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I know some people hate and fear the deck of many things, but as a GM running a high-lethality sandbox campaign, there's many things I like about it - and I'd like to deploy one for my players to find.

That being said, there's something I've always been a bit confused by. Every version of the deck that I've ever seen has had some variant of this line:

The character with a deck of many things who wishes to draw a card must announce how many cards she will draw before she begins.

My players don't have access to the identify spell and other sure-fire ways of identifying a magic item without using it, so it's safe to say they'll try to work out what the deck is by experimenting with it.

What I don't get is, how am I supposed to present this question to my players if they don't already know it's a deck of many things?

I mean, if they're familiar with the deck, they'll immediately guess that they've found one, and will use that information to decide how many cards to draw. I'm fine with that - but if they're not familiar with the deck, they'll give me funny looks, because the only sensible answer to "How many cards are you planning to draw from that deck of cards over your entire lifetime" is "How should I know? It's not like I've planned out every game of poker I'll ever play."

Given that people have been drawing from unidentified decks of many things for decades, there must be a simple solution to this issue that I'm not thinking of.

How do I ask my players how many cards they're planning to draw without the sensible answer being "I haven't decided yet?"

Oh, and just because it's causing some confusion: I am not asking for the rules for identifying items. I already know how to identify items. I am asking about how to ask the specific question relevant to this item when the players have not identified this specific item, and have no way of identifying it other than experimenting with it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch I'm fine with D&D rules; the question is about a D&D magic item, after all, so the rules for that specific magic item are definitely relevant. But the answers need to be relevant to the question, and the question is not "what are the rules for identifying a magic item in 5e," but "how do I present the question of how many cards a player is going to draw in a way that makes sense when the deck has not been identified?" I've added a line to the answer that I hope makes that clear. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Mar 28, 2023 at 14:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ @smbailey I was wondering the same and asked it yesterday – see here: Deck of Many Things: What consequences does the obligation to declare have? \$\endgroup\$
    – Anagkai
    Mar 28, 2023 at 19:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch I've clarified the last paragraph, because my mention of 5e was apparently causing more confusion than it solved. I also removed the edit to this question's title, because the fact that I'm using the Deck of Many Things in a system that does not have it is irrelevant; I'm using the rules from the system the deck came from, and that's D&D. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Mar 28, 2023 at 22:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GMJoe Can you clarify which edition you are using for the deck? \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Mar 28, 2023 at 22:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ @smbailey Editions prior to fifth edition were quite clear about it being a declaration of the total number of cards you would draw from the deck ever, not the total number of cards you would draw in one go. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Mar 29, 2023 at 5:15

3 Answers 3

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Much like grasping a cursed sword or donning cursed armor, once the the characters engage with this item in the manner in which it is intended to be used, its effects come into play. Specifically, I'd rule that once a character, not knowing what they're dealing with, says "I look at a card" or "Ragnar pulls out a card", then they'd immediately know that they have the option of drawing from one to four cards and they'd be subject to the magical effects. Having chosen to interact with the item in the appropriate way forces them to have the effects of drawing at least one. This is consistent with the item description in that the total number must be declared before drawing one. Also note that the DM gets to insert this effect in time: the player says "Ragnar pulls a card", the DM can interject and say "As he reaches for the card Ragnar feels a compulsion to draw a number of cards. His fate lies in that deck. Bob -- Ragnar must choose to draw 1 to 4 cards, Ragnar will be subject to magical effects from the cards he draws..." or something similar. You can gussy it up with flavor text -- maybe Ragnar has the subjective experience of being in a room with Fate who offers them the draw, or the selected number of cards just jump into the character's hand etc. What ever kind of magical effect is appropriate for your game, in my estimation The Deck is practially an artifact.

As per the Basic Rules (Mentzer BECMI, pg.42), magic item identification in B/X D&D involves using the item: "The only way to identify exactly what a magic item does is by testing it (trying on the ring, sipping the potion etc.)" with some possibility for sages or high level MUs to do the identification (via DM ruling). My interpretation is that this implies that in the conventional route, the magical effect(s) is triggered by this testing.

If instead the character spends a significant amount of time handling and examining the deck without trying to draw a card this (probably) would not trigger the magical effect. Just as handling a Helm of Alignment Change without putting it on would not trigger the effect. In a 5e game, the rule for item identification through handling should come into play ("Alternatively, a character can focus on one magic item during a short rest, while being in physical contact with the item. At the end of the rest, the character learns the item's properties, as well as how to use them.").

