Sunday, June 11, 2006

Stay Out Of Range Of The Giant: Descent - Journeys in the Dark

I must start this post with an admission about my sordid gaming past: I Was A Teenage Dungeon Master.

That's right... for roughly three years "back in the day" I ran a rag-tag group of adventurers through a variety of dungeons & forests set in a fantasy world of my own creation. Armed with the board from AH's Outdoor Survival (the map of "the world") and the 'blue box' edition of the D&D (Dungeons & Dragons) basic rules, I spent most of my free time (and some of my class time) drawing dungeons & creating stories in preparation for marathon Saturday gaming sessions & quick one-shot adventures on weekdays after school.

Our crew never got into miniatures - I think because of economics rather than my current excuse, "the fear of painting." Similar reasons kept us from playing too many of the "official" modules - the primary ones I remember are The Village of Hommlet (T1) and the Giant trilogy. (I'm still cheesed off that TSR didn't publish T2 - The Temple of Elemental Evil - until years after I'd stopped playing D&D.) I vividly remember spending my hard-earned allowance money on the first Monster Manual, Player's Handbook, and Dungeon Master's Guide... and using the information in those books to dream up even more diabolical adventures.

Then, sometime in the spring of 1981, I stopped playing D&D. I kept playing Traveller (a sci-fi RPG - that's "role playing game" for those you playing along at home) and a little bit of SPI's Dragonquest, but you could stick a fork in my time with Dungeons & Dragons. (The story of how this happened will have to wait for my next post about D&D... see, I've given you something to look forward to!)

But I continued to enjoy fantasy games... Particularly those that captured some of the flavor of D&D. For a while, we played Talisman (2nd edition) on a regular basis. Then there was Warlock of Firetop Mountain... and even Space Hulk, which always had a bit of a dungeon crawl meet Aliens feel to the game. Another favorite was Dungeonquest, which I foolishly sold (along with both expansions) back in the mid-90's. Thanks to the generosity of Keith "I Used To Be A Neutral Good Monk In Mark's D&D Game" Monaghan, I have the base game back in my collection... but the Dungeonquest Heroes & Dungeonquest Catacombs expansions are way OOP and insanely expensive. (There's another post I need to write... the joys of Dungeonquest!) In the early 90's, I bought the entire 3rd edition Talisman set... and we spent many happy hours chasing around the board, attempting to defeat the monsters & avoid getting turned into a toad. (Weirdly enough, I never actually played Heroquest and/or Advanced Heroquest. I wonder how that happened?)

Most of those are gone now... Warlock, Space Hulk & Talisman (3rd) all sold at hopped-up E-bay prices to enlarge my oddball collection of "German" games. Every once in a while, I get a hankering to play them, but not enough to give up the pile of other games that they financed. (Dungeonquest, OTOH, is still here... and gets played every 3-4 months or so.)

In the last couple of years, the same "wish I could level up a character" impulse has led to my complete & total enjoyment of Return of the Heroes (and it's expansion, Under the Shadow of the Dragon)... and, to a lesser extent, my sort-of enjoyment of Klaus Teuber's Candamir: The First Settlers (which is a weird cross between The Settlers of Catan & an RPG.) The release of Knizia's Lord of the Rings didn't feature "leveling" but did include great variety through the use of expansions and an abstract design that wore the "Tolkien" costume with style.

Which brings us to Memorial Day weekend 2006 and the subject of this post... Descent: Journeys in the Dark. Produced by Fantasy Flight Games with one of the largest boxes I've ever seen on the game (I think it may even produce it's own gravitational field), this dungeon crawl game combines some of the best elements of Space Hulk/Heroquest (the puzzle-cut dungeon boards & the nifty miniatures), Lord of the Rings: Sauron (with one player "running" the game, attempting to thwart the adventurers), and Runebound (the fatigue system & the setting of the game) combined with innovative new ideas first created for FF's Doom: The Boardgame. I particularly like the "one roll combat" mechanism.

Another nice mechanism is the way "victory" is determined. Unlike D&D, the Overlord (gamemaster) is not simply a benevolent dictator directing gameplay... he (or she) is an opponent to the adventuring party. The heroes begin the game with five conquest tokens & a goal (kill a giant, find a particular treasure, slay the vicious gazebo - and I say that with all appropriate props to Knights of the Dinner Table.) Heroes can obtain more tokens by activating transport glyphs (portals which lead out of the dungeon), opening chests, killing "boss" monsters & triggering certain encounters. OTOH, the Overlord can take away tokens by killing adventurers and cycling through his deck of encounters. The heroes win if they accomplish their goal before running out of conquest tokens... and the Overlord wins if he take all of their conquest tokens away.

I also like the way the Overlord "directs" the game via his encounter cards - each of them has a "threat cost" and a "discard" value. Drawing two cards per turn, you may hang onto them (to be used later against the adventurers) or discard them in order to receive threat tokens equal to their discard value. You then use threat tokens to play to activate these cards... spawning new monsters into the dungeon, activating traps, and giving the Overlord player special abilities. The stronger the card, the higher the cost. So, you can't do everything you'd like to... instead, you have to budget your resources to cause the most havoc & damage!

The system for "individualizing" the characters also works well... each player has a skill rating in three areas (ranged, melee & magic combat) as well as a fatigue rating, life level & some kind of special power. In addition to those, each player receives three skill cards (they may exchange one of those for another card from the deck) which customize each character in some very interesting ways.

