The other side of WoTC's coin was a more traditional church, albeit one broken and battered by the ravages of war. The release of the Axis and Allies miniatures game was the rationale for the theming, and the addition of several vintage military issue vehicles (an APC, a jeep, etc) on the show floor added to the atmosphere. The minis game itself received a lot of attention, as the "random pack of pre-painted miniatures" concept that Wizards has used with great success in their D&D and Star Wars lines reached a wider audience. The Axis and Allies line will invite WWII aficionados to recreate battles of the war, and engage in their own skirmishes, using a simple set of battle tactics and their miniatures. The D&D and Star Wars lines have tournament support and an avid collector base, and I imagine this series will garner similar attention.Wizards also publishes tabletop roleplaying books, though sometimes pavilion visitors seem not to notice. The two campaign settings that the company supports most heavily right now are Ed Greenwood's venerable Forgotten Realms, and the recently minted Keith Baker world known as Eberron. Products for both campaign settings and the core Dungeons and Dragons line seem to be moving beyond some of the tried and true formulae they've used before.
The core line, for example, will see the release of Heroes of Horror, a follow-up to Heroes of Battle that can be used to overlay a traditional D&D game with a horror tone. Races of the Dragon will explore dragons, and half-dragons, and kobolds but it will also contain a transformative race. IE, a race a character can become during the course of play. They're not completely breaking the mold, though, with a new Tome of Magic set to introduce some new styles of spellslinging to the core books.
The Realms will have a title called Powers of Fearun, which will discuss the impact a character can have on the Realms as a whole, given sufficient power. A new adventure entitled Sons of Gruumsh will welcome back published modules to the FR setting, and a semi-monthly column by Ed Greenwood in Dragon magazine will explore the Cities of the Realms. Companions of Valor will explore what it means to be a hero in the Realms, and grew out of the Forgotten Realms seminar from Gen Con 2004. The book will be a series of tools for PCs, ways for them to make their own name as heroes. The next Mini set, Underdark, will feature several prominent Realms personalities and monsters.
Eberron, meanwhile, moves on from the basics as the company continues to widen the world's scope. A Player's Guide to Eberron will act as a sort of gazeteer, with two page spreads on each topic, personality, or location. The guide aims to be a completely player-friendly tome that you can use to get to know the lay of the land. Magic of Eberron will delve more deeply into some of the unique arcana in the setting. Elemental bindings, Artificers, and warforged all get a look. Another adventure will be in the offing; separate from the previous three-book adventure set but with ties to it, entitled The Voyage of the Golden Dragon. Voyage will introduce a ship of war that never got the chance to be used in battle. The Golden Dragon now acts as a vessel of peace, traveling the five nation and usable as a kind of floating base of operations by PCs.
Love them or not, WoTC is a publisher of some great games. A new version of RoboRally!, and the title Monsters Menace America also made their debut this month. They're likely to continue to be one of the top names in the tabletop industry for many years to come.
Wizards of the Coast wasn't the only publisher at Gen Con this year, of course. FanPro, in association with Wizkids, put out the latest version of the magic/cyberpunk RPG Shadowrun. Now in its Fourth Edition, the setting has received its most serious overhaul to date. The basic mechanic has been reworked, major advancements have been made to the state of in-game technology, and the political boundaries of the North American Nations have been redrawn. Though the plot elements are compelling, the new simplicity of the core game mechanic will be the most widely felt change. Previous editions of Shadowrun required a player or GM to roll a number of six-sided dice equal to a skill or attribute, with the intent of hitting a target number determined by the situation. The lowest a target number could get was 2, but the sky was the limit for difficulty. The fluidity of combat often meant there would be high target numbers, which required a participant to roll a six on a die, so that the six could be rerolled and a higher number achieved. Fourth Edition does away with this clumsiness, with all dice rolled in the game now seeking either a five or a six to be determined a hit. All rolls are made with a number of dice equal to the requisite attribute + skill combination. Penalties result in fewer dices being rolled at the outset, and the GM is encouraged to assess penalties on the fly rather than being confined by arcane tables. The simplicity of this mechanic allows for the GM to gain a better grip on the fast and loose nature of combat in the real world, the astral plane, and the virtual reality of the Matrix. Speaking of the Matrix, the most important plot change is probably the advent of a wireless Matrix. The old "decks" have been removed in favour of an Artificial Reality overlay to normal vision. This requires computer criminals to come on-site with the rest of the Shadowrun team in order to participate, and opens up the role of the hacker in the game to a previously unknown degree. I've been playing Shadowrun for 15 years now, and I'm very excited about the changes this latest edition have brought around. Here's hoping FanPro follows up the new edition with some material that allows us to better come to grips with the setting changes.Recent years at Gen Con have seen video game publishers arriving to show off their work as well. NCSoft has been a presence at the con since the release of City of Heroes (partially because of Jack Emmert's background in the tabletop industry). This year all they really had to show was the City of Villains character creator, and not even all of it. All the action was over at the booths occupied by Blizzard and Atari.
