GM’s Toolbox – Tarot Cards Can Give NPCs Depth

Using tarot cards as the source of inspiration and giving characters depth was the recent topic of conversation with some fellow gamers. Although I wrote this a little over five years ago, it is still relevant. In fact, I use the tarot cards regularly to help flesh out NPCs, give a little extra depth to characters, or use them to help establish connections between characters. We all need inspiration, and a tarot deck is an excellent tool for all Gamemasters and writers to have in their toolboxes. I hope you enjoy the article, and I’d love to hear your thoughts. So, without further ado, GM’s Toolbox – Tarot Cards Can Give NPCs Depth.

Good gamer friends of mine, Andrea and Will, recently convinced me to purchase a tarot deck and a book titled Tarot for Writers, and what an amazing journey I have undergone in the ensuing weeks. I used to use and read tarot cards in my younger years, so I am moderately familiar with the suits, symbols, and the generalized meaning of the elements on the cards and the suits. The combination of the cards with this book and their tutelage has been a great source of inspiration for me.

Whether or not you believe in the metaphysical aspects of tarot cards has no bearing on their use as an inspirational and creative tool. Evaluate the cards as a tool based on what the results are, not from any preconceived notions. You’ll be very surprised how your creativity is inspired.

Let me first outline a couple of things this wonderful book contains. Tarot for Writers by Corrine Kenner includes a wide variety of handy information for writers of all genres and skill levels. However, what I have found to be the most useful are a few of the structured methodologies and the card description chapter. The book contains various methods to assist in creating a wide variety of elements for a story, a game, and defining characters, among many other things. In particular, I have gotten some mileage out of the chapters that pertain to characters and settings. Each of which I have used independently and jointly together. I will cover settings and creating scenes in future articles. Andrea and Will walked me through a fun exercise to create a Victorian-era social club replete with prominent characters (NPCs) and supporting characters (minor NPCs), which are somehow interconnected.

The cards are drawn to define each specific element, and each card we drew always seemed spot-on and more than appropriate for a given character’s element. That leads me to the book’s last and most significant section, description of the cards. Tarot for Writers addresses the following areas for each card in the deck.

robin-wood-04257Major Arcana
Classic interpretation
Key Symbols
Myths and Legends
Astrological Associations
Literary Archetypes
Writing Prompts

Minor Arcana
Classic interpretation
Key Symbols
Writing Prompts

Putting all of this into action is very easy! Let’s say you want to create a few notable NPCs for a roleplaying game. You can follow these simple steps (a deviation from the book) for each notable and supporting NPC you want to have in a particular story or location. You’ll have some nicely defined personalities to insert into your game when you are done. The card drawn for each element will give you the symbology and prompts to work with. From my experience, I have found the best thing for me is to draw the card, read the classic interpretation, and write down what comes to mind first. If the traditional interpretation doesn’t spark anything, I next move to the keywords and even the writing prompts for inspiration.

d10-1 Shuffle your tarot deck thoroughly (cards should be both inverted and upright)
d10-2 Prepare your writing space (create blocks of 4 lines for each character)
d10-3 Write down the type/occupation of the characters on the first line of each block
d10-4 Draw 1 card – Define the overarching characteristics of this character
d10-5 Draw 1 card – Define this character’s motivation(s)
d10-6 Roll a die to determine who this character has relationships with
d10-7 Draw 1 card – Relationship 1 – Define the relationship between these two people
d10-8 Draw 1 card – Relationship 2 – Define the relationship between these two people

Following these eight easy steps, you can quickly give depth and substance to what might otherwise be nameless and meaningless NPCs. It also lets you connect together a large or small group of notable NPCs for your players to encounter. How you use these NPCs is solely at your discretion. These NPCs can serve as a framework that you might want to further flesh out at some other time. If and when the need arises, the last thing to do is to name your newly minted NPCs. The following example is taken from the Victorian social club that Andrea, Will, and I created over New Year’s weekend.

Club Founder  (wounded warrior, battle-hardy, on edge, expecting enemy approach) d10-4 
Motivation – Seen supernatural shit – waiting for “it” to return d10-5
Relationship 1 – (club member 1)  – a confidant to the founder d10-7
Relationship 2 – (band) – financier of the band. The founder is the only one willing to give them a break, a new style of music (early jazz?) d10-8

If you or your players ever feel at a loss for direction or fictional inspiration, draw a card and see what it prompts in your mind. It’s oddly amazing how the card drawn speaks to you and what it can inspire you to create at the table! The cards can aid you in fleshing out virtually any aspect of your game or characters, regardless if you are a gamemaster or player.

If you think this is something you would like to use in your game preparation routine, I would encourage you to stroll to Amazon and shop. Tarot decks can vary significantly in price and theme. My recommendation is to find a theme that appeals to you. The iconography should speak to you in some way. Once you find a theme (google is your friend) that appeals to you, make your purchase, and don’t forget to grab the book too! Tarot for Writers is now a staple tool in my toolbox!

I recommend that if you intend to use Corrine Kenner’s book to interpret your cards, you purchase a deck that uses traditional symbolism. This will make working with the book more accessible and expedite the creation of your NPCs. Using a deck that deviates from traditional symbols and suits could impede your ability to take full advantage of the tarot deck and Corrine’s book. If you’re familiar with reading tarot cards, the theme is less of an issue when you know what the cards, suits, and symbols mean.

~ Modoc

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12 Comments Add yours

  1. MorganPaige says:

    This is such a good idea! I haven’t done any GMing, but for character creation this is fantastic. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. modoc31 says:


      Thank you for the comment. You’re right, this methodology can be applied to character creation of all sorts. Everything from roleplaying to story writing and even to screen play writing. The process allows you to give your characters real meaningful depth and substance from a few simple card draws. I’d love to hear how you use this method in the future.

      ~ Modoc


  2. Joe Porter says:

    Cool read and good looking site, keep posting to /r/rpg

    Liked by 1 person

    1. modoc31 says:


      Thank you for the complement and welcome to Rolling Boxcars! If you decide to try this method to flesh out your NPCs, I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments.



  3. Bryan Smith says:

    Nice post! I just bought Tarot for Writers a few minutes ago. Excited to see what they’ve got to offer. Last year, I read about Dan Harmon’s story circle (basically, a simplified codification of the hero cycle), and decided to see what happened if I turned his 8 steps into a story-generating Tarot spread.

    If you haven’t read these articles on the 8 steps of his story circle, I recommend them. Then give the tarot cards a whirl. Basically, 1 (or two) cards on each of the 8 steps of the circle. It’s a pretty fun exploration.

    All this reminds me of the story of how Philip K. Dick apparently used the I Ching to write the outline the entirety of Man In The High Castle.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. modoc31 says:


      Thanks for the feedback and the great suggestions for further reading. I’ll be sure to look into it this weekend.

      Glad to hear you purchased that book. I think you’ll find a treasure of great information, useful ideas and of course the most useful chapter is the meanings of the cards. I’d love to hear about your exploration into using the cards more.

      ~ Modoc


  4. This sounds excellent. Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. modoc31 says:

      Thanks Michelle. Tarot serves so many great purposes.

      ~ Modoc

      Liked by 1 person

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