August 28, 2016

Review: Dungeon Solitaire - Labyrinth of Souls

Have I got a treat for you folks today! Earlier this year, I heard about a cool Tarot project that was kick-starting: Dungeon Solitaire - Labyrinth of Souls. What initially caught my eye was the striking black-and-white artwork by the artist +Vandel J. Arden but that would have only made an interesting Marseilles-style Tarot deck. What really set it apart was the game for which the deck was made: the eponymous Labyrinth of Souls, a card game created by +Matthew Lowes. Sadly, my Tarot budget was already spent when DS-LoS was kick-starting, so I was delighted to see it achieve it's funding goal. After much waiting, the rule-book and Marseilles-style Tarot deck for Dungeon Solitaire: Labyrinth of Souls were released into the wild for folks like myself to purchase. Oh yeah, did I mention that I purchase these things? In the spirit of full disclosure, I spent my own money to purchase both the rule-book and deck, and I didn't receive any incentives or enticements in exchange for this review.

Normally, I don't get so excited about something unless I've done the research to learn all about it and watched a few unboxing and game-play videos, but what really sold me on this was the fact that the deck and game I'm reviewing today - Dungeon Solitaire: Labyrinth of Souls - is based on the proven success of another game from Matthew Lowes, Dungeon Solitaire - Tomb of Four Kings (which is free to download!) So for me, a game that's proved itself in the marketplace of ideas paired with a striking deck made the purchase a no-brainer. 

Before I get into my final remarks, here's an interview I conducted with the creator of the game, Matthew Lowes, to learn more about his game and the inspiration that went into creating the deck. 

Q) Dungeon of Souls is an evolution of your previous solitaire game, Tomb of Four Kings. How long did you spend developing Four Kings, and can you describe the evolution from Four Kings to Dungeon Solitaire? How long would you say that you've been working on this project from conception of 4 Kings to completion of Dungeon Solitaire?

A) I wrote Tomb of Four Kings in the summer of 2015 because I wanted a quick solitaire dungeon game you could play with ordinary playing cards. After a couple false starts, I worked out the core rules for the original game in about 20 minutes while I soaked in a hot bath. But it took about a month to fine-tune, write, and illustrate the rules, between other projects. I released ToFK for free on my website and it gathered some fans. I always had in mind a possible Tarot expansion but I put it on the back burner for a while until Josephe and I started talking about collaborating on a project. We finally settled on Dungeon Solitaire, and that's how Labyrinth of Souls got started.

The game design work for the Labyrinth of Souls took longer than ToFK. I had a rough draft of the core rules written prior to the Kickstarter, but design work continued, partly because the scope of the project expanded, and partly because I was designing a number of game variants as well as the core game. The basic mechanics were already in place from the original game, but I had to figure out how to incorporate the major arcana, pages (four extra face cards), and ultimately extra cards. A lot of thought went into ensuring that the expanded game retained the feel and the fun of the original game while at the same time making the dungeon seem larger, deeper, and more dangerous.

It took about six or seven months to design, write, and play-test all the rules, but little changes here and there were made right up to the point of publication. All together I worked on this project for a little over a year, from the conception of Tomb of Four Kings to the publication of Labyrinth of Souls. It's been a great ride, and I'm super happy to be able to share the game with so many people.

Q) As the game creator, you must have play-tested some dead ends. What were some of the most exciting but ultimately unsuccessful variations that you tried to implement?

A) Labyrinth of Souls has many variations. All the variations were developed to completion, but there were a lot of dead end ideas along the way. Some small ones ended up in the house-rules section of the book, like the magic sword and ten-foot pole. Those were in some of earliest Labyrinth of Souls games I played, but were changed later on. When I first started I tried making all the major arcana special magic item and event cards, but it was not good. There were too many and they made the dungeon seem smaller rather than larger. So the big breakthrough for this game was when I decided to use the 2-10 of the major arcana for a new suit of encounters. The maze encounters I settled on were not only thematically perfect, they made the dungeon seem truly vast through a fractal-like expansion of the imaginary space.

The early mega-dungeon (an advanced variation of the expert rules) went through a lot of changes. The first idea was for a dungeon that could recycle infinitely. You would just keep going, collecting treasure, until you died. It didn't really work as a narrative though, and the game seemed rather flat. When I switched to levels, there were originally 12, treasure didn't recycle, and the point was to collect every treasure card. This didn't work either, because often you could get all the treasure by Level 4 or 5 and the dungeon then seemed empty, and again, smaller. So the real key here was recycling treasure cards. Levels were reduced to 10 to tighten up the game length, and difficulty increased as you got deeper. Then it started to feel like a proper mega-dungeon!

I thought of a number of ways to implement a two-player game, even one where one player was a dungeon master and other the player. Ultimately a co-op version was more interesting though, and fit better with the solitaire game design. These are just a few examples. When you're designing a game with this many rules and variation you go through a lot of ideas that get discarded for various reasons and at various levels of realization.

