Thursday, September 27, 2012

Epic Adventuring Without Epic Playtime: "Descent: Second Edition"

As a huge fan of fantasy RPG's I've been trying since the late 80's to find a board game that replicates that awesome Dungeons & Dragons experience.  The first edition of Descent: Journeys in the Dark by Kevin Wilson came close but it still had some pretty hefty issues, namely:
  • The quests often boiled down to an endless rinse, wash and repeat cycle of monster ganking, treasure filching and dungeon escapery.  C'mon, game designers, where's the sense of adventure?  
  • Fighting endless waves of enemies made it feel as if you were playing Gauntlet: The Board Game.
  • The only "exploration" in the game came from whipping open doors and taking inventory of things that want to rip your face off.  Traps were arbitrarily dropped by the Overlord and you really couldn't search for them or detect them ahead of time.  Worst still, there really wasn't anything at all in the way of puzzles or problem solving.  
  • The play time was obscenely long.  Look, if I'm gonna sit around a table for four or five hours pretending to inch my way through a lethal dungeon then I wanna roll up my own damned character from scratch.  Then I wanna beat up on Orcs, Goblins and Trolls, not generic losers like "Razorwings" and "Beastmen".   
  • The "Terrinoth" setting was 50% puerility and 50% creative fatigue.  Most of the characters reeked of unintentionally funny bad-assery or pitifully desperate T&A.  It really gave the impression that Fantasy Flight's art department was staffed by a handful of pathetically horny fourteen year old boys.  
For an example, here's the character card for "Varikas the Dead":


Seriously, this guy's supposed to be a hero?!?!  He looks like a cross between Iron Maiden mascot Eddie and General Kael from Willow, fer fuck's sake.  

Oh, and here's "Red Scorpion":


Okay, clearly Ms. Scorpion's boobs were drawn by someone who's NEVER ACTUALLY SEEN REAL BOOBS.  Fucking pathetic.  

Okay, so I'm being a bit hard on the game.  The original Descent was released over seven years ago and Fantasy Flight has since streamlined their game mechanics and improved their art style, as evidenced by such slick titles as DungeonQuest (3rd Edition), Rune Age and Runewars.  There's also been a metric shit-ton of play testing, player feedback and board game evolution in the past seven years.  As such, Descent: Journeys in the Dark (Second Edition) actually makes a lot of sense to me.     


Here's Fantasy Flight's pitch for their new iteration, straight from the barghest's maw:

"Descent: Journeys in the Dark (Second Edition) is a board game in which one player takes on the role of the treacherous overlord, and up to four other players take on the roles of courageous heroes.  During each game, the heroes embark on quests and venture into dangerous caves, ancient ruins, dark dungeons, and cursed forests to battle monsters, earn riches, and attempt to stop the overlord from carrying out his vile plot.

With danger lurking in every shadow, combat is a necessity.  For such times, Descent: Journeys in the Dark (Second Edition) uses a unique dice-based system.  Players build their dice pools according to their character's abilities and weapons, and each die in the pool contributes to an attack in different ways.  Surges, special symbols that appear on most dice, also let you trigger special effects to make the most of your attacks.  And with the horrors awaiting you beneath the surface, you'll need every advantage you can take...

Featuring double-sided modular board pieces, countless hero and skill combinations, and an immersive story-driven campaign, Descent: Journeys in the Dark (Second Edition) transports heroes to a vibrant fantasy realm where they must stand together against an ancient evil."

Want more concrete info before you buy or upgrade?  You can read the rule-book in its entirety right here.  

So, has the game really been improved?  We sat down to play the introductory scenario two Wednesdays ago to try and answer that burning question.  

THE ROLES

Dean selected spell-flinger Leoric of the Book, modified by the "Necromancer" Class.  As such, he came pre-loaded with a Reaper's Scythe and the handy ability to Raise the Dead.  


Andrew was elven fighter Syndrael, augmented by the incongruous "Berserker" trait and decked out with a Chipped Greataxe and the ability to Rage at will.

  
And I played the part of the nasty, dirty Overlord.  


