Review – The Deck of Many Things

There have been quite a few RPG-themed tarot-ish decks over the years. Mage: The Ascension featured a tarot card on the cover of the core book and went through a couple editions of tarot decks to go along with it. You can get a Shadowrun tarot deck illustrated by Echo Chernick (the deck is safe for work, but Echo’s website is not). Pathfinder has it’s Harrow Deck, which has seen multiple editions and has roots going back to one of the oldest adventure paths. You can pick up a Tarokka Deck to use with Curse of Strahd, or the straight-up D&D-branded tarot deck that came out last year (I don’t own that last one, if you’re looking to buy Strange Assembly a holiday gift). And that doesn’t count entire roleplaying games that use tarot in their mechanics.

Half of The Deck of Many Things is a tarot-style divination deck and, in that sense, the product is walking into a crowded field. However, The Deck of Many Things distinguishes itself in three ways. First is that it is the Deck of Many Things, which has a long pedigree in D&D that will tug at nostalgia strings. Second is the sheer grandiosity of the project. Third is that, in addition to the deck itself and the book about how to use the deck, there’s an entire other D&D supplement in there (The Book of Many Things).

The original version of the Deck of Many Things (1975) has been around almost as long as Dungeons & Dragons (1974). The first fully fleshed-out version appeared in 1979, where it would take on what is basically the modern version – a deck of 22 cards, each with a specific name, that player characters could draw from for random, typically game-shaking (and often campaign-breaking) effects. The Deck of Many Things is central enough to D&D that it continues to appear in the 5E core book. As The Book of Many Things acknowledges, the wild swings of the Deck of Many Things are not as in line with how many of us play Dungeons & Dragons today as compared to how it was played when the Deck of Many Things was created (or as it was usually played back when I first ran into it 30 years ago). If you introduced me today to a magic item that would probably throw out of balance everything I had planned for a campaign – randomly killing characters, granting them vast wealth or taking away everything they own, reducing or increasing attributes, ripping away or granting thousands of experience, granting wishes, etc. – I imagine I would roll my eyes at what a terrible idea it was. But as an object of the past there certain is a certain je nais se quois to it, this crazy randomness that might crush your dreams or catapult you to the height of power, and that of course must be included in any new edition of Dungeons & Dragons.

The physical deck included in The Deck of Many Things consists of the core 22 cards that make up the Deck of Many Things and another 44 (collectively referred to as the Deck of Many More Things) additional cards. They are, of course, tarot-sized cards, made out of nice card stock with gilt edges and gilt highlights on the front. The art, which tends to be greyscale or have a single highlight color, is excellent, and does a good job of conveying a mystical mood. And the gilt highlighting really just pops and makes the cards sing – they look far better in person than a jpg of the art. The cards in the Deck of Many More Things are all illustrated by Ivan Shavrin, while the core 22 of the Deck of Many Things are illustrated by Francesca Resta, Vallez Gax, Jim Zaccaria, Tinnel Lovitt, Harry Conway, Andrea Sipl, Joanna Barnum, Alex Diaz, Abigail Larson.

Along with the cards is an 88-page hardcover book about how to use the deck. The opening of The Deck of Many Things Card Reference Guide discusses different spreads to use, with the majority of the book consisting of a card-by-card presentation of the meanings of the cards. These are all relatively concrete, as the presentation is mostly not geared towards a tarot-style reading (where the goal is almost necessarily to be vague and symbolic). Instead it’s presented more as an adventure or encounter randomization tool, where each card can represent one of ten different things, depending on whether it’s being drawn to represent a person, creature/trap, place, treasure, or situation, and whether it is reversed (upside down) or not. For example, an upright Bridge card would represent a mediator (person), a coordinator of other creatures such as a mind flayer with agents (creature), a literal bridge (place), an item that helps overcome obstacles such as boots of striding and springing (treasure), or an urgent need to bring together opposing factions (situation). It’s been a long time since I ran a randomized D&D game, so I have to admit that I personally would not have a lot of use for this presentation – I’m much more likely to want to use a stacked divination deck in game to set up the events and themes of upcoming story.

