Sunday, May 12, 2019

Deck of Many Things

Art by Oswald Wirth

Nowadays you can just buy them but circa 1981, if you wanted a Deck of Many Things, you either had to cannibalize a standard poker deck (yawn) or make it from scratch.  One of your humble host's gaming buddies crafted an original deck, although I don't think we ever found an in-game use for it.  Still, such was the allure of this magic item, it captivated our imagination.

I never much cared for the name.  Deck of Many Things?  If Viking parliamentarians had cards similar to baseball players and you had a comprehensive set of those cards, you would have a Deck of Many Things.  Sure, I guess the full name is the Deck of Many Things Beneficial and Baneful, but no one ever uses the full name.  Why not the Deck of Benefit and Bane?  The Deck of Danger and Delight?  The Deck of Precipitous Fate?  “Many Things” implies a paucity of creativity.

The Deck of Many Things is first described in Greyhawk.  This version consists of eighteen cards, “One-half bring beneficial things, and one-half cause hurtful things.”  Actually, eight cards are beneficial and eight are hurtful, but there are also two jokers.  Each joker offers the choice of 25,000 experience points or the selection of two additional cards.  Arguably, the jokers are beneficial which would mean slightly less than half of the cards are hurtful.  Regardless, the (roughly) half-good / half-bad mix of cards is reflected in future iterations of the deck.  Aside from the jokers, the deck includes the face cards and aces of the standard suites; the red suites containing the beneficial cards and the black, hurtful.  The cards are not given fancy names like 'Comet' or 'Euryale', they are referenced only by their pedestrian poker designations.  Greyhawk informs us that a character “possessing such a deck may select cards from it four times (or more if jokers are drawn), and whatever is revealed by the card selected takes place.”  No announcement of intent is required – a card is drawn and the outcome occurs.

Once Greyhawk describes the effects of the individual cards, the book continues:
After each draw the card is returned to the pack and it is shuffled again before another draw is made. All four draws need not be made, but the moment the possessor of the deck states he has no intention of ever drawing further cards, or after the maximum number of draws in any event, it disappears.
Clearly, a deck has an individual possessor and – once the possessor concludes his draws – the deck goes away.  ('Disappear' does not mean that the deck becomes invisible.)  It seems wasteful that only one character can benefit/suffer from the deck before it leaves to wherever these decks go.  Since there is no stipulation that jokers aren't shuffled back into the deck, more and more cards can be drawn (at least until the possessor dies or is turned to stone).  Lastly, we are informed, “The referee may make up his own deck using the guidelines above.”  Said guidelines seemingly ensure a mix of beneficial and hurtful cards balanced in number and intensity.

The first edition Dungeon Masters Guide describes two varieties of decks, both of which are distinct from the Greyhawk deck.  One is a thirteen plaque economy deck (being 75% of all decks), the other is a deluxe deck (being the remaining 25% of all decks) with nine additional plaques.  Each plaque has a poker deck analog, but they also have individual names like 'Vizier' and 'Talons'.

Unlike the Greyhawk deck, for a drawn card to have an effect in the DMG versions, a character must announce beforehand the number of cards he or she intends to draw (up to a maximum of four).  Exactly how is a character supposed to know this condition?  Here's my take:  Decks are “usually...contained within a box or leather pouch.”  I would think that characters are incapable of withdrawing any plaques from their container unless and until they announce the number they intend to draw.  Instructions about this requirement can be inscribed on the container.

