By Green Ronin
All Hands on Decks!
When a gamer thinks of cards, the first reaction is usually to think of TCGs and therefore run away screaming, “They’re after my bank balance!” Or perhaps to think of Las Vegas, where you sit down at a table of blackjack or poker thinking, “I’m after your bank balance!” up until the moment when that card sharp across the felt takes your last chip; or (as happened to Gamer Bling on a recent visit to Sin City) your affable pai gow dealer gets replaced with a hot little Cubanita who cleans up the whole table’s chips with all the grace and subtlety of a brigade of maids armed with flamethrowers. Either way, thinking of cards involves a loss of money on your part until you pull the red cord and eject yourself out of your burning F-14 and go do something more sensible like sit in your hotel room and watch movies where all the best action is replaced with commercial breaks.
But Gamer Bling is not here to talk about those types of cards, despite all evidence to the contrary in the above paragraph. He is here to talk about friendly cards that help your role-playing experience.
Now, cards have been a mainstay of D&D lore since the creation of the deck of many things, which wasn’t even created for D&D, rather for AD&D back in the heyday of gratuitous four-letter acronyms (GFLAs).
The DoMT (Gamer Bling will in fact use GFLAs throughout this missive) appears in the D&D 3.5 DMG on page 278, along with the other minor artifacts. Its sister shuffle-and-play treasure, the deck of illusions (DoII, which acronym includes an illusory letter to make it an GFLA), appears on page 254 under the category of medium wondrous items. This review appears in a web page under the category Character Sheets & Tools.
Now, as a brief aside, let’s consider these two decks.
The DoMT is a minor artifact, though you’d think a minor artifact would merit capital letters (which is why, you will note, that the GFLA does in fact have them). That means that the DoMT appears exactly zero times in any of the D&D treasure tables. There is absolutely no chance ever of you finding this artifact in a treasure chest unless you’ve plied your DM heavily with pizza and beer until at last he relented and put it there on purpose. This stands in stark contrast to the cure light wounds potion (CLWP), which apparently grows on trees as it the most commonly rolled magic item in the DMG, appearing in 3.5% of all first-level magic treasures, more common than the +1 longsword or +1 heavy steel shield put together and ten or more times as common as any other magic item.
Despite its small size, the DoII is classified as a medium wondrous item with a value of 8,100 gold. This places it squarely between the CLWP and the DoMT, which means you actually have a chance of finding one in a random encounter, though not much of one. Your first opportunity comes at 6th level, where you have roughly a 1:588 chance of locating one each standard encounter. These odds peak at 19th level, where your chance of finding one approaches a quarter of a percent per encounter. When calculated over a character’s lifetime, your chance of actually having found a DoII in a treasure before going epic is less than 15%:
Note that this table necessarily includes the following assumptions: 1) Each level requires 13 encounters to advance, 2) each encounter supplies the party with one standard treasure, 3) each treasure is randomly generated from the DMG 3.5, 4) your character is not dead for a considerable length of time while the others go about their business, 5) all d3 and d4 die rolls result in a “2″, and, perhaps most important, 6) when the party finds the DoII, it ends up in your character’s bag of holding (such odds are low if you’re a fighter, but approach 100% if you’re a rogue).
For the record, Gamer Bling has been playing D&D off and on since 1974, and has never encountered or owned either of the above decks. In a game-world sense, that is. He does happen to own both of the decks in a real-world sense (neener neener), which is kind of the point of this review.
Despite their obvious differences, these decks have several things in common: they’re both decks, they’re both magical, and they both have tables in the DMG that describe the various results that can be had when using them. But the DoMT has 22 different results, and the DoII has 34. How does one resolve these odds quickly and easily? Good question, because no one, not even Koplow, makes 34-sided dice. Gamer Bling finds it especially annoying that, in a book that features 128 tables to be rolled with percentile dice, including the tan bag of tricks table, which for some reason uses a d100 to roll results that parse out evenly by tens, neither of these items gives you a table that can be resolved by a roll of the bones. Instead, you gotta go find a bridge deck or a tarot deck and sort through it.
To solve this dilemma, save gaming time, give your personal bling factor a boost, give Gamer Bling something to talk about, and create cards to go after your bank balance (aha!), Green Ronin presents these two decks in real life! Except for that whole “actually magical” part.
So how well did they do in recreating these mysterious creations? Let’s be ruels lawyers and consult the DMG!
“A deck of many things… is usually found in a box or leather pouch.” Box, check. A cardboard box with mystical flaps of closure at each end might not be exactly medieval, but we’ll cope.
“Each deck…” Each? You mean there’s more than one? Gamer Bling thought the DoMT was a minor artifact! How many are there? And if there are more than one, why can’t they be rolled on a treasure table? After all, what’s more likely: that there are two DoMTs, or that someone created +2 slick half plate (odds 139 million to one against in a 1st-level treasure)? And then lost it (odds close to 100% because anyone stupid enough to wear armor like that is likely to have been killed)?
“…contains a number of cards or plaques…” A number, check. Even if the box had been empty, zero is still a number. Cards, check. (If you get plaques, you needs to flosses.)
“… made of ivory or vellum.” Well, they sure as heck ain’t ivory, so you’ll just have to hope that your players couldn’t tell vellum from Kraft C2S cardboard. Hint for slow players: vellum is translucent; cardboard isn’t.