Q) Other than, "It already exists and is kinda-sorta perfectly matched for what I need," is there a reason you decided to adapt your rules to use a Tarot deck than to simply create extra cards to fit into a regular deck of playing cards?

A) When I designed Tomb of Four Kings I used a standard deck of playing cards because I liked the idea of a game that could be played with something that’s often readily at hand. When I was a kid, there were always cards around, and a lot of games to play with them. There was no internet, limited TV, and if you were bored, sometimes you just grabbed some cards and played solitaire. So I liked the idea of using ordinary cards for a fantasy adventure.

Using playing cards already meant a certain level of abstraction. The 10 of Spades is a horrible monster encounter, but it doesn’t tell you what kind of monster, or whether it’s one huge monster or a teeming horde of smaller monsters. You decide all that for yourself as you play the game. And the way I see it, that turned out to be an advantage, because it’s part of the narrative play. By not specifying or pre-imagining the monster, the widest range of interpretations is possible. In short, by limiting the representations within the game, vastly greater narrative possibilities are achieved.

There is a great potential that appears when you are at the limit of any system, a potential for beauty, for discovery, for transcendence, for miracles! And for this reason, limitations can be an engine for the creative imagination. It is possible that creativity itself evolved as way to overcome limitations, and without touching some limit, the imagination cannot properly engage.

When I set out to expand Dungeon Solitaire with the possibility of a custom deck of cards, I could have gone in any direction I wanted. I could have specific monsters and traps; I could have actual torch cards rather than aces; I could have hit point cards rather than the 2-10 of hearts. I could have liberated the game from a standard deck of cards all together. I could have a deck of 500 cards! Instead, I chose to stick to the idea that the core game can be played with a standard deck of cards, in this case a Tarot deck. As for extra cards, I would limit myself to 10, as if they were an additional ten card suit. This way, not only would the game benefit from the deep historical and symbolic nature of the tarot, but I would have predetermined limits to work with.

The truth is, even when I designed the original game, I had Tarot cards somewhat in mind. That's why the layout for the game is called a spread, and why there is a sense of interpreting the cards within the narrative play of the game.

Q) It's something of a dirty question, but is there anything in Labyrinth of Souls that disappoints you? With the benefit of hindsight, is there anything you'd do differently? Or, any plans for Dungeon Solitaire 2.0?

A) That's a fair questions, but luckily it's an easy one to answer. I couldn't be more happy with how the game turned out! It was an incredible frenzy of design, creative work, and play testing that went into the game to get it out on time. And while there were challenges and ongoing adjustments during that period, by the end it really felt like everything clicked into place. The result speaks for itself, of course, but I love this game! I do have ideas for a Labyrinth of Souls expansion pack, that would include more rules and an expansion card deck. I'm really hoping the game catches on enough to make that worth my while. And I also have some exciting ideas for a similar solitaire game with a different theme. And we'll see where that goes.

Q) Either generally or specifically, what do you think about the woo-woo side of Tarot? Have you ever had a Tarot reading? If so, what did you think about it? It's okay to speak your mind - I promise you won't hurt my feelings!

A) I've always been interested in Tarot cards. As a writer, a literature major, and an art lover, I've always found the interpretation of images and symbolism to be fascinating, enjoyable, and deeply rewarding. Over the years I've dabbled with learning, but just prior to starting Labyrinth of Souls a friend gave me a deck of Tarot cards as a gift (coincidence?) and I became interested in the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky. His book, The Way of Tarot, definitely influenced my thinking about the game and tarot in general.

I see the Tarot as a symbolic language that speaks to the unrealized or unconscious self. To read the cards is to speak in the language of dreams. The card spread is a physical, waking dream. And just like when interpreting a dream, both the interpreter and the subject brings something to the table. The interpreter knows how to read the cards (and sometimes the person as well), but the subject knows, deep down, their own heart and mind, though they may be hiding from it. In this way, tarot reading is more about divining the present moment than it is about seeing into the past or future. After all, all thoughts about the future, all memories of the past, are happening in this present moment.

I've never really had a Tarot reading by a practiced reader, although I have done some amateur readings for myself with very interesting results. I keep a deck of Tarot cards on my desk, and have a Tarot card app on my phone. My preferred decks for reading are the Tarot de Marseille... and of course, Labyrinth of Souls!

Q) How did Josephe get get started illustrating Dungeon Solitaire? Do you and Josephe go way back, or is this a new partnership for you?

A) Josephe and I got to know each other online through our common interests in drawing maps and roleplaying games. At the end of last summer he contacted me about possibly collaborating on a project in which I would write a game and he would do the artwork. He convinced me we could run a successful Kickstarter and after a bit of back and forth we settled on a Tarot version of Dungeon Solitaire.

