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Article - 'Game Themes, Part 1' by KaosTenshi

An item about Plots/Characters posted on Aug 8, 2003

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Ever realized how some games use things like the Greek pantheon or Japanese folklore for themes, or more obscure themes? Ever wanted to use more unique themes for your game? Well now you can!

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Some kinds of game themes are easy to spot… for instance, the use of the Greek Pantheon in many games, or the use of Japanese folklore characters. Some, like the use of the Qabalah in Final Fantasy VII are more obscure. Adding more complicated themes like these to your game can be tough, right? Wrong! A lot of times they actually spark more ideas than pose problems. This is part one in an article series about game themes… and part one begins with the tarot.

So, what is the tarot exactly? It’s usually a deck of seventy-eight cards divided into two parts; the first part of the deck is twenty-two cards known as the Major Arcana, while the second half is fifty-six cards known as the Minor Arcana. The Minor Arcana is further divided into four suits. In a Rider-Waite deck, these suits are Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles, while in a Merlin deck; they are Dragons, Fishes, Birds, and Beasts. Each suit has cards one through ten, as well as a Page card, a Knight, a Queen, and a King.
Don’t worry… this gets less confusing.

I don’t have the time to go over the meaning of each and every single card, so I’ll just tell you about the twenty-two Major Arcana. These cards’ names and meanings vary by deck, so I’m just going by the classic Rider-Waite deck.

The Fool – The first card is known as The Fool. The card symbolizes beginnings and blind faith. He is a man with unlimited potential before him and is spontaneous. He has complete faith that all is well with the world and that nothing bad can ever happen to him, and is child-like in his carefree ways. He lies at the beginning of the deck as the first card because he is a young man striking out on his journey to find out about the world he knows so little of.

The Magician – The second card is known as the Magician, and is one of the two cards symbolizing the male principle. He symbolizes conscious awareness, power, and taking action; he is confident in himself and follows through with his impulses. He can seem single-minded, but only because he believes so strongly in himself and is so confident in his decisions.

The High Priestess – As the card symbolizing half of the female principle, and the exact opposite of The Magician, the High Priestess balances him by symbolizing unconscious awareness, potential, and mystery. She represents the mystery that women often represent (I’m sure many of you guys who can’t figure out women can understand what this card symbolizes). She is a challenge to look deeper beyond what you see on the surface; sometimes not acting is the way to achieve your goal.

The Empress – The other half of the female principle is the Empress, who is the symbol of life and motherhood. She is the fertile, life-giving being that reigns over nature, and is a sign of life’s bond to the Earth. She mirrors The High Priestess by being the crucible of life instead of a symbol of mystery.

The Emperor – You knew the other half of the male principle had to be here somewhere, and he’s here to balance out The Empress by symbolizing fatherhood, structure, and authority. The Empress may rear the children but The Emperor sees to it that they grow up properly under his regulation. He is a regulator, symbolizing a much more mechanical and rigid world than The Empress.

The Hierophant – Breaking away from the male and female principles we now come to The Hierophant, who symbolizes learning, beliefs, and conformation. When you grow up, you grow up in a culture, and you usually are influenced by that culture. Most people are the same religion their parents were, and many people learn how to act by the way those around them act. This card directs you to conform to rules and embrace tradition.

The Lovers – Easy to remember for all you perv boys… This card symbolizes sexuality and union, but also symbolizes relationships. This kind of love isn’t always sexual, but also platonic. Aside from love, this card symbolizes relationships in the sense that people are pulled together; working relationships, political groups, ideals, etc. I know I said I’d only talk about Rider-Waite, but it’s worth mentioning that in some decks, The Lovers card shows a man torn between two women; the virgin and the temptress. This form of the card symbolizes dilemma. But on it’s most basic level; this card symbolizes an ethical or moral crossroads.

The Chariot – The symbol of a chariot carrying a ruler brings about thoughts of victory, glory, rulership, and direct control over situations. This isn’t a wishy-washy person; they are strong, disciplined, and they know it. This card shows situations of hard-control, not brutal, but instead firm and direct. This person either wins or loses; there are no other alternatives.

Strength – The image of a woman gently leading a lion is not what you would expect from such a commanding card, but it is the perfect example of what this card stands for. There is a certain kind of strength that is linked with patience, compassion, and gentle control. The woman on this card shows inner strength by leading the powerful and dangerous lion with her gentle touch. Instead of taking command of the situation and slaying the lion, the woman uses her patience and compassion to instead tame the lion.

The Hermit – This is a solitary man who finds company with no one. He looks for his answers to life within himself. He symbolizes a need to withdraw from one’s surroundings and spend time alone to figure out your path. Seek within yourself, not in the world around you.

