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The Despair Deck
Design & Development
Greg Bilsland

Those of you at D&D Experience had a first look at the Despair Deck: the deck of cards in the Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond boxed set used to translate the Shadowfell's influence into game effects (namely, the unnatural behaviors and neuroses that can come over those who visit the Shadowfell).

The Despair Deck consists of 30 cards, most of which represent an aspect of gloom: apathy, fear, or madness. Over the course of adventures, players draw cards from the Despair Deck to find out what aspect of despair afflicts their characters.

Click to read more about the mechanics of the Despair Deck...

Developing Despair

Greg: The Despair Deck began when Chris Perkins asked the designers of The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond to create a deck of cards that would let a Dungeon Master add a fun, random element to his or her game. At the onset, it was called the Fear Deck, and it was an experiment intended to add an element of suspense and tension to adventuring in the Shadowfell. The idea was modeled after a deck of cards called the Tarokka Deck, from the 2nd-Edition Ravenloft campaign setting. The idea for the Despair Deck was that certain triggers or events would cause cards to be drawn, and the more cards in play, the more trouble the characters would have.

Trouble would be putting it lightly, actually. The initial design of the cards had some nasty effects, which became outright brutal when compounded.

Halfhearted Effort

Fear card – Apathy

When you draw this card and at the beginning of each combat, you are weakened (save ends).

If the party has three or more total Apathy cards, all enemies gain resist 5 all against your attacks.

Remove: Athletics DC 22

You go through the motions of your attacks, but you can’t see what difference it makes. There’s just going to be more fights later anyway.

Quite a few things changed during the development process. Aside from revising the power level, we reduced the number of types of cards. The initial turnover came with apathy cards, terror cards, fated cards, madness cards, paranoia cards, a boon card, and haunt cards. For a thirty card deck, it was an awfully lot of types to keep track of, and some of the cards were somewhat mechanically challenging. The deck needed to be usable at all levels, so we jettisoned elements of cards that were too tied to level, such as the set DCs or the haunt card type.

Battle Wight

Haunt card

You are being haunted by a battle wight (Monster Manual, page 262).

Haunt meant that the DM could take back the card from the player during an encounter to add in the noted creature. Although we really liked the idea of a character being haunted, we couldn’t see how to make it balance mechanically for parties of all levels and sizes. The cards took this partly into account by suggesting using different versions of the monsters for different levels (e.g. a slaughter wight instead of a battle wight), but ultimately the execution proved too challenging. Instead, we just made “Haunted” a specific card.

Another thing we fought to save but that proved untenable was the “If the party has three or more X type cards” mechanic. I really liked the idea that apathy or fear would become exacerbated based on more members of the party having it. The original game assumed a player might have multiple cards, but playtesting revealed that the Despair Deck was at its best when a player had only one card to keep track of, because it let him or her enjoy roleplaying its trait. Once we axed the possibility of having multiple cards, it required us to eliminate the “three-or-more” stacking mechanic.

The last element was to make the cards neutral mechanically. If despair cards had only negative effects, players would end up dreading adventuring in the Shadowfell (not always a bad thing) and hate playing with the Despair Deck (definitely a bad thing). We recycled the idea of the boon card in the deck and instead applied it to all cards, so the players would have something to look forward to. Characters would have the opportunity to overcome their despair at every milestone, and if they succeeded, they would get a benefit for the duration of the day. We retained the idea of a key skill giving certain characters edges against effects, but rather than a set DC, we made it roughly a 50-50 shot of overcoming your Despair (rolling a 10 or higher on a d20).

What Despair Looks Like

Once we had a design, it was time to talk to the art director, Kate Irwin, and the graphic designer, Emi Tanji. Since the cards now had both a positive and negative effect, we thought it would be interesting to create a card that had a dynamic design. Here’s what Kate and Emi had to say about the process:

Emi: The card fronts were all done in basic layout with vector graphics as opposed to the ‘prettied-up’ frames you see in the final product. It’s a lot easier to start out this way, since early in the process we’re still fiddling around with text and image placement, and making sure all content can fit. R&D will usually give us ‘worst case scenario’ text (largest amount of text they’re expecting a card to have), and we’ll use that to gauge the design.

Content and game mechanics are usually good bases on how the card needs to look. After that, it’s just creating shapes and textures we think will reflect and add to the flavor of the game.

Kate: I get the download from the game designer or producer for the look and feel of the product and the functionality of the cards. We’ll plan for things we know about like legal lines, and try to anticipate things that might come up later, like expansion symbols. I meet with the designer and we discuss the needs and throw out some basic ideas. Then the designer goes to work making everything fit. As Emi said above, she starts with basic layouts, and then adds the bells and whistles for the designs we actually present. For the Despair Deck, Emi also had to come up with the symbols for the different card types. It’s always interesting to come up with a shape that evokes a feeling like “apathy”.

Emi and I will go back and forth to make sure we’re happy with the options before presenting them to R&D and Senior Art Director, Jon Schindehette. (Sometimes, my least favorite choice is selected, so I try to make sure I’m happy with all of the choices.) This time, it was pretty clear which design we all wanted. We made tweaks and presented again. Then Emi makes a template for the card typesetter who lays out all of the cards and the deck routing begins.

Greg: You can see, based on these early card templates, what we kept and what we rejected. For example, we liked the layout of the first card best, but we also really liked the icon. In the end, both were incorporated.

Greg Bilsland
Greg Bilsland is a producer for Dungeons & Dragons at Wizards of the Coast. His design credits include Monster Manual 2, Monster Manual 3, and Vor Rukoth. His current work involves coordinating the D&D Next playtest and helping plan D&D Insider and D&D organized play content. He keeps a gaming blog at and is active on Twitter (@gregbilsland).
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