Cardboard Children: Castle Ravenloft

Hello, all you parents of Cardboard Children.

This week we had some big news from that board game publishing behemoth, Fantasy Flight Games. Mansions of Madness was announced, a new board game with an H.P. Lovecraft theme. Ol’ brown sauce himself. Apparently the game is a scenario-based effort, where one player tries to advance an evil plot while everyone else tries to put a stop to the bad player’s schemes. All set in a house. At night. Probably. Hey, It’ll be nice to actually be Nyarlathotep for a change, instead of just masturbating while looking at pictures of him.

It’s good to see another Lovecraftian board game in the mix, particularly one designed by Corey Konieczka, who is one of the most brilliant designers working in the field. He’s a designer who understands that thematic games have a responsibility to serve their theme well, and always seems to find a perfect balance of his elegant gameplay mechanics and thematic “fluff”. He’s a guy who was born to be in board games, because his surname claims a killer score in Scrabble. I’ll be looking forward to this game a great deal, and I’ll keep you all updated on its progress.

This week also saw the release of Arcana, a card game set in “the wondrous city of Cadwallon”. Jesus. I’d love to hear the lead singer of Kings of Leon say that sentence to one of his groupies backstage. From blowjob to no-job in five seconds flat. Anyway, Arcana has been out before, but Fantasy Flight is giving it a big fat wide release, so all you Cadwallonamaniacs can get some serious card-bidding action on the go. What and where the fuck is Cadwallon? I think I’m supposed to know. But I don’t.

And that’s really all the big gaming news. If you don’t count the fact that I played my first game of Pandemic this week, and cured all the diseases with one turn to go, and then strutted around my house with my chest puffed out.

Last week I said I’d be looking at something old and something new this week. But I’ve changed my mind. I’ll only be talking about the something new. For ages.


Here’s an interesting confession. Here’s something that might make you roll your eyes and say “this guy is telling ME about games?”

I have never played Dungeons & Dragons.

There we go. It’s out. I feel better now. I was raised a Catholic, and so I would have a duty to go to confession every so often. I would go in and see Father Devine, and he’d ask me to tell him my sins. And I hadn’t really done anything wrong. So I’d have to make some sins up. I’d say “I swore at my mum” when I hadn’t. I would go into confession and lie to a priest so that I would have something to confess. I would come out a worse person than I was when I went in. Even as a young boy I could see this was TOTALLY MENTAL. And thus, my journey away from religion began. This has nothing to do with Dungeons & Dragons, I know, but I just want you to understand that I would never lie about something just to make my column more interesting. (Actually, I have lied to make my column more interesting before. Told a girl it had been inside Russell Brand’s arse. Feel free to use that one.)

I have never played Dungeons & Dragons, forgive me father. Pen and paper RPG-wise, I played pretty much everything else. Shadowrun, DC Heroes, Call of Cthulhu, you name it. But D&D passed me by, somehow. Maybe it was just too big, too sprawling a thing. Maybe it just seemed a bit too difficult to get into, when you could pick up the core rulebook of Cthulhu and just start playing.

What I do remember making a big impact on me was the comic book ad for this thing:

I was heavily into comics at the time, and the Ravenloft ad was everywhere. And it looked amazing. I had always thought that D&D was quite a dusty, uninspired fantasy thing, and suddenly there was a Christopher Lee style Dracula involved and a beautiful virgin and a WHAT NOW? Sea Monkeys and now this? Awesome! Go American comics!

But I still didn’t pick it up. Still couldn’t find my entry point. Bought Sea Monkeys though. Or “Disgusting Stink Beasties UGH” as they SHOULD be called.

Which brings us to NOW, and the release of Castle Ravenloft, a D&D board game. It’s a game that promises to introduce players to the concepts of 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, while satisfying that dungeon crawl urge many of us board gamers have. Seriously, if we didn’t play board games, we’d all probably end up living in the sewers, searching for shiny items in piles of human waste.

Here’s how the game works.

There are 41 interlocking dungeon tiles. These are kept in a big old stack, face down. You choose one of the scenarios from the game’s Adventure Book. Then, you and your buddies enter the castle, and start pulling tiles off the stack. Each time you place a tile, you also spawn a monster. When a monster spawns, you place them on the board and take the card for that monster. On the card is the monster’s statistics and, clever this, the way the monster behaves. So, let’s take a look at what the Skeleton’s card says:

If the Skeleton is adjacent to a Hero it attacks that hero with a scimitar.

If the Skeleton is within 1 tile of a Hero it moves adjacent to the closest Hero and attacks that Hero with a charging slice.

Otherwise, the Skeleton moves 1 tile toward the closest Hero.”

As you can see, there’s never any ambiguity about what a baddie does. They’re always moving, always attacking, always coming at you. And you always know who that unlucky “you” is.

Whoever spawned the monster keeps control of the monster, which is an elegant solution for the problem of how to time everyone’s attack. You know that this Skeleton will always make his move after I do, because he’s a copycat, and you can plan for that.

In your turn, you also usually need to draw an Encounter Card, which makes everyone groan and wail and die. These cards are usually traps and ambushes and environmental effects that just pretty much ruin your night. I hate them. In a good way.

Oh, and combat is resolved with one die. You roll it, add your attack bonus, and try to beat the target’s Armour Class. Easy as pie.

That’s pretty much how Castle Ravenloft plays. The different scenarios in the Adventure Book give the game a lot of variety. Some scenarios are quick smash and grab retrieval missions, where you try to find some magical icon and cheese it before you get overwhelmed, but fail. Some are horrible “Go Kill This Really Hard Baddie” missions that slap you down HARD. The game finds even more variety in the randomness of the tile draws, and the monster card draws, and the encounter card draws. No two games should ever play exactly the same, although that getting slapped down HARD part crops up quite often.

Castle Ravenloft is a wonderful board game. These days, when board games are just getting bigger and bulkier, and the rules more complex, it’s rare to see a game that feels so epic while being so simple and playing so quickly. You can have a game of Castle Ravenloft in an hour. And in that hour you’ll get all the feel of a big dungeon crawl adventure. You’ll kill some baddies, disarm some traps, get some treasure and die. All in an hour. And then you’ll want to go again.

I’m a guy who has played many a game of Descent, that big old monster of a dungeon crawl game. It’s a game that takes hours to play. Hours! It’s a game that demands someone plays the bad guy. And that person who plays the bad guy (it’s always me) ends up hated. It’s a game with a terrible rulebook, with incomprehensible rules that need pages of FAQs to clarify. It’s a game I love, and I’ll talk more about it further down the line, but OH MY GOD it’s a lot of work.

Castle Ravenloft lets me play a similar game quickly, with little set-up time. It’s reminiscent of the amazing Warhammer Quest, and that can only be a good thing, right? And it lets me play with four of my friends, as one of the good guys, in a nice little co-op team. The components are lovely, the monster miniatures are great, and the feel of Dungeons & Dragons really comes through. I believe elements of 4th Edition are there in the player characters’ powers. Some powers can be used At-Will, and some can only be used Daily, and I seem to remember these “cooldowns” for spells being part of the whole controversy over 4th Edition. “IT’S TOO MUCH LIKE WOOOORLD OF WWWWAAAAAARRRCRAAAAAAAAFT!”, people screamed, disgusted at a company’s attempt to make their game more accessible to millions of people.


Castle Ravenloft makes me want to try out Dungeons & Dragons 4e. If the same simplicity of design is there in 4e as exists in this board game, then I want to check that bad boy out. Last week, the bold Alexander Norris, in the comments section of this very column, told me not to cover Dungeons & Dragons. He pretty much said it would cause some stupid fights. And that, my friends, is like a red rag to a bull. We should be fighting here, every Saturday. Fighting about geek stuff is fun!

At this point, I want to answer the bold Blunders, who wrote this in the comments section last week:

“I was excited to read this until I arrived at the portion where Mr. Florence dismissively wrote off most of Reiner Knizia’s games and claimed that it’s hard to be passionate about German-style board games. Sorry, I don’t think this column will be for me, but I appreciate RPS expanding its coverage.”

I was maybe a bit harsh on Knizia last week. And made some rude comments about Eurogames. I should clarify my stance on these areas. There are many Eurogames I love. And I’ll be talking about many of them as we continue through the weeks and months ahead. Eurogames ROOL OK.

Knizia, though, is a guy who seems to be able to make gold and shit in equal measure. He’s a bi-polar Midas. He’s the guy who made the Lord of The Rings co-op board game, which is absolute fucking torture. Knizia’s Lord of the Rings is the only board game on the library shelf at Guantanamo Bay. I’ll get to Knizia down the line, believe me. God, he frustrates me.


