Monday, February 6, 2012

Four-Color Gamer and the Caves of Chaos, Part II

       In Indiana a week before the Bowl to end all Bowls, I sat at a table with fellow gamers to playtest the next iteration of Dungeons & Dragons.  A father and his young son sat to my left and a trio of other guys sat to my right.  We briefly introduced ourselves and where we were from--the father and son had come from Detroit for the day, while the trio of friends had come from some other part of Michigan.  All were friendly--each of the adults mentioned what they hoped the new version would bring to the table, while the kid just sat there in wonder.  Shortly afterward, Phil Menard--one of the playtest Dungeon Masters--came up to get us ready to play.  He handed out pre-generated playtest characters for us to pick from--given that we adults were all so-called veterans in the field at this point, we gave first pick to the kid.

         I'm going to preface the following summary by stating that it's a narrative of what happened--anything stated does not represent any new mechanics, just some highlights from the session.

          Phil began by giving us a brief rundown of the basics of the new game, then we got going.  Our heroes started in Castellan Keep, a Keep on the Borderlands (TM) of civilization in place to protect against the wild beasts and tribes that might destroy or conquer the civilized races.  We set out for the Caves of Chaos to deal with these threats.  On approach to the ravine encircled by the caves, we saw a couple of goblins darting across the ravine from one cave to another, then shortly come back out.  One of our warriors charged straight into them, instigating a melee.  We made short work of them, then discovered a scroll on one of them--it was a message between the goblins and kobolds (little reptilian dog-like men) from another section of the cave complex hammering out the details of an alliance between their tribes to overthrow some other big threat in the complex.  We quickly formulated a plan for the smallest of our party to disguise himself as a goblin to infiltrate their tribe to gain some intel.  He did so in a very morbid fashion, seemingly inspired by two films in particular: a certain John Woo helmed vehicle starring John Travolta and Nicholas Cage, and a specific Anthony Hopkins lead psychological thriller. 

         With disguise prepped, our makeshift goblin headed into the goblins' cave without realizing one small detail: goblins could see in the dark and he could not.  Shortly after stumbling into the cave, he lit a torch and subsequently encountered a few more armed goblins.  They asked him why he was carrying a torch he shouldn't need, to which he replied that he'd stolen it from an adventuring party he'd killed.  They seemed to buy it--until his jury-rigged goblin mask started falling off.  They quickly drew weapons and he started back-pedaling.  In pleading for his life, he told them that if they killed him, they'd never get their hands on the treasure he had hidden outside.  They took the bait, following him out to our trap.

         Another combat began, loud enough to draw the attention of the kobolds across the way.  The fight with the goblins grew intense, with one of them attempting to head back for reinforcements.  The kid playing the spellcaster of the party quickly set a tree over their cave on fire, blocking his exit from he melee.  This was when one of our group decided to solely engage the kobolds emerging from the cave across the ravine.  After seeing him get ganged up on, my cleric and our resident swordswoman decided to charge to his rescue, with the wizard following up behind us.  While we kept them busy, our wizard set another tree on fire over the kobolds' cave, with the swordswoman knocking the weakened, burning tree over on the terrified kobolds.  Then we heard a guttural yell from over behind the trees.

      Falling back to my earliest instincts in this game, and having just laid waste to two groups of monsters with devastating effect, I stepped forward, yelling back to the loud voice that he should surrender, that he didn't stand a chance against our might.  A moment later, an ogre came charging from between some trees, ripping down a branch on the way to use as his club.  Reaching my cleric, he treated me like a tee-ball, knocking my character clear out to the ravine's entrance and out cold.

         This was all within the first hour a half of the session.  In the currently released version of the game, those events would have taken about two three-hour sessions to complete.  After taking a short break, we spent the following two hours exploring two of the cave systems and getting into two more combats.

         From all released accounts, the playtests are an early representation of where they're headed, but so far, I am thoroughly impressed.  Things moved quickly and resolved simply--nothing seemed to drag.  All in all, it felt like the games of my youth, with all the wonder and excitement I remember.  If they accomplish what they set out to do, with modular aspects to cater to each style of player--from the earliest edition players to the latest, I sense great fun brewing.  Their promise to include open playtests of the game only reinforces my initial excitement for things to come.  And so the dreaded wait for this playtest material begins...


Sunday, February 5, 2012

Four-Color Gamer and the Caves of Chaos, Part 1

        Welcome to the musings of Four-Color Gamer--comic book aficionado and table-top storyteller extraordinaire.

