The Deck of Many Things might be D&D’s most iconic magic item. It’s been a part of the game since 1975 when it was introduced as part of Gary Gygax and Robert J. Kuntz’s Greyhawk supplement, and it’s been delighting and horrifying players, not to mention derailing the most carefully laid plans of dungeon masters ever since.
There’s something deeply evocative about the image of the deck laid out before you. The strange patterns that adorn the vellum backs of the cards, concealing their true form beneath.
The sweat that beads on the player’s brow as they draw a single card from the top. A gasp, a groan, and the silent terror as a shadowy figure wielding a scythe materializes in the air before you, a single finger made of white bone extended right at you.
The Deck of Many Things is an unbelievably powerful artifact, capable of warping reality around it and throwing the world into chaos. It can make you rich beyond your wildest dreams.
It can kill you, or lock you away in a prison dimension for the rest of time. It can make you more powerful than those around you or set an even more powerful demon on a quest to destroy you. Feeling lucky? Then pick a card.
Simply, the Deck of Many Things (otherwise known as the “deck of many” or the “deck of hazards” in earlier editions) is a pile of playing or tarot-style cards that produce different magical effects when drawn.
These effects have only really received minor tweaks and alterations since they first entered the game in 1975, which means they tend towards being a little strange, very brutal, and definitely in no way resemble the kind of thing that a 5e designer would dream of putting into the game in 2021.
Let’s take a closer look at the contents of the deck.
The Deck of Many Things
Wondrous Item, legendary
Usually found in a box or pouch, this deck contains a number of cards made of ivory or vellum. Most (75 percent) of these decks have only thirteen cards, but the rest have twenty-two.
Before you draw a card, you must declare how many cards you intend to draw and then draw them randomly (you can use an altered deck of playing cards to simulate the deck). 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.
Now, let’s look at what happens when you pick one or more cards from the deck.
You’re only going to see a twenty-two-card deck 25% of the time, and the cards that are always present (as part of the thirteen-card deck) and those that sometimes show up as part of the expanded deck are always the same.
Balance (two of spades)
Your mind suffers a wrenching alteration, causing your alignment to change. If you were previously a lawful good character, for example, you’re now chaotic evil.
More interestingly, if you were evil, you’re now good. If you are true neutral or unaligned, this card has no effect on you.
Now, I don’t think modern D&D players truck with alignment as much as those who got their start in earlier editions. If you’re playing in a game with no alignments, consider the fact that your character has just had a monumental epiphany and change of heart.
Comet (two of diamonds)*
If you single-handedly defeat the next hostile monster or group of monsters you encounter, you gain experience points enough to gain one level. Otherwise, this card has no effect.
This is a great benefit with the obvious catch of not knowing what monster you’re going to stumble upon next. Top tip: have someone in your party who can summon low-level beasties do their thing and claim your free level.
Donjon (Ace of spades)*
You disappear and become entombed in a state of suspended animation in an extra-dimensional sphere. Make no saving throw. Do not pass go. Do not collect 200 gp.
Everything you were wearing and carrying – including your magic items – stays behind in the space you occupied when you disappeared. You remain imprisoned until you are found and removed from the sphere.
You can’t be located by any divination magic, but a wish spell can reveal the location of your prison. You draw no more cards.
This is a bad one, folks, and most players would probably feel inclined to turn in their character sheet there and then. However, going on a quest to break their buddy out of the Phantom Zone might be just the side quest your allies are looking for.
Euryale (Queen of spades)
The card’s Medusa-like visage curses you. You take a −2 penalty on saving throws while cursed in this way. Only a god or the magic of The Fates card can end this curse.
This one’s kind of rough, although you’re probably going to be high enough level by the time you encounter the deck that you’re not going to be totally hamstrung by this card. Sounds like a good excuse to go and punch the nearest god in the face to me.
The Fates (Ace of hearts)*
Speaking of the fates… Reality’s fabric unravels and spins anew, allowing you to avoid or erase one event as if it never happened. You can use the card’s magic as soon as you draw the card or at any other time before you die.
A lot of cards in this deck are either obviously very good or very bad. This one is kinda up to your DM and whether or not you erase the wrong thing. I’m not saying you always have to end up in Tim Burton’s alternate timeline where Abraham Lincoln was a monkey, but just keep it in mind, okay?
Flames (Queen of clubs)
A powerful devil becomes your enemy. The devil seeks your ruin and plagues your life, savoring your suffering before attempting to slay you. This enmity lasts until either you or the devil dies.
Well, if things were feeling a little dull around here, they certainly aren’t that anymore. A “powerful devil” could mean just about anything, from a nasty recurring foe to the establishment of one of the princes of Hell itself as your new favorite antagonist.
