Tuesday, November 25, 2008

As I was saying only yesterday...

Descent & anti-climax: intrinsic to the system, or just poor scenario design?
The sense of anti-climax observed by Andy after our final encounter with the Big Boss in Sunday's long-awaited heroes' triumph in Descent was recognisable to me from my own recent victories as the Overlord. I referred to this last month as being "taken a bit by surprise". And it has to be said, in 'narrative' terms, it is true that a 1-turn kill of the Big Boss by our pocket- nuke wizard Dave wasn't the epic toe-to-toe showdown that'd've capped with dramatic appropriateness our long slog to eventual victory.

I mean to say, looking at my BoardGameGeek games-played stats for Descent says that our heroes' road to victory was a 9-game marathon running from the end of September, through October, and up to last week. These statistics aren't 100% reliable, but the fact remains that the buildup to Sunday's triumph was 2 solid months of defeats, broken only for Andy and I, the Overlords. So yes, if these adventures had been part of a narrative- whether in print or in roleplaying- the sense of anti-climax would've been more than passing, it'd've been cause for serious complaint by players or readers.

I said yesterday that there is "something in this which strikes to the heart of Descent". This idea was sparked when I read an interesting thread discussing an insightful review over at the BGG. Among the various thoughts and perceptions of the game what was immediately most striking to me was Zimeon's comment that it "feels as if the designers have taken all the joy of new shinies from World of Warcraft the online game level 1-60, and packed it into 4 hours of play." Echoed by kingbobb ("I think the game does, within each quest, attempt to capture the WoW 0-60 progression"), this made me realise that the overwhelming power of Dave's lone hero against the Big Boss might well have been a matter of chance, but it wasn't entirely accidental all the same. That this wasn't accidental, and is therefore a conscious design feature of the game, is proved by Robb's explanation, from his Descent Decrees for an Aspiring Overlord, that
"veterans... understand that the treasure dynamic is backwards from normal games of this type. In order for heroes to defeat monsters in Descent, they must get treasure. This goes against the thinking that heroes are slaying monsters to receive treasure."
All of this is confirmed by our experience of play. Heroes have no chance without good treasures. Moreover, the really good treasures- sliver/gold, or relics; or fortuitous treasure/skills combos, eg. Dave's Spiritwalker wizardry skill and Dragon's Breath rune treasure (a mere silver too!)- can indeed be utterly overpowering, as we've seen more than once before. This just goes to highlight the absolute importance, to the Overlord, of protecting the treasure chests- silver and gold at least- from the heroes, or making them pay a heavy price for each chest they open in any case.

The heroes' extreme power curve and the spread of its variations give Descent a peculiar razor-sharp balance. I say 'peculiar' because halfway successful heroes will effectively turn the game inside out, as their superior treasures will enable them to turn the tables on the Overlord, subjecting him to the grind they'll already've had to endure. The taxing mid-to-end-game slugathon as the heroes start to overwhelm the Overlord's monsters is something I held against Descent at first, and that BGG thread plus another over at F:AT show that some people never got over it.

I wouldn't want to be too dogmatic about these conclusions, especially since other players- eg. quesodog at the FFG Descent forum- think that the expansion scenarios are radically different from the basic ones. All the same- and finally coming back to that sense of anti-climax- barring haplessly choosing all the wrong doors to open and corners to turn so that you stumble upon the Big Boss before you've properly powered up, I suspect that surviving long enough to meet the Big Boss in the first place will typically require hero parties to have got their hands on something powerful enough to make shorter work of that Big Boss than the Overlord (who 'is' that Big Boss, after all) would wish. Otherwise, I would expect the Overlord to win before the party is ready to face the Big Boss in any case. Built-in anti-climax almost by defnition it seems to me.

If true this perhaps isn't the best of adverts for Descent, but to be honest I don't really care. The game gives me exactly what I want, and I find myself looking forward to playing it as much as almost any other game in my collection. I'd call that a palpable hit! Definitely not the last word. ;)

- As I was saying only yesterday...

Monday, November 24, 2008

Hoo hah!

So, as I noted last time, it was Andy's turn to Lord it Over us in yestersday's game of Descent. And yes, at last, we (ie. the heroes) won! It took 8 long games, but eventually good prevailed over evil. Except, well, in 'narrative' terms it turned out to be something of a phyrric victory, because it turned out that we had delivered a dangerous relic into the hands of an evil villain. So I expect that the next dungeon, the last in the basic set, will feature heroes trying to clear this damn mess up.

As I said last time, I did go and pick out a hero in advance. Knowing Tony and Donald's penchant for fighters, I decided to opt for a roguish ranged combat specialist. I found one I liked, Silhouette. The key features which attracted me to Silhouette were:
  • The ranged combat trait and starting subterfuge skills of 3 each- I wanted to try a specialist rogue before taking a look at 'multiclass' heroes.
  • The hero ability, which I quickly realised would enable me to spend 3 Fatigue in a turn, go to Dodge, then spend those 2 remaining Fatigue to swap that Dodge for a Rest to reset the Fatigue to 5 before taking my next turn. I used this trick often in the game.
I also had a plan for Silhouette, which involved saving all her cash for training tokens so that I could push her ranged combat trait to 5 as quickly as possible. I managed to do this too.

