You think they’re just cards? Just pictures and words good for gambling or faking townsfolk out of a few coppers? Go on and think that—I don’t mind. My cards know where you’ve been and where you’re going. And it’s not pretty. Not at all. So, walk away. Or stop and learn to turn the few remaining pages of the story of your life into a novel worth the telling. Or don’t. After all, they’re only cards.
—Riana, Varisian harrower
THE HARROW DECK
Harrow is a tarot-like deck usable in everyday life or in any roleplaying game. Regardless of where you use it, use it with care. A harrow deck is loaded with power, so you must learn to read the cards correctly or else suffer an ignominious fate. The most important thing is to treat your harrow deck with respect. Disrespect the deck, and the deck will disrespect you. That way surely leads to ruin. You don’t want ruin, do you? You want to know how to read these cards.
Before you conduct a reading, set the stage for a dramatic encounter. Clear the table and place the deck in front of you.
The reading is conducted in two parts: first you’ll perform the choosing, and then you’ll perform the spread.
Ask your subjects—those who come to you for a reading—what they seek from it. Phrase the request in the form of a single question, then decide which of the six following abilities best suits that question. For example, a question of health might indicate the suit of Shields (Constitution), while a question regarding love might indicate the suit of Crowns (Charisma). Ultimately, it is up to you to choose which suit most fits—a question regarding love could just as well draw upon the suit of Stars (Wisdom), for example.
ABILITIES AND SOME CORRESPONDING TOPICS
Hammers (Strength): Battle, honor, cruelty
Keys (Dexterity): Children, risks, trouble
Shields (Constitution): Health, home, pain
Books (Intelligence): Money, secrets, stories
Stars (Wisdom): Faith, morality, trust
Crowns (Charisma): Family, love, politics
Remove the nine cards of the suit you have chosen from the harrow deck and shuffle those nine. Spread the cards you chose face down in front of you. Instruct your subject(s) to each pick one card. The chosen card has a message for that person about their current place in the world and in relation to the question at hand.
The spread is laid out in a three-by-three grid of nine cards.
When interpreting the cards, each one’s placement in the spread determines whether it relates to the past, present, or future. The placement also tells the harrower if the card should be interpreted in a positive, unclear, or negative light. The following table shows the placements and their alignments and meanings.
Lawful Neutral Chaotic Good positive past positive present positive future Neutral unclear past unclear present unclear future Evil negative past negative present negative future
A SAMPLE HARROWING
Merisiel has come to Riana for a reading. Riana calms herself as Merisiel asks her whether her plans to marry Kyra are good ones. Riana thinks on what type of question this is, and decides that it best fits Charisma.
She takes the nine Charisma cards out of the deck and carefully shuffles them for the choosing. She then spreads them out, facedown, in front of her. Merisiel takes one and turns it over—it is the Empty Throne. Riana tells Merisiel that this role card represents her place in relation to the question. Merisiel has felt love before, but it has often vanished, leaving behind a vacancy that aches as much as a nation without a leader—yet just as a nation still needs leadership, so too does the heart need one to love.
With that done, Riana puts the Charisma cards back into the deck and shuffles. She then deals out nine cards, face down, in the three-by-three pattern of the spread. Riana starts by turning over the three cards in the left column—those that represent the past. The cards revealed are, from top to bottom, the Owl, the Marriage, and the Cricket.
Riana checks to see if there are any true matches in this column. There is one: appropriately enough, the Marriage. It is a lawful neutral card in the lawful neutral placement in the spread. Riana contemplates the meaning of this card to the question. Since Merisiel’s question is about a wedding, the card is especially meaningful. Riana tells Merisiel that since this card appears in the past, it represents the strength of her existing relationship with Kyra, suggesting in a way that they have been wedded in soul all along. Since there are no other true matches, Riana moves on.
She turns over the three cards in the middle, representing the present. Top to bottom, she sees the Unicorn, the Dance, and the Tangled Briar. None of them are true or opposite matches. Thus, Riana looks for partial matches. She finds two. The Unicorn matches the good aspect of the top middle space, while the Tangled Briar matches the evil in the lower middle space. Riana looks at the Unicorn and tells Merisiel that the marriage has the potential of bringing great happiness. The Tangled Briar warns that something in her past may bring conflict to the wedding—but as the card appears in the middle column (and is associated with the present), the potential conflict it warns of can be dealt with if things are taken care of soon—before the wedding takes place
With that, Riana turns over the final three cards in the spread, those representing the future. Here she finds, top to bottom, the Tyrant, the Silent Hag, and the Keep. She finds no true matches, but there is one exact opposite: The Tyrant, a lawful evil card in the chaotic good placement. The Tyrant in this placement is misaligned, and indicates a tyrant overthrown. In this case, Riana believes it means that the danger represented by The Tangled Briar will be overcome, and that the wedding will be strong and last for many years—provided the danger itself is not allowed to fester beyond the present day.
