Night brings the sun (a tale of heroic sacrifice)

[Image: ‘Night brings the sun’ by Jen]

I’ve been running an Exalted 2E game for about 2 years, in which time we’ve managed 14 sessions.

A recent session included the culmination of several plot lines and resulted in a large battle between the PCs, who were leading a militia of a few hundred hastily trained refugees, and a force of spider-like beastmen created by a sorcerous second-circle demon. The beastment were led by terrestrial exalted who were bound to love and serve the demon by mind-bending sorcery. However, the beastmen were only distraction from the army of war ghosts marching up from a nearby shadowland to overrun the refugee township the PCs were defending.

The fight with the beastmen took a hard toll on the PCs, with most of them drained of essence and suffering a few injuries, but one PC (a night caste martial artist) was crippled in the fight. As they were assessing the outcome of their narrow victory over the beastmen, the PCs became aware of the army of ghosts marching from another direction.

As the army of ghosts approached, the PCs – having recently gained access to a salt mine – tried to build a salt line around the village, but realised they wouldn’t have enough to do so, so instead they built a defensive salt line between the village and the army, planning to use some of their various travel charms and magic to encircle the army of ghosts with salt once they drew closer, and then just wait for the sun to rise.

They didn’t consider that the demon would be leading the ghostly army, and one casting of Magma Kraken (a powerful spell that summons tentacles of molten rock from the ground to fight) was able to disrupt their defensive salt line and gave the PCs the problem of dealing with the tentacles before they did any real damage.

This was when the crippled night caste decided to act.

Previously, the night caste had been having troubled dreams, which had led to learning the first few charms of the Quicksilver Hand of Dreaming martial arts style.

For those unfamiliar, the first couple of charms of this style include the ability to give people specific visions or dreams, and then another charm lets you pull those dreams out of people’s heads and manifest them in the real world. The night caste had not, up to this point, really explored the possibilities of this combo.

Realising the likelihood of defeat at the hand of the ghosts, which would mean a terrible end for the village and its 5000 occupants, the Night Caste PC gave a stirring speech in which he called for a volunteer willing to give their life in defence of their home and family.

Then, using an ancient artifact (Wings of the Raptor… a magic cloak turns into giant wings), the night caste flew high into the midnight sky, and with their last remaining essence used a combo of Martial Arts charms charms to give the person a waking dream of the rising sun that burns away the undead.

Then, knowing full well what it would mean to touch the surface of the sun, he plucked out that dream, letting the sun shine brightly for a fraction of a second before it incinerated both the character and his volunteer, but also destroying the entire army of ghosts in a blinding flash.

Between the player first proposing the idea and the final execution, we had a bit of discussion about the implications of the action and the ultimate finality of attempting to hold the sun in the palm of your hand. After considering some alternatives, the player decided to commit to it and we played out the final moment which brought a quick end end to the character and the battle. To background this event, we used the soundtrack from Sunshine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q_b6C0PHXkQ

The final serendipity of the moment was the fact that the group had only just recently learned of the fate of the character’s first age incarnation, who had similarly died when a solar circle spell he had been casting to slay a horde of demons had been disrupted, and he similarly exploded, taking many of the demons with him, but ultimately killing himself and a circle-mate.

Heroic sacrifices are rare moments in roleplaying games – and need to be rare moments in order to maintain the weight and impact of the decision by the character/player – but when they come up in an appropriate moment it can be a real highlight to a game session, and even a whole campaign.

This moment was a great example of the collaborative storytelling of roleplaying, and one of many examples of why I love this hobby.

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The GM & the Tarot: 5 – long-term plots and event timelines

<<<Previously: Cytherea’s Civil War (Part 1)

Arising out of the request that led to Cytherea’s Civil War was the need to create a way to use the cards to create significant plot events that could define a campaign. In order to provide enough complexity and variety, and ensure it was a sustainable system that could be used repeatedly without too much chance of repetition if used repeatedly in the same game.

