Friday, November 2, 2018

The Deck of Many Things

The Deck of Many Things gets a bad rap for eating campaigns, casting them into chaos and disrepair. I myself had this experience back when I was like 14, where our lust for those shiny promised rewards stripped away much of our achievements and our will to continue playing.
 
One problem was this lust for the rewards in the deck without acceptance of the risks that came with, spurred on by the possession of forbidden knowledge of the Deck's contents gave us. And yes I say 'forbidden,' check this AD&D Dungeonmaster Guide quote from Gygax himself

Personally I just excuse all metagame knowledge via 'prophetic dreams' but crusty ol gygax has a point about 'taking away some of the sense of wonder.'
Don't take punitive measures against characters for player actions though
That's classic passive-aggressive power-tripping bad-faith-GMing

Another issue was overinvestment in our characters. We had reached level 7, finally! But my friend had died a lot and been raised a lot. He had like 2 constitution left. He couldn't let that character and his cool spellbook and his magic bow n arrows go. When all magic items were lost to the Deck, Friend A's character had nothing left basically, and we TPK'd shortly thereafter, this time with no one to revive us, or even to pick up our mantle and magic items and continue the adventure.


That ended the campaign, and so began the DARK TIMES where we switched over to 3.5, I became the DM, and we never had nearly as much fun as we did in our buddy J's hella murderous AD&D campaign (except in HERO System ran with accidental OSR principles but I digress). The Deck ate the campaign and ruined everything!...Right?

So, you might be surprised to hear that I threw the AD&D Deck of Many Things into my campaign a few sessions ago
Firstly I tweaked the deck slightly, so that it had a limited # of cards rather than a constantly reshuffling supply that would vanish once a major catastrophe was drawn. Secondly, I decided its modus operandi was a collection of blesses and curses from gods- the blessings from a chaotic trickster god trying to enter the world, and curses from gods who liked ruling this section of the land. The blessing were bait, the curses were defenses. Once all cards were drawn, the god would be unleashed and made available as a cult.

Here's what happened-
The first to draw was resident screwball Cal, who  received a random magic item (a magic shortbow that makes you forget 1 minute per point of damage dealt, and also lightning damage) and a treasure map. The treasure map was a good excuse to point the players at a one-page-dungeon stocked with a plot-hooky piece of treasure.

They then drew a card that caused enmity between them and a powerful demon. There's a two-faced evil church in the setting (a player suggestion) so this was a nice opportunity to have some factions step up into the spotlight by having the associated legions of hell turn against the player.

A 'Get Out of Jail Free' card that let them undo an action they witness to not happen. A powerful tool... but one that would be spent on mitigating the awful effects of the Deck, in classic fairy-tale 'using wishes to undo bad wish' sort of fashion.

-10,000XP and a mandatory extra draw- The character was low level and didn't have that much, but as this wasn't described as level drain, I just figured they went back to level 1, 0XP.

The extra draw then netting them 5,000GP worth of amethysts. A bit yawn but hey, no one minds free loot.

The mixed results were enough to encourage a retainer to draw ONE card to prove his barbaric bravery and so on. He got the one that gives you -3 to saves v petrification. As I have some medusa lurking about in the game, I figured a good explanation for this would be a portrait of one of them, and an accompanying desire to see said medusa in the flesh, damn the consequences. I was probably influenced by reading some arabian nights stories about princes mooning over pictures of foreign ladies.

Anyway, this player has two characters currently, the other being Ankleshot Ayrani, a thief with shite luck. The NPC rival adventurers give her bad nicknames, no one ever wants to team up with her on 'find a retainer reaction checks' her attempts at being nice led to her working as slave labor for a few weeks/months and becoming traumatized and obsessed with stopping a doomsday scenario only to be largely ignored ala Cassandra... it's great fun. Anyway, the first card she draws results in
'Ayrani draws a card. The earth opens up and the oubliettes of the Church of Janus open up below her to swallow her up. Was this the unfortunate occurrence Cal was warned of and given the power to prevent?'
Ayup, it was, which was a little disappointing, as a jailbreak from the corrupt church that traps people in hell as slaves coulda been rad. This curse is retconned out of existence by Cal's previously drawn card, and the fun continues...

The next card is a simple one, but a promising one- slaying the next monster you find garners you a level. I had hoped they'd meet something outrageous like the headless zombie Ancient Gold Dragon that's slithering around, and so be encouraged to come up with wild schemes, but it turned out to just be two Wights in an abandoned castle that were tricky to put down but eventually defeated by Teamwork. It also made me reckon that the Deck makes more sense as an immobile dungeon feature rather than something you use in the safety of town, but it worked decently enough there so whatevs. Also 'monster' could have potentially been defined as several other things, but I decided humans were exempt from the clause, no matter how mean they were. Maybe I shouldn't have...

But before that occurred, she drew a card stealing 3 points of intelligence. I thought this was boring as heck, even with the appearance of the half-sealed trickster god appearing to steal some of her thoughts to help him think of an escape, but the player put a nice spin on it- They decided that this also stole their memories of them working as a slave for a wicked necromancer, therefore slightly changing their cognition. Player inputs great stuff I tell you wot- I was gonnna leave that as a boring penalty but this led to some jolly good roleplaying opportunities. It also gave another bonus draw..

