IFAQ: Cartomancy in Khorvaire

This is Caron Ellis’s work from Illimat, but it would certainly fit in an Aundairian oracle deck.

When time permits, I like to answer interesting questions posed by my Patreon supporters. This one has come up a few times…

Are there any cultures within Khorvaire that particularly utilize the Tarokka style deck? Is this associated with a dragonmarked house, magewrights, or something else?

Eberron: Rising From The Last War includes “oracle” as one of the possible specialties for magewrights; as presented, they can cast augury and divination as rituals. I expand on this in Exploring Eberron:

At DM discretion, a magewright’s spells may have expanded—or limited—effects. Consider what it takes to make a spell a viable commercial service. For example, augury only allows the caster to predict events 30 minutes in the future—useful for adventurers in the midst of a dungeon, but not for the farmer wanting an opinion on planting crops. A professional oracle might be able to predict woe or weal anywhere from a day to a week in advance—but such an oracle could have very specific limitations, such as only being able to make predictions related to to weather or agriculture. As a DM, use the existing spells as a model, but adjust them as necessary to create a viable business.

This is one place where I’d draw a sharper line than usual between magewrights (who employ arcane science) and adepts (who perform divine rituals). As a 2nd level spell, augury is in the range of everyday magic; as a 4th level spell divination is a little beyond it. With this in mind, I’d be inclined to either say that only the most exceptional magewright oracles can perform divination, or that they can only perform a narrow version of it, as described above. While for adepts I’d be inclined to say that they can cast augury at will but that divination is less predictable; they can pray on a thing, but sometimes answers come and sometimes they don’t… and sometimes, an adept oracle receives answers to questions without even asking them. It’s faith, not science.

So: Oracles can be found across Khorvaire, and they can cast augury and divination. But what does this LOOK like? The rules gives us the mechanics of spells, but flavor is something we have to add. Take fireball. Typically we think of a wizard raising a hand and calling out a word of power to produce a blast of fire from thin air. On the other hand, an artificer who employs alchemist’s supplies as their spellcasting focus could describe casting a fireball as hastily assembling a magical Molotov cocktail. It’s the same spell, but the flavor is completely different. The same definitely holds true here. An adept oracle might light incense and pray throughout their ritual time, seeking the answer within. A magewright oracle could employ bones, tea leaves, or unquestionably, cards—and I think there are oracular traditions that use all of those tools on Khorvaire.

We’ve never discussed cartomancy in any canon source that I’m aware of, but I’ve always assumed that it exists. A key question is how do people think the cards work? What power is guiding the cards? Let’s look at a few possibilities and where they’d fit.

The Draconic Prophecy. Eberron HAS the idea of a vast power that can be used to shape or predict the future, and it’s easy to imagine a deck of cards that’s seen as a lens for drawing guidance from the Draconic Prophecy. Personally I’d say that this is a very limited lens—peeking at the Prophecy through a hole in a piece of cardboard, no match for the vast observatories and tools employed by the Lords of Dust and the Chamber—but still useful as a tool for everyday life and a reliable way of casting divination. Personally, I would imagine this using a blend of the Sovereigns, Progenitors, and Planes as the arcana. To me, this would be the Rider-Waite of the Five Nations—a standard deck employed across the nations. Let’s call it the Golden Deck or the Dragon Deck (when it depicts the Sovereigns as dragons).

Sul Khatesh. The Keeper of Secrets loves esoteric rituals and people seeking forbidden knowledge. The Deck of Shadows is said to have been created by Hektula, and it uses overlords and archfiends as its arcana. It has a sinister reputation and is said to reveal painful secrets and things people don’t want known—all catering to Sul Khatesh’s love of people fearing magic. So this is found across Khorvaire, but it’s not a deck people will use in nice neighborhoods.

Thelanis. The spirits speak through the cards, and in this case the spirits are the archfey of Thelanis. The Deck of Stories is most commonly used in Aundair—where there’s long-standing traditions of dealing with the fey—but it can be found across the Five Nations.

Xoriat. It’s said the artist who drew the first tohiish dooval deck gouged out his eyes before sketching the cards. The images on the cards are unnerving, abstract designs; it’s not unlike a deck of Rorshach images, with different people seeing very different things as they stare at the cards. The tohiish dooval—”dangerous truth“—first appeared in the Shadow Marches and is rarely seen in the Five Nations, but there are rumors that Narathun oracles have started using a similar deck found in the Realm Below.

