Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Towards the end of yesterday's post I was getting a little impatient with the whole blogging thing, so I kind of rushed. Despite the fact that Cartomancy is actually a fairly serious project of mine - I'm pledged to have a playtestable version by next year's GenCon - I gave it a rather brief treatment. So, today I'm going to talk a little more about Cartomancy in specific and game design in general.

The idea of writing a roleplaying game that somehow incorporated tarot cards has been with me - and a lot of other people - for a long time. After going through several incarnations, including a LARP during college, I have finally settled on a mechanic that I think I like.

It's fairly simple: the game's primary resource is Tarot cards. You have a hand of cards, which you spend to achieve things and draw as a reward. Your character sheet consists of four Fates and a list of Skills and Equipment. The four Fates are the four Tarot suits: Coins, Cups, Rods, and Swords. Each Fate has an associated number, from 1 to 10, and then Page, Knight, Queen, and King (P, N, Q, and K). The Fates are not attributes in the conventional sense. Instead of describing how good your character is at something, they describe to what degree your character's fate lies in that direction. A high Fate score means that your character will have an easier time resistinge efforts to sway him in that regard: that is, a powerful Rods score means that you, the player, have more control over whether or not your character succeeds in a fight, not whether or not your character is any good at fighting. In fact, your character might be really, really lousy at fighting. A high Rods score means that you have the power to determine this. Each Fate also has a descriptor, a brief phrase that outlines your character's fate in that arena. These Fates can be good (in which case they are called Destinies), bad (in which case they are called Dooms), or you can leave it blank for now (in which case, you have what is called a Fortune). The only way you can improve your character's score in his Fates is to achieve them. Every time you achieve a Fate, your score in that Fate goes up, and you recieve some other benefits. Dooms are worth more than Destinies. At the beginning of play, everyone also selects for each of his Fates another character's Fate to declared Crossed or Conjunctional. When one of your Fates crosses someone else's, you are saying "I can only get this if he doesn't get that." When your Fates are Conjunctional, you are saying "I can only get this if he does get that."

In conflict, everyone gets to play one card from their hand. The order of play is determined by that card's numeric value, plus all relevant Skills and Attributes.Yyou can opt to go later, but you can't go earlier, and if there's a race to the bottom - which there will be - whoever has the highest starting number wins. You play your cards as though the table were one big Tarot spread: you can Cross someone's card with yours, narrating how you defy them, or you can Support someone's card with yours, narrating how you strengthen their efforts, or you can Follow someone's card with yours, moving the scene along and rendering sealing off the followed card from further interference, and so on.

There's also some funky stuff around the villains of the piece: the fae. Old, mad horrors, beautiful and terrible, who used to rule the world but were defeated by the Astronomers and the power of fate. They don't use cards. They aren't playing the game by the same rules as all these mud-creatures. They use dice.

*whew* That's a lot of words. The question is, what does it all mean?

At last year's GenCon, I went to a game design seminar. In theory, the Sons of Kryos podcast on gaming (one of my favorites) will eventually post the seminar, which they recorded. There, I learned about Jared Sorenson's Three Questions. These questions were very helpful for me in understanding what Cartomancy is really about, and now I will share them with you. As articulated by John Wick in his game, Houses of the Blooded (link party!), these questions are:

  1. What is my game about?
  2. How does my game do that?
  3. What behaviors does my game reward and punish?

Let's take them one at a time.

What is My Game About?

Cartomancy is about heroic people struggling against or alongside fate to achieve great things, becoming entangled in fate and in each other, and either being destroyed by fate, rising above it, or sinking into it and never escaping.

In Cartomancy, think Oedipus. Think pretty much everything in Norse mythology.

All of this, against a backdrop of humanity rising from a dark age of ignorance and suspicion (think Renaissance Italy) to a bright future... or towards an even darker age. You get to decide.

How Does My Game Do That?