Q) Dungeon Solitaire is what some readers call a "pip deck," and is what's generally called a Marseilles-style deck because only the 22 trumps and the 16 face cards are illustrated - the remainder of the pip cards are geometric patterns similar to playing cards. I myself prefer Marseilles-style decks over fully illustrated decks, but for some people, fully-illustrated decks are a big deal. Obviously, illustrating another 40 cards would have dramatically extended the timeline for your project, but do you ever think about a Dungeon Solitaire 2.0 with each card fully illustrated?

A) The way I see it, we did have some time and financial constraints, but I also prefer the pip style deck. For game-play, it allows for greater visual differentiation between the different types of cards. This results in faster, more intuitive recognition of all cards. And I think the abstract nature of the pip cards suits the interpretation of the minor arcana, whether for narrative play, or for readings. That being said, fully illustrated decks have the advantage of more illustrations, and a lot of people love a fully illustrated deck, so it's always a possibility to do one in the future.

Q) As the artist, Josephe must have started many draft illustrations that never saw the light of day. In hindsight, are there are any drafts either of you regret not including in the finished deck? Also, do you have any favorite cards in the finished deck? What are they, and why are they your favorites?

A) I just want to say all through the project Joseph was constantly exceeding my expectations with both the breadth and originality of his ideas and with the execution. A lot of cards made my jaw drop when I first saw them. Some of favorites include Judgement, The Devil, The World, King of Swords, Knight of Coins, Inner Desert, Holy Mountain, and The High Priestess. I'll stop there, but there are so many more!

Q) I haven't yet opened the package containing the Dungeon Solitaire deck, but I'm curious to ask: how strongly did you follow an established Tarot pattern in your 22 trump cards? Some Tarot readers get very pious about the arcane symbols in the Tarot. Did you attempt to follow a major Tarot tradition (RWS, Marseilles, Thoth, etc.) Or did you only follow the names of the trumps and do what you wanted with the trumps? I'm asking this question blind and I really don't know what I'm going to see when I open the box, so please answer this question however you like.

A) Josephe was familiar with Tarot cards and Tarot reading already, which in my mind was a huge benefit. We talked a little about layout with regards to game-play, incorporating some traditional elements into the cards, and numbering based on Tarot de Marseille, but Josephe was the real mastermind behind the deck design. I think he did an amazing job, both balancing traditional and original elements with the dark fantasy of Dungeon Solitaire, and creating a cohesive design, with a lot of detail and symbolic depth.

Here are my final remarks for Dungeon Solitaire - Labyrinth of Souls, with a full investigation into the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly!

The rule book has a very polished, professional appearance, the binding is solid, and the pages are a satisfying thickness. The artwork of the deck is striking, and it's a worthy addition to any Marseilles-readers Tarot library. The cards' illustrations are terrific, and the deck includes an additional 10 cards that are used for advanced rule modules but which can also be used to replace or expand the Tarot deck to suit your preferences. Extra cards such as Holy Mountain, Inner Desert, and the Dragon all present exciting opportunities to customize your deck for a unique reading experience.

The best thing going for DS-LoS is that it's a lot of fun. If the Labyrinth of Souls were only a Tarot deck, it'd still be great, but what really pushes it over the top is that the game for which the deck was made is terrific fun. At the time of this writing, I've only learned to play the Basic and the Expert rules: I still haven't learned the Advanced rules, the two-player co-operative module, or any of the other game modes. The game-play is addictive and does a fine job of replicating with paper cards the random, procedurally-generated level design found only in video games like Rogue Legacy and Spelunky

I found myself playing hand after hand trying to beat my score. Sometimes the game is just brutally punishing and I'll get killed by a monster on my very first turn, but most of the time I have enough options available that I'm able to enjoy a strong feeling of being challenged. That's hard enough to do with a video game, let alone with a deck of cards.

I'm a huge cheap-skate and I deeply resent spending money on anything more than $20 if it doesn't live up to my expectations. I'm happy to say that this purchase exceeded my expectations, and it's one that I recommend to anybody - not just for the Tarot deck, but for the rule-book as well. If you want to understand what I'm talking about, I recommend you visit Matthew Lowe's website and download the free Tomb of Four Kings rule-book. That'll introduce you to the game mechanics but also give you an idea what to expect with the more advanced rules.

The creator Matthew Lowes recommends that you use your imagination to fill out the details for each monster, locked door, trapped treasure, and maze you encounter. If you're like me, then this isn't a problem, but a feature: it really gives you an opportunity to escape into the game world. With the selection of an appropriate Tarot deck, you can use your imagination to play out all kinds of scenarios. This isn't an issue for me, but to get the Full Experience you're going to have to suspend disbelief and invoke the power of your inner geek. You know the one: the kid who was rolling dice and playing D&D with the nerds at the school library. If you don't have much of an imagination, then you might not find this game as engaging as I do.

The absolute worst thing I can say about Labyrinth of Souls is that the card stock on which the deck is printed feels cheap and flimsy, but this is a frequent challenge any time you purchase print-on-demand Tarot decks from publishers who don't have the same resources as larger publishers such as US Games and Lo Scarabeo. Perhaps there'll be a Labyrinth of Souls 2.0 with full-sized Tarot cards made with heavier card-stock, but for now what you see is what you get.