The Divinity Within. It’s not about the cards—it’s about the person reading them. Adept oracles of the Blood of Vol use cartomancy more than those of any other faith, but there’s no standardized deck associated with the faith. You could use Tarokka, Harrow, or any other deck. What’s important is what the reader sees in the cards, because the cards are the tool they use to reach their own Divinity Within.

These are just a few possible decks and traditions; an Aereni oracle might use a unique deck with cards representing their own personal ancestors. Aside from its use as a divinatory tool, I’d definitely allow a warlock to use a cartomancy deck as an arcane focus (and as their Book of Shadows, if they have Pact of the Tome); they could use the cards as a means to communicate with their patron, and could describe producing their spell effects by dramatically displaying and invoking specific cards.

I’ve got a Duergar Spirit Bard who uses a Harrow deck he found while in a labor camp in Ohr Kaluun; given that the whole vibe for Ohr Kaluun is “dark magic”, cartomancy felt like a natural fit.

This seems entirely reasonable, and such a tradition could have been carried over into the Venomous Demesne. But with that said, the question that immediately comes to my mind is what makes it “Dark Magic”? Is it a method of communicating with fiends? Are the cards printed using the blood of an innocent, and it’s their tormented spirit that speaks through the cards? Is the deck itself a bound imp? For those who aren’t familiar with it, Ohr Kaluun is a region in Sarlona which was in the past known for dangerous and sinister magical practices, including consorting with malevolent powers. When creating magic items from Ohr Kaluun, I love to try to hit this—to ask why would people be afraid of this place? I want players to say “I want to keep this item because it’s useful, but also, ewwww.”

That’s all for now! Feel free to discuss these ideas or to share what you’ve done with cartomancy in the comments, but as this is an IFAQ, I won’t be answering questions on the topic. Thanks to my Patreon supporters for asking interesting questions!

12 thoughts on “IFAQ: Cartomancy in Khorvaire

  1. Been brainstorming some Eberron conversions for Pathfinder APs and was wondering about how to go about addressing their “Harrow” deck, so this is perfect timing…

  2. I think you may have mixed up some spell names in this paragraph: “As a 2nd level spell, augury is in the range of everyday magic; as a 4th level spell augury is a little beyond it. With this in mind, I’d be inclined to either say that only the most exceptional magewright oracles can perform augury, or that they can only perform a narrow version of it, as described above.”

  3. Worth noting is that the symbol of the Lords of Dust bears a striking resemblance to the Tower tarot card.

  4. Thanks, Keith! I have a Brelish cartomancer that I have been very excited to play. She mostly uses (Pathfinder’s) Harrow deck, but in a pinch any fortune cards could work in her favor. Her spells are all focused through a Thelanis lens, except her eldritch blast which is just Gambit chucking charged cards.

    Her deck is definitely in line with the Deck of Stories. Kaetlynelle knows her cards as the Faranrede.

    I also have used Illimat as an in-world fortune telling device.

    This article is very relevant to my interests, so thanks again!!

  5. Does house medani and their oracles (as seen in dragonmarked) deal with deck of cards?

    • My personal opinion: why not? I could see them using the Golden deck or even one focused on dragonmarks/moons combined with other more common cards. So, for instance, you may have the “Queen” card but its meaning is different depending under which moon the card is placed.
      This way you can tie it to Eberron’s background and describe what is happening.
      “The Medani oracle looks at you, and swallows noisily, almost coughing.
      – The assasin under Sypheros, the shadow moon. – says massaging his neck. – Not a good sign, not a good sign at all…”

  6. Well my Uul’gaanu now has an arcane focus idea so thanks for that! And the malconvoker I’m playing in a 3.5 game could reveal a Deck of Shadows at the appropriate time

    Brilliant and worldbuilding, love to see it!

  7. So a while ago I was running an Eberron campaign and my players were given a Tarokka Deck of Many Things by a servant of the Traveler. In Eberron, I call DoMT ‘Decks of the Traveler’ because I think the chaotic effects suit that deity well. It did cause quite a bit of chaos for them, especially when the gnome sorcerer got disappeared to a random place and the players had to go rescue him.

    I feel it might be fun to play a Spirits Bard or a Wild Magic sorcerer who uses cartomancy and says their power comes from the Traveler.

  8. Cartomancy plays into one of the best aspects of the Deadlands RPG setting—the huckster! The huckster is essentially a warlock who plays poker with minor fiendish spirits to fuel their spells. It definitely can feed into more of the Western and pulp aesthetics of Eberron’s frontiers.

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