Friday, August 25, 2006

Almost--but not quite--roleplaying

A month or two ago I played a game of Fantasy Flight’s Descent with my gaming group. This game is an elaborate dungeon crawl with lots of plastic heroes and monsters. Nothing we haven’t seen before, but it seemed nicely done. I didn’t feel a need to rush out and buy myself a copy, but that may have more to do with the subject matter than any problems with the game. I was never a big roleplaying guy.

But wait, you say—isn’t Descent a boardgame? It really isn’t roleplaying at all.

Well, that may technically be true, but Descent is certainly a second cousin of Dungeons and Dragons, the original and longest-running RPG. As with D&D, in Descent you pick a character, you fight monsters and gather treasure, and you strengthen your character by gathering magic items or by improving your character’s abilities. A game of Descent is meant to be played in one sitting, and is thus a more self-contained experience than an on-going RPG campaign which could last for years. In fact, Descent resembles one chapter of a larger campaign, and I could see some clever Dungeon Masters using Descent to model a dungeon-crawl episode of their own campaigns.

Descent is only one of a half-dozen board games that seem to model the RPG experience. Along with Descent, Fantasy Flight has Runebound and World of Warcraft. Other games of this mini-genre include Heroquest, Dungeoneer, Return of the Heroes, and a Dungeons and Dragons boardgame.

But who is playing these games? And why? I would think that any die-hard roleplaying gamer would prefer a true campaign with all the limitless possibilities that a great DM can offer to players. Wouldn’t a real roleplayer find these games too cut-and-dried, too confining?

Or are these games being played by gamers who aren’t real roleplayers, but who would like to sneak up on the roleplaying experience without actually buying all the costly tomes that seem to be an obligatory part of Dungeons and Dragons and other RPGs? Are these games meant to be roleplaying for boardgamers? Are they roleplaying lite?

I’m really just asking the question here. I don’t have any definitive answer.

I do know something about the fun-potential of roleplaying games because although I may not have immersed myself in this world, my brother has. Kyle has been playing and running RPGs since his college days, and he has played D&D, Dragonquest, GURPS, and at least one home-made system that he invented when the others didn’t satisfy. I have learned a lot about these games through brotherly osmosis. A good roleplaying campaign can have the complexity and depth of a good novel. When creating campaigns, Kyle tries to not only include plenty of action opportunities, but interesting characters, gripping mysteries, complex and deplorable villains, and even excruciating moral choices. One of his villains magically poisoned an entire village and then made sure the villagers knew that the only cure was drinking the blood of an innocent girl that the villain left bound in the village square. (I can’t remember if his heroes found a satisfactory way out of that dilemma).

This kind of complexity is exactly the kind of thing that D&D style board games lack. Fantasy board games capture only the most obvious aspects of roleplaying: the fantasy setting, the collection of plunder, the gradual improvement of character abilities, and the fighting. Real character and plot are the first casualties when an RPG becomes a board game. Combat and plunder are certainly enough to sustain a board game, but I still wonder why someone would choose to play Runebound when they could play a real D&D campaign. Or am I overlooking something as simple as a lack of good DMs?

Let me repeat that I am not knocking these board games themselves. Just this week I started doing some solitaire tinkering with Arkham Horror, another Fantasy Flight production. Now, Arkham Horror is not a board game version of Call of Cthulhu, the Lovecraftian RPG or even Call of Cthulhu, the collectable card game which Fantasy Flight also sells. Arkham Horror is a re-design of the 1984 board game that was put out by Chaosium. But it certainly seems like a second cousin of these Call of Cthulhu games.

I bought Arkham Horror last January in my annual games-I-should-have-gotten-for-Christmas-but-didn’t purchase. Some of the members of my gaming group are fond of the game, but Arkham Horror takes too long to play at one of our weeknight gaming sessions, and so I haven’t had the opportunity to play it with a group yet. But we are only eight weeks from Halloween, and the spooky-themed games are going to be coming out of the closet soon. I thought I’d teach myself the game while I had a free moment.

At first the mechanics of Arkham Horror seemed a little too repetitive. A gate opens, and you close it. Another game opens, and you close it. But the Great Old One kicked the collective butts of my investigators, and a challenge is always a good way to hook a gamer. And at least the game didn’t seem too easy (it has a reputation for being too easy—at least for experienced players). In spite of my underwhelmed initial reaction, I wanted to try it again.

And soon I was hooked. I haven’t actually finished a full game yet (I give up if I’ve been playing for four hours and the situation seems hopeless), but I’ve come to appreciate certain aspects of the game. I like the rumor cards that add new threats and mini-quests to the game. I like playing spot-the Lovecraft-reference (I grew up in Rhode Island and am a fan of the old Providence coot). I like the suspense that comes when a really formidable monster finally appears on the board. I even like the epic length of the game (up to a point—I hope no session of Arkham Horror ever drags on for seven hours or more).

I think this year Arkham Horror will be the Halloween game of choice.

But do I have an impulse to check out the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game? Try to find someone who is running a Lovecraftian campaign? No, not really. I guess I prefer to be almost—but not quite—roleplaying.


huzonfirst said...

Kris, as far as who these games are made for, I think you're forgetting about an important category: teenagers. Teens typically don't require complex roleplaying; they like killing monsters, grabbing gold, and, most importantly, acquiring enough magic to make them the biggest and baddest mo' fo' on the block. The dungeon crawling boardgames (along with card games like Munchkin) scratch that itch nicely. They also appeal to boardgamers with fond childhood memories of Talisman and Dungeon and give something of the roleplaying experience in a three or four hour timeframe.

Dr. Matt J. Carlson said...

Good thoughts. Let me add mine to the pile...

I like this style of game (and RPGs in general) due to my attraction to developing up the character. I don't have time for full-blown RPGs, so these are good for me. This theme of developing or growing a character aslo appears in some of my favorite boardgames, such as Goa or Puerto Rico where I can develop up an economy as I play the game.

I like to think of it as growing a garden. I enjoy the development as well as viewing/using the final product.