Dungeons and Dragons Online is still something of an enigma. While the closed Beta recently got underway, there are still too few firsthand experiences out there to really get a sense of what the game as a whole will be like. I had a chance this past weekend to get a feel for what the dungeon-crawling experience will be like, though, and I was very surprised by what I saw. Given the nature of online games, I've come to expect a level of abstraction in the mechanics. DDO was incredibly hands on, and in many ways felt like a single-player mission that you really wanted some help on.
Talking to a villager netted my cleric a quest, a trip into the Maw of Xoriat. Immediately I saw that they are aiming for a unique feel, as each mission had a time limit associated with it. If you didn't complete the mission in time, you would be unceremoniously summoned back to the village. Entering the crypt, there were several sarcophagi that could be interacted with. Swinging his heavy mace, my cleric smashed through the rock exteriors to get at the sweet loot within. Looking down a corridor, I was presented with a series of traps. A pair of swinging blades blocked my pack on either side of the hallway. Good timing was required to make it past without taking damage. Further down the hall was a series of large blades which snapped up from the floor in quick succession. When one set of blades was up, another was down, allowing the observant player to pick a path through the blades. If I'd had a rogue in my party, she could have disarmed the traps and allowed us to pass without having to deal with them.
Moving through the dungeon, I encountered various beasts and undead. Combat was realtime, with a clickyness that satisfied. A notification in the corner allowed you to follow along with the dice rolls and Challenge Rating of the creature you faced, if you were so inclined. Besides satisfying thwacks with my mace, I was able to counter the creatures by turning undead and flame striking the creatures with magic. One flame strike near a locked doorway revealed that the doors are as destructible as the crypts. A team without a rogue can bash through an impediment, assuming they have a strong enough fighter or a well equipped spellcaster. The whole experience had interesting little touches, such as a perverted altar that was cleansed by a use of the turn undead class ability. In a nod to gamers of all stripes, one room had me utilizing a simple version of the 'Pipes' game to allow magical energy to flow across the room. The energy stemmed from a source in the floor, and tiles around the room had grooves in them which allowed the mana to flow. By right clicking on the tiles, I could rotate them such that they formed pathways. While my time with DDO was relatively short, I found the entire experience much more interesting than I'd originally thought it would be. The near constant attention at their booth led me to believe others had the same impression.
Blizzard also had no trouble keeping their booth full, with machines allowing play of World of Warcraft (and several 60th level characters to tool around in) and StarCraft: Ghost. I'd yet to have the opportunity to try out Ghost, so I gave the tactical shooter a try, on the XBox. My reactions were, unfortunately, somewhat mixed. While the overall Starcraftyness of the experience was very enjoyable, the actual gameplay left something to be desired. Squishy controls, simple tactics, and a lack of polish on the game made it hard for me to fully understand what the title will look like when it is released. In the demo level I played, Nova stalked her way through a Terran base already overrun by Zerg. The Zerglings where just as fast and ferocious as you'd hope, and actually walking through a Zerg structure was stomach clenching. The scenery was nice, but the gameplay needed help. I'm sure that when the title is released (whenever that will be) there will be little to complain about, but the rough demo I saw this past weekend didn't have enough "there" there to give me an accurate impression.
