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...


Andrew Paul said...

I think you missed my point. The anticlimax is built into the very quest. It's just as disappointing if you'd managed to face Ghira with nothing but Copper treasures - it's the instant kill ability of the Finger of Death rune that's the issue, not the skills that players may or may not pick up.

"A bit political on yer ass!" said...

You're right Andy. I did miss your precise point about how the Finger of Death rune is such complete overkill in and of itself. That is to say: I did mention this, but didn't dwell on it because I was pursuing another chain of thought about game balance in Descent more generally.

Also, do you really think that the heroes could survive to encounter Ghira with nothing but copper treasures? I mean, this is technically possible, given the dungeon layout. But do you really think that heroes equipped only with copper treasures would survive against the 2 ogres, 3 naga and 2 manticores they have to beat in order to find the Finger of Death and move on to their encounter with Ghira? I guess it might be possible, but I wouldn't expect to choose to try it. Of course, there's also the possibility that the Finger of Death is there precisely in case some heroes do get through to Ghira with as little as copper treasures, to even things up. ;)