The Allure of Dragonfire Castle

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Dragonfire Castle

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How about a little user-submitted content to kick the week off right?  Here's a nice review/opinion piece on Dungeonquest.  Enjoy!      --Ken B.

The first in a series attempting to pinpoint exactly why I love the games I love.  The first is a look at Dungeonquest, a game I fell in love with the first time I played it.

The Allure of Dragonfire Castle

I enjoy most types of games, but the games I love are the games where I relinquish most of my control to the system.

I know that may sound odd--why even bother playing a game if no decision you make really makes that big of a difference in your chances of winning? All I know is that every turn I flip over a tile in Dungeonquest, I am on the edge of my seat. I know it could be a bottomless pit that makes me need to roll a 4 or less on 1d12 or Sir Rohan is going to be screaming and screaming until he starves to death, days later, still falling. And sometimes he makes the jump against all odds, wipes the sweat from his brow, and presses onward into the castle. The 'system' I submit to when I play Dungeonquest is a cruel one, as you've no doubt heard. Most of the characters will meet their end before ever reaching the center of the board, before even risking the wrath of the dragon who guards that enormous pile of treasure. Sometimes, just through the tiles that get drawn, they wander in hopeless circles until night falls and they die. I love it.

Don't get me wrong, I think the potential to make decisions is a clear indicator of a good game. But why should the decisions you make be legitimate only if they have an effect on your chances of winning? In narrative games like Dungeonquest, the decisions you make primarily affect the story that develops, not your chances at victory. This is what allows it to deliver a unique experience every time you play--your involvement with the narrative may not be as "author", but in a well done game like Dungeonquest, it is thrilling enough to participate as a character. This is largely accomplished by making use of a system that is extremely simple but open to many variable outcomes--much like Talisman, another well-loved GW game. If you trust this system--that is, you don't get frustrated or take it too hard if something bad happens to your persona--then you are rewarded with colorful details and an awesome story that you helped craft.

I don't mind if the "game plays you" or if all I do each turn is draw a card and hope for the best. It's exciting and brings out something good in everybody I've ever played it with. The spirit of the game is overpowering--you root for your doomed hero and, rarely, he escapes alive with some loot. Why is that fun? I've been giving it some thought, and it has everything to do with chance. The more you sacrifice decision making to a game, the more you trust it to deliver its unique, compelling experience, the more you can potentially receive from it. This obviously requires a lot of trust. You basically say "Please entertain me for an hour," and Dungeonquest happily obliges: "Sit back, let me do all the work, and enjoy the illusion of control".

One of the essentials to a good narrative game is, as mentioned earlier, a large number of variables. No matter how fun the experience is, if there are not enough variables (i.e., things that happen), then the game won't be replayed and it will not generate more narratives; its engine stalls, and it becomes a rusted heap that nobody plays after their first few encounters with it. If the narratives all sound similar, or don't stand out from each other, this is also a serious flaw to replayability. Dungeonquest avoids this problem by having the right mix of encounters--a perfect balance between danger and excessive danger that makes each "Empty Room" card drawn elicit a sigh of relief. The theme is also extremely important, and in Dungeonquest this is delivered in spades--there's a reason the game has such a reputation as a killer dungeon crawl, and you'd be unlikely to confuse Dragonfire Castle with any other dungeon crawl you've experienced.

Variables in narrative games can be accomplished in a number of ways--Dungeonquest uses a deck of encounters similar to what Talisman uses, as well as the tile drawing, to ensure a very different outcome every game. This works very well thematically, as well as mechanically, since it provides a literally different dungeon every game. Another method to ensure the variability of a narrative game, though used only a little bit in Dungeonquest, is the encounter table. This would flourish in Warhammer Quest, and is an excellent way to incorporate variables without relying on the production costs of actual cards, though Tales of the Arabian Nights, with its 200 page paragraph book, is still perhaps the best example of an encounter table in narrative games.

Dungeonquest behaves differently from other board games in another way, as well. Here's where the trust comes in.

Most games, if played sufficiently, reward you. As you learn more about the possible methods of victory, of the different tempos for each phase of a game, and the intricacies at the heart of the system, you generally get better at it. Sometimes this leads to games where a bad player ruins the game for everybody else, because a decision he makes in ignorance of the optimal move benefits another player immensely. Most narrative games don't reward their admirers in this way. As much as I play Dungeonquest, I never get "better" at it; all the information I receive after countless plays doesn't accumulate into making me succeed any more consistently than a person who has never played the game before. Some people think that's a serious game design flaw, but I think it's brilliant. The system is so draconian in its laws and arbitrary in its execution that even if you are deeply familiar with the game, you gain no special privilege.

