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Reporting In from GenCon 2010 (Part 3)

My final day at GenCon 2010 this year was Saturday, which I would deem my “Seminar Day”, spending almost 6 full hours over in the Indiana Ballroom G at the Marriott Hotel, where all the major Wizards of the Coast panels were held during the convention.  Alas, time constraints and budgets prevented me from staying through Sunday, but staying one extra day would be hard to top Saturday’s excitement level – particularly following the three seminars I had the opportunity to attend!

On the way to the Marriott that morning, I chanced to bump into Chris Sims again.  I failed to mention in Part 2 of my GenCon blog series  that I had the chance to sit down with Chris following his “Welcome to Dark Sun, Too, B!#&@$!” adventure he was running all weekend, and chat a little bit about his work with the D&D Encounters project.

I had learned that Chris was offered the chance to write the adventure for the Season 3 of D&D Encounters, which, by the way, is due to start on September 22 at local gaming stores around the country.  Season of the Serpents” will be a massive twenty-week long gaming experience until February 11 of next year, and will consist of 5 Chapters with 4 Encounters in each chapter.  Although due to the NDA Chris could not tell me much about the adventure, I did learn from my D&D Encounters Seminar that it was to be set in the Nentir Vale, at the Keep on the Borderlands near the Chaos Scar.  I asked Chris about the choice of setting, and was informed that decision about location was really not his to make when he does freelance writing like this.  He went on to say that he usually writes adventure set in his own home-brew world, which he has been developing over the course of a couple decades, which he described as a “points of light” style setting with an “Atlantean” flavor.

D&D Preview and Q&A Seminar

As might be expected, the D&D Preview and Q&A Seminar was fully packed and standing-room-only well before it even began, but I was fortunate enough that WotC had reserved a few seats for the “press”.  (Thank you Katie Page!)  The panel was lead by R&D Director Bill Slavicsek, and consisted of Mike Mearls, Jeremy Crawford, and Greg Bilsland.  WotC’s Community Director Trevor Kidd,  and Brand Manger Laura Tommervik were also introduced, although they did not take part in the presentation.

The seminar opened with a listing of the products that had already been released this year, and went on to the products that were being released in August: Dark Sun Campaign Setting, Dark Sun Creature Catalog, Dark Sun Marauders of the Dune Sea, Psionic Powers, and Castle Ravenloft (the boardgame).

It should be noted that all three of the Dark Sun Products were available in limited quantities at the Wizards of the Coast booth in the Exhibition Hall at GenCon, but as I already had mine on pre-order from Amazon, I did not pick up a set – although it was very, very tempting to drop the cash at the convention!

In September, the D&D Essentials line would start its release, beginning with the D&D Essentials “Red Box”, Heroes of the Fallen Lands, the Essentials Rules Compendium, Dungeon Tiles Master Set: “The Dungeon”, and the Lords of Madness Miniature set.  The D&D Rules Compendium will be a soft bound 6×9 inch book, which can lay flat on the tabletop and, according to Jeremy Crawford, is “organized for easy reference”.  It will contain all 4E rules for playing the game, excluding things like powers and feats, and will be a very handy addition for Dungeon Masters and Players alike.

WotC will offer two more Essentials products in October, the Dungeon Masters Kit and Heroes of Forgotten Kingdoms, as well as the D&D 4E Gamma World Role-Playing Game and the Gamma World Booster Packs.  For those unfamiliar with Gamma World, it is a role-playing game set in the far future after a nuclear holocaust, creating mutant heroes with bizarre appearances and incredible powers.  The new Gamma World RPG will use the same rules as 4E, but with a character generation method that is designed to be “fast”, “light-hearted” and “fun” for all the players to experience.  Some mutations change at random, and the Booster Card Packs allow players and game masters to increase the number of possible mutations, adding additional variety to the game.

[Editor’s Note: I went to the Gamma World Seminar and later in the blog I have more detailed info about this new 4E gaming experience.]

