Minor Arcana

by Jack Sanderson Thwaite

Arcane Fantasy
2020

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Minor but enjoyable, December 9, 2020
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2020

For all that Minor Arcana is very clearly a fantasy game Ė you ďplayĒ a half-sapient deck of Tarot cards changing the fates of all who come into contact with you Ė what it most puts me in mind of is a bit of design from the classic sci-fi RPG Traveler. OK, Iím fronting, because Iíve never actually played Traveler, but I have played the (Godawful) MegaTraveller CRPGs that were based on it, as well as System Shock 2, which uses that same piece of design: the lifepath character creation system. The idea here is that instead of dryly assigning points to all your stats and running through a shopping list to get your equipment, instead you come up with your character by making a series of choices: join the Marines or the Navy? Volunteer for a diplomatic mission, or become an undercover spy? Each choice changes your character along the way, improving their attributes, teaching them new skills, giving them equipment Ė or even, if you roll poorly enough, killing them before you even get out of chargen. Once you finish the choices, you have a full character, and the real game can begin.

Possibly this association came out of nowhere because playing so many games is turning my brain to porridge. But I think itís because Minor Arcana felt to me like a really involved prelude to a more involved experience thatís yet to come Ė which is an unfair expectation, to be sure, but perhaps speaks to the way that the game does a really good job offering exciting choices but maybe doesnít go far enough in paying them off.

To return to what the game is actually about: thereís an initial stage of the game where you set some basics about what your deck is like, including visual motifs, what suits it contains, if any cards are missing, and what supernatural patron inspired your creation (these have fun, slightly-obfuscated titles and include not-Cthulhu, not-Mithra, and even for those of you who didnít get enough Gnosticism from Accelerate, not-Ialdabaoth). Then you get a chance to do readings for a couple of petitioners, and find out how youíve impacted their lives (spoiler: usually itís not super positive!) before finally facing the option of whether to forsake your owner for a new patron, at which point you can either accept this as the end or start the story again.

I really dug the choices in the first part of the game: deciding what flavor of Tarot deck you are, and whether you have suits like the traditional cups and staves, or instead thorns and spikes, spirals and mirrors, or crows and gears, feels like itís opening up intriguing realms of possibility. The author does a great job of world-building, letting a few evocative phrases and some ominously capitalized words hint at much deeper mysteries. These decisions are hard to make, because the choices all seem so fun, and seem like theyíll create fiendishly enjoyable scenarios down the line.

The second section feels a bit more slight by comparison; there are only two chances to offer a reading, and instead of full set-pieces involving cross spreads and multiple card draws, instead you only pick a single card, and get one passage apiece laying out the enigmatic repercussions. The choice of switching owners likewise comes and goes fairly quickly. This at least facilitates replays, but when I went back to the beginning and picked what felt like radically different choices, I was disappointed because it felt like very little changed Ė the King of Staves and the King of Spikes donít produce meaningfully different outcomes when the fire-breathing radical draws them, for example.

Ultimately it felt like instead of there being hundreds of variegated paths to create a Tarot deck that was distinctly my own, I was inevitably being crammed into a one-size-fits-all template. Of course itís unreasonable to expect an author to write radically different results for all possible combinations, but the magic of a choice-based game is to balance the difficulties of implementation with the fantasy that each option has an impact on the experience. Minor Arcana left me feeling like Iíd created a unique protagonist, but stopped just when I was expecting the real game, and real consequences, to begin.