Deck of Many Things: Broken or Brilliant?
As one of the most hotly debated items in Dungeons and Dragons history, there's no easy answer to whether or not the Deck of Many Things might be the right fit for your campaign. It is almost undeniably a fundamentally "broken" item, but does that mean it has no place in any campaign ever? I'm not so sure.
The Value of the Absurd...
Let me be clear -- I love a good story. The entire reason I got into Dungeons and Dragons was for the possibility of impactful, emotional, and collaborative storytelling. Honestly, there's not much I love more than a story that can make me cry. However, no one can handle a campaign that is grimdark or emotional 100% of the time.
As much as I love a serious story, we all need some levity from time to time; for a lot of folks, that can come from a dip into the absurd and unexpected. Of course, if you're already playing a more lighthearted, funny campaign, then that absurdity might fit right in anyway. What better way to provide that than with the Deck of Many Things, which is chock-full of unexpected events?
...With Campaign-Altering Consequences
While the Deck of Many Things can cause a number of possibly fun occurrences, like leveling up characters, handing out free castles, or initiating an unexpected encounter with a monster, it can also have some devastating effects. Just as a few examples:
Balance: This card flips the affected character's alignment to its opposite. For a player who has invested a lot of time into character development, this could be a fate worse than death.
Donjon: The character who pulls this card is whisked away to an extradimensional sphere, possibly putting the character out of commission until found… which could be a while, especially if the party isn't high level
Skull: This card summons a Grim Reaper to fight the character -- and only the character -- who summoned it. If the party tries to help, more reapers are summoned. Anyone killed by a reaper cannot be revived. While this could be a fun encounter for higher level characters, if the player involved is low level or even just has a few bad rolls, the possibility for perma-death is high here.
Needless to say, in a campaign where players have committed to their characters, some of these cards could change everything in an instant. While I'm not one to write off the deck altogether, in a serious, long-term game, the Dungeon Master (we call them Quest Masters) needs to consider these negative possibilities and how they may affect the players' enjoyment of the game.
When Does it Work?
There are plenty of people out there who think that the Deck of Many Things is so broken that it has no place in any campaign. Personally, I don't think it warrants that level of wariness, but I do think it is a powerful enough item with serious enough consequences that any QM needs to be really careful about when and how it's introduced.
It seems pretty obvious that a Deck of Many Things should never be introduced into a low- or mid-level campaign, unless it's one where no one has any true investment in it other than the fun of the shenanigans the group gets up to. It can be an interesting element to toss into some higher level campaigns, though it isn't going to be a great fit for every game.
If the characters aren't likely to know what the deck is, one of the players may feel pressured to have their character pull a card out of in-game curiosity, even if the player knows the potential consequences of that. As the QM, though, you do have the ability to mitigate those damages a bit. For example, the players could stumble across a half-used deck, either while looting an enemy or after finding the aftermath of a card pull gone wrong, which could serve as both an in-game warning and lessen the odds that your players meet an unfortunate fate.
As with many things, I think the Deck of Many Things comes down to the Quest Master knowing their table and being prepared for any consequences that might occur.
Here's the crux of why I like the Deck of Many Things -- people are weird, so not everything we create has a logical purpose. Given science, we've made everything from talking tribbles to a robot that can travel to Mars and also sing itself a happy birthday song. If magic were real, I have no doubt we'd be constructing magical items just as odd.
Fantasy is full of wizards and sorcerers doing all sorts of things, both heroic and evil, but I like the idea of those middle-of-the-road guys out there just making weird things just because they can. Maybe it's a rug that has a new color scheme every day. Maybe it's a pot that will never boil water, no matter how hot it gets. Maybe, for the most advanced magic users, it's a deck of cards with seemingly insane effects.
In the end, D&D is all about stories -- and when have you ever heard of an encounter with a Deck of Many things that didn't end in an impressive tale?