Merisiel vows to confront this lingering danger and to confide in Kyra by confessing her past association with criminal elements in the city of Magnimar—where the wedding is scheduled to take place. With these shameful secrets revealed to her love, Merisiel hopes to rely upon Kyra’s support, should the danger the cards warn of come to pass. Riana smiles.
SINGLE CARD HARROWINGS
As a fun community exercise, and to show off the versatility of the Harrow Deck across RPGs, I asked people to tell me a little bit about their player characters and ask a question. I’ve selected a handful of these responses to do single card harrow pulls and interpretations. Thank you to everyone who shared their characters with me!
I have also decided to show off a few different ways to do single card readings – some of which are covered in the Harrow Deck manual, and some of which are taken from traditional cartomancy.
Harrow Rulebook Method (Choosing)
For the following two readings, I used the Choosing method described in the Harrow Deck Rulebook. For these readings, we determine which ability the question falls under, take the cards of the correct suit out, and draw from among those nine cards. When shuffling, I turned the cards around several times, so that some could be upright and some could be reversed.
Sebastian (they/them) asked about their drow chronomancer and artificer, Ptemfuzhi (he/she), who is entering her anger stage of trauma. They ask: What should he do about the people who hurt him?
Because the question pertains to past cruelty and trauma, I chose Hammers (Strength) and shuffle the cards, and spread them out. Pulling out a card and flipping it over, I got The Cyclone in reverse (or misaligned, as the book calls it).
The Cyclone misaligned indicates renewal after a difficult trial. Though your life may seem strewn among the wreckage, you can rebuild and emerge stronger than before. The best revenge against those who hurt you is to live your best life in spite of them.
Austin (he/him) asked about Qhirc, his kobold curse witch and potion maker. He asks: Our party has just lost a member. How should we go about finding a new face while honoring the fallen?
Because the question relates to party dynamics, which are a kind of found family, I chose to do a Crowns (Charisma) harrowing. Laying the cards out, I pulled The Empty Throne upright.
Upright, The Empty Throne denotes a powerful sense of loss – but reminds us that those who are gone never truly leave us. The loss of your party member can weigh heavy on you, and you should allow yourself the time and space to grieve, but don’t linger overlong. Take what you learned from them and use it to build an even stronger relationship with whoever comes next.
Single Card Deck Style
The following two harrowings are done in the deck style – all of the cards are shuffled together, and the top card of the deck is drawn for each reading. As with the Choosing method, I made sure to turn the cards around between shuffling, to ensure that some are reversed.
Nala (they/them) asked about Viridian (she/they), their Ventrue vampire who is cut off from their sire due to a betrayal from one of her siblings. They asked: Is there a chance for Viridian and Rin to reconcile, move forward, and have a relationship again, or is that a lost cause?
In this reading, I pulled The Tangled Briar in reverse. When drawn in reverse, The Tangled Briar indicates a past full of pain – but laced with hope for the future. Despite the way the thorns have cut you as you pulled yourself out, there is a full garden awaiting you once you fight your way through. There is hope, but it will be an uphill battle.
Sara (they/she) asked about her bartending alchemist witch Lana (she/her). They asked: Should Lana continue searching the Gauntlight in hopes of convincing Belcorra to join her coven, or should she switch to a more attainable goal, like becoming a hag?
After reshuffling, I pulled The Forge upright in answer to this question. The Forge encourages strength through diversity of material – but warns of getting into a quest too stubbornly and burning yourself to ashes. If the path forward isn’t changing, it might be time to turn away before it’s too late.
Single Card Spread
For these last two readings, I did a spread reading. For spread readings, you splay the entire deck out across the alter cloth and wander your fingers across the cards. The first card that is loose and comes easily is the answer to your question.
Lin (they/them) asked about their union space captain, Captain Vasko (she/her). After ten years in lock up, she and her rag-tag crew are fixing up the Dead Moon and traveling the stars. Lin asks: Will she ever find a home?
For this reading, The Joke slipped into my hands. Upright, The Joke signifies overcoming adversity through humor and other non-physical means. Taking a moment to relax, laugh, and take it easy will move your goals closer than you think. In order to build a home, you have to let yourself relax and let those walls down.
Basil (they/he/xe) asked about xir Triangle Agency character, Patience Hollyhock (they/them), who enjoys trench coats, coffee, and spending time with their partner. Basil asks: What should they do about the past they’re running from?
For this spread, the Paladin jumped out for me. The Paladin upright signifies strength in the face of adversity and encourages us to stand up for ourselves. Given the question, this card can be interpreted to mean: stop running. Turn your heel and face the horrors behind you. You are strong enough.
As a card reader of over a decade, the Harrow Deck is a wonderful addition to my tool belt, and I had a wonderful time reading fortunes for characters. No matter if you’re playing Pathfinder, Starfinder, or any other RPG—or if you just enjoy reading cards—the Harrow Deck is a beautiful addition to any collection.
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Step In for A Harrowing
Thursday, August 31, 2023