The Despair Deck, and You.

The Wind up

At DDXP this year I was given the opportunity to sit in rooms full of awesome people from WoTC, Baldman Games, Freelancers and other generally awesome folk (Tracy, Matt, and the guy with the southern accent who’s name I’ve forgotten already [sorry!] – I’m looking at you!). I got to ask them annoying questions, beg for autographs, pick their brains and most importantly game with them, all the while attempting to contain myself and resist the urge to squeal with childish delight.

I was able to see a lot of upcoming and even some top secret stuff, which was awesome. Since I signed an NDA however, I won’t be telling you about any of that awesome, top secret stuff – because I’d have to kill you. Seriously. Or perhaps just because the Legend of Greg Bilsland is so rife with peril that I fear for my own life. So I’m here to tell you all about the awesome new despair deck, because I can talk enough about to entice you with it’s splendors and not have to fear being caught crossing one of two gentlemen who regularly play catch with the earth.

Aaaand The Pitch!

The despair deck is a set of 30 cards that will come with The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond boxed set, due out this coming May. There are 3 types of cards within the deck centralized around one of three core emotions; Madness, Apathy and Fear –  all of which are aptly named for the mechanics that stand behind them. The way the cards work is basically as follows: you draw a card, more likely than not a slightly detrimental effect is bestowed upon your character, you must try to overcome it and when you do, something good happens. There’s some great flavor text that goes along with each card that is usually an example of something your character might say while under it’s influence.

You carry the effect with you until you reach a milestone, at which point you make a saving throw and if succeeded, the debuff is lifted and you are granted a boon for overcoming whatever weight was on your shoulders. Most of the cards detail that if your character is trained in a certain corresponding skill, they will gain an added bonus to the saving throw made to shrug off whatever melancholy or skiddish effect they may be under. You also do not have to reveal your despair card(s) to other players, keeping it a secret can be half the fun.

The deck can be used at the beginning of each adventure as well as in multiple places throughout (DM discretion), such as certain rooms or perhaps after particularly poignant events (ex: trapped in a maze, a fellow party member dies, the characters becomes lost, etc.). There’s also no telling when you’ll come across the next despair inducing moment so there’s a chance you could have multiple effects, both good and bad on you simultaneously.

The Deck In Action

I found that the “detrimental” effects of the despair cards were actually more interesting and fun than anything truly hindering or game breaking, the effects are truly minor. The boons that you receive after overcoming them are also minor but add a great bit of flavor and sense of reward to the play experience. What I absolutely loved was the role playing that accompanied them, because by each player acting accordingly to the mechanical bits behind their card brought about an almost intrinsic role playing experience that was fun and easy to pull off.

Another thing that really makes the Despair Deck shine are the three different emotions that the cards are grouped into, which simultaneously allow the DM to really emphasize just one or two of the emotions within a certain piece of the story or encounter. This will still allow for some randomness and potentially great role playing opportunities while not makign things seem too out of place.

For instance if the PC’s wander into a foreboding graveyard where apathy or madness may not seem quite appropriate – the DM would present to them a truncated deck containing only the Fear cards. Another instance might be, perhaps a place where a dark blood ritual once ended horribly, players would only draw from a deck comprised of Madness and Fear cards, but not Apathy – you get the picture.

“So is this basicall Ravenloft for 4e?”

To clarify, a Ravenloft 4e product was never actually on any product release schedules, or given a slated date of any sort – it was an idea that was explored (as I’m sure many, many others are) that did not come to fruition. However the Shadowfell materials will be a great resource for those of us who want to run Ravenloft-esque games wrought with tension and horror, the entire idea behind the Shadowfell is that it is more than just a place but an force that permeates your very soul and effects your emotional state, very much like the Ravenloft mechanics of yore. So is this Ravenloft for 4e? No, but it might be exactly what you’re looking for.

It’s in the cards

Which brings me to touch on one final thought: “Cards in D&D” – a rather hot topic lately and one that I’ve until now, taken a side more towards being against than in favor of. Power cards for Gamma World? Sure. It’s random as hell and let’s face it you’re probably going to die anyway. A set of cards that is non collectible such as the despair deck, one time purchase? Sure, sign me up! But collectible cards for my D&D game via random booster packs? 5 days ago I would have said Hell No.

However after a night of playing with fortune cards I realized not only can they have many more uses than just for D&D Encounters players and power gamers, they could be used as a real incentive/reward in my home games. This places some cost burden on me, but I don’t mind because I love this hobby and I love my players (literally, for some of them). Oh did I also mention they’re fun and saved my ass from certain death?

I realize that you now all think I’m playing the devils advocate because I just spent a few days hanging out with the people whose livelihood may depend on such products gaining popularity. However, now my best advice includes “don’t knock it till you try it” and “if you don’t like it, vote with your wallet” as well as many other vague and cliche statements. In all seriousness though, cards being used in RPG’s isn’t exactly a new idea and has been around long before CCG’s existed or even became popular – calling it a money grab may be unfair.

