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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Let's Use The Deck of Many Things

The Deck of Many Things is probably one of the most notorious items in all of Dungeons & Dragons. It kills campaigns, pure and simple. Drawing from it just one time can kill you, yet group after group can't stop themselves from drawing just one more card.

In this blog post, I'm going to take a look at the deck from the different editions of D&D. I am also going to tell you about what happened earlier tonight, when I put an AD&D 2nd edition Deck of Many Things in the hands the teenagers in my Thursday 4th edition campaign.

I've run into the deck once or twice, mostly as a player. During a campaign under the best DM I've ever played with, we got our hands on a deck. I think the DM wanted to end the campaign. He'd loaded this campaign up with a lot of odd ideas. Our characters ran an orphanage, we'd fought our way through the interior of a spaceship (from Star Frontiers? Or maybe it was the ship from City of the Gods?). All I know was, we had obtained grenades and laser rifles. And we played through an adventure based on the movie Leprechaun, and another one based on Stephen King's Sleepwalkers. It was different, but fun.
Entry from AD&D 1st Edition Deck
He gave us the deck, knowing it would likely kill the game. He even said so. He was right! We kept drawing, and soon my character had a mortal enemy and was fighting the Grim Reaper - literally. I probably tried to shoot him with my laser rifle (is there any question that D&D is awesome?). The campaign was over.

I have run about six sessions of fourth edition for these kids, by request. They all seem to like it quite a bit. I couldn't wait to give them the deck of many things. It's a classic D&D experience.

The first edition deck and second edition deck are very similar. I used the second edition version because 2e is what I cut my teeth on and am more comfortable with.

AD&D Second Edition Deck
How the Deck Works: You must declare how many cards you are drawing. If you want to draw more than one, you can, but you must draw them one at a time. You draw the card, suffer the effect, replace the card, shuffle, and draw again.

Each card has a different magical effect. Some effects include suddenly owning 9,000 gold, to having Death show up to kill you, to being granted 1d4 wishes. Yes! wishes!

The deck disappears if The Void (effect: your soul is trapped somewhere) or Donjon (You are imprisoned) are drawn.

Sun is a little tricky, as it generates a miscellaneous magic item. That can take a few minutes, especially depending which edition you are playing.
Moon is the one that grants wishes. It is like the wish spell, which has certain limits. Heck, the entry in the 2e Player's Handbook sort of urges the DM to screw with the PC: "As wishing another creature dead would be grossly unfair, for example, your DM might well advance the spellcaster to a future period in which the creature is no longer alive, effectively putting the wishing character out of the campaign." Well, how about that crap?

Skull is the card that summons a "minor Death". "Defeat Death or be forever destroyed". The minor Death has an AC -4 (that's an AC 24 in 5e terms), 33 hit points and always wins initiative and always hits with its' scythe for 2d8 damage. The character must fight it alone. For my game tonight, I had declared to the PCs that if they drew Skull, they were just dead. No sense in drawing it out.

Key is really odd. The PC gets a treasure map and a magic item. I kind of assumed that the map led to the item, but that is not the case.

Balance changes the character's alignment. In 4e that's a bit odd, as there is the "Unaligned" option. So when the unaligned character drew it, I rolled randomly for his new alignment.

The 3rd edition Deck of Many Things is on the d20 SRD page. I see that you only get one chance to draw from it.This deck seems very similar to the 2e deck.

In 4th edition, there are two versions of the Deck. Why, I have no idea. One version is from Dungeon Magazine #177. It is described as a paragon tier artifact.

The effects are completely different than in previous editions, to suit the regimented style of 4e. It really takes the wacky fun out of it, though the author made a worthy effort.

The 4e Comet card is particularly lame. We went from "defeating a monster and instantly gain a level" in 2e to "Double the XP award for the next major quest the party completes". If you are not familiar with 4e, that is the equivalent of about 1/10th of the XP you need to gain the next level. And people usually forget to give out XP awards for major quests anyway!

Moon once granted a wish. In the 4e deck, you now have one minute in real life to look up any ritual you want and "gain the benefit of having performed that chosen ritual with the maximum possible result".

Have you ever seen how many rituals there are in 4e? There is no way you can do this in a minute. I can't even think of a ritual worth using in this way to begin with. I had to pull teeth to get players to use rituals, even when I waived the gp cost to cast one!

Ruin is particularly amusing. In 2e, your magic items are all gone forever. In 4e: "All your magic items turn into residuum equal to 80 percent of their purchase value."  The horror!

I'm not trying to bash 4e. I love it. But the deck of many things just does not work in 4e. It loses all of its' pizazz.

Buy this thing!
Let's not forget that one deck was not enough! In the boxed set adventure, Madness at Gardmore Abbey, the deck was given the royal treatment. Let me just say right now that I bet you can get this boxed set for cheap. If you find one, buy it! You get two awesome poster maps, a sheet of dungeon tiles, a set of tokens (including really nice Deck Tokens) and the best part: an actual Deck of Many Things. As in, real cards.

