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I'm vaguely familiar with the RPG anecdote the Head of Vecna. Is there more to this tale? Why is this story important to RPG culture?


Note: In Comments on this question (now deleted but available on Meta as part of this question), I mentioned the Head of Vecna (along with a few others) as an RPG touchstone, but when I told what I knew of the Head of Vecna story (which was about as much as the summary on the Wikipedia page) to my son, a budding yet enthusiastic gamer, I didn't have many details to flesh out the tale nor was I entirely clear on the story's influence or ultimate point.

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The tale of the Head of Vecna is considered a touchstone cautionary tale to players about taking everything you hear in-game as gospel truth, and is an excellent example of Players using the promise of Untold Power to destroy each other. It's also considered a great example of how greedy players can be when it comes to powerful artifacts, and how crazy/dumb they can be in the pursuit of the power offered. And, finally, it's a great example of how self-destructive players can be. Sometimes you don't have to rig up traps and monsters and everything else...just give em enough rope, and they may take care of the rest.

The original source of where people have seen this story comes from Steve Jackson's Website, about 2/3 of the way down the page underneath the heading An Important Safety Tip! There's a more readable copy of the same found on Blind Panic (archived).

These are the most complete accounts of the story known. Mark Steuer, the DM who allowed this to happen, is the one who shared the story in the first place, and there has not been a more detailed explanation released since.

The archived Blind Panic post is as follows:

Many years ago (back when we all were still playing D & D), I ran a game where I pitted two groups against each other.

Several members of Group One came up with the idea of luring Group Two into a trap. You remember the Hand of Vecna and the Eye of Vecna that were artifacts in the old D&D world where if you cut off your hand (or your eye) and replaced it with the Hand of Vecna (or the Eye) you'd get new awesome powers? Well, Group One thought up The Head of Vecna.

Group One spread rumors all over the countryside (even paying Bards to spread the word about this artifact rumored to exist nearby). They even went so far as to get a real head and place it under some weak traps to help with the illusion. Unfortunately, they forgot to let ALL the members of their group in on the secret plan (I suspect it was because they didn't want the Druid to get caught and tell the enemy about this trap of theirs, or maybe because they didn't want him messing with things).

The Druid in group One heard about this new artifact and went off in search of it himself (I believe to help prove himself to the party members...) Well, after much trial and tribulation, he found it; deactivated (or set off) all the traps; and took his "prize" off into the woods for examination. He discovered that it did not radiate magic (a well known trait of artifacts) and smiled gleefully.

I wasn't really worried since he was alone and I knew that there was no way he could CUT HIS OWN HEAD OFF. Alas I was mistaken as the Druid promptly summoned some carnivorous apes and instructed them to use his own scimitar and cut his head off (and of course quickly replacing it with the Head of Vecna...)

Some time later, Group one decided to find the Druid and to check on the trap. They found the headless body (and the two heads) and realized that they had erred in their plan (besides laughing at the character who had played the Druid)...The Head of Vecna still had BOTH eyes! They corrected this mistake and reset their traps and the Head for it's real intended victims...

Group Two, by this time, had heard of the powerful artifact and decided that it bore investigating since, if true, they could use it to destroy Group One. After much trial and tribulation, they found the resting place of The Head of Vecna! The were particularly impressed with the cunning traps surrounding the site (one almost missed his save against the weakest poison known to man). They recovered the Head and made off to a safe area.

Group Two actually CAME TO BLOWS (several rounds of fighting) against each other argueing over WHO WOULD GET THEIR HEAD CUT OFF! Several greedy players had to be hurt and restrained before it was decided who would be the recipient of the great powers bestowed by the Head... The magician was selected and one of them promptly cut his head off. As the player was lifting The Head of Vecna to emplace it on it's new body, another argument broke out and they spent several minutes shouting and yelling. Then, finally, they put the Head onto the character.

Well, of course, the Head simply fell off the lifeless body. All members of Group Two began yelling and screaming at each other (and at me) and then, on their own, decided that they had let too much time pass between cutting off the head of a hopeful recipient and put the Head of Vecna onto the body.

SO THEY DID IT AGAIN!... [killing another PC]

In closing, it should be said that I never even cracked a smile as all this was going on. After the second PC was slaughtered, I had to give in (my side was hurting)...

