Cards for Strahd

Tarokka variety

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The Curse of Strahd (5e) and Expedition to Castle Ravenloft (3.5) modules feature the use of fortune teller cards to determine certain aspects of the adventure. For Curse of Strahd, the deck of cards is called a Tarokka deck, and in Expedition to Castle Ravenloft you're told to use a Three Dragon Ante deck. In both cases, you also have the option to use standard playing cards instead.

I've been meaning to purchase a Tarokka deck because I do love cards and the art is, predictably, amazing. But in New Zealand, a store with the Tarokka deck in stock is suprisingly difficult to find, and a deck isn't exactly cheap. It's not very expensive, but when I'm standing in front of a bookshelf full of amazing D&D books with $100 NZD in your hands (yes, a $50 D&D books costs $100 NZD after importing and currency conversion), I find a deck of cards a hard sell.

Of course, you can also use a Tarot deck, which is the obvious inspiration for Tarokka. However, I also don't own a Tarot deck! I do intend to get a Tarot deck because they're great for game design, but so far I just print a black-and-white deck on card stock when I need raw materials for a game design. Until I find a Tarot deck I really like (and there are many brilliantly designed ones out there), I'll definitely make that purchase, but so far I haven't needed one enough to justify the hunt.

Playing cards can be fancy too

By chance (or was it...fate?), my co-worker Laurie got me a deck of cards asa Secret Santa gift a few years ago. It was a standard poker deck, designed by Gent, called the Fae Deck. The Fae Deck, as its name suggests, is built around the Seelie and Unseelie Courts of the Faeries. All of the cards are black as midnight, with light grays and white and sometimes even black (there's nothing more stylish than black on black) ink. The designs are vaguely celtic and all-round old-world.

image of fancy playing cards

The face cards, used as the "focus cards" for Madame Eva's reading, are beautifully illustrated etchings.

image of fancy playing cards

Because I didn't purchase these cards myself, I don't know how much they cost, but it was for an office Secret Santa celebration so I believe the deck was probably quite affordable.

Yes but are they magic?

At first, even with my fancy Fae Deck, I was a little nervous about using playing cards instead of a Tarokka or Tarot deck. I felt like my players would surely want an image to look at as their fate was being decided upon. I was incorrect, and I think I wasn't accounting for a few things.

  • Don't underestimate the power of the story. Players ultimately want to know what information Madame Eva has for them, they don't need Tarokka cards to distract them. They're already immersed in the story.
  • Many people have never seen designer playing cards. Show them black cards and they're impressed.
  • People who have seen designer decks probably haven't seen the designer deck you have. Show them one etched focus card and some ornately designed number cards, and they're impressed.
  • It makes sense that Madame Eva would be using whatever cards she could find. In the real world, people were "reading fortunes" by looking at the lines on people's hands or the way tea leaves settled at the bottom of a teacup. Fortune telling was not a "designer" endeavour, so a "humble" deck of playing cards is actually entirely appropriate.

For me, the fact that Madame Eva's "humble" deck of cards is actually a designer deck is what brings the cards into the D&D world. I do feel I'd be feel a little more awkward using a standard set of Bicycle poker cards for Madame Eva because those are so mundane in our world.

A nice designer deck takes the cards away from Poker, puts them into D&D, and Madame Eva does the rest.

Photo by m wrona on Unsplash

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