Fortune Cards – A little bit of Critical Luck?

 Posted by on January 11, 2011  Filed as: Editorial  Add comments  Topic(s):
Jan 112011

Fortune Cards. You’ve probably heard of them by now. You may even been sick of hearing about them. My synopsis will be brief.

Coming in February, from Wizards of the Coast, are packs of player character enhancement cards. They’re packs of 8 cards, for $3.99. Each card gives a small benefit, similar to the bonuses provided by twitter for D&D Encounters or by some utility and item powers. Examples include a small bonus to an attack roll, or being able to reroll a die. The first announcement came from the Wizards Play Network and, more recently, additional information was given in the WotC January and Beyond article. Wizards has made it quite clear that these cards are options, except in some organized play.

A lot of people have been quite upset about this. They worry about D&D becoming more like a collectible card game, or having an additional cost and a number of other quibbles. The most reasonable arguments against them (a product we haven’t even fully seen yet) is that they give more power to the player characters, without a balance on the monster side, and even though they’re optional, the fact that they come from Wizards will make it harder for some DMs to say no to players. After all, they’re official material.

To the first point, players already have a near overwhelming amount of options. NewbieDM recently put up a post about this. I enjoy NewbieDM’s works but what you may be more interested in here is the comments generated. If you have time, take a look. Players have a lot of tools at their disposal, that not only can make it so their characters can be more optimized and effective, but can also make choices in and before the game simply take more time.

The previous link to the January and Beyond article gave me a little more pause. The rules, as presented, mean a player could potentially use one of these cards each round. That’s a lot of extra kick to the player’s effectiveness. The optimist in me says this might actually speed up combat. If you make a point of using the card in your hand each round (in order to keep getting a new bonus), the player may immediately eliminate a number of choices so that he’s only thinking which powers would use the bonus effectively.

The pessimist in me is louder. He says this will just cause players to agonize over their decision more. Should I use this bonus now to get a new bonus, or save it till it would be super effective? Some players might even try to optimize their characters for a particularly rare card they got.

The there’s the feeling that because Wizard made the product, you have to allow it. As much as I’d like to be like the Angry DM, whom I can only assume already has a group of Inevitables ready for when a player even mentions bringing these to the table, I’m not. If my players are interested in something, and spend their money on something, I do feel compelled to try to use it in some way.

I don’t, however, need to use it as the instructions dictate.

A great example of this was Paizo’s Critical Hits Deck. I bought this on a whim, and my players loved it. Designed for 3.x (my version didn’t have the Pathfinder revisions),  this product gives your character random, fun effects with flavor and mechanics, each time a players scored a critical hit. The target might be temporarily blinded, scarred and bleeding, and there was even one card that called for decapitation, as long as you were using a slashing weapon. We loved it because critical hits once again became an event. It wasn’t just extra damage; something exciting happened.

They could also be quite powerful. Once we got a feel for them, it was time to introduce a house-rule. If the players were making use of the critical hit deck, so would monsters. Not every monster, but important ones. Creatures who would now, in 4e, be considered Elite and Solo threats, as well as named, plot-important characters. My players agreed, and I think this made the game even more exciting. When combat started, I would occasionally say, “this dragon uses the critical hit deck,” or even more exciting, when a particular humanoid uses the deck. The players instantly knew that I considered the character important, and there was the threat looming that this character could decapitate a hero at any moment, even if the odds were low.

I’ve found that the critical hit deck does not translate well to 4th edition. One of my goals, which I simply have not gotten around to yet, is to create something similar for 4e.

Then the optimist in me sees Fortune Cards as maybe the return of this, if done right. There just needs to be some sort of balance. Three solutions have come to mind.

1. Give them to key monsters as well.

Just like my solution for the critical hit deck. If a monster is powerful or important enough, they will also have these options, thus making them a more obvious and meaningful threat. The problem I see here is that the Fortune Cards, thus far, don’t seem to be nearly as fantastic as the Critical Hit Deck. They were designed as quick advantages not spectacular feats. Then there’s the idea that players get these card every round, while the monsters that also use them would be far more rare. Which brings me to idea 2.

2. Limit the cards use

Instead of giving players one random advantage each round, make it a reward. My main premise here is that spectacular actions produce unforeseen opportunity. These could be used as rewards, a player has a spout of excellent RP, or produces the most amazing MacGyver plan you’ve heard in a month. They could also happen with critical hits and fumbles that really hurt. The critical hit that saves the party cleric from the brink of extinction, naturally produces a bit of momentum or divine favor for the hero.  On the other hand, when the player accidentally calls the Goblin chief an elephant’s bottom, turning the skill challenge into a combat encounter, the surprise of things my turn a mistake into a momentary advantage.

3 Not all Fortune is Favorable

Branching off that idea is that the fortune card may not be a good thing. There is misfortune after all. So the player has a choice when being granted the card – he can take it and hope for a boost, or can refrain and leave his odds where they are.

This works really well, in my mind, with idea #2. Spectacular failure or success, often leads to opportunity. Taking advantage  of this opportunity is a risky business, as tensions and actions are moving at high speed. You could go all-out Drizzt on a group of enemies, or the momentum of that killing blow could leave you flat on your face.