Instead of two jokers with an option of experience points or additional draws, there is one 'Jester' where the experience option is 10,000 points (as opposed to 25,000).  The second joker – called 'Fool' – appears in the deluxe deck; it causes a loss of ten thousand experience points and necessitates an additional draw beyond the number announced.  The Greyhawk version has a card (A♥) that grants 50,000 experience points and another (K♥) that provides a miscellaneous magic item.  In the DMG version, both effects are combined into the 'Sun' plaque.  The DMG 'Moon' gives the character 1 - 4 wishes while the Greyhawk version (Q♥) gives 1 – 3 wishes.  A Greyhawk drawer can receive a “map to richest treasure on any dungeon level” (A♦) while the DMG 'Key' offers “a treasure map plus 1 magic weapon.”  With the DMG 'Knight', a character gains “the service of a 4th level fighter” until death; the Greyhawk version (J♥) supplies a Superhero (i.e., 8th level fighter) with +3 armor, shield, and sword, but this service only lasts an hour.  A Greyhawk card (K♦) supplies a character with “5 – 30 pieces of jewelry immediately,” but the DMG 'Gem' offers a “choice of 20 jewelry or 50 gems.”  While the DMG 'Star' increases a character's “major ability” by two points, the Greyhawk card (J♦) adds one point to an ability of the character's choice.  While a Greyhawk card (K♣) takes away a character's most prized magic item, the DMG 'Talons' causes the loss of all magic items.  A Greyhawk card (Q♣) causes a character to be turned to stone (“no saving throw”), but the DMG 'Euryale' causes a “Minus 3 on all saving throws vs. petrification.”  Greyhawk cards without a direct DMG equivalent include one (Q♦) that provides a “Scroll of 7 Spells, no 1st-level spells on it” and another (J♠) where a “Monster from 5th-level Underworld Monster Table attacks by surprise.”

With regard to the staying power of the DMG decks we learn, “Upon drawing the last plaque possible, or immediately upon drawing the plaques in bold face (The Void, Donjon), the deck disappears.”  (bold and italics in original)  This is less explicit than the Greyhawk explanation.  Apparently, the same conditions apply, but there is no specific statement that only one character can use a given deck.  Dragon #148 (August 1989) includes a feature with the title “Luck of the Draw.”  In the guise of fiction, Robin Jenkins provides some information about how a Deck of Many Things works.  According to Jenkins' logic...
Once the number of cards to be drawn is announced, other characters may pull from the deck in place of the initial character, thereby assuming the number of pulls initially announced. Any character who announces his intention to pull a new number of cards from a deck “erases” any previous number announced, so long as that previous number of draws was not completed; this makes it possible for one deck to pass through many hands.
The third edition rules tend to dispel this notion. We read:
Cards must be drawn within 1 hour of each other, and a character can never again draw from this deck any more cards than she has announced. If the character does not willingly draw her allotted number (or if she is somehow prevented from doing so), the cards flip out of the deck on their own.
Yet nothing indicates that the deck “disappears” once a character finishes his or her draws.

When 'The Void' card from the DMG is drawn, “The character's body functions, and he or she speaks like an automaton, but the psyche is trapped in a prison somewhere – in an object on a far planet or plane, possibly in the possession of a demon.”  In Jenkins' paradigm, this means the victim's body can be led about to “check for pits, traps, that sort of thing!”  Third edition clarifies that the body functions “as though comatose.”  The 'Donjon' card from DMG “signifies imprisonment – either by spell or by some being/creature at your option.”  Jenkins presents an example where a character drawing 'Donjon' is imprisoned in Hades.  Whereas the DMG decks disappear upon 'Donjon' or 'The Void' being drawn, third edition includes the instruction “Draw no more cards” in the explanation for both cards

Other differences between first edition and third edition cards are as follows:
  • Euryale :   Instead of -3 on petrification saving throws, 3E inflicts -1 on all saving throws.
  • Gem :  Third edition specifies 25 items of jewelry instead of 20.  Also, each item of jewelry is worth 2,000 gp and each gem is worth 1,000 gp.
  • Idiot :  In first edition, 1d4 points of Intelligence are lost; in third edition, the loss is 1d4+1.
  • Key :  In third edition, the character gains “a major magic weapon” but no map.
  • Skull :  In first edition, “A minor Death appears.”  In third edition, “A dread wraith appears.”
  • Star :  First edition specifies the points go to the character's “major ability” (or, if such an addition would bring the score to 19, one or both points are applied to other abilities).  In third edition, any ability can be selected for the bonus.
  • Throne :  In first edition, the character gains a Charisma score of 18 and the “castle gained will be near to any stronghold already possessed.”  No Charisma is gained in third edition; the character receives “+6 bonus to Diplomacy checks.”  Additionally, “The castle gained appears in any open area she wishes.”
  • Vizier :  In third edition, the effect must be employed “within one year.” 
Also, the third edition Deck of Many Things is a minor artifact and the thirteen card economy version is not mentioned.

