Using Tarot Cards To Help Plan & Inspire Your Games

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0089

  1. Tarot Links
  2. Use Tarot To Generate Plot Hooks
  3. Create Quick Random Encounters
  4. Story Or Plot Design Assistance
  5. Villain Design
  6. Card Interpretation Options
  7. Tarot Encounter Generation
  8. Fortunes As Prophecy
  9. Use A Deck That Suites Your Game
  10. Complex Personalities Layout

Readers’ Tips Summarized

  1. Spooky Game Table Sound Effects
  2. The 3 Dimensions of NPCs
  3. Create Reports Or Journals Of Your Games

A Brief Word From Johnn

Tarot Tips

Last week I posted a very short tip about using tarot cards as a tool to create interesting NPCs. I received a few emails and tips about tarot, so I thought I’d explore the topic a little more. I hope you find a useful idea or two in this week’s issue.

Johnn Four
[email protected]

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Using Tarot Cards To Help Plan & Inspire Your Games

The tips in this issue assume you know a little about tarot cards, what they are, and what they’re normally used for. If you aren’t familiar with them, here are a few links to help you learn more about them:

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Use Tarot To Generate Plot Hooks

Tarot cards are fantastic plot hook generators because they are so open to interpretation.

Method One: In-Game Reading

You can safely do in-game tarot readings using real cards through NPCs, magic items, or technology (i.e. computer, handheld reader, etc.) to give out plot hooks, clues, individual PC goals and motivations, or to simply help steer the party.
There’s two tricks to this that I know of, which will help you stay out of trouble when doing live readings.

  1. Avoid specifics. The more details you give during a reading, especially when forecasting the future, the closer you come to painting yourself into a corner. Instead, use general or mysterious statements whenever possible.For example, telling a PC “you will perish in a fire” is too specific and likely to put stress on your future storytelling. Instead, say something like “avoid the lash of the flame for it stings sharply.”
  2. Keep your story or plot line firmly in mind. If you have a story line or plot roughly worked out, then a tarot reading becomes a fun game for you. Simply try to link each card that turns up, or perhaps the whole reading in general, to your future plans.

Method Two: Canned Reading

Plant a fortune teller in your game, prepare some fortunes beforehand, and give them to the players when the time comes. You will have deliberately created interesting tarot readings that contain plot hooks to help move your story or plot threads along. And, for delivery options, you can make brief notes about the fortunes and paraphrase at the game table, read out carefully prepared scripts, or give written/printed fortunes to the players as hand-outs.

Method Three: Planning Assistance

Stuck for a plot hook while planning next session? Use #2 from the In-Game Reading method above. Think about your plot then draw a card. Read what the card signifies from the booklet that came with your deck, or a key word at the bottom of the card if your deck has them, and write down any and all thoughts that come to mind. After 5-7 cards, you will definitely have a good list of ideas to pick from.

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Create Quick Random Encounters

Need a fast random encounter idea during the game? Secretly draw a tarot card behind your screen and use it to inspire what will happen next.”Hmm… ah, the three of Swords, card of sorrow… I wonder… Oh yes. A tragic figure skilled with the sword. Someone who has killed his loved ones and is now but a shell of what he used to be, yet totally fearless as he has nothing to live for…”

Story Or Plot Design Assistance

I’ve used tarot cards to create many, many stories. All you do is draw the cards and interpret the results:

  • 9 of Cups: start with a tranquil, pleasant little village…
  • XVII Star: …which has a potential for greatness…
  • XIII Death: …now that the old, stifling ruler has perished…
  • Prince of Cups: …which leaves an opening for the party. They meet a mentor, an emotional, caring fellow, perhaps a healer of some sort…
  • 0 Seeker: …who seeks to hire adventurers…
  • 10 of swords: …to prevent a war.

Maybe the old ruler had been a tyrant with an iron fist. After his death, which may have happened under mysterious circumstances, the peasants consider revolt…there have already been some riots. Meanwhile, the fort has been sealed and the garrison, confused now that the person at the top of the hierarchy has died, only comes out heavily armed and ready for anything.

