Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Practical Cartomancy

In my last post, I mentioned that I was revisiting Hamlet's Hitpoints with the idea of creating an RPG engine that borrowed heavily from the beat analysis contained therein. I don't know if this will all work out but it seems interesting and at the very least may lead to useful techniques that can be applied when running more traditional games.

A key component to my theoretical upcoming "Beat System" is a way to generate useful answers to complex (and simple) questions with only a deck of standard playing cards (Jokers included). While the Tarot would no doubt yield a more traditional (and varied) divinatory experience, they are not as easy to come by. More importantly, I was already planning on using a standard deck for generating the beats themselves (which map nicely to a standard deck) and mixing the two feels wrong.


So here's my dilemma: how do I best describe how to use a card's value and suit to answer questions? A casual Google search turns up various traditional interpretations of suit and value. The problem is that such interpretations are not consistent with each other.


So I think I'll just push forward and work things out as I write. Please forgive the rambling nature of this post as I'm in discovery mode.


The magic system of Castle Falkenstein associates four realms of magical effects with the four standard card suits:

  1. Hearts: Emotion/Mental
  2. Diamond: Material
  3. Clubs: Elemental
  4. Spades: Spiritual/Dimensional


This is a good starting place but it is ultimately unsatisfying. I'm not a fan of having all Elemental effects being grouped under one suit and the categories themselves do not lend themselves to ink-blotting quite so easily.


I do like using the four traditional western elements, however.

  1. Earth: Body, shapes, health, solids, life, plants, wood, metals, minerals, *possibly* magnetism, the planet Earth, the planet Saturn, the underworld, agriculture, the colors green and brown, endurance, strength, physical resistance, common crafts, natural resources, wealth, etc. There seems to be a female aspect to this as well (fertility splits between earth and water).
  2. Water: Liquids, storms, emotions, passive understanding, intuition, femininity, romance, flexibility, the soul, spirits, wine, weather, fertility, empathy, madness, dreams, the Moon, the color blue (and possibly green), ice, steam, faith, clergy, fame, celebrity, wise women, child birth, art, creation, and purity.
  3. Air: Winds, intellect, logic, communication, problem-solving, lightning, electricity, technology, science, wizardry, technical crafts, masculine thoughts, iimposing one's will, inspiration, justice, and nobility. Also the planets Jupiter and Mercury as well as  the colors blue, white, and purple.
  4. Fire: Passion, war, anger, violence, passion, destruction, direct application of force, the planet Mars, the colors red & orange, blood (shed by violence - menstrual blood associated with water instead), and primal universal energies.

That's pretty much what I want but the mapping to traditional suits is not obvious. There are a couple ways to spin it...

  1. Hearts: Water
  2. Clubs: Earth
  3. Spades: Air
  4. Diamonds: Fire

In that case, I'm guided by color more than anything else. A better mapping would consider the Tarot equivalent of the suits as well:

  1. Cups -> Hearts -> Water
  2. Coins (Pentacles) -> Diamonds -> Earth
  3. Wands -> Clubs -> Air
  4. Swords -> Spades -> Fire

I like this a lot. There are some slight deviations from tradition, though. When one considers a professional/caste symbology, things move around slightly:

  1. Hearts: Clergy (standard) but also artists and celebrities and bards (well, bards can as easily fall into Clubs)
  2. Diamonds: Farmers and craftsmen and laborers and defenders of the hearth and merchants (farmers seemed to be more traditionally associated with clubs)
  3. Clubs: Judges, scientists, wizards, bureaucrats, lawyers, scholars, bards (the scholarly sort), diplomats (though some could lean more towards water). Nobility is traditionally the domain of the sword but more cerebral leaders would land here. Fathers as well.
  4. Spades: Warriors, most nobility, demagogues, and also murderers and thrill seekers.

I like this arrangement because "female" concepts are vaguely red and "male" concepts lean more to black.


Ok, accepting the fact that no interpretation would line up with occultism perfectly, this works nicely.

One more few more thing...


52 cards = 52 weeks. Each card lines up with with week of the year.Taken sequentially, one could consider seasonal correspondences:


  1. Winter -> Air (cold) and thus Clubs
  2. Spring -> Water and thus Hearts
  3. Summer -> Fire and thus Spades
  4. Autumn -> Earth (harvest) and thus Diamonds


Anyway, these are just some thoughts that I had this weekend. I'm going to play around with things a bit to see how they work out in practice.


PlanetNiles said...

There's also a tradition which seems to originate amongst Celtic people wherein Swords and Staves are reversed.

That is to say Swords = Air and Staves = Fire.

This is probably because in Celtic mythology the stave is associated with the spear and the spear with the solar deity, "Lugh".


Anonymous said...

Ever since reading the NO DICE rules set, I've been very intrigued by using a deck of cards as a randomizer. I've thought about using cards with RISUS instead of dice.

I wonder if you could apply a MYTHIC-like approach to the card values in terms of the yes/no/complex questions.

Also, the Savage Worlds setting SHAINTAR has a nice card-based adventure/scenario generator, though that might not fall under the kind of use your considering here.

Trey said...

I think this idea has a lot of potential. As an aside as I was reading it I thought "of course, the suits have traditional assocations"--and then you went and mentioned them. You covered all the angle. :)

Risus Monkey said...

@PlanetNiles: YMMV indeed. And my mileage varies depending on moods. Wikipedia actually goes with Sword = Air and Staves = Fire. Perfectly valid (and perhaps more valid).

The The trick in these cases is to find something that works well enough for one person (me in this case) to internalize the system so as not to have to refer to charts. For me, I think the sticking point was that I was having a hard time mapping the planetary correspondances. Mars means fire and fire and Mars means wars (and thus swords). And Jupiter traditionally maps to air.

@Anonymous: I've always been attracted to using cards as a randomizer. I still hope to find a way to do it that works well in an actual game.

And yes, I was totally thinking of using cards to answer Mythic-like questions. More on that later...

@Trey: And even if one is sticking to traditional games like D&D and Pathfinder and what-not, cartomancy has its uses... :)

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