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I hear this term tossed around a lot. Where does it come from and what does it mean?

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The term itself is made up and merely descriptive, and was probably derived from a recent (2010) Penny Arcade strip.

"The Sound Of A Klaxon" - Penny Arcade: Gabe is intrigued by the Deck of Many Things, but Tycho cuts Gabe off. He warns that the Deck eats campaigns, then demonstrates a hypothetical means: wishing away the key antagonist of Gabe's campaign and thereby ending it. The last panel extrapolates into comic absurdity, asserting that this will result in Gabe being helplessly forced to play in a new disturbing campaign run by the wisher.

Its reputation as a campaign-ender predates this specific name (and definitely predates 2010), having been recognised as a source of chaos that strains a campaign at the seams as far back as AD&D.

I say the name is merely descriptive: when the Deck appears in a campaign, its effects are often disruptive to a degree that the campaign cannot continue as it was. Since D&D campaigns today are often more story-based than when the Deck was first published, its reputation as a campaign-ender has only grown since then. The Penny Arcade comic emphasises the story as the Deck's potential point of disruption. (Non-story-based campaigns are less vulnerable to disruptions in general, even TPKs. Such a campaign will certainly change direction significantly due a disruption such as a TPK or the effects of the Deck, but won't necessarily end due to it. In practice, even non-story-based campaigns have the potential to be disrupted though, as emerging event lines that the group have invested in may crash and burn — campaign vulnerability to the Deck is a spectrum.)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Good answer. I'd note that Paizo's Curse of the Crimson Throne adventure path (3.5e) incorporates a Deck of Many Things skillfully into a story based campaign, for those who want to see how to do it. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Mar 1 '15 at 15:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ Honestly, the only way I can see the Deck be used in a campaign is as a deus ex machina device that the players do not roll for (though there's easier and less blatant ways to do that) or as a way to end the campaign that nobody wants to continue. Using it as intended is a bad idea and will likely result in a story much like that of The Djinni of Jengai Fomogo (it's on YouTube). \$\endgroup\$ – Thomas Jacobs Mar 1 '15 at 20:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasJacobs I've seen the deck used non-destructively. It was in a game where there was no need for PC continuity (PC death was normal, and resulted in rolling up a new 'un), and there was no story beyond the session-to-session story that emerged from dice and improvisation. The Crimson Throne AP appears to be another example. As I say: it's a spectrum of vulnerability, not a 100% chance of destruction in all campaigns. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Mar 1 '15 at 20:43
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The Deck is what we as teenagers thought of as cool: meaning very powerful indeed. As DM's we couldn't resist dropping it somewhere we knew the players would find it, and as players we couldn't resist drawing from it. So, it turns up a LOT in a certain type of campaign which is likely to already be fragile due to lack of maturity anyway.

The effects of the deck are hard to undo unless the PCs are very high level, and the lack of restraint we had generally meant that it showed up early, a low levels. It made a real mess.

The artefacts in AD&D were actually worse, IMO. But the deck shared the same really undesirable trait with artefacts: it damaged characters (rather than killing them outright) without giving the player much chance of fixing the character in a non-boring way. Artefacts were worse because they were an on-going problem and what good they did could only be wielded by one PC at a time, thus causing interpersonal fractures in the party and at the table. In this sense, all really powerful magic items can be problematic, especially with players who are immature (through age or temperament).

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