Fool (Joker with ™)*
You lose 10,000 XP, discard this card, and draw from the deck again, counting both draws as one of your declared draws. If losing that much XP would cause you to lose a level, you instead lose an amount that leaves you with just enough XP to keep your level.
In earlier editions, this card actually made you lose levels, which I’m not a fan of. However, in 5e, I’m finding it consistently rare that people actually use xp-based leveling. If you’re using the Milestone method to level up and draw this card, I tend to rule that you just miss the next party level up.
Gem (two of hearts)*
Twenty-five pieces of jewelry worth 2,000 gp each or fifty gems worth 1,000 gp each appear at your feet.
What else is there to say? You’re obscenely rich now. I’ve actually seen this card end more adventuring parties than the Flames since everyone just retires and starts their own kingdom with their new fortunes.
Idiot (two of clubs)*
Permanently reduce your Intelligence by 1d4 + 1 (to a minimum score of 1). You can draw one additional card beyond your declared draws.
This is deeply funny and can be really fun to resolve. As a DM, I would try to give a player an opportunity to reverse this effect, especially if they end up reducing their Intelligence by a full 5 points.
Jester (Joker without ™)
You gain 10,000 XP, or you can draw two additional cards beyond your declared draws.
This is probably the most level-dependent card in the deck. If you pull this at, say third level, (although gods know what sort of mad DM puts a Deck of Many Things in front of a 3rd level party) you’re instantly going to jump up multiple levels; if you’re level 18, this card won’t really put a dent in your journey to 19.
Key (Queen of hearts)
A rare or rarer magic weapon with which you are proficient appears in your hands. The GM chooses the weapon.
Hey! You have a glowing magic axe now. That’s neat. I’ve seen this be super plot-relevant (a la Harry pulling the Sword of Gryffindor out of the Sorting Hat) or just a great source of a cool new magic item.
Knight (Jack of hearts)
You gain the service of a 4th-level fighter who appears in a space you choose within 30 feet of you. The fighter is of the same race as you and serves you loyally until death, believing the fates have drawn him or her to you. You control this character.
This can be a pretty cool thematic boon, but by the time you get hold of a Deck of Many Things, you’re probably going to have outleveled a 4th level Fighter pretty significantly. Still, Matt Colville has some rad ideas about what to do with the results of this card.
Moon (Queen of diamonds).
You are granted the ability to cast the wish spell 1d3 times.
Mega powerful, especially in the hands of a party that’s lower level. Efficacy also depends on the DM’s interpretation of your wishes, but I personally like to make the outcome all positive or interesting, as opposed to twisting their words in search of a gotcha moment (see: Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes).
Rogue (Jack of spades)
A nonplayer character of the GM’s choice becomes hostile toward you. The identity of your new enemy isn’t known until the NPC or someone else reveals it. Nothing less than a wish spell or divine intervention can end the NPC’s hostility toward you.
Another really interesting source of drama. If you’re the DM, you can also make the hostile NPC someone they barely know or remember on the other side of the world, and then watch your players burn every bridge with every friend they have as they try to uncover who hates them now (spoilers, it’s everyone).
Ruin (King of spades)
All forms of wealth that you carry or own, other than magic items, are lost to you. Portable property vanishes. Businesses, buildings, and land you own are lost in a way that alters reality the least. Any documentation that proves you should own something lost to this card also disappears.
It’s worth noting that most adventurers are little more than a pile of magic items and unspent healing potions anyway, so this has the potential not to be too bad. If your character is of noble lineage, however, taking away their entire family’s estate is a great way to kickstart your next adventure.
Skull (Jack of clubs)
You summon an avatar of death–a ghostly humanoid skeleton clad in a tattered black robe and carrying a spectral scythe. It appears in a space of the GM’s choice within 10 feet of you and attacks you, warning all others that you must win the battle alone.
The avatar fights until you die or it drops to 0 hit points, whereupon it disappears. If anyone tries to help you, the helper summons its own avatar of death. A creature slain by an avatar of death can’t be restored to life.
Probably one of the more immediately obvious bad results – especially if your fellow party members don’t know about the “attack an avatar of death, get your own” rule.
Avatar of Death
Medium undead, neutral evil
Armor Class: 20
Hit Points: 1 (1d4)
Speed: 60 ft., fly 60 ft. (hover)
Damage Immunities: Necrotic, Poison
Condition Immunities: Charmed, Frightened, Paralyzed, Petrified, Poisoned, Unconscious
Senses: Darkvision 60 ft., Truesight 60 ft., Passive Perception 13
Languages: All languages known to its summoner
Challenge: 0 (10 XP)
Proficiency: Bonus +2
Incorporeal Movement. The avatar can move through other creatures and objects as if they were difficult terrain. It takes 5 (1d10) force damage if it ends its turn inside an object.