I’ve always considered Risk vs Reward choices to be one of the main reasons Dungeons and Dragons is so much fun.

These options can lead you to having to make your own cards to replace or supplement the fortune cards. You’ll find plenty of card generators online. Twitter recently led me to Go Deck Yourself, which seems to certainly be a viable option. Of course, this means more work for you, the DM.

Then there’s the idea that the cards might not just be about combat, but RP and events. We’ll leave that for another post.

Brian Liberge

Brian Liberge is a father of one, living in Boston, MA. Introduced to AD&D at an early age, he’s continued to update with the editions, and new games. He loves home-brewed ideas, is honest to a fault, and thinks that ideas and mechanics should absolutely be shared between systems. With a B.S. Degree in Theatre Arts, a job in Information Technology, and a love of strategy gaming, he tries to bring the best of each into his new creations for StufferShack. Check out his latest book the Midgard Bestiary for 4e, available now. Profile Page / Article Portfolio

  7 Responses to “Fortune Cards – A little bit of Critical Luck?”

  1. Great post Brian. I have a couple of thoughts on the subject:

    First off I love options and choices, it’s the very heart of what draws me to roleplaying. That being said I’ve come to realize that choices tend to be a burden and slow the game down. Almost every gamer I know says they want to be able to do “anything they want” and that’s what they like about these games, however when given a pile of options and choices they agonize over whether to do A or B and the game comes to a stop. I think you’re right about the Fortune Cards, great idea (I’d use them) but I think they’ll slow down the average game and the average player.

    My second thought relates more to gaming in general. Overall I think RPG’s have gotten better and better over the years, presentation and quality have improved, settings and genres have gotten more diverse and more detailed and interesting, and rules and mechanics are light-years ahead of where they were in the 80’s. However, even though mechanics have greatly improved the result at the table isn’t always an improvement in the experience.

    I feel like this is because one of the things that really adds to the experience and allows players to immerse themselves in their roles is keeping the game “fast, fun, and furious” (to quote Savage Worlds). Back in the day the rules themselves could slow things down. That’s why we had so many “house rules” and such a premium (geek cred) was given to memorizing the rules. These days the rules really are better. They’re more logical, internally consistant, and streamlined. But with that designer’s have added more options. These options don’t chance anything, in fact most dovetail into the game seemlessly, but they prove to be a mental “burden” to many players. This is why when I take my kids for ice cream we go where there is only chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry. If we go for “31 flavors” it’s going to take all day!

    I’m not really sure about the answer for this. Personally I don’t think this is an issue for game designers and game companies to try and “fix”, nor am I inclined to place the burden on over-worked GM’s to regulate. Instead I think this all comes down to putting the responsiblity on PLAYERS to keep a game moving and immersing themselves in the story. Players should make more “snap” desicions, stop worrying about what power to use or what square to stand in, and ACT. The decisions in a game should fly “rapid-fire” across the table not feel like you’re preparing a tax form and looking for deductions.

    Well this is a bit long for a comment so I guess I’ll wrap it up, once again great article Brian!

  2. I remember the Critical Hit Deck. I was in a 3.5 session where a ninja decapitated a purple worm, courtesy of that very card you mention. It was fun. 🙂

  3. Good write up. I’m all for trying new things that add to the game. Even if everything doesn’t get used, it’s nice to have a large tool box with which to build a game style.

  4. Paizo’s Pathfinder game gives a series of critical hit options via feats. You may want to check those out.

  5. I agree wholeheartedly with most of what you say but the suggestion that a reroll is a “small benefit” is ridiculous and +1 to hit is not to be sneezed at (Expertise being arguably the most powerful level 1 feat for most characters).

  6. @John I hear you. I enjoy the tactical play of 4th edition, and some of my players really like having all those options. I don’t want to take them away. If I did I could have limited sources awhile ago. But I certainly want players to try and make choices more quickly. A whole new layer of choices each round doesn’t sound like it will help that. I know some DMs use minute timers but I always felt like doing so myself would make me feel a bit like a jerk. I still thinking about starting to use one anyway, but for now I’m content to look at the init, when someones not ready and ask if they’d like to hold so the next player can go.

    @Andy Because key enemies also used the cards, one of my players got decapitated in a key battle during Epic Levels. A few rounds later he remembered/discovered that he had a magic item that prevented decapitation so I just added him back to the initiative. On his turn his neck and head had reattached themselves, much to the surprise of the other combatants.

    @Charisma Yes, I like tools that give me choices. I’m hoping I’ll be able to take these cards and use them in a new way, should my players like them.

    @Greg I haven’t had the chance to get into Pathfinder, but considering the PDF is only 10 dollars its on my list of future buys. Are they in the core book or one of the supplements?

    @TImlagor Most anything is arguable. I wasn’t trying to downplay some of the rarer cards but some them up on the whole. A reroll is no small thing, though watching avengers at the table I do question how useful that 2nd die is on average, despite the supporting math. A +1 is nice to have, especially when other bonuses are in play. A lone +1 however, for only 1 turn, I would consider small. There’s just too many ways to get these bonuses.

  7. […] Cookies Stuffer Shack had a great line in one of their articles, “Not all fortune is favorable.” Amen. After all, that nutbar Valthrun never said it was a GOOD […]

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