Yeah 4$ for a pack of cards seems heinous, but isn’t paying 5$ for starbucks, cigarettes, or your 50th set of polyhedral dice? If gaming is a vice at least it’s one that gives back – through community, friendships, fun memories and challenges conquered. I’ve had a weekend here playing with these folks that I’ll not soon forget. I hope you enjoyed reading about the Despair Deck. It’s almost 5am, I’m off to bed.


  1. We were also joined last night by Andy Heckt (Wizards of the Coast) and Steve Townsend (Freelance Author for WotC). And of course, little ole me. 🙂

    Great review of the Despair cards – I love the tension they added to the game last night, without introducing outright conflict in the party. Given the we were in, it was a perfect addition to the game, pulling at and toying with emotions around the table.

    Can’t wait to roll dice with you again sometime. 🙂

  2. Question 1: Can a player have more than one despair card in play at a time or does a current effect need to be overcome before the DM can slap on a new one?

    Question 2: Are the mechanics basic enough that a DM could add these to an older edition of the game without too much trouble, or are the affects very much a “4e” thing?

    Overall, I like any mechanic that can help players roleplay their characters more. The way you describe these cards makes me think of a movie director trying to give clues to an actor’s motivations, “You feel an unbearable sense of melancholy and isolation. Go with that! Act”

    • @Joe

      Q1: Yes, to my knowledge

      Q2: Yes, in my opinion it could easily work in other editions.

      Your overall assumption is pretty spot on, these cards are pure gold and now I can’t wait for may to roll around.

      @WolfStar I had a blast dude, looking forward to playing with you again come GenCon time. Everyone was hilarious and super enthusiastic!

  3. I’ve maybe misunderstood, but when does the DM hand these out? At the start of the adventure? At some time prescribed during the adventure or encounter? On a failed Will check? Or just arbitrarily?

    You also say, ‘don’t knock it till you try it’ and ‘vote with your wallet’, but I ain’t buying anything based on random boosters ever again. I want at least a fair chance of being able to collect a whole set of anything without potentially spending 100s of $$$. i.e. like I did with minis; I literally spent 100s of dollars and still don’t have a complete set of any of them. If I want to complete those sets I now have to buy singles at highly inflated prices. And that’s why boosters suck ass – because the people who make them (not just WotC) know that those people with even a small amount of OCD will throw money at them. And let’s face it, most gamers have obsessive personalities.

  4. @Brindy The DM hands them out at their discretion, in my play experience at the start of one of our adventures we were given one straightaway (we were in a rather haunting place) I’m assuming some published adventures may have prescribed points at which it will ask the DM to use them. Not nescessarily on a failed will check but that could be a great use for them, it’s really all up to the DM.

    In regards to the second part of your comment, I’m not going to argue with you one bit. I’m no industry pro and so the side of ‘random boosters’ to me is only from a consumers point of view. I’m not a completist and I already have a slight MTG habit so I probably won’t be buying a ton, but I’ll definitely check them out in hopes my players garner some enjoyment from being rewarded some from time to time.

  5. Thanks for the write up. They seem like a great idea but, like others, I’m reluctant to spend money on randomly packed cards.

    Two questions, though:

    1) Could you use both the Despair deck and a Fortune deck of cards together?

    2) How are Fortune cards packed? Is it like CCGs, where you get a rare card, 2 uncommons and the rest common?

  6. Thanks for the great review. I was already looking forward to that product, and after reading your review, I’ll definitely be picking it up on the day it arrives in my FLGS!

  7. A little late to the party, but I’m sold on the idea of the Despair Deck.
    But the Player cards still don’t do it for me.
    How much do they effect the power-balance? Do they unbalance an encounter?
    And my biggest question, it feels that Essentials was built to consolidate the options a player has, and adding a hand of cards just gives them more options which means more time spent on a turn and lengthens an already long encounter, is this feeling accurate?

    • The fortune card’s really don’t effect power balance all that much in much opinion, just a nice touch for clinch moments etc. Yes essentials is aimed at consolidating player decisions but the fortune deck only provides one option, a player can only draw one card at a time and hold it until they use it or decide to discard it, at which point they only draw one more card. So really it’s only one extra optional option. Hope I was able to answer your question 🙂

  8. I like the idea of giving out fortune cards as rewards. In fact, I was already starting to do this (in a way). I like the idea of the “achievements” in most modern games, and so I created a couple dozen of these for my home campaign. When a player earns an achievement, they generally earn a permanent bonus to some aspect of the game. Here’s a couple examples:

    Achievement: “Boards… don’t hit back”
    Criteria: Character breaks a wooden object in a single blow.
    Bonus: Character does double damage against inanimate wooden objects.

    Achievement: “Fail at Life?”
    Criteria: Character rolls a critical failure four times in a single encounter, or rolls two consecutive failures.
    Bonus: While unconscious, the character receives a +1 bonus to death saves.

4 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Tweets that mention The Despair Deck, and you. --
  2. The D&D Experience : Critical Hits
  3. RedeRPG » O Baralho do Desespero
  4. The D&D Experience — Critical Hits

Shoot An Arrow At It