The number of cards in the deluxe deck suggests a correlation with the Major Arcana of the tarot; even some of the card names are the same – 'Sun', 'Moon', 'Star', and 'Fool'.  In fact, Dragon #77 (September 1983) contains an article describing a Tarot of Many Things.  Each of the seventy-eight cards has two effects, one if the card is drawn upright and another if drawn inverted.  Unlike the more prosaic Deck of Many Things, “No card can be received more than once by the same drawer.”  Also,
A person who wishes or is compelled to draw from the deck will be allowed to announce an intention of drawing one, two, three, or four cards; when the last member of the party who wishes to do so has drawn, or if one hour elapses without any draw, the deck will disappear – unless the party is on the plane of the Tarot's master deity, which is not the party's own home plane.
So, use of the Tarot is not limited to one character.  Third edition lists tarot equivalents for the twenty-two cards in the deck; however, only half of the Major Arcana are represented.  To be fair, the imagery of the Minor Arcana used is appropriate to the card effects.

The Pathfinder version of the Deck of Many Things naturally conforms to 3.5E; however, we are given information about destroying the artifact:
The item can be destroyed by losing it in a wager with a deity of law.  The deity must be unaware of the nature of the deck.
One might think that the deity would become suspicious (and thus 'aware' of the nature of the deck) after the first time this occurs.  Also, one might think a god could become quite upset if something just won in a wager ceases to exist.

In fifth edition, the Deck of Many Things is no longer an artifact, the thirteen card economy deck is reintroduced, and any correlation with the tarot is abandoned.  Card effects are generally the same as third edition, with differences indicated as follows:
  • Donjon :  It is specified that the character disappears and becomes “entombed in a state of suspended animation in an extradimensional sphere.”
  • Euryale :  A –2 penalty on saving throws is inflicted.
  • Key :  “The item is selected by the GM.”
  • Moon :  The character is “granted the ability to cast the wish spell 1d3 times.”
  • Skull :  Instead of a dread wraith, there is an Avatar of Death, which is similar to the first edition's minor Death.
  • Star :  “The score can exceed 20 but can’t exceed 24.”
  • Throne :  The character gains “proficiency in the Persuasion skill” and the proficiency bonus is doubled “on checks made with that skill.”  Also, “the keep is currently in the hands of monsters,” which must be cleared out before the character claims the keep.
  • Vizier :  In fifth edition, “the knowledge comes with the wisdom on how to apply it.”  (This is in contrast to first edition which says, “Whether the information gained can be successfully acted upon is another question entirely.”)
Another issue I have with the Deck of Many Things is how knowledge is imparted to the character in various circumstances.  For instance, with 'The Fates' card, “Reality’s fabric unravels and spins anew, allowing you to avoid or erase one event as if it never happened.” (5E)  How does the character know this?  When the character selects an event, what does he or she do to apply the effect of the card?  Instead of a deck being contained in a box or pouch, why not have it be part of a device with an animatronic fortune teller?  If you don't like an animatronic fortune teller you could have an imp, a talking magpie, or whatever suits your fancy.  The device could dispense physical objects like weapons and gems in the manner of a vending machine (or a slot machine).  Entities like fighters and death avatars can climb out of a small door in the side of the machine.  Cards that require an explanation (like 'The Fates') can be explained by the fortune teller (or whatever).

The next question is, who (or what) would bother to create a Deck of Many Things?  Jenkins postulates that “the powers of Neutrality are at the core of the deck’s power, and the enchantments of such decks come from the plane of Concordant Opposition...the gods of luck...seem likely to benefit from the dissemination of such items in this world.”  Well, if a wizard didn't do it, you might as well have gods do it.  But why would gods (of luck or otherwise) want to create and disseminate such items?  Jenkins writes, “The purpose behind the deck of many things is to encourage risk.”  I don't think the motives of gods would be known to mortals (or necessarily comprehensible by mortals).  I think that – to the gods – it's just a game.




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