In November, the Essentials Monster Vault and Dungeon Tiles Master Set: “The City” will be released, along with a new boardgame, Wrath of Ashardalon, and a Special Miniatures release – the Beholder Collectors Set.  Like the Orcus miniature, the Beholder Collectors Set will be a limited release, so making a reservation at your local gaming store might be a good idea if you want to get one.  Both of the Essential Products are likely to be desirable to those new to 4E as well as veteran DMs.  “The City” Tile set will consist of 10 sheets of dungeon tiles with a city on one side and sewers on the other, which makes it a very handy addition to a tile set collection.  And the new Monster Vault is a boxed edition of iconic D&D 4E monsters (with only about one-quarter of them being reprints), and includes 10 token sheets for the monsters, and an exclusive adventure.

The final Dungeon Tiles Master Set: “The Wilderness” will be released in December, along with a Gamma World Adventure: Famine in Far-Go.  Fans of the original Gamma World RPG may recall this adventure, which has been re-written and updated to the 4E system, and to the new “light-hearted” flavor of the new version.

There was also mention of the new major plotline “event” in the D&D Novel series, called The Abyssal Plague, which will cross all novel lines and involve all major settings.  And a two new D&D Comic Book series will be produced by IDW, one which is set in the “core” D&D world setting, and another that will follow the life of Drizzt!

Moving on to 2011, the panel discussed a number of major products being released, including new setting materials, sourcebooks, and accessories:

In the 1st Quarter of 2011, there will finally be a Gazetteer of the Nentir Vale to provide information and maps of the “core” setting and lands around its borders.  A new sourcebook called Heroes of Shadow will offer Players the chance to add shadow power-source abilities and feats to any Character Class, as well as Paragon Paths for heroes that have been “tainted” by the Shadowfell.  There will be a new Deluxe Dungeon Masters Screen designed for the Essentials Line but usable by any DM, and a new accessory called Fortune Cards (along with Fortune Card Booster decks) which can be used to add dramatic shifts in combats.  D&D Encounters players will be able to sample these new Fortune Cards as part of their weekly experience.

During the 2nd Quarter of 2011, WotC will release Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium, offering new mundane and magical items to use in campaigns.  It was mentioned by Mike Mearls that these new items will have story elements and adventure hooks to make them more dynamic.  There will be a new boxed setting released, Shadowfell: Gloomwrought & Beyond, offering Dungeon Masters more content for that dimension.  The “monster manual” for the year will be another boxed edition, Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale, offering not only new monsters, but token sheets and an adventure similar to the previous Monster Vault.  And finally, a strategy boardgame will be released, Conquest of the Nerath, pitting armies across the ruins of Nerath, and will be similar to Risk and Axis & Allies.

And while on the topic of magic items, Jeremy Crawford (Lead Designer for Essentials), chimed in to explain that there will be a major paradigm shift in how treasure is dispensed and items classified.  Magic Items would be classed into three categories – Common, Uncommon, and Rare – and this would directly affect their availability in the world.  Player-Characters would only find a Rare item as a major plot point, such as loot from a lost temple after fighting a terrible foe like a demon or dragon.  Rare items would never be bought or sold, and could never be created by adventurers using Rituals.  Likewise, Uncommon items would almost never be found for sale, and could not be created by Characters, leaving only Common items capable of being bought/created.  This is being done to put the distribution of magic items back into the hands of Dungeon Masters, essentially ending the “wish-list” scheme that many Players have come to expect.  It should be noted that most of the items which have been released in the Adventurer Vaults, Dungeon, and Dragon Magazines would be classified as Uncommon per Jeremy – and this announcement elicited a round of applause by happy DMs around the room.

In the 3rd Quarter of next year there will be two new sourcebooks released: Player’s Handbook: Champions of the Heroic Tier and the Hero Builder’s Handbook.  The former will offer a variety of Character Options, such as themes, similar to those being introduced for Dark Sun Characters but generic enough to be used across almost all settings, and even new non-combat abilities like tradeskills but not requiring the expenditure of a feat or skill to use.  The latter sourcebook will actually allow Players to “tinker” with Character Class design, making tweaks to existing classes or even building their own new class, to bring to life Character concepts beyond what the standard classes provide.