Here’s also where I have to mention that it may be a bit until you can get The Deck of Many Things. There were production problems with the deck, and Wizards of the Coast has pulled the product from distribution for now (you will still be able to get the digital version of the Book of Many Things). These production problems included bent cards (in both the concave and convex directions), miscut cards (so that not all of the cards were the same size), and more mundane problems like creases and edge wear. Strange Assembly received a review copy and ours showed some of these. All of card cards were bent, and the three packs of cards were not all bent to the same degree (although at least in the same direction). This isn’t a severe bend – I’m certainly used to foil TCG cards having this much bend – but it’s not great from a premium product and the different degrees of bend cause issues with shuffling. I’m more concerned about the durability of the gilt edges – two of the three cards at the top of their respective stacks were ‘marked’ out of the box. Even if dings from transportation are addressed by, for example, different packaging (in an effort to be eco-friendly the cards stacks are held together by paper bands rather than the more traditional plastic wrap), it makes me wonder how quickly the edges of the cards will be worn out by routine shuffling. It is unknown how long it will take Wizards of the Coast to sort things out.

With the cards out of the way, that leaves The Book of Many Things, which is I think the most important part of how The Deck of Many Things most distinguishes itself from just being a fancy RPG divination deck. The Book of Many Things is a full-sized D&D supplement in its own right, with 22 chapters themed (some more loosely than others) around the 22 cards of the deck of many things.

  • Fool – Introduction and history of the deck of many things over the years.
  • Key – One of several chapters with guidance to the DM on how to use the deck of many things, including how to work the effects into a narrative (instead of just having them *poof* happen right there), customizing the deck to avoid certain types of effects, and using single cards from the deck as their own magic items (e.g., the Comet lets you blast a group of enemies once a day).
  • Balance – Another DM guidance chapter, this one about using the Deck of Many Things as a randomizer (in line with the presentation in the Card Reference Guide).
  • Puzzle (f.k.a. Idiot) – A half-dozen puzzles, riddles, and traps themed around the deck of many things and ready to drop into an adventure.
  • Gem – A collection of 22 magic items themed around the 22 cards of the deck of many things. For example, the breastplate of balance can cancel advantage or disadvantage on rolls, while a character wearing the skull helm is immune to cold, poison, and necrotic damage and can cast Spirit of Death (a new spell) once per day.
  • Rogue – This chapter includes a few more magic items that are decks of cards, including decks you can make attacks with, a deck that lets you teleport, and a deck that generates mundane items. The remainder of the chapter focuses on ideas for rogue NPCs, including the sorts of legendary enemies who might be generated by the Rogue card from the deck of many things.
  • Sage (f.k.a. Vizier) – The most broadly useful part of the Sage chapter is a new feat for arcane spellcasters and a few new spells. The Cartomancer feat allows the character to imbue a card with a single spell a day, which can then be cast as a bonus action, and also grants them the ability to perform stage magic with cards. In addition to the aforementioned Spirit of Death spell, which as one might expect summons a spirit to fight on the caster’s behalf, there’s also Antagonize to force an opponent to take pyschic damage and attack a creature of your choice and the low-level Spray of Cards, which is a Burning Hands-esque area of effect spell that does force damage and can blind enemies. This is also where the magic item version of the deck of many more things can be found.
  • Fates – This chapter includes a couple of backgrounds (representing characters who once had it all and then lost it, or had nothing and then gained great fortune), even more magic items (with fate and/or card themes), and a selection of thematic charms for the DM to hand out.
  • Knight – Similar to the Rogue chapter, but focused on melee characters, this chapter had a variety of armor magic items and guidance on creating the ally generated by the Knight card.
  • Sun – One of several chapters on an organization that might show up in deck of many things flavored adventures or campaigns, this chapter is a description of the Solar Bastion, which tries to protect people from the effects of the deck of many things.
  • Moon – Speaking of which … this chapter describes the Moonstalkers, a organized crime family of werecreatures who seek to obtain copies of the deck of many things because they want those wishes.
  • Comet – And again, this chapter has the Heralds of the Comet, a nihilistic cult that believes the deck of many things can be used to bring about the end of the multiverse.
  • Star – If you want to also add astrology to your D&D campaign, here’s a start. Also information on astronomy, including a legendary wondrous telescope that lets the user teleport to wherever they can see (other wildspace systems, dead gods floating in the astral sea, and the like).
  • Jester – Describes the Seelie Market, full of a variety of vendors, a fortune-teller, and a moonstone dragon.
  • Throne – Harrowhall is a keep that’s been turned into a ghost-filled adventure site for 8th-level characters, potentially so that characters can claim it off of the draw of the Throne card. But it’s clever and rewards thoughtful exploration on the part of the characters, with interlocking ghost stories to resolve, so it could be fun to just drop into an ongoing campaign for a good story and way to give the player characters a new home base.
