Tarot Cards & Tangled Blessings
Exploring how mechanisms can support theme
Welcome to Skeleton Code Machine, a weekly publication that explores tabletop game mechanisms. Spark your creativity as a game designer or enthusiast, and think differently about how games work. Check out Dungeon Dice and 8 Kinds of Fun to get started!
Last week we looked at some potentially outdated mechanisms in tabletop games.
This week we take a look at how tarot cards are used in the Tangled Blessings journaling game!
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Tangled Blessings is a journaling TTRPG for one to two players by Cassi Mothwin. The 60-page game book takes players on a journey to a magical academy to become a wizard. Taking place over four years at the school, you’ll draw tarot cards to generate prompts and learn about your Rival.
On the eve of your final exam at Brackroot Academy, what mysteries, secrets, dread, and drama will you recall from your last four years of schooling?
This was my first time playing a TTRPG that used tarot cards. Having just picked up a rather nice set at PAX Unplugged, I thought Tangled Blessings would be a good way to try them out!
So what are tarot cards?
While today they might be associated with cartomancy, tarot cards originated as regular playing cards for games such as Tarocchi in the 15th century. It’s a complicated history, but the first documented decks are from Italy. The decks consisted of four suits and a series of trump cards with allegorical illustrations.
Modern tarot cards usually consist of a deck of 78 cards divided into two groups:
Major arcana (22 cards): Trump cards numbered 0-21. They have names you might be familiar with such as The Fool, The Lovers, Death, The Sun, Judgement, and The World.
Minor arcana (56 cards): Typically made of four suits similar to the French suits (i.e. Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs, and Spades), each with 10-14 cards in each suit.
Cups, chalices, goblets, vessels, hearts
Pentacles, coins, disks, rings, diamonds
Wands, batons, staves, clubs
Swords, blades, spades
Note that these cards originated as normal trump cards for games, and didn’t have the major and minor acana titles assigned to them until much later in the 19th century.
The cyberpunk-themed Eldritch Overload tarot deck I bought uses Potions, Coins, Wands and Swords as the suits.
Compared to a standard French-suited 52-card deck, the tarot deck provides more options for game mechanisms:
50% more cards (78 vs. 52)
Divisions between major and minor arcana
Thematic illustrations on each of the major arcana cards
Usually 14 cards in each suit vs. 13
Generating prompts with tarot cards
The setup involves dividing the tarot cards into four decks: one for each of the four suits, plus a separate pile for the major arcana cards.
Here’s the game loop for each of the four years at Brackroot Academy:
Draw three minor arcana cards
For each of the three cards, use it to look up the corresponding prompt in the book. In addition, pull a random major arcana card to add some inspiration.
Respond to the prompts and update your journal.
At the end, draw three additional minor arcana cards for your Rival and set them aside.
Shuffle the major arcana cards back into their deck.
This method allows for up to 56 prompts that will be selected when drawing minor arcana cards throughout the game. That’s good, and having another set of 22 major arcana cards for inspiration is something you couldn’t do with a standard poker deck!
After doing this for each of the four years, you’ll have drawn 12 total minor arcana cards for yourself (i.e. three from each suit). You’ll also have put aside 12 cards for your Rival.
Final boss battle
At the end of Tangled Blessings, you go face to face with your Rival for a final test of magical abilities!
Rather than prompts, this final exam is conducted by shuffling the eight decks of cards (two decks of each suit). For each suit you then draw the top card, one for you and one for your rival. The higher card wins.
This creates some tension as you flip the cards and see who won each of the four tests!
In my recent playthrough I won the first, lost the second, and won the third. The final one had some suspense, as I unfortunately lost… bringing the result to a draw.
Both my Rival and I were invited to join the Academy as instructors.
Mechanisms to support the theme
I think there’s a lot to learn from how the final battle is handled in Tangled Blessings.
In one sense, the final exam/battle has only three possible outcomes: Win, Loss, Tie.
Therefore the game could just as easily have said: Roll 1d6. On a 1-2 you win, 3-4, you lose, and 5-6 you tie. I’d argue this has pretty much the same statistical outcome and probability as using tarot cards.
And yet think of how flat and unsatisfying that die roll would have been!
Instead, I was using my cards (the ones I’ve pulled earlier and used for my journal) against unknown cards that had been stored up as I played. As I flipped each card, it felt both suspenseful and meaningful, leading up to the last of the four tests.
I’ve seen people say that “mechanisms need to support the theme” and while that is a hard concept to explain, this seems to be the best example of it. A very satisfying end to a fun game!
Some things to think about:
Tarot cards store more information: There are more cards, more titles, more illustrations, more cards of each suit, and two divisions between the major and minor arcana. When designing a card game, this provides a lot more options vs. the standard 52-card deck.
Tarot cards aren’t cheap: One of the reasons tarot decks are less common is that they can be quite expensive. Decks can be $20 - $50 USD each. This means that while almost everyone has a poker deck in their house, you can’t assume that players will have a tarot deck handy.
Mechanisms that support the theme: I’ve had a hard time articulating what this means, and I’d love if you could share more examples in the comments! Just because two mechanisms have equivalent statistical outcomes doesn’t mean they will generate the same player experience. Consider how your mechanisms impact the game’s theme and player immersion.
For this week’s poll, let’s see how many of you own a tarot deck! Also, if you have a favorite deck with gorgeous art, please comment with a link below!
— E.P. 💀
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