Recently, there was bloodshed when pitchforks, shouts, and throwing stones were met with warhorses, swords, and crossbows. The person with the most authority in the village sees the adventurers as an opportunity to prevent further violence.

I’ve found that laying out the cards in a certain pattern further helps plot design. Create your own patterns and find the one(s) that work best for your GMing style. Here’s mine:

  • I lay 17 cards face down in a certain pattern (for my 6 player group).
  • Card #1: the theme or central conflict of the story.
  • Card #2: the Good Guy. The NPC, group of NPCs, or society who needs the PCs’ help. Depending on the card drawn, it can represent instead a situation that needs fixing rather than being a Good Guy.
  • Card #3: the Bad Guy. This card represents the story’s villain, in whatever way, shape, or form.
  • Card #4: the Crux. I place this card between #2 & #3 and it represents what the Good Guy and the Bad Guy are fighting over. It’s the conflict of the story.
  • Card #5: the Reward. I put this card above #4. It signifies how the PCs can gain by helping solve the Crux.
  • Card #6: the Penalty. This card goes underneath #4 and tells what will happen if the PCs fail in their mission.
  • Card #7: Good Guy Motivation. I place this card cross-wise on top of the Good Guy and it represents why the Good Guy needs help.
  • Card #8: Bad Guy Motivation: This card is placed cross- wise on top of the Bad Guy and explains his reasons for getting involved with the Crux.
  • Cards #9-#11: Encounters. I usually create three major encounters or events for my plots, and let any number of minor encounters happen spontaneously during the game to flesh the story out. These cards represent an idea for each of the major encounters I’ll create. I place these underneath the Crux in a neat pile.
  • Cards #12-#17: The PCs. Finally, I place a card for each PC below all the other cards on the table. These cards represent the individual character hooks I’ll try to use to get the players involved with the story. While I’ll plan a hook for each PC, I usually only end up using a couple of them due to unexpected PC decisions during play. However, it means that there is at least two PCs with strong motivation to pursue a story, and that’s usually enough for my group.
  • I turn the cards over, interpret them, and write out my notes in the following order: #1, #4, #3, #2, #8, #7, #5, #6, #9 to #17.

I also use the meanings of reversed cards, when they come up, to signify plot twists. This doesn’t always work out, but it can sometimes generate excellent twist ideas.

Villain Design

I wasn’t going to mention this tip because using tarot for NPCs was briefly covered last week. But, after writing out the pattern for Tip #4, I thought you might find my villain pattern of value.To recap tip #4 above, you can create patterns for your tarot readings to specifically help you with the villain design process.

Here’s my villain pattern:

  • I draw 10 cards and place them face down.
  • Card #1 the Villain. This card represents an overall summary or description of the villain.
  • Card #2 Primary Objective. This card signifies what the villain wants more than anything else.
  • Card #3 Motivation. Why does the Villain pursue his Primary Objective? Sometimes I’ll also use this card to generate more ideas for #2. When played, I put it on top of #1 cross-wise.
  • Cards #4-#6: the Conflict. #4 represents what is preventing the Villain from achieving his Primary Objective. Cards #5 and #6 are idea cards to flesh the Conflict out, if I need help. I put these cards in between #1 and #2, in a small pile.
  • Card #7: Dominant Trait #1. I added Cards #7-#9 to the layout after reading the Complete Book of Villains published by TSR in 1994. This card represents the Villain’s main character trait (i.e. hot tempered, morose, etc.). I place cards #7 and #8 above #1.
  • Card #8: Dominant Trait #2.
  • Card #9: Contradictory Trait. Even bad guys have a good trait or two, such as caring parent, sense of honour, etc. This card goes above #7 and #8, sideways.
  • Card #10: Chief Flunky. This card represents the Villain’s second in command, chief servant, or most important ally. I have no real place for this card, and usually just set it off to the side.

I turn over the cards in the following order: #1, #2, #4 (#5 & #6, if needed), #3 to #10.

Also, if I get stuck, I’ll draw another 3+ cards to represent the Villain’s plan of action. Sometimes I’ll get a weird card combination that gels into a really strange and interesting plan–perfect for insane or psycho bad guys.