Lost track a bit there.

Yes, so the message of this week’s column is GO AND BUY CASTLE RAVENLOFT. It’s a great game. A romp. Easy to teach and quick to play. I couldn’t recommend it more highly. Get it bought.

And the other message is this:

Be back here next week for a look at the new Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition Starter Set. The Red Box is back! And we’re probably going to fight about it! Sorry, Alexander!


  1. malkav11 says:

    There isn’t going to be the same simplicity of design. It’s a cleaner, simpler D&D with less character building freedom and less setup time and all, but it’s still D&D and there are still zillions of sourcebooks with more coming all the time and hundreds of powers and etc etc etc.

    I was curious about it for a while, but ultimately I think I’d rather use some other system for my fantasy roleplaying. D&D is a familiar and welcome ruleset in CRPGs for me (as long as the designers respect its idiosyncrasies instead of making me play a solo character like NWN did), but I find it rather dull as a framework for an actual tabletop session. I am markedly tempted by the new Fantasy Flight edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying, though, which bears a certain resemblance to -gasp-, a board game. If it weren’t $100 to even tell if I liked the rules, I’d be there right now.

    • hitnrun says:

      Seconded. (Except I actually do like tabletop 3rd edition.) My best experience with most versions of the D&D rules has been when a computer game engine interprets and keeps track of the copious calculations and encyclopedic, occasionally contradictory rules. On that note, I’m interested in playing this edition’s licensed computer games.

    • malkav11 says:

      I like 3rd edition in many respects, particularly for the Open Game License. But when I actually played it, the combat was still a bit dull as a single character (CRPGs usually let me control a full party, which is more tactically interesting) and the game is still not nearly as good at handling rules for the out-of-combat stuff as other systems. Although at least it -has- rules for that stuff. Barely even touched on in 2nd edition. (Nonweapon proficiencies were a sidebarred optional rule!)

    • hitnrun says:

      The at-least-it-has-rules part is actually why we stuck with it. It’s impossible (for me, anyway) to maintain interest in a character that just rolls d20 to attack, but poring over pages of powers of different ways to roll d20 to attack (in the latest edition) was only marginally more fun. Opposed strength checks for the win :)

      Incidentally, I felt the same way about Neverwinter Nights. I actually wrote half a walkthrough for it on GameFAQs back in the day, and kept grousing and bitching in the guide without really grasping what was annoying me so much. In retrospect I figured it out: D&D isn’t suited for a two-character adventure. (At least, it wasn’t; I think 4E WOULD be, which why I’m excited to try out a licensed game.)

  2. Antsy says:

    Ah the red box. I bought that when I was 11 and ended up playing it on me own. ON ME BLOODY OWN! Steve Jacksons books hadn’t prepared me properly for that special kind of misery. Everyone else was too enraptured with their spectrum’s and bbc micro’s. I tempted a mate to have a go once but that went south fast when he refused to be the DM. Selfish bastard. He just wanted to be a wizard called Drakkar Noir. I showed him the door and stuck that bloody red box in the cupboard for the rest of time.

    • Stu says:

      Oh God, I had almost the exact same experience; I got a shiny second edition Paranoia rulebook for my 13th birthday but no bugger was interested in playing it. Although to be fair, reading the rulebook was pretty darn fun in itself anyway so it wasn’t really too much of a waste.

      Also: “He just wanted to be a wizard called Drakkar Noir” — that is HILARIOUS. From the wastelands of Puig Quorum, was he?

    • bob_d says:

      Heh, heh, I have a whole shelf-full of games I’ve never played. I had friends I regularly gamed with, but there was always something I couldn’t generate any interest in or we never got around to ever trying. So as a result I have a dusty shelf of un-played board games, card games and RPGs, some of which had been given to me by the very friends who had no interest in playing them…

    • Chris D says:

      So, so many games I own but have never played. It goes with the territory I guess. This is one of the reasons I play more video games than board games these days. Nowadays my rule is to buy games that I think my group will like so long as they interest me as well, rather than just looking for stuff I want to play and then trying to find someone to play with.

  3. spinks says:

    Oh, red box. Now that brings back memories.

    The original Ravenloft D&D scenario is an absolute classic. It pretty much set the standard for anything that followed. And in a burst of nerdity I recall that it’s module code number was I6 *slinks off to hide*

  4. Jestocost says:

    Ooh, I’m very interested to hear what you have to say about the Red Box. You’re coming at D&D 4th edition from the best possible angle: an enjoyment of well-design Ameritrash boardgames –> Castle Ravenloft –> Red Box starter.

    It’s great because you won’t have any preconceptions about how the rules are ‘supposed’ to work, as so many players of old editions did when they first tried 4th edition. Good luck to you Sir, and may I recommend a wizard. Bloody brilliant class in 4th edition. (The fighter is also extremely interesting, but it’s been somewhat neutered for the Essentials line, of which the Red Box is a part.)

    And don’t forget to use the little code in the box to download the bonus solo adventure!

    • malkav11 says:

      The fact that the fighter class can reasonably be described as “extremely interesting” by anyone is a big part of what I like about 4th edition.

    • Jestocost says:

      And bards are useful. It’s like Bizarro D&D!

    • says:

      Bards were amazing in 3e, if you played with the diplomacy rules that were in the books. I mean, they’re not full casters, but that one skill could do a hell of a lot without all that much optimisation.

      I mean, check out Glibness (cast it for a +30 bonus on diplomacy checks if you’re lying) and the penalty for trying to convince someone of something that is literally impossible to believe (-20), and consider that you’re testing against sense motive, a skill that hardly anything has a good score at – and even then, a “good” score isn’t anywhere near as good as your diplomacy modifier. Then if you used the epic rules you could, at pre-epic levels, convert someone who hates you and is in combat trying to kill you into someone so devoted to you that they get combat bonuses whilst fighting under your command.

      Bards are basically the class that can play the game with a party of clerics, druids & wizards who weren’t played by idiots. It’s harder than the others (“lol natural spell, i’m a fighter with full casting and one of my class features is another fighter and i can summon an army of fighters”, “hey i can do 6d6 damage if i hit or i could cast this spell which takes the monster out of the fight instantly i wonder which i should choose”) but because of the way diplomacy bypasses basically any npc encounter and can be used to gain an incredible amount of power (“I am the king! Arrest that imposter on the throne!” “Oh god it’s true I’m not the real king I’m an imposter, please have the throne, and my wife/husband/harem.”) it’s actually worth the bard player showing up to the game.

    • says:

      4e bards are better, obviously. They can mock things to death.

  5. Hernando Kortez says:

    Loving the Boardgames posts! Downtime town recently inspired my brother to start a board gaming night with some friends. Last week I joined them for a game of Cosmic Encounter and a reminder of all the advantages boardgames have over the video variety of gaming. The fact you are sitting around a table makes the backstabbing, lying and cheating so much more joyful. Also house rules allow you to “mod” boardgames with ease. Hope this becomes a regular and long lasting feature of RPS.

  6. Warduke says:

    Hey Robert! Great to see you here in the pages of RPS. I really enjoy your board game “what I think” videos over on Vimeo. It’s pretty awesome to hear from somebody so passionate and excited about board games. Cool stuff..

  7. Demon Beaver says:

    I played this game for the first time at PAX earlier this month, and did not enjoy it that much. But honestly, I might have just overdosed on D&D and dungeon romps. And we were all drunk at the time, so we didn’t take it very seriously.

    I should probably give it another shot…

  8. Kinglog says:

    How is the single player with Ravensloft? I’ve recently moved and have no one to play games with. Having a lot of fun with Phantom Leader – someone in the comments last week turned me on to this and I heartily second the recommendation!

  9. Peter Radiator Full Pig says:

    Im loving this board game milarky, but when are you going to talk about Settlers of Catan?

    Or more interestingly, a more broad scope of board games? Who make the best, who tests for balance, who are considered good? Releases? Whats the scene like? Who do you play with? Are their tournaments, conventions?
    So much unknowns, fill us in!

    • Nick says:

      check out downtimetown

    • brog says:

      catan is old hat; also dull. and clearly you already know about it, so, eh, what are you hoping to learn from rob mentioning it?

    • Chris D says:


      I would have thought that Catan could make for quite an interesting column precisely because it is well known and popular (relatively speaking). You could use it to illustrate design principles, compare and contrast with Monopoly or Risk. Use it as a way in to talking about Eurogames in general. What does it do well? What’s been done better elsewhere? What are its weaknesses and whats the next logical step for games of this type. While it may be old hat, Dungeon Quest from last week was released over 25 years ago. It’s true that Catan probably doesn’t need a review at this point but RPS has never just been a review site.

