The best prop I can have at a larp is a deck of tarot cards. They’re pretty; they’re powerful; they’re mystical. I love going to occult themed larps where they can be brought in for pretty much any reason, but if it makes sense for your character they can make sense in almost any larp. Tarot readings are great because they are fundamentally narrative in nature and shape themselves to any kind of situation. And the kind of skills a con artist uses in real life can be used to deepen and intensify the experiences of your co-players. So I’d like to give a little guide to getting started with tarot and how to make the most of it at a larp. The concepts can be used for pretty much any kind of divination, but tarot is just so dang evocative and iconic, it’s hard to beat if it’s an option. But if rune stones, animal entrails, or the I-Ching are a better fit for a given larp, the same basics go for them.
There’s no actual magic in tarot cards beyond what we invest in them. They’re just an older form of regular playing cards that later got used by occultists, latter day witches and spiritualists as a tool or trick. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be used for powerful stuff. The names and images on them have been refined to touch on very strong universal themes in the human experience that we can tap into and they’re surrounded by a mystical story that we can use to make them more serious than they really are. Especially in a context like a larp, where we allow ourselves to believe in magic and the power in things just a little more. Tarot cards tap into the power of ritual in all the best ways on a scale that’s quick and easy to use in a larp setting. They’re fundamentally a narrative device, which is why they’re a perfect complement for role-playing. They tap into our subconscious and our brain provides patterns and explanations to make them speak meaningfully. There really is no magic, but when we allow ourselves to believe, there is.
But let’s get started with the practical side of things.
Choosing your deck
There are a ton of different tarot decks. You can get pretty much any kind, theme, and quality. It’s really all about finding one that speaks to you. And in the case of larp: one that fits into the fiction you’ll be playing in. I have two recommendations: The first is to go for the classic Rider-Waite-Smith or Universal Waite-Smith decks gorgeously illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith. It’s the one you’ve seen used a hundred times with the iconic pictures. It fits nicely into a wide range of time periods and people know exactly what it is. The iconography is quite evocative and pretty easy to work with. You hardly ever go wrong with a classic Rider-Waite-Smith. The second, and my personal favourite, is the Thoth Tarot designed by Aleister Crowley. It has a few twists on the classic deck and is more modern looking, but the cards are more abstractly expressive in the art and each comes with a label that drips drama. But if you go to the shop and find that the panda tarot deck really speaks to your next character, go for it. Just make sure the cards can inspire you when you use them. A good beginner trick is to ditch the Minor Arcana of Swords, Wands, Cups, and Pentacles and just focus on the Major Arcana with the big hitters like The Devil, The Tower, or The Lovers, until you are more comfortable with the cards.
Setting the Mood
Tarot really benefits from doing just a little bit of work on setting the mood before using them. Use a tablecloth; the cards are easier to pick up and it looks nicer. Light up a few candles; the flickering light will make the artwork come alive. And maybe place the deck on a nice plate rather than pulling it straight out of the pack. Be super obvious and ritualistic about how you shuffle them. Craft a little space where you, the cards, and the person you are reading them for are in tight focus. Tarot requires focus and a little drama to work their best. And get the recipient to contribute too: have them formulate a definite question they want inspiration for. Never offer clear answers, though. Just that you’ll help show them what lies ahead. Have them pick out a card to represent themselves if you have the time. If you’re the dramatic sort, a few invocations or ritual phrases might also be a good addition, but always play them as seriously as you can.
You can do a tarot reading like a show, talking all the way through the process while the recipient is just an audience member, but you’re much better off thinking of it as a dialogue. Both for their immersion and for making it easier on yourself. I like to get myself very calm, speaking slowly and as if I am teaching the person across from me to read the cards themselves, rather than as divine inspiration through me. I like to leave a bit of uncertainty and magic in just exactly how I know the things I say and how the cards reveal them. And I give the other person plenty of time and silence to think and react if they need it. Shape it to your own personal style, your character and the person you are reading for. It’s a one-on-one kind of show, so play into the strengths that it gives.
Con artists have two main techniques when doing these kinds of things out in the real world that you’ll find useful in larps as well: cold reading and hot reading. Cold reading is basically using the person you are talking to, to reveal things about themselves. It’s the same skill you’d use to guess which cards people have at the poker table, or when your friend is grinning ear to ear, but won’t tell who they kissed last night. With a little practice you’ll quickly notice which of your words impact them and which you need to skip past. Throw a lot of stuff out and see what sticks; they won’t likely remember the misses. See when their ears prick up, when their eyes become unfocused, or their attention zooms in. Try to shape moments where they’re the ones talking and you’re just confirming. The human brain is trash at remembering who said what, so odds are they’ll remember you telling them something they revealed themselves. It can be a little tricky to do while juggling the cards at first, but really fun when you get it working. There’s no reason to rush, so take your time to observe your audience.
