So remember a few months ago when I said that the next review would be of a Super Metroid game? I’m currently in the process of filming the first video episode of HackoROMa, which should be up fairly shortly. Eventually. Maybe. I’m really bad at staying on task.
NOTE: For the sake of protecting the innocent from the stupid things that they do, or the stupid things I do/say to them, the names in the following post and all posts following have been changed. Their actions, words, and dice rolls are as accurate as my memory deigns to recall them.
In an effort to class up things around here at FLG, we’re going to take a break from the vidya and turn our gaze to the world of tabletop RPGs. More specifically, we’re going to be looking at my adventures playing Dungeons & Dragons during my adolescence and college years. Why? Mostly in the the hope that you might laugh, and learn from my negative example. In this post, we’re going to be looking at the common pitfalls of including world-ending artifacts in your game, ways you can circumvent these problems, and the first experience I had with my favorite and most potentially game-ruining item in Dungeons and Dragons next to the 10-foot pole.
The Trouble with Artifacts
There are tons of ancient and powerful artifacts in D&D, lots of which are almost impossible to include in your game unless your players are of insanely high level and nigh unto gods. The problem with this is that when you have a wizard so powerful that he’s casually inventing spells that would make Gandalf stain his robes in terror, the staff that lets them shoot infinite fireballs isn’t so impressive anymore. There are several solutions to this problem, and here are some of the best I’ve found:
1. The Ticking Clock
This one is pretty simple, but is honestly one of the best ways to incorporate these types of items. Maybe an evil witch is searching for the Tome of Infinite Spells, and the party has stop her from getting it, maybe a warlord has been sent to retrieve the Hourglass of Shadows to build an undead horde for an oppressive emperor. If the artifact is too powerful for the players to use, make it something they need to stop from being misused.
2. De-Powering and Resurrection.
If you played Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, you know what I’m talking about. Starting off as Alucard at full strength, only to have that power taken away by Death in the first five minutes created an incentive for the player to push on, because they wanted to have that sense of power again. Every item or ability gained felt more like miles instead of steps because you knew you were that much closer to being your badass self once more.
The same can be easily accomplished with artifacts. Early on in the adventure, give the players a severely de-powered (or non-functioning) artifact. The campaign then becomes focused on returning the item to full strength, so when the player is able to use it, the power feels earned.
3. The Majora’s Mask Approach
One of the reasons Majora’s Mask’s Skull Kid was such an effective villain was because he had, in effect, already won. He already had the ancient world-destroying power and was ready to use it. He couldn’t be reasoned or negotiated with. Only through Link’s faffing about with time travel was Termina able to be saved.
This story mechanic can easily be used in your D&D game. Instead of a recurring villain who is constantly slightly ahead of the party, with the occasional scuffle here and there, sending his minions after you. Create a villain with an item so out of the players’ depth, that the only course of action they have is to think outside the box.
See Gypsy; Run Screaming
The first game of D&D I ever played was run by my (now long-time) friend Richard (first edition for anyone who might be curious). We played at our church after services, with our friends Timmy, Ronnie, and Benson. Timmy, who had recently discovered The Lord of the Rings after the first Peter Jackson film came out, was playing a human Ranger. However, Timmy suffered from a severe run of bad luck on both his attack and tracking rolls, which made him little more than a glorified damage sponge. Ronnie, a sensitive lad, was playing a Thief. I honestly don’t remember much more about him. Benson was a minor muscle-head with a predilection towards sci-fi and fantasy, was running a dwarven Paladin; speaking with a butchered Scots-Irish abomination of an accent. And then there was me. Always having a preference towards spellcasters, but not wanting to be useless until higher levels, I was playing a human druid named Kamahl.
Kamahl, being my first character, was a bit of a mess. He wouldn’t use any spells if there was a chance at all that he would harm a plant. Not a tree, not a flower, not a single blade of grass could stand in Kamahl’s way if you wanted him to throw fire at someone.
We were on a standard ‘Smash the Evil Wizard’ campaign (after being previously employed by said Wizard), and were stopping by a large town on our way back to his castle. On our way to the Inn to rest for the night, we were called over by a gypsy sitting by a caravan cart in the town square. She asked if we would like to have our fortunes read by the drawing of a card.
This is where I was introduced to the item that would devour many characters and campaigns to come (a number of them run by me); The Deck of Many Things.