    • brog says:

      yeah yeah, not saying there’s nothing to say about it. i just reacted to the “when are you going to talk about popular game x” where x happens to be a game i’m a bit sick of. sorry about the negativity.

    • Chris D says:


      Fair enough :)

  10. bigredrock says:

    Great to hear your thoughts on the Ravenloft board game. It’s a great combination for me: plays in less than an hour, co-op, random maps and cool bits.

    My six-year-old loves it too, and it’s brilliant fun watching him enjoying it.

    I’ve already played Castle Ravenloft more times than just about any other board game I own, and I only got it a couple of weeks ago. Love it.

  11. Alexander Norris says:

    “IT’S TOO MUCH LIKE WOOOORLD OF WWWWAAAAAARRRCRAAAAAAAAFT!”, people screamed, disgusted at a company’s attempt to make their game more accessible to millions of people.

    It’s also fuck all like World of Warcraft, and these people are idiots; but we knew that already.

    I’ll shut up this week because I’ve not had the pleasure of even laying eyes on a copy of Castle Ravenloft, and if I rant and rave any more about 4E I will become known as “that bloke wot never shuts up about Dungeons & Dragons even though the column isn’t always about that damn game!” but I do have this to say about the new Red Box: I’m very much looking forward to hearing what you think about it, Rab, though I have some reservations.

    4E is a wonderful, wonderful RPG; a paragon of excellent design for the most part, except for the parts where it’s still D&D and so still requires you to learn quite a few rules. The new Red Box is an attempt at broadening 4E’s appeal by making entry into the game easier for people who find the concept of roleplaying games with detailed combat rules alien. I’m told that on the whole, the new class builds present in it do a fairly decent job of giving completely new players something to toy with (I’ll be honest, I’m fairly sure I’m in no position to comment on what complete newbies will and won’t understand except in the broadest of strokes, much like video games); but having skimmed the books, their content looks rather disturbingly like someone was trying to remove the fun out of 4E in order to appeal to all the bad people who believe that 3.x and its emphasis on complete bullshit pseudo-realism that makes everyone except caster classes incredibly shit to play is superior to 4E’s exquisite design and fun, and this I don’t like.

    I’ll shut up about D&D now, but if you hate what you see next week, I’d entreat you to at least read a little around the Red Box (i.e. get a copy of the Player’s Handbook 1 and compare the Fighter from there to the Fighter in the Red Box — the latter is terrible and boring) before you dismiss 4E entirely.

    • Alexander Norris says:

      On reflection, that was a rather shit job of shutting up, wasn’t it?

    • Bas says:

      More like Alexandra Norris (sexism, aw yeah / I’m going to die alone)

    • Alexander Norris says:

      @Bas — oh yeah? Well more like YOUR MUM. There, I said it, and I’m not taking it back.

    • malkav11 says:

      FWIW, 3E did a lot to make non-caster classes more interesting to play, with the feat system and skill rolls and prestige classes with more special abilities and so forth (prior to 3E, D&D fighters had no class features to speak of – they were just a wall of HP and armor)….but you’re not wrong that casters were still infinitely more interesting.

    • Tacroy says:

      I always thought it was hilarious that a certain class of person absolutely hated the Book of Nine Swords in D&D 3.5, because it made fighter classes “overpowered” – in other words, they had more options than “attack attack attack” every turn, and could sometimes get close to a spellcaster’s crowd control and damage abilities.

    • Noc says:



      First, full disclosure background: I’ve been playing a 4e campaign with some friends for the last couple of months, because we decided to give it a shot and see what it was actually like? And I feel like I approached it with a fairly open mind, since I have become totally sick of 3.5e and was looking for something different.

      And, I’m not a huge fan of the 4e.

      And actually, this article has helped me figure out why: it’s built a lot like a boardgame. You have a hand full of discrete abilities that each do a very specific thing, each of which you can only play once, and combat tactics involve deciding what order to play them in.

      This doesn’t seem objectionable or out of place at all in a boardgame, where you have very specific, very mechanized modes of interacting with the world. You move to an adjacent room, you fight and resolve an encounter, you draw a card, you collect a Victory Token, and so on. Simple, elegant, purely mechanical, and often superbly entertaining.

      However, pen-and-paper RPGs tend to involve a much more freestyle mode of play? You are in SOME SITUATION, and you have a bunch of tools at your disposal, and you use those tools to interact with the world. Combat has a lot more rules, and is a lot more mechanized, but it still follows the same logic: you have a sword you can hit people with, you have spells that can do things, you have skills you can use and feats you can perform, and so on.

      And this is why 4e’s mechanics feel so jarring: you don’t have a belt full of tools, you have a hand full of cards, each of which can be played once to do a very specific and very arbitrary-feeling thing. This is a lot more obvious when you look at magic items: these are the things you would most expect to be, you know, tools, and instead the vast majority of them simply give you a Daily power.

      And, as mentioned before with the arbitraryness, a lot of them do odd, specific rules-things with only a clumsy justification for what this is actually supposed to be modeling. So a lot of powers either leave me thinking “So, wait, why is my attack shifting an ally two squares?” OR “So wait, why can I only do this once per encounter?”

      The whole design philosophy seems to reflect this type of thing: see also the token support for things like multiclassing and crafting.

      . . .

      The result of all of this is something that would not look out of place at all in a boardgame, but is weird and frustrating for any sort of more freestyle play.

      I am wondering more and more if this is our fault for attempting such and not just doing a straight-up dungeon crawl: a lot of odd design elements, like how infrequently we hit Milestones and how no one has ever been in any danger of running out of Healing Surges, would seem to make a lot more sense if we were expected to be working through several rooms worth of encounters in a session.

      But, like…we’re also playing through the provided sample modules: if the system was designed specifically around dungeon-crawling, one would think that this is what their modules would involve. These modules have also spawned their share of complaints — they are basically a videogame, dialog-trees, obnoxious mini-games and all — but that’s another thing, and not one that’s necessarily reflective upon the system as a whole.

      So yeah. Two cents! GO.

    • DJ Phantoon says:

      Well, it is like a video game. A video game that want to be Magic The Gathering. Which is odd, because Wizards owns that game too. I played 4e once, and tapped a card to show it had been used. I got very angry stares for confusing Magic with this game. Which is funny, because they were going to sell card packs.

      And Robert, if you haven’t played any Dungeons and Dragons besides this, why do you automatically think the people claiming it’s like World of Warcraft are wrong? Kinda feels like you’re trolling a little bit with such a potentially caustic remark. I happen to think they have a point, 4e was made to be a lot more like a video game. Yes, it may make it more accessible, but I haven’t found it to be more fun. I’ve found it to be less fun. Now if that’s just because we hit a stumbling block, I don’t know. I played it with a group that thought it was the bee’s knees, and they didn’t manage to convince me.

      “So, wait, why is my attack shifting an ally two squares?” OR “So wait, why can I only do this once per encounter?” Your attack shifts an ally two squares because your weapon is enchanted with mighty gale winds that can only be released from the weapon by swinging it, and you can only do this once per encounter because you have to spend a minute polishing the lamp that gives you the power and there’s no way to do this in combat. Just make up stuff. It’s easy!

    • Noc says:

      I dunno, the game mechanics don’t actually seem very Video-Game-Like at all, now that I’ve actually played the thing. I can’t think of any video game — RPG or otherwise — that primarily arms you with a collection of single-use powers.

      Well, besides games that ape DnD’s Vancian spell-slots for magic. And I think everyone agrees that this is an entirely different thing.

      Encounter Powers really aren’t anything like WoW-style cooldowns, or anything else that shows up in videogames. It’s also nothing at all like Magic: The Gathering, beyond the superficial similarity of “having things on cards.” At all. Nothing in it reads like a video game to me…but everything does read like a board game, in the Arkham Horror/Android vein.

      And, as much as the system bugs me, I love the cards; they’re a really simple and easy way to organize things. You can bet that, if I end up playing a 3.5e caster again, I’m going to print up cards for spellbook management. It’s a pretty stunningly obvious idea, and one that gets more useful as a system gets more complex and harder to manage.