        Last weekend, I took the opportunity to venture out to Fort Wayne, Indiana.  Some might ask, "Why Fort Wayne? And aren't you about a week early?" (This being in reference to the current main event for our nation, the aptly named Super Bowl.)

        The draw to Indiana wasn't sports related--no, it was a for a far less fashionable reason:  Dungeons & Dragons.  Formerly a game reserved for socially awkward outcasts and crucified by fundamentalist religious fanatics during the 80s, the game has seen some serious P.R. re branding over the past decade, to the point of many celebrities--including Stephen Colbert, Robin Williams, and even Vin Diesel--admitting to being players of the game.

         I'd gotten into the hobby about twenty years ago, when I'd noticed a red game box on top of an old toy chest at a friend's house.  The cover portrayed an armored swordsman squaring off against a ferocious red dragon, with the title "Dungeons & Dragons" emblazoned overhead.  I'd heard of the game a few times before that, but didn't know quite what it was.  I asked him if we could play it, so we gathered together a small group of four: three players and a "Dungeon Master,"  the rules referee and storyteller.  We quickly put together characters.  My first character was an elf named Evro--equally proficient in swordplay and the arcane arts.  We descended into our first dungeon adventure, shortly afterwards encountering a terrifying cave beast described much like a giant centipede, called a "Carrion Crawler."  I don't remember many details of the first combat, other than we likely had our asses handed to us on a platter.  We survived the encounter, but barely.  Then our consummate "DM" introduced us to an adventuring party's worst nightmare: the dreaded Rust Monster--this creature was so vile that it subsisted on the corroded remains of any metal it encountered, and was fully capable of corroding any intact metal it encountered with a mere touch of its antennae.  After the beast was done with its meal, it left us on our way (all it really cared about was the metal), leaving us without weapons and armor to defend ourselves against whatever threat next awaited us.  This promise of a challenge limited only by my imagination had me hooked from the start.

        A few months later, I had managed to get into a weekly gaming group; it was during this period that I learned the hard way about another facet of the game: teamwork was vital.  Being an adolescent youth, I would impetuously confront any challenge, difficulty be damned--and my characters would suffer for it.  I was the veritable Kenny McCormick of our gaming group--it was rare if I didn't have a fictitious character killed off in some manner worthy of a Darwin Award.

        Twenty years later, I find myself still playing a game that encourages interaction, problem solving, and teamwork.  A few weeks ago, it was announced by the current publisher of Dungeons and Dragons--Wizards of the Coast (a subsidiary of Hasbro)--that they had begun design and playtesting for a new version of the game, one that could possibly unite fans of each previous version of the game.  Some have been playing straight through each iteration, but others have lapsed, not approving of some or most of the changed having taken place over subsequent iterations--especially the latest one, which has taken some inspiration from the latest trend in computer role-playing games, such as World of Warcraft, amongst others.  Shortly after the announcement, it was also revealed that they'd be doing a special playtest event at the annual winter gaming convention, D&D Experience.  After hearing this, my girlfriend--being the wonderful woman that she is--decided to set up a trip out there as an early birthday present.  So plans were made, arrangements booked, we were on our way.

        Last Saturday morning, we were up at 4 a.m. to catch a 6 a.m flight to Chicago.  Upon arrival at 8:30 a.m., we got our rental car and headed towards Indiana.  An hour into our road trip, we stopped for breakfast.  My game slot for the playtest wasn't until 2 p.m., so we could take our time.  After stopping about an hour enjoying a decent breakfast, we were back on the road with about 2 hours left to go.  About an hour and 15 minutes back on the road, the unthinkable happened--the clock on the G.P.S. leaped forward an hour.  We had forgotten to account for the fact that we were heading back into the Eastern time zone.  The G.P.S. was still putting us in Fort Wayne at about 1:55 p.m., so we might still make it.  Flow of traffic was pretty steady, with a few unexpected stops here and there.  We hit the hotel at about 1:50, then rushed over to the convention center. 

      We approached the registration counter for the convention to retrieve our passes and my ticket to the playtest--luckily, it hadn't started yet.  They also presented me with a non-disclosure agreement; since this new iteration is still in its earliest stages, the publishers don't want any information about the new mechanics to get out until they're ready for the public to view them.  So after signing away my life in the event I should disclose any of the aforementioned non-disclosable material, I ventured into the hall to the cordoned off section for the playtest tables.  After being grouped with five other players, I headed to our table.

      Soon to follow in Part II, I'll relay as much as I can of my impressions without breaking the NDA.