Casting Curse: The Harrow Deck Comes Full Circle

Friday, May 31, 2019

Lemme tell you why Curse of the Crimson Throne is my favorite Pathfinder Adventure Card Game set yet. It's totally self-indulgent. You've been warned.

Back in 2007, I was helping Vic and Lisa launch the board game line that included Kill Doctor Lucky, Stonehenge, and (my personal favorite) Yetisburg. I got to be around Jason Bulmahn, James Jacobs, James Sutter, Wes Schneider, and the rest of the original Pathfinder RPG design team. One day, Wes came to me with a query.

"Mike, do you know how to design a tarot deck?" Wes said.

In fact, I had waited years for someone to ask me that question. In those days, I owned over a dozen tarot decks, and I had long wanted to make a divination deck that could stand up next to Ravenloft's tarokka, Discworld's caroc, and Everway. I'd just never had the chance.

Wes told me that the new RPG Adventure Path they were planning, Curse of the Crimson Throne, would feature a storyteller deck, but nobody in the company knew what to call it or how it could work. Or even how many cards it had.

"Fifty-four," I said. "The nine alignments times the six abilities. Done."

"Uh," said Wes. "Yeah, you're designing our tarot deck."

So we began work on what I dubbed "The Harrow Deck."

The original Harrow packaging, designed by James Davis with art by Kyle Hunter.

Now, this wasn't one of these everyone-in-the-world-figure-out-this-thing projects. It was too niche of a design for that. Instead, Wes, the Jameses, artist Kyle Stanley Hunter, and I just holed up and riffed for a couple of hours.

"What if there was a giant, but he was juggling?" Wes would say.

"Juggling an elephant?" Kyle would reply.

"And a unicorn," Sutter would answer. "Not juggling a unicorn. A different card with a unicorn."

"But with a pear on the end of her horn, and she can't get it off," I'd say.

"I have an odd idea for The Marriage," Jacobs would say, and we'd keep going till it was done.

I'm sure we were sober when we thought of these.

I had the mechanics worked out from the get-go, tasking Kyle with envisioning six symbols we could float over the art in nine different alignment positions. But, we needed more heft to this thing. We brought in my design partner Teeuwynn Woodruff to create a divination mechanic and to write dozens of fascinating interpretations of the nutball ideas we had come up with. Jason brought over an idea for a gambling game called Towers based on my card alignment array. Mike McArtor (we miss ya, bud) took on the editing and James Davis the graphics.

It was one of the very few projects where nothing ever went backward. Everything anyone said made it in. Because nothing—nothing at all—was too weird for the Harrow deck. You can read more about the creation of that deck in this ridiculous 2008 blog of mine, and I encourage you to do so.

In 2013, two card sets of mine came out. The first was the Deluxe edition of the Harrow deck.

The Deluxe Harrow Deck.

In this re-envisioned product, the cards became tarot-sized and the overlay suit icons got replaced by alignment dots around the edges, freeing up Kyle's art even more. It still functioned the same, with the same names and imagery, but it sure looked a bit different.

"How you gonna do neutral?" I asked. They figured it out.

Also in 2013, we had just finished core design on the first Pathfinder Adventure Card Game set, Rise of the Runelords. Already, a buzz was building about what we were concocting. Soon, we'd need to know what the second PACG set would be.

"It's Curse of the Crimson Throne," I said as a final pronouncement. "Because I want to make a totally new timer mechanic based on the Harrow deck."

The finality of that pronouncement lasted about 20 seconds. "Whoa there, hoss," my collaborators said. "We just spent a year making your dumb thing work, and you want to start it over? Nope, and also nope."

OK, so Skull & Shackles. Fine. But, the third set for sure...

I brought on Keith Richmond, as recounted in this blog of his, because for sure we were doing Curse real soon now. Except we didn't. Wrath of the Righteous would be our plane-spanning epic tale, so Keith cut his teeth on that. Then Mummy's Mask led us into the sands, and Keith helped make that a reality. Also multiple seasons of organized play. Keith was working on a lot of these game projects for us, but not the thing I actually brought him on to make.

After Mummy's Mask, we needed to recalibrate. In 2018, with many thousands of PACG cards out there, we wanted to cure some of the lingering roughness in the game and give it a real cleanup. Finally, I said, "Now. We're doing Curse now. I'm getting my Harrow set."

