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3DA Emperor's Gambit
Design & Development
By Rob Heinsoo

A couple years after the publication of Three-Dragon Ante (3DA), I realized that designing a sequel would be fun. I didn't take the possibility seriously until I saw the many new types of metallic dragon that were going to appear in the 4E Dungeons & Dragons supplement Draconomicon 2. I knew that 3DA's simple mechanics had room for expansion; Draconomicon 2 provided the metallic dragon types I'd been lacking, ensuring that a sequel to 3DA wouldn't have to invent dragons that D&D players had never heard of before.

When I heard D&D's Brand Manager at the time, Scott Rouse, talking about another reprint of Three-Dragon Ante, I piped up with the offer to design a new set. My one minute pitch included a comparison to Dominion, the wonderful card game by Donald X. Vaccarino that lets you mix different pre-configured cards together each game. Three-Dragon Ante's sequel's 70 cards would likewise be entirely compatible with the original cards; it would be the same game, but the new cards could be mixed with the original cards for all different styles of play. Scott bought the one minute pitch in about forty-five seconds.

The design notes that follow start with a look at the Emperor: the first card I designed for Emperor's Gambit and that framed the set in the world of D&D. After meeting the Emperor, we'll discuss two of the design goals that pushed the card set through approximately five playable versions. Finally, we'll look at the new rules for using Three-Dragon Ante during your D&D sessions.

The Emperor Leads the Way

I started the new set by framing it within the worldview of 4th Edition D&D. Given that the fallen empire of Arkhosia had embodied the peak of the world's greatest draconic powers, I decided that a new 3DA deck might reasonably have arisen during the Arkhosian era. Thinking about the politics of innovation and in-game 'publishing,' I reasoned that this new 3DA deck might originally have been produced as a gift for an emperor of Arkhosia. The first card that leapt full-formed into the design was therefore the Emperor. Making the Emperor the strongest card in the game would have been blatant pandering--but still, the Emperor needed to be strong! How could I make this mortal grow in strength so that it would be stronger than it at first appeared?

I've played many 3DA gambits that became increasingly bizarre when players tied for the lead during final scoring, so that another round had to be played... and then another. It's good for the game when players with perfect plans are forced to improvise for more rounds than they expected, so I started design of the new set by giving the Emperor a power that would extend the gambit by at least one round. The wording of the card shifted and improved, but its basic power remained the same: trigger as a fairly low card (6), force an extra round when it triggers, and count for strength 10 when it's time to score the gambit.

Early on, the Emperor's power gave the set its nickname. Given that it leads to a minimum of four rounds of play instead of the usual three, and given that I'd led the design of 4th Edition, some people referred to the game as Four-Dragon Ante. Cute, but not convincing. I ditched the joke and saved the idea of naming the set after the Emperor.

Something New & the Shiny: Ante Effects

The earliest version of the Emperor's Gambit set had only one 'ante effect,' found on the Hatchling. This effect was included from the beginning, because the standard 3DA dynamic requires there to be some method for a weaker player to surprise would-be victors with a desired race to the bottom. I didn't want to simply duplicate the effect of the Druid from the original 3DA. The Hatchling broke out of its egg as an alternative to the Druid—accompanied by a few more cards that were either putting cards into, or pulling cards out of, the ante by surprise.

The Hatchling worked well from the start. As the first playtesters (Mike Donais and Andy Collins) pointed out, the problem was that although this looked like a new direction for the game, the Hatchling didn't have other interesting ante effects alongside it. That playtest shifted the game from its perfectly playable proto-design into something closer to its final form.

The next iteration included similar ante effects that ended up on the Spy and Dragon Turtle (as well as a number of other ante effects that played too poorly to survive). In fact, the decision to focus on the cards in the ante helped revise the powers of all the dragons. The Gray Dragon had been stealing money; now it steals money from the current leader equal to the number of evil dragons in the ante. The Iron Dragon turned its semi-evil status in the roleplaying game into a fondness for taking evil dragons out of the ante. The Purple Dragon turned into one of the few evil dragons that allows a card draw, but you have to place a card from your hand into the ante, thus providing one of the most likely avenues for getting ante effect cards into the mix.

The rest of the ante effects took some time to work out. The Adventurer and Exarch cards, for instance, didn't get finalized until the game was in development, when Quill, the lead developer, said, "The current ante effects aren't as much fun as they should be," and I designed something else to try.

In the end, the ante effects provided what I'd hoped: a fun new way of shuffling players' expectations of what each gambit might offer. Ante cards are often removed from the ante by players who put together a strength flight. The fact that this happens towards the end of a gambit—when the tension has built-- is fully intentional (so is the increased likelihood of a strength flight now that we've changed the rules to allow mortals to count in them). For every trick, there's a possible counter.

As an aside, I'll mention that playing with the Bronze Dragon from the original 3DA greatly affects the dynamics of the new Ante Effect cards, particularly weak cards like the Hatchling and Dragon Turtle that are likely to be picked up quickly using the Bronze. It's not as simple as saying that the Hatchling won't be as effective when it can be snarfled out of the ante with a Bronze; because the Hatchling can be snagged so easily, it actually tends to stay 'in play' instead of ending up in the discard pile. In future gambits, everyone will be looking at the player who has the Hatchling and wondering what they're going to do with it. It's a new dynamic. You'll decide for yourself if you like or if you'd rather keep the Bronze and Hatchling apart.

