I’ve returned home from sunny Ft. Wayne, Indiana, and I’m intensely glad I did so yesterday because the incoming SNOWCTOPUS VS. DEBBIE FROST-GIBSON would have made travel very perilous indeed if I left a day later. Let me get all my Winter-hatin’ out of the way here in these first couple sentences and I will do nothing but shoot pure awesome for the rest of this recap. Current cause of winter-hate: our fearless leader Dave the Game and E. from Geek’s Dream Girl, who were to be my allies on this adventure (also: roommates) got snowed in completely and couldn’t make it to the convention. Aside from the obvious sadness that I wouldn’t be able to see my friends, this event featured several deluxe repercussions. First, all the Gamma World “In A Fallacy Far, Far Away” games were cancelled. I was denied the chance to play a droid programmed to insult people. I am saddened. Second, and more importantly, Dave was going to cover lots of important events while at DDXP. As Dave is not currently capable of projecting his Astral self, his absence predicated the need for someone else to do it.
Suddenly, I found myself in the same position every unlikely hero in this modern age finds themselves in at some point: uttering various swear words into a cellular phone.
Fortunately, backup plans were soon concocted and communicated to me, and soon I faced my first real challenge as the interim Hand of Critical Hits: liveblogging the New Products Seminar. Holy crap. People talk very quickly.
A lot of neat things got announced, like the new boardgames (Wrath of Ashardalon, Legend of Drizzt, and Conquest of Nerath) and the expansion covering the Shadowfell. The Madness at Gardmore Abbey Boxed Set is the sleeper hit of the lineup as far as most of the people I’ve talked to are concerned, what with the Deck of Many Things it comes with.
Cards for their RPGs seem to be a big thing for WotC this year. Also coming out are Fortune Cards for players to spice up their combat. I got to play with them a little bit during a couple of games, and I’m not sure how I feel about them yet. They’re fun for sure, but they feel a little overpowered somehow.
On a more depressing note (for your PC anyway), I got to take a look at a Despair deck from the upcoming Shadowfell set. The setting messes with your characters emotions and wears them down, which is represented in-game with these cards, which will say a condition like “apathy” or “madness” and the in-game effect it has on your PC. It also encourages roleplaying these conditions by having a boon the player gets if their PC can overcome the effects. It makes my roleplaying antennae all tingly.
A lot of people were disappointed to hear the news that several hotly-anticipated products were no longer coming (most notably, the Ravenloft campaign set and Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium.) This part of the seminar was the first time I heard the WotC guys start talking about being mindful of how people are using their products, and trying to make sure they don’t just crank out book after book that nobody wants. I heard it a lot this weekend, and while I am disappointed, this should hopefully calm the fires a little for those of you who think they’re trying to bleed every penny from us by cranking out endless half-assed material. They’re using the data gathered from the Character Builder to find out what classes are being played and what aren’t, and they’re trying to find out why so they can make better stuff. While it didn’t make for a seminar that blew my face off with how amazing all the new things were, it made me feel like things were moving in a good direction for my face to eventually get gently blown off consistently at future seminars.
WotC’s Dark Secrets
Up to this point, I was having a lot of fun and I was riding a high from not completely screwing up the liveblogging earlier. Then, it was like a weird dream where I had a bunch of WotC R&D guys around me most of the time. I distinctly looking at a section on the DDXP website marked “Access to Wizards Staff” before the convention, and thinking it must be a load of crap. Yeah, they’re being completely serious. I’m not sure if it’s just because DDXP doesn’t pull in the huge numbers that Gen Con does, or because Fort Wayne only has a couple good places to eat right by the convention center, or if there’s some sort of singularity that sucks in game designers, but it was really hard to go anywhere without seeing someone responsible in some way for you rolling dice in D&D.
I had a particularly interesting conversation with Greg Bilsland one night on the way back to the hotel. We were talking about the Gamma World booster packs, and how there were a lot of new card-based products coming soon, and I mentioned how I’ve heard more than a couple people worry that WotC is trying to turn D&D into Magic: The Gathering (or, at least, its business model). He explained to me something I hadn’t previously considered: they don’t want to compete with their own product. They already have an extremely successful TCG. As they mentioned in the new product seminar, the reason for things like the new Fortune Cards is that they want to offer new things to the players because DMs buy the lion’s share of their products. This gives players cool new stuff to buy, and WotC another avenue of business to pursue. The WotC guys were happy to share a lot of stuff most of us had no idea about. D&D minis are going away because the global economy sucks and it’s not profitable to make them anymore – and the whole R&D team is bummed because they love minis (several of them admitted to “coffin-sized” or larger collections.) I even found out why female Dragonborn have boobs – originally they were just smaller than males, and people either didn’t know they were female or just thought they were small and weak. Sure, I can think of a couple examples of how the gender of non-mammalian creatures are displayed in nature, but in the end I really don’t care – I consider scaly boobs a win-win for everyone.
It may come as a surprise to some of our angrier readers (especially those of you who think we’ve sold our souls and opinions), but I don’t really care because this needs to get said: every single WotC staff member I’ve ever met in person has been awesome. I don’t mean that in a creepy fanboy kind of way (this time, anyway). What I mean is, they seem to be good people who really want to take this game and make it so people have fun (and, it follows, keep buying their stuff so they stay in business). I base this on four days filled with hanging out with Greg Bilsland, Mike Mearls, Chris Perkins, Chris Tulach, Mike Robles, and Trevor Kidd. I went to their seminars. I ate several quesadillas in their presence. We all talked about the various ways Heavy Rain on the PS3 grabbed our emotions by the face. I played in an utterly insane Gamma World game run by Mike Robles and we all thoroughly disturbed most of the patrons and wait staff of an Irish pub. They’re real people, and I enjoyed their company. I daresay I have a lot of respect for them, and I still would if someone removed my fanboy gland. All I really got out of this that the average joe might not was an invite to play in a couple games. I am not that cheap of a date.