The Wheel of Fortune – No this is not a game show with idiot contestants. Keep your mind on the cards. The Wheel of Fortune symbolizes movement, or a turning point… or even one’s destiny. When someone spins the wheel on that certain game show, they never know where it will stop, and the same applies to life as this card shows us; life is constantly changing directions like a spinning cyclone that has pulled you into it from the day you were born. Where it takes you and where it deposits you are completely up to chance.

Justice – One of my favorite cards… Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. This card on one level symbolizes cause and effect; when this card appears, it’s because you’re feeling the effects of a previous deed, good or bad. In this way, life is ultimately fair and just; whatever you do in this life is responsible for your destiny. This is justice; your deeds bring upon you your punishment.

The Hanged Man – This is a card that contradicts and conflicts with itself. The man on this card has been hung, and has made the ultimate sacrifice, but in the end he is free because of it. He has gotten what he wanted by letting go… he can move forward by staying still… He has won by surrendering. He is a paradox, but then, isn’t life itself?

Death – Perhaps the most famous card in the deck. Dying the way we see it, in a life being extinguished, is only a small part of death. Many religions believe that when you die, you experience a transition moving from this world to the afterlife. The Death card symbolizes many kinds of transitions, and inexorable forces in your life that change the path ahead of you. Death isn’t always a bad card… It is an important ending that signals the beginning of a great change.

Temperance – A calm, composed person holds a quiet air of strength about them… they may not say much but they are the calm at the eye of the storm. The Temperance card may seem a tad boring but it’s a kind of power that brings chaotic things into balance.

The Devil – There is no more clear a symbol of materialism, ignorance, hopelessness, and generally ‘all things bad’ than The Devil. This card may seem to many to symbolize evil, but in truth it’s a sign that you’re caught in a situation that is unhealthy for you, or that you don’t entirely know what’s going on around you. You may think you have everything in order, but there is something you know nothing of that can end up bringing you great pain.

The Tower – The image of lightning striking a burning tower, with rubble and bodies falling from its windows to jagged rocks below… Scary! The Tower symbolizes sudden downfall, a change which you’re given no time to adapt to. These sudden crises violently snap you out of complacency. When everything comes tumbling down around you, it may be hard to realize it at the time, but this has happened for a reason. Whether you can embrace your new future or not is up to you, but the bottom line is that you do have a new future now.

The Star – The sky and stars above have always filled people with a great sense of hope, as if a reminder that there is something much greater out there. The stars are an inspiration to us as they lay in the calm, serene sky. The Star is a sign to let go of what you’re holding back, and release all your fears and doubts.

The Moon – The howl of the wolves at the moon is very haunting… as haunting as being in an unfamiliar place, and knowing you shouldn’t be here… This place is too strange for you to grasp. This world doesn’t have to be frightening though; The Moon is the light in a world of darkness, guiding you through the unknown. After all, it is sometimes darkest just before dawn.

The Sun – This is a beautiful shining light on our world, filling it with warmth. It is a sign of greatness, life, and enlightenment. Whenever you’re unsure of something, The Sun shows you that it is your time to shine.

Judgment – This card shows people rising up to the calls of angels on the Judgment Day. They are judged for their sins, and they will either be forgiven or cast away. Sometimes you have to judge yourself; take a look at your own life and try to correct whatever you’re doing wrong. Remember the Death card, and about transition from one life to the next? Judgment is also a kind of transition, a ‘rebirth’ of sorts, starting anew.

The World – The final card of the Major Arcana is all-encompassing. There are times in your life, if you’re lucky, where everything just seems perfect. You feel happy and fulfilled, and while you can’t expect this to last forever, for this one moment you feel like you could hold the whole world in the palm of your hand. That is the meaning of The World.


Okay, okay, so you know about all of the Major Arcana, but now what do you do with them? Well, there are a number of things.

For one, you could use them for chapters in your story. See a card that could add a great foreshadowing to a chapter? Make that the image at the beginning of a new arc in your game. You can also use tarot cards to help flesh out characters in your game… perhaps you happen to have a character that seems like the very embodiment of the Emperor card? So why not look into other similar, reinforcing cards like the Justice, and The Hierophant? These can help you add more detail to your characters and inspire new aspects of them.

What about your storyline itself? Even if you don’t use tarot cards as a theme in your game, they can be great to help inspire new aspects of your storyline or help you break writer’s block when you don’t know where the game should go next. So what do you do if you don’t feel like learning about all seventy-eight cards, buying a deck, and learning card spreads? There are some great sites like this that offer free online tarot readings. They randomly display cards the same way you’d shuffle a deck, but they also give explanations for each card’s particular meaning and for what they mean depending on where they’re placed in the spread.

So what if you do want to learn about these things, or are just interested in a specific card and don’t feel like going through a dozen random readings to find it? You can use this site as a quick reference. Remember, tarot cards have no magical powers in real life, and they’re just cards with pictures on them… but they can help you add a new level of depth to your stories.