    • Tetragrammaton says:

      @Alex. I can tell you what I personally dislike about 4th: There is far less of an emphasis on the actual roleplaying aspects. It does feel a great deal like playing a board-game, which to me, negates the whole point of p&p rpgs. Its not to say I dont enjoy games like castle ravenloft, but when I want an actual roleplaying game ill stick to 2nd ed planescape and wfrp (1st or 2nd, haven’t had the chance to try 3rd) I assume that most of those who criticism 4th are probably of a similar persuasion (i.e. story and interactivity over rules) and not just wretched basement dwellers with an overwhelming fear of change..

    • Alexander Norris says:

      @Tetragrammaton —

      There is far less of an emphasis on the actual roleplaying aspects.

      There is, in actual fact, about an equal amount of emphasis on roleplaying in 4E as there was in 3.x; there’s certainly not less. You mistake “amount of rules” for “emphasis.” 3.x has terrible rules for things it should not have rules for, and this approach is in fact detrimental to roleplaying, since it leads people to go “well, there’s no rules, so I can’t do this.” 4E takes the right approach to roleplaying which is to say “here’s a framework for conflict resolution outside of combat [skills and skill challenges]; as for the rest, you’re roleplaying; rules would only detract from this.” It actually encourages roleplaying, unlike 3.x.

      @malkav11 — you’re right, of course; the thing is, the difference between a Mage and a Fighter in AD&D2 is much, much smaller in terms of power than the difference between a Wizard and a Fighter in 3.x.

      @Tacroy — yes!

      @Noc —

      And, I’m not a huge fan of the 4e.

      This is fine. I’m not suggesting that everyone should like 4E. I am well aware that some people out there dislike D&D’s specific style of RPG.

      What I am opposed to is the kind of person who thinks 3.x is somehow better balanced and better designed than 4E, and goes on to spout bullshit like “Gygax is rolling in his grave because of teh 4Es!!1!” and “ALL TEH CLASSES R TEH SAEM” and other such bullshit. 4E has a fair few problems; they’re just a) problems that have been there since OD&D and b) there are actually less problems in 4E than there were in 3.x.

      This is a lot more obvious when you look at magic items: these are the things you would most expect to be, you know, tools, and instead the vast majority of them simply give you a Daily power.

      Actually, the vast majority of them have an Encounter power or a Property rather than a Daily power; that said, you’re right about D&D magic items not really being tools – except it was exactly this way in 3.x, and AD&D2. The vast majority of 3.x items either have a passive property, or a x/day power (if they had anything other than a combat-oriented bonus or ability to ignore certain things). The exception is, of course, 3.x’s wondrous items, of which a few still exist in 4E – they have At-Will powers – but one of the stated goals of 4E was to remove some of the reliance on magic items, which is why you’re expected to actually do things yourself or else use a ritual, rather than just pulling out the right wondrous item for the situation. Admittedly, this is a question of taste.

      So a lot of powers either leave me thinking “So, wait, why is my attack shifting an ally two squares?” OR “So wait, why can I only do this once per encounter?”

      Usually because they a) create interesting situations during tactical combat and b) are balanced. The fluff provides an idea of why certain powers push or whatever, but asking “why do I have powers that push?” is about as pertinent as going “why does Fireball throw a ball of fire?” — the answer in both cases is “because that’s the way the designer made them.”

      As for Encounter/Daily usage: how does Vancian casting make any more sense? It doesn’t. If anything, it’s even more arbitrary, because at least Encounter/Daily usage can be justified one of two ways: “the power is exhausting so you can’t do it that often” or “the power needs certain rare circumstances to be usable, and when I use it, I am using the principle of narrative truth to declare that these circumstances apply and that I can use my special move.”

      The whole design philosophy seems to reflect this type of thing: see also the token support for things like multiclassing and crafting.

      There’s plenty of support for multiclassing; it’s just a different multiclass system. There’s also hybrid classes now if you really want to have two classes at once (as in dual-classing, not gestalts). Also: you do not need fucking rules for crafting, or for “professions” for the matter. 4E characters, like all D&D characters since AD&D2, are heroes. They’re too busy killing evil monsters and looting tombs for gold to be earning money baking cakes, so a profession is only useful for background, at which point: if your character is good enough at something to make a living from it before he started adventuring, why the fuck do you need to roll dice for it? It’s your job; you can just do it (as long as the rules don’t say you can’t, exactly like in all previous editions) — y’know, roleplaying. Ditto with the “crafting system:” there is plenty of support for crafting weapons and armour as well as all sorts of magic items (rituals and the Martial equivalent thereof), but you do not need rules for making baskets or carving tables – you want to make one? Fine; you say you do and then you describe yourself doing it (y’know, roleplaying), and if it’s something extraordinary that you think deserves a chance for you to fail at, you roll a stat check or find an appropriate skill to roll against.

      I am wondering more and more if this is our fault for attempting such and not just doing a straight-up dungeon crawl: a lot of odd design elements, like how infrequently we hit Milestones and how no one has ever been in any danger of running out of Healing Surges, would seem to make a lot more sense if we were expected to be working through several rooms worth of encounters in a session.

      It’s true that 4E assumes that you’ll have to go through a certain number of encounters per “day,” but so did 3.x, and just like 3.x, sleeping after every fight breaks the system. You don’t need to be doing a dungeon crawl to be doing more than one thing per adventuring day, and if you do actually go through the 3-4 encounters per “day” that the DMG recommends you’ll quickly find yourself running out of healing surges and powers (this is actually one of 4E’s problems — either you have five-minute days and everyone novas every encounter, or you do a proper 3-4 encounter day and by the third fight everyone’s on At-Wills only, making the game boring).

      These modules have also spawned their share of complaints — they are basically a videogame, dialog-trees, obnoxious mini-games and all — but that’s another thing, and not one that’s necessarily reflective upon the system as a whole.

      Yeah, that’s really up to the poor quality of WotC’s adventures rather than anything else. The new Chaos Scar stuff they’ve printed in Dungeon is fairly good, as is the Eberron starter adventure (Seekers of the Ashen Crown).

      @DJ Phantoon —

      Well, it is like a video game. A video game that want to be Magic The Gathering.

      Except it’s not? Show me what it has in common with video games that previous editions didn’t. It’s not hit points or classes, and it’s not x/day abilities. It’s not the grid movement. Despite what some hypocritical grognards might like you to believe, it doesn’t borrow anything at all from MMOs (rather, MMOs borrow from previous editions of D&D which 4E also borrows from). So… what? Is it just the glossy white paper and coloured power headers in the books? Because that has a lot more to do with legibility and modernness than it does with video games.

      And complaining that it’s like a card game because you can put your powers on cards for ease of tracking (just like you could with spells in 3.x, incidentally) is absurd. Is 3.x a miniature wargame just because you can use models on a map for keeping track of things? No, of course not.

    • malkav11 says:

      I find it always useful to remember that D&D originates in addon rules for a miniatures battle game. The emphasis on combat has been there from the beginning. Later editions have actually had -more- roleplaying emphasis, not less.

      And for my part, I feel that the whole point of a RPG ruleset like D&D is to provide rules and systems and ways of resolving actions that are beyond GM fiat. So if the rules aren’t there, it’s not much help. They should absolutely be tweaked and extrapolated from and houseruled and all that good stuff, but the core support ought to exist for the things you want to do, or you should find a different system. I happen to feel that D&D is still bad at providing support for a lot of noncombat stuff and tend to prefer alternative systems.

    • Tetragrammaton says:

      @Alex – just to clarify, im not talking about 3.x (which was an insanely bloated game – although I have a soft spot for it because the some of the supplements where a great read) It sounds daft, but i dislike excess gameyness in rpgs, which, given the fact that I first stared own role playing games with literally no rules whatsoever (more of a group interactive story), shouldn’t be surprising. I understand im probably in the minority with this.

      “4E characters, like all D&D characters since AD&D2, are heroes. They’re too busy killing evil monsters and looting tombs for gold to be earning money baking cakes, so a profession is only useful for background”

      Made me smile. I assume you’ve never played wfrp? The only game ive ever played where its actually useful to be a rat catcher.

    • DJ Phantoon says:

      “Augh, curse the lack of edit. Bold tag was supposed to end at “…for crafting,” but I obviously didn’t close it.” I’m glad you added that because only a massive prick boldens half his long post for no reason at all.

      Have you looked at Pathfinder? I tried both 4e and Pathfinder and find I like Pathfinder much more. The core book is both the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide, so you’re not missing anything besides monsters. The Extended guides aren’t just a cash grab like some of them were with Wizards (and if you deny that they printed half those books just for money you have to be delusional. One new unbalanced feat and then a bunch of flavor for a world you’ll never play in? Please!) they are actually nice and are quality reference materials.

