Thursday, November 10, 2011

Fortune Cards and Unpredictable Magic

Fortune Cards are a thing.

Go ahead and say that phrase in a tabletop roleplaying forum.  (Don't do it in a computer gaming forum, because they'll assume you play WoW.)  Jump in your foxhole and brace for impact.

Fortune Cards rile people up because Wizards of the Coast makes them for D&D 4e, and people have long suspected that Wizards was going to add a collectible card game aspect to make more money, because they understand how that structure works.

You say you don't understand the structure because you don't play Magic?  That's okay; go into an elementary school.  Ask a teacher is Pokémon cards are allowed.  The answer will probably be "no," because they're like crack to little kids.

Anyway, so Fortune Cards are a hot-button issue.

I bought some, because I've been playing D&D Encounters and they're legal there.  I'm not into character optimization, but having a random little trick up one's sleeve is always cool.  Plus, I figure I can use them as a DM.

They're fun, but not worth collecting.  Again, a random little widget is cool sometimes, a distraction at other times.

As an example: you have one card in your hand per round.  This card is randomly determined.  At the start of your turn, you can either keep the card in your hand (assuming you didn't use it last turn), or get a new one.  In practice, this means that you typically either get a card that isn't applicable — in which case you either hold onto it for future planning or discard it because you want to see if something really cool is coming up — or you completely switch your strategy, taking some outlandish risk or performing some weird tactic to make use of the new thing you have.  "Well, I wasn't going to charge him, but this card gives me a +2 to hit if I charge, so I'm doing that now."  Stuff like that.

All that rambling brings me to the conclusion of Lost Crown of Neverwinter, the most recent D&D Encounters season.  In it, a war is brewing between Lord Neverember, Lord Protector of Neverwinter, and the Lost Heir, part of a rebel faction that wishes to restore Neverwinter to its previous glory.  Or some such.  In the end, it turned out that the crown was cursed — our first mission was to retrieve it, but the Red Wizards of Thay got it first and cursed it to drive the wearer mad.  So, when the Lost Heir (actually our spellscarred employer in drag) acquired it, she started going nuts and throwing magical power all over the place.  This culminated in her awakening Chekhov's Dragon, whom she froze in stone at an early battle.

For playing in Encounters sessions, one obtains Fortune Cards for playing.  The previous session, I obtained one called Spellplague Surge, which causes all creatures within a radius of you (including yourself) to deal extra fire and psychic damage.  I placed this into my deck and swapped out another card.

We're about to fight the dragon.  My plan is to drop my biggest spells on it.  And then I draw Spellplague Surge.

The image of a wizard, poised to fight, who then starts blazing with arcane energies is just plain neat.  This wasn't a Fortune Card thing, but a story thing — the magic flares forth, and things get crazy.

Even though I understand why it's used from a rules perspective, and even a story perspective, it does leave the typical Vancian magic system of rigid, arcane formulae lacking.  Magic seems more dynamic, like a stream into which one dips one's hand and hopes to grab something before the current drags one away.

At the moment, I'm just musing.  For weird magic along these lines, I might suggest readers look for the old Tome of Magic for AD&D, and its rules for Wild Mages.  Wild Mages cast spells at a variable caster level, and sometimes spells have weird, additional effects which are the result of wild surges.

Magic in World of Darkness and Deadlands are also prone to weird, mysterious backlashes, and are probably similarly worth a look.


  1. Interesting. Been hearing about the 'fortune Cards,' for 4E, but haven't really looked too closely at them just yet. We used to use the old Whimsy Cards that Lion Rampant made before they became White Wolf...yeah; really old crap. We also used to have a Tarot deck that Players could consult...but any negative interpretation (reversed cards) were just as likely to take place as any fortunate or positive stuff...and that tended to mitigate the min-max-factor a bit.

    Your comparison of the rigid approach versus the dynamic approach to magic in-game has reminded us of a few things that we ought to post soon, like some of the sub-systems/house rules we tend to take for granted. Attunements, aligned spells, the energetic flows, backlashes, etc.

    Thanks for the reminder. This could get fun...

    1. We also used to have a Tarot deck that Players could consult...but any negative interpretation (reversed cards) were just as likely to take place as any fortunate or positive stuff...and that tended to mitigate the min-max-factor a bit.

      I've never been one of the character optimization crowd, even though many of the games I play subtly encourage it (or at least dangle it as a possibility). For me, the game is just as entertaining when it goes badly as when it goes well.

      Anyway, that's awesome. I've used Tarot in the past, but typically as in-character Tarot — I have a Mage: the Ascension Tarot deck I use for that sort of thing, and I have a couple tarokka decks I'll use for D&D. The thought of using it as a random gameplay element has been discussed and considered, but never really implemented.


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