Sunday, March 20, 2011

fortune cards & (not) the end of civilization as we know it: part 1

WotC released the first set of D&D Fortune Cards, Shadow Over Nentir Vale, on 8 February 2011, ready to use with the new D&D Encounters season. According to WotC promotional material (“So Just What Exactly Are Fortune Cards, Anyway?”),

Fortune Cards are a new D&D gameplay enhancement that showcase the chaotic nature of adventuring in a fantastic world of danger and magic. Every time players begin an encounter, they draw cards from their decks of Fortune Cards, activating the game benefit at the appropriate time. Each card provides a game effect that enhances attacks, defenses, or provides some other sort of benefit to a player character. For example, a card might provide some temporary damage resistance, a bonus on your next attack roll if you charge, or give you a reroll when a certain condition is triggered.

Fortune Cards are available in 8-card booster packs (MSRP of $3.99 each) with differing levels of rarity (common, uncommon, and rare), and serve as another avenue for excitement at the game table. Players can crack open boosters of cards just prior to participating in a game session, or come with pre-built decks. With each booster, a player’s tactical options for their character during the game are altered and expanded in interesting ways.

It’s important to point out that Fortune Cards are not a requirement for D&D play; they are an enhancement that simulates blind luck, the winds of fate, or divine influence. And they are an enhancement to the gameplay experience— they can be added or removed from a game when desired. Once you start to use them, you’ll see that they actually help to focus player actions and provide interesting tactical opportunities that you may not have considered previously.
Since Fortune Cards were being released last month in connection with the start of March of the Phantom Brigade— and since I would be DMing MotPB at a local game store here in Colorado— I was curious as to how the players at the Encounters sessions would take to the “new D&D gameplay enhancement.”

I had also been amused to see the number of alarmist blog articles and forum postings in the 4e D&D community that were bashing WotC for the release of Fortune Cards. These articles and postings were blaming Fortune Cards for everything from being the final nail in the coffin of 4e D&D to being the event that heralded the end of western civilization as we know it. (I mean, c’mon, people… everyone knows that the introduction of digital watches heralded the end of western civilization as we know it.)

I found it amusing that so many people were bashing WotC for selling Fortune Cards because the critical articles and disparaging postings were being written before the cards went on sale to the public and therefore were being written before anyone had used the cards in actual gameplay. One thoughtful and sensitive Fortune Card critic titled his rant: “4e D&D Goes Full Retard.” On my local D&D gaming group website, one player who posted to a forum thread titled “Fortune Cards?”, dismissed the cards as “just another marketing ploy by WotC to try and make money.” I saw this criticism echoed in other forums on other gaming sites and wondered if there are people out there who truly think WotC is some sort of not-for-profit charity catering to the whims of fickle D&D enthusiasts. WotC may have employees who are passionate gamers and who have an emotional stake in the D&D brand, but WotC is first and foremost a business seeking to make a profit.

Another poster to that same forum thread said that he would forbid the use of Fortune Cards at any of the multiple games he DMs each week, and he would discourage their use at any LFR or RPGA events where he was the DM. If a player insisted on using the cards at such an event anyway, he said that he’d modify the monster stats so that any benefit the cards granted to a player would be negated. The DM of my Sunday afternoon Keep on the Shadowfell game said, “If a player wants to use Fortune Cards at my table I will allow it under one condition: he has to share them with the entire table—including the DM.”

With all of the buzz surrounding the release of the cards, I was pleased as Punch to find that some promotional packs had been included with my DM kit for MotPB. There were enough cards in the kit for me to pass out a pack to each player at the first session of MotPB, and also for me to keep some cards for myself for, um, you know, research purposes.

Before handing out the cards at that first session of MotPB, I hopped on and printed enough copies of the Fortune Cards rules that I could give each player their own copy. The rules are as follows:


You can use all the cards of one or more D&D Fortune Cards boosters as your deck. Each player brings his or her own deck to the game.

At the start of each encounter, shuffle your deck and draw a card.

You can play one card per round. It requires no action to play. The rules on each card state when you can play it and what effect it has. A card takes effect just once unless it states otherwise, and you discard the card when its effect ends.

You can have only one Fortune Card in your hand at a time. At the start of each of your turns, you can do one of the following”
  • Discard the card in your hand and draw a new one.

  • Draw a new card if you don’t have one in your hand.

  • Keep the card that’s in your hand if you haven’t played it.

You can also build and play with your own customized deck of Fortune Cards. Each card in the Shadow Over Nentir Vale set belongs to one of three categories: Attack, Defense, or Tactics. The card’s face displays its category.

A custom Fortune Card deck can contain any multiple of 10 cards (10, 20, 30, and so on). For every 10 cards in your deck, you must have at least 3 cards of each of the three categories (Attack, Defense, Tactics). Deck Size: 10 Minimum Cards per Category: 3 … Deck Size: 20 Minimum Cards per Category: 6 … Deck Size: 30 Minimum Cards per Category: 9 … And so on.
I was excited at the thought of putting a pack of Fortune Cards in the players’ hands that first week of Encounters and then seeing how everyone would use them in the following sessions. Would they have a drastic effect on play balance? By adding to the complexity of a player’s options, would it noticeably slow down everyone’s turn? Would there be any jealousy at the table if one player invested in buying enough packs to build a killer deck while another player either had no cards or just a ‘starter’ deck?

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