This article was first broadcast in Episode Fifty-Three on 19th December 2018.
Ryu: Wow Lennon, that’s…a lot of cards
Lennon: Yeah, Ostron said we were talking about using decks in D&D campaigns so I’m checking my creature count in my Green/White aggro deck.
Ryu: Okay, so I’m pretty sure you don’t want me to explain to you why pre-made decks are boring and drafts are the way to go, so why do you have Magic cards out at all?
Ostron: Lennon did you…oh…right. Here Ryu, this is what we’re *actually* talking about today.
Ryu: Ohhh. Decks in games right. Okay, once again you’re missing the target here, Lennon, but full points for effort as you’d say back home.
Lennon: Really? I thought with Ravnica and all that…
Ostron: Yeah, we’re talking about more traditional nontraditional decks.
The item Deck of Many things is something almost all regular D&D players are familiar with, and it’s been around since the original Grayhawk supplement.
Lennon: Remember players; the way to get the most out of a Deck of Many things is to throw it at your opponent and run.
Ostron: Anyway, since the debut of 5th edition, decks of cards have become more of a staple in D&D campaigns.
The Curse of Strahd campaign features the infamous Tarokka deck, and Dungeon of the Mad Mage has a deck of secrets, though that is more of a gameplay mechanic than an in-game item. The Deck of Illusions is another magical card pack available in the 5th edition DMG.
With so many card packs popping up, we thought we’d go over how they’re put together, and how you might go about doing your own thing with them in your campaign.
First of all, let’s look at what real life decks you might draw from. Usually for simplicity’s sake, decks used in D&D are based on one of two major card packs: what we’re calling a “poker card” deck, and a Tarot deck.
Poker card decks are ones you see in casinos or at casual poker nights: it has 52 cards with four suits of 13 cards each. Each suit (spades, diamonds, hearts, and clubs in most English-speaking countries) has numeral cards 1 through 10, though the 1 is referred to as an Ace, and then three face cards: Jack, Queen, and King. Depending on what the deck’s being used for, the Ace can be counted as the highest value face card of a suit, rather than the one. Also, many decks come with one or two Joker cards.
The other most common deck used is a Tarot deck. Now there are multiple formats for Tarot decks around the world but the traditional gaming form of a tarot deck has 78 cards. They are divided into four suits which also have a variety of names but are usually coins, cups, swords and then some sort of “stick” suit such as batons, wands, or staves. Each suit has numbers 1 through 10, then four face cards: King, Queen, Knight, and Jack or Knave. The tarot deck also has a suit of 21 trump cards. Technically the Fool is considered a separate card but it is often lumped in with the trump cards.
Tarot decks are usually the deck of choice when people are making up cards for fantasy settings. Partly it’s because the suits have a very medieval theme to them most of the time, but it’s also because since the 18th century in the US and Britain, the tarot deck, particularly the trump suit, has been associated with divination and fortune-telling; in many other parts of Europe it’s mostly just another set of playing cards.
For simplicity’s sake, most people go with one of three approaches: either use a set of poker cards, use an entire 78-card tarot deck, or use only the 21 tarot trump cards plus The Fool card. In more mystical uses for Tarot, that last set is usually called the “major arcana” cards.
While D&D doesn’t officially use any of those decks, the references to them aren’t hard to figure out. The Tarokka deck, for example, has a total of 54 cards. That happens to be the exact number of cards you get in sets of poker cards with two jokers, and mapping the tarokka cards to the playing cards isn’t hard, though you have to figure out specific links for the crown cards. Ironic Mundana note: Tarokk is a popular game in eastern European countries, but it’s played with Tarot, not poker cards.
Similarly, the Deck of Many Things has 22 cards. Most D&D resources suggest what playing cards to use for each “Many Things” result, but 22 is the exact number of trump cards you get in a Tarot deck if you add in The Fool card (also known, again, as the Major Arcana), and many players have mapped out a Major Arcana to Deck of Many Things key, thinking that was the original intent and D&D just avoids it because of the D&D/Demonology stigma from the 80s.
The deck of illusions doesn’t match with any standard real-world deck: it has a total of 34 cards and is always missing some, but even if intact there’s no easy analogue to a real deck. Despite that, the DMG again suggests cards to use from a poker deck to simulate drawing.
