The GM & the Tarot: 4 – A sample session outline

<<<Previous: 3 – Devising a session

The purpose of this post is to provide a sample of a session outline developed using the processes outlined in Part 3 – Devising a session. This example will be for a Shadowrun game session and will build on the campaign frame and sample NPCs developed in Part 2 – framing a campaign. If you haven’t read the previous posts detailing the use of cards, this post may be a little hard to follow, though the scenario outline at the end should still be of use.

First, in order to kick off the story a begin building plots involving my major NPCs, I’ve opted to incorporate two of the Major Arcana/NPCs into my session draw. After a bit of shuffling, The Chariot was mixed into the 7 card draw, and The Hierophant is a secondary factor in the story.

Session outline draw

The initial 7 card draw comes out as follows:

Story Element Card Suggested meaning
Inciting Incident 9 of Swords Failure, death, delay
Story Goal The Chariot (Major NPC – Smuggler)- also, war, triumph, providence
Primary Obstacle 10 of Cups Contentment, perfection
Assistance 9 of Cups (inverted) Concord, victory, success
Opposition 6 of Swords (inverted) Journey, route, way
Consequences / Stakes Judgement (inverted) Accounting for past actions
Rewards 4 of Pentacles Resisting change

Interpreting the cards

Because The Chariot emerged as the Story Goal, the objective of the story is for the characters to help the Major NPC of the Smuggler achieve a significant goal. As another Major Arcana emerged under Consequences / Stakes, that aspect of the story will be related to the second NPC in this story, the corporate military R&D agent (The Hierophant). Because the Judgement card is inverted, the Hierophant’s involvement in the story will be indirect and possibly not something the player characters are aware of.

Now onto the rest of the cards:

While the common conceit to start a story in Shadowrun games is that the PCs are hired to do a job or ‘run’, and not wanting to over complicate things for the first session in a new campaign I will stick with that arrangement. The reasons for the job, however, can be coloured by the card that is drawn and influence the circumstances of the rest of the session.

So this story begins when the characters are hired to replace another team who have failed to do a job (‘failure’ as represented by the 9 of Swords). This immediately suggests that the job is particularly difficult. The reasons for their failure will be determined after more of the session outline is completed.

The goal of this story is to help the Smuggler deliver a package – they PCs are to meet the Smuggler somewhere just inside the national border and take possession of a package and then get it to its intended destination.

The primary obstacle of this session is defined by ‘contentment, or perfection’ – following on from the influence of the 9 of Swords as the Inciting Element, this card could be interpreted as a further absence of contentment, or even the opportunity for contentment, meaning that the pressure is really on for this task. The job has just become incredibly time-sensitive and so the PCs have far less than their usual time for preparation – effectively none – and will have to improvise more than usual to complete the task in time. To further expand on the idea of an absence of contentment, the primary setting for the story will be on unfamiliar and hostile territory. In the default Shadowrun setting of the Seattle city-state, there are plenty of hostile urban sprawls and slums in which such events can take place. In this case, the PCs have to meet the Smuggler in one of the abandoned regions of the city rendered uninhabitable by an erupting volcano, occupied now by urban predators, gangs and magical nasties that dwell in the dark places of the Shadowrun universe.

Whatever assistance is available to the characters at short notice is not immediately evident and would therefore require some exploration or creative thinking on behalf of the PCs to uncover. In the context of the story so far, and given a primary meaning of the 9 of Cups is ‘concord’, or agreement between groups of people, there will be a small community of homeless people living around the area who can help the PCs navigate through unfamiliar terrain. This help will not be offered freely, nor will their presence be immediately evident.

Opposition, defined by an inverted 6 of Swords, has to do with the route or journey the characters or their goal will take. A clear use for this card is not immediately evident, so I’ll wait to apply the remaining cards before deciding in this one.

The inverted Judgement card relates to the NPC of the Hierophant, or the military R&D agent, who themselves have a hidden motive. This character is behind some aspect of the story but their involvement is indirect, so I interpret that as meaning that the character will be acting through third party agents as well as further ciphers to protect their identity, should the PCs go looking. I also have to remember that this character is meant to be the primary antagonist of the campaign and so it can’t hurt for their relationship to the characters to get off on a bad foot.

Therefore, I choose to interpret this card and it’s position on the draw as referring to the ‘consequences of success’ in the style of ‘no good deed goes unpunished’. If the characters succeed in their task they will incur, at least, some ongoing bad favour from their hidden adversary.This means that the hidden NPC doesn’t want the characters to succeed. But why? The NPC has an investment in the characters failing in their task. This NPC wants to claim the item that the characters are helping to smuggle, which, given the secret motivation of the NPC suggests that the smuggled items have some value to the NPCs secret pursuit to ‘transcend humanity’ through cyber-technology.

