Today we’ll create an alternative ruleset for running one of Dungeons and Dragons’ most iconic items: the Deck of Many Things. These alternative rules heighten the tension of drawing cards, smooth out a few inconsistencies, and help the DM develop interesting plot hooks.
The design purpose of the Deck of Many Things is three-fold: a) add a high-risk, high-reward game of chance into DND; b) prevent cheating so that the game is random and cannot be rigged in the PCs’ favor; and c) integrate the item into the game world so that its presence makes sense and spurs interesting stories.
The designers do a great job of a) an okay job of b), but then drop the ball with c). The Deck of Many Things' presence in the game world feels gimmicky, like a funhouse that’s been thrown in for shits and giggles. Moreover, some of the rules just don’t make sense--why would most decks have 13 or 22 cards if the jokers disappear permanently? Why would a PC declare that she will draw more than one card at a time if there is no bonus for doing so?
In this article, I will first examine the standard rules for running the Deck and analyze where those rules go wrong. I will then propose an alternative ruleset and describe how it positively affects the game.
The Standard Rules for the Deck of Many Things
The cards themselves are iconic, exciting, and well-written. Consequently, I suggest no changes to the content of the cards themselves, which may be found on page 162 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide or here.
As for the mechanics, I have broken down what is described in the DMG into seven points:
- Most decks have 13 cards; the rest have 22.
- Before you draw a card, you must declare how many cards you intend to draw and then draw them randomly.
- Any cards drawn in excess of this number have no effect. Otherwise, as soon as you draw a card from the deck, its magic takes effect.
- You must draw each card no more than 1 hour after the previous draw.
- If you fail to draw the chosen number, the remaining number of cards fly from the deck on their own and take effect all at once.
- Once a card is drawn, it fades from existence.
- Unless the card is the Fool or the Jester, the card reappears in the deck, making it possible to draw the same card twice.
The standard ruleset prevents cheating by making it impossible for knowledge of previous draws to give PCs an advantage when deciding whether or not to draw again in the future. Any time a card is drawn, it immediately returns to the deck (with the notable exceptions of the Fool and Jester, which we will discuss later), meaning the player can either draw multiple cards simultaneously and eliminate the chance of drawing the same card twice, or make successive draws with the same odds each time. Given that there are an approximately equal number of cards with positive and negative outcomes, the ruleset makes it impossible to use the Deck as a cash cow to gain benefits.
Where The Standard Rules Go Wrong
More than half of the rules are devoted to requiring PCs to specify the number of cards they plan to draw and ensuring that they actually draw those cards without gaming the system. Yet the rules create no incentive for PCs to draw more than one card at a time, as PCs are free to declare additional draws and, as explained earlier, previous draws do not impact the odds of success on future draws. If the point of requiring PCs to specify how many cards they draw is to make the lottery more exciting, why not provide some benefit to PCs as an incentive to do so?
Another headscratcher from the standard rules relates to the rules for the Fool and Jester cards (rule 7 above). These are the two least exciting cards in the deck, yet they are the only cards that disappear permanently if drawn. Shouldn’t it be the opposite? I.e, shouldn’t the most enticing benefit and the most horrifying punishment be the rarest cards that disappear forever when drawn?
Also, let’s suppose that most magic items, including the Decks of Many Things, have existed for a significant amount of time and passed through the hands of many owners. Given the rules for cards disappearing and reappearing, the Fool and the Jester already should be missing from all but the least frequently used decks.
If a PC opens the Deck of Many Things and examines the cards within, the presence or absence of these two cards will thus hint at the age of the deck and its number of owners. I love these types of historical clues, such as the names of past owners inscribed on the hilt of a magic sword, as they can lead to interesting plot hooks. But in the case of the Deck of Many things, these historical clues are limited to the presence or absence of the Deck’s least exciting cards--not exactly a hook for an exciting new adventure.