  • Ruin – Gardsmore Abbey (which appeared in a D&D 4E campaign themed around the deck of many things), is an adventure site with little connection beyond that to the deck of many things (there is a copy of the deck to be found in the adventure). It’s a sandbox-style adventure that will probably require most parties to pit the different groups at the Abbey against each other, which is one of those things that seems interesting but is open-ended enough here that I can see a lot of problems with the players figuring out how to do that successfully. Adding to the difficulty for the DM is that there’s no recommended level, which forces the DM to know ever encounter very well and be very careful about everything the players are doing so they can send the right signals – neither characters taking forever to sneak around what are actually easy encounters and characters just running into a high-level buzzsaw is very fun.
  • Donjon – The Donjon Sphere details a possible place for a player character trapped by the Donjon card to be trapped. It’s a fairly extensive dungeon crawl (not spherical, just a normal flat one). Depending on their predilections players may be widly entertained or roll their eyes at the video game style colored keys used to access different parts of the dungeon.
  • Void – My favorite part of The Book of Many Things, this chapter presents the House of Cards, which is where a soul stolen by the Void card is kept. It probably works best with an alternate take on the Void card where the victim’s body doesn’t just collapse, but lingers on for a bit, allowing the (weakened) character to take part in the adventure to save themself. The entirety of the House of Cards is themed around the deck of many things, with each one of the twenty-two rooms in the ‘dungeon’ themed around one of twenty-two cards in the deck. There’s a healthy dose of puzzles and traps, enough combat, and some encounters that will be more easily addressed by clever players.
  • Skull – The final organization presented in the Book of Many Things, the Grim Harrow is a group of undead created by being killed by the avatar of death summoned by the Skull card. They seek to destroy every copy of the deck of many things in existence, which isn’t inherently a bad goal, but they are a group of evil, intelligent undead, so they will probably be antagonists more often than allies.
  • Flames – The potent fiends to serve as the enemy created by the Flames card.
  • Talons – A gathering place for all of the adversary stat blocks needed for the other content in the book.
  • Euryale – Euryale is the one card in the deck of many things with a proper name (in Greek mythology she is a specific gorgon, like the better-known Medusa). Her chapter presents a (new) official story of how the decks of many things came to be. The protagonist of the story, Asteria, was not content to grow up to be the person her father wanted, and eventually faked her own death and ran away. Asteria, who also provides some mostly-bland color commentary throughout the book, is referenced in promotional materials as being on the autism spectrum, which plays into the ways in which she doesn’t act like her father wants (e.g., she is obsessed with stars and doesn’t want to play with the same toys as the other noble children). My favorite bit of color commentary from her was a description of the occasions on which one might want earplugs, including your standard D&D meeting at the rowdy tavern (a circumstance I can certainly identify with). In the story Asteria makes friends with the gorgon Euryale, and goes on to make a deal with the god of fate, who reaches into the sky to create the first deck of many things and lets Asteria pull a card to see if she can have a destiny other than Euryale dead and her back in her father’s custody.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, if you’re looking at the physical version of The Deck of Many Things, with its two distinct components, you’ll probably be getting enough bang for your buck if you’re looking to use both halves. But the two halves do work synergistically. For me, the physical deck is a gorgeous prop. I’m not much interested in spawning random adventures with card draws, but if you’re going to be introducing a deck of many things or a deck of many more things, then a prop like this can enhance the game much like nice terrain or miniatures – sure, you absolutely can play without it, but if it’s your jam it kicks the experience up a notch. This is true to some extent if you just want a divination element in your game, but if you’re not specifically looking for the deck of many things then you can get this effect with the tarokka deck, the D&D tarot deck, or any tarot deck really.

And if you want a prop because you’re bringing a deck of many things or a deck of many more things into your campaign, then there’s a good chance you want to make the deck a recurring theme of the campaign, not just a random element that happens to show up at some point. And that’s where the Book of Many Things comes in, providing magic items and deck-themed organizations to work into a story, plus ready-made options for when the characters pull the Knight, Rogue, Flames, Donjon, Void, Throne, or some other cards.

If you’re only playing online, then the Book of Many Things will be available on D&D Beyond, so you can get the book in the format you need it without having to pay for the cards that you won’t be able to use. This lower price point makes it more feasible to bring the deck of many things into a game in a more limited way, such as taking the excellent Void dungeon (the House of Cards) for a spin, or using Harrowhall as a player character base of operations (whether granted by the Throne card or not). The digital option lets you indulge even if you have a more clear-eyed view of the value of the deck of many things, instead of the rose-colored nostalgia some of us are looking through.

Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy. Strange Assembly may receive commissions from affiliate links.

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