Also, the Tarot deck is not the large-size Tarot cards which you might be expecting, but poker-sized (like regular playing cards.) Tarot-sized cards are very impressive and fun to handle, but the trouble with Tarot card is that they take up a lot of space on the table. If you're playing a game like Labyrinth of Souls which consumes a lot of table-top real estate, then Tarot-sized cards are actually a liability to game-play. For those reasons, as much as I enjoy Tarot-sized cards, poker-sized cards are necessary to keep this game from becoming too big for its own good. Of course, if you really love Tarot cards, you can just play with your own deck - almost any Tarot deck will do - but then you'd be missing out on Josephe Vandel's original artwork.

EDIT: And as it turns out, I actually missed something in this review the first time I wrote it. I said in the unboxing video that there's no little white book to accompany the Tarot deck, but what I missed is that when you buy the Labyrinth of Souls deck from The Game Crafter, you get a PDF digital download of the basic module, "Tomb of Four Kings." So yes - if you purchase only the deck, you'll get a basic rule-book to start your adventures in the dungeon. Yes, it's the same set of rules that you can download from Matthew Lowes' website and which have been linked a few times in this review, but it's a lot better than nothing!

I don't actually have anything ugly to say about Labyrinth of Souls, but because I feel obligated to put something here, I'm going to talk about the price. The rule-book for Dungeon Solitaire: Labyrinth of Souls is $12.99 on Amazon and CreateSpace, and the deck is $16.99 on The Game Crafter. Depending on where in the world you live, it's going to cost you a little more for postage, and if you live in Canada (like I do) you're going to pay another ~30% on the exchange rate, so my $12.99 USD rule-book and $16.99 Tarot deck plus combined shipping came out to $47.66 CAD - and that was for me to have it shipped to a PO box across the border in Michigan (and I still had to pay another $10 to cross the toll bridge plus another $6 to receive my packages.) International shipping to my residence in Canada would have put the final cost closer to ~$70 CAD. If you live in the USA, then this is an easy purchase because the price is right and it's a great game. But if you live outside the USA, then the cost in postage - especially from The Game Crafter - is probably going to make this game cost-prohibitive for you. Again, this isn't a strike against the book or the Tarot deck (both of which are stellar), but this is something you have to consider when deciding to make this purchase if you live outside the USA.

Dungeon Solitaire - Labyrinth of Souls is a stellar game and great Tarot deck. Through no fault of the game creator, the deck itself might be too expensive for you to purchase if you live outside the USA, but the rule-book is easily purchased and is compatible with any Tarot deck. If you're not convinced, try the free basic rules (Tomb of Four Kings). This is one of the best purchases I've made in a long time, and I fully recommend it to anybody who enjoys playing card games.

August 23, 2016

Ask Me Anything: Reading Tarot cards isn't a real job!

In my digital travels, I met a person who posed the following complaint:
Can I get your opinions or experiences regarding people telling you that Tarot Reading isn't a skill or a "proper job?" I've been a reader for 20 years and work for a large USA psychic line. I'm doing very well but twice this week 2 people close to me said it was an unskilled vocation. I'm infuriated and offended.
If you're a glutton for punishment, you can bait them into an argument about what qualifies a job: Does a job require any particular skills, knowledge, or abilities? Do you pay money for continuing education or to receive peer evaluation? Does a job require an investment of your time and energy? Does a job require you to provide a product, program, or service to buyers who want what you're selling? Are you earning an equivalent wage to that of your peers? Do you pay taxes on your earnings? 

Chances are excellent that by every answer they give to these questions, they're validating the work you do, but like I said, this is an argument that you should make only if you're a glutton for punishment because the people who have the nerve to say this to your face will never be convinced. Their arguments are based on their perspective that a Real Job™ requires a university education and usually a corporate employer. By those standards, you'll never measure up in their eyes.

Or, you make the argument that, "So what if you think it's an unskilled vocation?" Because, you know what else is considered an unskilled vocation? Waiting tables. There's not a lot of money to be made at the low end of waiting, but at the upper end (in fine restaurants, for example) there are wait staff who bring home $100k a year. You might not have to go to school to wait tables, but it's absolutely a skill and one for which experienced wait staff absolutely deserve to get paid.

Or, you can make the argument that, "You're correct - this is a totally whackadoo job. And yet, I'm earning more than you are and I never wasted four years of my life in university or took on (tens of) thousands of dollars in school loans just to work a 9-to-5 (or for many salaried workers, a 9-to-9) for a corporate overlord who genuinely doesn't care about my job security." My parents and a few of my in-laws think poorly of me for not completing a four-year university degree, but you know, I'm not in their pockets (or anybody else's for that matter), so their opinion on how I work and earn my money counts for nothing.

There are all kinds of things that will offend and infuriate you, but the occasional grunts and groans from ignorant or jealous critics with a Puritan streak a mile wide aren't worth the trouble.

