If you are familiar with tabletop role playing games, you know Dungeons & Dragons. There’s a quote I like from the late, great Terry Pratchett, regarding J.R.R. Tolkien’s influence on the world of fantasy:
J.R.R. Tolkien has become a sort of mountain, appearing in all subsequent fantasy in the way that Mt. Fuji appears so often in Japanese prints. Sometimes it’s big and up close. Sometimes it’s a shape on the horizon. Sometimes it’s not there at all, which means that the artist either has made a deliberate decision against the mountain, which is interesting in itself, or is in fact standing on Mt. Fuji.
Dungeons and Dragons is like this in the world of tabletop gaming. If you’re making a TTRPG, you need to know where you stand on being compared to D&D. Will you try to differentiate yourself with interesting mechanics, a new setting, or will you try to learn from the game that invented tabletop roleplay? Like painting a scene of Japan without Fuji, it’s hard to not have D&D in the background somewhere, making its presence be known in the way you handled stats and skills, the shape of the dice you use, or even the deep, deep roots of your game’s concept.
What do you do when you are Mt. Fuji, though? How does the mountain learn to grow and change itself when the time comes to? What influences could Dungeons and Dragons itself draw from in the late 90s, the waning days of the Second Edition and the beginning of the Third?
Dungeons and Dragons Third Edition was a turning point for the game. It was D&D’s attempt to re-capture lightning in a bottle, to relive the heady days of its 80s fame, and make a Dungeons and Dragons game that was truly worthy of the name. It was… well, it certainly was a new edition of Dungeons and Dragons, that much can be said.
I’ve been kind of obsessed with this little RPG zine called Vaults of Vaarn, if my review of it didn’t tip you off. If you’re not going to click that link, it’s a really great little science-fantasy weirdo RPG setting placed in a post-post-post apocalyptic desert loaded with mutants, weirdos, and strange creatures.
Since an outsized portion of my brain has been dedicated to thinking about Vaarn, I decided to write some of those thoughts down and arrange them into a bit of new fan content for the setting. It’s implied that Urth, the planet that Vaults of Vaarn is set on, was once an advanced and prosperous world with immensely powerful technology. It seems obvious to me that space travel would be possible in this world – so why not add space aliens to the Vaults?
So, I present to you my Vaults of Vaarn fan race: the Visitors. Click the jump to enjoy. All credit goes to Leo Hunt, AKA graculusdroog for the creation of Vaults of Vaarn itself.
In case you aren’t keyed into the broader tabletop RPG universe, there’s something of an Old-School Revival or Renaissance (henceforth OSR) going on. Many RPG gamers are looking towards the past, to the RPG heydays of the 70s and 80s, to draw inspiration for the future of tabletop games. And what, exactly, does this imply? Well, the members of the OSR aren’t always sure themselves, but it’s typically a broader focus on player agency and dungeon crawling, increased risk of character death, and reduced focus on pre-written plots. The gamemaster of an OSR game is once again an impartial referee, whose role is to simply mediate the world that the players explore in a sandbox style. “Rulings, not rules” is a common refrain – instead of having granular rulesets that explore every possible corner-case, OSR games prefer lighter and simpler rules, giving the gamemaster the final say on what is and isn’t permissible.
But what I like about the OSR scene is the incredible bulk of content for it. There’s a lot, and I mean a lot, of really fantastic OSR blogs, zines, and books out in the world filled to the brim with imaginative and wild settings. One of these settings is Vaults of Vaarn, a pay-what-you-want zine by author Leo Hunt A.K.A. graculusdroog on itch.io.
I downloaded Vaults of Vaarn on a lark, looking for more interesting RPG content to consume, and found myself blown away. Hunt emphasizes strongly his influences, naming Dune, Hyperion, and The Book of the New Sun, as well as the art of Moebius. He says it’s fine if you’re not familiar with these works, because it’ll “make his theft seem original.” Well, I’m not familiar with any of these works (aside from the art of Moebius), and Vaarn seems pretty damn original to me. So original, in fact, I thought I’d do a little review of it, just because it’s got me so jazzed.
They promised me so much. Whenever I felt sad, or lonely, or worried, all I would do is listen to the colors, and they would promise me that all things would be okay. They did things no other colors could do. Have you ever smelled a color? Tasted a color? No, not in the way somebody with synesthesia would, either. Really tasted a color, tasted it in the same way that you could taste a piece of chocolate, savoring its flavor and swallowing it and feeling it inside you, warm and pleasant. I hadn’t either, until the colors of Wishbone were revealed to me.
Nobody else can understand. The Wishbone colors speak, and they sing, and they dance, and they do so, so much for me. I cannot live without them. I will not live without them. They are everything to me. No family, no friends, nobody can compare. How could they? They cannot show me delights the way Wishbone can. They call me mad when I try to even gently describe, to convince them to look at the colors.
Maybe I am mad. But if madness is the price for happiness, I do not care. The colors are worth any price. The colors are everything.
There are a wide number of names you can reference when discussing the great disciples of tarot: A.E. Waite, Éliphas Lévi, Ettellia, and so forth. Not many people would think to mention Youree Harris among those names, but there are few others who come close to what she did for the art of tarot reading. You’d know her better as Miss Cleo, and might remember her commercials for the Psychic Readers Network from the late 90s through the early 2000s. Miss Cleo herself was a complete construct, a character devised by Youree Harris for an original play transformed into a Jamaican shaman practicing a vague pastiche of Vodou mixed with New Age psychic thought. Most relevant was her supposed skill with the tarot; if you took her commercials at face value, she could tell you the name of your baby’s true father, forewarn terrible disaster, and find you true love with only a few (toll free!) minutes with the cards.
I do not know if Youree Harris herself ever read tarot seriously, or if she even performed her character for callers to the psychic hotline she advertised. Youree was an actress first and foremost, an amateur playwright whose self-produced plays left her running from debts and failing to pay her actors. In turn, the Psychic Readers Network left her high and dry after being indicted for one billion dollars in deceptive billing practices. After leaving the Network behind, Youree maintained her Miss Cleo character in various parodies of her famous commercials until 2015. On July 26th, 2016, Youree Harris died of colon cancer after a long battle. There has never been another TV psychic on the same level as Youree, and with the move of professional tarot reading from hotlines to independent online readers, it is extremely unlikely there will ever be another.
Miss Cleo may be one of the few tarot readers whose popularity allowed the production of an official licensed tarot deck. You’d think they’d be taking a bite out of their own customer base by doing this, but by the time the Psychic Readers Network published this deck they were already in serious legal troubles. This may have been their last effort to squeeze more money out of the Miss Cleo brand before the FTC finally came down on their heads. After the jump, we’ll get into the deck ourselves and see what Miss Cleo holds in store.
The Dreaming Way Tarot and the Dreaming Way Lenormand are two divinatory decks released by US Games in 2012 and 2016, respectively. Both decks are illustrated by Kwon Shina; the tarot deck was written by Rome Choi, and the Lenormand deck was written by Lynn Araujo.
The Housewives Tarot is a deck published by Quirk Books and designed by Paul Kepple and Jude Buffum of Headcase Design. It was first printed in 2004, and has since been followed by a semi-sequel, The Zombie Tarot. The deck is inspired by the aesthetics of 50s America, with martini-sipping housewife culture. The deck’s “backstory” involves the mystic Madame Marlena, an otherwise unassuming housewife who introduces the tarot to her group of friends as a way of life.
Here’s my thoughts on the deck of the so-called Marlena, under the cut.