Therefore, I created the alternative ruleset below based on the following design goals:
- Prevent cheating and maintain randomness
- Create an incentive for players to choose to draw more than one card
- Eliminate the unnecessary exceptions for the Jester and Fool cards
- Build more historical clues into the deck to serve as plot hooks
At the time of their creation (often by followers of Olidamarra, god of luck and trickery), all Decks of Many Things have 13 cards. Once drawn, cards do not reappear in the deck, so each individual deck contains between 1-13 cards, depending on how many of the original 13 have been drawn. When the players discover a Deck of Many Things, the DM should declare how many cards they find in the deck. In-game, the PCs may ascertain the number of cards by opening the lid of the box and counting the thick, visible edges of the cards.
To maximize the meta-game excitement of the Deck of Many Things, the DM should then enlist the players’ help in creating their individual deck, which is chosen randomly from the original 22 cards. First, turn all 22 cards face up and show them to the players to prove that you are creating a fair deck. Then turn the cards face down and shuffle them. Go around in a circle, having each player draw a card and place it, still face down and without looking at it, in a prepared box. When the number of cards declared by the DM (between 1 - 13) has been drawn, shut the box and set it aside (or seal it if you wish to allay play suspicions or heighten suspense) until a PCs announces that she intends to draws a card. [See Footnote, below, for a different way to add meta-game intrigue to the deck.]
Cards may not be removed from the deck by any means besides choosing to draw--even the wish spell is incapable of forcibly removing cards from the deck. Similarly, only the side edge of each card and back side of the top card are visible, and cards must be drawn from the top of the deck. It is thus impossible to identify which cards remain in the deck.
To draw a card from the Deck of Many Things, a PC must state the number of cards she chooses to draw. That PC may not choose to draw any additional cards from the same deck until a year has passed in the game world. [Alternatively, the DM may make it permanently impossible for PCs to draw more than once from the same deck.] Draw each card and resolve its effects before drawing subsequent cards. All cards drawn in this matter permanently disappear from the deck.
Each card must be drawn no more than 1 hour after the previous draw. If a PC fails to draw the chosen number of cards, the remaining number of cards fly from the deck on their own and take effect all at once.
Advantages of This Method
Requiring players to state how many cards they choose to draw, and then restricting them from drawing any additional cards for a significant or indefinite period of time, attaches consequences to their original choice and builds tension during the draws.
Each deck also now has a history and that history’s attendant plot hooks. If the PCs find a deck with 8 cards, they know that 5 cards have been drawn since the deck’s creation, and the identity of those cards may be known by the deck’s previous owners or their acquaintances. If the PCs wish to better understand their own odds of success or failure, they may attempt to contact the previous owners or conduct other research into their deck. Such research is useful but limited in scope; because the original deck was randomly chosen from a significantly larger pool of cards, the best the PCs can hope for is to gain a slightly better understanding of their odds. Thus the PCs will never approach anything like certainty and the deck will maintain its aura of mystery and chance.
This system also gives the DM the means to hint at the lethality of the deck or to build plot hooks based on previous draws. For example, perhaps a Mimir or companion to the deck’s original owner describes how he drew the Void card and became a soulless husk. Or the previous owner earned the enmity of a powerful devil but died prematurely, and now the devil plans to vent its anger against the deck’s current owners, the PCs. Or perhaps the previous owner drew the Throne card and acquired her own Keep, from which she hires such heroes as are willing to take on great risks and earn great rewards. Although this system slightly tilts the odds in the PCs favor by providing more information, this information is rich with plot hooks and must be earned, not given.
A final advantage of this ruleset is it makes more sense in the context of the fantasy world. It is easier to imagine the effects on the world of a Deck of Many Things with a limited number of draws that can only be performed at rare intervals, whereas the standard ruleset seems ripe for abuse by a crafty king with an army of expendable peasants.
Regardless of which ruleset you use, every fan of D&D should include running or drawing from the Deck of Many Things on their bucket list. While the in-game consequences can be dire for the PCs, the experience is one the players will never forget.
I welcome any feedback in the comments section below. If you like this article, please share it with your friends or let me know on twitter @ThePlanarDM.
Footnote: I originally gave the Deck of Many Things to the PCs as an out-of-game birthday present for one of the players in the game. I asked 10 of his friends to draw cards, and then I recorded which friend drew which card. They promised not to reveal which cards they drew to any of the players. After the PCs drew each card in-game, I told the players which of their friends they needed to thank or curse for adding it into the deck. It was a memorable birthday present.