Cartomancy puts the way your character interacts with fate (through the four Fates) in center stage. The flavor of your character's fate - her Destinies, Dooms, and Fortunes - are likewise front and center. The tactile experience of holding the Tarot cards and laying them out in a pattern on the table in front of you makes you feel like fate is in your hands... which, in Cartomancy, it is.

On the rare occasion that the fae show up, they break the rules. Instead of cards, they use dice, something even more random than the cards, creating the experience that they are not of the world. They are other: chaotic, alien, and dangerous.

What Behaviors Does My Game Reward and Punish?

My game rewards choosing negative fates (Dooms) by making them more rewarding than good fates (Destinies). You are rewarded for seeing your character's fate through to the end, no matter what the cost, or how complicated it gets.

My game rewards stories of entangled destinies by mandating that players relate their Fates of their character with the Fates of other player's characters. You are rewarded for playing a part in other characters' destinies.

* * *

Anyway, as I mentioned before, there is a problem with Cartomancy. Despite the fact that I love me my world building, the big problem is the setting. Of course, the system probably has problems, too, but if I ever got my act together and finished writing it down in a way that someone else could read, I'm basically ready for my first round of playtesting.

The problem with Cartomancy's setting is that it came out a little too typical. I was going for: Renaissance-Italy-like fantasy world, with cultural tensions between the numerous independent city-states and a powerful, secretive pan-national organization - the Astronomers - who claim to have discovered the power of fate and banished the fae years ago. The devil is in the details, and these details produced a setting that, on further reflection, was kind of boring. The Astronomers ended up being a rather typical Crystal Dragon Jesus. The city-states ended up your average, boring Requesite Decadent Culture, the Obligatory Iron-Hard Northerners, the Place Where Cool Swords Come From, and the kingdom of Has Ambigiously Moral Imperial Aspirations.

So, it's back to the Writing Desk with Cartomancy, because I've been working on this idea for way too long to just let it go.


Ben said...

Damn, that sounds like a fun game. I've been toying around with designing an RPG myself, and came up with a similar idea to your requirement that characters must intertwine their fates. BTW, I have heard of a series of books by Michael A. Stackpole that uses the term Cartomancy. I haven't read them myself, but you might want to check them out.

Anonymous said...

I've seen the Stackpole books around, but I haven't had a chance to read them yet. They don't sound like my thing, really. A little too historical stylistic accuracy, whereas I'm more of a hyper-real, if it's consistent I don't care if it makes sense sort of guy.

I'm glad you like Cartomancy, though. I'll send you the rules when I'm ready for broad playtests, if you like.

Scattercat said...

Wouldn't a world where Fate was a known (and knowable) quantity make for some interesting cultural shifts? Winning battles and wars would become less about planning and skill and more about finding the right key points and holding them, however weird and random they might be. I'm seeing a whole new realm of conflict and espionage, in which scrying and cloaking are the weapon/defense synthesizers. That is, you win by tricking your opponent into making the wrong sacrifice, backing the wrong hero, holding the wrong artifacts.

Likewise, emotional/psychological warfare would end up a lot more potent, since the Heroes on either side are really the linchpin of any plan, and if they can be persuaded to deny their winning Fortunes (or embrace their losing Dooms), then your war is won with hardly any casualties at all.

It seems like armies would be almost an afterthought; whoever controls the Heroes controls the world. You'd have diplomacy that was almost literally like a group of people around the gaming table (I'm assuming that those strong enough to change their Fates are rare, of course).

I mean, just think about what it would mean to know the future, to be able to know the course your life will take (and to wonder if you are strong enough to challenge it).

Anonymous said...

Heh. Interesting. I had some thoughts for a game of Fae Lords who tell stories of humans and such, but aside from not knowing where to go further with it I put aside all my RPG designs due to some burning out.

As an aside, The Big Three, which are actually as far as I know, tied to Troy Costisick, and he says no one knows where they originated ;)

Anonymous said...

Oh, you could also try to take a step towards Ben Lehman's Polaris, mood wise, and turn the decadent into more decadent, the hard into harder. But not in a cliche manner, but in a fairy-tale manner.

Think Titus, the movie version with Anthony Hopkins.