of the most common questions we receive from new customers is: "How do
I learn the meanings of the cards, and how to read them?" Setting
aside, for a moment, the fact that there are many, varied, and
differing meanings assigned to tarot's 78 images, the simple answer is:
practice, practice, practice!
for strengthening tarot knowledge, associations, and reading skills
But practicing how to read tarot for others can be a very intimidating
process. We worry about getting stuck, being "wrong", or looking
amateur and foolish. But what if you could practice reading... without
reading? What if you could lay out the cards, study and learn their
assocations, become more comfortable with your deck, and even have fun
at the same time?
Well, wonder "what if?" no more! Presented here, for your edification,
is the game of "The Highwayman". (Sidenote: Dan learned this game at a
Framlingham tarot conference several years ago, courtesy of K.
Huggins.) It is a simple storytelling game,
than can be played alone, or in a group of any size. Dan and Jeannette
love to take a deck with them to a bar, and play the game over a glass
of Irish whiskey (Dan) or wine (Jeannette) -- but it can be enjoyed in
comfortable environment. And it's perfect for both novice (like
Jeannette) and experienced (like Dan) readers. If you have an
imagination, you can play The Highwayman!
So, without further fanfare, here's how it works:
The inspiration for each portion of the story can come from whatever
ideas the card image or symbolism triggers for you. To get you started,
here is a list of possibilities, with examples:
- Pick a tarot deck -- any tarot deck. If you've
just picked up a new deck, this is a great way to start laying the
foundation for working with that deck. Novice students might be best
served to use a deck that includes a fully-illustrated minor arcana --
but if you're a more experienced reader who is in the early stages of
working with non-scenic pip cards, this game provides a great method
for becoming more comfortable with such tarots.
- Shuffle the deck, and then set it face down
within reach of all players.
- The first player begins the game by reciting
the phrase, "Once there was a Highwayman...". The player then draws the
top card from the deck, and places it face up on the table.
- The first player now begins a story about the
Highwayman, based on elements and/or associations presented in the card
drawn. This can be a simple sentence, a fairly detailed paragraph's
worth of narrative, or anything in-between. There is no "right or
wrong" here; it simply depends on the card, and the imagination and
whims of the player!
- The first player ends his or her turn by
setting up a continuation point for the next player to build upon. The
second player then draws the next card from the deck, places it face
up, and goes on with the story based on what he/she sees in the new
card. If playing alone, simply draw the next card and continue the
- Play continues in this manner, with each player
drawing a card and continuing the story. When everyone has had a turn,
the first player goes again, and once more around the circle it goes!
- The game ends when all players agree that the
story has reached some sort of "natural conclusion". (Often, this ends
up being something along the lines of "and they all lived happily ever
after", or "and everybody died a horrible and tragic death". But there
are actually other possibilities, so don't be afraid to see if you can
wind up the story in a more creative fashion.)
The following provides an example of the first few rounds of a possible
- The card number and/or suit (Seven of Wands:
"The Highwayman saw seven travelers with staves walking down the road
- The card's elemental or astrological
associations, if you know them (Ace of Cups: "A waterfall could be seen
in the distance, where the Highwayman could wash the dust from his
clothes and shoes."; King of Pentacles: "The Highwayman was a large and
powerful man -- as stubborn and bull-headed as they come.")
- The image on the card itself, or any detail
within the image (Wheel of Fortune: "As he sat by the side of the road
and watched the carriage pass, the Highwayman was fascinated by the
glint of the metal fittings on the vehicle's wooden wheels...")
- A divinatory meaning for the card that you've
learned from a teacher, a website, or a book, or one that you've come
up with on your own (The Sun: "...he was a very accomplished and
succesful rogue, and had accumulated a great deal of wealth over the
course of his nefarious career.")
- The card's Qabalistic correspondences, if you
are familiar with them (Six of Pentacles: "Suddenly, the Highwayman
found himself surrounded by the nine pitiful waifs from the burned-out
orphanage; their plight melted his heart, and he gave each child a gold
coin so that they might eat that night...")
- Any mythological or fictional characters,
objects, or places that have been associated with the card (Ace of
Swords: "The Highwayman had heard rumors that the famous sword
Excaliber was hidden deep within the cave." Queen of Cups: "As the
Highwayment fled, the eccentric queen -- dressed in an odd gown covered
with hearts and carrying a flamingo that she had been using as a
croquet mallet -- shouted, "Off with his head!")
- Whatever first pops into your head, no matter
how strange it seems (Death: "Although the Highwayman was excited about
his impending marriage to the princess, he was somewhat apprehensive
about her choice of Morbid Angel for the reception dance band.")
Three players are gathered at a table. They choose Player Three's Magic
Manga Tarot deck for the game. The deck is shuffled, and placed
face-down in the center of the table.
Player One says: "Once there was a Highwayman...". She
draws the top card, and places it face-up next to the deck; it is the
Four of Swords. The image on the card inspires her to continue the
story as follows:
"...Who had wearied of the life of the road, and longed to experience
life on the sea. So he took all the wealth he had accumulated during
his many successful years as a robber of coaches, and bought a ship
that he could use to travel the oceans..."
Player One now indicates that it is Player Two's turn. Player Two draws
the next card from the face-down deck, and sets it on top of Player
One's card so everyone can see it.
The new card is The Magician, which in Player Two's
personal "current working" deck -- Lo Scarabeo's Native
American Tarot -- is represented by the ancient Pueblo Indian
trickster deity Kokopelli. With this association in mind, Player Two
continues the story thus:
"...As he prepared to set sail on his first voyage, a strange man with
a feathered hat and a wooden flute approached him, seeking conveyance
to a land across the sea. 'And how will you pay me for your passage?'
asked the Highwayman. The man smiled oddly and said, 'Money is of no
consequence to me, my fine captain. Name your price, and I shall pay it
in gold and silver.' But the Highwayman was not entirely certain that
he could trust this unusual fellow..."
Player Three now takes his turn, drawing the Queen of Cups.
Player Three has learned that both the suit of Cups and the minor
arcana Queens are associated with the elemental force of water, making
the Queen of Cups "water of water". This gives him the idea to proceed
"...However, despite his misgivings, he allowed the traveler on board,
and began his journey. Soon, they were far from land, with nothing but
water stretching before them in all directions. A storm began to
gather, and the waves began to swell, violently rocking the boat. A
driving rain pelted the deck as the Highwayman struggled to pilot
Now it is Player One's turn
again. She draws the next card -- Strength -- and builds on the
storyline using some of the divinatory meanings she has assigned to
this image over the course of her studies:
"...Sensing their danger, the Highwayman's passenger said, 'I have some
knowledge of these waters. Allow me to assist you, and I will steer us
to a nearby safehaven.' Tired, cold, and exhausted, the Highwayman
stepped to one side, and allowed his companion to take the helm. He
then watched in amazement as the man maneuvered the craft almost
effortlessly through the turbulent and perilous waters. Indeed, thought
the Highwayman, as he observed the man's powerful, steady hand on the
wheel, it was almost as if the ocean was parting before them..."
...And the game continues until one of the players brings the story to
Remember: there are no "right" or "wrong" ways to tie each card into
the story. While the associations chosen by one person may not be
clearly understood by one or more of the other players, the intent is
to help each player to build and strengthen their own "mental library"
of tarot meanings and symbols.
Every tarot card is multidimensional, offering numerous
interpretational possibilities depending on the context and situation.
The game of The Highwayman allows us to explore these possibilities
outside of the "high pressure" environment of an actual reading, while
still providing a wealth of information that can be used when we
finally do spread the cards for actual psychospiritual work.