Monday, November 1, 2021

Orbital Crypt Halloween Special: Tarot Spreads for Fun and Writing


A wolf, a dog and a lobster walk into a bar...

Happy horror month, candy-corn readers! It's very festive up here at the apogee of sanity, and consequently I thought I'd get in the holiday spirit by sharing one of my favorite tools for on-the-spot narrative generation. Let's take a scry, shall we? 

Major Arcana, Major Heading

I don't need to tell you that tarot cards are cool - either you already know it and agree, or you disagree and are just reading this post out of spite (don't feel bad - I write these out of spite, too). Tarot's been around for ages, and for good reason. These 78(ish) cards have hundreds of variants, from the classic Rider-Waite-Smith up there, through the eclectic Thoth Tarot, and all the way down into the nightmarish trench of countless Cat Tarots. And all of them (except for the cat ones) can be used to create essentially infinite narratives, whether for oracular purposes or for personal entertainment. 

This blog does not condone the use of Cat Tarot decks. Some evils are too great, even for me. 

If you're a recently-ascended crab and have never used a tarot deck, or ever seen or heard of one, the premise is simple: One or more cards are drawn from the deck and arranged in some way on the table. Then, you examine your formation of 1+ cards, and derive a meaning based on which cards you've drawn, and where they lie in that formation (or "spread"). Due to the ambiguous and interpretive nature of the cards, it's an art more than a science, and it's very possible that the exact same spread might be read very differently by different people, or even by the same person in different states of mind. I'm sure that you're already getting a pretty good idea for how these cards might be a cool tool for roleplaying games. 

Well, you're not the first person to have that idea, and neither am I. There is a variety of games based on tarot, a couple of books on the subject, and several major TTRPGs even have their own game-related versions of tarot decks (no links for the latter, because the affiliated companies suck and so do their cards). These days tarot cards aren't considered to be nearly as occult as they used to be, but we're going to be running with the premise, since otherwise it's not much of a Halloween special. 

Perhaps your halloween horror can be the horror of realizing someone thought this was a good idea.

The Wheel of Fortune is Turning

The remainder of this post will be me showing you some of the tarot spreads that I use, with a made-on-the-spot example for each. Feel free to use these spreads as given, or to modify in any way you want. 

Remember that there's no wrong answers. You might be inspired by the "academic" meanings of the cards, the relationships of the cards' suits and numbers, the art on the card itself, or any other factors. You might even trail off completely from the cards, using the spread as a starting point and then going off in a completely different direction. Whichever the case, you don't need much to get started - as long as you have the cards, a basic understanding and even the most rudimentary card meaning guide, you'll be able to get something out of this exercise.

I'm not going to explain how to tarot, nor will I tell you which (non-cat) deck to use, but I will occasionally ("occasionally") go into a bit of detail on card meanings to show my thought process. Ultimately I won't be able to fully convey to you the full breadth of potential details to derive from these spreads (mostly because this post would become basically unreadable), but I'll try to ease you into the card-readin' mindset.
tarot spreads made using the Tarot Spread Maker. Misleading name, I know. Also, I won't be using reversed cards here cause I don't want to overcomplicate the examples, but feel free to do so yourself. 

The Quickie Character

The three-card spread is the workhorse of tarot readers everywhere. As simple as it is versatile, three cards can be used to give a nice and quick read for any concept that can be described with three parts; problem-origin-solution, desire-obstacle-advice, action-goal-motive, e-t-c. Personally, I most often use three card spreads to make up a character on the spot. 
  1. Nature - Who or what the character is, how they appear in the story or to the players. 
  2. Role - What is the character's purpose in the story? What do they do? What happens to them? 
  3. Fate - What is the (possible) outcome of the character's role in the story? 
Knight of Swords, Death, 7 of Cups.
The Knight of Swords (ambition, action, motivation, wit), Death (endings, changes, transformation) and the Seven of Cups (opportunity, choice, illusion) already imply a character with dramatic impact. An ambitious young scientist might be on the verge of reinventing FTL travel, opening up humanity's way into the galaxy and freeing them from limiting hyper-lanes. Perhaps an upstart duke is to be assassinated, so that their rivals may split the duke's holdings. We could even be more literal about the card art - We have a bold knight, facing perils and death itself, hoping for the opportunity to win a magic wish.

