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Alumni: Deck of Many Things
D&D Alumni
Bart Carroll and Steve Winter

Pick a card, any card…

With Dragon Magazine's release of the 4th Edition Deck of Many Things, D&D Alumni was compelled to cover the history of this powerful item. Personally, it ranks among this author's favorite magic items, along with the bag of tricks and wand of wonder—magic items that offer a veritable lottery of effects. This randomizing element provided the appeal (oddly enough) of these items, at least to me: some results might be helpful, some less so… and in the case of the Deck, some results could be outright calamitous, including the loss of one's life, soul, or every last possession.

By their nature in the game, magic items are desired because they're decidedly and definitively helpful, the exceptions being the cursed items of past editions (whose return I campaign for wholeheartedly). Yet for all their uncertainty of results ("both beneficial and baleful"), it's precisely this gamble that makes the Deck of Many Things so wonderfully compelling.


A Little Historical Background

A deck of cards ranks among the more familiar items in fantasy—not to the same extent as the more iconic sword, shield, or crown, but somewhere on a similar level of, say, magic boots, a sack of gold, or a talking animal. This is perhaps most famously personified in Alice in Wonderland's Queen of Hearts. Also consider the first three books in Michael Moorcock's tales of Corum, The Knight of the Swords, The Queen of the Swords, and The King of the Swords; the use of trumps to communicate and travel instantly in the Chronicles of Amber; and countless tales of mortals either playing or cutting cards with the Devil for ownership of their souls. This association even carries over to this day—no stage magician is without his deck of cards, and card tricks are usually the first type of illusion an aspiring magician learns.

Tarot cards—appearing throughout medieval Europe—have long been entwined with divination, alchemy and mysticism (not to mention as images featured on two of this author's tattoos), as well as ostensibly for gaming; the tarot's swords, staffs, cups, and coins theoretically became modern playing cards' diamonds, clubs, spades, and hearts. Tarot decks have also made their appearance in literature, everywhere from Stephen King's The Gunslinger to J.K. Rowlings' Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

When it comes to cards in Dungeons & Dragons, it's fairly easy to imagine the game's creators incorporating materials at hand into their sessions. After all, Gary Gygax wrote dime store toy monsters into the game as the rust monster, owlbear, and bullete. A standard 6-sided die might have been employed as the first cube of force or cubic gate. Similarly, a deck of cards might have been offered, enticing players to draw one and test their luck.

Supplement 1

The first Deck of Many Things appeared as far back as Supplement 1: Greyhawk, a slightly truncated version—only 18 unnamed cards—with the following effects (and the playing cards used to represent them; AH=Ace of Hearts, and so on):

AH Immediately gain 50,000 experience points.
AH Immediately gain 50,000 experience points.
KH Gain miscellaneous magical item of the player's choice.
QH Gain 1d3 wishes to be taken when the player likes.
JH Help from a high-level warrior with +3 armor, shield, and sword for one hour when you call for him.
AD Immediately gain map to richest treasure on any dungeon level.
KD Gain 5d6 pieces of jewelry immediately.
QD Gain scroll of seven spells with no 1st-level spells on it.
JD Add one point to any ability score.
AS Lose one experience level immediately.
KS A high-level warrior with +4 armor, shield, and sword attacks you.
QS Immediate death, no saving throw.
JS Monster from the Gray Waste attacks by surprise.
AC Change alignment immediately (randomly).
KC Lose you most prized magical item immediately.
QC Turn to stone, no saving throw.
JC Lose 1 point from your Prime Requisite.
J (2) Gain 25,000 experience points immediately or select two additional cards.

1st Edition

From the Dungeon Master's Guide, this next iteration had expanded to 22 named cards:

A deck of many things (beneficial and baneful) usually is found contained within a box or leather pouch. Each deck contains a number of thin plaques or plates. These sheets are usually of ivory or vellum. Each is engraved and/or inscribed with glyphs, characters, and magical sigils. As soon as one of these sheets is drawn forth from the pack, its magic is bestowed upon the person who drew it, for better or worse. The character gaining a deck of many things may announce that only 1 will be drawn from the pack, or he or she may opt to draw forth 2, 3, or even 4, but the number must be announced prior to the first plaque withdrawn. Note that if the jester is drawn, the possessor of the deck may elect to draw 2 additional cards. Each time a plaque is taken from the deck it is replaced unless the draw is a jester or fool, in which case the plaque is discarded from the pack.