No More Mediocre Cards: Dragons & Mortals that Matter

The original 3DA had a few dragons and mortals that were seldom worth playing for their power. White Dragons, Black Dragons, and sometimes Blue Dragons frequently ended up in the ante. Often as not, that was the right call; unless you were trying to put together a color flight, those dragons' small-stealing effects just weren't as good as the card drawing powers of the good dragons, or the card-stealing/gold-demanding powers of the Red and Green Dragons.

My hunch is that the game is more fun when every card has an interesting power. The evil dragons in Emperor's Gambit needed to measure up to the Red and Green from 3DA rather than the White and Blue. Beginning with the Earthquake dragon as an evil dragon that some players flinch away from as too powerful, I aimed to make the evil dragons in Emperor's Gambit worth thinking about instead of automatically consigning to the initial ante.

I recognize that there's still a tendency to place evil dragons into the ante instead of good dragons. To address this, I added dynamics that play off the presence of evil dragons in the ante. When you put an Earthquake dragon into the ante, for example, the next player to trigger an Earthquake dragon is going to thank you while taking your gold. If the entire table has cooperated to fill the ante with evil dragons, watch out for the Gray. And the Iron Dragon can snatch any evil dragon out of the ante, so don't ante something you aren't prepared to have used against you.

Mortals in the original 3DA were handicapped by requiring players to throw gold into the stakes or discard a card whenever their powers triggered. I'd originally justified this to myself by saying that you were paying to get a wild-card power. In reality, you were already paying by not being able to make a color flight with the mortal—and, of course, it's no fun to have to pay for a card when its power triggers. Getting rid of the 1 Gold cost to play a mortal was a no-brainer that immediately made the new mortals more worthwhile.

There were also mortals in the first set that were just plain terrible. Judging by how often he ends up in the ante, the Priest isn't highly regarded. Players who know what they're doing can figure out what to do with the Princess, but she's a bit of a challenge. Even the Archmage and Dracolich get most of their bang by their Strength, not by triggering their powers.

Emperor's Gambit aimed to include ten new 'wild' cards that would be memorable and could shift the consequences of each gambit. I'll mention two of my favorites: the Wyrmpriest and the Sorcerer.

It's not an accident that at strength 5, the Wyrmpriest sits in the same spot occupied by the Priest. For a one-card substitution that will make a more dynamic game, simply replace the Priest with the Wyrmpriest. No matter which cards you're playing him with, The Wyrmpriest now increases your odds of getting color flights. It's an effect that's good for the game, giving players more opportunities to pursue rewards other than winning the stakes. It was also one of the earliest cards in the set because I knew that I would miss Tiamat's ability to make color flights with evil dragons. I wanted to extend that ability to good dragons as well, and using a mortal who could also make a color flight with other mortals when his power triggered turned out to be as much fun as I'd hoped.

The Sorcerer has some of my favorite art in the set; Craig Phillips did a wonderful job with the card. And that's good, because I love the choices the Sorcerer offers. As a strength 8 card, there are times you're going to want to play the Sorcerer purely for its innate strength (when 8 is enough); but more often, however, you'll use the Sorcerer as an attempt to pull something stronger than 8. The choice between three cards means that your opponents get to glimpse several possible futures. And since the cards that you don't choose go into the ante, the Sorcerer sometimes creates an ante effect no one expected.

Three-Dragon Ante in Your D&D Campaign

Pages 16-17 of the Emperor's Gambitrulebook have rules to allow D&D heroes to make use of their trained skills and abilities while playing 3DA in character. The original 3DA also had rules for use in D&D, but I confess I didn't think that highly of them. I'm not sure whether the earlier rules could be politely termed an afterthought or merely 'bad-thought.' They weren't hopeless, but they didn't do much to improve a game of 3DA.

I'm hoping to change that in Emperor's Gambit. Fourteen of the special abilities correspond to a trained skill, and one corresponds to the Luck domain. Characters choose special abilities they qualify for in initiative order, as determined by an Insight check. If you like, you can allow each character to choose one ability, or two apiece, or give a professional gambler one more ability than everyone else. Some of the abilities function constantly; an example being trained in Bluff: Each time you would pay 2 or more gold to another player, reduce the amount of gold you pay by 1. Other abilities are much too powerful to be allowed to function all the time. For example, Perception: After everyone's ante cards are revealed, you can choose to replace your ante card with another card from your hand. Return the original ante card to your hand. You cannot use this ability again until you complete a special flight.

Unlike the first 3DA's suggestions for using the card game while playing D&D, the new rules should result in a more interesting game. And since we've changed the rules for starting gold so that 3- and 4-player games finish much more quickly, 3DA sessions may fit more easily into a night of D&D. The new special abilities should flow easily into roleplaying riffs so that even the heroes who lose all their gold will have had moments of glory!