It might help to consider the cards that you didn't draw, too. Think a bit about why these specific cards created the situation in your head. How would your character's Role and Fate be changed if you drew a different Nature card? By giving a little more thought to what isn't, you might get a better understanding of what is. Or, you might end up thinking of a more fitting character. How much you adhere to a given prompt is a matter of personal preference.  

The Conspiracy Spread

The Conspiracy Spread is something I bring out when I need to complicate the relationships between important NPCs or factions. Intrigue is a constant of organized societies, so this one would come into play basically whenever I'm setting up any location that I don't already have a plan for.
  1. Goal - What is the true goal of the conspirators? 
  2. The Agent - Who is the creator of this conspiracy, or its executor? 
  3. Desire - Why is the agent conspiring for? What do they get out of this?  
  4. Deception - What is the conspiracy disguised as? What is the façade for its execution? 
  5. The Deceived - Who is being fooled by the deception? Or, who is the target of the conspiracy? 
  6. Obstacle - Who or what is the main problem for the conspiracy? What is its weakness? 
Five of Wands, King of Swords, Four of Swords, Four of Wands, The Hierophant, Page of Wands 
The Five of Wands often signifies conflict or tension, which is a pretty classic conspiracy stuff. The King of Swords, a figure of authority, is motivated by the Four of Swords, which typically represents rest or contemplation. Our all-important cover story is the 4 of wands, which represents celebration and joy. The Hierophant, the spread's only Major Arcana, is a strong pull towards spirituality, religiousness and tradition. Finally, the Page of Wands represents inspiration, discovery, and freedom of spirit. 

There's a few more complex details in this one. This spread is dominated by Wands, which is the suit associated with (among other things) unpredictability, strength, and the element of fire. We might use any of those as a further source of inspiration, as well as thinking about how the wand-bearing elements might be more closely connected. Similarly, The Hierophant being the only major arcana in a bigger spread might give it special attention. You might also have noticed that the only numbered cards on the table are two fours and two fives. You don't actually need to use all, or even any of those; if you're still getting your head around the basic stuff, don't feel obliged to look further than the basics (although if that's the case, later spreads are gonna give you a headache). 

So, what's our conspiracy? I see the local lord (2) organizing a spring festival (4, spring 'cause wands), or perhaps simply manipulating an existing one, to undermine the similarly-timed religious ritual. The lord wants to quash recent religious unrest (3); their plan is to goad the local cult (5) into public protest, in order to justify an open conflict (1) between the town guard and the cult's faithful. An overly-chatty merchant (6) was drafted by the lord to help supply the festivities, and is beginning to think there's a conspiracy of some sort. 

To get our players involved in this plot, we've got several potential entry points. The lavish and unusually expensive-seeming festival is likely being prepared all around them, and they might pick up signs of discontent from worshippers around town. The direct point of contact could be any of the actors - They might hear from the protesting cult members that their leader is growing restless, they might hear something from the loose-lipped merchant, or the party might be drafted by the lord in order to help with the preparations, during which the PCs might realize things are not as they appear. 

The Full Narrative

Yeah, you knew this one was coming. If you've got even a passing familiarity with tarot, you've almost certainly seen the above formation, or some variation of it. The cross and staff (or in my size-constrained case, cross and snake) are almost certainly the poster child for tarot readings, and there's a good reason - it covers a lot of bases for a narrative, and ten cards is a lot to work with. I often use this one when I really want to sit down and just fully flesh out a scenario or event. It works both for the sake of setting up something for an upcoming game, and for figuring out a detailed story of what happened to someone offscreen.
  1. The Start - The current state of our subject. The starting point for our story.
  2. The Challenge - The main problem that our subject is facing, or what they believe  it to be.
  3. The Conscious - What the subject knows about the challenge, or what they perceive to be its cause.
  4. The Subconscious - What the subject doesn't (consciously) know, or what truly is the root of the issue.
  5. The Past - What past event or action placed the subject in the current situation. 
  6. The Future - What the immediate future of the situation is, or the next step the subject will take.
  7. Internal - How the subject feels about the challenge. The internal source of conflict
  8. External - How the environment affects the challenge or subject. The external source of conflict.
  9. Hopes & Fears - What does the subject hope for, or fear will happen? The wild card. 
  10. The Outcome - One possible outcome of the situation, the likely one with the current path. 
Two of cups, Five of Swords, Ace of Cups, Five of Cups, Six of Cups, Five of Pentacles, Page of Swords, Two of Swords, Eight of Cups, Queen of Swords 

