Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Cards Say...

Up there with ghosts and paladins (and, as you'll someday hear, robots), tarot cards are a symbol - or set of symbols - that I find pretty endlessly fascinating (see this post for my roleplaying game based on tarot cards, and stay tuned for more news on that particular project). Does that make them a darling sacred cow? Probably not, at least, not yet. While I certainly like tarot cards, I don't shoehorn them into my stories with any frequency. In fact, I don't think I've written a single story that leaned heavily on tarot cards. However, it's something to look at.

Enough self doubt! On with the show! What is it, exactly, that makes the tarot so interesting?

According to Wikipedia, tarot is also known as tarochi or tarock. It is composed of four suits - Coins or Pentacles, Cups, Rods, and Swords - numbered from one to ten, with four face cards: page, knight, queen, and king. Each of the suits has a different set of themes - Cups stands for emotion, happiness, and the element of water, and Swords stands for intellect and the element of air, for example - as does each number - the five, for example, tends to stand for destruction and disaser. Each of these "minor arcana" cards also has an individual meaning which may or may not have anything to do with its meaning on the suit/number grid. There are also twenty-two "trump" or "major arcana" cards, unique cards, each with a name, a number, and a complex meaning. In addition to its divinatory uses (many and varied) the deck can also be used to play an Italian game called Tarocchini and a French game called (unsurprisingly) French Tarot (both of which I now want to play).

Before we go any further, let's tackle the whole divination issue. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that my position is actually quite tame. Do the cards really reveal the future? Are they tied to some power that transcends space and time? How the hell should I know. All I know for sure is that using the cards - performing divinatory spreads, meditating on their meanings, and so on - is fun and relaxing. My current belief is that as a set of flexible symbols, the tarot allows me to tap into my own subconscious and see the things I don't let myself see with my waking mind. Is there anything else down there in the depths of my mind? Who knows? You'll be the first I tell if I ever figure it out.

That being said, the tarot is a huge wealth of themes and cultural threads. The tarot is based on Jewish mysticism. It's also got roots in Medieval alchemy. Some legends say that the tarot is all the remains of an oracular book that was destroyed with the Great Library of Alexandria (the illustrations, that is, the text explaining them having been lost). Others claim it originated in Atlantis, Lemuria, Mu (or Pittsburg! No, wait a minute, that doesn't make any sense...), or one of the other legendary fallen civilizations of our past. The venerable yet culturally nonspecific nature of the tarot is probably part of it's general appeal for fantasists. You can stick tarot into any story of myth and magic (modern or otherwise) and discover that it doesn't clash with your general motifs.

The illustrations on the cards have remained thematically similar over the years, though the past forty years or so has seen an explosion of new tarot decks. These days, you can buy the classic Waite-Rider deck, a Celtic tarot, a Mage: the Ascension tarot produced by White Wolf, the Tarot of Marseilles, and a Vertigo tarot (the Abigail's Hannukah gift to me - thanks, the Abigail!), just to name a few of the decks I own, and I'm picky. I try avoid heavy-handed decks that beat the original cards about the head and shoulders with an external agenda/symbolism, like the Vampire Tarot or the Goddess Tarot - though that's less because I believe that the cards are offended and more because I'm a snob and would be too distracted to have any fun. However, as a writer, the huge variety of tarot decks adds to its flexibility. Again, especially in a modern story, you can always pick the tarot deck that matches the general motif of your work.

From a roleplaying perspective, tarot cards add a great little twist. Prophetic powers (possibly worth a whole post) can be really problematic - how do you deal with your players knowing the future of your game - but the tarot is a unique solution. Instead of forcing yourself to reveal your plot in plain language, use of the tarot (or another, similar divinatory tool) in your game allows you to reveal the future in general terms and then let your players have fun trying to figure out what the cards mean and arguing about in character, as their characters' various personality issues and agendas join the fray.

From a narrative perspective, the cards have an interesting trick. You see, according to some mystics the symbols of the tarot tell a story. Not just any story, the story - the story of life. The cards begin in youth and innocence with the Fool, progress through adolescence and self-mastery with the Magician, the High Priestess, and the Emperor, through old age and wisdom with the Hermit, to, well, Death.

Of course, the tarot doesn't stop there. At that point, it progresses to the themes of mythology and spirituality. After the journey of life, we have the soul's journey: the Devil, Justice, Judgment, and the World, whatever that means.

As a writer already enamored of the idea of stories within stories within stories, the tarot as a flexible storytelling device within my stories tickles me pink. And that is probably the center of my fascination with the tarot. Each card is a part of a story, is a story in itself. All these stories interacting, within a story of my devising... it's a pretty beautiful concept.

Of course, and at last, but not least, there's something about the aesthetic of the tarot that strikes my fancy. That's probably part of why I don't like to stray too far from the original symbolism, or at least from decks that remain inspired by the original symbols. Take a long, hard look at a tarot card (I've provided two for your enjoyment). The symbolism is messy and weird, with strange little details; strange little details that have been memorized and pored over and reproduced from generation to generation. Do they mean anything? Who knows?

Look at a tarot card. Isn't the symbolism often powerful, sometimes even a little spooky. Look at the Hanged Man - hanging by his ankle but staring at you with a look of total peace on his face. Look at the King of Pentacles, brooding on his dark throne, gazing at the huge coin in his hand. Consider the Magician with his youthful face and table full of arcane implements, with his snake-shaped belt and his mystically significant disco-pose. Contemplate the angel that stands behind the Lovers, with his hands held in the air and his whole body afire.

What's not to be fascinated with?

* * *

In other news, I have bad news.

I have decided that it's time for Cartomancy to spring off this mortal coil. That is, to send it from the Back Burner where it's been relaxing to the Threshing Room for recycling (for an explanation as to what the hell I'm talking about, see this post). Why am I doing this? I've realized that I was all wrong about Cartomancy from the very beginning.

The trouble I was experiencing with Cartomancy was that the setting fell off. I worked very hard on a system that I thought was clever and captivating, but the system was total derivitive crap. Not derivitive in the scooped sense, in the "contains no original ideas, or even original combinations of ideas, and really I can do a lot better" sense.

Once I realized that the setting was not only nothing special, it actually wasn't any good, it got me thinking. What was I trying to do with this game, anyway? What is it about? When the answer came to me, I didn't like it. The answer was "this game is about making a game that uses tarot cards as its randomizer."

Maybe tarot cards are a bit of a darling cow for me, after all.

Once I saw that, all my difficulties became painfully obvious. The somewhat overcomplicated system, the flat and uninspired setting, it all made sense. I had started off on the wrong foot; my failure was inevitable from the beginning. This doesn't mean that I'll never write Cartomancy or something like it, but it does mean that it's time to let this project steep a little longer. I still want to write a game that uses tarot cards, but I'll wait until the right idea comes along.

Probably I could write an entire post about when to give up on a project of any kind (roleplaying game experience, roleplaying game writing, story), but this is not that post. Allow me, instead, to leave with this:

I have other ideas. A new game is in the cards.

* * *
  • What is your favorite tarot card and why?
  • When have you used the themes of the tarot in your writing?
  • When have you used actual tarot cards as a prop in your stories?
  • Have you ever used the tarot as a writing tool?
  • Isn't this the prettiest Burning Zeppelin post yet? I think it is.

No comments: