Crescent City: Roleplaying in a Magical-Realistic New Orleans Employing the Traditional 78-card Tarot
By Jason Mical © 2005 Jason Mical
License Information: http://www.jasonmical.com/tarot/license.html Chapter 1: Introduction
The electric lights blend with old gaslamps in the Southern summer, shimmering across the languid Mississippi waters. Jazz music pours from barely-concealed speakeasies in the French Quarter, mixing with the smell of cigarette smoke and the cloudy licorice reek of absinthe. On St. Charles Street, a cablecar clangs past century-old mansions while beautiful debutantes tighten their corsets before leaving for a ball in their family’s Rolls-Royce. In the back alleys, old men sell roosters to voodoo practitioners, while rumors of darker things crawling from the sewers fill herbal shops and less-savory places.
At Tulane University, scholars delve into long-forgotten religious texts while young gentlemen in fraternity houses squander family fortunes older than the state itself. Telephone lines have connected the city to the world in a way that paddleboats and barges never have, but old-timers still complain about the limbs they lost in the War and contemplate simpler times. The hustle of the world threatens to overtake the city, and the recent draining of land for development heralds an era of new growth, but its citizens seem less concerned than ever with the affairs of the outside world, and are content to take the changes at their own pace.
Meanwhile, troubling stories abound regarding animated corpses walking the streets. Families living in decaying plantations deep in the swamp have begun practicing rituals not seen in hundreds of years. Pale people linger too long on Bourbon Street, and drunks are found dead the next morning with strange bite marks on their necks. Revivalist
preachers claim angels and demons themselves prowl the cities, while the Church keeps a tight seal on the recent arrival of Jesuit monks that resemble mercenaries more than holy men.
Welcome to New Orleans, circa 1923. Step aboard the coach; your adventure awaits. Crescent City is a role-playing game of magical realism set in a New Orleans that has more to do with fiction, film, and romantic misconceptions rather than fact. It is a place where the crush of technological advancement has not yet destroyed the deep connection to the mystical, and often both coexist in a strange balance. Anne Rice’s characters might feel at home here, as would the protagonists of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges. It is a place for lovers and fighters, a city where anything can happen from the wondrous to the horrific – often at the same time. Voodoo priestesses walk shoulder-to-shoulder with Antebellum families, and creatures heard about only in whispers stalk the streets next to the worst examples of humanity.
Rather than a traditional role-playing system of dice and numbers, Crescent City uses the traditional 78-card Tarot deck to resolve conflicts and adjudicate the inevitable mystical encounters in the Big Easy.
So what kind of game is Crescent City? The limits are in the GM’s imagination. New Orleans in the 1920s was a big place, and when you throw mythological creatures and nameless horrors into the mix, anything is possible. The Volstead Act has led to the rise of organized crime, even in the deep South. Sentiments regarding the War still exist. The old way of life is alive and well. Tulane and Loyola Universities are centers of great learning, but massive voodoo rituals revive the Old Ways nightly. Are the dead crawling out of their stone sepulchers to walk the streets? Are demonic forces battling the armies of Heaven behind closed doors? And what is that thing crawling from that sewer grate; it doesn’t look like any rat I’ve ever seen. Rats don’t have tentacles.
Crescent City takes the best of American folklore and mixes it with the joie de vivre at the height of the jazz age and places it in the unique Southern gothic setting. Story ideas abound, and this is the perfect place to try out “something new,” or “that adventure I’ve always wanted to run but couldn’t quite find the context in which to do it.” Or, make a campaign of it – perhaps the mobsters have come into conflict with the old families, or the voodoo practitioners are at war with the university scholars. Or there’s something more sinister that threatens not only the languid peace of the Big Easy, but the entire world – and the characters are the only ones who can stop it.
What You Need to Play
Each player should have his own Tarot deck. A sheet of paper and a pencil to record elements of their character is also important. The gamemaster should have his own Tarot deck, some scratch paper, and a few pencils if necessary. Some basic math skills also come in handy; sums in Crescent City can be done on fingers and toes.
Which Tarot deck to bring? That depends on the player. The Rider-Waite Tarot is the most traditional and most versatile, but many specialized Tarot decks are available on the market today. It might also depend on the direction the Gamemaster wishes to take the game; if the game features a mummy terrorizing the city, he might recommend a Tarot deck with Egyptian imagery. Whatever deck a player is comfortable with is the deck that player should use.
Chapter 2: A Roadmap of the Tarot Deck
Most readers will no doubt be familiar with the Tarot deck as a means of fortune-telling or mystical symbolism. This is its popular use, especially since the 19th century, and especially in North America. In Europe, Tarot is a trick-taking card game similar to pinochle or bridge that can trace its roots to an even older trick-taking game, tarocchi.
Both Tarot and tarocchi use a similar 78-card deck, and are still played in France, Italy, and parts of the Czech Republic and the Balkans.
It is not clear when the Tarot deck became used for divination, but its reputation as such was firmly established in the 19th century and bolstered by Alester Crowley’s
endorsement of this purpose in the early 20th Century. Those practicing the Kaballah (a kind of Jewish mysticism based partially on numbers) have been using Tarot and other similar numerical devices for centuries. It appears that church warnings against the symbolism of playing cards date back to the 1300s, around the same time that those cards first appeared.
Like a traditional deck of cards, the Tarot deck is divided into four suits. Traditionally, these suits are called Swords, Wands or Staves, Cups, and Pentacles or Coins. The exact names of the suits may vary from deck to deck. Each suit contains a 1-10 (the Ace typically being the 1 card), and four “face” cards: the Page, the Knight, the Queen, and the King. Taken together, the cards in the four suits are called the “minor arcana,” where arcana refers to “mysteries” or “hidden knowledge.”
Where Tarot decks differ most from regular decks is the other twenty-two cards included, or the “major arcana.” In the Tarot game, these cards are used as trump; they are also the cards most important to divination, and the ones often seen in pop culture representations of the Tarot. They include cards like Death, The Devil, The Magician, and The Emperor. They are numbered 0-21, with the 0 card being The Fool and 21 being The World. In the Tarot game, The World is the most powerful (and most valuable, in terms of points) card. But the major arcana also represent something else, something more important to the purposes of storytelling and role-playing. Taken as a series of panels, they tell the story of the Fool’s journey to adulthood (or, if you prefer something more esoteric,
Enlightenment or Inspiration). The other twenty-one cards are things the Fool encounters on his trip, or lessons the fool learns along his journey.
Tarot Symbolism In Crescent City
Crescent City follows much of the traditional Tarot symbolism in terms of both the major and minor arcana. An outline of the four minor arcana suits and their
corresponding symbols is below. You might want to consider copying this chart onto the sheet of paper containing your character information, as you will likely refer to it often in the course of play.
Suit Sex Element Attribute
Swords Male Air Physical
Wands Male Fire Mental
Cups Female Water Emotional/Creative
Pentacles Female Earth Social
Swords represent all things physical, from running a race to fighting a barroom brawl. The sword itself is a weapon, intended to draw blood and cause physical harm. In and of itself, though, a sword is merely a tool, and can be used in self-defense or to protect the weak and innocent as easily as it can be used to oppress and control others. A sword is born of a combination of earth (the elements used to create it) and fire (the force necessary to fashion it), and is itself the very air it slices.
Wands represent the mental aspects of life: a dedication to philosophical and scientific study that brings great knowledge. The wand is a symbol of the means by which magical energies are concentrated, representing the passage of knowledge and study into the physical world and the power of that concentrated knowledge. A wand is a fiery thing, because while knowledge can create comfort and warmth, risking too much can offend the gods and result in catastrophic and unforeseen consequences for the overzealous. Wands are one of the two suits used in the exploration and control of magical energies. Cups
Perhaps the most female of the four suits, cups are tools designed to capture and hold liquids – often water or a beverage, but sometimes not. Liquid itself is ever-changing, and the capturing and holding of this chaotic force is the key to the mastery of emotion. Cups are the suit of creativity, the ability to craft a story and captivate an audience or the power to pen a song that pierces the soul.
Cups are one of the two suits used in the exploration and control of magical energies. Pentacles
Also called coins, pentacles are physical symbols of abstract concepts, a way to reduce something into an easily-recognizable form so that someone can instantly recognize it. The social suit, pentacles represent a mastery over language and discourse that allows people to chose the correct things to say in any social situation, a way to pass information secretly, or even the skill to read unfamiliar symbols and generalize their meaning. Chapter 3: Creating A Character
Before play begins, each player will have to create a character. Gamemasters will also want to be familiar with this process, because major non-player-run characters (NPCs) will also need to go through this process, and minor NPCs may need the bare-bones treatment as well.
The character creation process is designed not only to guide you though the nuts and bolts of creating your character, but to offer a means by which you can get to know your
character in a relatively short amount of time. Realize though that we’re painting in broad strokes: the details will be yours to fill in later.
Step One: Select a Strength
Each character will have one particular area of strength, represented by the Attribute corresponding to a suit. For example, an athletic character would choose Swords (the Physical) as her area of strength. A scholar, doctor, or voodoo priestess would choose Wands (Mental); a diplomat or trader would choose Pentacles (Social), while a poet or a femme fatale would select Cups (Emotional/Creative).
Step Two: Select a Weakness
In addition to a strength, each character will have a weakness: an Attribute sacrificed to build their strength. A scholar might not have many social graces, while an empathetic con artist could very well lack physical strength. A character’s strength and weakness must be drawn from two different suits.
Note that characters who wish to manipulate magical energies cannot select Wands or Cups as their Weakness.
Chad is playing in a Crescent City game where the party is a group of Secret Service agents sent to investigate a counterfeiting ring in New Orleans. He decides that his character’s strengths – ability with a gun, physical fitness and prowess, and skill at brawling – are best represented by Swords. Conversely, because of the rigorous training at the FBI academy and the military-like discipline that the agency fosters in its members, he decides that his character’s weakness is Cups.
Liz’s Gamemaster tells her that her character will be recruited by the Secret Service to help infiltrate the counterfeiting ring. Liz’s character is a young debutante, somewhat naïve in the ways of the world but well-versed in society and comfortable in a variety of social situations. Her character’s strength is Pentacles. Liz decides that her character has had very little time to develop her education beyond the basics taught in school; although she can navigate the stormy seas of a New Orleans ball, it is unlikely that she will ever be comfortable reading a science book. Therefore, Liz’s character’s weakness is Wands. Step Three: Assign Experience
The Major Arcana of the Tarot deck represent a metaphorical journey, and the experience structure in Cresent City reflects this. In Crescent City, characters mark the extent of their knowledge (their “level,” if you will) by using the symbolism of the Major Arcana, from 0 (The Fool) to 21 (The World). The “average person,” a person without any exceptional talents or abilities (or a person who simply decides to ignore some of the more mysterious or scientific forces in the world), has an experience of 0, representing
that they have not yet begun the journey along the path. The highest experience a
character can achieve, 21, represents the limits of human knowledge and development. It would be safe to say that few human beings throughout history have reached the point where they are familiar with The World; perhaps only a handful of people each
generation accomplish this, although in the mysterious world of New Orleans, anything is possible.
Experience Card Example Character
0 The Fool An average person
1 The Magician A character fresh out of college, or new to his line of work.
2 The High Priestess A wolf or less-common horror from the swamp. 4 The Emperor A mid-ranking Voodoo priestess.
6 The Lovers A newly-wakened vampire.
8 Strength A Loup-Garou (Louisiana Ghost-Dog or Werewolf) 10 Wheel of Fortune A high-ranking mobster; an old college professor. 12 The Hanged Man The vengeful ghost of a lynched slave.
14 Temperance A powerful voodoo practitioner.
16 The Tower A weak demonic force; the dean of the college. 18 The Moon A famous author or athlete at the top of his game. 20 Judgement A powerful wizard; a strong demonic force. 21 The World The limits of human achievement; the strongest
supernatural forces; the most powerful kinds of magic.
Typically, new characters start out at 1: The Magician. It is highly recommended that characters all start at the same number and that they grow in experience at roughly the same time. It is also far more rewarding to work up to the higher arcana rather than starting there immediately, as challenges will scale according to the characters’ experience.
Step Four: Fill In the Blanks
If you’ve been writing this down, you’ve probably got just a few words on a blank sheet of paper. Now it’s time to take out a pencil and get to work on the details. What’s your character’s name? Gender? Height and hair color? Hopes and dreams? Fears and
phobias? Family members? Old friends? Occupation? Odd habits? Nervous ticks?
Overall worldview? Strange birthmarks or tattoos? Be creative, but don’t feel you have to create all of these things right now – often, they come out in the course of role-playing, where you really get to know your character.
In Crescent City, as with other role-playing games, characters will acquire useful items as they travel. Sometimes, characters will start with these items. While there is no defined limit to the number of items a character can carry or use, it is up to the gamemaster to
keep this reasonable. For example, a character might try to wield an axe, a sword, and an Uzi all at once – but it will be exceptionally difficult.
Chapter 4: Playing the Game
Although the crux of a role-playing game is the back-and-forth between the gamemaster and the players, the underlying system exists to provide a basic framework for how certain things should work. Remember when you were a kid and played cowboys and Indians, or Buck Rogers, or something similar. “Bang bang, you’re dead!” “Are not!” “Are to!” “No way, I had shields!” “Did not!” “Did so!”
Without the underlying game structure, that’s how a role-playing session would be. The game’s structure offers a means of conflict resolution that allow characters to overcome obstacles and opponents, and accomplish certain tasks without degenerating into petty arguments.
Challenges are the primary means of conflict, and conflict resolution, in Crescent City. A challenge can include a physical battle, attempting to negotiate past a guard, coming up with a creative response to a question, or translating an ancient text. When it is time for the players to face a challenge, the gamemaster selects cards from his deck appropriate to the situation and the difficulty of the challenge. The players will then select cards from their deck to overcome the challenge, often playing to their strengths when possible. Step One: Decide Who Participates
The gamemaster will first indicate which character or characters can participate in a challenge. If the entire group is trying to break down a door, then all characters can help. If one character is walking down a hallway looking for tripwires, only that character can participate.
[Example: Examining a Phone]
GM: There’s that strange noise again. Every time you hang up the phone, you hear this odd clicking sound.
Chad: I’ll bet someone’s bugged our phone. I’m going to look at the receiver and see if I can find anything.
GM: OK. Your character is now participating in a challenge.
Liz: My character isn’t so good with the technical stuff. I’m going to sit this one out. GM: Sounds good. Get ready, Chad.
Step Two: Choose Suits Appropriate To the Type of Challenge
Once indicated, the gamemaster chooses a suit or suits based on Attributes challenged (a situation can challenge more than one – or even all four – of the Attributes), and chose numbers from the suit or suits based on the difficulty (one for the most basic of
challenges, up to thirty or more for an especially taxing or overwhelming task). Use Chart [XXX] as a rough guide for different kinds of basic challenges and their corresponding difficulties, in terms of numbers.
Remember that the Ace’s value is 1, the Page’s value is 11, the Knight’s value is 12, the Queen’s value is 13, and the King’s value is 14.
Physical Challenge (Swords) Difficulty
Opening a window 2
Climbing two flights of stairs 4
Treading water 6
A three-mile hike 8
A steady swim 10
Climbing a large hill 12 Arm-wrestling a drunk 14 Swimming in the swamp 16 Holding a dog’s jaws open 18
A round of boxing 20
Swimming upstream 22
Wrestling an alligator 24 Walking a tightrope 26 Pulling a car out of the mud 28 Running a Marathon; swimming 30+ during a hurricane; fighting a
Mental Challenge (Wands) Difficulty
Read calligraphy 2
Change a car’s oil 4
Identify a simple magical ritual 6 Read a French menu 8
Safely clean a gun 10
Translate a familiar language 12 Replace a part in an engine 14 Predict weather with 40% accuracy 16 Create strategy in unfamiliar game 18 Translate an unfamiliar language 20 Identify a complex magic ritual 22
Predict weather with 80% accuracy 24 Build a simple steam engine 26 Rewire a telephone 28 Translate a forgotten language; 30+ fix a complex mechanical device;
identify an ancient, complex magical ritual.
Emotional/Creative Challenge (Cups) Difficulty
Write a limerick 4
Seduce a willing target 6
Gain the confidence of a cat 8 Convince a friend to tell a secret 10
Write a new jazz tune 12
Seduce a neutral target 14 Paint a picture to sell on the street 16 Innovate a new mousetrap 18
Write a sonnet 20
Gain the confidence of a neutral person 22
Calm an angry dog 24
Seduce an unwilling target 26 Paint a picture to sell in an art gallery 28 Create a song of everlasting beauty; 30+ gain the confidence of a sworn enemy.
Social Challenge (Pentalcles) Difficulty Use basic manners (please and thank-you) 2
Identify a white lie 4
Tell a white lie 6
Get reservations at a nice restaurant 8 Mingle with a crowd one social station 10 higher / lower than you.
Remember a dignitary 12
Get reservations at a “full” restaurant 14 Identify a standard lie 16
Tell a standard lie 18
Talk your way into a ball for which you 20 have no reservations.
Mingle with a crowd two or three social 22 stations higher / lower than you.
Remember the names of a dignitary’s 24 children
Identify a convincing whopper 26 Tell a convincing whopper 28 Talk your way into a death row prison; 30+
mingle with a crowd several social stations higher / lower than you.
In the previous example, the players decided which of them would examine the phone for a bug. The Gamemaster knows that the phone is, in fact, bugged, and that it was bugged by experts in covert operations. Therefore, it will be especially difficult for the characters to locate the bug. The Gamemaster selects the Nine of Wands and the Eight of Wands to represent the challenge of locating the bug.
Step Three: Attempt to Overcome the Challenge
In order to overcome the challenge, the characters need to select and play cards of greater value than those the gamemaster has revealed, within the same suit(s). If they can (or choose to do so), they have overcome the challenge. If they cannot (or choose not to do so), they have failed the challenge. The players can play as many cards as necessary to overcome the challenge; often, this will mean using cards of high and low value together. Once the players have selected the cards they will use to attempt to overcome the
challenge, those cards are discarded and the players cannot use them again until the deck cycles. For more information on when the deck cycles, see Cycling the Deck on page [XXX]
The Gamemaster reveals the Nine and Eight of Wands.
Liz: We’d better figure out if they’ve been eavesdropping on us. We should find if there’s a bug.
Chad: We’ve got our work cut out for us. I’ve got a Nine of Wands. And, a Page of Wands. That makes twenty.
GM: Twenty will overcome my seventeen. As you’re examining the phone, you see a wire that shouldn’t be there. You would never have seen it if you weren’t specifically looking for it.
Liz: Damn them! Let’s try to get this thing off of here.
Chad: Wait a second. We might be able to use this to our advantage. If we know they are listening, then we can feed them some false leads and throw them off our tails for a night or two.
Chad’s character’s efforts – represented by the Nine of Wands and the Page of Wands – were enough to locate the bug on the phone. Now, they want to try to feed the people on the other end of the tap a little false information. Time for another challenge. But first, let’s finish resolving the initial challenge.
Step Four: Overcoming a Challenge
When the players have overcome a challenge, the cards they used are put into a discard pile. They no longer have access to those cards for the duration of the cycle, and cannot use them again to overcome future challenges. The gamemaster places his cards back in a discard pile as well, but when the gamemaster runs out of cards in his deck, his discard pile becomes a new deck. The gamemaster effectively never runs out of cards.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Remember too that characters chose attributes in which they are particularly strong, and attributes in which they are particularly weak. When a challenge involves the character’s strong Attribute, that character can use cards of any suit to overcome that part of the challenge.
Conversely, when a challenge involves the character’s Weak attribute, the character treats the cards in that suit as if their value were half their face value (round down) for
overcoming that part of the challenge. For example, if a character’s weakness is the Physical attribute, and the challenge required overcoming a six of Swords, the character would need to play Swords worth thirteen or more (to make up for the lessened value of the cards) to overcome that part of the challenge.
GM: OK, how do you want to approach this?
Liz : I’m going to try to mislead whoever might be listening into thinking that we’re going to attend the Rue du Morgue Krewe’s Mardi Gras party tomorrow night. GM (considers this challenge): Very well.
The Gamemaster knows that the G-men on the other end of the bug are trained to know when they’ve been discovered. It’s going to take a lot of poise to pull this off. He selects the Queen of Pentacles and the Ten of Pentacles, for a total of twenty-three.
Liz: Twenty-three, yikes! I’m nearly out of Pentacles. Good thing I can use other suits. I’ve got an Eight of Pentacles left, and I’ll go ahead and play this King of Cups and a Two of Cups. That’s twenty-four total.
GM: Excellent. As far as you know, the people on the other end of the bug are fully convinced that you’re going to attend the Rue du Morgue’s party tomorrow night.
Liz: That gives us an afternoon and an evening without being tailed. Let’s head over to the cemetery and follow that lead.
Often things are not as easy as they first seem. In Crescent City, the gamemaster can add more cards to the challenge from her deck (perhaps the characters were surprised by an attack from the rear while they attempted to pick the locked door). The players will then need to decide whether to commit more cards to the challenge, to fail the challenge, or to withdraw from the challenge.
Having thrown the G-men off the scent, Liz and Chad’s character are exploring the St. Louis #1 cemetery for clues. Chad’s character thinks he’s found something in one of the tombs, but it’s written in a strange language.
GM: The letters look familiar, but the language does not (Lays out a King of Wands). It won’t be too hard to translate, but you’ll have to work at it.
Chad: Fair enough. We need this information. Here’s my own King of Wands, and an Ace of Wands.
GM: Right about this time, you see another light in the cemetery and a gravelly old voice starts yelling at you. “If you kids are markin’ up another grave, I’m gonna tan your hides!”
Liz: Oops, sounds like we woke up the caretaker. We’d better hurry up and get out of here.
Chad: I’ve almost got it, right?
GM: You don’t have much time, so translating this will be a little harder. (Lays out a Five of Wands).
Failing a Challenge
If the players fail a challenge, any cards they used to attempt to overcome the challenge are placed into the discard pile. They no longer have access to those cards for the duration of the cycle, and cannot use them again to overcome future challenges. In addition, the character or characters who failed the challenge must select and discard one Major Arcana card for failing the challenge. And, of course, if the players were
attempting to overcome some obstacle, discover an important piece of information, or try to heal a fallen comrade, they will have failed in this task and the gamemaster must decide its effects on the story.
From our previous example, the gamemaster has just complicated Chad’s character’s attempt to translate the strange language by adding an extra Five of Wands to it due to the time constraints. Chad must now decide how important translating the text really is. Chad: Forget it, I’m halfway through my deck and almost out of Wands. Let’s get out of here.
GM: OK, you can flee no problem but the text will remain untranslated for now. Withdrawing From A Challenge
In the Tarot game, the Fool represents an unwanted trump, as it has no numerical value. In Crescent City, the Fool works as an “ace in the hole,” a card players can use to withdraw from a challenge when they didn’t realize a situation might be beyond their abilities. Playing the Fool means the character or characters have accepted a neutral outcome to the challenge; they will not have to discard another Major Arcana for failure, and they may attempt to overcome their obstacle by another method, but they did not succeed at the challenge. Typically, playing the Fool is used to back down from an obviously slanted fight or to duck out of a social situation where the characters are hopelessly outclassed. After playing the Fool, the card is placed in the discard pile and cannot be used until the next cycle, as are any other cards the character may have used. [Example]
As they are fleeing the cemetery, things start to get worse.
GM: Somewhere, you hear the sound of barking dogs. Then, in the blink of an eye, a massive guard dog leaps on Liz’s character and begins barking loudly!
Liz: Escape – how?
GM: This is a Doberman, and this will not be easy. (Lays out a Queen of Swords, a Knight of Swords, and a Ten of Cups).
Liz: I’m not fighting this beast. (Plays the Fool).
GM: OK, you manage to roll out from underneath it and back away slowly – but if you start running, it’ll be after you again. And, it’s still barking!
Extraordinary Character Feats
When a child is trapped under a burning car, a mother may tap into a superhuman strength to lift the vehicle and free her daughter. If you’re the only one around and
someone is about to jum p off a skyscraper, somehow you know just the right things to say and do to convince the person not to leap. These are examples of extraordinary character feats.
In Crescent City, if things are looking grim, characters can use their Major Arcana cards to help them overcome a particularly difficult challenge. The value of the major arcana can be applied to any aspect of the challenge in any way the character chooses; for example, if the character plays The Lovers (with a value of six), she can divide that value as needed among the various parts of the challenge.
Characters can use any major arcana less than or equal to their Experience in this manner without penalty. Therefore, a character whose Experience is Five (The Hierophant) can use cards one through five as normal. When using major arcana valued above a
character’s Experience, those cards instead have a value of one. This penalty represents that a character may not necessarily possess the skills, training, or experience necessary to tap into his potential.
Once the major arcana have been used to help a character overcome a challenge, they are placed in the discard pile and cannot be used again.
GM: The dog doesn’t seem to be following you, but you hear the caretaker again and he sounds angry. He can’t be more than thirty yards away.
Liz: Can we make a break for it? GM: Sure, you can try.
Chad: Yeah, we’re going to try to run to the gates as fast as we can. GM: Side by side?
Chad: No, I’ll go second to make sure she doesn’t trip.
GM: Sure. As you’re running, Chad’s character feels the dog’s jaws close on his ankle. It’s got you in its grip.
Chad: I’ve got to get free, or things could get a lot worse.
GM: Indeed. It shouldn’t be too hard. (Lays out the Ten of Swords).
Chad: Oh, it’s hard – I’m almost out of Swords! Still, it’s going to be worse if I stay around. OK, I’ve got a Six of Swords left, and my character’s Experience is five, so I’m going to play The Hierophant (Major Arcana 5) as well.
GM: You’re not sure if it was sheer terror, adrenaline, or divine intervention, but you just manage to wrestle your ankle out of the dog’s jaws and kick its muzzle enough to
discourage it from taking another bite. Luckily, you’re only scratched and you can keep running.
Sometimes, a challenge will be so overwhelming that it will require extraordinary reserves of personal skill to overcome it. William Tell shooting the apple off of his son’s head, an athlete swimming for an Olympic gold despite a broken rib, or a pauper trying to convince a prince he should not be executed are all examples of extraordinary challenges. For these challenges, the gamemaster selects one (or more) of the major arcana, in
addition to whatever minor arcana are appropriate. In order to overcome an extraordinary challenge, the players must play cards from their strong Attribute or from their Major Arcana greater than the value on the GM’s Major Arcana – in addition to overcoming the other parts of the challenge. Remember that Major Arcana greater than the character’s Experience still only count as one during these challenges.
GM: You’re nearing the cemetery gates, but it looks like the caretaker has closed and locked them! What do you do?
Liz: How high is the fence?
GM: Looks like eight feet or so, and it’s topped with iron points. Liz: I’m going to try to scramble over it.
GM: OK, that’s going to be a very difficult task. (Lays out the Knight of Swords and The Chariot, card seven of the Major Arcana.)
Liz: Well, my character’s Experience is only Five, so this will be interesting. I’ve got my own Knight of Swords, so I’ll lay that out first. Then, I’ll lay out the Empress and the Emperor. Here I go!
GM: Outstanding, you cleared the fence! Well done! Non-Player Characters
NPCs the characters face can participate in challenges as well, either to help the party or hinder them. NPCs do this in exactly the same manner as player-controlled characters, using cards from the gamemaster’s deck, except that the gamemaster does not discard the cards NPCs use when the challenge concludes. NPCs have strengths and weaknesses just like characters, and this affects their ability to overcome certain kinds of challenges. However, as a balancing factor, NPCs should not be given free reign to do as they please
(otherwise, an NPC could simply cut through an army of enemies – or the other
characters!) Gamemasters should temper an NPC’s responses with common sense; most NPCs have an Experience value of 0, so their ability to perform Extraordinary Character Feats will be extremely limited. Otherwise, to keep things fair (especially in a combat situation) it might be a good idea to resolve an entire combat with one large challenge so the players and the NPCs are on relatively equal footing.
Choice and Sacrifice
Because players discard their cards after use, each action in the Crescent City system is one of choice and sacrifice. Once a character has used all of his or her minor arcana, the character can only perform Extraordinary Character Feats until the next cycle. Therefore, it is a good idea to weigh which challenges a character should face, when, and how many resources a character should devote to overcoming certain challenges.
Life and Death
There is no “hit point” system in Crescent City. Rather, discarding cards to overcome challenges represents a character tiring out and tapping further and further into personal reserves of skill and prowess. When a character has discarded or used all of his major arcana cards, this represents that his character is becoming exhausted. When a character has used or discarded the last card from his deck, the character dies (or at the very least is immobilized, brain-dead, comatose, or mentally unfit to continue).
Cycling the Deck
The term “cycle” refers to two related things: the return of discarded cards back into character’s decks, and the end of a certain part of the story. As a rule of thumb, at the end of a story cycle, the deck cycles. A story cycle can best be described as a chapter, an episode, or a natural stopping point. Often, this will coincide with the end of an
afternoon, evening, or day of gaming, but not always. The GM should announce the end of a cycle when the characters take a large amount of rest. This includes getting some sleep, eating some food, performing basic hygienic tasks (if able), and taking time to reflect on what has occurred. When the deck cycles, it represents a character “freshening up” and rejuvenating himself for another day of adventuring.
Cycles can end at the end of a day, at a resting point in a long journey (a nap under a tree, for example), or in extreme circumstances when the characters are holed up in a
relatively safe place for a few hours.
As an option, the gamemaster can instruct characters to select either randomly or by choice a certain number or type of cards to add back into their decks. Gamemasters should use this option when characters get a few moments to rest, but not enough to end a cycle – perhaps the character slips into a speakeasy to knock back a drink and listen to some music for a half-hour, or takes a catnap in the back of a swampboat on the way to the old plantation.
As characters progress, they learn to hone their areas of strength, practice their skills, and train themselves to excel. When they do this, their Experience increases. Note that twenty-one is the maximum Experience value, corresponding to the final card in the major arcana. There are two schools of thought on Experience: it might be a flash of insight or a result of training in a character’s area of strength, or it might be the sum total of all the various challenges a character has overcome (or failed, and learned from) in a story. Regardless, the gamemaster should make the decision on how Experience will be awarded before the campaign, and inform the players in advance.
When a character’s Experience value increases is up to the gamemaster. It is highly recommended that a group of characters be within one or two Experience values of each other, otherwise what is easy for some characters will be beyond the reach of others. Chapter 5: Magic and Conflict
There are two specialized kinds of challenges in Crescent City: the use of magic, and combat.
As Arthur C. Clarke noted, a sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and many of the discoveries made during the ongoing scientific revolution are changing lives in ways no one ever imagined.
Vaccines and antibiotics prevent and treat diseases previously thought incurable. The railroad cut the time required to travel from coast to coast from months to weeks, and the automobile cut it from weeks to days. Now, airlines have reduced a cross-country trip to a matter of hours. Telephones allow people to converse in real-time across enormous distances, while radios bring entertainment and news into people’s living rooms every night. In a few years, humans will do the unimaginable: split the atom and develop a technology that could eliminate the entire species. Following on the heels of that
discovery is the recognition of DNA, the very building blocks of life that could someday offer a means for people to live forever.
But there are some who merely smile and nod when confronted with the trappings of progress. They may marvel at the speed of an airplane, or tune in to the sounds of Jazz and vaudeville on the radio, but when the hour grows late and the electric lights turn off, they turn to older knowledge that is all but lost in the sterile halls of scientific
Magic in Crescent City is treated in a very different manner than in many role-playing games. Rather than casting a spell instantaneously that creates a certain effect, such as a ball of fire of a means to heal a wounded companion, the use of magic is nothing more
than the focusing of magical energies. Perhaps the energy is some kind of life-force that flows through living material, or perhaps it is the key to understanding the very root of matter and the structure of the universe. Either way, science has no easy explanation for magic, and often the empirical effects of magical manipulation are fleeting, if noticeable at all.
Spells are not simply cast; instead, ancient rituals must be performed to begin concentrating magical energies. There are many different ways in which that
concentration manifests in the real world: a voodoo doll, from which the practitioner releases stored magical energy with pins, is but one method. Gris-gris bags are another. These are only two of the most common methods of magical manipulation found in Crescent City; ancient texts written in long-dead tongues detail other methods. Magic may be stored in a piece of jewelry such as a ring or an amulet, or could even be
concentrated in the user himself. This energy can be stored for hours, days, or even years, or activated immediately after the ritual has concluded.
Even so, magic will never have a whiz-bang direct effect on the world. A ritual to control the weather will not produce an instant thunderstorm, but it may bring more rain that usual during an entire season. A foul spell designed to give life to dead flesh will not cause corpses to start lumbering out of the cemetery immediately, but as the energy realigns around a dead body, it will slowly begin to reanimate.
Not everyone can manipulate magical energies. Those who have shunned the world of learning and the development of their own creativity and connection to their surroundings are simply unable to tap into this energy. Characters whose weak suits are Wands or Cups can never successfully complete a magical ritual.