Sun KD Gain beneficial miscellaneous magic item and 50,000 experience points.
Moon QD You are granted 1-4 wishes.
Star JD Immediately gain 2 points on your major ability.
Comet 2D Defeat the next monster you meet to gain 1 level.
Throne KH Gain charisma of 18 and small keep.
Key QH Gain a treasure map plus 1 magic weapon.
Knight JH Gain the service of a 4th level fighter.
Gem 2H Gain your choice of 20 jewelry or 50 gems.
The Void KS Body functions, but soul is trapped elsewhere.
Flames QC Enmity between you and a devil.
Skull JC Defeat Death or be forever destroyed.
Talons 2C All magic items you possess are torn from you.
Ruin KS Immediately lose all wealth and real property.
Euryale QS Minus 3 on all saving throws vs. petrifaction.
Rogue JS One of your henchmen turns against you.
Balance 2S Change alignment or be judged.
Jester J Gain 10,000 experience points or 2 more draws from the deck.
Fool J with trademark Lose 10,000 experience points; draw again.
Vizier AD Know the answer to your next dilemma
Idiot AC Lose 1-4 points of intelligence, you may draw again.
Fates AH Avoid any situation you choose… once.
Donjon AS You are imprisoned.

A few explanatory notes. Drawing the Key meant rolling on the treasure map table (located earlier in the DMG) with +20%:

Dice Result
01-05: False map
06-70: Map to monetary treasure
71-90: Map to magic treasure
91-00: Map to a combined hoard

As with so very many things in the 1st Edition DMG, a wonderful surplus of tables and extraneous writing helped flesh out this simple chart. For example, treasure shown on the map would be:

01-10: Buried and unguarded.
11-20: Hidden in water.
21-70: Guarded in a lair.
71-80: Somewhere in a ruins.
81-90: In a burial crypt.
91-00: Secreted in a town.

When it came to magic treasure, "most treasures will have magic potions, scrolls, armor and weapons. This is carefully planned so as to prevent imbalance in the game. Keep potent magic items rare. (Increase scarcity by destroying or stealing what is found!)… These are the real finds, which can satisfy even the most avaricious dwarf's greed."

A standard deck of cards had other uses as well; the 1st Edition DMG also used them for the deck of illusions. Dragon Magazine #36 (June 1979) provided results for the Major Arcana in a tarot deck with its Tarot Deck of Unalterable Fate; Dragon #77 (September 1983) utilized every card in a tarot deck; and, just as with tarot readings, these results varied depending on if a card were drawn upright or reversed. For instance, upon drawing the chariot card:

Upright: The drawer is cured of all diseases, lycanthropy, deafness, blindness, curses, charms, and the like of which she or he is a victim, and will be 15% less susceptible to them from now on. Also, the drawer will be able to coax an extra 3 movement out of any vehicle, mount, or other mode of travel, as long as the drawer's mind is clear and free to concentrate.

Reversed: The drawer, over the next seven days, begins to manifest a severe and chronic disease, which can only be cured by a potion made from the brains of two different kinds of sphinxes. The disease will not prove fatal for at least 49 days.

2nd Edition

The Deck nearly disappeared from AD&D with 2nd Edition. That wasn't because it was monstrously random and dangerous to characters—which it certainly was—but because its randomness and power gave it the potential to destroy campaigns if DMs allowed the Deck to be, or were bullied into letting it be, abused. Sadly, countless letters to Dragon Magazine indicated that was exactly what was happening in many cases.

The Deck survived, though, on the philosophy that it would be used wisely, or at least cautiously, far more often than abusively.

3rd Edition

What changed with the 3rd Edition's version of the Deck?

While the earlier Skull card had you fighting death itself (at least a minor version: AC -4; 33 hit points; strikes with a scythe for 2-16 hit points, never missing, always striking first in a round. If the character is slain he or she is slain forever. Treat the Death as undead with respect to spells. Cold or fire do not harm it, neither does electrical energy.), this version became an unturnable dread wraith.

Likewise, drawing the Flames originally created an enmity between you and a greater devil (possible even an arch-devil… so good luck with that encounter); in this version, you simply angered some undefined outsider.

