Rodney Thompson began freelancing in the RPG industry in 2001 before graduating from the University of Tennessee. In 2006, after having designed books for the Star Wars, d20 Modern, and Dungeons & Dragons product lines, he contributed to the design of the Star Wars Roleplaying Game Saga Edition core rulebook. In 2007 he joined the Wizards of the Coast staff as the lead designer and developer for the new Star Wars RPG product line, and then in late 2008, Rodney became a developer for Dungeons & Dragons. His blog can be read at: http://community.wizards.com/wotc_rodney.
This month, Rodney's design for the Deck of Many Things appears in Dungeon #177.
Wizards of the Coast: Why did you tackle the 4th Edition version of the Deck of Many Things?
Rodney: A number of reasons, actually. First, I just felt like the Deck of Many Things fell into that category of magic items that was really interesting from previous editions, but wouldn’t fit into our "normal" magic item structure in 4E. It’s iconic, and we hadn’t yet brought it forward, so I wanted to help enrich the sort of essential "D&Dness" of the game, and the Deck is one of those things that everyone remembers encountering in the past.
Making it an artifact seemed like a natural fit to me. In the past, the Deck was something that really could alter the course of an entire campaign with a single use; that sounds like an artifact. Plus, artifacts have space for somewhat more complex rules, so it seemed like a good way to bring the Deck—which itself is much more complicated than other magic items—into the game. And, admittedly, the Deck has been responsible for some catastrophic results in D&D games I’ve been in, and I wanted to see if I could bring the Deck forward with some more modern design sensibilities while still retaining its dangerous, unpredictable nature.
Wizards of the Coast: So, you've encountered a Deck of Many Things in past games—what were the results?
We asked around the office for their tales of the Deck—with no shortage of answers. It seems almost everyone has come across a Deck of Many Things at some point in their past—and still remember what cards they drew. In Chris Perkins' earlier Iomandra campaign, his players drew the Moon card… a keep was theirs for the taking, except it could only be found on the other side of the continent. By the time the heroes reached it, they were of sufficient level to appreciate this find… and they stored their Deck of Many Things within its vaults.
Only later did these heroes learn of an enemy spreading foul rumors about them, which spurned a party of lower-level NPCs to raid their keep. In fact, these NPCs made off with the Deck of Many Things, until the heroes managed to track them down, and—in their own way—show them a measure of mercy: hiring the NPCs to perform the lesser tasks that the heroes could no be bothered with!
Rodney: I’ve never used it as a DM, but it actually played a big role in the very first D&D campaign I ever played in. We were low-level, and the DM decided to give us a Deck… with dire warnings as to the bad things that could happen if we drew the wrong cards. Being 12 years old, we all immediately drew cards. Luckily, the first draw for us was the card granting us three wishes. We actually ended up using the wishes altruistically, helping rebuild the community we’d just saved. I’d like to think we were being noble, but it’s more likely that we just had no idea the potential we were squandering.
The next draw didn’t go quite as well. Let’s just say that a TPK later, the DM was doing some serious handwaving to help us get our campaign back on track.
When designing the 4E version of the Deck, I actually really wanted to keep that sense of "Wow, things can go seriously wrong here!" that the original Deck included. The trick, in my mind, is to have the Deck create setbacks that don’t completely derail the campaign, but instead create interesting challenges. The quest system (used liberally in the 4E Deck) is my way of saying, "Hey, something really bad has happened, but if you overcome it there’s this great, tangible reward waiting there for you." Hopefully, it will turn bad draws from the Deck into something that spurs on further adventures without bringing the campaign to a halt.
And that goes for good cards, too; give an adventuring party a keep, and it’s just a place to store their stuff. Make them earn the keep, and it becomes an adventure. I like that, and I like that the PCs can get a fun reward that’s not just another magic item out of it. Sure, you can always do the "get a keep" quest without the Deck, but this way you also include a sense of magical destiny. The heroes claim a keep, not because they can, but because a powerful arcane artifact created an indelible link between the keep and the adventurers.
Wizards of the Coast: If you had to draw one card from the Deck, what would wish it to be?
Rodney: Wow, it’s tempting to say the Moon card, but I’m going to go with the Throne. My apartment just isn’t cutting it these days, and I need to get into a house! I’m sure I can make an awesome man cave within my own keep...