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>>>

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