[Editor’s Note:  Optimizers and power-gamers are likely to be swooning from giddiness at the announcement of such a book – remember to take deep breaths, folks!]

There will be a new boxed setting released in 3rd Quarter for Forgotten Realms called the Neverwinter Campaign Guide – which Bill Slavicsek refused to comment much on, except to mumble something about a “Bladesinger class” – and there will be a boxed super adventure called Madness of Gartmore Abbey, involving the Deck of Many Things running amok.

The only product mentioned for the last quarter of next year is the Ravenloft Role-Playing Game, which is a boxed set of new rules and setting material for creating Characters in the lands of Barovia – including vampire and werewolf Characters! (“And no, they will not sparkle!”)

  • In the Question & Answer session following the panel, some more information regarding new products was revealed:
  • There is no new information regarding Miniature lines for 2011 at this time, but should be announcement “soon”.
  • DDI Subscribers will likely see more content beyond Dungeon and Dragon Magazine in 2011, but the R&D Team is not allowed to comment on specifics at this time.
  • There was no new information available about when iPad/iPhone apps for DDI will be released.
  • There will be new rules regarding how Treasure Parcels are distributed in the wake of changes to the magic item classification system.
  • An attendee recommended a Skill Challenge Sourcebook, similar to a monster manual, which was cheered by the crowd.  Bill Slavicsek noted it and plans to take it back to the R&D Team for consideration.
  • Dragonlance has not been forgotten, and there is a “plan” for it, which could not be revealed yet.
  • Character Races may receive a “retrofit” to allow the more choice for the bonus to the secondary Ability Score, which will be revealed in Essentials and later in Heroes of Shadow.
  • Electronic formats of sourcebooks are being looked into, and there may be an announcement regarding that “soon”.
  • Dungeon Masters Guide 3 is tentatively scheduled to be released in 2012, and is quite likely to contain Epic Tier support information.
  • The stun mechanic is being used less often by new monsters, and DMs are recommended to reduce their own use of this mechanic in their own home-brew critters.
  • There will be a reprint of the Core Rulebooks with all errata updated “at some point”.
  • There are no major announcements for upcoming race-specific sourcebooks.
  • Watch for an announcement by Atari regarding a new major D&D 4E electronic game product!
  • A Feywild boxed setting, like the Shadowfell product is “very likely”, but cannot be announced as yet.
An Intermission Between Seminars

I had the opportunity to meet Ameron and Wimwick from Dungeon’s Master.com following the D&D Preview, which they had both sat through as well.  I asked them about their play experiences at GenCon, and learned that they had taken place in the first round of the D&D Championship.  As I mentioned in my first GenCon blog on Friday, the Championship was very challenging and only a few parties managed to get the first encounter complete within the time limit!  Ameron and Wimwick managed to get through three encounters, because they actually did them in a different order than most groups, and did not run into the “adventure-breaking” encounter until they completed a couple others.  They both agreed that the Championship was not for the faint-of-heart, and the time limit adds a whole new level of difficulty which most Players never have to deal with.

Dark Sun Returns! Seminar

This seminar followed immediately after the D&D Preview and Q&A, and was nearly as full of gamers as the preceding panel.  Seated on this panel was Senior Designer Rich Baker, Lead Designer Rodney Thompson and Senior Art Director John Schindehette.

The panel launched into a brief history of the original Dark Sun, from its origins in 2nd Edition, and how the current Designers used as many of the “elements” from the original as they could in order to “re-envision” the 4E version.  In fact, Rich Baker likened the process to the various Ultimate series that was released by Marvel Comics, to re-tell in vivid new formats the origin stories of many beloved super-heroes.

