One thing I taught myself at university was how to read tarot cards. I can’t say I exactly believe that these pieces of paper can read my future, but it’s always a nice party trick when you do a reading for someone and it gives them real insights. Pointing out that they might be working too hard, missing family, or not seeing opportunities right there in front of them may help them understand their current situation a little better. I’ve always used them as a way to check in on myself or friends—a deck of cards is cheaper than therapy right? They’re pretty cool, as long as they’re used wisely, and gaming seems to really like tarot cards too.
Plenty of games use tarot cards as a theme or mechanic, from Persona 5 to The Quarry. But Bethesda has taken it a step further by creating two tarot card sets of their own, based on Skyrim and Fallout 4. I was sent a copy of both and I was half tempted to ruin the decks by using the cards as commemorative art pieces for the games rather than using them for reading purposes. I’m always looking for ways to hide gaming easter eggs around my own home, and these cards mix style and gaming better than most posters.
Both sets of cards come in small cardboard boxes containing the decks and a little instruction booklet. Each set of cards deviates from the traditional four suits and chooses a theme based on the game. For Fallout the suits are Lanterns, Steel, Synths, and Muskets, of course linking up with the game’s main factions. The Major Arcana (the big cards like Death, The Tower, The Hermit etc) are the notable NPCs from the world you encounter, as well as series mascot Vault Boy. These bits of artwork are a stylish way to commemorate my favourites like Preston Garvey and Nick Valentine. The art of the cards are cartoonish drawings of the characters with muted shading and some dilapidated flair making the set look like it’s just come from the apocalypse.
The Skyrim card suits are Spells, Lockpicks, Arms, and Voice, more tenuously linked to the factions and elements of gameplay the Dovahkiin encounters on their travels. But I think this card set, despite the fact I enjoy Skyrim more than Fallout 4, is weaker. Many NPCs in the Major Arcana set aren’t instantly recognisable for two reasons: They require a more intimate knowledge of lore as many are deities rather than NPCs you visit regularly as you do in Fallout, even if you’re just running past them in Diamond City. And the art is more stylised in a way that it’s harder at first glance to know who’s who with flatter shading and a more muted palette of colours. Even if they’re still very pretty in their dusty pastel greens and blues, the Fallout cards feels more in line with the world they’re supposed to have come from.
Each tarot book that accompanies the cards will give you context to each character and why they’ve been picked for the role, as well as each cards’ meaning, which is how I deciphered the characters.
While these sets could make a nice gift, they’re not as great for readings. Sets such as the Wild Unknown are far more emotive and easy to read if you’re interested in learning about tarot cards. The Wild Unknown’s Ten of Swords shows those swords piercing a beast, with dark shading and its eyes speared by the tenth sword. It’s dramatic and scary, which connects to the meaning of the card. It’s a card literally about drama and hitting rock bottom. It’s about being caught up in petty ruinous things rather than moving past it. Dramatic card, dramatic meaning, you see?
The main barrier for new tarot enthusiasts with the Bethesda decks would be that the numbered cards, like the Three of Lockpicks or the Five of Steel, are reusing the same assets over and over. Synths, horns, swords, they all just multiply rather than showing you anything new. It would be a nightmare to try and remember which correlated to what emotion and meaning because they all look pretty much the same. Of course, the book is right there for you to research what each card means, but part of the fun of the tarot card process is showing off your visually stimulating, beautiful cards, as a bonus to their meanings.
That said, the writer of the explanations of the tarot cards, Tori Schafer, does such a good job at explaining the cards and their meanings in a way that relates to the adventures of the protagonists of the games. There’s a world in which I can imagine these explanations just copied and pasted between the two books, but that’s not the case here.
I’m still tempted to frame my favourite pieces of art from both decks and put them on my wall as little mementos of my adventures rather than using them for readings. But the cards have a luxe feel to them—even if my Skyrim deck was already a little bent for some reason—that I might keep them around to show off to friends. If you’ve got a friend who’s into these franchises, the tarot sets are a solid gift for them to put on their shelves. But for those of more mystic mindsets, they’re more novelty than magic.