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    \$\begingroup\$ So, you're saying that - in effect - once players start drawing from the deck, they should identify it immediately? I guess providing the context would sidestep the problem of the question sounding crazy out of context... \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Mar 28, 2023 at 14:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GMJoe Yes. The precedent is set by (other?) cursed magic items. Character puts on a helm of alignment change, and your alignment changes. Character starts to draw a card and the magical effects (Character must declare a number of cards to draw...) are triggered. Character says "friend" in elvish in front of the secret door causes it to open even if that character is unaware that it is the trigger. and so on. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dave
    Mar 28, 2023 at 14:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ Hmm... In most of those cases, though, the player learns what the magic item is by seeing the consequences of its use: They realise it's a helm of alignment because their alignment changes, not before it does; they only realise that "friend" was the password because the door swings open when they say it. When drawing cards from a deck of many things, the consequence of declaring a number of cards isn't known until after the cards are drawn - but they're required to declare it before drawing any cards. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Mar 28, 2023 at 14:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ Ah, you're saying that the number of cards to be drawn is something the PC is compelled to declare in-character by the curse, rather than something the player is compelled to declare out-of-character by the rules? That possibility honestly hadn't occurred to me. Interesting... \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Mar 28, 2023 at 14:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch I just made an edit as you were commenting. Is this what you were getting at or some other aspect? \$\endgroup\$
    – Dave
    Mar 28, 2023 at 19:04
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If they don't even know it's magic

If they don't know it's magic at all, I go by what they do with it. They may sit down and play solitaire or poker. If you want them to sense anything at all, then after the first card, they feel a little funny. Similar, but not quite the same, as the sensation when they resist a surprise spell from a trap or unseen attacker. Then go simply by whether they continue drawing cards (ie, they are playing a game or whatever) letting them know that the sensation continues with each card. They will either stop at some point on their own, thinking "this is too weird", or they will continue until they've drawn four. In either case, the magic becomes revealed and active at that point. (Of course, if "what they do" is play "52-card pickup" by scattering the deck across the room, then they drew four and feel the magic activate at the same time they realize that only 4 actually separated from the rest of the deck or something. They quite literally toss fate to the wind, and they'll get what they get.)

Or, if they know something's up already

If they know it is magic, then it's similar, but a different feel. They will only draw the cards in an effort to determine what the deck is and what the magic is, so it's perfectly fine to ask them how many they draw. You aren't asking, "how many in your lifetime", but "how many right now". They either draw "Just one, and see what happens", and that's their choice and they get 1, or they draw "as many as I can until something happens" and that's their choice and they drew 4, or they'll give you a number. Of course, even knowing it is a magic deck, they could assume that it's just a "lucky poker deck" or maybe "a working Tarot deck" or something, and you go back to the feeling as they draw cards per not knowing it was magic at all.

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You are using a retroclone and your players do not have access to the identify spell. If I understand what you are asking, the question is not really a rules question, and the answer is any way you want, but hopefully in a way that is fun or interesting.

But it is worth noting that the 5e rules for identifying magic items (DMG 136) really offers suggestions more than hard and fast rules. In short, you are encouraged to come up with your own rules about magic item identification.

You could make the deck of many things requirement that you "declare how many cards you intend to draw" brain dead simple if you want to:

  • The deck could come with written instructions, e.g. "Call Tymora's name and tell her how many cards you will draw from the deck. You will enjoy—or suffer—the effect of each card that you draw."
  • The deck might be in control of a creature, automaton, etc., who literally tells the characters to declare how many cards they want to draw, and once they start they must draw the full number.
  • When the character handles the deck, the rules of drawing may be conveyed to them telepathically (they just know it), or by a magic mouth or other auditory effect, or by a spirit that manifests and tells them.

If you want to make it less obvious, but still not require a quest to find out how it works, you're right, it does seem weird to have them handle the deck and suddenly know that they have to declare a number in a way that it doesn't seem weird handling a wand and discover it is a wand of lightning bolts by getting a little shock. In this case I would something like this:

  1. Allow them to flip through the cards. This does not count as a "draw" for purposes of triggering the magic.
  2. If they hold or place the deck face down and draw the top card, let them get an image in their mind of something related to the card: great wealth, a powerful demon, a moment where they are unable to think clearly.
  3. As they handle the cards, they have an image of a hand of cards fanned out and an urge to pick a number.

You can of course make it even harder to figure out how it works if you wish. There is no right way. Have fun with it!

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    \$\begingroup\$ -1, because this does not answer the question. I am not asking how the players can identify this item, because I already know how they could do that. The question asks how to deal with the players using this item when they have not identified it. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Mar 28, 2023 at 22:05

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