August 21, 2016

Ask Me Anything: How Did I Learn Analytical Tarot?

I recently got this question from a viewer who's making his way through my video responses to the 30-question Tarot Challenge. He was watching video #15, "Book knowledge or intuitive knowledge?" You can watch the full video here to get an idea what he's commenting on, but the question he asked me sparked a big response.
Q: Analytical Tarot - wow! I haven't heard of your approach before but I like the idea that you don't succumb to providing practical advice based on what the client asks you, framing that advice on what you think you intuit with the images - this sounds like a much better approach - what resources do you suggest on how to begin building skill with this approach, James?
A: I wish I could tell you! My Tarot education was based on traditional, image-based RWS. I was (very badly) self-taught for quite a few years, but eventually got some guided education through believe-it-or-not an online Wiccan school called Sacred Mists. What can I say? It was a transitional point for me between leaving the LDS Church and embracing atheism. Naturally, the Jesus-with-Breasts Goddess of Wicca was the next logical step. There were some other wanderings before I accepted that I was an atheist and a Satanist, but that's a whole 'nother story. 

Say what you will about them - and there's a lot to say - but they had (and presumably still have) a pretty solid Tarot course. Reading the images and following intuition were emphasized, but they also did a good job of teaching from a set of key-words for each card. I was about 2/3 of the way through that course when it occurred to me that I can change the key-words to whatever I preferred them to be. Thus began my days as a Tarot hacker! I started by replacing the Trumps with the 10 planets and 12 signs of the zodiac, and replacing the pip numerology with the medieval numerology written by Agrippa in his Three Books of Occult Philosophy (Llewellyn has an excellent source-book version fully annotated by Donald Tyson.) 

At that point in time, I didn't connect very well with the 22 trumps, so that precipitated my move away from Tarot into playing cards, which pretty much became a 5-year study in reading the pips from ~2010 through ~2015. I didn't realize it at the time since I never even heard about Lenormand until sometime in 2015, but what I learned to do in that space of 5 years was to read cards as pairs and links kinda-sorta like what's done in Lenormand. When reading as links I learned to see direction from one card to another - who does what, what goes where, what's connected, and so on. This means that when I read the Tarot, every single card has complimentary and polar allies, but also complimentary and polar opposites. If somebody doesn't like the 4 of Spades they see, then I go looking either for the 6 of Diamonds in the cards or suggest an application of the 6 of Diamonds to the client. Or if somebody doesn't like the influence of the Magician, I go looking for (or suggest) The World. And so on. 

After this five-year study of the pips, I had a better understanding how to read face cards, I worked the order-three Square of Saturn into my practice, and when I was ready to come back to Tarot, I had a better understanding what role the trumps should play. That's brought me to where I am today and the way I've restructured the trumps to reflect the swing back and forth between chaos and order, and reading the pips according to the 9 Satanic Statements of the Satanic Bible. Because of the way I've learned to read the cards, I've fallen into an analytical approach. To me, it's what make sense - for better and for worse, I don't know if I can see it any other way. When I use RWS Tarot decks with each card fully illustrated, I actually have a lot of trouble using them as Tarot decks and for me they've become elaborate oracle decks. 

Because of the time I've spent reading playing cards, I now prefer to read with Marseilles-style decks because it's faster and easier for me to see the pip and suit value of a card than to look at the picture. I've got all the information I need in my head - I know how the pieces go together, I know what happens when I combine them a certain way, and I don't need a picture to tell me what it means. In this way, I'm a deeply analytical reader. I can't recommend any books because I myself didn't use any books to get where I am today: it just happened as a natural evolution of what I was doing. Perhaps try reading with a Marseilles-style Tarot deck or with playing cards? That's going to force you to draw on your internalized knowledge of the cards' suits and pip values and will take your attention away from the cards on the table and more to the broader philosophy that that informs the cards' structure.

August 16, 2016

Sex Work is Real Work

Photo by Joel Balsam c/o Vice
There are a lot of different attitudes from a lot of different people regarding either the legalization or decriminalization of sex work. I've heard from a lot of people who argue passionately and effectively for both legalization and decriminalization, but then, I've also heard from a lot of people who argue passionately and effectively for the opposite. One such argument I read recently was written by Kat Banyard and printed by Aeon. You can click through to read her entire essay and see the argument she's making - I recommend you do, because it's a good essay and brings up a lot of strong, fact-based arguments instead of the moralistic complaints you might be expecting - but for the most part, her essay can be summarized as saying that neither legalization or decriminalization actually prevent the harm attendant to sex work - the very harm which advocates say will be prevented if prostitution is legalized or decriminalized. 