In devising this particular use of cards, I drew on a couple of assumptions:

  1. These plot events were primarily to involve the Player Characters (PCs), rather than define a timeline of events that would occur no matter what.
  2. That every plot event should have some point of conflict at the core. Conflict is what drives stories and either forces the PCs to react or is the result of the PCs actions.

I maintained the rules for interpreting cards that any Major Arcana meant there was some relation to one of the major NPCs (and if it was an actual NPCs card then it related to that characters) and that the court cards (Page, Knight, King, Queen) meant a significant NPC, even if only in the context of that story arc or event.

I also retained the idea of using inverted cards to indicated that something was hidden or secretive, though in this case I would not be drawing an additional card to ‘mask’ the hidden action or intent.

With those ideas in place, I settled on the following approach:

Draw 3 cards

  • First card – defines the main plot event
  • Second card – modifies the main event
  • Third card – identifies the point of conflict

It is up to you whether you interpret the cards in sequence or together, through my preference in this instance is to take them all together and consider the interactions between cards rather than adhere to any strict sequence of events.

As an example, here’s the first plot event from Cytherea’s Civil War:

First, draw 3 cards:

  1. Princess of Pentacles (inverted); explore and seek new things, but in secret.
  2. 2 of Pentacles; balance, equilibrium
  3. 6 of Pentacles; generosity of spirit

An interesting twist of coincidence (or poor shuffling) that three Pentacles cards came out together. Pentacles, despite the often mystical associations of the 5 pointed star, is most commonly associated with the material world and physical aspects of life. Money, property, business, etc.

That the key event is to revolve around a significant individual provides a sound introduction to a new story, and given the plot ideas already set in play by the draw of NPCs and their relationships to the characters, the element of secrecy is also quite fitting.

As it’s the opening of a campaign involving characters in a foreign land, there are some elements that seem unavoidable. Arriving, establishment, meeting locals. However the nature and style of these events are shaped by the cards.

So here’s how I defined the opening event…

Plot event outline:

The Vermillion legion (PC faction) arrive in An-teng and are welcomed by the matriarch of a village (the Princess card) in the outer regions where they set up camp. The PCs faction have been sent in support of House Ledaal’s legion who are there to help quiet tensions in the area after a minor uprising in one of the outer provinces (restore balance/equilibrium). Their true mission, however, is to seek out the location of a rumoured first age weapon that would give house Tepet a significant advantage, but the leadership of the legion are under orders to keep the true nature of their quest strictly need-to-know (seek new things, but in secret). Therefore, only a few of the legion’s ranking officers know the true objective. A conflict arises early between the two generals when the Ledaal general takes a very forceful approach to engaging with the local populace and the Tepet general intervenes at the behest of the Matriarch (the general’s generosity of spirit provoking conflict).

This approach seemed to work fairly well for its intended purpose, so the next step in finalising the Civil War plotline is to generate a series of events to provide the opening structure of the campaign.

<<<Previously: Cytherea’s Civil War (Part 1)

Coming soon: Cytherea’s Civil War (part 2)

Cytherea’s Civil War (Part 1)

<<<Previously: 4 – A sample session outline

Next: 5 – Long term plots and event timelines>>>

NOTE: This post assumes some knowledge of the setting and characters of Exalted.

One of the main gaming forums I inhabit is Onyx Path Publishing’s Exalted forum, and after I published the first 4 GM & the Tarot articles, I posted links here for some feedback from forum users, and offered to apply the process on behalf of anyone else’s campaign starters to see what emerged.

Forum user Cytherea took up that offer, providing the following idea:

“If you’re still up for it, I’d love to hear what your system can come up with for the game I’m currently planning.

It’s going to be a campaign about the Realm civil war beginning in An-Teng with a conflict between Tepet Ejava’s Vermillion Legion (the PC faction), the satrap and their local Ragara interests, and General Shuri the Scarlet representing House Ledaal. Of course, other factions like the Tengese Princes, the Lintha, and the First and Forsaken Lion will be causing trouble as well. I’m in the middle of trying to come up with a rough timeline of events for this mini civil war, sort of like the guide in Return of the Scarlet Empress. Could this system handle something like that?”