Yet the spirit of the cards remained the same. In all versions, the Vizier gave you an answer, the Fates let you avoid some situation, and the Donjon left a character stripped of his possessions and imprisoned. You could now also use select cards from a tarot deck to represent the many things:

Plaque Tarot Card Playing Card Summary of Effect
Balance Justice Two of spades Change alignment instantly.
Comet Two of swords Two of diamonds Defeat the next monster you meet to gain one level.
Donjon Four of swords Ace of spades You are imprisoned.
Euryale Ten of swords Queen of spades –1 penalty on all saving throws henceforth.
The Fates Three of cups Ace of hearts Avoid any situation you choose... once.
Flames The Devil Queen of clubs Enmity between you and an outsider.
Fool The Fool Joker (with trademark) Lose 10,000 experience points and you must draw again.
Gem Seven of cups Two of hearts Gain your choice of twenty-five pieces of jewelry or fifty gems.
Idiot Two of pentacles Two of clubs Lose Intelligence (permanent drain). You may draw again.
Jester The Hanged Man Joker (without trademark) Gain 10,000 XP or two more draws from the deck.
Key The Hierophant Queen of hearts Gain a major magic weapon.
Knight Page of swords Jack of hearts Gain the service of a 4th-level fighter.
Moon The Moon Queen of diamonds You are granted 1d4 wishes.
Rogue Five of swords Jack of spades One of your friends turns against you.
Ruin The Tower King of spades Immediately lose all wealth and real property.
Skull Death Jack of clubs Defeat dread wraith or be forever destroyed.
Star The Star Jack of diamonds Immediately gain a +2 inherent bonus to one ability score.
Sun The Sun King of diamonds Gain beneficial medium wondrous item and 50,000 XP.
Talons Queen of pentacles Ace of clubs All magic items you possess disappear permanently.
Throne Four of staves King of hearts Gain a +6 bonus on Diplomacy checks plus a small keep.
Vizier The Hermit Ace of diamonds Know the answer to your next dilemma.
The Void Eight of swords King of clubs Body functions, but soul is trapped elsewhere.

4th Edition

From the Dungeon Magazine #177's introduction:

Of all artifacts to grace the world with their presence, perhaps none is more dangerous than the infamous Deck of Many Things. The artifact has appeared in every edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and first appeared in the Greyhawk supplement in 1975. Through each of its iterations, the Deck of Many Things has remained a dangerous and chaotic artifact. This 4th Edition update of the classic artifact retains much of the traditional version’s chaotic nature while bringing its mechanics more in line with what modern Dungeon Masters can use in their games.

Rodney Thompson recreated the Deck, casting it not as mere magic item, but now as an artifact. And while his iteration maintains the cards' effects, it also provides some solid roleplaying structure to their results. Take the Donjon card, for example. Its earlier explanation read full:

This signifies imprisonment—either by spell or by some creature/being at your option. All gear and spells will be stripped from the victim in any case.

The new version expands on what this can mean in your game, should a player ever suffer the misfortune of drawing it:

Donjon
You are imprisoned by magic—which leaves you in a state of dreamless sleep—deep beneath the earth. Though your body vanishes, your magic items and other gear remain behind. The party gains the following major quest:

Major Quest–Prison of the Donjon
The PCs must find the location of your imprisonment. The prison is deep beneath the earth (possibly within a dungeon, or in a drow citadel in the Underdark). The PCs must journey to that location, find your imprisoned body, and use the Remove Affliction ritual to free you from the prison.
Reward: 16,000 XP

Donjon/The Void
Two of the cards in the Deck of Many Things, the Donjon and the Void, each remove a character from the party, either physically or mentally. If a player gains the effects of one of these cards, you should allow the player to create a new character (at the same level as the character who drew from the Deck of Many Things) who joins the party soon after. This can be a good chance for the player to try out a race, class, or character archetype he or she has not played before, so don’t be afraid to encourage them to try something radically different from the character that is imprisoned. When the PCs complete the major quest and rescue that player’s character, give the player the option of continuing to play the surrogate character, or resuming play as the imprisoned character. If they choose the latter, apply any XP gained since the character was imprisoned to that character, in addition to any XP earned from the quest itself. That way, the player isn’t punished for resuming the imprisoned character, and the story can continue as normal.

And so we leave you wishing the best of luck in your draw—and the following concept sketches for what cards you may well come across. Enjoy!


About the Authors

It is possible that Bart Carroll is a relative of the beholder, for there are remarkable similarities between the two species. Bart dwells only at great depths of the ocean, floating slowly about, stalking prey. He has two huge crab-like pincers to seize its victims and a mouth full of small sharp teeth. His primary weapons, however, are his eyes. The author has a large central eye which emits a blinding flash of light to dazzle and stun those in its unless a saving throw versus death ray/poison is made. The author also has two smaller eyes on long stalks with which he is able to create an illusion; or, acting independently, the small eyes are able to cast hold person and hold monster spells respectively.

Steve Winter is a writer, game designer, and web producer living in the Seattle area. He's been involved with publishing D&D in one form or another since 1981. Tiny people and monsters made of plastic and lead are among his favorite obsessions.