Generally, I support legalization. After all, if you think prostitutes work with their bodies but coal miners don't, then your outlook is prejudiced by a moral bias of the definition of "work." If you're opposed to legal prostitution because of the dangers to the sex workers themselves as well as the public health at large, then you ought to feel the same way - and argue just as passionately - against coal mining since it's a dirty, dangerous job that one way or another kills the miners and generally pollutes the planet upon which all of us live. Are coal miners not exploited by the corporations that employ them? Where's your concern now? Perhaps you'll make the argument that "we still need coal!" Mm-hm... and where's that attitude toward one of the most basic human desires - for sexual satisfaction? You can't possibly argue that people don't need sexual satisfaction: look at all the Catholic priests sworn to celibacy. How'd that work out for them? Not so well. 

Are there problems with any model of legalized or decriminalized prostitution? You betcha. But prostitution isn't going anywhere - it's not called the oldest profession in the world for no reason. So the author argues, the sex trade can't be legalized without hurting women, but you know, you can't legalize coal mining without hurting coal miners. Suffice it to say, the only constant is inequality. Each of us fights the best we can for the best we can get, and perhaps some of us support organizations who provide opportunities for disadvantaged but eager people to advance themselves, but that doesn't mean it's possible for everybody to get the best all the time. Some people take what they want, and some people take what they're given. Don't pretend that it's possible to legislate a reality into existence where everybody can take what they want, because that's a complete fantasy.

August 06, 2016

Unboxing: Dark Tarot

A few weeks ago, Ms. Benebell Wen did a review of the Dark Tarot, a Tarot deck created by the mysterious "M" who prefers that his true identity remain unknown but of course invites you to visit him online at As part of Ms. Wen's review of the Dark Tarot, she announced that "M" wanted to do a Tarot give-away: one lucky entrant would win a free copy of the Dark Tarot. Much to my pleasant surprise, "M" decided that every person who entered to win a copy of the deck would receive a copy. Huzzah for the kindness of strangers! Thanks to the attention that Ms. Wen brought to the deck, and the generosity of "M", I am now the proud owner of a copy of the Dark Tarot. I'm going to reserve most of my comments for the video you can watch above, but there are two things I want to make clear before we start:

First, this deck is a collaboration between "M" and "V", both of whom reside in Italy. "M" is a regular smarty-pants in his own right, but "V" is a professional sculptor. Together, they combined their skills to produce an amazing Tarot deck which in its complete state is a new creation never before seen in the world.

Second, the conception of the Dark Tarot follows a tradition that was commonly observed 400 years ago: artists recycled images and concepts from one deck of cards into another; however, this doesn't mean that the Dark Tarot is just a re-touched clone of an ancient deck: all of the cards have been completely re-colored and more than a third of them redrawn with minor or major changes to the original image. 

In this case, "M" and "V" used the Minchiate as their source. Minchiate is an ancient Italian card game composed of 97 different playing cards and was not a Tarot deck as we know it today. Well, depending on which history I read, there are different stories told. Some say that it was a card game in the style of Italian Trionfi, a trick-taking game where top-trump wins, but other sources say that the Minchiate was also used as a Tarot deck. Me being who I am, I think it was a lot of both and everything in between. Perhaps a better Tarot historian than I can clear this up?

At any rate, you might be thinking that "M" and "V" are a couple of Photoshoppers who just skimmed some images and slapped them together to make a buck, but you'd be completely wrong. As you'll see in the video above, but also the example below, the Dark Tarot is a work of love and Some of the images are completely new. The images of the Dark Tarot were hand-drawn with watercolor and ink on white cardboard, and the result is stunning. I contacted "M" to ask about what changes he made to the Minchiate, and he said that majority of the pips are copies that were recolored and restored in the pattern shown above. Regarding the trumps, he said that about 1/3 are copied and repainted in the pattern of the King of Clubs, about 1/3 are copied and modified in the pattern of Death, and about 1/3 are completely original as shown with the Magician. Look at the examples below:

The pair of cards above shows the King of Wands. This is an example of what "M" and "V" did when they copied a card from the Minchiate deck. In this case, you can see that the original illustration was largely preserved, but the background was brightened, the pattern on the floor was changed, the border was removed, and the "King of Wands" was added. I think you'll agree with me that the Minchiate version on the right is far inferior to the Dark Tarot version on the left.

In the pair of cards above, this is an example of the modifications that "M" and "V" chose to make. In this example, you can see that the Minchiate version on the right has "XIII" on a scroll of paper on the top left corner, but this is removed in the Dark Tarot version. You'll also notice that the Dark Tarot has a severed arm on the bottom left and a severed head on the bottom right. The Dark Tarot also features "DEATH" along the bottom of the card. Again, the antiquing process highlights the darker colors in the foreground and makes the colors pop.

The example above is the Magician, and this is a card that is 100% completely original and conceived and executed by both "M" and "V" exclusively for the Dark Tarot. All the card of the Dark Tarot have received an incredible antiquing finish, and this has served to make the illustrations on the card really jump out at the viewer. They've also served to breathe new life into what was an otherwise drab deck. Lo Scarabeo published a Minchiate Tarot deck in 2011, but seeing as these images were originally created roughly 400 years ago, I think it's fair to say that they're in the public domain. 