Manipulating Magic in Crescent City
In game terms, characters who cast spells are creating a “battery” of cards from which they can draw to help themselves overcome challenges. Once a character completes a ritual, he will set aside a certain amount of cards for use when he sees fit during a cycle. Once used, those cards are not discarded – they instead go back in the player’s deck, effectively allowing that character to live longer and overcome more difficult challenges than someone not inclined towards magical manipulation.
These cards can be used to overcome any challenge the character faces, or challenges other characters face. The character who has cast the ritual may chose to focus the energies on a friend or foe, to aid a companion or group in overcoming a challenge. However, this ability comes at a price: time spent researching, and the possibility of failure when dealing with powers beyond a character’s control. Failure can be a very bad thing.
If a cycle ends before the cards are used, those cards may still be stored and used during the next cycle without having to perform the ritual again.
Step One: Identify the Type of Ritual
It’s always important to know what kind of ritual you’re about to perform. For example, if you want to encourage two people to fall in love, it won’t do to cast a ritual that will instead cause both of them to become deathly ill.
Identifying a ritual in an book or written on an ancient tablet may require completing a challenge. Learning rituals from other practitioners is easier, but characters should only learn magic from those they trust, as there are plenty of unscrupulous practitioners who would think nothing of using a novice as a pawn in part of a larger ritual.
As a general rule, the cards a ritual provides will correspond with the effects of the ritual. For example, a spell to aid in the curing of disease will provide a character with Swords. When the ritual is identified, the player will know which cards the ritual will provide for use later in the game. Sometimes, rituals can be made weaker or more powerful
depending on how many cards a character wants – for example, a spell to enhance a person’s strength could utilize as few as two or three Swords, or as many as twenty or thirty.
Additionally, rituals may provide Major Arcana cards with the usual experience
restrictions, but doing so requires the character to overcome a Cups challenge equal to the face value of the cards, even if that face value is greater than the character’s experience. For example, if a character with an Experience of Two wanted to perform a ritual that provided Major Arcana cards with a total value of Six, the character would still have to overcome a Cups challenge equal to Six, even though any Major Arcana provided with a face value greater than Two would only provide a value of One for that character, due to his Experience.
Examples of Types of Spells and Cards Provided
Strength, healing, harming, speed, physical manipulation: Swords
Intelligence, learning, reading of unknown languages, understanding scientific devices: Wands.
Emotional connections, any method of dealing with supernatural forces or entities, love, hate: Cups
Social skills, effectiveness of a speaker at convincing a crowd, money and wealth, reactions of others to a character: Pentacles
Step Two: Learn the Ritual
First, before starting a ritual, the character must first understand how to perform it. Often this means studying an ancient text or learning from a current practitioner. The actual
time spent learning the ritual is four times the time it takes to complete a ritual; therefore, if a ritual takes eight hour to complete, it will take a character thirty-two hours to learn. That time need not be all at once; a character can learn a ritual over a period of days or weeks, if necessary.
Once a character has learned a ritual, the character can perform it again without having to relearn it.
Step Three: Performing the Ritual
Performing magical rituals is a time-consuming task. Therefore, it’s typically better for a character to perform rituals between cycles, although the Gamemaster can integrate them seamlessly into gameplay if he wishes.
The value of cards a ritual provides is the amount of time it takes, in hours, to perform the ritual. Therefore, if a ritual provides cards with a total value of thirty, it will take thirty hours for the character to perform the ritual.
If the ritual involves Major Arcana, the character will have to overcome a Cups challenge to complete the ritual. Failure to do so indicates that the character has allowed the ritual to grow beyond his control. The results of this failure are unpredictable, but will almost always have some negative and undesired effect relating to the desired result of the ritual. In the case of a love or a healing spell, typically the results will not be earth-shattering. If the ritual was intended to summon a long-dead horror from the bayou, the results could threaten all of human civilization.
A Word About Magic
When all is said and done, magic should be treated as a MacGuffin. It is a device to help make the plot go, to affect the game itself, and can even be the centerpiece of a story, but in the end it is merely a means to an end in that it makes the story more interesting. If you find that you’re spending more time obsessing about the particulars of magic in Crescent City, then you’re missing the point entirely.
For more information on suggested uses of magic in a Crescent City game, see What Is Magical Realism? in Chapter Six.
In Crescent City, fighting is a dangerous – even deadly – business. Unlike other role-playing games where characters will often seek out vicious opponents to kill, a single battle in Crescent City results in severely weakening a character in the best of circumstances, and a multiple body count in the worst.
Most conflicts are solved with simple challenges. This includes non-deadly combat, like a boxing match or a barroom brawl. When knives are pulled, guns are drawn, or hands start
wrapping around throats – in other words, when combat is a life-or-death situation – a character will need every ounce of strength to survive.
A combat challenge works just like a regular challenge, except that both sides continue to complicate the challenge by adding more cards until one side or the other: runs out of cards resulting in the death or incapacitation of that character; withdraws; or chooses to end the challenge. Both characters and the NPCs they are fighting can only complicate the challenge a number of times equal to their Experience. Therefore, a character or an NPC with an Experience of Five can complicate the challenge up to five times. After that, the challenge must resolve.
Running out of cards is as bad as it sounds; the character has been stabbed, shot,
strangled, or otherwise hurt to the point of incapacitation and will die without immediate medical attention.
Withdrawing from a combat challenge still results in the character losing the cards he used when participating, but the character escaped without further harm.
Choosing to end the challenge while losing is an option only when facing an intelligent opponent who might accept a character’s surrender. If a character does so, it will have a negative impact on the story, but it will save the character from immediate death. Still, some intelligent opponents will not accept surrender.