“Each is engraved with glyphs, characters, and sigils.” Hmm. Not seeing many glyphs or sigils, and the only characters are either holding the card or in the type that gives the card’s name. And they’re not engraved; they’re printed. Although given how thin vellum is, Gamer Bling is skeptical that anything could be engraved upon it.
“As soon as one of these cards is drawn from the pack, its magic is bestowed upon the person who drew it, for better or worse.” But no faster than your DM can look up the reference on the handy player’s aid cards supplied.
So they got most of it down. And for the deck of illusions?
“This set of parchment cards…” Again, not parchment, but that’s okay. And it’s a set.
“… is usually found in an ivory, leather, or wooden box.” Box, check. And technically, cardboard is wood, so check check.
“A full deck consists of thirty-four cards.” Curiously, the DMG did not deign to describe the helpful hints card or advertisement card that Green Ronin included at no extra charge. So check, with a +2 bonus.
So they gots the feel down, check and mate. How about the look?
The deck of many thingies was illustrated by Eliane Bettocchi. No, Gamer Bling didn’t know who she was either, so he googled her name and her home page came up tenth in a vanity search. She does some pretty good stuff, but seems to have varied from her normal style for purposes of this work. Either she was feeling experimental with the heavy lines and haloes, or she decided she wanted to try something that looked more like the illustrations on a traditional tarot deck. And the cards do have that look.
In Gamer Bling’s “I don’t know art but I know artists that I like personal preference in paintings, the works range from the pretty cool (like “Talons”, with a curious underneath view of a giant raven, or the babe-a-licious “Star”) to the unnervingly odd (like “Sun,” which has a stylized anthropomorphic ball of flaming interstellar gas gazing down on two naked male gelflings playing pat-a-cake).
The deck of illusions was illustrated by the fine folks at DPI studios, whose names, unlike that of Eliane Bettocchi, do not appear on the exterior of the packaging. Also, to Gamer Bling’s relief, they didn’t sign their artwork as flagrantly as Eliane did. Or, in fact, at all.
Also, we find out in this deck what happened to all the glyphs, characters, and sigils from the DoMT: they ended up being border decorations here! The artwork is solid, although some liberties are taken with proportions and realism. The dwarf paladin wields a massive ax that’s taller than he is, and, as far as proportions go, it’s clear that the DPI guys like their women with long legs and small heads. Gamer Bling should fix them up with his ex-wife! No… that’s a fate too horrible to contemplate.
There’s your usual fanboy smattering of hot chicks in thin shirts in air-conditioned rooms, plus a mean-looking druid and a pretty darned cool frost giant (pun intended). And a couple of kobolds that are nowhere near as charismatic as Gleek.
As for the rest, the card backs are suitable to the task, and are designed symmetrically so your group’s Mr. Cheatypants can’t weave the deck and gain a tactical advantage. And all the cards measure a whopping tarot-sized 2.875″ x 3.75″ (that’s 0.000073 km x 120,650 µm for you folks using the metric system), which means they won’t fit into your card sleeves.
The decks are system independent. This means that they include guides, but not the technical aspects of the rules. While this means they never go out of date no matter how many times the DMG gets revised, it also means that they are not entirely a self-contained gaming aid. Your DM will have to refer to the DMG for details. Not much of an annoyance for the DoMT, but more so for the oft-used DoII.
This isn’t top-of-the-line art. It’s not Todd Lockwood or Matt Wilson or Michael Komarck or Wayne Reynolds. But what can you expect for $10? The art is solid, and it serves its purpose.
And finally, the decks are a very tightly focused products. Gamer Bling can use his dice tray for family game night as well as for role-playing. The DoII? Not so much. At least not until Gamer Bling Expansion #1 and Gamer Bling Expansion #2 are old enough to start role-playing.
The Bottom Line
They’re fun, they’re tactile, and they aid in the suspension of disbelief. And since you have to use cards for these items anyway, why not use something that’s a lot more evocative than your parents’ battered Bicycle deck?
C’mon, it’s only ten bucks (give or take). And it supports Green Ronin, which is staffed by some pretty darned cool people, except that they haven’t hired Gamer Bling himself, so there is, ultimately, a limit to their coolness. You can trust Gamer Bling on that. After all, there’s a law that says you can’t publish lies on the Internet. Gamer Bling read it.
Bling Factor: 8
Price: $9.95 and $11.95
You need: One each. Unless your DM really likes the beer and pizza.
Green Ronin is rock solid in the gaming industry. You should be able to find them in your FLGS. If you can’t, you can find at least one of the decks at RPGShop (note the very large button to the right).
Of course, you could also order direct from Green Ronin. If you do, be sure to use the comments field to tell them to send Gamer Bling an Ultimate Gamer Satchel for review. You need to know what Gamer Bling thinks, otherwise how will you know what to buy?
Gamer Bling knows of no other decks in D&D, so he doesn’t see many future prop-decks coming down the pike. Let him know if he is wrong, in which case he can do a little ret-con on this paragraph.
Of course, Green Ronin does lots of other things, too, so do not worry about them going belly up any time soon. Especially if this review drives you to purchase their wares.