Thursday, August 18, 2022

The 72 cards and their uses

How can I tell about it now that I have lost my power of speech, words, perhaps also memory? How can I tell what was there outside, and, once I have remembered, how can I find the words to say it? How can I utter those words? We are all trying to explain something to the others with gestures, grimaces, all of us like monkeys. Thank God there are these cards here on the table, a deck of tarots. --Italo Calvino

Why Use Tarot?

My blog has featured a number of posts on using Tarot cards including the Magic Tree (the method I personally use most often these days), the Magic Wheel, and the Magic Square. Although these are some of my most popular posts, I have received a number of comments from people asking exactly how to “read” tarot cards. It’s a difficult question because the process is intuitive and individual—if you gave two readers the same spread of cards, they would come up with two very different responses. There’s also the question of why a person would even bother with tarot cards at all when other writing aids exist. While I would never say that every GM should be using tarot cards, I can say that tarot cards have worked well for me and share some tips on using them effectively for designing adventures. In this post, I’ll be explaining why you might choose to use tarot cards in your adventure writing and give a “beginner’s overview” on how I personally read the cards.

If you’ve never used a writing tool or prompt generator, it probably seems like an unnecessary step. When you’re running a game a sentence or two (and possibly a block of stats) for each room is all that is needed; it is quite possible to riff and improvise given a good starting point. Being a GM is a lot like being a jazz musician—once the musician understands the melody and the structure of the song, they can build impossibly complex structures from this foundation. That is where GM prep comes in, building a strong structure to riff out of during play. The tricky part about GM prep is not how much I need to write beforehand (since the “details” are easily improvised during play), but it’s coming up with a large number of quality ideas that all fit together–a dungeon adventure, for example, needs anywhere from 5-30 rooms plus a satisfying wandering encounter table. Racking your brain for such a volume of ideas or trying to improvise ideas mid session results in skimming only the “surface” of your mind. 

Getting into my personal beliefs for a moment, I believe that our day-to-day thoughts are only barely our own—consisting mostly of outside influences, the chemicals your body produces, advertisements, news stories, the TV show you watched last night, your upbringing, the worldview informed by your personal belief structure, etc. Like a film of oil on the surface of the water, it’s colorful, but thin and shallow. The base structure for an adventure has to come from a deeper place, and the use of tarot cards and meditation is (I’ve found) the single most effective way to break through the “film” of day-to-day thought and get to a place of deeper intuition.

Methods for generating writing prompts are not exactly in short order, so why bother with tarot in particular? The first advantage to Tarot is their flexibility. I love There’s a ton of great tables that can be found online tailor-made for various RPG situations, “oracles” designed for solo RPGs, or other writing tools such as Rory’s story cubes. However, compared to these other methods, tarot cards offer increased flexibility in the ways that they can be used and depth in the variety of interpretations they can generate. When you might need separate tables for spells, magic items, adventure hooks, NPCs, etc., a single tarot deck can be used for all of these. While the usefulness of a table decreases over time as you use up more and more of the entries, the symbols of a tarot deck take on an increased depth over repeated use that make the deck easier and more satisfying. It’s true that a random table is more useful during actual play when you don’t have time to sit and interpret esoteric artwork, but tarot decks can also help generate ideas during your prep time to populate the tables that you use during play. Another advantage tarot cards have over other writing tools is simply that tarot cards are just fun physical items to collect. If you’re at all like me, collecting cards and finding unique decks can be very satisfying and a good way to support artists. In my experience, D&D fans tend to be fantasy fans, and fantasy fans tend to own at least one deck of tarot cards tucked away in a game shelf somewhere. If you have a deck laying around, why not use it?

Reading the Tarot 

Most tarot decks come with a small pamphlet that informs a reader what each card means, a “little white book.” The first and most important thing you can do when you buy a deck of tarot cards is to throw this book away. There is a common misconception that reading tarot cards requires knowledge of what the cards mean. This is not true. The card doesn’t dictate a single meaning, rather it is a filter that allows the reader to focus more clearly on a specific aspect of a situation. White light contains all colors within it until a prism allows the viewer to see light of a specific wavelength—a tarot card is like a prism and you are the light.

