Origins – The Deck of Many Things

Oct 26, 2011

The Deck of Many Things is one of the most debated magic items within the Dungeons and Dragons universe. The discourse centers on the ability of the deck to disrupt the balance of the game and the lethality of many cards. Rather than debate the deck again, I just wanted to take a look at the item as it was originally depicted along with differences in the next few incarnations.

Greyhawk Supplment I

Greyhawk Supplment I

Dungeons and Dragons – Supplement I Greyhawk

The Deck of Many Things first appeared in 1975 in Supplement I for the White Box edition by Gygax and Kuntz. The deck is described on pages 59 and 60 in my third printing copy from 1976. It is the final entry of the Miscellaneous Magic section.

This device is a pack of 18 parchment cards, 4 each of four kinds and 2 jokers. Each of the four in each kind is different. One-half bring beneficial things, and one-half cause hurtful things. The person 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.

The deck strikes a tone of balance – half good, half bad. The description uses face cards from the four suits of a normal deck of cards along with two jokers. The simplicity allows quick construction of a deck to use in play.

Hearts (Good)
Ace: Immediately gain 50,000 experience points
King: Gain Miscellaneous Magic item from the Table of your choice
Queen: Gain 1-3 wishes to be taken when you like
Jack: Help from a Superhero with +3 armor, shield, and sword for one hour when you call for him
Diamonds (Good)
Ace: Immediately gain map to richest treasure on any dungeon level
King: Gain 5-30 pieces of jewelry immediately
Queen: Gain Scroll of 7 Spells, no 1st level spells on it
Jack: Add 1 point to any ability scroe you wish, i.e., strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, etc.
Spades (Bad)
Ace: Lose one experience level immediately
King: Lord with +4 armor, shield, and sword attacks you* (*all magic items disappear when attacker is defeated)
Queen: Immediate death, no saving throw
Jack: Monster from the 5th Level Underworld Monster Table attacks you by surprise
Clubs (Bad)
Ace: Change alignment immediately
King: Lose your most prized magic item immediately
Queen: Turn to stone, no saving throw
Jack: Lose 1 point from your Prime Requisite
Joker [x2] (Good/50-50)
Gain 25,000 experience points immediately or select two additional cards

If a person doesn’t succumb to the additional draws available with a Joker, the deck isn’t balanced. Instead, there are 10 positive cards vs. 8 negative cards. Should the gambling urge kick in, players still get the overall advantage due to the final notes on the deck.

After each draw the card is returned to the pack and it is shuffled again before another draw is made. All four draws 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 or (sic) draws in any event, it disappears. Note: The referee may make up his own deck using the guidelines above.

AD&D 1E Dungeon Masters Guilde

AD&D 1E Dungeon Masters Guide

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons

The Deck of Many Things appeared next in the 1st Edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide from 1979. (I can find no reference for it in the Basic or Expert editions although it may be present in a supplement I do not own.) The 1E AD&D variant introduced two variants of the deck — 13 cards or 22 cards. Additionally, the use of tarot cards were presented as the primary option with normal playing cards as a backup. The item description was greatly expanded as well:

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 form 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 drawn 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. The deck will contain either 13 or 22 plaques, 75%/25% chance. Additional plaques in a 22 card deck are indicated by an asterisk (*) before their names. To simulate plaques, you may use the normal playing card indicated:

The verbosity ramped up significantly with only a few changes:

  1. (1) You have to pre-determine how many cards are going to be drawn
  2. (2) the deck size shifted either up or down compared to the original
  3. (3) the second Joker (with trademark)/Fool is a negative rather than a positive

Balance was not directly stated as a goal for the item. However, the change to the second Joker actually balanced the deck eliminating the slight player advantage from the original.

The use of playing cards is directly mentioned. However, the card listing makes it more confusing by introducing names of cards (via Tarot) rather than sticking with the simple approach. The 2 of each deck was added in addition to the face cards to expand the deck and the Ace cards were eliminated from the smaller deck.