I mean, sure, there’s stuff they can’t talk about because somebody would lose their job or get sued, but they typically will say something really sinister like “I can’t talk about that without getting in trouble.” I can’t count the number of times I heard a variation of “we want to make this fun to play”, “we want to make things people will use in a form they’ll use it in”, or “we really want to hear your feedback so we can try to make things as good as possible.” They all play, and I *gasp* even heard some talk about playing games made by other companies. The whole time I was at DDXP, it sure seemed to me like I was talking to real people who had real opinions and good ideas (whether I agreed with them or not). So, in my opinion, either they’re trying to be good stewards of the game we all love, they are or they’re amazingly skilled at deception. I guess they could be realistic androids designed to brainwash us into giving them our credit card numbers. Crap, I should have thought of that.
How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love 4th Edition
It’s been my secret nerd shame lately that I really didn’t care for 4e. My biggest issue was that everything felt homogeneous – or, in layman’s terms, “everybody is now a wizard.” Fighters now cast spells with their axe, sort of. Everything has a name and a spell effect. And, unfortunately, I had a kid and most of my gaming group moved away and I really didn’t get to play 4e very much for a couple years, didn’t get used to it, and never changed my opinions one bit.
Fortunately, they have developed a way to get used to 4th Edition in one day. It’s called the Battle Interactive, and you play D&D for about 10-11 hours. I had yet to play any defender-role classes in my illustrious 4e career, and so I chose a Cavalier. This was also my first experience with the new Character Builder, and I was absolutely stunned at how fast I had an Essentials-ready Cavalier rolled up. It literally took me three times longer to print it out. (That poor little laser printer, it deserves a medal for valorous service.) I had also long thought that keeping track of marks and who was bloodied and lots of other stuff we never had to deal with in nice safe comfortable 3.5e slowed the game to a crawl and made things needlessly complex. Well, as it turns out, it’s not so hard. Also, people don’t play 4e like it’s brand new to them anymore, and I saw several easy ways to handle such things (my favorite being little colored plastic rings as if someone had been collecting tokens from successful milk jug safaris). I know all of this is old hat for most of you. Allow me the joy of discovery, damn you!
As I said, all of this was for a very long and combat-heavy event called the Battle Interactive, and I had the pleasure of having WotC’s community manager Trevor Kidd battling alongside me. For those of you who have played in a Living Forgotten Realms event, imagine that, and then super-size it. Basically, a large battle is being fought, and each table does its part, and the aggregate result of these smaller battles affects the larger story. This is as awesome as it sounds. There are also other opportunities for people to affect the story. We all had to vote on whether to raise or lower a city’s defenses to allow easier troop deployment, and we wound up paying for our decision to take it down later on. (I told you guys not to do it! But you didn’t listen!)
Probably my very favorite memory of the entire convention happened when they asked for volunteers to go on a suicide mission. We were a bunch of level 1 guys. It made sense. There were several volunteers, so Trevor went up to plead our case, which was “We’re Expendable!” Nobody expected the whole room to cheer and give us the job, but that’s what happened. So we found ourselves playing Aragorn and trying to talk an army of the dead to come help us out. This army happened to be elven, and we had our work cut out for us since I was playing a dwarf. Also, we had this penchant for rolling numbers between 1 and 3 on all our checks. Fortunately, the DM went a little easy on us in that department because he was enjoying all the roleplay our group was doing. For the record, I was too. After a couple hours of battle, trying to talk a murderous elven ghost-general into helping a dwarf was downright refreshing. We did eventually talk the dead elves into helping us out, but some of them decided to kill us anyway. Man, that was a hard battle. Turns out the suicide missions were set 5 levels above the party’s level. I have no idea how we won, even with Trevor’s level 3 cleric. It felt completely awesome that we got to do something huge to help the good guys win the war.
Then, Trevor asks me how I spell my Twitter handle. I’m thinking he’s going to post “Having fun at the Battle Interactive with @direflail and other cool dudes” on his personal Twitter feed. Nope. He goes and posts this, which I didn’t see until later and at which time I made very unseemly noises. For those of you who haven’t met Trevor Kidd, he’s a great guy who loves to use his powers for good. I would hang out with him if he worked at Steak and Shake instead of WotC. But, I won’t lie. That was rad. Also super cool was that they were handing out powerful magic item certificates usable in Living Forgotten Realms to a few lucky players, and apparently the D&D gods were with me that night because I got a totally sweet elven cloak of protection. I know it’s just a piece of paper but I felt like I won the damned Lotto for a minute there. I was in full-on immersive gaming happiness mode, and there was copious icing on this cake.
Many exciting battles later (which, at this point, I knew well 4e was capable of supporting because I was having a blast soaking damage with that Cavalier), we finally rooted out the bad guys and saved Myth Drannor from unspeakable evil. We laughed. We cried. We found out it’s not a good idea to heal a wizard if he’s surrounded by demons who get a free attack if he spends a healing surge. I’ve never played in anything quite like this. I would do it again in a heartbeat. I was excited to hear they’re expanding it to run at Origins this year as well. I just wish they’d do it at Gen Con. Mostly because I’m going to Gen Con.
I did a lot of cool stuff at DDXP this year. More than one post’s worth, even! So you’re just going to have to wait to hear about Ashes of Athas. Make your save vs. sadness.