"FIRST BLOOD" 

In this introductory scenario, the heroes need to defeat The Mauler, a juiced-up two-headed Ettin.  The Overlord player can claim victory if they successfully move five intact Goblin Archers off the game board.

***

Syndrael found a Stamina Potion while Leoric conjured up an anorexic play-pal.  My Goblin Archers attempted to pincushion the wizard, meting out two damage in the first attack but missing with the second arrow.  The Ettin couldn't reach Leoric so he settled for lashing out at the Reanimate, but missed.  

Leoric performed his Heroic Feat, killing two Goblins and badly wounding one Lieutenant.  Even more annoying: the Reaper's Scythe allowed him to heal up completely.  Grrrrr!!!  To add insult to injury, Leoric's Reanimate handily polished off my wounded Goblin Archer.  As Syndrael rushed up on the undefended Mauler he ran afoul of a hidden Trip Wire.  After spending Fatigue to extricate himself from the trap, he got up into the Mauler's grill and inflicted a point of damage.  

Now wounded, the Mauler went into a Frenzy.  Leoric managed to duck the first blow but took a whopping seven points of damage on the Ettin's back-swing.  A new Goblin Lieutenant then appeared on my behalf.  

Seeing his companion grievously injured, Syndrael flew into a Rage.  On his first wild swing, only one point of damage got through.  Reckless with blind fury, his follow-up attack was a complete miss.  Leoric's magical attack fizzled just shy of my newly-minted Goblin and his undead Familiar also failed to connect with the Mauler.  

I finally decided to start paying attention to the Victory Conditions and sent a Goblin bolting for the exit.  In an effort to avoid any double-attacks, the Mauler stepped back a space and then went all Frenzy on Syndrael.  The creature's first blow was easily parried by the elf's greataxe but the follow-up swing got through his defenses.  Another Goblin then emerged from the Wild Garden. 

Just as Syndrael moved to press his attack in the Ettin's lair, he side-stepped an anomaly underfoot.  Narrowly avoiding the now-exposed Pit Trap, he charged at the Mauler and dealt two damage.  He then followed up with a vicious Rage attack, but the two-headed monstrosity steered the powerful blow aside with his club.  From the flank, Leoric hurled a magical bolt and scored a point of damage.  His Reanimate wasn't so lucky, completely fumbling its own attack.  

My Goblin Lieutenant managed to escape the map, netting me a Victory Point while the Goblin that appeared last round also tried to make a break for it.  The Mauler continued to perform a fighting withdrawal, inching back towards the Fire Pit and leveling a Reach swing at Syndrael.  He scored a Critical Blow dealing four points of damage, two of which got through.  Yet another Goblin Archer dropped into the map.     

Syndrael managed to duck and weave through a flurry of wild swings to strike a three-point surgical strike on the Mauler.  Meanwhile, Leoric's reanimated corpse continues to flail away uselessly.  The magician himself maneuvered to get a clear shot, narrowly avoiding a Trip Wire.  His follow-up attack turned out to be a blatant miss.

Another Goblin ran off the board just as another popped up.  The Mauler, now backed into a corner, swung wildly, using a spot of Dark Fortune to render Syndrael unconscious.  This left Leoric with a tough decision: should he try to revive his partner or attempt to take the Mauler down once and for all?




          

Since we flew through that introductory battle in just over thirty minutes, we decided to press on and complete the other two segments of the quest.

"A FAT GOBLIN": ENCOUNTER ONE

In this encounter, Goblin Archers attempt to steal crops from a local farm in order to feed their mysterious master.  Meanwhile, the heroes attempt to fight through hordes of marauding Cave Spiders in an effort to intercept the thieves.  

***

Still wounded, Syndrael used her Heroic Feat to move both adventurers right up into the thick of battle.  She also found a Health Potion, which she immediately guzzled.  Leoric burned his own Heroic Action to try and area attack the Cave Spiders that are already beginning to surround them.  One arachnid took two points of damage, the largest suffered three and the third creature was killed outright.  To make up for his poor showing during the last encounter, Leoric's Reanimate handily put the kibosh on the wounded master Spider.  