      You already know why I don’t like 4e. But let me elaborate further. There was fun in the limited resources available to the party previously. You had to choose if you wanted to press on, or rest for your full complement of spells. Another thing. The very fact that a Cleric is told to stand in the back because he has healing abilities, and the Wizard is a buffer because he picked up some buff spells… No. This will not do. I will not accept the Everquest-World of Warcraft mentality into D&D. The Cleric is not just a healer, nor a buffer. The Wizard can have versatility. Sure, a Paladin, Barbarian, Fighter, or what have you will be at the very front line taking more hits than anyone else, because that will happen anyways. The very fact I heard an argument about a Cleric getting up front to fight bad guys means I want none of 4e, thank you.

      You say more accessible, I say dumbed down. The very fact we have the WoW trifecta in there, Tanking DPS and Healing, means it knows who it wants. I am not who it wants. I want my roleplaying to be a little bit… imaginative?

      The question that should always be asked is, “Does it make the game more fun?” DOES being the Healing only Cleric make the game more fun? I doubt it. I’m sure there’s people who are fine doing nothing but that. In fact, I know there are, otherwise Warcraft would seriously have to change! But that doesn’t mean that everyone that played 3.0 and 3.5 wants to do that.

      Don’t accuse me of oversimplifying this. Wizards of the Coast started it, remember?

    • Alexander Norris says:

      @malkav11 — you really do not need rules for things like talking to people, or taking a piss, or making a table. These are things you’re roleplaying. You need some rules for convincing NPCs, and in 4E these exist in a form that is both functional and light-weight enough so as not to get in the way of the roleplaying (i.e. skills).

      @Tetragrammaton — I play WFRP all the time (well, used to, I have no group now, but that’s beside the point) – but WFRP is not D&D, and spends quite a bit of time deliberately laughing in the face of D&D tropes (ratcatchers and frequent gruesome death being a part of that and sort of the point). I adore WFRP for how grim, brutal and funny it is, but I recognise that it’s a different game from D&D with different strengths and different weaknesses.

      @Phantoon — yeah, I’ve looked at Pathfinder (incidentally, “3.x” is meant to include 3.0, 3.5 and “3.75” AKA Pathfinder), and the problems I have with are the same problem I had with 3.5 – because it doesn’t actually fix most of 3.5’s problems. Yes, the combat manoeuvres like grappling are now resolvable in under a minute instead of 15, but in terms of class balance, all it’s done is give each class more of what it had before – with the result that casters are still retardedly powerful and non-casters are still shit past level 7.

      Most of the 4E books are nice and quality material, and the (still numerous but they’re getting better) slip-ups that WotC makes are actually errata’d within three months.

      There was fun in the limited resources available to the party previously. You had to choose if you wanted to press on, or rest for your full complement of spells. Another thing. The very fact that a Cleric is told to stand in the back because he has healing abilities, and the Wizard is a buffer because he picked up some buff spells… No. This will not do. I will not accept the Everquest-World of Warcraft mentality into D&D. The Cleric is not just a healer, nor a buffer. The Wizard can have versatility. Sure, a Paladin, Barbarian, Fighter, or what have you will be at the very front line taking more hits than anyone else, because that will happen anyways. The very fact I heard an argument about a Cleric getting up front to fight bad guys means I want none of 4e, thank you.

      Without wanting to be mean, there is so much wrong with this paragraph that it’s pretty hilarious. Allow me to explain and sound less like a douchebag:

      There is nearly as much resource monitoring in 4E; it’s just spread evenly across all classes and covers Dailies, healing surges and item powers. Like I said before, if you’re not running out of surges and of Dailies, the problem is the same damn problem that exists in 3.x – your DM is running five minute adventure days, and pretending that this problem is somehow new to 4E is rather disingenuous.

      Secondly, you completely misunderstand 4E’s concept of roles, and you’re either extremely misguided or extremely hypocritical about them. 4E dividing classes into “damage dealer,” “buffer/healer,” “guy who takes the hits” and “guy with AoE and debuffing spells” is exactly the same thing that exists in 3.x, just actually given official names. The only difference is that because 3.x casters were so broken, they basically got to do everything (this is wrong from a balance/design point of view).

      Leaders buff, heal, deal and take damage in various proportions (but always all of these four), Strikers deal single-target damage and have high mobility, Defenders physically prevent enemies from going after their allies and have high defences and high hit points to soak hits, and Controllers deal area-of-effect damage, debuff and control the battlefield by casting persistent spells that affect an area. And these are just the primary roles; all classes have a secondary role. The end result is that classes in 4E in are in fact capable of a wider range of actions on the battlefield than they were in 3.x, except for the casters, who were rightfully nerfed to the point where they’re actually balanced.

      The Cleric, like all Leaders, is intended as a buffer and a guy who can deal and take some damage and a healer. There are no healbots in 4E. Healbots are a feature of 3.x. The only players you will hear saying that the Cleric should stay back and heal are 3.x players who believe Clerics should be healbots, because those players can’t wrap their head around a game where classes are no longer reduced to one thing (“I cast Heal,” “I full attack,” “I cast a spell that solves the encounter and robs anyone of any meaningful resolution”) and have a hard time adapting to 4E.

      The very fact we have the WoW trifecta in there, Tanking DPS and Healing

      a) 4E doesn’t actually have WoW or any MMO’s tanking.

      b) 3.x has all these things, including WoW’s tanking (the Knight’s terrible Challenge feature).

      DOES being the Healing only Cleric make the game more fun?

      You couldn’t be a healing-only Cleric in 4E until last year, when they introduced a build specifically for people who complained they weren’t allowed to be a healbot anymore, and even then it does healing, buffing and summoning instead of healing only.

      The healbot is a 3.x thing, not a 4E thing. The Leader role is a secondary damage-dealer, secondary damage-soaker, a buffer, and a healer. It’s not “one of these four,” it’s all of them at once. The whole fucking point of the Leader role is to make so being a healbot is impossible, because being a healbot is shit. And you know what? It’s 3.x players (albeit ones who don’t know any better) who insist on the Cleric player being a healbot, not the Cleric player or 4E players.

      Don’t accuse me of oversimplifying this. Wizards of the Coast started it, remember?

      You’re not oversimplifying things; you’re just literally outright lying about them – claiming they’re issues that appeared in 4E and were absent in 3.x, while they’re in actual fact 3.x issues that disappeared in 4E.

    • Tetragrammaton says:

      Im glad someone brought up pathfinder, hopefully over time its existence will heal the wounds of the D&D rift. 4th ed exists for those who appreciate the new rules and streamlined approach, and Paizo is now here for those who love (And people really do!) the bloated juggernaut that is the 3.x legacy. I suspect the source of the Warcraft complaint came straight from the horses mouth, as it were, when wotc said they were increasingly focused on luring mmorpg players to the hobby. (makes sense) the reality of the mechanics is simply that they have been made easier to understand by the consumer already familiar with the standard workings of the mmorpg, not that they have become the literal doppelganger.

    • Noc says:

      Man, I am totally a round of posting behind, but here’s TWO MORE CENTS.

      Note also that our campaign’s still at a fairly low level (3!) and, as noted, the campaign is maybe not very well suited to the system. Higher levels or an environment with more, smaller encounters end to end might produce a different experience.

      But in the meantime, CENTS.

      Powers: Weirdness and Disposability

      Upon some further thinking-into-a-comment-box-and-then-deciding-not-to-post-it, I realized a better way to articulate my issue with 4e’s powers.

      So, by themselves, the “Why can I even do this thing?” and the “Why are my uses of this limited?” questions are totally kind of silly an easily answered. As you have done! It is kind of an obvious thing.

      There is a thing going in in 4e, though, that keeps bugging me enough to bring those questions up. Here’s what I think it is:

      SO. The reason powers are single-use is (obviously) a balancing mechanism. Looking at At Will and Daily powers, it makes perfect sense: you can do small things all the time, but Dailies are big and can only be used once every so often.

      Cool. No problems, here.

      But the thing with Encounter Powers being single-use-each just seems like a lazy way of maintaining “balance,” by ensuring that any particularly effective maneuvers aren’t repeatable.

      This is also why a lot of the powers seem arbitrary and weird to me, because they’re the sort of things that can be created en-masse via brainstorming session. It results in game design that’s a lot less focused, and a lot less elegant: instead of picking a tactical role and developing it, you can do a bunch of random shit…once apiece, and finding a tactical niche is basically an exercise of trying to pick a bunch of powers that do roughly the same thing with small variations.