There’s an old story about how when dreams escape the grasp of Morpheus, the false dreams pass through the gate of ivory and the true dreams pass through the gate of horn. When trying to read a tarot card, the analytical brain, the gate of ivory if you will, wants to make sense of all the symbols on the card. It wants to force the situation to match the card in a way that is logical and right. If you rely on the analytical brain, reading Tarot becomes frustrating. Your analytical brain will try to force the card to mean a certain way, even if the “correct” meaning of the card doesn’t match the situation you’re writing about or doesn’t feel natural. The intuitive brain (our gate of horn) will only speak up when the analytical brain has had a chance to quiet down. Ironically enough, the first step to reading a Tarot card is to look at the card without trying to read it. Don’t try to figure out how it applies to the situation you’re writing about. Don’t try to understand it. Just look at it. 

Quieting down this analytical brain is easier said than done. More or less what I’m talking about here is meditation. Meditation is a huge, huge topic, there are a dizzying number of methods people use, and I’m not really going to go into it. When you are reading tarot cards, it doesn’t have to be a lengthy ordeal, just a couple of quick breaths to put your mind in the right space. My most reliable method for getting into this headspace is a technique called “four fold breathing” or “box breathing.” Breath in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, breath out for four seconds, hold for four seconds. If you’re a musician, you’ve probably already had a lot of practice counting to four, so this method should feel quite familiar.

Once you feel confident that your analytical brain has quieted down to a dull simmer, you can allow yourself to visualize the situation. Visualization doesn’t necessarily mean trying to picture the situation in your head. Like a pointalist painting, you’re not trying to see every individual dot, you are trying to look at the painting as a whole. Maybe it’s different for you, but in my head, if I try to picture a whole image I can only “reconstruct” a bit at a time. Trying to hold a whole image in your mind is like trying to hold water in your hand—as soon as you’ve visualized one piece, you lose it as soon as you try to picture the next section of the image. Instead, when you visualize, don’t try to force yourself to see an image in exacting detail; rather you are trying to hold in your mind the overall mood of the situation you’re writing about. Sometimes a character will seem rather “blobby.” Sometimes multiple locations will overlap each other. Sometimes your visualization will feel quite vague and sketchy. All this is completely normal—desirable, even.

So your mind is in the right place, you're looking at the card, and you're visualizing the thing you want to write about in your mind. The last step is maybe the most important, but it’s the hardest to describe. I guess you could call it “interpreting” or “reading” but these words are a bit strong—they imply that you are going to be “doing” something, but that’s not quite the process. It’s more like filtering your visualization through the card. Overlaying the card onto your visualization to uncover something new.   As you are looking at the card and practicing this visualization, certain images on the card will gain more prominence and it changes how you perceive things in your mind until the meaning of the card reveals itself to you, often quite suddenly. Often there is a dream-logic to how I interpret the card. If someone asked me to describe how I arrived at the interpretation I did, I’m sometimes at a loss to explain exactly why the card means the thing it means. Sometimes this process takes a long time. Most of the time it only takes a few breaths.

Understanding the Tarot

Nothing about this process involves consulting little white books, initiating yourself in the Order of the Golden Dawn, or becoming a master of the occult. It does, however, require a little patience, a little practice, and a willingness to feel a little silly. That being said, the Tarot was designed with a certain worldview in mind—reading more about the Tarot can be helpful in understanding the logic behind the structure of the Tarot and its symbols. 

