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Three face-up cards, including crossroads, dragon, and gem, sit atop a deck of cards that are face down, with pink dice on top of them. Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

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D&D’s Deck of Many Things is an experiment that failed at the wrong time

Wizards of the Coast takes a big swing only to get the brush off

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Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

The Deck of Many Things is unlike anything that has come before in the history of Dungeons & Dragons — an elaborate boxed set with multiple components, all focused on bringing a beloved magical item to life. It’s a singular project thrust into a yawning portal in the seminal role-playing game’s release calendar; the next take on 5th edition isn’t due out until later this year. But it’s the wrong product delivered at the wrong time, cast off into hostile waters already churned by corporate controversy that looms over the entire franchise.

It’s a shame, because the final product is actually pretty cool.

At the center of The Deck of Many Things is the deck itself, consisting of 66 gilt-edged, tarot-sized cards. Fully 22 of those cards are representative of powerful magical spells first introduced to the game way back in 1975, many of which have game- and campaign-breaking effects. Pulling a card from the Deck is a surefire way to cause absolute chaos in just about any D&D game by gaining levels, losing levels, killing characters, or having wishes granted. Having a beautiful, physical representations of those world-shaking spells is a delight.

A stack of cards with a gold edge reflecting dice in the foreground.
The gilding on these cards wasn’t perfect out of the box. We used a very sharp knife to trim some flashing off two cards in particular to get the deck to lay perfectly flat. Nonetheless, these cards are leaps and bounds better that what was shared with the press in October.
Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Together a full or even a smaller, more curated version of the Deck can be used to divine things at the table — just like a traditional tarot deck. Players can get a reading from a character in-game, of course, but there are also ways to use the cards to plan out encounters, traps, or small adventures. By dealing a simple three-card or a five-card spread you can add variety to any situation. With a full nine-card spread you can even create an entire campaign, one that flashes from the DM’s hand directly to the table thanks to its elegant gilt-edged design. And it’s that gilt edge, it seems, that has caused this product the bulk of its troubles.

Early on in the life cycle of 5th edition D&D, the team at Wizards of the Coast took pride in printing all of its books in the United States. But the economic realities of publishing at this scale, and no doubt the needs of its corporate owners at Hasbro, led to changes in its production process. What followed was a series of three-volume, higher-end, slipcase-covered releases that Wizards began printing at least partially in China — often with mixed results.

At the same time, Hasbro launched an environmental initiative meant to reduce the company’s carbon footprint. Changes in packaging were apparent all across its many product lines, from plant-fiber ties on action figures to plastic-free packaging on decks of Magic: The Gathering’s popular Commander cards. The greening initiative directly led to the production issues that delayed the release of The Deck of Many Things, whose paper bands were partially the cause of a late 2023 recall that halted shipments to customers of products that were already sitting in the distribution channel.

“This is all for a good cause,” executive producer Kyle Brink told Polygon in October. “Obviously, we want to reduce plastic waste, and so we use paper packaging. We inspected very closely everything throughout the production process to make sure everything was going fine with that, and yet some of the problems that we are seeing here are specifically because of some of the paper packaging that we use.”

The revised Deck of Many Things uses plastic to protect each of its three stacks of 22 cards during shipment, and I’m happy to report that the cards are now all a uniform size – just as they should have been the first time around. The result is an elegant and hefty stack that sits nobly on the table and flashes brilliantly as it’s dealt out to players. Nevertheless, it arrived well past its original release date.

Alongside that handsome deck of cards is the Card Reference Guide, which remains unchanged from the batch delivered to reviewers last fall. The 80-page, chapbook-sized volume is the instruction book. It contains everything you need to know to use the Deck, including all the layouts mentioned above. Its large and easy-to-read sections of text make for a lucid and nimble presentation of the cards at the table.

However, unlike other props that Wizards has released in the past, the Deck itself lacks strong theming. It’s basically a generic item, and many other reviewers have pointed to this as a major flaw. I, on the other hand, consider that to be a positive feature. As a collector of TTRPG props, including miniatures and terrain, I consider the Deck a treasure in the truest sense of the word because it’s something I can draw from no matter what part of the vast D&D multiverse my players happen to be in. If I had wanted a thematic tarot deck I’d have gone out and bought one. Instead, The Deck of Many Things seeds retail shelves with a solid tool that can be immediately accessible to players at any point in their journey through 5th edition, and for that the team at Wizards should be praised.

Of course, producing a piece of content that has mainstream appeal isn’t the thing that makes The Deck of Many Things an experiment. It’s the second, larger book that accompanies it, a 192-page volume titled The Book of Many Things, where Wizards truly rolled the dice. Compared to literally everything else in the 5th edition catalog, it’s absolutely chaotic.

The Book of Many Things is divided into 22 chapters, one each for the original Deck of Many Things. Those chapters’ content falls into five different categories: a five-chapter toolkit for DMs, a four-chapter collection of character creation options, four chapters “inspired by astrological phenomena,” five chapters detailing potential adventure locations, and four chapters detailing “new monsters and two people responsible for the deck’s creation.” It’s a laundry list that is just as exhausting to type out here as it is to wrap one’s head around in the real world.

An assortment of cards from The Deck of Many Things, including a curious owlbear, a raging stone elemental, a comet, a ship on choppy waters, a maze, a fiend, and more. Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Packed alongside the concise and effective Deck and its handy Card Reference Guide, The Book of Many Things could have been a rude assortment of shavings left over from a decade spent paring down rough ideas in pursuit of more focused products. Instead, it all feels bespoke, tailored to the themes of the Deck and supporting them in different ways. But the shotgun blast of new content is delivered with far less grace and readability than something like Xanathar’s Guide to Everything or Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything.

I love the Deck for what it is — an elegant prop, and a tool for inspiring collaborative storytelling at the table. Its golden profile will be a fixture on my shelf for years to come. In the end, it’s The Book of Many Things that feels most like an unnecessary glow-up for what is otherwise a solid product.

Its presence in this product raises the question: Why does The Book of Many Things even exist at all? I think the answer lies in Hasbro’s high-level desire to digitize what has traditionally been a very tactile game. You can’t turn a physical prop into a microtransaction, but you can sell digital books on D&D Beyond. For Wizards’ corporate overlords, it seems that the Deck itself — the very best part of this package — was almost an afterthought. All the more punishing then that it was The Book of Many Things, The Deck of Many Things’ least likable bit, that arrived first during the now perfunctory two-week digital pre-release window, a window stretched out into months because of an unexpected recall.

The Deck of Many Things and its Card Reference Guide are a must-buy, especially if you like running short, action-packed adventures or letting the fates decide where your campaign ultimately goes. Unfortunately, in order to have fun with this excellent object, you’ve got to pay for The Book of Many Things as well.

The Deck of Many Things is currently available for purchase online and at friendly local game stores for a suggested retail price of $99.99, and as digital content on D&D Beyond. The product was reviewed with a pre-release physical copy provided by the publisher. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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