Pick a Card
The Deck of Many things is an artifact that will turn your group on each other, and destroy your game in the most expedient way possible. Promises of power for the sin of betrayal? That’s nothing. Having to decide if you should work with a lifelong enemy to work towards the greater good? Kid’s stuff. Forcing a character to choose between the life of the person they love and the lives of countless innocents? Aren’t you adorable. No. The greatest evil ever to plague the game of Dungeons & Dragons and games like it, is a deck of cards.
Every DM I’ve ever known has been reading through the Dungeon Master’s Guide or Unearthed Arcana and seen this item and immediately had their imagination captured by this unholy terror.
Those of you who are familiar with this item are laughing right now while those not as familiar with the game or this item may be reading this was a twinge of confusion and skepticism. How I envy your ignorance.
The Deck of Many Things works like this;
You have a neutered deck of standard playing or tarot cards, leaving you with 22 cards in the deck. Each player takes turns drawing from the deck, and that’s when things get interesting. See, The Deck of Many Things works a lot like a bag of Jelly Belly jellybeans. You reach inside and hope for something good, like apple pie or buttered popcorn, and sometimes you get it. Sometimes, you end up drawing The Void and your character’s soul is trapped in an extra-dimensional prison until the party can break it out.
The Deck of Many Things can be a great boon to your character. But there’s always a chance, a fairly large chance, in fact, that something will go horribly, painfully wrong. You have about a 4.5% chance to draw any given card, that chance going up each time someone draws from the deck, as the card they draw disappears. This means that if you are the last in your group to draw from the deck, you either have a greater chance of drawing a good card, or a greater chance of drawing a bad card.
So here’s what happened to me.
The party draws straws to determine draw order, which is as follows; Benson, Timmy, Ronnie, then me.
Benson draws a good card.
The rate of drawing any given card goes up to about 4.8%, and the chance to draw a bad card is now about 52%.
Timmy, using all that stored up luck from his botched rolls earlier in the game grants him a draw of a good card which will either give him an experience boost, or two more draws. He draws twice more and gets two more good cards.
Rate of drawing a bad card is now 61%.
Ronnie also draws a good card (the best card by my measuring, gaining 4 levels and a magic weapon far beyond our station in the game).
This makes my percentage of drawing a bad card go up to 65%.
Hyped up by my companions’ success, expecting gold, levels, or maybe a sweet falcon I could ride around throwing fire at all who would dare to challenge the supremacy of Mother Nature (I was 12), I drew from the deck.
I was immediately attacked by an Aspect of Death.
I had drawn (as far as I’m concerned) the worst card in the deck. Whoever draws this card is set upon by a Dread Wraith, with a magical force field surrounding the two of you. Should anyone attempt to help you fight it, another will blip into existence and take them on as well.
To put the toughness of this fight into context, this would be like trying to take on Kefka’s tower in Final Fantasy VI right after you’ve entered the World of Ruin. With one character.
If you can’t guess what happened, I died. Horribly, and almost instantly. The real kicker is that when a character is killed by an Aspect of Death, they can never be revived or resurrected. Death is usually a minor inconvenience in D&D, provided you’re of high enough level or happen to be filthy stinkin’ rich. But, as the rules for this card state; “If the character is slain, he is slain forever and cannot be revived, even with a wish or miracle.” Nothing, not even the most powerful Arcane or Divine magics could bring my character back to life. Not even the will of a god could have brought Kamahl back from the grave.
Even so, a full run of bad cards on the party can still be better than a full run of good ones. Ronnie was insanely more powerful than the rest of the party, making him bored because he wasn’t leveling up very quickly, and Timmy and Benson bored because they weren’t contributing as much to combat. If you ever want your campaign to come to a screeching, tooth-grinding halt, give your players access to a Deck of Many Things.
But you know what? I keep using it. Why?
Because it’s fun.
The more risk there is for something bad or good to happen, the more fun gambling is. That’s why people playing roulette will bet on individual numbers when it’s safer to bet on red or black, and why I don’t watch soccer. DM’s love the Deck of Many Things, and players do too, until something bad happens.
And believe me. Something bad always happens.
I’ll post more musings on the game, tell some stories, and help out anyone interested in learning more about the game in the future. If you have any specific questions you want to ask, feel free to post them in the comments below and I’ll answer them the next go-round. Until then, use your artifacts responsibly, and in the case of The Deck of Many Things, not at all.
(But you’ll want to.)