Anyone familiar with tabletop roleplaying has likely heard of Vampire: The Masquerade and White Wolf. Two years ago at Gen Con they re-launched the World of Darkness and rebooted all of their campaign settings. This year's con saw the relaunch of the magic-bound title Mage. This time appended with the subtitle "The Awakening", the new version of the game takes a serious textual shift away from the old version of the game. While the original Mage was a grand tapestry of gifted individuals making and unmaking the very fabric of reality, the new Mage is a much more accessible storyline. There are now distinct spells used by Mage characters, a backstory involving the continent of Atlantis, mana points as a game mechanic, and an elimination of the inherent conflict between magic and technology. I'm just going to come out and say that, while I like the new World of Darkness game mechanic and think White Wolf is doing interesting things with their old brands, this particular relaunch is a kick in the face to old Mage players. Mage was a fundamentally different game from every other title in their library, and a change a pace from most titles on the market. By reorienting it with the "vision" of the other World of Darkness lines they've essentially gutted everything that was special about the setting. I'm not really a big fan of this decision.Two board games that have gained a lot of attention recently, and with good reason, were shown off at the convention this year. Shadows Over Camelot and Arkham Horror are examples of some of the new ideas that are entering the boardgame market. Five years ago you had to buy a German title in order to get a great adult boardgame experience, but today Days of Wonder allows the same enjoyment factor with their Arthurian style epic. In Shadows Over Camelot, you take on the role of Knight of the Round, fighting dark knights, dragons, questing for the grail, and holding off the barbarian hordes. The game is cooperative but doesn't allow totally free communication between players, so the title encourages creative collaboration on the numerous quests that knights can go on. For example, in order to obtain Excalibur a knight or knights must travel to the Lady of the Lake's lake and each round expend a card in order to make the sword draw closer to the shore. In the meantime, as each player goes a "bad things" card is pulled. One of these types of bad things makes the sword float away from the shore. While one player can often keep the sword from floating out of sight, in order to actually obtain the relic several knights must collaborate to assure victory. The game also incorporates subterfuge, by allowing for the possibility of a traitor in your midst. The traitor will actively work against the other players, seeking to destroy Camelot for his own victory. A complex title with easy to understand rules, Shadows Over Camelot is a great way to makes sure you stay friendly with your friends.
Indeed, if you are looking for cooperative games this is a good year to do it. Arkham Horror, from Fantasy Flight Games, also allows players to band together against a common foe. In this case, players take on the roles of investigators into the occult. There are many characters to choose from, and each has a special quirk. As your character, you and the other players work together to ensure that the arrival of a Great Old One does not occur. Based loosely on the works of H.P. Lovecraft and the roleplaying title Call of Cthulu, Arkham horror pits you against things from beyond our ken as they enter our world through mystical gates. In order to ensure the survival of the town of Arkham, MA, investigators must slay the creatures as they exit the gates. Once the path is clear they must enter the mystic realms, where they have otherworldly encounters of the horrifying and fantastic. If they are successful there, they can return to the village and seal off the gate. Changing conditions in the village constantly keep the gameplay from getting stale, and after only a short time there will be monsters a-plenty to challenge even the largest group of investigators. This Call of Cthulu in-a-box is a thoroughly enjoyable experience, and another way to make sure you do more than just frag your friends on the weekends.There are literally hundreds of new products shown at every Gen Con, and I couldn't hope to explore them all. Dice Boxes, card games (including a World of Warcraft CCG), roleplaying games, boardgames, and virtual reality games were all shown off to the general public for the first time this past weekend. Every year is a different experience, and I've always had the opportunity to look back and say that it was worth the trip. This year was especially meaningful, as I was wed to my fiancee Katharine on the 13th. Though Gen Con wasn't our honeymoon (we're not that dorky), we did have the chance to be serenaded by a Klingon and his Vulcan wife in honor of our union. There are few places in the world where such a thing could be experienced, and I'm already looking forward to next year.