...Which gave an image of someone planting a knife in her back. This turned the only henchman she'd ever managed to acquire, Gerome the Illusionist, against her. Gerome was a random hex filling I dug out of Skerple's Veins of the Earth and the situation where Gerome betrayed her was less tragic and more comical since everyone sorta suspected what was going on OOC but went along with in IC for laughs. Also,  Ayrani draws the last card...

...Which promptly stole all her magic items Deck not included. Maybe I shoulda had it be stolen too, to see if they'd quest to get it back, and to stop the cascade of awfulness the deck was unleashing. I had birds steal them physically, flying down the chimney and making off with 'em- they're not removed from the campaign, simply taken to an appropriate location. Try to put some adventure hooks into all these awful deck effects makes them more exciting for sure- similarly, those 3 lost INT points could be stolen back from the trickster god via trickery I'm sure.

Ayrani predictably curses her luck, tries to get Gerome to draw, though as he's now plotting her death due to the cursed card she drew, he declines, plausibly pointing out all the ruin that came from this clearly cursed deck.

Now we come to Pimpernell, a child TOTALLY a halfling thief who has survived a lot of shit and is starting to show it- old wounds, nascent mutations, curses upon curses- what you'd expect a high level OSR character to end up as, basically.

His first card nets him 50,000XP and some magic boots. The unlucky players groan in envy, Pimpernell is filled with false hope, and continues to draw his four cards...

He gets a card that doesn't translate super-well into my game- the 'Alignment Swapper.' I figure this will instead put him on the spot for all the various gods he's paid tribute to, forcing him to pick one and earn the enmity of the others. He picks the Undersun, on account of the other gods he's met being awful demons, and as such a simple-minded god of flame who likes volcano sacrifices and maximising fire damage to both its allies and enemies is the best option here. This boost of flaming favor will become relevant quite soon, for the next card...

...Is Death. Yes, Pimp has escaped death too many times via his rolls on the Death and Dismemberment charts, and now a/the Grim Reaper itself has come to collect his soul. It asks if he wants it the easy way or the hard way, and of course Pimp opts to duel. In the meantime, Ayrani collects a crowd to root for Pimp. Since the Death in the book auto-hits each round for 2d8 damage and anyone assisting gets a Death of their own to fight, I assume Pimp is screwed.
Pimp has a different plan- to immolate himself and Death with his hirelings bag fulla burning oil. The curse/worship/love of the Undersun causes him to always ignite if touched by the smallest flame, but also to deal and take max fire damage. With his  Ring of Fire Resistance he traded from another player, he hopes to outlast Death. Death is, in the book, immune to fire, but that seems pretty lame, especially since Pimp just swore allegiance to the Undersun, and I reckon the source of all magma in the land should have something to say about their #1 disciple being taken from them. So I rule the oil all ignites in a flaming sphere of doom, and both Pimp and Death are cremated and melt through the ground in a proper 'going out with a bang' style. This mighty display makes Pimp a Saint, and impressionable townsfolk immediately start a cult. The book says there's no chance of resurrection.

A session or so passes. Ayrani dies due to PvP squabbling over political power. There is a general sense of frustration with the game and its unrelenting bleakness. The high level characters have been lost, but the high-level looming threats still menaced on the horizon.

save us, arnold
 And so, having been wanting to run the Isles of The Dead, they ran through that, made a deal with a demon (who is also one of their swords) slew a heavenly protector, and so the Time-Locked Void Monk Bers realized she needed to obliterate her soul before true nothingness could be achieved, Pimp returned as a Saint and cult leader thanks to this string o miracles, and Ayrani decided that despite being the chewtoy of life, she wasn't ready to be dead yet.
And a bunch of magic crap got removed from the game which is nice, it really tends to pile up.
Anywhosawhatsit, my conclusion for the Deck is that it DOES disrupt campaigns. It DOES ruin characters. It DOES undo progress. It DOES swing things out of whack, balance wise.

But that can be fun. It can shake things up a bit. And if you think about the bad cards in a sort of 'how can I make this campaign relevant and a plot hook' they become a lot more promising than if you treat them as simple 'the players meddled with something better left alone and now are punished for it.' That's unsatisfying, a dead end, a wasted opportunity.

And this certainly isn't an 'Old School vs New School' attitude- I've heard stories about GMs with heavily railroady plots and players and their carefully constructed pet pathfinder characters falling victim to the various instadeath horrors of the deck, but the GM spun those events into compelling plot points, and the players pressed on and were enriched by the whims of fate, and I've heard ancient grognards swear off usage of the Deck with no room for compromise, declaring it a worthless campaign killer.


Here's the lesson I feel I learned from the deck of many things- it's like the risk/reward of typical adventuring, cranked up to 11 and condensed into one simple question of 'do you press the shiny red button.' If you and your campaign and your players couldn't handle the chaos of the deck and your campaign fell apart... was it really going to last the trials and tribulations of a regular campaign? Thinking back to J's campaign the Deck killed all those years back, I feel like I recognize signs of DM fatigue, of a stagnation of our long-running two-player, two-character party, an aimless wandering from both the players and the DM looking for something we had lost along the way.
The deck showed the players the highs and lows that could await them, and tested the GM's resolve to stay creative and nimble in the face of everything going upside down. Maybe the deck doesn't kill campaigns, but simply crystallizes the question of 'are we still having fun'  into a quick yes or no in a single flash of insight, and breathes, yes chaos, but also potential into the campaign. Using that potential is up to you, kid.




it's a visual metaphor for this post or something
it's 3:01am don't look at me

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