Because of the deadly nature of these kinds of challenges, and the structure of Crescent City, a character with a full deck at the beginning of the cycle will be able to defeat a single opponent but will run out of cards in the process. Therefore, a group of four characters at the beginning of the cycle will generally be able to overcome four opponents.
The vast majority of the time, it is wiser to avoid direct combat situations. The Gamemaster should not cycle his deck in the middle of a combat challenge. Chapter 6: More About The Setting and System
Crescent City is based on two literary traditions: magical realism and the Southern gothic. Any American city in the 1920s would provide a myriad of options for stories: the Great War was over, the economy was booming for the time being, Prohibition gave rise to organized crime, and government police forces were on the move. New Orleans adds the mystery of the Old South, the freewheeling spirit of the Jazz age, and an admittedly romanticized version of Voodoo and other, more sinister elements.
A Note About Voodoo and Magic In Crescent City
Voodoo in Crescent City, as with representations of the Vodun tradition in many role-playing games, has very little to do with the actual practice of those traditions and more
to do with the popular conception of them. That’s fine. Real Voodoo practitioners don’t carry around Voodoo dolls to attack their enemies. The vast majority of the time, it is wiser to avoid direct combat situations. We’re not striving for historical and technical accuracy as far as magic goes; rather, it’s another tool in a storytellers toolbox for making a fun and compelling Crescent City adventure.
So too are there folks who make magical (or magickal) manipulation part of their religious traditions. While Crescent City borrows slightly from the theory behind those traditions, magic in this game is presented as a storytelling device rather than a faithful adherence to those beliefs.
What is Magical Realism?
Art critic Franz Roh coined the term “magical realism” to describe art in the 1920s, but the term is most often applied to a literary movement that began, more or less, with the publication of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967. Magical realism is a broad term that encompasses stories, novels, and films that use magical elements in an otherwise realistic setting. The term is applied most often to novelists like Marquez from Latin and South America, but in recent years has been expanded to a great many other authors and artists.
Rather than fantasy stories, where magic often plays a central role, in magical realistic tales the fantastic elements are a small fraction of the overall story and often still obey many of the rules of the “real world.” For example, in the film Field of Dreams, the main character hears a strange voice telling him to build a baseball field. Although the voice could be in his head, and the events that follow could be strange coincidence, there is always enough doubt that they could be real the audience it never sure (until the end of the film).
Crescent City employs a similar system and setting of magic. In the days before science would truly hold the world in its grip, after releasing the enormous amount of energy contained in an atom at White Sands in the 1940s, there is still enough wonder and mystery in the world that at least the suggestion of voodoo, magic, and supernatural forces don’t seem so unusual.
What is Southern Gothic?
Southern Gothic is a literary and film tradition where the social structures of the American South, typically after the American Civil War, are used to frame social commentaries about the whole of American society. William Faulkner’s stories and novels are typically set in a Southern Gothic landscape.
More recently, the term has expanded to include the wealth of literary possibilities
contained in the secretive Southern culture. Typically it includes sinister and supernatural elements, and a sense of dread and decay. Traditionally, gothic stories - and their best-known child, gothic horror - use many of these elements.
While traditional stories, and traditional horror tales, use obvious character actions, plots, devices, or symbolism to communicate their points, gothic tales take a slower and more subtle approach. An appropriate example is the two very different kinds of horror films. Some of them rely on either "jumps" or massive amount of gore to create a feeling of horror. The other kind, the gothic kind, rely on carefully constructed moods and a feeling of overwhelming dread - the despair that there is no survival, and that a character has doomed himself - is the kind with which Crescent City concerns itself.
The particulars of such kinds of horror are detailed in many other places; if the
Gamemaster needs any suggestions on creating the appropriate atmosphere or writing the appropriate plotlines, some excellent films, books, and video games are listed below. Recommended Films
American Beauty (1999)
An American Werewolf in London (1981) Below (2002) Big Fish (2003) Blue Velvet (1986) Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) Carnival of Souls (1962) The Changeling (1980) Chocolat (2000) The Crow (1994) Edward Scissorhands (1990) Fargo (1995) Field of Dreams (1989) Frailty (2001) Freaks (1932) The Haunting (1963) The Hole (2001)
Interview With The Vampire (1995) Let's Scare Jessica To Death (1971) Lost Highway (1997)
Memento (2000) Mulholland Dr. (2001)
O! Brother Where Art Thou? (2000) Nosferatu (1922)
The People Under The Stairs (1991) Pi (1997)
Rope (1948) Session 9 (2001)
The Stepford Wives (1975) Twin Peaks (1990-1991) Vertigo (1958)
The Wicker Man (1973)
The Witches of Eastwick (1987) Recommended Books
The Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft Danse Macabre by Stephen King Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The House Next Door by Anne Siddons House of Leaves by Mark Z. Daneilewski Interview With The Vampire by Anne Rice Sanctuary by William Faulkner
Supernatural Horror in Literature by H.P. Lovecraft The Witching Hour by Anne Rice
Recommended Video Games Eternal Darkness (2002) Gabriel Knight (1994) Silent Hill (1999) Silent Hill 2 (2001) Voodoo Vince (2003)
Using the Crescent City System in Other Settings
While the Crescent City system works well in the magical-realist, gothic setting of the 1920s American South, the possibilities in the underlying mechanics are virtually
limitless. It was designed to be as adaptable as possible, and need not be constrained by a setting where magic exists. The use of the tarot deck lends itself well to a setting that involves some mystical elements, but Gamemasters and players should be able to adapt the system to any kind of game with minimal effort.
After Playing Crescent City
I want to hear what you think of the system and the setting! Email feedback, reports, suggestions, comments, criticisms, rants, raves, hate mail and love letters to