In my opinion that alone makes this box worth buying. It contains a gigantic adventure, too. It was released at the end of 4e's lifespan, and was well-regarded. I ran it back then. It was fine. As is usually the case in 4e, there's some cool encounters in it, but as a whole it drags just due to the fact that each encounter takes about an hour of real-life time.

The whole adventure revolves around the heroes collecting the cards off of the different villains in the adventure. When they put the whole thing together, they have a heroic tier artifact version of the deck.
Somehow I haven't lost these yet.
The deck also has this weird extra effect. You can use it in an encounter to generate a token to be placed on the map. When a creature steps on it, they can use a power related to the token.

The Moon token lets you regain an encounter power. The Skull token lets you make an attack that can knock a creature unconscious. The creature must keep making more saves. If it fails three, it dies!

I like the token idea and I will use it. It should keep our 4e encounters interesting.

I was very excited to run this session tonight. It was a weird, fateful evening. As I ran the game in the store, just by chance a few old players stopped in and watched us play. One player is the guy who ran the dwarf  (in 1989!) who became the dead dwarf god featured in the logo of this site. Another guy was one of the players of my Gardmore Abbey game back in 2011!

The adventure involved making a Shadow Horse, going to the village built on the dead dwarf god in the astral sea, and killing a red dragon. Long story! In the dragon's hoard was... a Deck of Many Things.

The heroes had been warned repeatedly about it. In real life I'd been telling them about it for weeks. They carefully brought it to their home - an abandoned mountain temple (the Mountainroot Temple from Scales of War).

The players were very hesitant. I was a bit worried. Maybe they wouldn't draw any cards at all! An NPC drew three cards. He ended up dying from the third card, but he'd obtained a keep and a treasure map first.

And then came the maddening flood. The players drew card after card. They'd draw a card that gave them an 18 intelligence (remember, I used the 2e version with a couple exceptions) and a keep. Then the next card would be Ruin - which made their wealth and keep disappear.

The entire party ended up with evil alignments. They'd all ended up drawing the Balance card. At that point, they were determined to keep drawing until they got wishes. They wanted the wishes... to remove the negative effects!

I'm yuh worst nightmare
That's the lure of the deck. You're drawn in by the good effects (there's only a few cards in it that are really harmful) and you keep drawing until you get a bad one. Then, you keep drawing to try to remove the bad stuff. Sooner or later, you draw one of the bad ones.

The party wizard drew Skull. He died.

This did not end the frenzy. The party drew from the deck for one hour of real-life time. I can not tell you how many draws they made. I can tell you they have four planar enemies (three from The Shadowfell, one from The Feywild). They are all Evil. The party's NPC cleric has complete loathing for the party fighter. The only reason they stopped drawing is because the store was closing.

Next week, the group is going to follow their treasure map into the desert to find riches. And the deck will be right there in the hands of the party's caster, generating tokens and just waiting to be drawn from again.

The campaign is likely doomed, but it was worth it. There's something about the deck in use. It creates a frenzied, exciting and just plain fun session. You can't use it all the time, but I think every gaming group deserves to have some sort of encounter with a deck at some point in their run.

If for nothing else, the DM can use it when he or she is sick of the campaign and ready for something new.


Cap'n Perkins said...

Really enjoying your narratives of DMing for this group.

Chris Buder said...

I've used the Deck of Many Things without bringing Disaster to the campaign. 1, I never give the players full control of the deck. Bring in an NPC , like a fortune teller. 2, I limit how many cards they can draw. And 3, once a card is drawn, it is removed from the deck so there are not multiple draws of the same card. (Which is also stated in E3.5)

Sean said...

Chris Buder: Sounds pretty good.. I can think of a lot of cool ideas for the fortune teller. It should be someone special IMO.

Anonymous said...

One of my best D&D memories comes from a campaign where a DM had our group be responsible for the birth of wild magic in his home grown world. The party was tricked by a god of deceit into running errands for him. We quested and had to collect a wand of wonder, and the deck of many things. While they weren't used exactly as intended it involved a ritual of using the wand to flip over and reveal cards from the deck. It was on a weekend (we were all still in school) and we started the ritual on Friday evening real time and played nearly every waking moment until Sunday. Epic weekend of fun. All but one character ended up dead, and the lone survivor became a god who was the patron deity of the next batch of characters we rolled. Their mission was to "correct the errors of a band of utter fools."

Anonymous said...

IMO the only stuff 4e did right were flavor related (especially the addition of the Feywild and Shadowfell), when it came to crunch everything was almost always poorly conceived and underwhelming, from poorly worded descriptions to nerfed effects, I mean, the sphere of annihilation didn't even annihilate you