Vic and Lisa agreed. So we started in on Curse. I cannot tell you how liberating it felt to crack open a Harrow deck and reimagine it a decade later. All of Kyle's mind-bending art, all of those odd concepts that Wes and the Jameses and I kicked around, all the ethereal meanings that Teeuwynn ascribed to every card—all of that was about to become real. Cards now had to function. They had to mean one thing, not everything.

New design by Sonja Morris, and a darn pretty one, says me.

Liz took the first pass on the Harrow blessings. She looked at every weird idea that made it onto those cards and wrote whatever madness popped into her head. Keith and Chad reworked her cool concepts. Aviva figured out how everything should be said. I went through and made everything fit that original Harrow vision.

Fifty-four new blessings, all themed to suits, was the largest amount of blessings we'd ever designed at once. Not only did they all need different play powers, but they also needed different "when this is the hour" powers, and they all had to be different from the ones in the Core Set. Most importantly, they needed to match whatever stories our original Harrow deck put in your head.

After quite a bit of work, we had a new Harrow deck for a whole new audience.

Except... we didn't have a harrowing, per se. We had a few spells called various versions of Harrowing, and we had allies called Harrowers, and we even had items called Harrow Decks.

Plus lots more Harrow cards.

But, we didn't have any divination.

Keith figured that out. Well, he figured a version of it out, but it was too big and complicated. Through many iterations, we finally got down to something nice and simple. Each adventure, you'd gain a Harrow blessing of the adventure's suit, which would affect your checks of the related skill. Your harrow would follow you throughout the adventure, loading itself into your hand at the start of each scenario. Sometimes you'd be thrilled by what blessing governed your play; sometimes you'd be less thrilled. But, it was yours for the adventure, like it or not.

Now and then, some of the Harrow blessings were in players' decks, making the harrowing less fun. The "impossible rule" covered this situation, and we made a rule that if we ran out of blessings of the appropriate suit, we'd use ones of other Harrow suits. A simple enough hack, but we wanted another approach.

So we tried something else. We cracked one of my old Harrow decks to play the divination similarly to the way Teeuwynn imagined it years earlier. Then we used the rules in the storybook applying to whatever card each character got (assuming it was available). You sure don't need a real Harrow deck for that purpose, but if you can get your hands on one, you'll feel more deeply immersed in the adventure.

Along with the whole team, Keith finally got Curse of the Crimson Throne done like he wanted, and as a "reward," I made him be the president of my company. Me, I got my Harrow set. That time a dozen years ago, when we made a crazy deck of cards that a generation of Pathfinders interpreted in every possible way, was now part of my most adventurous project for Paizo ever.

Sometimes Fate is a cruel mistress. But, sometimes, if you just give her a chance, she smiles on you.

Mike Selinker
Adventure Card Game Lead Designer

More Paizo Blog.
Tags: Curse of the Crimson Throne Pathfinder Adventure Card Game
Liberty's Edge

Pathfinder Adventure Path, Campaign Setting, Companion, Roleplaying Game, Starfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber

Oh! This sounds really fun actually. I've only dabbled in the ACG but I might have to give this one a look over!

RPG Superstar Season 9 Top 16

1 person marked this as a favorite.

Sounds like a lot of fun! And a lot of work you did.


2 people marked this as a favorite.
Pathfinder Card Game, Class Deck Subscriber

I don't know if I can adequately describe how pleased I am at the appearance of the Harrow cards in this AP. At the very least, I will be reworking my Harrower characters once I wrap my head around what the Harrow cards might allow.

And I might just use my Deluxe Harrow Deck when we play through the AP. ;)

Lone Shark Games

me wrote:
I had long wanted to make a divination deck that could stand up next to Ravenloft's tarokka, Discworld's caroc, and Everway

I have literally never met anyone other than me who has played with all three of these. Let me know if you fit that description.


2 people marked this as a favorite.
Pathfinder Battles Case Subscriber; Pathfinder Card Game, Class Deck Subscriber

And then there is us, poor Frenchmen, for whom Tarot is actually a card game like Bridge that never produced any divination of the future other than the fact that my wife will win at it because she is just plain lucky.
But since I'm the master at dice roling, I get my well deserved revenge at Pathfinder.


2 people marked this as a favorite.

I'm not an ACG player, but other than that, the Harrow is one of the most interesting, weirdest, craziest, coolest divination decks I've ever seen. Kudos for coming up with it together with your colleagues, Mike.


2 people marked this as a favorite.

^+1 on that. Even though the Adventure Card Game isn't my thing, I wish the Messageboards let me fave this blog post.


