Aug 13, 2010

Gen Con Aftermath: New Products for 2010 and 2011

Sadly, since I had to cut my Gen Con trip short, I wasn't around for the Saturday seminar where the folks from WotC announced a bunch of new products for 2011. But I did eagerly follow every Twitter link and blog post I could find.

I had some initial reactions to the announcements, but decided to sit on them for a while before writing down my thoughts, and I'm glad I did, since some of my initial reactions changed the more I thought about it.

One thing that didn't change was my sub headline for this blog post:

2011 - The Year Everything Changes

Technically you could say that things are changing right now with regards to D&D 4e, but it wasn't until I saw the product list for 2011 that I realized that what we'll be seeing in the upcoming months from WotC for 4e sets the stage for the "new normal".

What I'm specifically referring to are the game changes that will be part of the new D&D Essentials line. We've known about the Essentials line for a while now, but only recently with several online previews (and a significant general rules update) were we getting details on what to expect. As I point out in my post on the Gen Con Delve I played, I like many of the changes that we'll be seeing in the new products, and look forward to picking up at least the new Red Box starter set (and if you don't already know, that starter set will only have this "throwback jersey" design for the first printing. Additional print runs of the set will have a cover treatment more in line with the other Essentials products).

Looking at these changes, I see a significant shift in character mechanics, as compared to their 4e counterparts. At this point I'll add the obligatory mention that Essentials does not render previous 4e materials obsolete (as the 3.5 launch did to 3.0 materials), but 4e characters can be played along side Essentials counterparts. Time will ultimately tell how much support the new and old continue to receive.

And looking at the new products for 2011, I see a similar shift in what is being developed. Not appearing on the 2011 schedule is anything like PHB4 or DMG3 (though I read somewhere that their might be an Epic Level DMG in 2012). Instead there's going to be an Unearthed Arcana-like options book for Players and DMs (Champions of the Heroic Tier) and a magic item book with more detailed items, possibly for more role playing value (Mordenkenian’s Magical Emporium), along with a name change for the yearly monster book (Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale).

Clearly there is a shift in the product names to move away from the bland "book #" format, to titles with more evocative and interesting names, and I certainly applaud this minor change. These names are already more inspiring than Martial Power 2 or Monster Manual 3.

Another interesting change in the upcoming products seems to be the inclusion of more cards into the game. The Fortune Cards, along with the Despair Deck (from Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond), not the mention the granddaddy of all card decks, the Deck of Many Things (available in the Madness of Gardmore Abbey mega-adventure) look to add new elements of randomness and variation into the game.

As for the Fortune Cards, I'm not sure what to expect, but it seems like we've already seen this type of product before. Will this be more like the new Plot Twist cards from Paizo, or the older Atlas Games Dork 20 cards for D&D 3.5? The only difference here is that these will be sold in booster packs instead of complete decks, a decision I don't approve of. While WotC says these aren't meant to be collected, I can image more than a few people eager to get a complete set regardless.

The other major shifts we'll be seeing next year are more Box Sets, something we haven't seen in quantity since the days of 2e. Supposedly, Box Sets were very expensive to produce and had a higher return rate over books as they would dent more easily and major book store chains would return large numbers of damaged product. I for one am happy to see the return of the Box Set and mega adventures with plenty of maps and tokens and space for my own hand written notes and additions.

Also making a comeback is a setting specific print product, specifically the Neverwinter Campaign Guide for the Forgotten Realms. This marks a change from the previous position that each setting will only be supported by two books. I like the idea that a given setting might need more than the two book limit, so long as it doesn't open the floodgates of old. What I don't want to see is half a dozen FR or Dark Sun books coming out in a given year.

Something new we'll be seeing next year are a few books in a 6 x 9 softcover format. I like softcover books and for some time thought that WotC should have a cheaper softcover version of the PHB available for cost conscious players or as a second travel book for players and DMs. It now looks like I'll be getting this with the new Rules Compendium. I hope this is priced accordingly and turns out to be successful.

Lastly, one of the products that I was initially bearish about was the new campaign setting, Ravenloft. While I like the setting, the news that this new version would feature playable vampire and werewolf characters wreaked of pandering to the Twilight/True Blood/Vampire Diaries crowd. After thinking about this for a while, I changed my position. Plenty of d20/3.x products allowed players access to these iconic monster types, and if it helps bring new players to D&D (as Vampire did to the RPG hobby in general), I don't see this as a bad thing.

Certainly I don't want to see the overall mood of the Demiplane of Dread altered into a teen angst setting, but I have enough trust in WotC to find enough game space in the setting for all kinds of play in the Gothic horror tradition.

2011 certainly looks like an interesting year to be a fan!

P.S. This will be my last post-Gen Con article. While there is much more I could comment on, I'm sure other people have already made mention of this or that aspect of the con. I now return you to your regular blog...

Aug 11, 2010

Gen Con Aftermath: The Delve

Besides Castle Ravenloft, one of the other games I played this year at Gen Con was the Dungeon Delve. This was a short event, where a party of pre-gen characters goes through about two encounters in a one hour time limit.

This year the pre-gens were all built using the upcoming D&D Essentials ruleset. For this very reason, I was greatly interested in trying this out to get a taste of how these characters would behave. For the one game I played (due to other commitments, I didn't have time to play the delve more than once), I chose to play the slayer (fighter).

If you haven't already read about the slayer, check out the preview article posted on the official site.