A new Spider dropped into the Grasslands and lashed out at Leoric, causing a point of damage and  inflicting a Poisonous bite.  "Word of Misery" was also played to pile on the Fatigue.  The three Goblin Archers on the Exit tile began sprinting for the Farm.  

Syndrael killed the wounded Spider in a Rage and then delivered one point against a second target.  After failing his Might check and taking a point of Poison damage, Leoric failed to snipe the encroaching Goblins with a long distance pot shot.  To make matters worse, his skeletal friend also whiffed on his (her?) attack.

On the Overlord turn, a Goblin popped up on the Exit tile and another Spider came out of the woodwork in the Grasslands.  Two of the Goblins gathered up crops and started to backtrack while the third made a mad dash for the far end of the field.  A new Spider attempted to block Syndrael's advance, biting her for a point of damage and injecting a spot o' Poison.  The second Spider pounced on the same target, inflicting an even more serious wound. 

Leoric's reanimated ally fell upon one of the Spiders attacking Syndrael, nearly killing it.  Leoric failed another Might test, took yet another point of Poison Damage and then could only scare up a single point of ranged damage against a thieving Goblin.  After shaking off the effects of the Poison, Syndrael tried to free herself from the tangle of webs.  She killed an already-wounded Spider and then rushed towards the Farm in a desperate bid to interdict the marauding Goblins.  

A fresh Goblin and Spider appeared in their respective entry points.  One of the Goblins ran six spaces and cleared the Exit with a load of crops in tow.  Two more Goblins moved ten spaces apiece and found themselves just shy of the finish line.  Two Spiders gave chase after the heroes.  One pounced on Syndrael from behind, inflicting three points of damage with its venomous bite.  The second flew into Leoric's gamey familiar, ripping its putrefied head off.           

Leoric was finally felled by the effects of the Poison.  Sensing that all may be lost, Syndrael managed to catch her breath, fight off the Poison and then rummage around the battlefield for a Fire Flask.      

As two more Goblins dragged their ill-begotten booty across the threshold, it all came down to one final bundle of crops.  Could the heroes succeed in denying the Goblins a perfect victory?  






"A FAT GOBLIN": ENCOUNTER TWO

In Encounter Two, the heroes must prevent a fortified Goblin Overlord from torturing a captured farmer for information and then escaping with the prisoner.

***

The adventure started with Syndrael kicking in the dungeon's front door and then hurling a Fire Flask at a clutch of Cave Spiders.  One of them nimbly jumped out of the way, one took two points of fire damage and the third was barely inconvenienced.  Leoric spent his turn diligently re-animating a nearby corpse and efficiently dying of Poison.

Syndrael passed a Willpower check and avoided the effects of a Dark Charm.  One of the Cave Spiders dropped onto Leoric from the ceiling, rendering him unconscious.  

After reviving her fallen companion, the elven berserker rushed to stem the tide of the incoming arachnid assault.  Leoric felled a wounded Spider with sorcery while his Reanimate dealt three points of damage to another.  He also did a quick search of the surrounding area and found a very handy Curse Doll, which allows a hero to discard pesky Conditions.  

One of the wounded Spiders attacked Syndrael, delivering two points of damage and a Poison card.  Augmented by Dark Might, the remaining Spider pounced on the elf and took her down.  A Goblin Archer Dashed to the Prison and unlocked the main door.  This allowed another one of Splig's peons to Dash inside, scoop up a hostage and drag him back to the Torture Chamber.  

Leoric surged ahead and roused his downed comrade just as his skull-faced Familiar was polishing off one of the wounded Spiders.  A reconstituted Syndrael immediately lashed out at the remaining Spider, dealing two points of damage to it.  Although it wasn't quite enough to kill it, the warrior's follow-up strike made for an effective deathblow.  

As more captives were rousted from their cells, Splig tortured a prisoner who turned out not to be Frederick.     

