Review by C.J. Bunce
For players of Dungeons & Dragons’ 5th Edition, if you’ve ever incorporated card decks into your campaign or ever wanted to, you’re going to find the Fall 2023 boxed set The Deck of Many Things an integral part of your gaming going forward. Its components may be as critical as the core rulebooks, showing Dungeon Masters how to incorporate not only the 66 cards included, but using other decks like a standard 52-playing card deck into the development of new adventures or randomizing the direction of any campaign.
More than other supplements in 5E, the deck of many things takes itself quite seriously because historically The Deck of Many Things in all its variations can flip a campaign on its head. Are you ready to take the next step into a magical, mystical world?
There is an aura of danger with the deck, and warnings are filtered through its pages cautioning DMs to use the deck sparingly or at least not let it take over a campaign–unless they want it to. In constantly pushing the DM away from the deck, it’s leaving more of the card interpretations up to the DM. The result is the book really makes the DM into a seer, interpreting the book and the deck how he or she sees fit, which can be a good thing with a seasoned DM. The message is: just have fun with it, and DMs doing that will avoid the historic hesitation to use the deck because of catastrophic consequences to a campaign.
The deck, similar to Tarot cards, includes the original 22 (and subset of 13) cards from the D&D historical deck variations going back to 1976. It adds to those 44 more cards, each dazzlingly designed to add some magical spark to your game. As for quality, the cards are gorgeous, with gilded edges and gold effects on the surface. They can be kept in a three-part tray housed in an included snazzy box, a box that looks good with your collection of adventure tie-in dice boxes and trays.
In brief, DMs can interpret these mystical cards literally or use them as merely guide points. You can choose the fully fleshed-out suggested use of all 66 cards or revert to historical applications of the original deck, subsets of the deck, or DM-created add-on possibilities. A handy hardcover Card Reference Guide discusses each of the 66 cards in brief detail. Each card can further be played as intended or “reversed”. The “upright” meaning can have five interpretations: a Person, a Creature or Trap, a Place, a Treasure, or a Situation. But it doesn’t stop there, because the reverse meaning is also available, giving each draw of a card ten literal meanings just on its face. Giving an adventure 660 paths to take with a single draw provides an abundance of options, or changes, to gameplay. The sky is the limit.
So many options! The DM can pare down the set to fulfill specific needs or to make a game friendlier. The DM can use the deck to create an adventure, as a narrative guide, utilizing specific draw patterns specified in the hardcover, full-sized, nearly 200-page The Book of Many Things supplement, also included in the box. Use of each card is both varied and complex, bordering on complicated for the novice. Use of the deck is dependent on the core rulebooks, and also subject to exceptions in Mordenkaiden Presents: Monsters of the Multiverse as well as The Curse of Strahd. Add that to the decisions a DM must make, and you probably want only an advanced DM pulling the deck into your campaign.
At first blush the focus of The Book of Many Things appears to be on the original 22 cards. The book does give the remaining cards due attention in later chapters under the guise of The Deck of Many More Things--the designation for those new 44 cards. Provided is the option for a character achieving the 17th level to even create a new card for The Deck of Many More Things, which is intended as a rare event and a pretty big deal.
What if you don’t want to add the risk to your game? At a minimum you can choose to use The Deck of Many Things and/or The Deck of Many More Things for inspiration or as an alternative to dice. The Book of Many Things includes instructions for adapting a standard 52-card poker deck into an alternate Deck of Many Things, supported by monsters in Mordenkainen Presents. It includes 58 magic items, 35 monsters with stat blocks, and offers four alternate decks: a card sharp’s deck, a deck of dimensions, a deck of miscellany, and a deck of wild cards. Note: Don’t think you can rely solely on the Card Reference Guide when using all 66 cards, as The Book of Many Things provides specific actions for DMs using the cards for magic, with some chapters offering an entire world of new monsters, magic items, settings, and more.
Twenty-two chapters of the book are tied to the 22 original cards, with each chapter describing the history of the Deck in all its forms, to recounting the story and purpose prescribed to each card, to documenting complete detours to places like the Ruins of Gardmore Abbey, Xulregg, and more, complete with inset maps, to drawing the card with the only proper name, that of the Medusa-inspired Euryale. What is her significance to the Deck? She’s been around since the beginning, and you can read more about her in The Book of Many Things.
Note: The only difference between the variant and the standard edition is to the box and to the cover for the hardcover of The Book of Many Things. The hardcover Card Reference Guide shares the same cover in both editions and the cards are the same. The standard cover by Ekaterina Burmak features a beautiful vision of Asteria, and the variant edition has Asteria surrounded by skulls in a magical cover by the Polish artist known as CoupleofKooks. All the contents fit in a shiny big box with a tear-open flap that looks like this (variant version shown):
The Deck of Many Things, in its physical or digital edition, will be an exciting alternative for your gaming group in a year that has already seen the releases of Keys from the Golden Vault (reviewed here), Bigby Presents: Glory of the Giants (reviewed here) and Phandelver and Below: The Shattered Obelisk (reviewed here), The Practically Complete Guide to Dragons (reviewed here), and Planescape: Adventures in the Multiverse–Return to Sigil (reviewed here).
Note that some of the first boxes shipped to reviewers in October had some cards with minor sizing or warping issues, which has prompted a delay for quality control in delivery of the physical components of this release to physical and online stores. Digital items aren’t delayed, and will be available today for the physical and digital bundle–October 31–with digital book-only available November 14. As of November 20, the ship date was updated for all new production sets to arrive beginning January 5, 2024.
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