I wanted to create a sample monster as a demonstration of this method. I am creating this monster as I write this post, so I have no clue how well this monster will turn out. I will try my best to describe my thought process with each card, but chances are good that if you were looking at the same combination of cards, you would devise a monster completely different than what I created. I know very little about reading Tarot to be honest—most of what I learned I got from Italo Calvino’s novel Castle of Crossed Destinies, but it’s enough for me to get by. I am playing a second edition game with a party who are currently adventuring in Quercu Silvam, a forest filled with crumbling Roman-inspired ruins, abandoned statuary, and trees that are perfectly evenly spaced apart. I know that I want to create a monster involving an abandoned fountain of some sort, but beyond that, I don’t have any ideas for what kind of monster inhabits this fountain or what its deal is. I shuffle up my deck and deal out ten cards like so:

[insert image here]

  • The form: The card I have drawn to devise a form for my monster from is “The World.” My eyes are immediately drawn to the animals in the four corners (which my religious upbringing tells me probably represent the four gospels). I like the religious imagery of the card, so I decide to make a monster with the body of a woman dressed in a flowing white robe with four faces, the face of a woman in the front, eagle on the left, cow in the back, and lioness on the right.

  • The human: The card I drew for the human element is “The Emperor.” When I look at the card with its regal bearing, I feel that our multi-faced monster fancies herself a ruler of some sort. The rams on the card indicate that our monster is hard hearded--she has a goal of some kind, and will not be deterred, no matter the cost. The image I have in my head is our monster seated on a throne in the fountain, jets of water and mist obscuring sight of her.

  • The inhuman: The card I drew for the inhuman element is “Page of Wands.” The page on the guard regards the top of his staff with a curious wonder, something I’d like to somehow incorporate in our monster design—a gaze attack. Since our monster has four faces, it might be interesting if she could rotate her head on her neck as needed to deliver different gaze attacks:

    • The human face: All agreements made within her gaze must be kept to their fullest extent.

    • The Eagle Face: Target must make save or turn into a mouse

    • The Cow Face: Permanently lose -1 strength every round the monster holds her gaze on the target.

    • Lioness Face: Rooted in place as long as the monster holds her gaze on the target.

  • The Cycle: The three cards I drew for the cycle are “Justice,” “9 of Pentacles,” and “The Magician.” Since we know the monster thinks of herself as a ruler, “Justice” indicates that she holds court from her fountain, passing unfair judgement on her victims.

The power the figure in “9 of pentacles” holds over the hooded falcon is similar to the dynamic the monster holds over those whom she holds her judgement. I like the vineyard depicted on the card and decide that her kingdom is an overgrown garden with her fountain in the middle. She uses her quest spell to force her victims to work in her garden if they do not pass her judgement. 

Finally, the table on “The Magician” card feels like a sacrificial altar. Additionally, the magician’s pose on the card indicates a spiritual transcendence. The rose depicted on the card also stands out as a detail I want to incorporate. Building on this, our monster’s final goal is to become a goddess by growing a magnificent jeweled rose--a rose requiring the blood of numerous living beings to cultivate, but whose hips are said to grant immortality if consumed.

  • The Encounters: Now we have our monster: a woman with four faces and a head that she can rotate to deliver different gaze attacks. She lives in a fountain, and uses her gaze attack to force victims to work in her garden or sacrifice themselves to her rose bush under the guise of justice. I like her; let’s call her Sabine. The last step is to create three encounters using Sabine.

    • Encounter 1 [The World, The Emperor, Page of Wands]: A band of merchants headed by Julius, a young brash entrepreneur with a personality similar to the figure depicted on the Page of Wands, is travelling to Sabine’s fountain with a sack of gold with the aim of procuring cuttings and seeds from her much famed garden to create his own plants. He is accompanied by a gruff, bearded fighter (as The Emperor card), and a young illusionist (as The World card).

    • Encounter 2 [Justice, The Star, Eight of Cups]: Sabine’s sister, named Octavia, is sneaking into the Sabine’s fountain to steal the rose bush (like the sneaky figure on the 8 of cups card). Octavia discovered the rose’s seeds in an antediluvian pool (a different part of my campaign—it’s a long story, but it fits with The Star card), and was keeping them safe until they were stolen by Sabine. Octavia wants to steal the plant back as revenge (as per the Justice card).

    • Encounter 3 [The Magician, Five of Cups, 6 of pentacles]: The garden is home to many strange plants, one of which is the dream lilly (using the illustration of the lilly from The Magician card) which has the ability to induce a trance in which you can see one of you most likely causes of death. Unfortunately, use of the lilly is quite addictive (five of cups is giving me the vibe of “too much of a good thing” here). Two addicted thieves (much like the two figures depicted on the 6 of pentacles) have entered the garden and are trying to steal the Lilly, but their bumbling ineptitude is likely to get themselves (and the party) caught.

Some Concluding Remarks:

I have to admit that a weakness to using Tarot cards as generators is that they require so much creativity to read that it can feel like you may as well not even bother. In my adventure writing, I have tried both with and without tarot, and I prefer to use tarot simply because the cards constrain and focus your creative energy. I have used this method several times for creating monsters and each time I feel like the monster I create is more vivid than one I would have made just on my own.

But the monster is just one aspect of the overall adventure. Once your monster is made you can use this method to create the rest of the adventure… or whatever other method you fancy. Please feel free to drop me a line if you use this method to create your own monsters! I would love to hear about your results.

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