That new plastic smell, now in an economy size.
So there is this game called Descent: Journeys into the (something or other. I get bored after reading Descent.) Odds are you've heard of it as it slammed itself onto many tables as a massive box full of plastic bits and tiles, came with a tweaked version of the Doom dice system and was almost a really nice minis system.
...except that the scenarios REALLY, REALLY sucked. Map out a pretty good sized dungeon with very boring-looking tiles, some key "puzzles" straight out of early Resident Evil, monster respawns every 30 seconds, and a 4 hour playing time at the bare minimum, but merrily waltzing into 12-15 hour slogs.
You know, Descent really pretty much sucks.
It got better. The occasional punchy focused quests, a moderately functional campaign system in Road to Legend and a pretty great Sea of Blood campaign helped it along. It is still a little tricky to play as the rules and faqs are spread out over a mile or two of paper bits.
Then they announced the inevitable franchise reboot. Hardly inevitable, as games tend not to get franchise reboots, but our superhero-movie-addled minds did not have too many problems grasping the concept.
I've played it, stared at all the bits and rules, and even inhaled ink from the first generation conversion kit (and as a bonus spent some time looking at the powers.)
Descent no longer sucks. But there are a bit or two that make me furrow my brow and go "Really?"
I really like this production a lot better. Not as many tiles or giant figures, and a lot fewer cards and tokens, and basically the same MSRP as that Giant-Box-O-Doom. But on the other hand, the game doesn't require you to annex a second dining room table for the excess bits. The maps are all tiny and you have fewer monsters to juggle. Because FFG went the unprecendented (eye roll) step of printing rules on the backs of stat cards, you don't need a space for player aids and glossaries. And the fewer monsters are just a touch weirder---more Fiend Folio than Terrinoth-themed Monster Manual.
The tiles...wow. FFG finally gave up on the boring wall of generic themed tiles with lots of overlay tiles for the game-related terrain. Instead we get Warhammer-Quest like pretty tiles which also include quite a bit of outdoor areas and building interiors. The entire thing feels almost like a D&D 4e battlemap.
Quests and the end of D&D 4e:
The campaign is the big change. You get one. Character advancement is more restrained than Road to Legend. You get extra powers (bought with experience), and can buy weapons over time. It kind of smacks a bit of Prophecy (which pretty much guarantees my adoration.). Each hero doesn't get his own set of upgrades. Instead, he picks one of two class decks (there are 8 total class decks) which define his starting equipment and powers as well as his possible experience-based upgrades. Weapons bought from the shops are available to all. This is all, well, totally Prophecy-like.
Each quest is 1-2 encounters, which are 1 hour short scenarios. The content in these seems a LOT like the D&D Encounters structured play format Wizards introduced a year or two back. Wrapped around this is a simple framework to vary the scenarios. 9 are played each full 20 hour run out of the full list of 20. If there is any flaw here is that there are half as many "first half" scenarios as "second half". Given the penchant to abandon long campaign games 1/2 way through, I do regret this choice.
Particularly wonderful is that the encounters themselves do not add any components to the game, making use of generic components for any special features. This is very unlike ANOTHER recent FFG game where each scenario pretty much comes with its own infrastructure of cards (with attendant errors).
Each encounter actually has some things on the D&D 4e model in that the objectives are more interesting. There is a share of "kill the miniboss", and "get through here", but even those are shot through with little custom rules and tweaks that really make them shine. Frankly, there is more theme, cleverness, and variety in these one-hour wonders than most of Descent's 12-hour grinds. (The bit about D&D4e is reallyu saying something. Wizards actually create some nice custom tweaks in each of the official 4e encounters. The roleplaying elements, and campaign scaling in D&D 4e cause massive problems, but at least they write nifty little encounters. And some of the encounters in Decent 2e are even better than those.)
Pretty much it is a case of don't screw with what is broken. The big changes are that modifiers in combat are more structured and that defense is now a variable value that comes from a dice throw. As to combat modifiers, they tend to be automatic, helping to trim back the number of ways to tweak your action sequence. Any optional mods come entirely from surges which are applied AFTER the dice are settled.
This helps the game along with overly analytic players who might otherwise try to stare at the dice and flip them around to work out the odds. You move, roll your dice and add the modifiers, then see if you want to spend stress and burn items to push the results. It removes the serious and overly analytical heavy thinking.
There are also bits of streamlining here and there, and some ideas culled from 4e. Town Portals are gone, and the death and respawn replaced with a "knocked out" status and option to first aid a downed player. Treasure is now both gold and a useful effect, so you aren't giving up the gold to use the item (less agony).
Overlord Threat is now just cards--he no longer needs to track points. The cards themselves are pretty similar.
This was one of the worst aspects of the original game. Spawning extra monsters was the cheapest cards, and the Overlord could help pile on tons of monsters this way. The 2e solution is just to start all of the monsters on the board and allow one monster to spawn per turn at the end of the turn. (The actual rules varies per encounter, but this is the most common one by far.)
It keeps the monster spawn rate more manageable, and the smaller encounter sizes and monster pools seriously keep the Gauntlet-looking impenetrable wall-o-plastic thing that typifies Decent 1st quests.
But..."Really?". Any Descent player knows that the white (basic) monsters are best at soaking hits from heroes, distracting them and slowing them down. The heavy hitters are the red (master) guys. So the heroes kind of want to target the masters. But if you respawn one monster around, guess what you are respawning.
...on the other hand, it now provides a little more incentive to wipe out the white guys because they won't be coming back. But it also means that if you combine a few attacks to take out that kind of nasty red bugger, he reappears right back at the entrance at the end of the turn. Guaranteed. It is all just so disheartening.
"Really, FFG. You couldn't have done SOMETHING more interesting? Anything? Some little tweak to mix that up a bit?"
Old " Friends":
I use friends loosely because the conversion kit comes with cards for all of the plastics in everything else Descent ever. That includes the promotional figures as well as the guys who splashed Terrinoth all over our beloved Dungeonquest. So that means you can use the old plastic bits, and suddenly have a pretty good variety of monsters and heroes.
These new bits can even integrate into the existing quests. Many of the encounters allow for the Overlord to choose open groups of monsters as long as they contain certain icons matching the quest. Heroes drop straight in, and map to the 8 class decks. Sadly, the kit doesn't include any extra class decks (which would have been awesome). Instead, you get the cards, and it comes down to merely nice.
There are some new monster powers hiding on the backs of the monster cards. (Monster powers are no longer in the rules per se. Instead, flip the card and see the entire rules in a kind of terse format that says we will need a FAQ at some point.)
Totally digging it, and this is the game I most want to play at the moment. It is really the game I wanted from the original Descent, and slams itself so hard into the diminished RPG-as-minis-game which D&D 4e really turned out to be that I see no value in the other. I'm also thinking that this puts a serious crimp in my desire to play Ravenshadralizzt, as the length drill nicely into that time slot, but with a more gamery ruleset.
So yeah, it is great And it will take a full campaign to work it out, but I might be willing to crown a new champion of Dungeon Crawls. It just might be THAT good.