Interestingly, this spread is completely bereft of Major Arcana cards. This could be interpreted to mean that the story isn't terribly impactful on the world at large, or perhaps that its effects are just subtle. The dominance of two suits - Cups, the suit of emotion, relationships and water, and Swords, the suit of intellect, power and air - could imply that this is a story of high melodrama and romantic conflict, or that our story is a tragedy. These tonal ideas can help clarify our narrative, or simply nudge us when we're unsure which way to take it. What has particularly caught my eye is that we have three different 5 cards, which are all cards that tend to be very negative. Further reading this down the two arcs of past-now-future (5-1-6) and conscious-self-subconscious (3-1-4), both of which start on positive cards and end on the negative fives, tells us that this isn't going to be a happy story. 

Normally when I'm doing this spread, I have a "question" in mind, the seed from which i grow the rest of my unkempt story tree. I might ask something relatively specific like "How will the prince fare in northern war?", or I might be more general and ask "What happened to the druid clan?" (these are both actual questions I've used in the past). You can probably generate a narrative raw from the format, but I find that initial seed quite helpful here. So my question for this reading, relevant to a game I'm currently running, will be "What will happen to Shabbs, the Rat Shaman?"

Shabbs is managing to open up to people again (1), after being spared and treated with kindness by the players (5). However, he is now placed in a terribly conflicted position (2) by the appearance of a powerful "benefactor" from his past (3), who has come back to collect. Devastated by the impossible choice before him (8), he fears that he will lose his only recent source of stability, which is communicating and learning with others (7), and his mounting anxieties are at the edge of putting him back into his old, emotionally deadened state (4). The rat shaman wants only one thing now: escape (9). He's packing his metaphorical bags and preparing to leave it all behind (6). And, if nothing stops him, he's going to reach the independence and solitude (10) that he desires; an option he prefers to betrayal. 

Whew, that one got heavy. The great thing about really big spreads like this is that I have a lot more to work with to figure out card meanings and relationships: the suits, the numeric values, alternate meanings of cards and the similarities/contrasts between them, and so on. The downside, of course, is that they generally take a lot more thought-work to get something out of. You don't always break out the big stuff, and sometimes a smaller, simpler spread is all you need to get the ball rolling. 

If you're like me, you might want to record your spreads, or at least the particularly interesting ones; it can be quite enlightening to come back to something later and look at them with fresh eyes, and you're basically guaranteed to make new observations. In fact, as I edit this post, I just noticed that all the cards on the horizontal axis (5,1,2,6) depict multiple figures - perhaps a running theme of community, or companionship through thick and thin? Anyway, let's move onto something more light-hearted.

The Oracle of Free Will

I actually made The Oracle for a specific game, a deified monolithic machine in a trash-robot world (think Machinarium, but slightly dumber), essentially using tarot-like punch cards to decree the "Deterministic future that is already written". Occasionally, I still pull it out out every once in a while, cause it ended up being pretty fun at the table. It's also a fairly unique entry o on this list - not only is it player-facing, but it's an interactive spread, which I'll explain in a second. 

  1. Pilgrim's Crown - The asker, and the fates' disposition towards them. "Why you must seek Fulfillment" 
  2. Earthly Hardship -The obstacle on the path to fulfilling the flesh aspiration. 
  3. Flesh Aspiration - The physical object, or person, that the querent must seek out to achieve Fulfillment.
  4. Heavenly Hardship - The obstacle on the path to fulfilling the divine aspiration.
  5. Divine Aspiration - The truth, magic or mechanical beast the querent must seek out to achieve Fulfillment. 
      S. The Query - Special, see below. 

The premise of the oracle's system is that the two aspects of true personhood, The Flesh and The Divine, must both be fulfilled by a cyborg in order to become "fulfilled". The oracle's interpreter presents you with a goal in each, and the major obstacle on the path to each. Once you are shown all the other cards, you may choose any open "slot" between where the two cards are touching: 1-3, 1-5, or 2-4. The S card is then placed there, and gives guidance for that part of your journey towards fulfillment. If it's between the Crown and an Aspiration (1-3 or 1-5), the guidance will suggest where they players may seek out their trial. If the spot between the two Hardships is selected (2-4), the guidance will give a clue as to how one of the hardships can be overcome - but not which. 

Queen of Pentacles, Page of Cups, Ten of Wands, Ten of Cups, Two of Wands. 1-3: The Star.