      The system makes a show of giving you a lot of options, a lot of different abilities…but then it harshly limits your ability to apply these abilities, because otherwise certain powers might end up being “too good.”

      I feel like I would be a lot happier with either a more focused collection of at-will abilities (with maybe some collection of Points or something that you can spend to execute more powerful attacks), or a more robust hand-cycling mechanic to keep you moving between your powers, and like a shrinking hand size to represent the effect of fatigue. But as it is, the whole thing just feels a bit bleh. Half-assed, even.

      This is my primary complaint. The Items/Multiclass/Crafting thing mostly boils down to all of these mechanics feeling like afterthoughts, added when someone realized that “Oh, we should probably add some kind of multiclass option to the game?” But I’ll go into more detail about each point anyways ’cause you brought up a couple points specific to each I kinda want to address.


      So I checked, since we appear to have mutually exclusive ideas about what the “vast majority” of items do. It turns out that, at least in the PHB1, that items are about split between Daily Powers and Properties, with a bunch having one of each and a significant minority having Encounter Powers.

      Weapons, though, heavily lean towards Daily Powers, which I believe was the source of my frustration in the first place. Single-use powers on rings and staves and such make more sense, but I tend to feel like weapon enhancements should involve more permutations on what happens when you hit people with them.

      I understand that they wanted to decrease the reliance on equipment (like, crit builds based around what you can do with a keen scimitar), but the variety and over-specificity of the items make them seem like that afterthought thing? Like, the game seems to assume an increasing equipment bonus to things as you level up, but most of the items seem like novelties instead of useful additions to your arsenal.

      Like with powers, I’d like a much more streamlined, focused system, maybe based around a couple of key enhancements (Elemental damage/resist, knockback/knockback resist, vampiric/regeneration, etc), scaled to only be of minor help but each still doing a useful thing.


      Yes, there is a multiclass system — and I haven’t seen that newfangled Hybrid mechanic, but the multiclass feats/power swapping feats kind of suck. Again: afterthought! It feels a lot like they were like “Oh, wait! We should put some kind of multiclass option in here. But everything’s already balanced!”

      It’s a token multiclass system that lets you do some fiddling if you really have your heart set on it, but doesn’t do much to break you out of the single-class mold.


      4e’s crafting support is the most bizarre example of this I’ve seen yet: unless I’m missing something important (which is possible!) you can buy the crafting feats/rituals, and then “create” the item . . . for its purchase cost. There is absolutely no benefit to doing this, as opposed to just buying the damn thing instead. There’s no reason for it to be there at all.

      Oh, and for the record? The point of a robust crafting system isn’t to make you make a bunch of rolls you shouldn’t need to. The point is to allow you to better manage a persistent in-game resource — in this case, your money.

      A simple crafting system would just allow you to, in exchange for the investment of a feat, create items for cheaper than it would cost to buy them. So, one less feat, but 30% more magical gear.

      A more robust system would give you more options: it might let you customize your own gear to a higher degree, or let you make temporary items for cheap if you could really use a particular sword for the next couple days but don’t want to invest in it permanently. The gadgeteer is totally a respectable heroic archetype, and crafting systems make it viable.

      Besides the abovementioned tokenness of items, I feel like the reason this isn’t in 4e is ’cause it doesn’t fit into the Powers mold. Which was the point of bringing it up alongside items and multiclassing: the game is focused on a single (problematic) economy of ability, and parallel options are only included out of some sense of obligation.


      Oh, and WHILE I AM AT IT, and this doesn’t make any more sense than Vancian magic. Actually, it makes a hell of a lot less, because it’s applying to specific abilities. In the words of one of my friends, when we had this argument during out first 4e game: “It’s like saying playing a game of football is exhausting, so you can’t play another one…and then going to go play a game of hockey.”

      Vancian magic is essentially just preparing, storing, and expending charges; it is weird because these charges are somehow stored in the spellcaster’s brain, but it is, you know, magic. You could apply the same system to some kind of gadgetry without anyone thinking it was weird.

      Also, being able to invoke narrative fiat reliably BUT NO MORE OFTEN THAN once per power per encounter is kind of, uh, stupid.

      The whole thing in general feels a lot less rooted in any kind of world than earlier editions did. Like, it’s not as though 3.5e was realistic, but the game mechanics at least appeared to model some sort of in-world phenomena. Spellcasters did specific things to memorize their spells; supernatural abilities had per-day usage; mundane abilities were generally repeatable, and so on.

      But 4e is, like…a lot of board games and card games such use things like card-drawing and card-playing mechanics to model the flow of a narrative, or the randomness of an environment. This is okay! It sort of creates the feel that, while the players are the gods above managing the progression of events, the characters themselves are still sort of scurrying about their business in their little world.

      But 4e’s injection of arbitrariness into something that is already being modeled at such a low level just makes it impossible to read as a thing that actually happens in a world. It sounds really silly to say that “A DnD Game broke my suspension of disbelief!” but my Disbelief Suspenders are having hella trouble with 4e.

    • FunkyBadger says:

      Pathfinder is excellent.

      If the start point for a discussion is “all 3.5 characters that aren’t casters are shit after 7th level” then its really not worth talking.

      4thEd isn’t really a continuation of 3.5, its a wholley seperate game. A bit daft to compare them. I’ve heard they’re very popular with kids though, kind of the console version of DnD, maybe…

    • DJ Phantoon says:

      Noc obviously played it longer than I did, and has better points. The rise of 4e has been pretty good for Pathfinder too, because old stogies like me just don’t like the new system.

      And Clerics only healing in 3.0? Wow, was I ever doing it wrong!

    • Vagabond says:

      “There is far less of an emphasis on the actual roleplaying aspects.”

      Whether you want to call it emphasis or not, and whether you think it is a good design decision or not, they have removed almost everything that only had relevance outside of combat*. (My particular beef is that almost all of the spells that were useful for doing things in a town, or annoying NPCs, or solving non-combat problems are all just gone). That coupled with the additional emphasis on where miniatures are positioned on the grid, and a few other things and I just find it much more difficult as a GM to run the roleplaying aspects of the game, and not have it constantly be about the combat (that said, fights are more fun to run as a GM). I’m not saying that 3.5 was a paradise full of characterization and drama, but it certainly feels less combat focused to me.

      * my opinion is based on my experience running the game with the initial 3 rulebooks, I haven’t gone back since.

    • Psychopomp says:

      >Rules for roleplaying

      No thank you, I’d rather have that governed by in character reactions than what some guy decided to write in a book.

      This is all pointless, though, as levelless, skillbased systems are clearly superior to anything DND has ever offered :P

  12. Chris D says:

    I was inspired by last weeks column to buy a new boardgame this week. I had to go into a shop to do it. That was weird, not just being able to download it off Steam.

    I read the comments on Reiner Knizia with interest. I own precisely one of his games. Go on, guess which one. We’ve played it a few times, never quite destroying the ring, usually dying horribly. Mostly we enjoyed it although I had decided it wasn’t the right game for our group. Too much sustained concentration needed and not easy to talk about anything else while playing. (Actually, not easy to play the game while talking about something else in our case.) I’m going to try them on Kingsburg next. Looks like it should be quite good fun.

    I’m also in the “played everything but D&D” camp. Partly because it seems too sprawling, partly because it seems too generic and I preferred games that did something a bit different. It’s not that I don’t like whole fantasy schtick but been there done that bought the T-shirt. Still, I will look forward to next week’s column. It will be educational.

    • Tetragrammaton says:

      Some of the earlier CSs really broke through the D&D generica and are well worth a look –
      Darksun and Planescape being my favorites. Spelljammer is also worth a look because its unashamedly batshit anachronistic world.

    • Vinraith says:

      The best campaigns I ever ran were Spelljammer campaigns, what a blast that setting is.

    • Chris D says:

      Coolness. Now that you mention it I think I was aware of the other settings but never got around to discovering them due to the aforementioned sprawlingness. Well, that and all the other games I wanted to play and never got around to.

  13. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    Ravenloft always has been one of the better Campaign settings for Dungeons and Dragons.

  14. Alexander Norris says:

    Oh and, this is from last week, but I don’t think anyone’s going to still be reading those comments and the discussion is still sort of relevant to this week and the next, so:

    Vinraith said:
    Streamlining, by definition, is losing complexity.

    This man is wrong (sorry, Vinraith!).

    Complexity and complicatedness are not the same thing. The former is what some people might refer to depth, and the latter is also known as (un)approachability; streamlining is reducing the complicatedness of a game and implies nothing about its complexity.

