My love for roleplaying games began with the old tabletop dungeon crawlers HeroQuest and Warhammer Quest back in the nineties when I was a little boy. Later on, I turned to “real” roleplaying games, ranging from Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay over Dungeons & Dragons to Star Wars and World of Darkness. But I always liked a good old solid bit of dungeon-delving goodness. So it was that a few years ago, I discovered Descent: Journeys in the Dark. The game initially caught my eye for its nostalgic dungeon-crawling appeal but I quickly found out this was a different beast than the likes of Warhammer Quest. In Descent, most players control a hero character but one player takes on the mantle of The Overlord. Be aware that this Overlord is not a gamemaster. He is not there to provide a storyline, to breathe life into non-player characters or even to give the players fun challenges to overcome. No, the Overlord is there to kill the crap out of them. He is the enemy, pure and simple. He controls all the monsters, sets traps and puts the heroes in danger, not so they can have stories to tell, but so he can defeat them and win the game. Understandably, Descent is a game with an intense all-against-one atmosphere that can really bring a lot of tension to the table. It’s an aggressive, highly tactical game with an emphasis on fast-paced exploration and combat. You never know what you’re going to find behind the next door, but chances are it’s out to eat your brain.
Last year, Fantasy Flight Games released a follow-up to Descent. It was called the “2nd edition” of the game but really, it was so different they could have given it a different name. The new edition set out to fix some of Descent‘s flaws, most importantly the original game’s exceedingly long duration. Not a bad idea since a quest could easily take 6 hours or more to finish! Unfortunately, the long duration was fixed mostly by having the quests take place in very small dungeons where everything is visible right away. Whereas the first Descent had a sense of mystery and exploration that came from the Overlord’s hidden knowledge, the second one really turns it into a tactical skirmish game that happens to take place underground — and even that is not really entirely true, since quite few of the maps in 2nd edition take place above ground as well, in villages and forests. The floorplans are very beautiful, though, and a lot of attention to detail went into them.
Another aspect that really changed in 2nd edition is its shift of focus: whereas the original Descent was comparable to a table-top Diablo, a fast-paced hack & slash game, the second one tries to introduce more roleplaying elements and turn Descent into something more akin to “RPG light”. Heroes now have a few skills that can sometimes be used to escape traps or resist evil magic and the quests are decidedly more story-driven. Also, 2nd edition includes a campaign mode in the box that allows heroes to gain experience, buy better equipment in between adventures and finally face the Overlord himself in a final epic game. The original Descent didn’t include this in the main box, but it did have the campaign mode available in a pretty big expansion called The Road To Legend. This expansion had some pretty complex rules in comparison to the rather straightforward campaign mode in 2nd edition, but it also came with some truly awesome stuff such as an entirely separate board that showed the fantasy land of Terrinoth, on which the epic scale of the campaign conflict took place: the Overlord’s military campaign, sacking cities throughout the land and the heroes’ journey to find wise mentors to train them and achieve greater levels of power. The Road To Legend also contained three different plots and several incarnations of the Overlord himself. Since this expansion was intended for long-term play over several months, the designers also had the decency to at least make the individual quests in the campaign mercifully shorter.
Besides Road To Legend, the original Descent also had a secondary campaign box, called Sea Of Blood, which bathed the entire game in a piratey seafaring atmosphere and included a whole nautical combat system, complete with cannons and sharks! Still, while those expansions were quite ambitious, the campaign system as introduced in the main box in the 2nd edition is quite workable and elegant.
The original Descent‘s long length was due to a number of factors, all of which have been addressed in the 2nd edition.
Perhaps the number one reason why Descent was such a ridiculously long game was spawning. The Overlord was able to bring new monsters on the table by using his evil Overlord cards. Theoretically, he could be doing this throughout the entire game although there are limitations. The sheer amount of enemies keeping the heroes busy was one of the main reasons why the game could keep on going for quite a while. 2nd edition doesn’t entirely eliminate this but replaces it with occasional ‘reinforcements’ that are specified for each individual quest. On the one hand, this is a good way to reduce game duration, but on the other, part of the fun of being the Overlord was always figuring out the right places and monsters for spawning, and part of the fun of being a hero was the constant feeling of having to be on your guard…
Another bit of streamlining was the elimination of “threat tokens” in the 2nd edition. In the original Descent, the Overlord collected these tokens every turn to be able to pay for spawning monsters and setting evil traps. In the 2nd edition, this is no longer necessary. The Overlord can simply use his Overlord cards at will. The flipside is that the new Overlord cards are much less powerful. Gone are the days of saving your tokens for that one big super-powerful card. It’s all more toned down, more low-risk, low-reward in the 2nd edition.
In Descent 1st edition, heroes could theoretically die and come back to life, however there was a catch. Every time a hero died, this came at the cost of the group’s “conquest tokens”. If all conquest tokens were lost, the heroes had lost and the Overlord had won. In 2nd edition, hero death is not as important. Everyone can simply come back, but it does mean losing time. The tension in the 2nd edition comes from the race to achieve goals. In each quest, the heroes have to rescue someone/find something before the Overlord kills someone/finds something. In that sense, the confrontation is more story-driven, but less direct and aggressive than in the first edition.
Second edition, because of its smaller dungeons, eliminated the presence of doors. In the first edition, opening a door meant discovering a new part of the dungeon. In the second edition, there are no such discoveries, as there is no exploration. Even chests, surely one of the most iconic elements of a dungeon crawler, have been replaced by abstract green orbs known as “search tokens”. All of this does make the second edition of Descent feel less like a dungeon crawler and more like a tactical skirmish game with light roleplaying elements.
Of course, the second edition doesn’t just streamline and eliminate elements but it adds new ones as well. One of these innovations is the class system. In the first edition, a player picked a hero and used the stats on the hero chart and that was it. Example:
In the second edition, players can also choose a class for their heroes, choosing specialisations for them which can expand by gaining experience over several quests. This allows for a bit more variety and choice from the player’s point of view and I think it is a positive evolution.
What the first and second editions of Descent share, is in my opinion the single most fun tabletop combat system in existence (as far as I know, that is). It’s fast, simple, versatile and unique, using 6-sided dice that show heart symbols to denote damage, numbers to denote the amount of squares travelled by ranged and magic attacks and lightning symbols known as ‘surges’ that trigger all kinds of special abilities. It’s really quite creative. The second edition adds one more element, which is the grey and black “defense dice” which add a randomised chance to shrug off damage.
All in all, the second edition of Descent is in a number of ways a more modest, less aggressive rendition that is a bit more casual, whereas the original Descent is a big, epic clash of the titans with high tension. It takes more time, it’s more complex and in a way, it asks more effort from its players, but I don’t think I’ve ever had more intense and enjoyable tabletop gaming sessions than some of our late-night Descent delves. By contrast, playing sessions of the second edition have been fun, but “safe”. I do sort of miss the adrenaline of the original. All in all, I will certainly hold on to my copy of the original Descent and The Road To Legend.