Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Harrow Deck

One of the recurring themes that runs through the whole CotCT AP is the Harrow Deck. The Harrow Deck is Paizo's equivalent of a Tarot deck, used by the Varisian people (thinly veiled Gypsies) for fortune telling as well as to play a card game called Towers (much as the historic tarot was used for gaming, and still is in some European countires).

I've got no problem with the Harrow deck. I think it's great thematically. Paizo makes an actual Harrow deck if you are into props (and I certainly am), but the adventure includes methods to simulate a deck using regular playing cards or even die rolls.

The problem with using the Harrow deck with 4E is that the deck is built around the traditional 9 alignments of previous editions. There are 6 suits of cards based on the six attributes (which remain the same in 4E), and each suit contains 9 cards based on the 9 alignments (which 4E has reduced to 5, dropping Chaotic Good, Neutral good, True Neutral, Neutral evil, and Lawful evil). The suggested system for doing card readings given in Edge of Anarchy even relies on a spread based on the 9 alignments and comparing the card's alignment with it's position in the spread to see if it is "misaligned" (reversed in normal Tarot parlance, although the neutral cards in Harrow don't have a "misaligned" reading). I happen to like the new streamlined alignment system (especially the "unaligned" option), but it makes using the Harrow deck with 4E somewhat problematic.

The Harrow desk is pretty central to the AP, with a reading occuring at the begining of most adventures, and "haunted" deck acting as a sort of "DMPC" throughout the path so that the DM can provide the players with hints, etc. Each adventure in the AP is tied thematically to one of the suits of the deck, and PCs get "Harrow Points" that they can use to re-roll rolls related to the suit/attribute which is the focus of each adventure. Given how central the deck is to the AP (and how much I like Tarot anyway), I'm loathe to drop it.

The easiest solution is to just use the Harrow system as presented in Edge of Anarchy without modification. Only the DM has to know about or deal with the 9 alignments. The players don't actually need to hear references to the alignments when the deck is used in play. This is easy, but I think it could create some disjunct for 4E DMs, especially those not familiar with the earlier alignment system.

Another option is to try and rework the reading spread to reflect the 5 new alignments, and possibly change the "alignment" of the individual cards as well. This is a bit of work (although very doable), but I think it would feel pretty kludged in use.

What I will probably go with is reworking the spread to drop all refernce to alignment at all. I'll keep the association of suits with atributes, and even the Harrow Point idea and the attendent re-rolls, but scrap the alignment stuff. The tricky part in this option is how to decide if cards are "misaligned" (I'm inclinced to go with the traditional tarot method in which the card is reversed if it is upside down to the reader, but this leaves the problem of the neutral cards which have no "misaligned" reading - I guess I'd just use the standard reading whichever way the were turned).

All in all, a minor problem that is more an issue of "feel" than mechanics, so I'm not giving up yet :)


  1. I was leary of the Harrow deck at first. I decided that in my game I wouldn't be using the mechanical aspect of the Harrow deck that I would just piece together a reading that I thought would foreshadow the events to come. In retrospect I should have tied this to a skill check to allow people some insight into the imagery that I was using. Since my players have trouble initiating roleplaying amongst themselves, they rarely discussed the Harrow readings and what they might have meant.

    It is possible to give them mechanical bonuses tied to their understanding of the Harrow readings. Perhaps allow them small bonuses to various skill checks and initiative checks when they witness events foreshadowed by the Harrow reading and if a player gets excited about it and starts becoming proactive give a larger bonus.

  2. Those are good ideas. I do want to give some mechanical benefit from the harrow reading, but I want to minimize the random element of the system as written in the adventure. I'll probably give everyone the same number of "harrow points" and a list of situations they can be used in.