And in the first chapter of the Dark Sun Campaign Setting, there is a list of elements that make the world of Athas unique from all other campaign settings.  But as Rich went on to reveal, those elements were not listed as an afterthought and pulled from the contents of the sourcebook, but instead formed the backbone of the “thematics” that the Designers used to make sure they kept on track.  Readers of the Official D&D News site may recall an article entitled Eight Characteristics of Athas which discussed the same concepts described by the Designers:

  1. The World Is a Desert
  2. The World is Savage
  3. Metal is Scarce
  4. Arcane Magic Defiles the World
  5. Sorcerer-Kings Rule the City-States
  6. The Gods Are Silent
  7. Fierce Monsters Roam the World
  8. Familiar Races Aren’t What You Expect

Now not all existing races will have an appearance in Athas, although all the ones that were detailed in the original 4E Player’s Handbook are included – but only after they had been put through a “Dark Sun filter”.  For instance, Dragonborn are now careless arcanists and defilers, and have become slavers, while Halflings are no longer happy-go-lucky little people, but instead are cannibalistic feral pygmies.

And two new races are introduced in Dark Sun: the Mul (half-dwarf) and insectoid Thri-Kreen.  The traditional Half-Giants are “re-skinned” Goliaths from PHB2, but have kept their original half-giant storyline as developed in the original setting.

While there will be no new Classes offered in the Dark Sun Campaign Setting, there are four new builds for existing classes: the Animist Shaman, Arena Fighter, Sorcer-King Pact Warlock, and Wild Battlemind.  In addition to these new builds, there is a new Character mechanic called “themes” which can be applied to various classes, and roughly simulate the class templates that existed back in 2nd Edition.  These themes follow the thematic elements of original Dark Sun material, but have been updated to 4E rules, and often represent the “third pillar” of Character creation – the role that a Character has in their society.  As an example, the Designers explained that to have created a Gladiator Class would be too limiting, but by creating a Gladiator Theme, it could be applied to several different Classes (such as Fighters, Rogues, Rangers, etc.) to represent a Character that fought and survived in an arena.

It should be noted that almost all the themes offer first level Characters an additional bonus encounter power, which puts them on par with the power set of a 3rd Level Character – the traditional starting point for Dark Sun Characters back in 2nd Edition!

Themes offer additional encounter, daily, and utility powers which can be substituted for Class powers at various levels, allowing each Player to decide how “immersed” their Character is in their respective Theme.  Themes will also have specific Feat and Paragon Path support.

Defiling is another major thematic element pulled from the original Dark Sun, and all Arcane Classes have special powers which can cause defiling to occur.  In fact, the Designers created circumstances where Players will be tempted to use defiling powers, which was likened to using the “Dark Side of the Force” – “quick”, “seductive”, and “dangerous”.  Because arcane magic is so inherently destructive to life on Athas, psionics have become a prevailing power source, and the Designers have added some features to the 4E version of the Dark Sun Campaign Setting to make psioncs a greater part of the campaign world.  Two new themes were created – the Wilder and Noble Adept – and there are 10 new psionic talents, similar to a Wizard’s cantrips, which psionic Characters can use for minor activities and role-play flavor.

There were also a number of changes to weapons and armor, and particular to magic items and treasure parcels, that had to be made by the Designers in order to meet with the old Dark Sun “thematics”.  Most weapons and armor will be made on Athas from bone, stone, obsidian, and chitin, due to the scarcity of metal.  Metal items will be rare and will likely have “inherent” bonuses as described in the Dungeon Masters Guide for “low-magic” campaigns.  In fact, magic items in general are likely to be rare, but the Designers stressed that each Dungeon Master is free to decide the rarity of magic in their own version of the Dark Sun Campaign Setting.  Alternative treasure concepts will include Survival Days and Favors, as well as boons from the Sorcerer-Kings themselves!  Survival Days are an abstract way of measuring out supplies for surviving in a trek outside the protective influence of a city-state, and can be found as part of a treasure parcel.  Favors are a way to give out money without handing over a sack of gold, but instead offering a gold value on a favor that is owed to the Character (or party) by a person, group, or faction.