The one thing I really liked was the new Stance ability. This allowed me to modify my basic attack with either a stance that gave me +1 to hit, or one that granted +2 to damage. I think this is much better than the previous at-will powers, which effectively negated the need to ever use a basic attack. Also, the lack of daily powers all makes sense for fighter types as well, "Once I do this maneuver, I can't recall how to do it again till tomorrow?". Once thing I really want to see is how Essential characters, particularly the fighters, stack up against PHB fighter builds.

The delve itself was rather simple, as we entered one room, there were a pair of creatures waiting to attack (and a few others that sprung up a few rounds later), and when we entered the next room, more of the same. In each room, at least one player was close to getting killed, but lucked out in the end and everyone survived. I had heard of other tables yielding TPKs, or characters being killed before even getting their first action--that's what I call a long way to spend an hour!

By the way, I'm not trying to criticize the game, format, or time limit. I think this was a great way to show off the new character builds and throw in some quick combat to "kick the tires".

The other nice thing about the delve is that you earned points each time you played, and those points could be used for items that you could bring back to the delve at a later session. After one game, I was able to get upgrades to my armor and weapon. If only I had the chance to go back later!

Aug 9, 2010

Gen Con Aftermath: Castle Ravenloft Board Game

Having been home from Gen now for two days (I had to cut my visit short as I had family obligations on Saturday), I thought I should jot down some of my experiences, and thoughts.

Originally I planned to draft a long post covering all the things I saw, played, and thought during the three days I was there (from early Wednesday through late Friday), but rather than one catch all post, I've decided to write up a number of short posts, all under the "Gen Con Aftermath" title, on various topics related to the convention. Up first was the first game I played at the con... the new Castle Ravenloft board game.

The first thing to note is that many of the game mechanics are based on the D&D 4th Edition game. Heroes are based on the races and classes from D&D--for the game, I played a Dragonborn Fighter, while the other players had similarly familiar races and classes. Each character had a stat card (on very thick card stock--the same as the dungeon tiles sets). On one side were stats as a first level character, on the back, stats for a 2nd level version. I started out at 1st level, but a mechanic in the game allowed me to advance to 2nd level during the session.

In addition, I had a number of ability cards to review and select at-will, utility, and daily powers. This is just one of the ways that the game is customized each time you play. Another way each game can be unique is that the box offers several different scenarios to play.

The box includes several scenarios, setup instructions for each, decks of cards for encounters and monsters, miniatures with molds reused from the D&D miniatures line (though these minis are unpainted and made with cheaper plastic), and cardboard tokens for hit points, items, and condition markers like slowed and immobilized.

In addition to all that, the game includes a stack of connecting tiles that represent the rooms and corridors of the castle. When a player token is about to walk off the known game board, a random tile is pulled from the pile and added to the board. This is another way that insures the game never plays the same twice, even if the same players go through the same scenario.

The random tiles also determine if random monsters, encounters, or other events occur when a new area is first explored. Thought the victory conditions are the same for each scenario, the route to get there, and what is encountered along the way, are unique with each game play.

For our scenario, we had to retrieve an item from the castle chapel and kill all the monsters in that room. There wasn't a boss monster in this one, unlike some of the other scenarios which features hags, werewolves, and even Count Strahd himself.

As we moved through the castle, we encountered creatures like rat swarms, zombies, and a kobold in one case. Combat played out like an abbreviated version of D&D combat--use one of your at-will, utility, or daily powers along with a d20 roll to hit. If you exceed the monster AC, it died (there were a few monsters that took two hits to kill). As players defeated monsters, they received treasure cards that could be anything from a potion, to a magical enhancement to a weapon--and treasures could be shared among the party for maximum effect.

For monsters attacking PCs, things were a bit different. Each card had a series of conditions; if X condition, then the monster would do Y (allowing the monsters to have basic behavior without the need for a DM). For example, if there was a player in the same tile, it would move to the closest one and attack. If the monster's attack roll hit, it would do hit point damage that the player would keep track of.

None of the encounters were so hard that any of the characters died, though we did have to use one of our two group healing surges to keep one player alive. The final encounter had the potential to be lethal, but the group was strong enough for everyone to survive.

Overall, I thought the game was very enjoyable, with a fast pace that would allow a few scenarios to be played during an evening around the table. I also think the D&D rules lite mechanics makes it easy for any current player to dive right in with little preparation. I think this would make a fine addition to any gaming bookshelf, a great thing to pull out one evening when the whole group can't get together. Lastly, since the minis and tiles are compatible with D&D minis, creative DMs could use this during a regular D&D game.

Aug 3, 2010

Gen Con Prep

For the first time in a few years, I'm heading out to Gen Con. Thinking back, I realize that the last time I was there, was the release of 3e.

But more than that, I realize that this is the first time I'm going to Gen Con in the social media era. Last time I went, there were plenty of email threads and web pages for this and that, but as I get ready this time, I realized that I'm looking at a variety of sources, from blog posts, and Twitter feeds, to YouTube videos and finding a wealth of ideas and suggestions that I hadn't thought.

And not just the variety of info, but the ease with which I can go from a tweet, to a blog, to a podcast or video really made planning and prepping this year much easier than in the past.

I don't know if other people are leveraging all the great info out there, but I certainly am, and I for one thank everyone who's posted a suggestion, or link, or video... see you in Indianapolis!