And Group Two blamed ME for all of that...

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    \$\begingroup\$ It's not just the level of greed. It's that the greed drove them to do things without pausing for even a moment to think about the implications. If you chop your head off, you're obviously dead, and slapping the head of vecna on your corpse won't fix that. The head is where the "you" is. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ben Barden
    Commented Apr 26, 2017 at 19:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ @BenBarden: You say that but obviously dead in a setting where resurrection is a thing then obviously dead and permanently dead are not the same thing. Also does D&D say that the head is where the "you" is? MAny people historically have thought it was the heart and I'm not sure anybody has ever said a person's soul is in their head... So yeah, from a certain point of view it was stupid but I see no reason why a D&D setting couldn't have a magical artifact along these lines. \$\endgroup\$
    – Chris
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 8:46
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So why the Head of Vecna?

Well, if you are familiar with the aesop / Morality Play of the Head of Vecna, I am guessing your question then is why specifically did the opposing group choose the Head of Vecna as their lure for their con? And why on Oerth would a band of adventurers chop off their head to get it?

Well there is a reason for that.

In the old Greyhawk campaign world there was an ancient lich who became a God (of secrets) named Vecna.

From his Wikipedia entry:

Originally from the World of Greyhawk campaign setting, Vecna was described as a powerful wizard who became a lich. He was eventually destroyed, and his left hand and left eye were the only parts of his body to survive. Even after he achieved godhood — being a member of the third edition's default pantheon of D&D gods (the pantheon of Oerth)—he is still described as missing both his left eye and left hand. Vecna's holy symbol is an eye in the palm of a left hand.

What is important to note is the bit about his hand and eye. They were left behind (by Kas - who ended up in Ravenloft via the plane of Ash), after he was destroyed and were imbued with "great power". So much that they became artifacts. This goes all the way back to the Eldritch Wizardry book, so this is "in game" Lore from the very beginning of D&D.

If you were to find them and wield them, you had to lop off your hand or pluck out your eye.

(BTW: You nasty, Vecna, with your dirty raisin-eye in other people's bleeding eye sockets.)

So surely the players of these adventuring groups searching for this Head of Vecna were well aware of these actual (as in "actually part of the fictional campaign world" actual) artifacts - The Hand and Eye. And that is what made the lure of the Head of Vecna such a perfect con.

Because if the eye is powerful, then the whole head has to be bonkers powerful, right?

And of course you would have to lop off your head to wield the Head of Vecna.

That's how the other bits O'Vecna work, right! (No, not Moander, Vecna)

From that hilarity ensues.

All that said, I wouldn't be so sure that I would not make the same series of errors only to end up in the same place. It can happen - especially if one never goes back and questions one's assumptions vigorously and regularly. And really - who does that in real life, let alone in a D&D game.

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It is a brilliant ploy that led to hilarious PvP actions

The head of Vecna is an insider joke that really happend.

It is important, because it a wonderful example of the crazy stories the antics of players can create, it at the same time shows how greed can make you stupid, and it is so enjoyable seeing the munchkins get what they had coming.

This answer is mostly to conserve the original story on this site to protect it from link rot. Here it is, as related by its DM Mark Steuer, for your reading pleasure:

Many years ago (back when we all were still playing D & D), I ran a game where I pitted two groups against each other.

Several members of Group One came up with the idea of luring Group Two into a trap. You remember the Hand of Vecna and the Eye of Vecna that were artifacts in the old D&D world where if you cut off your hand (or your eye) and replaced it with the Hand of Vecna (or the Eye) you'd get new awesome powers? Well, Group One thought up The Head of Vecna.

Group One spread rumors all over the countryside (even paying Bards to spread the word about this artifact rumored to exist nearby). They even went so far as to get a real head and place it under some weak traps to help with the illusion. Unfortunately, they forgot to let ALL the members of their group in on the secret plan (I suspect it was because they didn't want the Druid to get caught and tell the enemy about this trap of theirs, or maybe because they didn't want him messing with things).

The Druid in group One heard about this new artifact and went off in search of it himself (I believe to help prove himself to the party members...) Well, after much trial and tribulation, he found it; deactivated (or set off) all the traps; and took his "prize" off into the woods for examination. He discovered that it did not radiate magic (a well known trait of artifacts) and smiled gleefully.

