Saturday, April 30, 2016

Magic (MTG) and D&D: Games are Colliding

Wizards of the Coast quietly posted a PDF document over on their Magic: The Gathering site this week that has potential to eradicate barriers between the company's two flagship (fantasy) creative teams.

Here it is:  Planeshift: Zendikar

For the first time ever, we have a Magic guide to using one of Magic's premier settings a D&D milieu.

So what's the big deal?  Magic has been a 30+ year gaming juggernaut, steadily embracing more and more story elements to drive the gameplay.  The Magic card game features a series of powerful, magic-using characters called "Planeswalkers", whose  soap-opera intrigues and conflicts take them from plane to plane in the Magic multiverse.  In this way, every two or three sets of Magic cards shifts the action to an entirely different thematic world.  The Magic creative team works very hard to develop fully realized fantasy settings for each new set of cards - including settlements, civilizations, monsters, threats, culture, and character names.

Let's just look at the past few Magic settings:

  • Ravnica:  the world is dominated by a massive metropolis, the city of Ravnica, where 12 competing guilds each seek to control the city - it's full of intrigue and urban noir fantasy
  • Theros:  inspired by Greek Myth, the city-states of Theros are beset by a pantheon of jealous gods and titanic monsters
  • Tarkir:  Tarkir is a war-torn plane where clans inspired by the cultures of South East Asia fight for dominance - it's seriously cool
  • Zendikar:  - Magic's high fantasy "adventure world", where Cthulhoid monsters, the Eldrazi, rise from the ground and terrorize civilization
  • Innistrad:  Magic's Gothic horror setting, full of vampires, demons, ghosts, and werewolves

There is a nice online gallery of the major planes in Magic:  MTG: Planes

What really drives Magic's storytelling is the amazing art for all of the cards. Magic's visit to one of these planes is embellished over a couple of card sets, meaning the creative team will commission several hundred pieces (400-700 paintings) of evocative fantasy art to convey  the story and themes of the world.  By contrast, a D&D book might have a few dozen pieces of art at best, and many of them are mini portraits or maps.

With Zendikar, Wizards of the Coast released a coffee table style book called The Art of Zendikar, which acts as both an art book and travel guide to the plane.  With the recent Planeshift: Zendikar, they've complimented the art book by providing guidelines on game stats and using D&D to run RPG games set in Zendikar.  Based on the survey attached to the article, this is also being looked at as a market test, to evaluate potential new products.

The test makes sense; the Magic product line invests in a massive portfolio of art, and leveraging that art and intellectual property for D&D game worlds gives them more opportunities to drive value from the art investment.  It's "low hanging fruit".  They can create more planar-guide coffee table books to sell the art, or shift these Zendikar-style game supplements into formal pay-to-own game supplements.  Plus, it might enhance both brands by getting some Magic players to try D&D, or getting D&D players to pick up a Magic deck.

Meanwhile, it's becoming clear what is the D&D 5E strategy and how it's working.  The core books are evergreen products, and the design team has been true to their word on keeping away from splat books and rules sprawl - no Player's Handbook 4, for instance.  (Thank you).  Instead, the product team seems focused on  releasing two "stories" per year, a large adventure campaign hardcover book, which is then cross-developed in novels, board games, and computer games.  Play the adventure, read the novel, buy the t-shirt, and then download the video game, that kind of stuff.  Something for everyone.  The quality of the stories seem to be improving as it goes along - Out of the Abyss was better than the previous two campaigns, and Curse of Strahd is absolutely full of win.  (I should get around to posting a review of Curse of Strahd, but it will gush with enthusiasm).

Overall, this foray into cross-promoting Magic and D&D is super interesting.  I'm guessing the Magic creative team is thinking like entrepreneurs and looking to harvest value from their creative work, with D&D fans getting a chance to benefit now that the iron curtain is falling.   5E seems to be doing well as a product line. The PHB is back in the Amazon top 100.  I greatly appreciate that the market isn't getting flooded with official splat books like DMG 2 and PHB 3, and this focus on multimedia stories is fairly benign; I can focus on the tabletop specific stuff and let folks enjoy the other media if that's their thing.  There's no downside.