Turning Immunity. The avatar is immune to features that turn undead.
Reaping Scythe. The avatar sweeps its spectral scythe through a creature within 5 feet of it, dealing 7 (1d8 + 3) slashing damage plus 4 (1d8) necrotic damage.
Honestly, unless your buddies attack the Avatar of Death as well, this really isn’t the end of the world. It’s poorly laid out in the rules, but the Avatar of Death doesn’t have 1hp; it has hit points equal to half of the max hp of the character who drew from the deck.
Increase one of your ability scores by 2. The score can exceed 20 but can’t exceed 24.
Sun (King of Diamonds)
You gain 50,000 XP, and a wondrous item (which the GM determines randomly) appears in your hands.
Talons (Ace of clubs)*
Every magic item you wear or carry disintegrates. Artifacts in your possession aren’t destroyed but do vanish.
Well, that sucks. Also, you can’t even use this card to delete an evil macguffin from the game. All around not a great time.
Throne (King of hearts)
You gain proficiency in the Persuasion skill, and you double your proficiency bonus on checks made with that skill. In addition, you gain rightful ownership of a small keep somewhere in the world. However, the keep is currently in the hands of monsters, which you must clear out before you can claim the keep as yours.
One of my favorite cards, setting up yourself and your party as the prodigal lords of some small fortress you can use as your base in future. Although base building doesn’t appeal to everyone, it’s a great way to measure a party’s growth in power and stature.
Vizier (Ace of diamonds)*
At any time you choose within one year of drawing this card, you can ask a question in meditation and mentally receive a truthful answer to that question. Besides information, the answer helps you solve a puzzling problem or another dilemma. In other words, the knowledge comes with wisdom on how to apply it.
This card was definitely designed as a way to get around the tricky DMs who kept purposefully misinterpreting the Wish spell.
The Void (King of clubs)
This black card spells disaster. Your soul is drawn from your body and contained in an object in a place of the GM’s choice. One or more powerful beings guard the place.
While your soul is trapped in this way, your body is incapacitated. A wish spell can’t restore your soul, but the spell reveals the location of the object that holds it. You draw no more cards.
Like Donjon, but with the addition of some dangerous jailers, and now your remaining party members also have to carry around your limp, comatose body, which is probably going to be funny.
* Present only in the twenty-two card deck.
How to Use the Deck of Many Things as a DM
The Deck of Many Things definitely has a reputation as a “campaign killer”. Characters can die, get whisked away to an extra-dimensional prison, or become so rich they can immediately retire from the adventuring life.
While a couple of cards, like the Fates, could go either way, the deck contains eleven “bad” cards and eleven “good” ones, meaning that most players will probably be willing to take the risk and draw.
While it might be a bad idea to throw the deck at a party in the middle of an adventure and not expect your plot to get thrown at least a little out of whack, in the hands of an adaptable DM, the deck can be a fantastic tool to create drama and maybe even give your players something they need to complete their quest.
If the party doesn’t have any super high-level spellcasters, the deck is probably their best chance to get their hands on a Wish spell. If they need to destroy a particular magic item, any party that’s willing to draw cards until they pull the Talons should probably be rewarded for their bravery.
If they’re facing an intractable puzzle, picking up the Vizier could be the answer to their prayers.
It can also be a really cool way to add a little spice to a campaign that’s gone stale. If suddenly attracting the enmity of a powerful demon or devil isn’t a great way to kickstart the next arc of your campaign, then I don’t know what to tell you.
How to Use the Deck of Many Things as a Player
It’s important to note that, when you draw from the Deck of Many Things, you can’t just keep on picking cards until you decide you’re done; the deck requires you to declare the number of cards you want to draw before you begin.
You need to fully commit to this game of magical Russian Roulette before you start to play and, if you try to back out, the cards are just going to draw themselves.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you cheat the Deck of Many Things?
You can certainly try. There are plenty of ways people have tried to game the deck over the years, from rigging the physical deck (maybe using a DC25 sleight of hand check in game) to powerful divination magic, or using an arcane combination of a Bag of Holding and some tricky interpretations of the rules.
It comes down to the cleverness of your plan and the willingness of your DM to play along.
Is the Deck of Many Things bad?
Maybe. Its chaotic nature and the laws of statistics mean that you can theoretically draw all eleven “bad” cards in a row. From a campaign design perspective, if you’re a DM trying to run a particular adventure, the deck can instantly throw a wrench in those plans.
How many times can you draw from the Deck of Many Things?
You can theoretically keep on drawing from the Deck of Many things in near-perpetuity. Aside from the Fool, which is discarded from the deck, all other cards are returned to the draw pile and shuffled, and Donjon, which prevents you from drawing more cards, you can keep on going forever.