    This is a lot of hefty words to say that the ideal game is both simple and deep – easy to grasp but with a lot of content for you to master if you’re so inclined. Streamlining can result in a loss of complexity, yes, but it doesn’t always do so – and (unfortunately for my promise to shut up about D&D) 4E is a great example of this. It’s more streamlined than 3.x but about as complex (and it’s also infinitely better).

    • Vinraith says:

      Complexity and complicatedness are not the same thing.

      Yes, they are, and there’s no such word as “complicatedness” precisely because that’s what “complexity” means. I’ve made the point over and over again that “complexity” is not “depth,” I agree that “the ideal game is both simple and deep ,” other than word choice we seem to be arguing over absolutely nothing.

    • TCM says:

      Complexity is a very bad thing, for anything.

      Depth is not the same thing.

      This is the final word from GOD HIMSELF.

      Or possibly an egomaniac on the internet. You never know.

    • Matthew Downie says:

      @Vinraith etc.
      ‘Complex’ and ‘complicated’ are subtly different. According to Websters, ‘Complex’ means it’s composed of lots of parts, and ‘complicated’ means that the parts it’s made of are themselves pretty complex. ‘Complex’ implies depth, as in, ‘this is a huge, powerful and complex novel’. ‘Complicated’ is usually intended as criticism, the implication being that the complication is unnecessary.
      And ‘complicatedness’ is a word, according to, just not a very elegant one.

    • Aninhumer says:

      Complex means an ordered system of many parts.
      Complicated means a lack of order. (It has many complications)

      Not that that means Complex things automatically have depth, but there is a difference.

    • hitnrun says:

      Well…I won’t argue with that. But the complexity of 4E was, in my opinion, cumbersome: keeping track of marks and effects and penalties and bonuses and whatnot in much greater numbers. Every game I played of 4E devolved into “To Remind the DM or Not to Remind the DM?” where players sit stone faced, as if at the final table of a Poker Tournament, when the DM loses track of some curse or rule or whatnot, while becoming the DM’s faithful accountant when keeping track of circumstances in their favor.

      Whereas the complexity of, say, previous editions circled around character creation. 3.x Fighters, to use the most extreme example, are actually as complex as 4E fighters; it’s just that little of their complexity reaches into actual combat gameplay, when the d20 is bouncing. (At least, for what seems to be the typical player; my combat types are more interesting than my mages. After all, there’s only one way to cast a spell.)

      So I suppose it depends on what kind of complexity you want. This is why 4E diehards consider 3.X as a ridiculous anal life-sim, and while 3.X stalwarts describe 4E as a pretty good miniatures/wargame.

    • Alexander Norris says:

      Sorry, Vinraith, but SCIENCE! disagrees with you. Says so right there in the dictionary, and there’s no arguing with SCIENCE!.

    • Vinraith says:

      OK, the abridged dictionary failed me. :)

      The point here is that we agree, and are just disagreeing over word choice, so I think we can move on.

    • Alexander Norris says:

      But… but… what about the SCIENCE!? :(

    • Vinraith says:

      The SCIENCE! is fine, see, because no one’s arguing with it. :)

  15. Nick says:

    It does sound a lot like Warhammer Quest.. which is indeed a good thing. If I ever have money again I’ll look into it.

  16. Quintin Smith says:

    I used to gamesmaster a 2nd edition AD&D campaign in your actual Ravensloft setting. Best thing about it were the special rules that when a character does something evil, the dark powers that be start taking an interest in them and begin making them both more powerful and more evil.

    Basically, every Ravensloft campaign worth its salt features the party’s good characters having a showdown with the powerful evil ones, because they’ve gone Too Far. And in the REALLY good Ravensloft campaigns, the evil ones win that fight and continue down the path of corruption. Ah, bliss.

    • Chris D says:

      I just had a weird vision containing the words “This time you’ve gone too far!”, “It’s just the way things have to be!”, Walker sobbing into his hands and Quinns laughing maniacally. I can’t tell if this is the fate of RPS in a year’s time or possibly just the next round of Neptune’s Pride.

    • Fumarole says:

      Ravenloft is a sadistic DM’s wet dream.

    • qrter says:

      This must be why Quinns’ comment colour is the Pastel Yellow of Evil.

  17. Antlia says:

    I actually think that the Lord of the Rings co-op boardgame is pretty good. Played it tens of times. Gets better if you get the expansions, though they don’t make you like the game if you don’t like the basic set at all.

    • medwards says:

      Lord of the Rings is fucking pimp, so I don’t get why he’s down on them. Particularly because his last column is all about a boardgame in which you just get fucking slaughtered, and he’s all uppers about Pandemic which is LOTR with diseases instead of magic. I loooove how brutal the LOTR game is. On EASY.

  18. David says:

    I’m really, really enjoying your column Rob. I’ve never bought a “proper” boardgame before, and doesn’t seem to stock this week’s or last week’s boardgame. Anyone know where is a reliable and fairly priced place to get them from in the U.K?

    • says:

      LEISURE GAMES. They charge RRP generally, and there are probably discounters for most games if you look a bit harder, but whenever I’m in London it is the shop to visit, despite being a bit out of the way. They sell online too.

  19. Sunjumper says:

    The strangest bit about this weeks coloumn is not my sudden complusion to play the Ravenloft board game and play a bit of ‘old school’ D&D again. That was quite expected.
    It is the little anecdote about lying to a priest during your confession when you had nothing to confess. I had to do exactly the same. I was not alone it seems…

  20. badvibration says:

    “And I hadn’t really done anything wrong. So I’d have to make some sins up. I’d say “I swore at my mum” when I hadn’t. I would go into confession and lie to a priest so that I would have something to confess. I would come out a worse person than I was when I went in.”

    This brought back memories. I’ve never actually talked about this with anyone, but it’s so true, part of the reason why I haven’t confessed since 3rd grade.

    • says:

      “I drew a little line on the wall with a pencil. It was about 1cm long and hidden behind the radiator.”

      I probably had sinned by the church’s standards, but there wasn’t anything I recognised as a sin, so I just did something minor I could apologise for and get it out of the way. If I’d thought a bit more I could have said “I lied to a priest” the next week, but that didn’t come to mind.

    • Corporate Dog says:

      My first confession: “I said that church was boring, and I hate Sunday Mass.”

  21. badvibration says:

    Btw this is my new favourite column on RPS. Even though I’ve never really played any board games outside of family games…. and risk, I’ve recently become really intrigued with them. I really want to play D&D (shadowrun looks fantastic too, thanks for mentioning it) so i’m very much looking forward to next week, which will probably result in me buying it, even though I’ll only have myself to play it.

    • Harlander says:

      Shadowrun is great. It’s one of the few games I’ve actually brought myself to GM – I hate GMing but I like Shadowrun’s setting enough to override that horror. (The game was set in Bournemouth)

      The new edition is pretty spiffy too; hacking is still kinda stupid though, but in a cool way.

  22. Fumarole says:

    Anything Ravenloft is sure to get my attention, doubly so for a boardgame. I’ll probably be buying this one soon; thanks for the article.

    Man, that Red Box brings back memories. Gotta love Larry Elmore’s art.

    PS – everyone knows real editions have THAC0 :)

  23. Edgar the Peaceful says:

    Red Box. HAH! That was for the Johnny-come-latelys. Real UK nerds already had the Erol Otus Magenta Box:
    link to

  24. Tazer says:

    Holy cow….

  25. Alex Bakke says:

    I love this new post.

  26. Henneth says:

    Cracking column this. I was wondering why Downtimetown was so quiet of late…

    I was umming and ahhing about whether to add Castle Ravenloft or Dungeonquest to my game shelf as a lighter alternative to Descent. Damn you Rab – your reviews tipped me over the edge and I’ve went and bought them both of them. They look too full of awesome to miss.

    Castle Ravenloft has sold out of its first run already apparently. Copies are still to be had at various retailers but after that then it might be back on the shelves until Feb 2011.

    @ David: Gameslore still has a few of both CR and DQ in stock and are one of the best of the UK specialist Boardgame online stores.

  27. sexyresults says:


  28. ulix says:

    Without reading the entire article I’m left wondering why FFG needs to release ANOTHER Lovecraft themed game where a dungeon master plays against the heros… why don’t they just release more Arkham Horror expansions?

    By the way, best boardgame I’ve played in the last few years: Tribune (in English also available through FFG). Its incredibly elegant, relatively simple (if you’ve played other FFG games…), one game doesn’t take 4 hours (depending on the victory conditions chosen one to two hours), and it is still very varied and deep. Also there is very little downtime for the players. Just such a slick design, I love it.

