Wizards of the Coast is closing out the 10-year run of the original 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons ruleset with a bang, sending several highly anticipated new books into the world ahead of its planned 2024 revision. While Phandelver & Below: The Shattered Obelisk and Planescape: Adventures in the Multiverse represent traditional world-expanding splatbooks, the company’s October release is something new for Wizards — a singular product based on a storied magical item called the Deck of Many Things.
The Deck of Many Things set seems more like a prop at first glance. It includes a deck of tarot-sized cards to represent the magical item itself, which is a fantastically powerful collection of quirky magical spells and items. But the boxed set also contains a book called The Book of Many Things. Like many modern releases from the D&D team, it is written from the perspective of a fictional character. Asteria is described as “a princess turned paladin” and, like Xanathar, Mordenkainen, and Tasha, Asteria chimes in throughout her book with commentary, jokes, and other little flourishes meant to make it fun to read on its own. But the creation of this new character was a bit different from those that came before. That’s because Asteria is the first canonically autistic character added to D&D.
According to designer Makenzie De Armas, the choice to make Asteria autistic was the result of serendipity — a happy accident that evolved from an organic creative process. The idea of being friends with a Medusa is hard but, according to De Armas, could be easy if someone doesn’t want to make eye contact.
De Armas herself is autistic, and was able to incorporate a lot of her own experiences into the character. For instance, there’s text in the book that mentions Asteria’s hyperfocus on a puzzle to the point of forgetting to eat as well as animosity toward a particular character for breaking Asteria’s fidget toy.
“It’s not just a little ribbon that’s put under her character,” De Armas told Polygon in an interview at this year’s Gen Con. “It permeates all of her actions, but it doesn’t define her. She gets to express her love of other things beyond just I’m autistic, and it’s so rewarding to see her experiences and get to reflect her experiences through the notes and her story.”
An original creation attributed to D&D co-creator Gary Gygax himself, the Deck of Many Things first appeared in 1975’s Greyhawk, which has yet to be fully reimagined for 5th edition. But more than just giving new life to an old artifact, the launch of The Deck of Many Things is expected to appeal to many of the new players suddenly being introduced to the hobby. They represent a very different kind of community than the traditional white, male, neurotypical player base that for many people is the traditional image of the D&D player. Today’s D&D is more welcoming to everyone — as noted by organizations like Baltimore’s Child, The School Library Journal, and Australian advocacy group Autism Actually, which have all explored the benefits that tabletop role-play can have for individuals with autism.
In 2021, Polygon published a piece called “How autism powers my D&D,” in which author Meg Leach agreed:
Role-playing games like D&D are valuable for neurodivergent people because they bring structure to a relatively unstructured and chaotic experience — social interaction. While a quest or dungeon crawl may seem somewhat confusing to a casual viewer, there’s a subtle yet solid narrative thread binding the story. That thread is maintained by a trove of rules that govern every scenario. People with autism don’t have to worry about misunderstanding sarcasm because an insight check can more or less reveal the speaker’s intentions.
This thinking is directly in line with De Armas’ own experiences in the hobby. She said when she began freelancing, she was told that D&D was actually bad for autistic individuals due to the social aspect.
“I decided to come out as autistic because I wanted people to know that those people were wrong,” De Armas told Polygon. “This feels like a wonderful next step for me, and for making this game really reflective of all the wonderfully amazing people who play it.”
The hook for De Armas is in the way that Asteria can find empowerment through her neurodivergence, not in spite of it. Asteria is as capable as any of the other previous characters featured by the D&D books, equally able to make a roll of the dice against a god or a demon as anyone else.
“It resonates so much with the idea of the [cards] being a thing that you use to change and alter fate and challenge the perception of what a story should be. And that resonated so much with my own journey with accepting what my identity meant and how people had perceptions about me and how I wanted to rewrite those.”
Update: Shortly after our story was published, Wizards of the Coast reached out to let us know that Jason Tondro was the lead designer on The Deck of Many Things. We’ve adjusted the article accordingly.