Using a deck as a decision making tool in a campaign can have purposes related to the story and to mechanics. Mechanically, it’s an easy way to randomize against a non-standard number of choices. Dice only really allow you to randomize between 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 20, or 100 options. d30s do exist but they usually have to be specially purchased, and rolling dice to simulate other totals can often seem clunky because you’re frequently required to ignore possible rolls. For example you could get a d50 by rolling a d6 for the 10s digit and a d10 for the 1s and assume 6 = 0 on the d6, but coming up with a deck with 50 unique cards works the same way and will feel more straightforward for most. It’s also easier to use the cards if you have to randomize between a prime number of choices, such as 47.
It’s also very important to remember that adding dice totals *never* results in an even chance at values. Rolling 2d10s is not equivalent to rolling a d20 because it’s impossible to roll a 1, it’s less likely you’ll roll a 20, and you’re more likely to get middle values. You can refer back to our Short Rest on dice probability if you need a refresher.
Ryu: Or if you need a nap.
But even if you don’t care about the probabilities or the math, drawing from a deck can be an exciting change of pace. You’re rolling dice for so many things during D&D that drawing cards to make decisions is a different and more visceral experience. The use of the Tarokka deck in the Curse of Strahd campaign is a prime example of this.
Beyond that, playing cards are inherently symbolic, regardless of what deck they’re from. The symbology of the major arcana Tarot cards are literally the basis of real-world religious practices. If you can start assigning values to the cards beyond what’s printed on them, that can stick in everyone’s mind from the DM to the players better than simple numbered values listed on a table. The representations can seem obscure and mystical without being difficult to explain.
Let’s take a quick example. Say the players are a group receiving instructions from some sort of patron that’s one of those who refuses to discuss things in reasonable terms; everything has to be partially obfuscated somehow. The deity has them choose their next objective, and you lay out the king and queen of each suit from a poker deck. They have to choose.
Now, behind the screen, you know the result of the choices. Choosing the King of hearts sends them after a vampire. Choosing the queen of diamonds is going to send them after a female white dragon, hoarders of such gems, and picking the king of clubs will have them scaling mountains to deal with a giant king, and so on.
The symbology is simple once explained but it’s obscure enough that most players won’t immediately grasp it unless you’ve left a lot of hints. However, on their second pass through, they might have a better understanding, so discussions may arise along the lines of “Okay, so we chose the king of spades and we had to find an illegitimate royal kid in a farming village, maybe the king of diamonds is going to have something to do with dwarves?” As the DM, you can either encourage that speculation by having them be right in their assumptions, or continue confounding them with equally relevant but unthought-of results (for example, the King of Diamonds turns out to be a marauding ice devil).
Cards can also be used in non-magical ways and for mundane decisions. In fiction, playing cards are often used by criminal and espionage groups to either assign code names or make decisions. The players could be in pursuit of an assassin murdering castle guards. The first victim, a new recruit, was found with the Ace of swords card. The next, a private, had the two of swords. Players have to interpret the pattern and then identify the next victims.
On the other side of the law, a security group might start using a Tarot deck as the basis of code names, and the characters have to figure out that the Emperor refers to the king, and the King of Swords is the captain of the guard, while the High Priestess is the court cleric, then use their knowledge of the code names to perpetrate a heist.
It’s also worth mentioning that there is both a real-life and in-universe card game for D&D called Three Dragon Ante. In D&D rules it’s usually just referred to in lore as a stand-in for poker or other card gambling game, but Wizards of the Coast actually released two sets of three dragon ante cards, though they’re now out of print. The cards weren’t based on any real life deck and featured cards with different colored dragons of various value. If you have access to one of those decks, it could also be a source for inspiration or randomization.
As we’ve brought up before, Wizards has suggested using cards from Magic the Gathering as handouts for magic items in D&D, though if you don’t already have an extensive collection, doing that regularly may tax your wallet.
But, any way you come at it, there are lots of opportunities and reasons to think about shuffling up some decks while you’re rolling those dice.
Lennon: All right, I guess I’ll put these magic cards away then.
Ostron: Well, hang on, I do have a Mill Deck I’ve been thinking about testing out…
Lennon: Ohhh, get ready for an angelic dinosaur beatdown, Ostron.
Ryu: Um, Hello? We still have a show to finish? Scrying pool first, card games later.
Ostron, Lennon: *grumbles of acknowledgement*