I'll be watching the space closely.  The latest Magic set is Shadows over Innistrad, a visitation back to Magic's awesome Gothic horror setting.  The next set of cards for Innistrad will come out mid-summer, and that would be a good time to see if WOTC is going to publish a Zendikar-style art book and setting guide for D&D Innistrad.  I'd love for them to go back and do some recent worlds like Theros or Tarkir, but it seems more likely to be a forward-facing change.

Magic does nice trailers for each upcoming set, here's the recent trailer for Shadows Over Innistrad:

Shadows Over Innistrad Trailer

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Dwimmermount Game 18 - Flight of the Drevelator

The further adventures of our adventuring party, The Investors:

Marthanes the Summoner, (level 4 mage)
Tancrede, a level 4 cleric of Typhon (henchman)
Wulfengard,a level 4 dwarf fighter
Sloth the Mook, level 1 fighter (henchman)
Drev, a level 4 Squindian bard
Bud, a level 3 dwarven cleric
Bart, a level 4 fighter
Mumford, a level 3 fighter
Malthena, a level 3 thief (henchman)
Arethusa, Mage 3 (henchman)
Utor, level 3 Elven Enchanter

The last game ended on a major discovery.  By way of recap:  our stalwart heroes used Drev's flying carpet to ascend up the elevator shaft in Dwimmermount; in this way, they were exploring a secret area they knew no other adventuring party could reach - a totally new space.  Unfortunately, this Level 0, the Divinitarium, is really, really dangerous to an underpowered group that doesn't have access to Cure Disease.  Most of the monsters are slimes, oozes, and fungi with hideous infection attacks.  We stopped last game session when the players discovered a wonder beyond imagining - a full sized interplanetary space ship, the Astral Vessel, parked in a massive hangar.  It blew their minds to think the setting would let them go to other planets.  "We will invade Aeron and conquer the Eld!".  However, a half dozen or more slimy zombies slurped to their feet halfway across the dimly lit hangar, blocking the way.

We started this game with the players, standing across from the zombies, developing their battle plans.

They Astral Vessel was too awesome not to try and seize; how dangerous could a bunch of slimy zombies be?  The fighters started peppering the slow moving zombies with arrows, while Drev shot forward on the flying carpet, with Utor and Arethusa on board.  The two mages had Burning Hands spells and they figured they'd do a couple of back and forth fly-bys, raining fire down on the slime zombies.  The combination of magic items and spells as technology is giving the players access to 'modern' battle tactics.  Queue the Ride of the Valkyries theme.

Unfortunately, no one looked up at the vaulted hangar ceiling to realize it was covered in patches of Olive Slime, which started dropping like bombs.  Incoming!  Drev tried to weave, but a pocket of slime landed on Utor.  "I am very sorry, Mr Utor", said Drev's player in his Squindian accent, "but I will not be having any slime covered elves standing on my special carpet".  And Drev gave Utor a sharp kick in the rear, launching him into the air.  Drev used to be a Squindian pirate, so he flashes his Chaotic tendencies from time to time.

Poor Utor.  He found himself on the ground, disoriented from the fall, going numb from the Olive Slime creeping over his flesh, with several Olive Slime Zombies craning their way towards him, blindly groping for him.  He took out his Wand of Fear, aimed it back at his own face, and let loose with a charge, blasting himself at point blank. When I asked him why he'd do such a crazy thing, he said, "I'm going to scare that slime right off my body!  I think it's going to jump right off in fear!"  What really happened is that Utor ran off into a dark corner of the hangar in a total panic, at least until the Olive Slime permeated enough of his nervous system to take control.  Somewhere in the darkness, a new elf-sized Olive Slime Zombie shuffled to its feet and started walking towards the players…  brains...

Drev looped his carpet back to the players, avoiding the falling slime attacks from the ceiling, and the players agreed this was more than they could handle, and retreated from the hangar.  "We need Fireballs and Cure Disease and then we'll be back to claim our space ship."  Utor's player took the abandonment of his character in stride.  "I'll play Arethusa (a henchman) until I get the chance to make a monk character.  I want to do kung fu."

The players had enough with The Divinitarium, creatively dodging various wandering monsters to get off the level and make their way back to town.  Bart was still shuffling along in the background with his serious head injuries from last session, Utor was dead, and they had sacks of juicy history books to read back in town.