Wisely, Leoric got Skeletor to open the door to the Ettin's chamber, effectively circumnavigating an evil trap that I was planning to spring on the heroes.  Nonplussed by the sight of a hulking, two-headed, club-wielding monstrosity just behind the door, Leoric quickly leveled a one-point ranged attack at the creature with his Reaper's Scythe.  Syndrael also saw an opening and charged in, hewing down the startled Ettin with one mighty blow of her axe.  

One of the Goblin Archers unceremoniously dumped a prisoner at his master's feet.  Splig then proceeded to torture the bejesus out of him, revealing that it was Frederick!  Delighted by his success, the self-styled "King of Goblins" tucked the beleaguered farmer underneath his arm and then started moving towards the entrance!   Splig then ordered one of his drones to clear a path for him by running ahead, opening any doors and generally acting like a meat-shield.  Man, I hope these Goblins have a good Dental and Medical plan, 'cuz their job kinda sucks.    

Syndrael used her Heroic Feat to get both heroes up into the thick of battle.  She swung her Greataxe at the face of a Goblin Archer and even Dark Fortune couldn't save his life.  The follow-up three point damage swing was just narrowly avoided.  Skelly went off the deep end, viciously mauling another opponent.  Meanwhile, Leoric got tagged by a Poison Dart while searching for a Health Potion.  Groggy and disoriented, he still managed to pivot and blast a Veteran Goblin right in the mush with a lethal long-distance magic attack.

The Goblins all moved together in a rush.  One of the Archers flew into a Frenzy, perforating Leoric for two points of damage and then putting him in the dirt with his follow-up attack.  

Leoric staggered to his feet while the magic-user's pet zombie went after "Fat Pete" (NOTE: this was Andrew's descriptor).  Splig's "Not Me!" ability failed miserably and he ended up taking four points of damage right in the kisser.  Like an ant attacking a fat, slow-moving grub, Syndrael pounced on the Goblin King, scoring four more damage!  

Now squealing like Ned Beaty in Deliverance, Splig ran six spaces towards the exit.  Meanwhile, his bodyguard tried to keep pace while simultaneously taking a two damage pot-shot at Syndrael with a Dark Magic bow attack.  

In one last desperate bid to prevent Splig from crossing over the threshold, Syndrael launched herself at the Goblin tyrant, striking him with a vicious seven point two-handed axe blow right between the shoulder blades.  With his bodyguard lagging behind and nothing left to save him but a weak-assed brown die, it wasn't looking good for ol' Spligy!






* <-----------This Is The World's Biggest Asterisk!      

During the post-game commentary Andrew was heard to inquire: "Do you feel that we did everything right?"  Although I'm pretty sure that we didn't seriously cock up any of the rules proper, we certainly screwed up a critical detail in the scenario.  In fact, I'm pretty sure that the fuck up probably cost me a win.  

With two opposing heroes, Splig normally has only seven Health points but each crop the Goblins steal in Encounter One is supposed to boost this up.  Problem is, I thought that Splig only got one bonus Health point per stolen crop but Splig's actually supposed to get "one additional Health per hero for each bundle of crops the overlord stole during Encounter One".  Which means that Splig should have had six additional Health Points, not three!       

D'oh!!!

Notwithstanding this colossal fuck up, I really enjoyed playing Descent: Journeys in the Dark (Second Edition) for all the following reasons:     
  • Setting up scenarios is super-quick.  
  • It's fun to pick a Hero and then augment them with a "class".  
  • Playing the Overlord is simpler and a lot more dynamic.
  • Breaking things down to individual Encounters really makes the game less "sloggy".  
  • Combat is more tense and interesting thanks to the Defense Dice.  Now and  previously untouchable targets are now "hittable".  
  • The cards have a superior layout and are packed with useful information.
  • Varying Quest objectives makes the game feel much more like an RPG experience.  
  • The game's graphics and miniatures are vastly superior.
  • We actually managed to play out a full quest in under two hours!    
All told, these are all major improvements.  I heartily recommend Descent: Journeys in the Dark (Second Edition) and award it five pips outta six!



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