Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The D&D boardgame and 'Monsters we Slay'

Yesterday I played the Dungeons and Dragons boardgame with Jasper Polane and two friends of his. I believe this game was never released in the United States of America, so those of you who live there may not have heard of it; and I don't think the game was a commercial success.

The game turned out to be a more complicated version of HeroQuest; though I found it somewhat lacking in style compared to its predecessor, the fact that it had more tactical options probably makes it a better game overall. Each player (except for the Dungeon Master) gets to play one or more out of four heroes (a fighter, a cleric, a rogue and a wizard), and then you embark on a classic dungeon crawl. You open doors, meet monsters (all of which are represented by small plastic miniatures), hack or blast them to pieces, amass piles of treasure and try not to fall into traps. For a more detailed overview of the system, you should consult this excellent review. We completed the first two quests, and then we were slaughtered during the third.

One reason I was eager to try out this game is because its goal is quite similar to that of my half-baked (quite a bit less than half, probably) game Monsters we Slay: the colour is heroes fighting monsters without any fuzzy roleplaying stuff going on around that, the preparation time is almost nil, and the agenda is tactical gamism. Two questions that weighed heavily on my mind were: 1. whether Monsters we Slay isn't too complicated, 2. whether Monsters we Slay wouldn't benefit immensely from such things as a game board, miniatures and cards. The answer to the latter question is especially important, as I have little interest in trying to make a game that needs all those things - I'm not about to embark on any risky commercial venture whatsoever.

Well, back to the D&D boardgame. I was a bit disappointed by the depth of tactics that the game allows. You have to make an interesting decision now and then, but these moments are relatively scarce. For this reason, I don't think the game can hold anyone's attention for very long. I can see a group playing through the 12-adventure campaign, but I don't think many people would want to continue playing after that. There just isn't enough crunch, not enough tactical meat. If MwS is to be fun, it must have more crunch and more meat.

There are, however, two rules in the D&D game that are very well though out, and that might turn out to be useful in some form for Monsters we Slay as well. The first of these is the rule that every character (including monsters) can take two actions whenever it's their turn. So you can walk twice, or walk and attack, or attack twice, or switch weapons and attack - and so on. Why is this a great rule? Because it ensures that it doesn't really matter which of two enemies charges the other. If you use one action to move your miniature next to the monster, you still have one attack; then the monsters has two, then you have two, and so forth - if you think about it, you'll see that in general nobody has the advantage over the other. This is great because it ensures that you don't have stalemate situations where it is tactically disadvantageous for both opponents to go to the other guy.

The other brilliant rule is that everyone can use every weapon, no matter their class, but that the priest and the wizard start out with somewhat weak weapons that have as special ability that using them gives you a chance of regenerating spell points. This means that when you're out of spell points, you can still be a cool fighter - just use you sword of slaying and kicking ass! But, if you want to be able to cast more spells, you should attack using less useful weapons. The result of this is that the priest and the wizard are often fighting somewhat ineffectively, giving the rogue and the fighter the starring roles in melee and ranged combat, but that these actions are nevertheless beneficial to the group and therefore cool to the player, because they regenerate spell points. Role differentiation by rewards rather than punishments - very interesting!

What was very clear to me was that this game could not have been played without the board and the miniatures and the cards and the great character sheets. No way. There's just too much information to handle if you don't have all the props to help you. For me, this puts a very big question mark on my plans for Monsters we Slay. Is it possible for me to create a deep, tactical game that would not be a lot better for being a board game? Could I make do with stuff that everyone already owns, like a chess game?

And, relatedly - isn't this kind of stuff better handled by computer RPGs? I'll look into that in my next post.

On the other had, the game also inspired me to think of several new features and simplifications for Monsters we Slay - so I want to emphasise that the above are real questions, not rhetorical questions, and that this project has not yet been abandoned.


  1. Hi,

    The regenerating spell rule sounds like something regular D&D could do with!

    The reason tactical games tend to use a lot of fiddly cues is that tactics is based on a lot of moment-to-moment details, trying to judge and assess which choice is most beneficial RIGHT NOW. People have a hard time remembering all of it at once, but when you have a cue, it makes things easy.

    Card games (tradtional to CCGs) work real well for covering this with the minimum of fiddly overhead. Cardgames carry their own randomization, work as limited resources (There is only one Jack of Hearts in the whole deck), and the tactical needs for different cards shifts based on the other cards in your hand (and the other players' hands).

  2. An RPG has at least one huge advantage over board games and CRPGs that I can think of: player-driven Color. Board games (and CRPGs much more so) take player input for commands, but rooms, creatures, treasure and actions are described--or, actually, illustrated--by the system itself.

    An RPG demands player description, and I don't mean eight pages of character background. Saying "I want to make a called shot to pin his pointy little ear to the wall" will get you eye-rolls or shrugs in a board game, but an RPG provides a much more flexible basis for (they tell me) group agreement to imagined events during play.

    Which is why we're not playing Morrowind or HeroQuest to begin with, I think.

  3. Victor, I don't know your feeling about marketability, but if it's not an issue, then publishing a game as a kit that you can download, print out, and mount on cardboard yourself is a viable option. Except if you intend to use cards as randomizers or for hidden information--making your own cards is hard. (You could use ordinary cards or tarot cards but that may be aesthetically unappealing.)

    But let's say you have to provide the players with all the components. How to do tactical options without cards or a board? I would suggest a look at the old Metagaming game Warp War. The tactical subsystem of the game was done entirely with paper, pencil, and a sort of combat matrix that "dirtied up" what is basically rock-scissors-paper into a neat little tactical exercise that took the the capabilities of the individual ships into account and allowed progressive damage effects.

  4. Victor,

    The two most common boards for "found item" game design are the boards for chess and go. Chess is a classic 8x8 board, and I find it to be too cramped for most complex tactical situations. A go board is 18x18 squares, and thus provides you with a lot more conceptual space to play in. Unfortunately, it is physically about the same size as most chess boards, and this makes the space really cramped.

    That may not be new to you, but I just thought I'd point out what my experience with such things has been.

    Another interesting option (and somewhat related to Elliot's point above) is using home-printed "business cards". There are a couple of office supply manufacturers that make perforated printable business cards, and you could probably make a _really_ interesting dynamic board by making a bunch of cards with a room or two on each of them...


  5. I'm still looking forward to your eventual release of "Monsters we Slay." Please keep working on this project. An other game you might want to take a look at is called "Descent"
    Which also has minis and a board and the two-action combo for players and monsters.

    It might give you some other ideas.