Perils of Abstract Defeat

We went a mad binge last week with the new Descent campaign game (The Road to Legend). It’s an improvement over the original game in a number of ways, mostly because there’s more long-term development and planning instead of the usual “>spang< Gold treasure!" inflation at the end of every dungeon. One thing that's a little slippery is that getting killed doesn't have any immediate consequences. The Overlord (aka Zargon) just collects conquest tokens which he can spend on new stuff next week, but the hero just springs back up fully healed. Mathematically it’s a win for the Overlord, but because the consequences are basically abstract it becomes too easy for the players to brush it off. “Sure I went down,” the hero says, “but then I ran back in and wiped out two manticores!” It looks like a victory (sort of), but by the rules it’s a loss because the Overlord scored a lot more conquest than the heroes. The heroes are losing the campaign and don’t even feel the sting.

Same thing in our early games of Agon. The heroes can’t die in Agon. The worse that happens is you are “defeated” and out of the fight. Don’t want to be defeated? Just spend Fate and ignore the wound. You can do that over and over again (16 times anyway). The trick is that you’re burning the lifespan of your character. It would be like playing D&D (a concrete defeat game) and every time you died having someone say “okay, you’re back up, but now your character can only reach 19th level before he retires” and so on. You aren’t losing the current fight, the concrete short-term, but in the long-term, in the abstract, you’re losing.

All in all I think using abstract defeat in game design can be a bit dodgy. It requires players to pay less attention to the immediate situation and think in terms of a meta strategy for a meta victory — basically the opposite of what you want in play. You want immersion, involvement, not abstract thinking.

    Ben Robbins | May 12th, 2008 | what we played | leave a comment