Thursday, June 22, 2006

Fantasy Flight's Adventure Games & That Old Time Roleplaying

Last month I chanced into a game of World of Warcraft: The Board Game. It's really not the sort of thing I usually play with my various board game groups, if for no other reason, gamelength, but it's the exact sort of game my roleplaying group likes to play if we're not roleplaying on a particular day. We've actually played a number of Fantasy Flight games in that group. Besides World of Warcraft there's also been Runebound and Arkham Horror.

On my first game of World of Warcraft I was struck not only by its similarities to the other two Fantasy Flight Games we'd recently played, but also its differences. At first I thought that FFG might just be retreading these same ideas, but then I realized that something different was going on ... Fantasy Flight is actually creating a whole new subgenre of board games: adventure games. Granted, we've had these adventure games around for a while. Arkham Horror was originally published in 1984, and it shortly followed on the heels of another adventure game classic, Talisman (1983). The same era would later see Milton Bradley's HeroQuest (1989). However, with one publisher now putting out so many games, there's an opportunity for something new.

Adventure games have always been board-based role-playing games. Each player has a character that he slowly improves through play. Monsters appear either randomly or as part of a predetermined layout and by fighting them players get loot and experience. Most of the games, unlike traditional RPGs, don't require a gamemaster, with HeroQuest being a notable exception.

Fantasy Flight is acting differently than the 1980s adventure-game publishers by putting out a whole line of these games. Each of Arkham Horror, Runebound, and World of Warcraft is a very different game, with different mechanics and different designers, and thus they together form a central spine for Fantasy Flight's entry to this new genre. Arkham Horror is the classic, originally designed by Richard Launius and then revamped by FFG's Kevin Wilson; Runebound is a Martin Wallace design, refined by Darrell Hardy; and World of Warcraft is a Christian T. Petersen original (based, of course, on the MMORPG).

(Doom: the Boardgame and Descent, by Kevin Wilson, meanwhile, push the old gamemaster v. the players design. Since I haven't played them, and they offer a slightly different gameplay methodology, I've kept them out of this article. Really, it's mainly because I haven't played them.)

Fantasy Flight is supporting the heck out of these titles with one World of Warcraft supplement, two Arkham Horror supplements, and four-hundred and eighty-three Runebound supplements scheduled for this year alone. If they work out, I think we may be seeing the blossoming of a whole new subgenre of gaming, which will doubtless be expanded upon by Fantasy Flight and replicated by other publishers.

My Reviews: Arkham Horror (A), Runebound (B+), World of Warcraft (A-)

Difference & Similarities

What I find intriguing about this new wave of Fantasy Flight games is how they're similar and different, together showing some of the possibilities of this potential new genre of gaming.

Arkham HorrorRuneboundWorld of Warcraft
Ranged Damage.
Melee Damage.
Magic Damage.
Ranged (blue).
Melee (red).
Defensive (green).
Various skills.
EquipmentLots of types. Can be found, bought, or sold.Lots of types. Can be found, bought, or sold.Lots of types. Can be found, bought, or sold.

Private powers work like individual items.
ExperienceNone other than Clues and very occasional Skill card bonuses.
Gain XP to improve Mindy, Body, Spirit, Stamina, or Life.Gain XP to "level up", improving Health and Energy, granting a new talent, and giving access to new equipment.
Roll a number of 6-sided dice equal to stat. Each 5 or 6 is a success. Usually only one success is required. Clue tokens can give bonus rolls.Roll 2d10, adding Mind, Body, or Spirit, and optionally a skill. Equal or exceed a target number.None except combat.
Monster CreationEvent cards create new monsters in certain spaces each turn--and move them.Adventure counters mark spaces where monsters can be found.Quest cards place monsters on specific spaces on the board.
CombatA Fight skill test, adding in Combat items, and subtracting the monster's difficulty. 1-4 successes may be required, else the monster does damage and combat continues.
A sequence of three skill tests: mind, body, and spirit, some of which are offensive and some of which are defensive. Failures result in the monster doing damage.
A complicated system involving rolling a handful of blue, green, and red 8-sided dice, with successes exceeding a "threat" target number from 4-8. Successful blue dice take effect immediately, and if the opponent isn't dead yet, its "attack" stat faces off against red and green dice, possibly doing damage. Successful red dice and attrition are then moved up into the damage box. If they plus the blue dice exceed a monster's health, it's dead, else they're saved for the next round.
MovementMove your Speed in spaces each turn.Roll dice to move each turn.Move 2 spaces as an action.
EventsEach turn a new event is drawn.Events are mixed into the encounter deck.On some turns a new event is drawn.
TeamsEveryone versus the game. Destroy the Big Bad.Everyone for himself. Destroy the Big Bad first.Two teams compete. Destroy the Big Bad first.
Unique SystemsSanity system allows monsters to drive characters insane.

Stats can be increased or decreased with "focus".
Movement dice show terrains that can be moved into.Wars and bounties encourage interplayer combat.

As an old roleplayer, I'm particularly struck by how close these new adventure games reflect older roleplaying games. They don't have the same depth of original storytelling, clearly, but in mechanical form they match my basic definition of roleplaying games: they feature modeled characters and skill resolution systems. Further, there's some depth and careful design evidenced in both. Given that Fantasy Flight is a roleplaying company that's moving much more toward board and card games, I have to wonder if they see this as an evolutionary step.

However, these new adventure games still miss at least two major aspects of roleplaying game. One, as already mentioned, is the idea of original storytelling. Runebound, Arkham Horror, and World of Warcraft can all show off theming of various depths, but they're still missing stories that can involve you and can touch your heart. However, I doubt an adventure boardgame will ever be able to accomplish this aspect of gaming without either human or computer oversight.

Another missing factor which is within the grasp of adventure gaming is the idea of a campaign, where you can play the same characters from adventure to adventure, improving them as you go. The old Milton Bradley game HeroQuest did this. Atlas Games meanwhile is trying this concept out with their new Epic Dungeoneer, which allows you to transfer your old characters up to the next level.

Whether it'll become a possibility in some future Fantasy Flight adventure game is an open question.


It's always the hardest to see trends when you're still on their leading edge. However, I think we might be seeing a new one with the blossoming of adventure games at Fantasy Flight Games. By looking at their various releases we can see there's a lot of opportunity for variety and thus for growth in this new niche gaming. Whether they can eventually match more of the gameplay of RPGs, with real storytelling and campaigns remains a question for the future.


Anonymous said...

The only thing you overlooked was WoW-BG's similarities to online WoW, which are remarkably striking considering how different the two mediums are. FFG did a heck of a job wearing someone else's skin.


Shannon Appelcline said...

I'd agree with that assessment.

Ava Jarvis said...

The next Runebound expansion, The Sands of Al–Kalim, is supposed to feature original storytelling. How this will mesh with a boardgame is yet to be seen....