Sunday, February 1, 2015

Penny Dreadful Tarot Deck

The Back of the Penny Dreadful Tarot Cards

They looked great on TV.

Right? I am always a sucker for cool tarot cards for use in RPGs.

Or maybe they just look better when used by Eva Green. In any case, the Penny Dreadful Tarot Cards are a standard 78 tarot card deck. No artist is credited with the design. There is one additional card with instructions for using the deck, and one card with the Showtime logo on both sides. The deck itself is $14.95. If you want to pay $49.95, you can get the cards with a wooden box, a velveteen bag, and an instruction booklet.

Here is a sample of what the cards look like:

The cards are simple line drawings, which really pop out on the TV screen. But the designs are much less striking off screen. The line detail on some of the minor arcana (like the King of Cups) is a bit too dense; it is hard to see all of the images clearly. The art on some of the major arcana, such as The Lovers (a signature image for the TV series) looks unfinished when you have it in your hand.

Then there is the question of whether the cards "look" very Victorian. I'd say not. The artist is no Beardsley here. And the trump for The Hermit... begs a historical question. The image's concept is great - a deep sea fish is a fresh and intriguing metaphor for The Hermit. But I doubt that the Victorians even knew these deep sea creatures existed.

The Chariot as depicted above is also a unique interpretation. Quite erotic in fact, which is fairly unusual for this card.

The cards from the show also lacked the unnecessary Penny Dreadful branding that has been placed on the top and bottom of the card backs in the version of the deck for sale to the public. I really wish they had left that detail out.  It reduced the deck's utility for gaming.

So are these cards gameable? You could use them in a Victorian game, particularly if 1) you were emphasizing erotic themes, and/or 2) your players like the show. For a horror-based Victorian RPG, I'll be holding on to my copy of George Highham's Wormweird Tarot. That dark and very unique deck was published by Eos as an unofficial companion for their Unhallowed Metropolis RPG in 2008. It would be nice to have a tailor-made deck for Cubicle 7's wonderful Victoriana RPG. It could be organized along the game's Moorcockian Law vs. Chaos cosmology, also incorporating some of the setting's class themes, beastmen, and steamtech.

I'd also love to see a Victorian and/or steampunk version of the Deck of Fate.

But in the meantime, we will always have the Ryder-Waite deck.


  1. I love using the Tarot in gaming! I like the Crowley-Harris Thoth deck and in our winding down PF game I make the PCs draw from a beautiful Yoshitaka Amano deck I got a decade ago to define who of the 12 Eidolons are most powerful when they enter a new scene. Pretty much like some of the mechanics from 13th Age.

    Tarot will always be a great gaming tool for random narrative generation.