For disclosure — in my decades as a Dungeon Master and player of Dungeons & Dragons, I have neither used nor encountered the infamous Deck of Many Things. But after sitting in on video planning and discussing it at length with Nerdarchists Dave and Ted, Nate the Nerdarch and Intern Jake, I want to! The powerful Deck of Many Things has been a part of D&D history since the very first supplement — Greyhawk — in 1975. In every edition of the game since, the deck has caused weal and woe for players and DMs alike. Whether it shows up in a randomly generated treasure hoard or enters a campaign due to DM planning, the Deck of Many Things has major impact. So much so that many DMs outright disavow the legendary magic item. Me? I’m excited at the possibility of basing an entire campaign around it. Am I crazy? Perhaps. Let’s get into it and find out.
Deck of Many Things past and present
The potential for campaign disruption represented by the Deck of Many Things is as legendary as the magic item itself. One minute you’ve got a balanced party of similar level range. A few draws later and one character is much higher level, another loses several levels, the lawful good character is chaotic evil and your companion is squaring off against an Avatar of Death with their immortal soul hanging in the balance.
Just another day in the dungeon.
Taken as-is, with a full deck containing every card showing up in a campaign out of the blue, the Deck of Many Things is a game-changer no doubt about it. This is not a coincidence. Gary Gygax and Rob Kuntz designed the darn thing after all — it’s not like it sprang into existence of its own accord. The wild and woolly early days of D&D saw the introduction of all kinds of bizarre elements and incredibly challenging situations for characters to face.
These days, in the era of 5E D&D, players are not only more plentiful but more refined in many ways than our earlier counterparts. This is not meant as a slight. With players all across the world, connected as we are through communications technology, D&D is an imaginative space with orders of magnitude more ideas and input than it had back in the day. As regards the Deck of Many Things, this means today’s campaign wrecker was yesteryear’s Tuesday. Surviving a session of D&D was a feat all its own back then. A mayhem-causing magic item was just one more crazy challenge to overcome.
Drawing inspiration from Deck of Many Things
Rather than focus on ways to mitigate the negative impact a Deck of Many Things can have on a campaign, while we were planning the video I suggested leaning into it. Instead of relegating the deck to a high level of play with powerful characters, why not throw it in the party’s very first adventure and see what happens?
- Guilds across the realm maintain a balance of power through the card of the Deck of Many Things. For centuries, each guild has held a single card, giving them influence based on the card. The keepers of the donjon keep dangerous prisoners in a magical prison, keepers of talons regulate powerful magic items and so forth. What happens when one of the guilds comes into possession of a second card? How did this come to pass, and what effect will the sudden shift of power have? And can the party do anything to restore balance?
- Every 1000 years, the Deck of Many Things appears somewhere in the world. For many this is just a myth, but certain powerful factions have read the signs and know that the time is coming soon. Pieces move into place for several of these factions to begin the search, and seekers roam the lands looking for clues. The characters could be seekers themselves, or tasked by a patron to join in the hunt.
- The characters discover a magical box with the power to contain the Deck of Many Things, the individual cards scattered throughout the world. Covetous forces might learn of their discovery and want to take the box for themselves, or spy on the characters as they track down each card. Once they are all assembled, the Deck of Many Things can be used for good or ill.
- An oppressive kingdom holds Hunger Games-style competitions, with teams of desperate folks competing for a chance to draw a single card that could change their fortunes — or spell disaster. The characters could be participants. Perhaps the rulers of the kingdom use the competition as a ruse, and the teams who brave dangerous challenges to find the cards themselves are merely unwitting pawns used as disposable fodder to locate and take the cards, which are kept by the corrupt government.
- Each card is used as inspiration for adventure design, and the Deck of Many Things isn’t even featured in the campaign. In Balance, one of the party’s allies suddenly begins acting completely opposite. In Knight, a wandering warrior pledging themselves to one of the characters, bringing their own mysterious fortunes into the mix. In Ruin, random items of great import begin vanishing throughout the lands, bearing investigation. Any and all of the cards could become the spark for some sort of adventure.
- In the party’s very first adventure as 1st-level characters, they discover the Deck of Many Things, and each character can draw a single card. See what happens and go from there.
You control the legendary magic item
The thing about the Deck of Many Things is a Dungeon Master has as much control over it as they like. You don’t have to put all the cards in your deck, or follow the description in the Dungeon Master’s Guide about declaring how many you’ll draw and what happens from there. Like the Hand of Vecna and several other classic, legendary D&D magic items, the Deck of Many Things becomes personalized for your campaign, making it one-of-a-kind just for you. By the same token, among a group of friends enjoying a D&D experience together, what’s the harm in drawing cards that shake up the situation? Characters may wind up with big differences in levels or undergo significant changes, party dynamics can shift wildly, and perilous outcomes are certainly a possibility.
I guarantee the campaign will be memorable, and if it causes the story to turn out vastly different than anyone anticipated well, that’s usually the case in D&D anyway, right?
For another take on using the Deck of Many Things in your D&D campaign, Matt Colville has a great video on how he deploys it for players in his games that’s worth checking out too.
Now, how about you? Is the thought of the Deck of Many Things showing up in your campaign giving you nightmares? Have you used it in a campaign as the DM, or come across it as a player? What do you think about basing an entire campaign around it with one of the ideas above, or do you have your own to add?
Let me know all about your Deck of Many Things experiences in the comments below and, as always, stay nerdy.
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