I wasn't really worried since he was alone and I knew that there was no way he could CUT HIS OWN HEAD OFF. Alas I was mistaken as the Druid promptly summoned some carnivorous apes and instructed them to use his own scimitar and cut his head off (and of course quickly replacing it with the Head of Vecna...)

Some time later, Group one decided to find the Druid and to check on the trap. They found the headless body (and the two heads) and realized that they had erred in their plan (besides laughing at the character who had played the Druid)...The Head of Vecna still had BOTH eyes! They corrected this mistake and reset their traps and the Head for it's real intended victims...

Group Two, by this time, had heard of the powerful artifact and decided that it bore investigating since, if true, they could use it to destroy Group One. After much trial and tribulation, they found the resting place of The Head of Vecna! The were particularly impressed with the cunning traps surrounding the site (one almost missed his save against the weakest poison known to man). They recovered the Head and made off to a safe area.

Group Two actually CAME TO BLOWS (several rounds of fighting) against each other argueing over WHO WOULD GET THEIR HEAD CUT OFF! Several greedy players had to be hurt and restrained before it was decided who would be the recipient of the great powers bestowed by the Head... The magician was selected and one of them promptly cut his head off. As the player was lifting The Head of Vecna to emplace it on it's new body, another argument broke out and they spent several minutes shouting and yelling. Then, finally, they put the Head onto the character.

Well, of course, the Head simply fell off the lifeless body. All members of Group Two began yelling and screaming at each other (and at me) and then, on their own, decided that they had let too much time pass between cutting off the head of a hopeful recipient and put the Head of Vecna onto the body.

SO THEY DID IT AGAIN!... [killing another PC]

In closing, it should be said that I never even cracked a smile as all this was going on. After the second PC was slaughtered, I had to give in (my side was hurting)...

And Group Two blamed ME for all of that...

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    \$\begingroup\$ If the goal is simply to preserve from link rot, I think the correct move rather than adding a half-answer is to embed it in the post that sourced that story. I was starting to do so before I saw this answer, and I've done so now regardless since it belongs there. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 24 at 10:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener Thanks for the advice. I felt not comfortable editing another users answer in such a massive way, but I can try pinging when I see something like it next time first. Guildsbounty seems to still be active around here. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 24 at 10:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ But the alternative here is swinging by to grab the content of the defunct link from that user's research and claim the points associated with their research, as opposed to preserving the function of their answer and let them continue to reap the rewards. We are high reputation users who do not need additional points; we can simply preserve the original answer. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 24 at 10:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener Understood, aim to do it like that going forward. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 24 at 12:30
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As the other answer have explained the Vecna body pieces are really powerfull artifacts that greedy players can past the limits to get their hands on. One of their drawbacks is that you need to remove the respective part (eye or hand in the original artifacts) of your body to attach the new one.

For me, the first time I heard about this was in KODT.

In Knights of the Dinner Table #5 there is story "Agent of Evil" where the group stumble on the "Hand of Vectra" after half the group chop their hands trying to get it the story ends up with Brian saying "I have heard rumours about the Head of Vectra, we should investigate" or something in those lines.

The fact that a group of players could even think in removing their heads to attach the Vecna (or Vectra in Garweeze Wurld) is just hilarious.

The story also made it to the first episode to the Kickstarted KODT Live Action Series

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    \$\begingroup\$ Hey, welcome to the site! That's a great catch that KotDT referenced this story, and this anecdote is a really good example of how the Head left its mark on RPG culture. Unfortunately, it looks like you ran into a couple of problems here: KotDT isn't the original source, and you don't really discuss the "why is it important" part of the question. I'm upvoting to help you get enough rep to visit the chat, in case you want to discuss. Hope to see you around! \$\endgroup\$
    – fectin
    Commented Apr 28, 2017 at 21:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks @fectin I will update the answer to add why I think its important. Need to check KODT #5 to confirm if the source is the same as SJ forum. In my case and a lot of other people I know back in Spain we heard the story from KODT and that is why it is important for my on the RPG culture ;) \$\endgroup\$
    – Juan
    Commented Apr 28, 2017 at 21:35

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