Another reason you'd be dead wrong that "M" and "V" are just trying to make a buck off some pictures in the public domain is that this deck isn't for sale. You can't buy this deck from any retailer or publisher, nor can you buy it from "M" and "V" at The only way to get your own copy of the Dark Tarot is to download the deck images from their website, put the images into a print-on-demand service such as, and order it yourself.

I've never met "M" or "V", but I wonder that they must be awfully kind people because when they said that I'd won a copy, they wouldn't even let me pay for the shipping or make a donation as my way of saying "thanks" for the hard work they put into the deck. Who turns down free money? Apparently, "M" and "V", who must be doing quite well for themselves to go to the time and energy of hand-painting an entirely new Tarot deck and then giving away the source files for free. So here's to you, "M" and "V." Live long and prosper! The Dark Tarot is delightful, and I'm proud to be able to add it to my collection.

August 02, 2016

10 Tips for New Tarot Readers

So, there you are: you've got a Tarot deck in your hands and you're standing at the pivotal moment of your life when you decide that you want to learn Tarot. And, chances are, you're scared shitless. I get it! I've been where you are, and I understand what you're feeling. For the new student learning to read Tarot, the practice can be opaque and intimidating at the best of times, and confusing and frustrating at the worst of times. It's not easy being new, and I sympathize with your struggle. 

But you know, this is the same struggle that anybody faces when they choose to start exercising self-mastery and learning a skill. It doesn't even matter that Tarot is an occult practice: any accomplished expression of self-mastery will always appear to be the result of occult forces to the uninitiated. So take a moment to congratulate yourself: learning a new skill is more than many people will ever choose to do voluntarily. However, while you're congratulating yourself, keep in mind that I'm not saying this is going to be easy. I never said great things happen without effort. But for what it's worth, here's my advice to help you accomplish mastery of the Tarot. What follows are my 10 tips for new Tarot readers - use them as you will.

#1) You're going to be bad at this for a long time

Be honest with yourself: nobody ever got good at a new skill over night. Even if you crash-course your way into Tarot with an intense 20 hours of brain training, it's still going to take time to develop your voice and style as a Tarot reader, and believe it or not, but making mistakes is a big part of the learning process. Being new is no shame. Revel in your mistakes. Folly is an indulgence. The error of your ways is the best instruction you'll ever receive, so don't be a in hurry to escape the perceived stigma of ignorance. You must accept that being a bad Tarot reader is the first step toward becoming a good Tarot reader. And, truth told, you're well served to preserve a measure of ignorance so that you'll stay open to new ideas and concepts.

#2) You don't have to be a professional reader

When you start your Tarot studies, you're going to feel like you're surrounded by titans and giants who've honed their reading skills to a fine edge and use this blade to cut a path through the wilderness. You're going to want to follow in their footsteps, and no matter what you say now, I promise you'll catch the money-fever and start having really serious thinks about earning some money on the side. And you know, that's okay. Every reader has to decide for him or herself whether he or she wants to offer paid services. But you also know, for every professional reader you see, there're at least a hundred readers who are happy to read for themselves or their friends, no payment required. Maybe you'll love being a professional reader? And then, maybe you prefer to treat Tarot as a hobby or amusing past-time. Whichever you choose, it's just that: a choice. There's nothing and nobody that say you must become a professional reader.

#3) Read Everything

When you first start reading Tarot, you're going to be overwhelmed by the amount of information available. You're going to feel that you're staring into the abyss, and you'll see a hundred billion Tarot authors staring back out at you, each one screaming for your attention and more than a few of them insisting that they're doing it right (and everybody else is doing it wrong.) It's going to feel impossible to understand where you should start. But you know, you don't have to read everything all at once: just start reading something now. And when you're done, read something else. Ultimately, my advice to you is to read anything and everything you can find from published books to online classes to blogs and newsletters. Just pick something and start reading, and when you're done, read something else. Everything you read will teach you something, and this process of comparing and evaluating different literature will be fundamental to shaping your understanding of the Tarot. 

#4) Try Everything

On the same vein of thought, try everything. You don't know what you don't know - you know what I mean? And the only way to discover what you don't know is to try everything. Well, not all at once, but definitely at least one at a time. The best way to learn is to try something new. Reading will only take you so far, because the rest of it is practice, practice, practice. There are a lot of things that look good in theory, but don't look good in application. And likewise, there are things you'll discover that don't sound very well conceived, but once you actually start doing them you'll find out what the noise is about. Also, you don't know what you don't like, and the things you do like might not actually be that satisfying. Try everything! You'll pick up all kinds of tips and tricks from other people. Emulate others' reading styles, try their Tarot arrangements, and let your hands show you the way. In the immortal words of Shia Labeouf, just do it.