The last card in the ‘rewards’ position  indicates that ‘resisting change’ will be a primary benefit of success in this story. Given the result of the card/story element above, this is going to mean that succeeding in this task will prevent something significantly worse from happening – it means a significant delay in the NPCs progress towards their goal, which, by extension, means that the NPCs goal is something worth stopping.

With these two final cards in place it helps to interpret the card in the ‘Opposition’ position. The characters will be opposed by others who want to get the smuggled package on a different route or journey than the direction the PCs will take it. The one element I will then add to the story that isn’t immediately suggested by the cards will be the agents that are trying to intercept the package and prevent the PCs from succeeding. Given that the major NPC has an allied NPC (or group) in the form of an elite squad of soldiers assisting in the research, some manifestation of that group will be the opposing agents in this session.

With all of those elements in place, it’s time to draft the final session outline…

Session outline

Backstory: The NPC R&D agent is involved in some less-than-ethical research into pushing the limits of cyberware and the human condition. While doing more mainstream research for their primary employer, a corp-run military outfit, they are also pushing their own agenda and subtly manipulating some experiments in order to test personal hypotheses alongside the corp-approved research goals.

One facility that operates in a location outside of the games setting was the subject of a successful run to capture a lot of research data, and then damage or destroy the facilities and any available data backups.

The perpetrators of this run did not know that the facility and research they were targeting were part of the NPC R&D agents personal agenda.

Upon learning of the heist, the NPC set a couple of members of their available allied soldiers to track down the perpetrators and reclaim the missing data. Because the true nature of the research was secretive and the NPC didn’t want to draw additional attention, they send only a small number of soldiers on this mission (perhaps the corporation that owned the facility considered it an acceptable loss, especially seeing as such espionage is a common part of doing business in the world of Shadowrun).

So the team of runners that were meant to receive the package were intercepted by the soldiers while the smuggler with the data was still in transit, leaving the person who initiated the job to arrange for a new crew to make the pickup with little preparation and deliver it to a third and final agent.

Gameplay outline: The PCs are hired by a generic agent to pick up a job after the previous team have dropped out of contact. They have to meet the smuggler in a remote and hostile part of town, collect a package, and get it to another destination back in the inhabited part of the city. They characters are offered an enticing bonus to their pay to make up for the lack of preparation time and the extra danger implied by the disappearance of the previous crew.

The location of the meeting is a particularly desolate and alien piece of terrain. Long-cold lava flows engulf the bottom stories of buildings, many of which are crumbling and unstable due to the damage to their lower floors – rubble and difficult terrain abounds. The Smuggler will be coming in an aerial vehicle to land on one of the few large, stable buildings in the area that has a still-serviceable landing pad on its roof, where the PCs will meet, collect the package and aim to get back out the way they came.

This will involve a bit of planning and improvising on the part of the GM to characterise the terrain and consider how it may present challenges to the characters. Being inaccessible to most conventional vehicles is a good starting point.

Once the PCs have the package, the soldiers tracking them will make their move and try to reclaim the data being smuggled. Because in the world of Shadowrun, data can be smuggled/transferred via the Matrix, this package will also include a physical element. A prototype device that is also being transported.

The major conflict of the session then will be the PCs trying to either fight or flee from a small group of elite soldiers who will be better equipped and trained to operate in this environment. If they succeed, they will be marked by the NPC as being part of an opposing conspiracy, and if they fail they will either be killed by the soldiers, or at least lose the package entrusted to them by the Smuggler.

This will be played out in roughly three main scenes,

One – the hire. The PCs meet with the hiring agent who will impress upon them the urgency and potential dangers of the job (set the stakes high!)

Two – the meeting. The PCs enter the area of the ground, where the GM develops the alien nature of the surroundings and the challenges it presents. The PCs may have a little bit of time to explore and in which to potentially uncover the possibility of assistance from the local community (which might come in the form of a secret passageway out or helping transport the package so the characters can lead the soldiers away – this would be high risk and possibly result in achieving the story goal while still suffering significant personal consequences or death).

Three – Ambush! The soldiers spring their trap which, depending on the PC’s actions, could results in a deadly stand-up fight or a pursuit through difficult territory to freedom.

And that’s it! There’s an example of using tarot cards to develop a session outline and related story elements.

If you have any questions or comments, please post them below.

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The GM & the tarot: Part 3 – Devising a session

<<<Previously: 2 – Framing a campaign

Next: 4 – A sample session outline>>>

Having used the Major Arcana to develop the landscape of your campaign, it’s now time to bring the rest of the deck into play in order to devise an individual session.