With regards to the Dark Sun Creature Catalog, the Designers explained that they wanted to create enough monsters for DMs to be able to create encounters with only monsters native to the Athasian ecology, without having to resort to much re-skinning.  They made sure to accomplish that goal, but they also included Athasian monster themes to allow Dungeon Masters to create their own beasts of Athas if they wanted to, and they offer stat blocks and extensive material on the various Sorcerer-Kings – which fill the “role of arch-devils and demon lords” in the world of Dark Sun.

Finally, there is considerable material offered by the Designers in the core Dark Sun book to advise Dungeon Masters on the design of encounters in Athas.  There is also specific traps and hazard information, as well as Skill Challenge examples for handling iconic Dark Sun activities (i.e. surviving a trek between city-states).

Obviously, some aspects of Dark Sun had to change to match 4E conventions, such as cosmology.  But the Designers claim they tried to stay as true to original source material as possible, such as substituting the Shadowfell for The Gray, and making it very difficult for Dark Sun to be reached from the rest of the multiverse.

With regard to art, John Schindehette admitted that finding artists willing to follow in Brom’s artistic footsteps was a very challenging undertaking.  But he was pleased to work with a variety of artists on creating vivid images for the Dark Sun Campaign Setting, and hinted there might be a couple illustration “easter eggs” hidden in the pages for readers to find.  He also noted that weapons and armor illustrations were a major priority, so that the exotic looking gear that Characters would wear could be adequately envisioned by everyone at the gaming table.  It should be noted that Thri-Kreen have had a minor illustration alteration, and are more humanoid now, albeit six-armed, which Rich Baker likened to a Green Martian of Barsoom.  He admitted that books and short stories featuring John Carter of Mars, Gor, and Conan (the latter from Rodney) had some influence when attempting to capture the savagery and desolation of the world of Athas.

A New D&D Experience: Gamma World Seminar

The final seminar of the day announced the new and upcoming Gamma World Role-Playing Game, and this panel was headed by Senior Designer Rich Baker, Lead Designer Bruce Cordell, and Senior Art Director John Schindehette, with support from Designer Greg Bilsland and Editor Jennifer Clarke Wilkes who play Gamma World and had input about the new game from their own campaigns.

From the very start, it was apparent that the new edition of Gamma World, the 7th incarnation of the game, would be a bit more tongue-in-cheek than previous editions.  Rich Baker described how in each edition the story of the apocalypse had to be re-invented, and this time, in the year 2012, the Hadron Super-collider in Switzerland created “The Big Mistake”, causing all realities to exist simultaneously for a brief moment, unleashing a nuclear holocaust in over 80% of the dimensions – except for a few where the French simply nuked a small town in Wisconsin.  But regardless of how it happened, the world of Terra Gamma is filled with bizarre and terrible dangers, ranging from mutated chickens to radioactive beasts to killer-death bots, and only the Player’s Mutant  Heroic Character can face these challenges – most of the time.

The “core” Gamma World product is the D&D 4E Gamma World Role-Playing Game, which is due out in October.  As suggested by the title, Gamma World will use the 4E “chassis” for Characters and will technically be completely compatible with D&D 4E.  It should be noted that the Designers admitted that Gamma World Characters have a higher damage output, but less healing abilities than a standard D&D adventuring party, but creatures from the Monster Manuals could be re-skinned as mutants – and vice versa.  Gamma World will be a boxed set, and will contain a 160 page rulebook for creating Characters and running the world, two poster maps, monster and player token sheets, Character forms, and 40 Alpha Mutation and Omega Tech cards.  These cards form a unique and new game mechanic to the Gamma World setting, and booster packs will be available to add additional flavor to the game.

The entire panel agreed that one of the most enjoyable aspects of the new Gamma World RPG is Character creation, which is very random, and can be accomplished very quickly.  In fact, they recommend that it is done at the gaming table, because it is good for a lot of laughs to see what sort of mutant hero each Player ends up creating.  Each mutant hero will be designed from two themes – and the bizarre example of the yeti-cockroach kept popping up throughout the seminar – and this defines the type of powers and abilities they can use.  Not to mention, it also defines how strange and bizarre each mutant hero will look!

