When did Zargon become such a dick?

Back before 3rd Edition D&D came out we used to play HeroQuest* to get our low impact dungeon-crawling fix. Somebody would get drafted to be Zargon, the pseudo-GM who moved the monsters and read the dungeon description, and the rest of us would pick Elf or Wizard or Barbarian (Dwarf = everyone’s last choice) and stomp around smacking goblins.

It never failed to entertain, largely because it required absolutely no prep and was easy to get started, but was basically like playing simplified D&D.

Advance the clock a decade and a half and enter Descent. It’s like HeroQuest on steroids: much more nuts and bolts details, customizable characters along with a slightly more liberal interpretation of what a hero should look like (yes, that’s an orc pirate I think), a snazzier map system and a really fantastic set of figures (don’t get me wrong: the HeroQuest figures were awesome and we drafted them for many other games long after we stopped playing it, and the Descent figures will be no exception). Descent calls the pseudo-GM the Overlord, but we are nostalgic so we just call him Zargon instead (regardless of whether “he” is a man or a woman running the game — Zargon is gender-neutral it turns out).

Now we’ve played Descent a few times and it’s been okay… but not really, well, fun. In fact a little unfun. It’s a bit perplexing. The game looks like it should be great, and we start off excited, but then it starts to feel aggravating in a way that HeroQuest never did.

What’s the wrinkle? The difference (I think) is that unlike HeroQuest, whoever is sitting in the Overlord seat isn’t just moving monsters and deciding who to attack, he (or she) is making plans about when to play cards to bring in more monsters, traps, and other things to smite the heroes. The Overlord is an active decision maker.

It’s a small but critical change in the tone of the game. HeroQuest-Zargon is just playing out the scenario in a fairly passive fashion. Descent-Overlord is looking for ways to screw you over.

It may be more confusing because on the surface it looks just like an RPG: there are players and a GM, etc. But the similarity is deceptive. A GM in a roleplaying game is not out to kill the player characters. That’s not the job. The GM is there to present a challenge and make the game fun. The GM isn’t really the enemy, because he wants you to win provided you step up to the challenge. But that new Overlord prick is actually out to get you. He’s not your GM. He wants to wipe out the whole party, and the game gives him _lots_ of budget to do it in ways that are more irritating than challenging. It’s adversarial.

Now that might be your cup of tea, and in fact competitive gaming is the norm in board games and war games just as it is the exception in roleplaying games, so it’s not that Descent is doing anything strange for a board game, it might just be that we’re used to RPGs. But if you sit down to Descent thinking it’s going to be like playing D&D, you better be sure the Overlord is on the same page.

* the board game, not the RPG that came later

    Ben Robbins | February 25th, 2008 | | hide comments
  1. #4 ben robbins says:

    We tried playing a game using Descent rules modified to be more like HeroQuest (no threat tokens, no Overlord deck, random traps, no teleporting, etc). The verdict? A lot more fun. Even Zargon seemed to have a better time.

    The improvement seemed to be about 50% less Zargon’s a dick and 50% less silliness in the metaphor — dying and then teleporting right back into the fight never seemed to match the adventurer/hero metaphor. The design also seemed to fail to understand players. Players don’t like dying, so making dying & resurrection casual and using conquest tokens as the “real” measure of success grates on the nerves. Dying should be noteworthy.

  2. #3 Frost says:

    (I was re-reading my previous comment and I realized something)

    In Descent, Zargon is a dick because he _pretends_ he’s just the enemy and is not also the referee. But actually the more I think about it the more I think that the whole “I’m your enemy the Overlord, here to wipe you out, there is no referee, just the rules of the game that we both abide by – so it’s fair” is a *lie*. For a prime example of this I present Quest 2 (Slay the Giant Brothers). In this quest you meet the giant, kill him and he comes back after a few rounds and will keep doing that (stomping around after you) until you do something else. This could be an interesting RPG plot, and it certainly makes the competitive board game harder. _But it’s not anywhere in the rules, Zargon is just making it up_

    Ok he’s not really making it up (unless he wrote the quest), but to suddenly jump from “we’re just playing a friendly competitive board game, here’s all the rules” to this seems a lot like a young child explaining the rules to someone and “remembering” rules as they start losing. When the Giant dies but comes back I think the hero’s response to Zargon is along the lines of “What are you, twelve?”. At least it would be if this was a straight competitive board game, in a normal RPG this would be fine.