1 person marked this as a favorite.

The harrow deck is awesome but I really feel that the great Harrowing module, that gave life to so many of these cards, should've been mentioned here.


1 person marked this as a favorite.
Dryxxxa wrote:
The harrow deck is awesome but I really feel that the great Harrowing module, that gave life to so many of these cards, should've been mentioned here.

By the amazing and awesome Crystal Frazier, let's reiterate. If anyone hasn't played that adventure, it comes highly recommended indeed. If you know Crys/have read her stuff, you know what she's capable of.

Lone Shark Games

1 person marked this as a favorite.

Yes, very much so! I only listed the things I had a hand in, and since I didn't work on that with Crystal, it didn't make sense for me to make it part of my personal narrative. But you should get it!

Lone Shark Games

2 people marked this as a favorite.
Dryxxxa wrote:
The harrow deck is awesome but I really feel that the great Harrowing module, that gave life to so many of these cards, should've been mentioned here.

I haven't played / run that one, though now I want to :)

For a second I was confused as to how I didn't include it in one of my runs of Curse (I did include U1 Gallery of Evil because it felt like a good fit for Korvosa), but turns out Curse of the Crimson Throne and the Harrow Deck predate that adventure by more than 3 years, so my campaigns were already out of Korvosa or done by the time.


1 person marked this as a favorite.

I had tons of fun running the Harrowing so I’ll heartily second that recommendation.

The nature of the module is such that it doesn’t really matter where you start out (although I’m not sure where all Curse takes you; the group I’m in right now is inside the Vivified Labyrinth and I’ve been avoiding info about what comes after that).


Keith Richmond wrote:
Dryxxxa wrote:
The harrow deck is awesome but I really feel that the great Harrowing module, that gave life to so many of these cards, should've been mentioned here.

I haven't played / run that one, though now I want to :)

For a second I was confused as to how I didn't include it in one of my runs of Curse (I did include U1 Gallery of Evil because it felt like a good fit for Korvosa), but turns out Curse of the Crimson Throne and the Harrow Deck predate that adventure by more than 3 years, so my campaigns were already out of Korvosa or done by the time.

That sounds like a good module to transplant into Strange Aeons.


Pathfinder Card Game Subscriber

So no conversion rules after all?

Lone Shark Games

Ceetee wrote:
So no conversion rules after all?

Sorry, I meant that the next Core Principles blog would be the conversion rules, which they will be.


I hope you update and re-issue a new version of the Harrow deck for 2E, my character, a half-elf son of a Varisian Harrower dabbles in the art. For the show, I've worked with my DM to 'pre set' some cards for a harrow lay and made it part of the story, it's been very cool. The new version of the card game is on my list to get, looking forward to it! Cheers.

Paizo Employee Chief Technical Officer

1 person marked this as a favorite.
Evan Young 701 wrote:
I hope you update and re-issue a new version of the Harrow deck for 2E...

The deck and divination guide are largely system-agnostic, with almost no game mechanics to update. The exception is a single spell, Harrowing.

Grand Lodge

1 person marked this as a favorite.
Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber; Pathfinder Deluxe Comics Subscriber

If having a Harrow deck can improve the play of PACG Curse of the Crimson Throne, you might consider reprinting it. Seems only non-mint copies are available. Could be a good time for a package update to the 2E iconography.

Silver Crusade

1 person marked this as a favorite.
Pathfinder Adventure Path, Campaign Setting, Pawns Subscriber
TwilightKnight wrote:
If having a Harrow deck can improve the play of PACG Curse of the Crimson Throne, you might consider reprinting it. Seems only non-mint copies are available. Could be a good time for a package update to the 2E iconography.

I think you're looking at the original Harrow Deck (that was playing card sized). That was redesigned and rereleased as the Deluxe Harrow deck which is still available Here

Shadow Lodge

1 person marked this as a favorite.
Pathfinder Adventure Path, Campaign Setting, Card Game, Cards, Class Deck, Companion, Maps, Pawns, Roleplaying Game Subscriber; Pathfinder Comics Subscriber

The original Harrow Deck, though, has the advantage that it uses cards which are the same size as regular PACG cards.

I've got both versions of the Harrow Deck, but the original one is the one that gets packed with my Core+Curse set.

Community / Forums / Pathfinder / Pathfinder Adventure Card Game / General Discussion / Paizo Blog: Casting Curse: The Harrow Deck Comes Full Circle All Messageboards

Want to post a reply? Sign in.