I haven’t thought about it before, but I suppose I could use this same layout to create regular NPCs with. I’ll have to test that out!

Card Interpretation Options

A couple of quick words about interpreting tarot cards for roleplaying. For most decks, you have three main options for interpretation:

  1. Words. Your cards might have descriptive words on them that you can use to create an interpretation. For example, my Aleister Crowley Thoth deck has a descriptive word on every card:
    • Success
    • Ruin
    • Happiness
    • Virtue, etc.
  2. Pictures. Feel free to use the imagery on the card to generate your ideas. The Rider tarot deck is particularly suitable for fantasy campaigns.
  3. Meanings. Almost all new decks come with a little interpretation booklet that you can use as a handy reference in-game or while planning.

Feel free to use one, two, or all three options when interpreting your cards.

Also, many decks provide alternate meanings for when a card turns up upside down. Feel free to use this as well.

And then there’s the overall interpretation. Look at what impression the cards give as a combined entity. And look for any patterns, such as numbers, colour, suits, minor arcana vs. major arcana, etc. to provide additional inspiration.

Tarot Encounter Generation

Aki Halme sent in, among many great tips for using tarot in games, this example of using the cards to create encounters:”The party is entering a village. What is happening in it?

  • 8 of Wands: They see an area where haste and speed are paramount…
  • VII Chariot: … and teamsters prominent …
  • IV Emperor: … as ordered by the patriarch of the place.
  • 9 of Swords: There’s a cruel event about to unfold…
  • IX Hermit: … and not all like it.
  • II High Priestess: … maybe the event has religious connotations.

So, at first glance, the place is bustling with activity, as a local ruler has high-handedly ordered everyone to prepare for an activity of his choice. 9 of swords speaks of cruelty, Hermit and High Priestess suggest that maybe not all agree with this chosen course of action. Maybe this particular village has a tradition of setting a criminal or some other individual at large, to be hunted down as sport.. perhaps to bring a good harvest.”

Johnn: I also use the same layout in Tip #4 to create complex or major encounters.

Fortunes As Prophecy

I have yet to use tarot well in-game for telling prophecies. This has more to do with my prophecy creation ability than the use of the cards, though. Maybe prophecy would be a good future issue topic? Anyway, tarot cards should make an excellent tool for creating prophecies.You could, for example, lay out seven cards, with each card representing a step or verse of the prophecy. You could also do two readings and create a pair of competing prophecies (like in the David Eddings’ Belgariad series).

Use A Deck That Suites Your Game

There are dozens of types of tarot decks, including fairy tale, sword & sorcery, vampires, and sci-fi. There are also different shapes and sizes. Pick a genre of deck that suits your game best.Joshua L. writes:

“There are 100s, if not 1000s of different tarot cards, so if you are in a long running campaign, and use tarot cards, it may make sense to by a tarot deck specifically for that setting. (Although you can always experiment with a ‘generic’ tarot deck, first.) For example: there are tarot decks for the following themes that I can name off the top of my head: Silicon Valley, J.R.R. Tolkein, Star Wars, Native American, Celtic Myth, Animals, Elements.”An enhancement to your deck would be an interesting container.

For example, the deck I use during games is in a neat, carved, wooden box. This not only keeps the cards together and safe, but it also becomes a good prop. Look for wooden boxes at garage sales, flea markets, and antique stores. A bag would also be a good container (cotton, leather, corduroy, etc.).

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Complex Personalities Layout

From Joshua L.

“For more complex tarot created personalities (maybe for the head bad guy, or a PC’s relatives), you can use a circle of 12 cards, each one representing one house. (I think the 12 houses are Body, Money, Siblings, Family, Hobbies, Daily Routine, Spouse, Sex/Death/Taxes, Philosophy, Profession, Friends, and Mind).”

Thanks to Aki Halme, Joshua L, Robin P, and Notty for their tarot tips.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Spooky Game Table Sound Effects

From Andy

I’ve run a few contemporary horror games and found that if you play at a wooden table you can make all sorts of appropriate sound effects. Scratch your nails across the bottom for dogs (or whatever) clawing at doors. All you nail-biters will have to use a plastic fork or something to scratch with.Make an occasional muffled thump while the PCs are RPing amongst themselves. Do it sneakily and enjoy the reaction you get when someone goes “wait a minute, what was that?” and everyone looks around like startled rabbits!