While this post refers to generating a ‘session’, that is shorthand for ‘a single narrative arc of complication-action-resolution that might realistically be expected to be played in a single session’. This means a single complication that needs to be resolved through character action, with factors to add options, obstacles and assistances for the characters.

This use of cards can actually be a more complex process as it requires an even more abstract interpretation of the cards, and does not present quite as ‘neat’ a framework as just using the major arcana for the broad strokes of a campaign. As with all parts of this process, it is intended to prompt ideas that might be outside of your usual approach to generating story ideas, not to restrict or limit ideas. So go with interpretations of the cards that makes sense in the context of your game, rather than being concerned about finding the ‘right’ or ‘best’ use of a card in any given context.

Before beginning a draw of cards to outline a session, you have to decide what to do with the Major Arcana cards relating to your primary NPCs

How to use the Major Arcana

The way you incorporate the Major Arcana into a session outline card draw depends on whether you want your overarching campaign narrative to develop quickly, or to be a background part of a more open-world campaign with lots of subplots.

You can either keep the set of Major Arcana representing your primary NPCs separate from the deck, or you can mix them in with the other cards to see if and when they emerge. Whichever you choose, mix the remainder of the Major Arcana into the deck (including the ones used to identify NPC motivations).

  1. If you expect to be playing for an extended time and want any developing meta-narrative to emerge slowly, with NPC plots developing along in the background, then mix them into the deck. Should they turn up in a draw, then you interpret them in a way that directly relates to that NPC (which is an interesting way to have subplots and unexpected twists turn up in your game)
  2. If you want your game to quickly develop an overarching narrative that focuses on the machinations and conflicts of your major NPCs, leave them out of the deck. Before completing the draw below, draw two of the Major Arcana. Mix one of those 2 into the cards you’ll draw for the session outline (below) and place the other one to the side. The card mixed into the session outline draw will be the NPC who is primarily involved in the session / story, while the second card will be the one whose interests are invoked in the story, though maybe not by the NPC themselves being directly involved.

The session outline draw

After deciding what you want to do with the Major Arcana, shuffle the deck and draw 7 cards and lay them out in a row (or 6 + one Major Arcana as detailed above) . The cards inform the following elements of the story:

1 – Inciting Element

2 – Story Goal

3 – Primary Obstacle

4 – Assistance

5 – Opposition

6 – Consequences / Stakes

7 – Rewards

When shuffling the deck, you can introduce a swirl or reversal of some cards so that the orientation of the cards is also mixed up, as with the drawing of motivations in Part 2. Those cards that appear inverted indicate something hidden or secretive about the result, while those that are drawn upright indicate elements of the story that are available.

Interpreting the cards

When interpreting the cards, the abstract (vague?) meanings and imagery of many of the minor arcana can be interpreted to represent physical or abstract ideas within your story. If, for example, you drew the Four of Swords to represent the major obstacle in your session, you might interpret it as an actual person who is vigilant and ever watchful, or it might be that the scenario calls for the characters to be vigilant, and therefore you’ll throw lots of distractions and red-herrings at them. You have a lot of flexibility to shape the cards to suit the style and tone to the kinds of stories you like to tell.

However, the following guidelines can also help to make the abstract meanings and imagery of most tarot decks more relevant to a role-playing game:

  1. If any of the royal cards are drawn (page, knight, king, queen) then use those to represent a new NPC who is of significance to that particular session – and who may become a recurring secondary character in your game. Whether or not that secondary NPC has any direct relationship to your primary NPCs is up to you based on how you interpret the remainder of the cards.
  2. If an Ace is drawn at any point, then make that story element something of ‘greater-than-usual-significance’ to the setting of your game. This way, you occasionally introduce heightened stakes, or elements of drama in your stories.
  3. If any Major Arcana are drawn, then that element of the story/session must directly relate to the business of one of the primary NPCs defined earlier in the process.

a. If you chose the option to mix the Major Arcana relating to your major NPCs back into the deck, then you choose which NPC a card relates to.

b. If more than one Major Arcana appear, then connect each card to a different primary NPC – this is how new conflicts and subplots can develop within your game. If you have chosen to draw 2 Major Arcana as part of your session outline draw, the relate any further Major Arcana to those 2 first before reaching further into your NPC deck.

c. If you actually draw one of the Major Arcana that is the card used to define a major NPC then that element of the story directly relates, if not personally involves, that character (this will definitely happen if you chose to mix one of the Major Arcana cards into your session outline draw).

From there it is up to your interpretation of the cards to create story elements for your characters to engage in. Be flexible in your interpretation of the cards, and if something comes up that you just cannot make work in a story framework you’re otherwise happy with, then ignore it, replace it with another story element that makes sense to the rest of your story, or even consider drawing another card to replace it.

<<<Previously: 2 – Framing a campaign

Next: 4 – A sample session outline>>>