To achieve the Fulfilment of Parenthood (1), The Flesh and the Divine must be achieved. The Flesh must be tested with the completion of a great, burdensome collection (3), a task made difficult by a self-made genius (2). The Divine requires breaking the shackles of community (4), as the querent must be alone when they discover a new world (5). 

At this point, the player would pick their one query. our hypothetical player picks the 1-3 spot, and we draw The Star. The Interpreter, after a brief consideration, will tell our querent that the collection might be for things of a great spiritual nature, such as great artifacts, or ancient scriptures. 

Now, there's a few fun thing with The Oracle. Because it is ultimately just a big unthinking calculator, its use required the presence of one of the Interpreters of the Will, each of which was a flawed person/machine. Consequently, when players got their interpretation of future events, it was always half-accurate, confusing, and at least somewhat comedic. The "oracle of deterministic destinies" is also jokey because, no matter which of the three options the querent picks, the exact same card will be drawn - which means either that the advice doesn't matter, or that the same card's meaning can be in some way apply to all three options. If you haven't realized yet, this particular game was fairly silly. 

If you'd like to use something like this in a more serious context, you absolutely can; you might make a small modification (such as drawing 3 query cards, putting them face down in the three slots, and then asking the querent to flip the one card they want to inquire of). You might also treat this spread as an oracular option generator: The querent's desire (1) is attained by either choosing (3) or (5), but the path not taken might come back to haunt them (2+3, or 4+5). Whichever one you go for, my players - just make sure you're good at improving on your feet, cause a live audience usually robs you of the luxury of ponderousness. 

Now, surely you don't think I'd end this post on a simple, fun spread. So, here's... 

The World Spindle, aka "The Whole-Ass Setting Spread"

Complicated enough for ya? This is the mother of "I just wanna sit down and think about some cards for an hour' spreads. Featuring almost twenty possible axes of  relationships (which I might formalize one day, if I feel like it), these eleven cards will give you more angles for setting-building than you can shake a divining rod at. If you have access to a themed tarot deck that fits the desired theme of your game (such as a gothic deck, or one of those pink-drenched cyberpunk ones), this is the spread to pull it out for. 
  1. The Heart - The core of your setting. The dominant tone or mood, and/or a key individual, location or event. 
  2. Inception - What created the setting. How the world was made, or how it got to be the way it is now. 
  3. Order - The universal law, or the dominant ethos in the setting. The idea of "good", conceptual or metaphysical.
  4. Chaos - The feared outcome, or basest desire in the setting. The idea of "evil" (as the opposite of "good") 
  5. The Soul - What the people of your setting are about, their very essence. The basic building block of their world. 
  6. Despair - The negative or destroying force of inception. The greatest evil of myth, the dragon.
  7. Hope - The positive or creating force of inception. The greatest good of myth, the hero. 
  8. The Divine - The stable aspect of society. The authority, the crown, the shield and sword that protect. 
  9. The Damned - The shifting aspect of society. The anarchy, the mask, the helmet and hammer that reshape. 
  10. The Rise - The point of societal pride, the greatest success. The "peak" of civilization, as they see it. 
  11. The Ruin - The deepest shame, the greatest disaster. The percieved origin of civilization's decline.
My tarot tool doesn't support rotating at finer increments than right angles, so sorry about that. 
The Devil, The High Priestess, The Hermit, Seven of Pentacles, Eight of Wands, King of Cups, Nine of Swords, Knight of Pentacles, The Magician, Knight of Wands, Wheel of Fortune
First off: finally found where all those Major Arcanas went! Having this many could mean that this is a very dramatic narrative, or highly impactful; in the case of setting creation, we might read that as that the setting being especially packed with conflict, or that it's going through a very tumultuous era, or we could read it to just mean something like there being a lot of magic in the setting. Also, both major diagonals are interesting. the Rising diagonal (6-1-8-10) consists entirely out of "face" cards, which implies importance, while the Ruinous diagonal (7-1-9-11) features some heavy cards, of which 3 are major arcanas! Let's not get ahead of ourselves, though, and start from the beginning. I'll be a bit more detailed since this one's especially involved, so buckle in.