Suddenly coming across a broken down door in what they previously thought was a barricaded building is good too, especially if they realise that the door was broken down from the inside.[Johnn: can anybody else think of sound effects you can make with a table, chairs, or anything else? Email me at [email protected] ]

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The 3 Dimensions of NPCs

From Patrick M.

There are many facets to individualizing NPCs. I’d like to explain three of the most important.

  1. Personality
  2. Drive
  3. Ambience


Characters are always defined by what and who they are, no matter if they are NPCs or PCs. So, personality is a very important part of how the NPC is perceived by the audience (your players).Some possible ways are:

  • Use Archetypes Everybody knows the sneaky thief, the big overweight barkeeper, the sweet, sexy barmaid, the somewhat gay- behaving boutique-owner, the old, fat lady with too much make-up who owns the wild west brothel, the unfriendly or foreign cab-driver, the weapon-loving redneck, the vulgar bulgar, the cheese cheater, the naive maiden, the evil sorcerer, the stupid orc captain. Watch movies and tv-shows and pick the archetypes you need…
  • Exaggerate As GM you have to transport as much perceptive information as possible, in the shortest time, to your audience. And, because players rely on aural senses mostly, you have to compensate a lot. You can do this by exaggerating. In voice, tone, manner, body language, etc. Show the NPCs’ emotional state. Pick any emotion that might suit your NPC and act it out. e.g. melancholic, depressed, happy, sad, funny, excited and so on…
  • Show off Don’t be afraid to act silly. If you are not afraid to act, you not only give your NPCs more life, you will also encourage your PCs to act more out of character, without being afraid of being an idiot.
  • Use The Opposite Of Archetypes To leave an impression of an NPC, you can use the opposite of what the PCs expect to meet. If they look for the old witch, she might turn out to be a beautiful blond woman. The evil king the commoners complained about might be an ordinary man who tries to make it right for everyone, but is struggling with economic problems. The cult near the village might turn out to be a small commune of faithful people fighting the intolerance of uneducated pagans. The mean rockers in the cheap bar could be a bunch of weekend bike- lovers with a nice personality. The nice old man with the long beard who enters the inn at the beginning of the adventure (hehehe) could turn out to be the evil wizard the group will try to hunt down in the future.As archetypes help the GM roleplay a certain sort of character fast, the opposite of archetypes draws attention and opens new perspectives.


Like all life forms, even NPCs have, more or less, defined goals and beliefs. While some NPCs might help the PCs, others might not. Sometimes it’s clear why, sometimes it’s not. If a PC stops a pagan on the main street to ask the way to the library, the NPC might be in a hurry, ignoring the PCs request completely, or he might be having a bad day, shouting at the PCs to leave him alone, walking away mumbling about all the bad things on earth.

Or maybe the poor PC just picked the NPC who is just looking for someone to talk to and starts to tell the PC his full life story. Maybe the NPC is a stranger in town himself? Or doesn’t speak the local language, or is deaf, mute, or just the village idiot on his daily shift thru town.Every being has its own ambition, let the PCs feel these ambitions. The beggar on the corner might want to earn his money for his daily dose of ale, while the shopkeeper wants to make a good deal.

Sometimes it’s that easy, sometimes it’s not.Every NPC may be worth a subplot. The beggar could just as well be a young knight, far away from his home-court, who has lost all his belongings to a thief while he took a bath in a lake. The shopkeeper could be the leader of a local rebellion. This would let him act completely different. The young, pretty barmaid that is dressed up sexy, ready to tease the customers, might just be a nice girl who uses her sex appeal to earn some extra money on tips to support her poor parents because they lost their farm to a fire last year.

The knight that blocks the bridge, asking for a duel to pass it, might be a impersonator who found the chivalric equipment near a lake, where the REAL knight took a swim, and stole it from him.While it does not have to be so twisted all the time, and while the truth behind the NPCs’ motivation might never be revealed, it gives the GM more “grip” on the NPC. Of course, if you overdo it, you may irritate the players.