    • ulix says:

      Definitely need to go to Essen again this year…

      Problem is, my gaming budget is already stretched out for the rest of the year, with ~120€ planned for P&P stuff, and at least 250€ for Videogaming… that doesn’t include games that MIGHT turn out good or ones I’ll probably pirate…

      I’ll definitely buy: Fallout New Vegas (PC obviously), Civ 5, GT5, Need for Speed: Burnout (don’t know yet if I’ll buy PS3 or PC…), and a bunch of downloadable titles for PS3: Pixel Junk Shooter 2, Castle Crashers, this Lara Croft game, Hydrophobia.

      Luckily my Wii is hacked, otherwise I’d have to spend another 200€ on Metroid, Kirby, Mickey, Donkey Kong Country…

    • malkav11 says:

      Which other Lovecraft-themed game where a dungeon master plays against the heroes have they released? If you’re thinking of Arkham Horror, you are mistaken as to how Arkham plays – it is purely cooperative, and the malign force from beyond space and time that is pitted against them acts based on card draws and mechanistic game elements rather than through a human player.

    • ulix says:

      Oh… my mistake. I didn’t know that. Have played enough games lately though where one guy controls the evil forces and the others the good guys… And although Doom as well as Last Night on Earth are both great boardgames, I’d rather play classical stuff, with all players working against each other. Pandemic is awesome however (no evil overlord there…).

  29. Mr Labbes says:

    I missed last week’s colum due to being on holiday, so this was a pleasant surprise.
    Great column, and looking forward to 4E. Only played the original and 3.5 (I think), so I’m kind of interested to see what they improved/tried to improve.

    • Tetragrammaton says:

      Errrm all articles are in fact archived. Unless my brain is broken in regard to your comment.

    • DJ Phantoon says:

      I believe he means he missed the first one, as so did not know this was a “thing”.

  30. DuncanFx says:

    Another good article, Rab. In related news, I found a complete copy of red box D&D (in great condition too!) in a charity shop in Saltash earlier this week, all of the grand sum of 50p! Looking forward to your musings on the latest edition.

  31. MarkSide says:

    I like this new weekend column thing! Keep it up! (Please.)

  32. Terrier Retreat says:

    Why is this person posting. Please make him stop. He is completely nauseating.

    • Arathain says:

      Sorry, Mr/Ms Retreat, I think your opinion is in the very distinct minority.

      I hope your day gets better.

    • Lilliput King says:

      Mm, I think these articles have been great thus far.

    • JustOneWay says:

      Why is this person posting. Please make him stop. He is completely nauseating

  33. Arathain says:

    Well, that’s an odd coincidence. I was staying at a friend’s house last night. Shortly after noon another friend arrived with a copy of Castle Ravenloft, which I had never heard of, and we played. It was a great deal of fun. We all nearly died, but heroically pulled it together right at the end with luck and cleverness, and beat the scenario. You can’t ask for better than that from any game.

  34. GregCole says:

    There’s also an Ars Technica review on this one, which focuses on other parts of the game. Like the 40 something minatures you get with it, and the apparent lack rules governing frequently met conditions in the game.

    Anyway, worth a look

    link: link to

  35. Brendan says:

    I almost picked up that red box yesterday until I realized it wasn’t The Red Box but rather a starter set for the dreaded 4th Edition masquerading as such like some kind of blood thirsty mimic in treasure box guise.

    I am excited to hear what someone unsullied by the coming and going of the assassin class, THAC0 confusion, anti-stoneskin bags of rocks, super unbalanced elven Bladesingers, the coming and going of the OGL, the WoWification, and whatever other controversies have made helped D&D players become even more bitter people has to say about the new red box though.

    • says:

      Real grognards still complain about the addition of the Thief to OD&D.

      Stupid class, adding it made all three of the REAL classes less powerful by taking away things they could try to do!

  36. jackshandy says:

    Speaking of Cthulu based boardgames; Wot’s the verdict on Arkham Horror or the Call of Cthulu Collectible Card Caper? I’ve been interested in getting into them, but AH seems like it may be a bit too complicated and hardcore for me, and I don’t want to have to buy increasingly large numbers of trading cards just to play the card game.

    • Tetragrammaton says:

      AH is complex, but after a couple of games it all sinks in. As for the (numerous) expansions, they are only for when you get pretty competent at the original, because they add considerably to the difficulty level. And since each expansion brings is own unique challenge, combining them creates a monstrously hard game. I really cant recommend it enough, especially if you are a lovecraft fan (It is a beautifully thematic game) Its best with 3 or 4 players but its still almost as good as a solo game. The only downside are the MASSIVE amounts of space it takes up and a frankly mind boggling amount of components. If this isent a problem for you, its a no brainer.

    • Kinglog says:

      Arkham Horrow is great but you need some friends and a full day to appreciate it. I’m traveling back to my old home next month and have tentatively set aside an entire day for AH – this is not a game you want to start in the late afternoon if you are used to sleeping.

      Great game. Big time investment.

      I wish some body would answer my much earlier question if Ravenloft is worth my $$ for the single player experience! I can’t justify buying AH for single player but if something even remotely similar took only an hour – that sounds grand.

    • Tetragrammaton says:

      Dont know about Ravenloft (never played it solo) It would probably be fine, if not hugely interesting. My best solo experiences in boardgames have been AH and Dungeon quest, respectively. It is worth noting that AH is fantastic solo, although setting up time can take longer if its just you. Also Its necessary to play as more the one char if you don’t want to be violently ripped to pieces and/or go hopelessly insane.

    • pkt-zer0 says:

      The CoC Card Game is a bit different, in that you know exactly what cards you’re getting in any given expansion. Initially this was a bit silly, like having one of each card in the core set, making it so you’d have to buy 2-3 of them if you wanted to build a somewhat consistent deck. These days they’ve transitioned to a saner format, where you get three of each card. Anyway, it’s not as if you need all the newer cards, the 165 in the core set already offer a decent variety.
      As for the game itself, it’s really good. It’s rather similar to Magic, but the combat phase is a lot more involved. You’ve got four successive struggles to deal with, each having a different effect when you win. Only then do things come down to whose creatures have the higher skill value printed on them.

  37. Ed says:

    I sincerely hope that nice game-defining-moment snippet about Pandemic foreshadows a slightly longer mention in future! It was the first co-op game I played and the tension and sense of unfolding doom is amazing.

    Obligatory BGG link: link to

    Castle Ravenloft does look tempting – good to know its quick and streamlined to play.

  38. tomeoftom says:

    I will never, ever give any sizeable shit about board games. However, lines like “he’s a guy who was born to be in board games, because his surname claims a killer score in Scrabble” are just far too good to risk not reading. Mr. Florence, you are so good. So good.

    It’s been quite a good thread to be confused and amused by, too.

    • jackshandy says:

      “Actually, I have lied to make my column more interesting before. Told a girl it had been inside Russell Brand’s arse. Feel free to use that one.” is clearly the best one.

    • tomeoftom says:

      Yeah, I had to stop and gape at that for a pause.

  39. RogB says:

    really quick one as they sound similar (and soloable.. :( )

    Ravenloft or Dungeonquest?

    • autogunner says:

      Im asking the exact same question, I dont want to buy them both. From what I have been reading I think ravenloft trumps dungeonquest for me at least due to its coop play, mechanics and narrative. dungeon quest seems to be more of a gimmik to me.

  40. Tom Armitage says:

    By the way chaps, if you like brutal, swift, co-op games that will make you hate both your friends and the rulebook, you’re going to love Death Angel, Fantasy Flight’s co-op cardgame version of Space Hulk.

    It’s… messy, to say the least.

  41. zipdrive says:

    This is too weird: I’m just coming back from a session of game recommendations at a convention (icon, for those interested).
    The two non-electronic games I talked about were Castle Ravenloft and the new Red Box.
    It looks like Mr. Florence has been visiting my head as I was preparing for the session.

  42. thebigJ_A says:

    I’ve always wanted to try boardgames like D&D, but I don’t know anyone who plays. How does one go about trying them in my position?

    • X says:

      *insert rant about D&D not being a board game*

      I recommend you find a game store in your area that specializes in this kind of thing- if they don’t run games themselves you should be able to find some people there who do. Best of luck in your search.

    • thebigJ_A says:

      Sorry for the n00b faux-pas! And thanks. I live in Boston, so there’s bound to be someplace.

  43. K says:

    My newest acquisition: Puzzle Strike by Sirlin games. It’s also pretty neat.

    Fuck do I hate captchas.