In my first (and only game), I was the Overlord. We played the second scenario (which involved killing two giants who were brothers.) In fact, this was a scheduled event for Kublacon, so we actually had two tables going with Aldie (Scott Alden of BGG fame) the only person in the room who knew the rules. So Aldie was Overlord at Table #1 & I was Overlord at Table #2 - both playing the same scenario.

At my table, the only person I knew was Scott Alan Woodard, a friend from previous gaming events. So, I introduced myself, then Scott... and then the next guy chimed in that his name was Scott. If that wasn't weird enough, the other guy at the table was, you guessed it, also named Scott. (The lone girl - Lil - just decided we should call her Scott, too.) That's right, kids - out of 10 people in the event, 40% of them were named Scott (including Aldie). Twilight Zone-ish, eh?!

After dithering through about 45 minutes of set-up & rules explanations - all in very good spirits, though - the adventure began. The party of four made mincemeat of the central court guardians... a loose conglomeration of skeleton archers & beastmen whose main function was to serve as target practice for the party. Sigh. (I even said to Aldie at this point: "This seems way too easy.")

But once they opened the door into the western part of the dungeon, all heck broke loose. I sent a pair of sorcerers after them, inflicting some damage as they provided cover for a freshly spawned crew of beastmen & a lumbering "boss" giant. The party tag-teamed both the evil magicians & their beasty friends... then retreated as the giant kept his relentless pace forward. Springing a pit trap on them was nice... as was using one of the Power cards to up the number of dice each monster rolled when attacking. (Unfortunately, one of the adventurers had Skye the Eagle as it's "friend" and used it to harass my monsters mercilessly.)

Then, just as they figured out that "double-sword girl" (can't remember her actual game name - the player using her was, of course, Scott) was an Acrobat and could leap past the giant in order to dig into the goodies, I managed a massive swipe of my club... and in a roll that still defies probability, wiped out two of the adventurers. At a conquest token cost of 3 each, they were out of tokens & out of the game. Wow. (The die roll, BTW, contained an amazing 13 wounds. Thirteen. Yikes.) So about 2 hours in, the Overlord prevailed. (Yeah, baby...)

Meanwhile at Table #1, the crew of adventurers had better luck... killing the giant off more than once, only to find him coming back to life. (This, as they say, is not good.) A tank-like member of the party was holding him off... until Aldie used a troll to swat other members of the party into the giant's club range. Another 90 minutes later and Aldie also triumphed.

Some thoughts on our two games:
  • Aldie had played before, giving him an advantage on his table... and while I hadn't played before, I'd played this kind of gaming role (Sauron, DM, etc.) a number of times & picked up on the strategies quickly.
  • OTOH, all of the adventurers were new to the system AND didn't get much of a chance to look at the rules. They would do MUCH better on a second playing.
  • In fact, all of us (me included) would do better on a second playing. This is a game where a little bit of experience is going to pay off dividends not only in better tactical play but also in reducing the time of play - as you get better at the game, it takes less time to "prune the decision tree" or read the combat dice or whatever...
  • Another benefit of a 2nd playing: making sure we had all the rules right and/or clear. It's not a complicated game, but the chrome that gives Descent that sweet "dungeon crawl" flavor also adds twists to the system that aren't always easy to remember.
Why I'm seriously thinking of buying or trading for a copy of Descent:
  • I had a blast playing it.
  • I can see Braeden (and eventually Collin) as a potential audience for this game.
  • I really admire how smoothly the whole thing works together.
  • There are expansions coming - one sometime this summer and another in the fall. (Ah, yes, the siren call of expansions... because, of course, it MUST be a good game if they can make more money off of it, right?! Ahem... witness Munckin. 10+ expansions & no end in sight... blech.)
  • The box has it's own zip code. (Man, do I love boxes packed full of minis & cards & map pieces... drool/slobber/drool.)
What's holding me back:
  • I don't think my current gaming group will warm up to it's long-ish charms.
  • It's long - even with more experience, I'm guessing that most dungeons will take 3-4 hours... or more.
  • The box has it's own zip code. (Honestly, storage really isn't a problem in my game room - but it still runs through my head.)
Whatever I choose to do, if you have any thought that you might enjoy the game, please go give it a try. Fantasy Flight is NOT paying me to say this - though, if they want to throw some swag my way, I won't stop 'em. :-)

Those of you who identify with my role-playing past will probably also enjoy this review of Descent posted to Boardgamegeek in the style of the ol' Choose Your Own Adventure books: Descent: A Choose Your Own Review Adventure Game


Anonymous said...

Now that sounds like a cool game.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for some great comments on the game. I was a Teenage Dungeon Master too... started with basic D&D and moved on to other RPGs such as Traveller and then GURPS. Also played Talisman 2nd, Heroquest and Advanced Heroquest.. then a long sabbatical till I discovered German games.

Things that are preventing me from seriously considering Descent are:

@ A lack of interested gamers.. my brother would certainly play and my Dad (rest his soul) would have loved it, but I don't know many other gamers who would play dungeon crawl games (they're all from the settlers camp).

@ The size of the game.. I seriously struggle for game storage as it is, with only 100+ games.

I have no doubt that I'd enjoy descent though... and your comments just highlight that fact.

Scott Rushing said...

How funny about the "Scott"'s...there are 4 of us named Scott here in the Religion department, so that also gets confusing when we are all gathered together. Now we just call each other by our last names. :)