The Devil being our central theme is very interesting. Our setting might be very restricted and dark, or a world of pleasure and excess; I also like the idea of it being more literal and saying that our setting is hell-like, either an actual underworld or simply terrible to live in. Perhaps the setting even exists because of the devil himself, or his equivalent. The High Priestess, of sacred knowledge and the subconscious mind, isn't giving me any ideas as the Inception, so I'm going to put it on the back burner for now. The Hermit and The Seven of Pentacles being Order and Chaos is quite intriguing, it tells me of a setting where solitude and isolation are considered positives, while perseverance and investment are disastrous. So in this setting, people and communities are small and communicate rarely, and they never stay in one place for long. The eight of wands supports this, telling me that flight or movement is core to their nature. This is already a very solid basis to build on - the people of this world are isolated and nomadic, because the world around them is hellish and hostile.

The King of Cups is an emotional card, and connects our priestess and pentacles. This one doesn't quite make sense yet, but once we look at the Hope, it all clicks into place. The Nine of Swords is a very negative card, and this juxtaposed with the Despair, the Theme and the Inception now makes it clear - our Hope is a Hero who has failed. He has attempted to bring the sacred knowledge of creation to the world (2), and has in his emotional folly (6) released the ultimate evil on the world (1). The setting is some sort of post-apocalypse, a bitter made by ambition. 

The Divine aspect is the force of immutability, for which the Knight of Pentacles is a very appropriate choice. Routine and conservative, the traditions of society are firmly entrenched, and the specific rituals of existence must be closely observed. Two knights and a king on the rising diagonal support this being an authoritarian (and probably militaristic) society. The Magician, the resourceful and action-oriented, makes a natural counter-element to this. The Damned aspect is the force of instability, and this card tells me of a disquieted subset of the society that plans to bring dramatic and sudden changes. Perhaps a new tool has been found, one that finally makes it possible to settle in one place - or maybe even one that can be used to fight the great evil? This also sounds like an potentially exciting role for player characters to take in the setting. 

Our Rise is the Knight of Wands, an energetic and action-oriented figure, which both cements the idea of a rapidly-expanding military society and adds an interesting angle to the history. Was it this explosive growth that played a key part in the ruin? The Wheel of Fortune is an interesting Ruin to be sure, a card that speaks of great changes, and importantly, karma: the Ruin was something that civilization had coming to it. A classic story of self-interest and thoughtless expansion coming back to bite you on the ass. 

So, with all that wishy-washy narrative theorycrafting out of the way, let's try and make something with this.

A great empire, dominant with its oppressive industry and mighty technology (5), aimed to bring all others under its banner (10). An important figure, perhaps a regretful general of the empire (7), opposed this, and decided to side with the conquered people (6). Seeking a way to end the conquest, the figure discovered the existence of ancient sacred knowledge (2), a magic power that could remove the great empire's ability to fight. However, the empire's unchecked pollution had somehow interfered with the magic, and made it wild and uncontrolled (11) - instead of reverting the world to a pristine, untouched state, the entire world became the sickly hellscape (1) that the empire was trying to get away from. Now beset by twisted monsters of their own creation, the survivors had to adapt to a new way of life: surviving aboard huge airships, forced to live in mostly small groups (3) that traverse the blasted world to find what small pockets of resources they can, and moving on before they attract the greatest of devils (4). The remnants of the feudalism still held, with the greatest of the "flying cities" declaring themselves the iron rulers of the skies (8). While most have consigned themselves to a life of toil aboard their sky-locked settlements, a new hope has appeared - snippets of magic-knowledge has been rediscovered. Learning the lessons of the past, a small but dedicated group of mages and their followers (9) intend to take their land back from the monsters that took it away from them.
Get it? Taking their home-land back from "the monsters that took it"? Do you get it? 
Not too shabby for a few minutes of thought. And, to say it again, that's just a first draft, and only of one interpretation at that. Further contemplation might give me even more ideas for setting details, or give me inspiration to refine what's there. Or, if I'm just not feeling it, I might just scrap the whole thing and redo it - perhaps create a spacefaring thing instead of cheesy airships, or some sort of One Way Heroics-type deal. There's always something new glean from the cards. 


Hopefully you've gotten something out of all this, even if it's just a non-committal desire to go mess around with a tarot deck - I'd consider even that to be a win. You might not find the same joy in sitting around interpreting symbolic cardboard as I do, and that's fine. But if you do end up doing one of these, do tell me about it; I find that people tend to make way more interesting concepts than I do. That's why I steal every idea that isn't nailed down - but that's a story for a different post.

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