In addition to the standard power “chassis” that all 4E Characters have, the Gamma World Characters have two additional mechanics – Alpha Mutations and Salvage SlotsAlpha Mutations are encounter powers which are drawn from a deck created by the Player, and usually revolve around one or both of the Characters particular themes.  At random times during play, as designated by the rules (such as rolling a natural 1 in combat), the current Alpha Mutation is discarded, and a new Alpha Mutation drawn from the deck to be used as a new encounter power.  Similarly, Characters will also have an Omega Tech cards, representing high tech devices which can be used by the mutant hero until they burn out.  But some Omega Tech can be used at a lower power level if they are “salvaged”, which uses a Character’s Salvage Slot, allowing the card to be retained indefinitely, albeit at a lower power level.   This use of cards is aimed at adding a random element to the game to make it fun and a bit zany.  For instance, Greg Bilsland described a game he was DMing, in which Trevor Kidd drew a new Alpha Mutation which gave him the power to EXPLODE – literally blow-up on his enemies – and he heroically used it to great effect.  But he also had to re-roll a new Character!

Character death is apparently not a big deal in the Gamma World RPG, and in fact, seems to add a bit to the humor and light-hearted nature of the game.  The Designers stressed that the ease of Character creation made losing a Character just part of the fun.  And there are only 10 levels of advancement in Gamma World, so the play experience will be a bit shorter than standard D&D campaigns.

But not all the seminar attendees were happy with the “light-hearted” elements in the new Gamma World RPG, and one gamer voiced his dissatisfaction quite vocally.  However, the Designers took the flaring of “nerd-rage” in stride, and both Rich Baker and Bruce Cordell admitted that they were not pleased when they were told by their boss at the start of the Gamma World RPG project that he expected a “light-hearted”, “fun”, and “tongue-in-cheek” game.  But having designed the game, they were both quite proud of their achievement, and the other WotC staffers agreed that this new version of Gamma World was a tremendously fun gaming experience.  In fact, John Schindehette pointed out that simply because the game was written with a certain humorous style, it did not force Game Masters to run their Gamma World Campaigns that way.  The material is taken quite seriously, he went on to say, and he enjoyed playing the game himself.
GW Booster Cards
The Alpha Mutation and Omega Tech Decks were also received with mixed reviews, with some gamers wondering why they should have to buy more cards just to play a game.  But the Designers were quick to point out that the booster packs were optional, and simply added more cards to the sizable deck that already existed in the “core” box.  It was also noted that the booster packs were numbered so that if a Player were to buy one of each, he would accumulate one of each of the “common” cards available for the game.  Of course, each booster contains a random rare, and two random uncommon cards, so collectors wanting a complete set might have to do some trading or buy a lot of boosters to finish their collections.

By the way, the game provides rule for Players and Game Masters to create their decks, and there are limitations to how many of a particular type of card can be placed in a given deck.

Obviously, there will be a few rules changes from standard D&D 4E, specifically with regards to skills, but overall the Gamma World RPG will be easily playable to anyone already familiar with D&D 4E.  Given the rest of the D&D 4E product line, it seems that they were due to come out with a game that was less serious and grim, and provide an option for fast Character creation and play for those gamers without a lot of free time.

Final Thoughts…

I have to say that GenCon 2010 was a fantastic experience, and as this was the first time I had attended the convention in about 8 years, it was great to get back in amongst my fellow gamers again.  I really enjoyed meeting so many of my fellow D&D 4E bloggers, as well as the Designers and Developers of my favorite hobby.  Wizards of the Coast put on a tremendous showing this year, and particularly after the seminars I attended, I am looking forward to a great couple years of D&D 4E gaming.  “The Best Four Days of Gaming” is not a hollow claim, and I sincerely recommend all gamers out there to make the trek to Indianapolis at least once – hopefully for GenCon 2011 next year!

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!


About The Author

Editor-in-Chief
Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.

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