Diamonds (Good)
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 next monster you meet to gain 1 level
* Vizier (AD) Know the answer to your next dilemma
Hearts (Good)
Throne (KH) Gain charisma of 18 and a small keep
Key (QH) Gain a treasure map plus 1 magic weapon
Knight (JH) Gain service of a 4th level fighter
* Gem (2H) Gain your choice of 50 jewelry or 50 gems
* Fates (AH) Avoid any situation you choose … once
Clubs (Bad)
The Void (KC) 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
* Idiot (AC) Lose 1-4 points of intelligence, you may draw again
Spades (Bad)
Ruin (KS) Immediately lose all wealth and real property
Euryale (QS) Minus 3 on all saving throws vs. petrification
Rogue (JS) One of your henchmen turns against you
* Balance (2S) Change alignment or be judged
* Donjon (AS) You are imprisoned
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

The changes to the short description of the cards reduce the clarity presented in the original deck. The card effects are more vague and the rules for handling the disappearance of the deck are slightly more intricate.

Upon drawing the last plague possible, or immediately upon drawing the plagues in bold face (The Void, Donjon), the deck disappears.

The text continues to describe each and every card in more detail across another half page in a small font. What was pretty straight forward has become more complex as to exactly what cards are contained in the deck, the disappearance of the deck, and the actual effects of the cards themselves. The effect of certain cards is delayed infinitely forcing the dungeon master to track even more details until the result occurs.

The 2nd Edition of AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide (1989) uses this variant as well.

Dragon Magazine #77 Cover

Dragon #77

Dragon #77 – Tarot of Many Things

Michael J. Lowrey extended the verbosity of the AD&D variant of the deck into a new realm with his article in Dragon Magazine #77 from September 1983 – The Tarot of Many Things. The article extended the deck from 22 cards to 78 plagues fully embracing a full tarot deck. The massive deck was depicted as an artifact not a general magic item. As part of the introductory page of text, Michael warns:

Above all, bear in mind that this is an artifact, not the tool of a chaotic game for foolhardy or suicidal characters; it should be handled with respect and gravity.

The article introduces a common house-rule variant — allowing multiple party members to draw from the deck in the non-artifact version of earlier incarnations. Allowing for multiple characters drawing is implied but not explicit. No earlier variant of the deck allowed for more than a single individual to draw.

A person who wishes 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.

Multiple character drawing is reinforced later in the article.

After each person finishes drawing, the drawn cards are returned to the deck and it is reshuffled by the next drawer (if any).

Beyond the multiple drawers, the article also introduces upright and reversed effects common in the Tarot lexicon. The deck is to be shuffled in a particular manner:

The person making draws, hereafter called the "drawer", should shuffle the cards well, in such a manner that the images on almost one-half of the cards are inverted or "reversed" in relation to the others (which are termed "upright"). Each card is then turned over along the long axis of the card, and presented to the DM (from whose viewpoint "upright" and "reversed" are judged). After each person finishes drawing, the drawn cards are returned to the deck and it is reshuffled by the next drawer (if any).

Alignment of the cards is important. Reversed cards have a negative effect while upright cards are positive. Players not taking the time to properly align half the cards can skew the results of the deck. Off balance decks can also lean toward favorable or negative results depending upon how the deck is presented to the DM. An agile DM could choose to accept the deck from the player and align it in a manner of their choosing to mitigate any skewing my the player.

The card effects described are beyond the scope of this post. The particular effects can be found on pages 6-12 and 50-63 of Dragon #77. The detailed descriptions are amazing. Details are a double-edged sword. Many effects are permanent and require the DM and the player to track a multitude of effects. As Michael warned, do not treat the artifact lightly. I am unlikely to ever use his variant due to the intricate nature.

The Tarot variant warrants the verbosity wherein the 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons entry did not. Lowrey’s entry covers the entirety of the Tarot by design rather than only mentioning card names with no tie to the descriptions.

Final Thoughts

Until a few days ago, I hadn’t looked at the Deck other than the 1st Edition. I must admit I like the Greyhawk variant better than any AD&D variant. If the item was a focal point, I’d have to lean toward the Lowrey’s Tarot of Many Things for complexity and completeness. He comprehensively completed the shades an entry that should have not mentioned tarot.

Fun reading, none the less.

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  • Thanks for sharing a detailed run-down on the history of the deck. I’ve traditionally steered clear of it, because of the trouble a group can get into using the deck. The Penny Arcade web comic addresses that particular difficulty in its own way.

    All the complexity does motivate a person to want to make a simpler version matching that person’s game world…

    • I do like that Penny Arcade strip. I agree that a simpler version matching a particular world would be more interesting. One size doesn’t always fit. Thanks for dropping by.

  • Found this on google. It rocks.