Can it handle something like that? Well, I was certainly willing to find out.

This request has two distinct parts. The first, and the subject of this post, is developing a campaign landscape using the method of drawing and interpreting tarot cards described primarily in post two of this series.

The second part, to come in a future post, was to come up with a method of determining large-scale timeline events to drive a campaign.

Choosing the deck

I have a number of different decks that have different images and themes to depict the common characters, events and ideas of the tarot. For Exalted games, I usually use the Manga Tarot. I like this one for a couple of reasons; primarily it uses images of characters, creatures and objects inspired by Japanese history, culture and mythology that has a strong resonance with the setting and style of Exalted, but it also inverts the typical gender associations of the major arcana and other characters depicted in the deck.

One of the ideas I’ve always found attractive about the setting of Exalted is that because people of all genders exalt (awaken to/be granted demi-god like powers) in roughly equal numbers, there is not an underlying culture of sexism informing most of the societies in the setting. For this reason, I like the greater number of prominent female figures in the manga tarot deck, partly as a reminder to constantly question my own assumptions about issues of gender and identity when creating key NPCs and plot elements for the game.

The Campaign Landscape

The first series of card draws involves drawing only major arcana to inform a series of 8 NPCs, followed by a second draw, again of only major arcana, to inform NPC motivations. The second draw allows inverted cards as an indicator of hidden motives, and which usually prompt subsequent draws to identify the public face of the character’s intentions.

So for this campaign that intends to lead up to a civil war between major houses of the Empire, I drew the following:

NPC Card Motivations
02 – The Priest 16 – The Tower (inverted) + The Hanged Woman (inverted)
08 – Justice 19 – The Sun
11 – Strength 13 – Death
12 – The Hanged Woman 14 – Temperance (inverted) + 20 – Judgement
16 – The Tower 8 – Justice
18 – The Moon 15 – The Devil
19 – The Sun 0 – The Fool (inverted) + 11 – Strength
21 – The World 21 – The World

Devising NPCs

Here’s how I interpreted the NPC cards in light of Cytherea’s overall campaign outline:

Card Meaning/s NPC
02 – The Priest Spirituality. Advice, non-materialistic vision, teaching. “The spirit is a garden to be cultivated with love”. Respected elder of An-Teng, mortal necromancer, ‘keeper of the pact’ who negotiates with the denizens of a local shadowland.
08 – Justice Equity. Do right, objectivity, perspective. “Doing the right thing is the most difficult thing.” Imperial general – Tepet, believes in service to the empire but values immaculate philosophy principles of caring for those beneath one’s station, and so questions orders that seem to serve personal, over broader, goals.
11 – Strength Energy. Self-control, perseverance, resistance. “All know how to be weak, all know how to be strong.” Imperial general – Ledaal, devotee of military strategy, master martial artist, values victory above all.
12 – The Hanged Woman Equilibrium, sacrifice, training. “equilibrium comes from the inside” An-teng political leader who serves as a local advisor to the satrap, is privy to various factional plots that seek the leader’s endorsement and resources.
16 – The Tower Ashes. Ruin, destruction, things going up in smoke. “The storm breaks only what does not bend”. Tengese prince who is the figurehead for an army preparing to reclaim an-teng from the empire.
18 – The Moon Going beyond appearances, dreams, thoughts, ‘Harmony in giving and receiving’. A sidereal of the Silver faction, believes a compromise is necessary between the ruling order of solars and lunars, due to the solars reduced numbers.
19 – The Sun Truth, light, decision, ‘Live in the light’ A sidereal of the Gold faction, seeks to return creation ‘to the light’.
21 – The World Soul, Completeness, understanding, perfection, achievement, ‘Everything in the right place’ Pirate captain, serves their demonic patron (soul) in their mission to return things to the right place. Believes they have established a life of balance and perfection walking between worlds (land and sea, creation and malfeas)

This collection of NPCs primarily served to represent the primary factions already identified as part of the campaign, with only the addition of two sidereal characters, manipulating matters from behind the scenes.