There have been books on books that go into much greater depth than I can. I really consider myself a “beginner” to all this, so this is a bit of a “blind leading the blind” situation. The Tarot that we use in the modern day for fortune telling is based heavily on the beliefs of The Order of the Golden Dawn, a now defunct group with an esoteric belief system more or less based on turn-of-the-century Spiritualism, Medieval alchemy and hermeticism, and Qabbalah. They would probably tell you that the Tarot was “received wisdom” and they had nothing to do with forming the Tarot. While it’s true that Tarot existed long before Golden Dawn as a card game, from what I can tell the idea of Tarot as an oracular device is really an attempt by the group to synthesize western astrology and Qabalah into a cohesive whole. I doubt that any modern reader would dig through the system and find that they 100% believe everything that the group believes (nor do I think a person should). Some of its practitioners back in the day were, to put it mildly, not nice people, and some of the beliefs are old and outdated. All that said, the advantage to the system is that it’s a “syncretic” belief system meaning that it’s a bit of a hodgepodge of other belief systems anyway. If you like something, throw it in the pot for dinner. If you don’t understand something, save it for later in the fridge. If it’s old and rotten, throw it on the compost heap. Personally, I find much of the system quite beautiful, which is why I find myself gravitating towards the classic Rider-Waite Tarot, the Hermetic Tarot, and the Toth tarot—all decks that are quite old and based heavily on the Golden Dawn system. If it’s not for you, that is perfectly alright as there are a huge number of decks based on other systems. You don’t even have to use Tarot cards—why not shuffle up some Magic the Gathering cards or Dixit cards to use as an oracle?

Here are the very basics as I understand them. Each of the four suits represents one of the four elements: fire for wands, air for swords, cups for water, and coins/pentacles for earth. The Ace represents the purest possible manifestation of that element. Unlike a regular pack of cards with three court cards per suit, the tarot deck as four court cards per suit, with each of the court cards representing an element themselves: Page/Princess for earth, Knight/Prince for Fire, Queen for Water, and King for Air. The spot cards each represent different aspects of the suit’s element.

If you take out all the trump cards and line them up in order, they form a bit of a story starting from 0: The Fool to XXI: The Universe. It’s sometimes called “the fool’s journey.” An eager seeker after knowledge (the fool) encounters different spiritual figures all of whom teach different things: contradictory, and yet somehow all true. There is a spiritual downfall and collapse before the fool can build themselves back up again, eventually culminating in enlightenment.

During meditation, one exercise that I find very powerful is to sit with a tarot deck, and when the time comes, look at one of the tarot cards. Meditate on the card without trying to interpret it. Sometimes you might come to a realization about the card. Sometimes you don’t and that’s okay too.

If you find yourself interested in this stuff and want to seek out more, my personal recommendation would be to start with Italo Calvino's Castle of Crossed Destinies, the film The Holy Mountain directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky, and the poetry of the Williams Blake and Yeats. It’s a bit dense, but Dion Fortune’s The Mystical Qabalah is also a very interesting read. Her novels aren’t bad either.

Designing Layouts

You should just use the layouts I made. Visit my blog many many times and give me lots of views and comments and attention.

Ach, okay fine, I’ll talk about what I think makes a good layout. Here’s the thing. I just spent a long time talking up the tarot and how to read the cards and how to get in touch with your feelings and your spirituality and a bunch of other new-agey nonsense, but the trick with a layout is breaking up a topic into a bunch of discrete subjects that are good to think about anyway. For example, in the monster generator layout The Magic Pyramid, my philosophy was that a monster is really a twisted version of humanity, our funny way of thinking about the horrible parts of ourselves. To that end, the layout is designed to make the reader think about what makes the monster human and exaggerate an aspect of humanity’s monstrosity into something supernatural. In The Magic Tree, my philosophy was that a dungeon location should include a balance of rooms including empty rooms, treasures, traps, and encounters, so the rolling of dice ensure a balance of room types.

A good layout is like a form or checklist—if you took away the tarot cards and just had readers fill out a form involving all the elements you included in your checklist they should still come away with something usable.

I like to read groups of tarot cards three at a time. This is not really normal in a lot of other layouts I’ve seen, but I find that in a good Tarot deck, the cards “talk” to each in other in interesting ways that is difficult to achieve by reading just one card at a time. The other advantage to these groups of cards is that you can create intersections of cards—again not really normal in other layouts I’ve seen. This is an idea I stole for The Castle of Crossed Destinies, and I love it because a card that means one thing in one group can mean something totally different in another group. It’s helpful for the purpose of creative writing for which I use the tarot because a card can become a recurring character if it is used in multiple groups.

Thank you so much for reading this very different type of blogpost. Please consider reducing your meat consumption. If you like, you can follow me on twitter @PhillipLoe2. 

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