    Because the players all know each other and presumably get along, they know the Zargon player is not making up rules as they go in order to win, they tend to slip into the RPG mode of thinking that Zargon is the GM/Referee. But then the next turn Zargon throws down 4 pit traps in a row in a hallway the players have walked over 5 times, leaving the players thinking that they just got screwed by the GM, who responds by saying “I’m your enemy the Overlord, here to wipe you out, there is no referee, just the rules of the game that we both abide by – so it’s fair. Oh and as you open the next door you see a room with another Giant without a heart…” .

  3. #2 Frost says:

    Well (speaking as the other ‘Zargon’ of this last week) I think the key issues is the conflict between wanting the scenario to be “reasonable” (i.e. being a GM) and with winning (i.e. being a player). In Descent the Overlord is as much a player as anyone else. Their goal is to win by killing off the other players, just like in Risk, Monopoly, or most any other board game. I think as long as everyone playing is in “competitive-board-game” mode then its fine: 6 pit traps in a row because the Overlord had those cards? ouch, but ok sure that’s the rules, you win, good game, wanna play again?

    Normally a board game is abstract enough that the question of “is something reasonable?” doesn’t really come up (actually I think you could say that in any game, the rules define what is “reasonable”). Except that in a roleplaying game the rules tend to be more guidelines that the GM/Referee makes rulings on because the situations are much more open-ended; there’s a rule covering every possible situation in a game of chess, but not in a game of D&D.

    Where I think we get into trouble is that Descent is just a board game with rules covering all the situations and no need for a GM/Referee. But it really looks & feels like an RPG. We play RPGs so much that we fall into the player/GM roles pretty easily. So I think when the Overlord starts putting monsters down on the map and describing the room we naturally slip into roleplaying mode. When really the game is intended to be closer to the roleplaying level of Monopoly then D&D.

    Add to that the fact that our group has a tendency to the co-op board games (e.g. we don’t even play with the traitor rules in Shadows over Camelot) and the mix of faux-roleplaying, is Zargon a GM or an enemy, I’m not surprised Zargon comes off as a dick. At least to our gaming group.

    I’m not sure that you would really need to modify the rules in order to get into more of a roleplaying/Zargon as referee style of game. I think that if you make sure everyone’s on the same page and then Zargon acts more like a GM and less like a opponent that might be all you need. Maybe some changes to the scenario and/or victory conditions might be needed since because the Overlord is not actively messing with the players, the pre-gen scenarios might come off easier than you want (but hopefully the Zargon/GM would see that and step up the heat).

  4. #1 ping says:

    Well, as one of the Zargon’s this past week, I was definitely conflicted between wanting the scenario to be reasonable and trying to embrace just killing the players as fast as possible because the Overlord is mercilessly out for conquest tokens. I don’t like the fact that as the Overlord, your single-minded job is to reduce conquest tokens to zero as fast as you can with the meta-ends justifying the on-the-board means. On the other hand, I don’t think Overlords should have to weigh heavily whether their actions are fun, sensible, mean, stupid or annoying – that’s another game. And anyway, as is, either s/he plays the random hand s/he’s got or discards it for a mountain of unused threat tokens on the off-chance of drawing the right thing. So, straight out of the rules, is Zargon a dick? I Zargon-ed more than I played and, well, Zargon sure felt like a dick.

    The mechanical problem is Zargon’s power to randomly throw in a conga line of damage just to mess with the players for nothing but meta-game reasons (that chest/door/square is a trap, and that one too and that one too and bark! bark! did I mention there are hell hounds hiding in the closet?) I don’t like how trap cards work and I think something has to change with the spawning – but I don’t know what to do here.

    So in thinking about the game I think would be fun, what about ditching conquest tokens and threat tokens. (I thought about keeping the threat tokens at first, but after some analysis on the threat token economy, I think ditching them all together is the right thing.) Give Zargon a finite number of spawn, trap, Aim, Dodge, and Charge cards per area. Or, ditch all the overlord cards and give the monsters PC abilities like double move, aim, guard and dodge – or not and just keep them as written.

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