But, as mentioned, they possibly never realize that there is more to the NPC than the regular unimportance, but YOU as GM will have more fun and be more eager to play out your NPCs if you know their drive and motivation. And who knows? Maybe you can come up with a whole bunch of new subplots to lengthen your normal campaign…


The use of voices was discussed in issue #80 of the “Roleplaying Tips” [ RPT#80 – Creating Npc Voices: 6 Techniques & Tips From Subscribers ], so I will talk about other possibilities on how to give ambience and colour to your NPCs.A thing I do very often is give different NPCs different styles of body language. While I sit up straight, chest forward, belly pulled in to be the noble knight, I might make a Hunchback and draw a face (like Martin Feldman in Frankenstein Junior) to act out the servant of a mad scientist.

I sit back with a slight bend to my spine playing the old hag. The beggar has a twisted leg, the village idiot a twist in his eyes, and the noble has his nose somewhere in the sky. Again, use, abuse, and misuse archetypes if you like.Another good way to leave an impression is to use special background music for a special NPC. Everybody knows the “Tamtamtatam tam ta taam tam ta taam”, just a few seconds before Darth Vader enters the scenery.

Take a flashlight and light up your face from below, and stand up while you talk with authority to make the players feel small. Light up a (cheap) cigar, if they are talking to the crimeboss, or to Columbo. Blink rapidly with your left eye every time a PC says something that an NPC does (not) like. Rub your hands when the merchant thinks he is making a good deal. Point into the air with your finger every time the cleric talks about the almighty. Take a handkerchief to clean off the sweat on your forehead if they are talking to a jazz- trumpeter.

Pick your nose if you are playing the little farmers boy whom the PCs are asking something. Flip a coin if they are talking to “Frenzzo ‘the Knife’ Primezza”. Scratch, stroke, twist your beard (imaginary or not), say “…errr…” after every half sentence. Grin evilly after every sentence, laugh out loud and stop again immediately.Act as silly as you need to, but try to keep a specific ambient to one NPC so the PCs can always recognize this particular NPC.

Which brings me to the next tip: Reuse your NPCs. You are familiar with the faces in the local department store you go to every week. And while you might not speak to all the people there, you know their faces and maybe even know the way they behave. It makes the world the PC and NPCs live in more real if the armourer is the same guy at the same place. The wandering merchant could be met in a different town sessions later. The daughter of a baron could be met a few months later in a different land where she has married.

Or the crime lord the PCs hunted down comes back some time later to take revenge. The demon the PCs sent back last time is the same Demon the mage in the next town just summoned for the PCs because they need some hell-knowledge. And, as always, exaggerate a bit.

A few general tips: always have some empty paper ready to make notes of NPCs that you just made up. I used to make small versions of the character sheet for our house system where I noted the most important things, including where and how the NPC met the PCs the first time, what the outcome of the encounter was, what kind of voice and body language the NPC uses, what he looks like, what his general beliefs and motivations are and some notes on the NPCs personality.

And maybe one last hint. NPCs should never be just the background figure in a movie, they have lives of their own, and as the world goes on to turn, they go on with their lives.

Hope it was of some help. Have fun!

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Create Reports Or Journals Of Your Games

From Olle J.

All the groups I’ve played in have used “the session report” in some way or another. Communicate from the point of view of your character. In roleplaying games it can be very good documentation–everyone forgets things, and it is very nice to have later on.Currently I play Necromunda, the miniatures tabletop game, with a bunch of guys, and we try to make session reports for each game night.

Of course, not everyone will participate, but each line someone writes adds to the game world (the diegesis, if you will). The gangers of our hive are well- documented, and the story unfolds each time we play.Some report hints:

  1. Short is best Keep it short, and embellish only briefly. Someone must have the strength to read your prose later.
  2. POV Point of view is more important than getting things across in a personal report. If your assignment is to make a group report, include less of POV, and write more condensed.
  3. Regularity Keep up with your sessions. If you find your prose lacking in style, then the only thing that can get you anywhere is practice. Doing reports helps give you experience in summarizing events in few words. Your proof-reading skills will increase also.