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Behind the Veil: The Inspiration and Artistry Behind Divination TTRPG

Jess
Jess
Delving into the captivating world of roleplaying games has always been a passion of mine. The blend of collective imagination, problem-solving, and the narrative thrill of weaving unforgettable tales has always held a special allure. Recently, I had the pleasure of encountering a unique tabletop roleplaying game (TTRPG) experience called Divination, which ingeniously integrates tarot symbolism not only to determine outcomes but also to construct the very essence of its game world.

What sets Divination apart from other TTRPGs like it is its truly unique approach to gameplay: all players collectively inhabit a single character. Each participant embodies a different facet of this protagonist, exchanging control throughout the game. This dynamic fosters rich opportunities for inner dialogue, conflict, and moments that mirror the intricate struggles of our daily lives. Often overlooked in traditional gaming experiences, Divination places a spotlight on the emotional complexities we navigate, offering a profound exploration into our inner landscapes.

Eager to delve deeper into the intricacies of Divination, I had the pleasure of conversing with its creators, Matthew Muñiz and Nyx Tesseract, alongside the talented artist Joana Fraga.

What inspired you to create a roleplaying game centered around tarot cards and divination?

Matthew: Teenage angst, I think! I discovered TTRPGs first. My parents played D&D in college and had an old cache of character sheets, maps, and polyhedral dice. My dad must have been the DM. He created beautiful maps and drew beautiful character sketches, they inspired me.

I discovered tarot in my teenage years as a nerdy small-town goth (what a vibe that was). I was fascinated by the cards, not just for their occult flavor, but for the way they have the elements of real life, real feelings, real lessons, real experiences. I used them to develop NPCs and create lore for my D&D worlds, and later, my World of Darkness campaigns.

When you use tarot in roleplaying, you get lots of things. I personally like drawing cards to get a sense of an NPCs frame of mind. When you run long campaigns, it’s easy to let characters fade into the background; their motivations become gauzy. Tarot lets an NPC surprise even you, as the Diviner. I love that.

How did you integrate the symbolism and meanings of tarot cards into the mechanics and storytelling of Divination RPG?

Nyx: Every single card in the deck has a clearly defined purpose in Divination. Central to that is the eight Aspects, which are essentially the character playbooks. Since players are sharing control of a single Hero, it’s okay to lean into archetypes really hard because no one player represents the whole person, just one set of drives and desires in that person. So each Aspect has twelve Powers they can use, and those Powers encourage player behavior that becomes that tarot card in action. The Fool, for example, has Powers that can cause chaos, playfully mess with other Aspects, and reap benefits associated with youth and innocence. The Empress can make better connections with others, whereas the Emperor might command or control them.

The remaining fourteen cards of the Major Arcana form the basis of the different paths a person might take when their Third Eye is opened in the game’s world and they become an Artist (essentially a practitioner of magic). We actually wrote a series on our blog about that if folks want to dig into the way we wove tarot symbology into the entire Esoteric society Divination is built on. But those cards have a mechanical use in the game as well—the pair associated with your Hero’s Road are shuffled into the deck we use for resolving encounters, and when one comes up in play, it triggers big magical events and moments.

The sixteen court cards are personas and archetypes. When using them in a reading, they tend to signify real people, either the querent (the person being read for) or someone in their life. So they’re the basis of people in our game, too: non-player characters or NPCs. We have an entire system of Attachment Boons—mechanical benefits players can receive when certain NPCs are with them—that are entirely based on that NPC’s significator, the court card that represents them.

And finally, there are the remaining forty cards—the aces through tens of the four suits, what we call the Lesser Deck. This is our d20. The Lesser Deck is what we draw from to resolve those moments of uncertainty when the players want to try something and their success is not guaranteed. Because these cards are numerical, they give a clear and decisive result to performing a Test. But, it’s very important to us that you use a Rider-Waite-Smith-style deck to play Divination, because those are the ones that have illustrated scenes and characters on the Minor Arcana. We not only use the number on the card to tell us what happens in those moments, we also use the scene on the card and its meaning to tell us how.

In what ways does Divination RPG encourage collaborative storytelling among players, and how do you foster creativity and imagination at the gaming table?

Nyx: I think central to the collaborative aspect is not just the shared Hero, but the way we’ve structured character creation. Early on in development, players could build their Aspect at home before showing up to play, and then we’d build the Hero together. But as we tested and honed that process, we discovered that it all has to be built together. Because this human and the parts inside them grew and developed as one entity, and so of course we have to build them that way.

So now character creation involves a sort of back-and-forth, where we zero in on four moments in the Hero’s life and go through some prompts (guided by tarot card draws, of course!) and tell stories together about how both the Aspects and the Hero were shaped by those moments.