Hot reading is when you know things about the person they don’t know that you know about them. Con men will do a background check on their targets and then pretend angels told them, but in larp we can just read their character sheet beforehand or notice what kind of drama they’ve been in recently, or even have an offgame chat before the reading to lay out the themes. It’s where you can really help someone’s play by pushing them at choices their character has to make or realizations they’re just about to make. Bringing in characters they’re in conflict with or want to seduce. It’s a great steering tool or just a super fun way to mess with their heads. I like to leave most of it unspoken between us. I’ll hint at the thing, but never name it, to preserve the magical feeling. If I saw them have a big row with their brother earlier, I’ll start talking about how the cards mean family and the great price of loving someone, and see if they pick up on that. If they’re the ones making the realizations themselves, it’s often much more dramatic.
If you have the dexterity to pack the deck beforehand, you can choose which cards come up during the reading. It’s rarely subtle, but it can definitely be impactful. I personally have too many thumbs for it, so I can’t really give any practical tips; my skills are more in the area of making the most of the cards as they fall. That also keeps the magic alive a bit even after the larp is over, but that’s a matter of taste.
You can do a tarot reading by just drawing a single card, but you get a lot of synergy out of having several in a layout on the table. Don’t go overboard; more cards aren’t better. The sweet spot is usually between three and five cards total. How you place them on the table is up to you. It’s a fun way to shape the dialogue beforehand. The classic is the Celtic Cross where you make a cross with the recipient’s chosen signifier in the middle and there’s a card for the past, the future, what’s working against them, and what’s helping, but you really can do any pattern. I like a Y-shape if someone is facing a choice or laying a wall if someone is up against a challenge. Or a circle if they want to know where they stand. It’s up to you. Just give each card position a clear metaphorical meaning when you lay down the card. I like to lay all the cards except the first out facedown in their place and then turn them over during the reading as needed.
Layers of Meaning
The last skill is the “actual” interpretation of the cards. This is where most beginners feel intimidated, but just remember that there is no right answer for any card. It’s all about how well it connects to the target. Just keep bringing forth meanings until you strike gold.
Depending on the deck you have, there will be various amounts of things to work with on each, but every card will always have a couple of these:
- What is the immediate feeling the card inspires?
- What does the picture show? Who are the people in the picture to the recipient?
- What is the colour of the card? What emotion does that bring out?
- What is the value of the card?
- What suit is the card?
- What name does the card have?
You don’t need to use all of them, just whatever seems to fit best in the situation. These are usually obvious enough to get started talking and seeing what the other person reacts to, if not try another aspect of the card and so on. If you have a hard time, leave it and go on to the next card; maybe the pattern will make more sense later. As more cards are revealed so does your recipient reveal things about themselves that might be brought back to previous cards.
You can also invoke some of the structures behind most decks with a bit of practice. For example, the four suits usually align with the four elements:
- Cups are Water, Pentacles are Earth, Swords are Air, and Wands are Fire.
- Cups and Pentacles are usually feminine, while Swords and Wands are masculine.
- Placement on the table matters; you can have axes of time, positives and negatives, good and evil.
- All cards of course also always hold their own opposites within them.
- Sometimes The Devil is in the details. It might really be the figure in the background the card is about.
- There’s also often a structure to the values of the cards that you can play with. I won’t get into it here, but check out the Sefiroth of Kabbalistic tradition if you’re into mathematical magic.
- Thematic decks can also have even more layers.
But all of that isn’t necessary to get started. Just go with an intuitive reading with a strong dose of confidence and you’re good. In addition, tarot decks often also come with a booklet that details each card, but there’s really no need to memorize or buy books on tarot. In the end, it’s all a subjective artform and not an accurate science. If you’re feeling uncertain, try imagining a situation in play and draw a couple of cards and think of how you’d make them relevant to that situation as practice before play.
Once you get comfortable with the basics, you can start to add layers on top. Maybe your character has an agenda and wants to twist the reading in a certain direction? Or they’re inspired by a demonic entity that loves sex, so the cards always points towards carnality? Or a theme of the larp is lost hope, so the readings tend to be cold on comfort. You can do a lot with the framing and what you emphasize in the cards to drive play in a fun direction. But all that’s for later. For now, just go get started.
I hope this makes it less intimidating to pick up a deck and bring it to your next larp. It’s a super fun tool to have. Or if someone else has brought their deck, don’t be afraid to ask for a reading or for them to show you how it’s done; I’ve had a ton of great play moments teaching acolytes the art of the tarot. It really is what you make of it and tarot tends to pay back big dividends for the effort put into it.
Cover photo: Photo by Jean-Didier on Pixabay.