Determining Motivations

Next came their motivations, which offered the chance to develop these NPCs and open up the possibilities of their involvement in the story.

I interpreted the cards this way:

NPC Motivation Cards NPC motivation
The Necromancer 16 – The Tower (inverted) + The Hanged Woman (inverted) The necromancer is secretly providing intelligence to ancestor spirits about the workings of politics and imperial happenings in An-teng. They believe the ghosts will help to free the region of Imperial forces, but are unaware that a Deathlord is direction the actions and inquiries of the ghostly forces who plan instead to wipe out all of creation. Many other factional leaders seeks wisdom form the dead via this NPC, but they are genuinely unsure of who, if any, deserves their help.
General of the Vermillion Legion (PC starting faction) 19 – The Sun The Tepet leader of the Vermillion legion believes that something is amiss about the current state of their orders and, while fulfilling their duty, seeks the truth of their orders, and the actions of the other imperial legion in the area.
General of the Ledaal legion 13 – Death The Ledaal general seeks glory through greater challenges, grows tired of suppressing rebellions and fighting off beastmen on the fringes of civilization and wants to test their mettle against legendary enemies of creation.
The Satrap’s Advisor 14 – Temperance (inverted) + 20 – Judgement The Satrap’s advisor hides beneath a veneer of judicious leadership, balancing the various interests and factions that threaten to upset the peace of the region, however they secretly want to purify and heal their homeland.
Prince of An-Teng 8 – Justice This Tengese prince is the local mirror of the Ledaal general. They believe they are fighting a righteous war and are dedicated to their cause.
Silver Faction Sidereal 15 – The Devil This Sidereal, while pursuing a return to power of the celestial exalted in creation, also wishes to be celebrated for their achievements. They hunger for recognition and reward, and feel frustration at the effects of their arcane fate.
Gold Faction Sidereal 0 – The Fool (inverted) + 11 – Strength This Sidereal presents an image of dedication to the protection of creation, claiming that the celestial exalted are the strongest defence against chaos, however they secretly get a thrill out of upsetting the status quo. After a life dedicated to order and fate, this individual has found perverse pleasure in impulsiveness and unpredictability, and part of their motivation is to cause chaos and see what emerges.
Lintha Pirate Captain 21 – The World The Lintha pirate capatin is pure in their service to the malfean ideal. They want to help bring down the masters of creation so that their demonic parents can rise again. Everything they do has an angle connected to a plot to set people against each other, cause strife, and encourage others to further fray the fabric of creation. In time, this NPC may be a prime candidate for Infernal Exaltation as a reward for their service.

NPC-PC Relations

The final part of determining the overall landscape is randomly determining the overall relationship these major NPCs will have with the PCs. This determines who their allies, enemies, and associates will be over the course of the game.

I shuffled the cards and ended up with this result:

(strongest allies/supporters at the top, down to direct antagonists at the bottom)

  • The Moon – Silver Faction Sidereal
  • The Tower – Tengese Prince
  • Hanged Woman – Local Advisor to Satrap
  • The World – Lintha Pirate
  • The Priest – Mortal necromancer
  • The Sun – Gold faction Sidereal
  • Strength – Ledaal General
  • Justice – Tepet General

Now this was a fascinating outcome! The leader of the PC starting faction was to ultimately become their greatest adversary, with local political figures and revolutionaries as their closest allies.

That the gold faction sidereal was to be in a more antagonistic position made sense, seeing as the Terrestrial Exalts overthrew and murdered the solars all those centuries ago.

Ultimately, it seems the characters will start the game as members of an Imperial legion on a mission from powerful royal luminaries, and eventually find themselves in conflict with their initial allies and in stronger alignment with local interests, perhaps becoming sympathetic to their plight or even joining or helping lead their rebellion.

And that sounds like the beginning of an epic civil war story about loyalty, values and conflict!

Coming soon: Cytherea’s Civil War (part 2) – Countdown to war!

<<<Previously: 4 – A sample session outline

Next: 5 – Long term plots and event timelines>>>

 

Image title/artist unknown. Sourced here.

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.

<<

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.

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“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”