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>>>

Exalted 3 Combat Cheat Sheet – First Draft

After playing a couple of session of Exalted 3rd edition, I’ve started work on a quick combat rules summary that (hopefully) covers the most commonly needed rules for combat situations.

This is a first draft, which will probably end up being 2 pages, or one double sided page, once I add rules for movement, ranged attacks, cover and a couple of other combat situations.

I welcome any feedback or suggestions in the comments below.

Exalted 3e combat cheat-sheet

The GM & the tarot: 2 – Framing a campaign

<<<Previous: 1 – Why tarot?

Next: 3 – Devising a session>>>

“Creativity is the process of having original ideas that have value. It is a process; it’s not random” – Ken Robinson.

As stated in part 1, the primary reasons to use a tarot deck to devise RPG stories is because of the elements of randomness and variety it brings, and the creative challenge that comes from trying to fit random elements into a story. As per the quote at the top of this post, the random draw of the cards provides a new idea, and then you give that idea value in the context of a story.

When starting a new campaign, a random draw of tarot cards can be used to quickly create a landscape of NPCs whose conflicts, goals and motivations will be played out over the course of your campaign.

The steps of this process are detailed below, along with an example from a Shadowrun game devised using this method.

Note: This approach is based on a couple of assumptions about the way people run and play RPGs; primarily, that people engage in ongoing ‘campaign’ style play with a continuous set of player characters, and that campaigns are made up of a series of sub-plots and stories (each usually representing 1-2 sessions of play) that fit within a larger, overarching narrative that develops throughout the course of many sessions. Later posts will detail a variation of this process for devising stand-alone or one-shot story ideas.

Game Concept

First, come up with an overall concept for the game/story you wish to run. This provides some indication of the kinds of characters and scenarios you’ll create and a lens through which to interpret cards drawn as part of the process.

Example: After a few years of running ‘specialised’ games in the Shadowrun universe (all PCs are gang members, elite military, a magical circle, etc), I decided to run a game that went back to the original setting of the game. The characters were to be runners navigating between the big players at the top, and the gangs and hard life of the streets.

For the sake of something different, instead of using one of the mega-corps to be the immediate representation of the ‘big players’, I wanted to focus on the corp-run security and military services of the 6th world.

Initial draw – creating primary NPCs

The first use of the tarot cards is to define the landscape of the campaign, the pattern of key NPCs who will feature in your stories and who will return as primary allies and antagonists for your player’s characters.

Extract the 22 major arcana, shuffle them and randomly draw around 8 cards (more or less depending on the scale and scope of the story you wish to tell). Keep in mind that you can always add to this at a later date if you wish to expand your story.

Each of these cards is used to inform the creation of a major NPC who will feature in the game/campaign. Take time to devise a concept for an NPC based on each of these cards, as appropriate to the overall game concept you’ve chosen.

Example: As I was only expecting to run this game for a handful of sessions, I limited myself to 6 cards.

The cards I drew to start the game were The Emperor, The Hierophant, The Chariot, The Hanged Man, Death,  and The Devil (presented here in their numbered order within the deck).

As NPCs, I interpreted these cards as follows:

Card Suggested Meaning NPC
 The Emperor Wisdom and power, top of the hierarchy, male ego A community leader/organiser with significant influence in one of the slums of Seattle.
 The Hierophant Knowledge & education, studying higher values, accepting discipline A senior researcher in a corp-military R&D division.
 The Chariot Adventure and risk, mental and physical journeys, desire for victory A smuggler who brings things into and out of Seattle.
 The Hanged Man  Transition, limbo, taking a step backwards in order to move forwards A crime boss whose efforts to grow influence have been stalled.
 Death Change, beginnings and endings, getting to the gritty details The ‘agents of change’ – an elite squad within the corp-military that works alongside The Hierophant.
 The Devil  Thirst for money or power, obsession, addictive patterns of behaviour, manipulation by others The crime-boss’ second-in-command, a heavily cybered warrior.

Determining NPC motivations

The next step of the defining the landscape is to determine the prime motivations of each NPC in the context of the story. To do this, once again take the 22 major arcana, including the ones you’ve already drawn. One card will be drawn per NPC, which will inform their objectives and/or motivations.

This time, when shuffling the cards, lay them face down on a table and swirl them around so that the direction of each card is randomised as well as its order. When a card is drawn upright, that indicates that the character’s goals are a part of their public persona, while if it is inverted (upside down) that means the characters goals are hidden or secretive.