When telling these stories, there’s one person (a different one for each prompt) who begins the Hero’s story and sets up its main elements. Then we encourage all three other players to add details to that story. That way, everyone has ownership of this person they’re crafting.

By the end of character creation—which so many of our players call one of their favorite parts of the game, by the way!—everyone is IN IT. We run this game at conventions a lot, over 250 folks have played with us over the past four years at Gen Con and other conventions. Con games are tricky, because you might have four total strangers at the table with different backgrounds, different gaming experience, totally different approaches to play. But we’re always amazed at how these tables come together by the end of character creation and really feel like they live in one person. It truly is magical to watch.

As for fostering creativity and imagination, it might sound like a cop-out, but the cards do this for us! We always say “tarot is a mirror,” and people see themselves in the cards which prompts authentic and meaningful story moments very naturally. And just like in a tarot reading; if the information you’re getting in any moment is unclear, we’ve always got the option to draw additional cards for more clarity.

Joana, how did you approach capturing the essence and symbolism of each tarot card in your illustrations, while also ensuring they were functional within the game mechanics?

Joana: Matthew and Nyx had a clear vision when it comes to which aspects of the cards they really wanted to embrace through the illustration, while also playing with some original symbols from Pixie’s deck. They gave me lots of awesome keywords that helped me with the design decisions. I had previous experience with tarot design so I was already familiar with the meanings, so the process was simpler! The bigger challenge was to make the deck feel modern, even though the biggest references we have in tarot imagery are medieval-adjacent. So I tried looking for references that could hold the same meaning to us now, in modern days. Some were easier, like changing an ancient book into a kindle. Some were harder, like translating the idea of “Power” without leaning into heavily negative stereotypes we associate with it. 

The most important thing was to make the player understand the “vibe” of the card even if you have little to no knowledge of tarot. But If you are already familiar with tarot, you might find some fun easter eggs there as well! 

For the game, we played with “degrees of surrealism” to fit the Major Arcana into the categories of the game mechanics. The Aspects, for the game, are the 8 Major Arcana that symbolize aspects of the Hero. They are, literally, the “VIBE” itself. So while they look humanoid, they look more surreal and mind boggling than the rest of the Major Arcana. The other cards look more human, although they have some surreal parts as well. I chose a pink-magenta color to harmonize with all the different palettes, so the cards will have a visual tie as well beyond the concept. Pink is magic!

How do you see the role of artwork in tabletop gaming, and what do you hope players will appreciate most about the visual elements you’ve created for Divination RPG?

Joana: I believe the art established the mood and style of the game, so the players can imagine the rest within the constraints of that universe. Complete freedom to imagine “anything” with no reference is just confusing. If I tell you “Imagine a character” you will probably struggle to come up with anything. “Imagine a character in a medieval fantasy like this SHOWS ARTWORK” gives you a set of parameters in which you can apply your imagination on. 

With Divination it was important to guide certain keywords in the mind of the player: modern, urban and surreal. Like reality and the mind mixing together. It invites the player to reimagine the bounds of our timeline. 

Are there any particular tarot cards or illustrations in Divination RPG that hold special significance to you personally? If so, what is it about those cards that resonates with you?

Joana: I love tarot and this is actually the 3rd tarot deck I have designed, and the card I resonate with the most is probably The Magician. This card talks about potential, getting in contact with your inner talents. It tells you that you have the tools to create, change, make your dreams come true. As an artist, I relate to that! The Magician as an Aspect for Divination, I wanted to represent it as pure potential itself, ready to be experimented with. 

What do you hope players take away from their experiences with the game?

Matthew: I want people to be deeply immersed in their story and in the thoughts of their main character. This is what other art forms do—novels, TV, graphic novels, film—they all offer interiority. I think sometimes roleplaying games have a hard time getting to the deepest place of thought; there often just isn’t space for it. 

So I want people to be able to go there and stay there, for as little or as long as they want. That’s what I’ve always been passionate about in roleplaying—getting to know characters and watching them change.

But I also want people to play Divination and leave with a connection to tarot. I think if you know NOTHING about Divination, and you go into it with an open mind, you’ll find that you start to understand tarot really quickly—after just a session or two. 

I know it seems like a lot of memorizing, but it’s way easier to remember and reference than a spells list or a reference table of powers or something. Because tarot is made of pictures, and all those pictures tell stories. You’ll understand them more and more every time you see them, and the game doesn’t demand you understand them up front. But they’re stories. Our minds like stories, and remember them well.

So I hope people see what I see in the cards: the human experience, pictorialized. They’re artistically fascinating and useful: in games, in provoking thought, in telling stories.

Jess
Jess
Divination RPG looks like a fascinating and unique take on a TTRPG. You can check it out here on Kickstarter. You can also learn more about the game on the Divination website and follow Joana here on Instagram

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