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 | | show 4 comments