For each inverted card, you may also choose to draw another card to identify what kind of public face the character puts forward to mask their hidden intentions.

Example: For the NPCs identified above, I drew the following cards to define their motivations:

Character Card/Motivation
Smuggler The High Priestess
Community Organiser The Hierophant
Crime Boss Temperance
Crime Boss’ Lieutenant The Fool
Elite Soldiers The Magician
R&D Agent The Tower (inverted) + The World

I interpreted this card draw as follows:

Character Motivation
Smuggler Seeks to uncover secrets – believes there is a secret plot connected to some of the jobs they carry out.
Community Organiser Seeks to build a traditional, somewhat nostalgic, community to support people in the slums.
Crime Boss Is seeking to achieve a sense of harmony, and heal themselves. At this point, the interaction between The Hanged Man and Temperance provided the idea of a Crime Boss inflicted with a mental illness. This is what was responsible for their stalled empire, and their current motivation was to overcome those problems in order to get business running again.
Crime Boss’ Lieutenant Seeks experience – is a hedonist. Seeks new challenges and to overcome them. In this case the combination of The Devil and The Fool provided the idea of a figure who revelled in confrontational approaches to building power, yet was unaware of the implications of their boss’ health issues. In the context of Shadowrun, I translated this idea into a fledgling AI that controlled various drones and humanoid forms in the physical world.
Elite Soldiers This unit seeks to elevate their skills and unit tactics. For reasons connected with their past experiences, they volunteered to work with R&D so they could test better equipment & tactics.
R&D Agent This character’s hidden motivation is to transcend humanity. Having worked on cybernetic development for his career, this character wants to move beyond cybernetic enhancement of individuals and create a genuine hybrid entity. The character’s public motivation is to improve military cybernetics in accordance with company policy.

Determining relationship to PCs

Once you have you list of NPCs, take the cards that represent them, shuffle, and lay them out in a row from left to right, which represents the relationship to the PCs that these characters will have in the game.

Those towards the left are the ones with whom the PCs will be most closely aligned, and those on the right are the antagonists whose machinations will be driving many of the plots and forcing the characters to react.

Example: In this instance the cards came out in the order of: The Chariot, The Emperor, The Hanged Man, The Devil, Death, The Hierophant.

So the primary antagonist of this game will be the military R&D agent, followed closely by the soldiers working with them. The crime boss and their 2IC are more neutral, though the lieutenant is slightly more antagonistic. Finally, the Smuggler will be their greatest ally, and the community organiser will be generally, though not universally, supportive of the characters.

With that process, the social landscape of the campaign is defined and some tensions between characters as well as potential story lines start to emerge. As you progress to develop individual plots and session outlines, these NPCs and their motivations will play a role in interpreting additional cards drawn as part of your story.

Note: As stated in the introduction to this blog, one of the primary elements of my approach to creating RPG scenarios is to create conflicts of values and motivations that the players need to navigate. For this reason, I leave it to last to determine the NPC’s relationship to the players, letting conflict arise out conflicting an overlapping motivations rather than any predetermined concept of being heroes, allies or villains. This way the interpretation of cards to define NPCs and their motivations are free from expectations base don the characters role in the story.

If you wish to run a game that is more closely defined by the genre conventions of the game’s setting, or in a style that requires a more definite sense of heroes and villains, you can complete this step as part of the initial draw to identify NPCs. That way you are interpreting cards knowing what role each characters will play in your story.

<<<Previous: 1 – Why tarot?

Next: 3 – Devising a session>>>

The GM & the tarot: 1 – Why tarot?

Next: 2 – Framing your campaign >>>

I find tarot cards to be an invaluable tool for generating interesting RPG stories, or even individual session plots. The idea of using tarot cards as a way to generate story ideas or as a mechanism in RPGs is hardly new, however the purpose of this series of posts is to detail some of the ways I use tarot cards as a GM, particularly to help quickly generate new and interesting story ideas for characters, campaigns, stories, individual sessions and even single scenes.

‘The GM & the tarot’ series

Why TAROT?

The primary reason I use a tarot deck is for randomness and variety.

