Descent: Journeys In The Dark

>> Tuesday, May 12, 2009

This weekend the old gang dusted off Nate's copy of Descent: Journeys Into The Dark and gave it another whirl. Descent is an RPG-lite: it's a semi-cooperative boardgame that takes its major tropes from Dungeons And Dragons, with one player taking on the role of "Overlord" and the remaining players taking on the roles of a party of individual characters exploring caves that the Overlord assembles out of tiles and places plastic enemy monsters on. The layout of the caves and the placement of monsters and the objective for the party to achieve (and the Overlord to obstruct) is found in a booklet of adventures that comes with the game (or additional scenarios may be found online or purchased from the publisher, Fantasy Flight Games. The party wins a game by killing the adventure scenario's Big Bad (or accomplishing some objective within the map layout), the Overlord wins by killing the players' characters enough times to make them cry (characters respawn, however the party starts with a number of victory points and may earn more, but loses them whenever a character is killed; if the party loses all their points, they lose the game).

It's this last semi-competitive bit that truly sets Descent apart from traditional RPGs and settles it in in "RPG-lite" territory, really. One could, if one really wanted to, play a game of Descent in character (in our two sessions, the nearest thing to "roleplaying" merely consisted of me making funny voices for the two characters I played, but still). But the real beauty of an RPG is that if it's played properly, the gamemaster is mostly a neutral or even pro-player referee. True, the gamemaster (e.g. the "Dungeon Master" of Dungeons And Dragons) decides what kind of threats the players may be facing--monsters, traps, non-player-character antagonists, architectural obstacles and diplomatic barriers--but part of the gamemaster's mandate is to make sure everybody has as much fun as possible, not to kill everybody (unless that's somehow part of the fun), and an RPG session in which players are hopelessly stymied by a puzzle or get improbably hacked to pieces by rabbits is likely to be an utter failure for all. There are, of course, gamemasters who will actively try to kill off their players' characters on purpose (as opposed to trying to kill the characters for a challenge, and rejoicing inside when the players defeat the challenge), but those folks are doing it wrong, and here's why: since a gamemaster controls the universe, it's perfectly within his or her domain to decree that the entire gameworld was abruptly destroyed by a hurtling asteroid made of pure strange matter, killing all of the players' characters instantly; since that's the case, why should he or she bother doing the same thing with kobolds?

Anyway, we'd retired Descent for a time because it tended to generate some bad blood. There was a sense that the game was a bit unbalanced, but after trying it again this weekend I think the sense was more that we'd been playing it wrong on both sides, and that the balance tends to shift back and forth a bit. The one game we brought to completion, the endgame actually was a little tense and came down entirely to die rolls, which was a good thing in context: it was the result of the character party and Don, the Overlord, all playing fairly well with a comparable number of mistakes on both sides but mostly doing the things each side and each player had to do for or against the team. So I think I can say it ended up being fun--there was, in all candor, one bit of frustration that led to some raised voices, but it blew over pretty damn quickly and I think everyone will be willing to give the game another shot. Which is especially cool for Nate, who was the one who purchased it, since it is an eighty-buck game (hey, all those little plastic fiddly bits in the box get to be expensive).

It also got everybody jonesing for some real tabletop RPG action, so we may try to get some things started along those lines while one of the crew is back in town. The biggest problem with tabletop RPGs is that, being inherently social in nature, you need to have a number of people to game--there's really no point in trying to run something with fewer than three players (not counting the gamemaster) and four or five (not counting the GM) is roughly ideal. With some of the usual suspects around here scattered around the country or bogged down with the struggles of parenthood, we haven't quite had the numbers we've needed, which is a shame.

Indeed, Descent itself really requires more than a few people to play: while you could have a two-player game (one Overlord, one player controlling three-to-four characters all by himself), that's really a bit pointless. You need at least four and five would have been preferable, I think, if we'd had the fifth. That's not unusual for a really good game, of course.

Anyway, it was fun. Dice were rolled, trash was talked, I was turned into a monkey and spent the last two turns cooling my heels in town while the wizard tried not to die and the tank was bounced around the chamber he was in like a racquetball by a giant; and yet good prevailed, or at least the greedy treasure hunters properly vanquished the humongous monstrous fellow who was trying to keep his stuff for some reason (how dare he!) and a hypothetical number of beastwomen and beastchildren surely gnashed their teeth and wailed that their beastmen came home in small bags suitable for carryout. Also, a bunch of skeletons died. Again. And Jessica kept falling into pits, or at least her little plastic wizard kept being put on top of a pit marker, which was symbolically the same thing. A good run, indeed.


Jeri Tuesday, May 12, 2009 at 8:52:00 PM EDT  

Completely apropos of nothing - I have no comment on the game you mentioned - your header shot of the elf-cat is pretty darn fabulous. :)

Jim Wright Wednesday, May 13, 2009 at 10:32:00 AM EDT  

I don't like the cat.

It's like its eyes follow me. Like I'm a small brown mouse.

(Kidding of course, the cat is your best header yet). Never played Descent. I think the last RPG board game I played would have been Ogre combined with GEV - that would have been about 40 years ago now.

mattw Wednesday, May 13, 2009 at 10:51:00 AM EDT  

I've often drooled over Descent in the store, but I can't justify plunking down the $80 or so that it costs now that my main gaming group is largely broken up (one is around and willing to play, one moved to Milwaukee and only has one car between him and his spouse, one got married to a controlling bitch who doesn't let him get out of the house much). So anyway, I'll live vicariously through your gaming.

Eric Wednesday, May 13, 2009 at 10:54:00 AM EDT  

Ah, the Steve Jackson classic!

I never played tabletop Ogre, but there was a decent network port of the game in the Apple Mac lab at my dorm during my one year at UNC-Charlotte ('91-'92).

But you're a little younger than you think, Jim: Ogre was released in '77. Actually, that surprised me, since the reason I looked it up was that I actually thought Ogre didn't come out until the '80s (and indeed, G.E.V. was published by SJG, which was founded in 1980, so you would have been playing Ogre + G.E.V. in that decade).

I started looking all that up because I recalled Ogre as coming out after Cosmic Encounter, but it turns out they were released the same year. CE was one of the first non-symmetric games to really break big in the gaming community and I thought Ogre was sort of on the coattails of that (that's not a knock--the guys at Eon Games were practically gamer gods, and so is Steve Jackson, so some mutual admiration/influence would only be natural). Actually, it seems they really were peers and hitting the field at around-about the same time, with their first early classics hitting shelves the same year.

I feel obligated to note that there were quite a few (technically) non-symmetric wargames published by Avalon Hill and SPI, but I'm not sure any of them approached the delightful asymmetry of CE and Ogre and the games in their wake, where each player was given not just a radically different startup, but also essentially different rulesets and/or ways to legally "cheat" the primary rules. (I.e. players of AH's Gettysburg may start with different forces, but all their pieces follow the same rules per unit type--there's no rules difference between Federal and Confederate cav units, f'r'instance.)

Anyway... good times.

Eric Wednesday, May 13, 2009 at 10:56:00 AM EDT  

Matt: yeah, one of the sad perils of adulthood is that you can finally (mostly) afford cool toys that you and your friends no longer have as much time to play. I hope some opportunities come up for you to actually get to roll some dice with friends.

mattw Wednesday, May 13, 2009 at 6:03:00 PM EDT  

Yeah, it's been a long time since I've done any serious table-top gaming. I miss it, but I'm sure I'll get back to it some day.

Maybe we can find a place to meat up and get in some gaming time. What's half way between Chicago and Charlotte?

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