When we learned about Descent, we had to buy it. I was raised, when I was younger, on a healthy diet of Science Fiction films and Dungeons and Dragons. Both still, as I grow older, hold a special place in my heart, and it was nostalgia for the latter one of those in particular that made me curious about Descent: Journeys in the Dark. Having played a full Star Wars: Imperial Assault campaign (which actually, in hindsight, seems a bit of a strange title, since we were always assaulting the Imperials and not the other way around), Descent seemed to tick all the boxes for a campaign based RPG set in a fantasy world.
Descent is, for want of a better term, what the Dungeons and Dragons board games of the late-1990s tried to be but never quite made it. Without giving away any spoilers, you choose from a series of plucky adventurers, picking one to guide them on their way from unknown to the hero of the people. On your way you fight goblins, wolves, vampires, more goblins, dragons, giants, beasts, more goblins and, well, goblins.
The game employs grid-based movement and focuses on guiding characters through encounter after encounter as they roam the world, making decisions that affect the outcome of the game, looting chests to get awesome items, gain experience, and save damsels in distress.
There are also monks in distress…and villagers…lots of things in distress.
Where is Descent like Dungeons and Dragons?
And, ultimately, that is kind of what Dungeons and Dragons is also about. You control rogues, clerics, fighters, druids, and magic users through scenarios that involve using strategy and wits to overcome dire odds. Both Dungeons and Dragons and Descent are games that can fall under the “Fantasy RPG” category. They both use GMs (or dungeon masters or whatever terminology you want to use) to act as the game world, controlling everything else in the environment.
This creates a surprisingly similar feeling between the two games, with Descent being reminiscent of the old school D&D games of 1983 (Stranger Things fans may realise why I chose that date in particular). It feels like a slightly restrictive version of the classic Theatre of the Imagination RPG, aiding the player with more than the traditional D20 RPG might.
Both games, of course, need vast amounts of imagination in order to get the most of of them. There is no point sitting down to the majority of board games without understanding that some imagination needs to be used. Games, like puzzles, need lateral thinking, which goes hand-in-hand with imaginative problem solving. Both Descent and Dungeons and Dragons require the player to be involved from a creative perspective. This goes without saying to some degree.
Of course, thematically speaking the two games are very similar. Both are set in a fantasy world, both give the player difficult decisions that really have consequences as to how they act, and both revolve around a world where dragons roam free, orcs terrorise poor innocents, and lich kings are as common as hearing Adele over the in-shop speakers in Starbucks.
Where do Descent and Dungeons and Dragons differ?
To be blunt though, Decent and D&D have more differences then they do similarities, they are, after all, completely and intrinsically different games. There is no doubt about it, Descent and Dungeons and Dragons are of the same ilk; however, they vary a lot in how they treat their fantasy worlds. Yes, both involve fantasy characters (who level up in their own ways) but how the worlds themselves are run and react are incredibly different. When put side by side, these differences become obvious, and not just in the way that one can be played as a D20 RPG, and that one is definitely a board game.
The primary difference, in my eyes, comes down to two very specific things. Firstly, the role of the GM is very different between the two games. In D&D, the role of the Dungeon Master is to be the world for the players. It is their goal to be a guide through the universe of the game, playing the part of the antagonist, but also of every other character within that universe. The DM is everything from the breeze in the trees to the local drunk in a well known tavern. Yes, they play the part of the dragons and demons, but they also play the part of the trees and allies and blades of grass and butterflies and everything else. The Dungeon Master is a neutral party in the world, being everything that the players aren’t.
In Descent this is different. The Game Master is specifically described as not being neutral. Instead the game is well balanced, and so the role of the GM is not to be all the different aspects of the game in equal quantities, but instead to act more as a chess opponent. In Descent it is not up to the GM to hold back in combat or balance the game outside of how the game already exists.
In essence, where the Dungeon Master is not going out of his way to win, the GM has that as his primary goal.
This leads onto the second point, that the GM is not playing the whole world, and this is really where the main difference between the two games lies. In Descent, the game is such that it is a series of encounters joined together by predetermined story, as opposed to in D&D where it is a fluid story joined together by encounters. This is a generalisation, but you get the idea of the point. One is encounters driven, the other is very firmly story driven instead.
So how well does Descent capture the spirit of D&D?
So far we have been comparing and contrasting the different games, pointing out where they are the same and where they differ, but we haven’t actually answered the question: How well does Descent capture the spirit of D&D?
Well, despite there being huge differences in the games, the answer is actually remarkably well. Descent is a good experience for D&D fans and non-D&D fans alike.
Okay, so this may sound like a strange thing to say, especially since the role of the DM/GM is so different, but it makes perfect sense once we look at the motives of the games.
D&D is, at its very core, a cooperative game. Very rarely does it feel like there is an “us and them” atmosphere and it is because of this that the Theatre of the Imagination approach works so well.
Descent, on the other hand, is more restrictive because it is limited by two things. Firstly, the board pieces already exist. There is no changing the game because it is laid out to specifically convey a certain story.
Secondly, it is meant to be a board game. It is meant to be able to be pulled off a shelf and played in an impromptu way. It can be a whole day of gaming or just a couple of hours of entertainment – but either way it can be campaign based or scenario based. The GM can be the same person or it can rotate.
I think the way to look at Descent and D&D is that Descent can be seen as a skirmish version of the game. It can be seen in fleeting moments, whereas D&D is a true epic. Does that make Descent any less of a game though? Absolutely not, and I would argue it is a must for any Dungeons and Dragons fan.
So, what do you think? Do you believe there is room for both or is one a lesser game in comparison? Don’t be shy, but instead let me know in the comments below.