When writing stories for a game session you can create interesting and unexpected subplots and scenes by allowing an element of randomness to determine key story elements. Responding to that randomness by incorporating a new ideas into your game’s story can also be a fun creative challenge and break you out of those personal patterns of style or story structure that you may not even be conscious of.

Then there’s the variety of ideas represented by the number of cards and their various interpretations. Once you move past any ideas of mysticism, most tarot decks-which originated as playing cards before being co-opted by fortune tellers-are built around representations of human experiences and struggles, with cards and images imbued with symbolism to depict many aspects of those struggles. With 78 cards (usually) made up of 22 trump cards plus 56 cards divided into 4 suits, there are more possible card combinations to generate ideas than you’ll ever be able to incorporate into a lifetime of games.

This makes them a handy way to quickly devise interesting and original characters, motives and plot hooks for role playing games, or to add additional depth and nuance to an existing story line.

For those unfamiliar with tarot cards, here’s a quick summary of the way most decks are structured:

Major Arcana: 22 cards (also known as Trump cards) – each card depicts an archetype or ideal, and when taken in sequence the cards tell a story of the journey from innocence to worldly experience. Even if you do nothing else, these cards provide a structure for milestones of an extended campaign.

Minor Arcana: 56 cards divided into 4 suits-common suits are Pentacles, Cups, Swords, Rods/Staves-and each suit has 10 cards plus 4 court cards-Page, Knight, Queen, King.

Each of the suits has its ‘traditional’ meaning and associations, but if those don’t work for you, you can give them whatever meaning is appropriate to your game in order to make individual cards more relevant to the stories you wish to tell. For example, in games with a more Eurocentric mythology, you may wish to associate each suit with it’s primary elemental association, or associate suits with significant factions, houses or families within your game.

Finally, while purchasing tarot decks can be a costly exercise, there are plenty of free online resources including random card selectors, or sites with full decks and card meanings. You can even buy tarot deck apps for phones and tablets at a fraction of the price of a physical deck. I won’t link to any directly as many of them are associated with attempts to sell online tarot readings, so if you find such a site, I would encourage you to use of what free resources they have and view with extreme scepticism any other offers or promises they may make.

Next: 2 – Framing your campaign >>>

“I thought WE were the good guys?” – a story framework

This is the outline of the story that turned the encounter Little Demons on the Prarie into a 2 session event.

Presented here is the overarching story framework and the elements that define the core ethical dilemma of the piece – the running of this scenario involved additional encounters along the way, which will be presented in separate posts at a later date.

Themes and Objectives:

This story engages an old device that pits the characters’ morals against their integrity and reputation. A powerful being engages the characters to complete a task that seems entirely reasonable, but as they discover more about the task they realise they are potentially acting on behalf on the bad guy of the story.

In this scenario I’ve combined that plot twist with two other story telling devices (because who doesn’t love an over complicated story?) the device of the characters having to travel a distance to meet a deadline and facing delays along the way, and the device of the identity of the true antagonist being hidden. Continue reading ““I thought WE were the good guys?” – a story framework”

Little Demons on the Prairie – an encounter

This encounter was devised for Exalted, 2nd edition and was originally posted here. Presented here is the outline of a single encounter, which can be inserted into a game by itself as just an odd moment that raises the question of the nature of good and evil, but in my game this encounter formed the basis of a longer story which ran for two sessions. I will post that longer story outline in a future post.

Main themes and scenario objectives:

This encounter ultimately revolves around questioning the nature of purity and corruption on a micro level, and forces the characters to consider where their thresholds are on the scale between the two. The characters ultimately have to decide, on behalf of others, just how much ‘corruption’ is acceptable, and at which point suffering or death are preferable options.

The elements of this encounter might seem a little specific to the setting of Exalted, so I have included some suggestions to help swap out exalted specific elements for things suitable to other game settings. Continue reading “Little Demons on the Prairie – an encounter”

“…but at least he’s MY demon” – an encounter

This scenario was originally written for an Exalted, 2nd Edition campaign (if you’re not familiar with Exalted, read more here and here), and has been previously posted on the Onyx Path Exalted forums, here.

Main themes and scenario objectives:

The point of this encounter was to prompt the characters to explore the boundaries of their sense of right and wrong, all in the context of ‘how far would you go to survive’. There is no  right or wrong way for this scenario to play out, as it ultimately forces the characters to make decisions about who they are and to express those qualities through their actions. Continue reading ““…but at least he’s MY demon” – an encounter”