I'd like to be able to say that all this preparation was crucial to our victory on the day, but I'd be kidding myself. The truth is that the major contribution I made was using my speed to get through to treasure chests or to glyphs to open or activate them. This is a very important part of Descent to be sure, but lone heroes are always vulnerable to the Overlord's monsters, lone and fragile heroes all the more so. Sure enough, it was Silhouette's death which put us within a mere 8 turns of defeat as we neared the end of the midgame.

In fact, I'd thought we were doomed to defeat long before that. We'd taken so long to clear the first area that the sight of a 2nd area with the same layout and harder monsters convinced me that we simply couldn't win. Moreover, it was precisely what Silhouette was good at- ie. grabbing the treasure- which I feared would take us so long that we'd lose simply by running out of time. I was wrong fortunately.

All the same, my useful contribution wasn't decisive. I would have to say that that honour belonged to our new 4th hero, Dave. Offered his choice of hero archetypes, he plumped for magic-user, ending up with Landrec the Wise.

Dave was a quick learner, and was soon charging about zapping monsters like a veteran. He was dangerous enough equipped with a rune which gave him access to the Breath template, so that he could waste whole handfuls of monsters in a single turn; but when he gained a skill which enabled him to use other heroes as the point of origin of his attacks, he became, as he said, a nuclear device with remote targetting. And when he got his hands on the rune for which we'd been searching, well, let's just say that he was powerful enough so that our final encounter, with the Big Boss, was, as Andy said, a bit of an anti-climax.

There's something in this which strikes to the heart of Descent, but I'll come back to that later. In the meantime, HOO HAH! ;)

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Argh! You evil £$%&#!! Etc.

Regular readers can be reassured that this past 4-week bloglag wasn't caused by a descent into the slough of despond, but was instead down to a family visit and the same dearth of inspiration I noted a couple of months ago. Gaming in the past month has continued to be as steady a diet of Descent as availability for Sunday sessions would permit. The Descent score is now Overlord(s) 7, heroes 0. Tony and I almost managed to take Andy down, but, well, I decided to pull some fancy footwork to get the game over and done with so's I could get to work on the dinner, and instead of being the hero I ended up the goat.

It was quite funny really. There I was, a puny magic user outnumbered in close combat with 2 master monsters (the tougher ones of each kind, for those who don't know) because my supposedly game-winning blow with the nemesis relic Sword of Mighty Piercing Stabbiness against the pesky Invulnerable Beastman Minion had, well, missed (a mere 1/6 chance, sheesh!). I died, inevitably. No worries I thought, Andy could kill my hero 4 or 5 times over before we'd have to worry about losing. Then, when it was his turn, Andy rather shamefacedly moved the pesky Invulnerable Beastman on top of the only weapon which could hurt it, and then pointed out that he had won the game, because we couldn't get the weapon

Andy was right too, in the end. Feeling guilty at such a cheesy win in a game in which the heroes had had everything their way thus far, he chipped in to help Tony and I find a possible winning strategy. There was one, which involved raising all the cash we could to invest in skills, in the hope of getting Acrobat, which enables a hero to enter an enemy occupied square. (I've since discovered that there is also the Telekinesis skill which could've moved the damn thing.) But no, our luck wasn't in.

Andy's winning tactic has provoked some discussion since, with both Tony and Andy voicing thoughts that there was perhaps something wrong with it, one way or another. Painful as it was to have to admit it though, I had to disagree. As Andy evidently swithered over his move I quickly concluded that it would be asinine to expect him to throw a game just because he was embarrased to exploit my stupidity. Beyond that I also reasoned the scenario's designer must surely've been aware of this possibility, and nothing had been written in to preclude it. Further, I thought there was something tragically apt about the whole fiasco.

The dungeon in question was very lucrative, so that Tony and I were soon tooled up with lots of lovely treasure which we used to cut a gleeful swathe of destruction through everything that Andy could throw at us. We were cruising to what looked like an easy victory, only to fall foul of the relic rules, which we were seeing in action for the first time; the most important of which being that, unlike everything else heroes carry, relics are dropped on the spot when a hero is killed (to be sent back to town). Awesome treasures, carefree carnage, a deadly relic, and hopes of easy victory cruelly dashed thanks to my complete failure to grasp the implications of my extravagant scheme falling through; this rollercoaster ride of a game wasn't just fun, but it was thematically satisfying to see an evil Overlord win because of a hero's hubris!

When I first commented on Descent last year, I noted that it "might represent a real breakthrough in dungeon-bash boardgaming". Recent games have convinced me that this is indeed so, even if only because it gives me the "honest-to-god dungeon-bash in a box" I set my heart on when I first heard about Talisman 25 years ago. I just hope I'm not the first vanquished Overlord as I was the first losing Invader player in Doom: the Boardgame last year.

More anon, for sure. In the meantime, there should be an extra player tomorrow, so that the heroes can take a full party of 4 into the next dungeon. And I think it's Andy's turn to be the Overlord again. So, I'm off to have a look at some heroes... ;)