Three articles in one day? Absurd! Slow day at work. So far, I’ve had two tasks that each took less than 10 minutes and I attended a phone-in meeting that lasted about 15 minutes. Shh… Don’t tell the boss.
The theme of three kind of segues into the focus of this article, the 3-Dragon Ante deck. But that’s where the similarity ends.
Many many many years ago, I read a series of novels by Piers Anthony, Tarot. The novels are barely memorable, but in them they presented a 5-suit, 100-card tarot deck with 30 major arcana, as compared to the popular Rider-Waite deck consisting of 78 cards, including 22 major arcana. At the time (late high school, early college – which I know, dates me if you’re clever enough to do the research and math), I was unaware of the published tarot decks so I hand-drew my own deck on index cards, and thanks to an available laminating machine in the AV office at my high school, I laminated them… Along with hundreds of other things that were important to me at the time, like Star Fleet Battles stat sheets. Instead of spending a period each day in study hall, I spent my senior year “working” in the AV office. For that period (I think 3rd, but I could be wrong), I was the kid who delivered and retrieved TVs with VCRs to classrooms. I learned how to set up and operate them as well, because for many teachers, this was foreign technology.
Anyway, I played around with these cards, doing “readings” with them, but always as a joke or something fun to do at a party. Then I met the woman who became my first wife. She had a copy of the classic Rider-Waite tarot deck, and taught me how to read them. And more importantly, that it wasn’t necessarily all a big joke. There were people who took this stuff seriously!
Fast forward to present day. I’m now remarried (the first wife sadly passed away from diabetes complications) and the woman I married wants nothing to do whatsoever with occult icons like tarot decks. Several years ago, Wizards of the Coast published the 3-Dragon Ante deck. This game could be played stand-alone or in conjunction with a D&D adventure. My opinion of the card game aside, I like the cards. The artwork, design, and all that. I thought… what the heck? Let’s see if I can work them into my setting.
My first thought was to turn them into a fortune-telling deck. I assigned an arbitrary divination meaning to each card, loosely based on the type of dragon (or hero). In the adventure, the party encountered a fortune teller using these cards. In advance of the session, I designed a custom spread (I’ve never been a fan of the classic Celtic Cross spread) and came up with a divination for each character where I related their backstory to current and future events in the game.
This session didn’t go very well and, while the “lore” remains, it’s mostly unused and forgotten. However… there’s always a however, I had the brilliant idea during a game session to award a Dragon Card to the party as a treasure. I pulled a card randomly from the deck and told the players they found this card. Whoever holds the card gains some sort of benefit (in the case of chromatic dragons, an associated drawback.) So a new idea was born!
I played around with this idea for a bit and thought of how I could incorporate another Steeleye Span song, Longbone. Woo hoo! The song describes a giant living on the Island of Scone who destroys a ship, captures the king, and says that the treasure cannot be taken. This got worked into the building history, and tied in with one of the PC’s backstories. What if Longbone is a red dragon who is worshiped by monks in a monastery on a remote island, as if he were a god? And “the gold you’ll never own” isn’t treasure, but a captured gold dragon? The King wanted to free the gold dragon because he needed a powerful ally in whatever war efforts he had going on. After all, if you have a dragon on your side, what power can you wield?
But the dragons are trapped in cards. Sixty three of them, anyway. Let’s weave this in with the story of the Cursed Wand and see where it goes. This gets us deeper into Syreni’s story. Back up a couple centuries before her time, let’s say there was a great war between the dragons who wanted to take control of the cursed wand for reasons. The chromatics want to control the wand’s power while the metallics want to keep the wand away from civilization. Because of the destruction caused by this great dragon war (which, in a way, relates to another character’s backstory, a dragonborn cleric, specifically), seven adventurers found a way to trap the last sixty three surviving dragons into a sort of suspended animation. There’s even a D&D 5e spell that kind of does this. While they managed to trap the dragons into the cards, the power of the wand ended up trapping the adventurers as well, constituting the seven adventurer cards in the deck.
When Syreni’s husband first found the wand, it was in a lockbox. Also in the lockbox was the original, complete Dragon deck. When he brought these to his wife, she recorded the cards, but, when she realized they had their own powers, she had him take the deck back out to sea.
When the storm hit and sunk the ship, the wand sunk to the bottom but most of the cards were scattered. Over the course of about 1200 years, the cards found their way into various treasure hoards, the possession of traveling merchants, or just buried in the sand a on beach somewhere. My original idea was that I’d throw in a card every now and then when one of the groups found a treasure, and it would be fun. A couple exceptions – one of the red dragons and one of the gold dragons had been freed from the cards and were living on the Island of Scone, and somehow, the gold dragon was trapped or imprisoned by the red. I’ll get more into that story some other time.
But as it happens, one gift to the party caused me a lot of hassle, and it took me several months to truly fix it (I actually finished it a couple weeks ago!) The first party met up with a Tiefling Ranger/Bounty Hunter who’s mission was to capture Saxton Baird (remember him?) and bring him to Ventusa. The goal was to prevent Saxton from returning to Linne and reclaim his birthright. Presently, Cithara is the witch on the Council of Linne, and her curse is to bring about war. She’s managed to alienate the councilors and war is brewing between the nations. Some of the motivations are a bit vague, but it was enough to convince the players that this needed to be dealt with properly. Anyway, the second session we had a guest player who I gave the NPC to run. My expectation was the bounty hunter would be killed off in the first session, but when run by the guest player, he wasn’t killed. In fact, it wasn’t for another 4 or 5 sessions that he acted against the party, ran off with Saxton, and met up with Ventusa. In this character’s arsenal was a seemingly innocuous magical device. If you drop this hair-pin and say the name of someone, the pin would land pointing toward that someone. Great device for a bounty hunter, and in the hands of an adventuring party, seems like a useful item to help them find their quest goals a bit easier, right? (The bounty hunter was killed, but the witch got away.)
Ugh. A few sessions later, I introduced the story of the cards. A couple sessions after that, one of the players realizes that if he knew the actual dragon names, he could use the pin to locate the cards. I couldn’t just retcon the whole thing. I had to allow it. Well, since the dragons were technically in an alternate plane of existence, I might have been able to avoid it, but that was stretching things. All they needed was the names of the 63 dragons and 7 adventurers. They knew one name: Longbone, and sure enough, the pin pointed directly at the Island of Scone. For more names, they went to the local libraries and started researching. “I’ll get back to you on that.”
No longer could I just drop a random card in a monster’s treasure. I had to go through all 70 cards, name the dragons, and figure out where their cards were. By this time, my world map was done, and I knew where Syreni’s husband’s ship was lost. Extrapolating from there, I randomly “placed” cards all throughout the world, projecting where the card washed ashore, who found it (if it was found), and what was done with it. I also figured out each special ability for the card, determined the personality of the dragon along with their curse (if they were cursed.) Next I figured out how to unlock the cards and free the dragons. And finally, figured out the mini-adventure associated with finding and recovering the cards. In some cases, it was easy. Other cases not so… one card is in the hoard of a kraken. Three cards are protected by a dragon turtle. And so on. Now, as the PCs accumulated the names of the dragons, they could figure out where the cards are. Coupled with simple mathematical triangulation, they have more than just a direction, but an actual location. (It’s kind of interesting when a card is moving, like the one on a merchant ship sailing the Innerrim Sea.)
It’s kind of ironic that the group without the magic locator device has found more cards than the group that has it. And released more of the dragons. They were about even (one difference) until the last session for the second group. They found the wrecked ship still caught in the whirlpool in the middle of the sea. A roll of 30 on perception will do this. On it was six cards.