We allowed a few weeks to pass in town so the players could fully recover, level where warranted, and read the books.  Marthanes also lent the books to his allies, the Seekers (this would come up as a full-blown issue in one of the upcoming games, game 20).  Because "The Secret History of Dwimmermount" requires a lot of exposition, I don't give it out mid-game; I send a document out after the session, incrementally adding the new knowledge.  This way, the 2-3 players that really care about it (and don't mind reading) can absorb it at their leisure, and it keeps the game moving in session.  The players have a 'knowledge tracker' so they can see how they're doing versus the "big questions" and where their knowledge has gaps yet to be found.  Like I said in my review of the campaign book, this really is a nice quest \ scavenger hunt mechanic for the dungeon, and it's created forward progress and interesting player choices.

In "campaign time" it's now early winter, and flakes are falling outside Muntburg as the mountains fill up with snow.  The players trudged back to Dwimmermount, bundled against the cold, and decided they would now head down the elevator shaft and try out level 4 (the Halls of Lesser Secrets).  They've dubbed Drev's magic carpet the Drevelator, as in, "we'll take the Drevelator down to level 4."

Level 4 was partially cleared by the Seekers, so the players knew about some of the entry rooms, and the presence of Minotaurs somewhere on the level.  They managed to get the actual elevator working fairly early on, so they wouldn't be reliant on multiple trips on the Drevelator (which can only ferry 3 at a time).  However, the Seekers failed to warn their "allies" about various teleportation traps in the major intersections, and the player group was quickly scattered across level 4!  Bart and Wulf ended up fighting an Ochre Jelly on their own, but Marthanes sent Tancrede through as an experiment, and the pair quickly figured out a method to get everyone together again at a single rally point - although they had no idea where the rally point was located on the level.  They would need to map, explore, and try to piece it together until they found landmarks.

Glossing over exploration, the interesting bits of level 4 emerged when the party encountered some wererats, and broached a parlay in lieu of combat.  After being brought to the wererat leader and exchanging some knowledge about the outside world (in return for information about the inside of Dwimmermount), here was the deal that was brokered:  the wererat leader is interested in escaping to the capital city, Adamas, and becoming a player in the crime underworld there.  If the players promise to  help the wererats get to Adamas, the wererats will help map the level, and point out some of the choice treasure locations.  The players just need to go kill the Minotaur King first.

If you think this deal sounds too favorable for the wererats, you're right, but the kids were happy to expedite their fight with the minotaurs, and the thought of having crime lord allies in the city is too cool to pass up at their age.  They're thinking long term.  The alliance was formed.

The wererats led the players to a hallway that would take them into Minotaur territory, and ultimately the throne of the king.  They assaulted the minotaur king (and a group of guards that looked shockingly similar to the king, almost like clones…)  The fight ended up being anti-climactic - minotaurs are just dumb brutes, an attrition battle.  Drev's mobile fighting platform floated above the battle, providing a safe vantage for a few of the shooters, while the fighters waded in (along with Tancrede).  "You have one job, Tancrede", chided one of the fighters, "stay back and heal the people that need it.  Why are you always clogging the front lines?  One job."  Bud, the other cleric, is actually a better fighter than Tancrede, but Tancrede always beats him to the front line.

The other noticeable development in player strategy has been Marthanes, and his discovery that "It's just awesome being me".  Marthanes has a helm (circlet) of teleportation, which lets him blink around, once per turn.  There's basically a 1% chance he goes and never comes back, lost in the ether.  When he first got the helm that 1% chance was a mental barrier, and he swore to only use the helm for emergencies, but now it seems he's willing to assume the risk and teleport around just to show off.  When the king jumped into the fray, Marthanes teleported behind all the minotaurs to sit on the throne and gloat.  His typical prattle to the other players goes something like this, "Just another perk of being Marthanes, world's greatest summoner.  Forgot something in town?  I can go back and get it for you, instantly.  Because I'm awesome".

After slaying the Minotaur king and his clones, the players looted the throne room, regrouped with their new wererat allies, and made their way out of the dungeon.  We'll pick up with more mad-cap antics of The Investors next week, when they demonstrate how a clone chamber and an alteration bed can be used to manufacture your very own Smurfette.