My experiment with the new Fortune Cards has been going on for a few weeks now. There is quite a bit to love about the cards: they are well made and look handsome with very nice artwork. They offer the player another resource to use at the table, and add to the variety of play pieces and tactile stuff we have available in the game. On the downside, they definitely add a layer of complexity to the players turn – having to remember to flip them and even look at them to see if the card is usable seems to be the biggest hurdle. A players turn often descends into the tyranny of too much choice, and the cards can exacerbate that all too common 4e affliction. In addition, some of them are overly complex, requiring a+b+c to happen for the card to work. They are also “collectible” which can cause aneurysms in some purists.
What has come beforeThe addition of cards into the game has been slow but steady since even before 4th edition came out. In our 3rd edition game, I used cards for magic items and for criticals (both published by Paizo). 4th edition took the concept to new levels, making the class powers of the characters into cards, or card-like pages. Same with magic items, although I wish they would put out an actual deck of magic item cards, rather than the print-outs we get with our character builder.
This was tried with player power cards, but the separately sold class power card packages did not go over so well. It is my opinion that this was due mainly to the amount of math required to configure the powers, as well as the constantly increasing number of powers available through DDI and splat books, and ALSO because of the constant errata, making the power card packs obsolete and practically useless before they even left the store shelves. It is pointless to buy a pack of uniquely over-sized cards only to find some of your powers missing, and that every time you leveled you had to redo all the math for them. The handy card pages that print out with the character sheets are nearly perfect – besides having to be cut out, and being printed on standard paper rather than card stock. They work because they are automatically updated from the Character Builder.
Condition cards are another type of card used for 4th edition. These have been given out as DM rewards for the Encounters program. I have never seen them on sale, but they are fairly useful. I like to hand them to a player if his character is suffering from one of the conditions, especially ongoing damage, since no one ever remembers it.
So, all in all the card creep has been coming to D&D for years, and I am not surprised or opposed. Why should dice have all the fun? cards are an historically important gaming aid, and for D&D to expand into greater use of cards adds to the complex, esoteric mystique of the game. I would have absolutely adored these back in the glory days of 1st edition gaming, but sadly all I had back then were the Monster Cards (which I loved for all their absurdity.)
In many ways, the recently released Gamma World takes cards to the next leval (again with the collectible option.) Based on a stripped down D&D rule set, Gamma World paved the way for more card use with their Alpha Tech (powers) and Omega Tech (treasures) which became an integral part of the character. The game came with dozens of cards, and random packs were available to purchase for more options, or to complete the set. There was no necessity to purchase additional cards, and Wizards of the Coast seems very cautious about making sure that none of these card packs (so far) are mandatory for any kind of play. With Gamma World, additional packs are optional and merely increased the number of different possibilities. Being optional has mollified many enthusiasts who worry about the increasing buy-in for the game. However, it does nothing to quell the unspoken fact that people who spend more on the packs in 0rder to build an optimized deck will have characters who perform better.
4e Fortune Cards for a better future
All this backstory brings us to the newest product for D&D – Fortune cards. These cards have many of the traits gamers have come to dislike about card usage in D&D. They are collectible. They are sold in random packs, with variable levels of rarity. They are relatively expensive at $4 for a pack of 8, though cheap enough that the average customer would have no problem buying them as a spur of the moment purchase – such as just before an Encounters game. They add a layer of complexity to the game, by adding choice and requiring more accounting. They are also one more thing to forget about and regret not using later.
But they make up for this with positive additions to the game. They give more choices to the player (a double edge sword) and offer at least the chance for character development. At best they are a prop or pompt for some role playing opportunity. They offer a small to medium level bump or buff to a characters power level. But the best thing about them, as written, are that they are completely in the domain of the player. The DM does not need to remember to use them, or to keep track of them at all. The only interaction the dm has with the cards, in the official rules, is to adjudicate whether they are usable in a specific situation, which doesnt look too difficult. Thus the true beauty of the fortune cards, for me personally, is that I dont have to do anything at all.
The above example is fairly typical of the cards. Some are slightly more powerful than others. Some cards are completely useless most of the time, and require very specific circumstances to work. This adds value to “personally constructed” decks, made up of cards that all have meaning for a particular character. Careful aim would be useless for an assassin, for example, but a fireball-hurling wizard would surely make the most of it.
In D&D Encounters: March of the Phantom Brigade, we use them by the book. The first few encounters, when each character had merely one packet of cards to play with, it meant that the majority of cards never got used, and indeed, in most cases were forgotten or even purposefully spurned. One or two players tried using them, and especially the way they worked in conjunction with the twitter buffs (another headache of mine, since I have to constantly adjust for them) but that was especially confusing. Hopefully they will figure it out, but as Dm, I dont waste my time with it (unless Im very bored at work.) The fortune cards are thus not being shown to their best, most gamey-ist, i.e. helping the rogues get combat advantage each round, giving the wizards the chance to cast a rage spell without provoking, and similar tactics. This is what optimized decks allow.
Aside: Power creep?
There is little doubt after imagining optimized decks, that a level of power creep is coming to those characters with such decks. A great set of 8 or 10 cards would allow a character to consistently perform at their best – about on par with a great night of rolling. Whether or not this is a good or a bad thing depends on each playing group. I could see some player envy happening at a public play event, but in private, any good DM should limit that type of gaminess by making them available for all (thus putting some cost back on the dms shoulders) or by disallowing them altogether (and thereby pissing off their gamey Monty-Haull assed, munchkin friends.) The cards at their worst could disrupt tables with incomplete card coverage.
By the book
From the DM perspective, there are many ways to alleviate some of the problems that come when using the Fortune cards, and to even put them to new uses. One way to help out the players during public events is to have a “DM Deck” that a player can opt to draw from if they do not have a deck of their own. A friendly dm, could even go out of their way to optimize their own deck, thus helping the poor player to get a fortunate outcome. This is a great way for a DM to get some use out of the cards, and to justify spending a bunch on them, rather than their obsessive compulsive desire to have a complete set of all the tools available for the game. When going this route, it might not be a bad idea to put the DM Deck fortune cards in sleeve protectors, making them easily identifiable during clean-up.
The only other way I bother with Fortune cards while DM’ing Encounters is to remind some one that they might have a fortune card to help them, if their attack misses. Whenever a players turn goes south I try to give them upbeat advice to turn things around, like spending an action point, and now checking their fortune card. But then, I am a pretty easy going dm (usually!) and I make it a priority to try and let the players ‘write their own script’ as we play. These cards, if woven into the story, provide a chance to add to the story of these heroes exploits, and that is a good thing.
Going off the grid
I love D&D. I love the products, and all the different formats, from large glossy tomes, to strange shaped dice. Adding cards into the mix of stuff I use around the table, which includes stuffed bears, and once even a stuffed e-coli virus, is a good thing to me. Props are fun, and I will find many ways to use my set. Handing them out as minor boons seems to be working better than having an unoptimized deck. Some other ideas are giving out optimized decks, or quest lines that involve attaining an optimized deck. Sort of a good fortune deck of many things. It could be used to make a pretty cool artifact.
Coming soon, the optimized Fortune Deck, used by Drizzt himself in his battle against Chaos warped Orcus. Watch as he leaves Orcus in the lurch, trips him up, thumps him a good one, then leaves him rolling on the floor with some distracting banter before finally whipping him mano a mano.