#5) You're not wrong if you're not the same

When you first start walking your Tarot path, you're going to naturally want to follow the established routes. You'll look where the crowd is going, and the well-worn pathways will be the most welcoming and the most forgiving. And that's okay! When you're first starting something, well-worn pathways are going to offer the least resistance and be most forgiving of your missteps. Plus, there's a lot to be said for preserving tradition and finding strength and support from a community of like minds. But... you know... if you ever feel like following the pass less traveled, or even cutting your own path where none exists at all, that's okay, too. Going your own way can be lonely, but it can also be liberating. And just because you're going your own direction, that doesn't mean you're doing it wrong. People have been doing new and different things with Tarot for as long as Tarot has existed. Tarot is frequently an individual practice unique to each practitioner, so if you see things differently, that's okay. I mean, it doesn't give you license to re-write the established history of Tarot, but it doesn't mean that your approach is invalid. So rock on with your bad self, and as long as you're not trying to re-write objective history, don't let anybody tell you otherwise.

#6) Don't put the Tarot before the Reader

There are people who'll disagree, but I think that the Tarot is less important than the person reading the Tarot. After all, if reading Tarot were just a matter of repeating set keywords and stale definitions, then what do you need to learn Tarot for? If that's all it takes, then you can just read the appropriate entry from the Pictorial Key to the Tarot. But Tarot is a tool used to divine and interpret the ever-changing affairs of human lives, which means that it's also a tool which requires a human mind to interpret and apply to human concerns and interests. So, all of that is to say, don't make the mistake of putting the horse Tarot before the cart reader. Likewise, don't give all the credit to the Tarot: give the credit to yourself, because you're the one who used your skills, knowledge, abilities, and lived experiences to interpret and apply the Tarot to question of the reading.

#7) Hack your Tarot

Orthodoxy and fundamentalism are both spectacularly ignorant ways to live, and yet there are people in all spheres of life and all affairs of the day who cling to orthodoxy (doing things the same way they've always been done for the sake of doing things the same way they've always been done) and fundamentalism (taking source literature at face-value and insisting on a strict literal interpretation) for reasons that can only be explained by deep-seated insecurity and a search for power over others. And believe it or not, but orthodoxy and fundamentalism turn up in the Tarot world, too. Don't fall for the trap of thinking that you have to read Tarot the way it's always been done, or that you can't ask deep questions about matters that others think are best left alone. Hack your Tarot. Cut it to pieces and put it back together however you see fit. In the fictitious world created by Mary Shelley, everybody said Dr. Frankenstein was crazy, and yet he created an awesome and terrifying monster because he dared do what none others would even discuss. If you like the established traditions and find value in them, then it's okay for you to follow them. But if you feel the itch to start dismembering bodies and building your own monster, then do it: only by daring to stand among the gods will you ever surpass the bounds of mortality. 

#8) You don't have to commit yourself to Tarot

Tarot is really cool, and the larger community is so broad and various that you may never find the end of it. But, don't feel like you're trapped in Tarot. Some folks are right at home in Tarot and don't feel the need to branch into other disciplines, and other folks like Tarot but feel the need for other tools in their toolbox. And still other people start learning Tarot anticipating one thing, but they find another and discover that they actually want something else. If you start studying Tarot and find that it's not really what you wanted - that's okay. You can always branch into Lenormand, numerology, astrology, pendulum dowsing, bone reading, palmistry, mediumship, and other even more foreign and exotic practices. Its okay! There's no shame in acknowledging that you want to change paths, so don't feel like you're not allowed to use other tools or branch into other disciplines. I can't say that I've ever seen a poll of Tarot readers, but if I had to guess I'd say that the majority of people who've read Tarot for any length of time are multi-disciplinarians and either use various forms of divination or else have worked other forms of divination into their existing Tarot practice.

#9) Consent is important

This advice is short and sweet, but it's very important: don't give a reading to anybody who didn't request it. My opinion is that it's perfectly fine to read about people without their permission, but my opinion is also that it's wrong to tell people something you saw about them in a reading, or to give them a reading of their own, if they don't ask. If you believe in this sort of thing, you can delve into the metaphysics of it, and if you worry about this sort of thing, you can delve into the morals and ethics of it, but for practical reasons you should never give readings or messages gained in readings to anybody who didn't specifically ask to know that information because - long story short - you're going to come out looking like an asshole. At best, the recipient will be irritated and will also lose respect for you, and at worst you're going to lose a friendship or gain an enemy. Don't tell people Tarot-stuff without their consent: I promise you'll regret it.

#10) Have fun

Finally, remember to have fun. There's nothing noble about wearing a hair shirt. Well, I mean... if you like to wear hair shirts, that's your business, but I think most of us who read Tarot do so because we find it to be enjoyable and fulfilling. If you're not having fun, then you're doing Tarot wrong. If you've enjoyed Tarot in the past but now find that it's not bringing you the same kind of satisfaction that it once did, then you need to explore why that is. Perhaps your time with Tarot has come to an end? Or maybe you just lost sight of the reasons why you started and need to take moment to remember to enjoy yourself. This could be a good time for you to try a Tarot challenge, use the Tarot to channel your inner bitch, get some friends together and play a game, or make your own deck. But however you do Tarot, do it because it brings you pleasure.