Again, to appreciate why this would be a good thing, you have to examine what makes a narrative game like Dungeonquest different from a "victory" game. Even though most narrative games ostensibly have victory conditions, the core of the game lies in generating interesting stories. Who wins is of practically no importance--in fact, the player's goal serves mainly as a plot device to move the action of the game along its glorious, unscripted pathways. This is very much at odds with a design philosophy that is meant to set up an abstract competition where the struggle to win is the primary focus of the players. Approaching Dungeonquest (and most narrative games) from the perspective of a fair contest between players is setting yourself up for disappointment--it is not that type of game.

A good example of one of the draconian laws that I find so appealing is the potion chart in Dungeonquest. Basically, when you find a potion, you can drink it--to do so takes up your turn--and roll a d12 to see what happens:
1. Potion of Healing--Heal 4 Life points
2. Potion of Healing--Heal 3 Life points
3. Potion of Healing--Heal 2 Life points
4. Potion of Healing--Heal 1 Life point
5-9. Nothing happens
10. Weak Poison--Lose 2 Life points
11. Strong Poison--Lose half your Life points
12. Deadly Poison--Instant Death!

As I hope this chart demonstrates, even finding a potion in Dungeonquest isn't necessarily useful. You have an okay chance of getting healed--but most likely you'll just waste a precious turn or get injured. Of course, it's your choice to drink the potion or not. But after you start drinking it, you give yourself up to the system--you scoop up the d12 and bow to fate, knowing your quest could end right here.

Now, why would that be fun? Put yourself in this situation:

You're Volrik the Brave and you've just painfully survived a combat with a chaos warrior. You're bleeding and bruised, but you still have a lot of time before night falls, so you decide to shoulder on. In the next room, you find an unlabeled bottle. It could be poison, leading to an even briefer stay in the dungeon of Dragonfire Castle. It could also be the boost of energy you need to have a decent shot at making it out with treasure. What do you do?

So you drink it and it turns out to be poison. Game over. Volrik the Brave now has a beginning ("Bravely stepping into the dark underbelly of Dragonfire Castle...") and an ending ("Succumbing to vile poison, leaving a corpse to be found by future adventurers..."), with a narrative in between: he jumped across a pit, his torch went out, he found a bracelet, he fought a chaos warrior. Now you watch what stories unfold for the other adventurers.

Maybe that sounds really boring. To me, it's a lot more exciting than watching a movie or reading a book, because you interact with the characters and take on their persona. This is an aspect of games that I enjoy the most because it feels the most like interactive literature. There is a richness that spills out from the box, every single game you play. There are stories being told that--mechanically--are random, but that blend seamlessly to deliver quality, unique entertainment. But you have to trust that system--sometimes being eliminated from the game is what has to happen for the system to fulfill its end of the bargain.

I've focused on Dungeonquest because I think it's one of the best examples of a system that delivers a unique narrative experience. I remember what my characters did in games I've played months ago. Even if it is often only how they met their demise, the game has such nice texture in terms of the setting that I constantly want to play it again. And it only takes about an hour to play, which is a huge plus, since that means it gets played more often, and more stories get generated.

Other games I find very appealing due to their sense of narrative as opposed to their victory conditions are Talisman (of course), Warhammer Quest ("Wait, you mean because we rolled snake eyes on the monster chart, we are now facing 2 Ancient Mummies instead of d6 Orcs?? We're F$%#ED!"), Tales of the Arabian Nights, Arkham Horror (Basically a paragraph game in card form), Betrayal at House on the Hill, and to a lesser extent, more direct conflict games like Duel of Ages, Gunslinger, Space Hulk, Blood Bowl, etc. These latter games depend very much on skill, so they don't meet all the criteria. But the narratives they develop through variables ( i.e., in Blood Bowl sometimes at the start of a game rowdy fans can throw rocks at your players, removing them for the first half) and detailed, thematic mechanics (Gunslinger's split-second turns or Space Hulk's timer, for instance) add very much to the narrative feel of these games.

Far be it from me to draw lines in the sand over what constitutes a good gaming experience. It's to everybody's benefit to find a group of players who enjoy the same kind of game they do and to organize their time in order to play those games. That being said, I wish I had a more solid group with which to play the types of games I love--at heart, these games offer something other types of games cannot. I enjoy the illusion of control--I know that there's little chance what I do will lead me to victory, but I don't care about victory, either. I'm in it for a good story, and spending an hour in Dragonfire Castle ensures I'll get just what I'm after.


--Ed. note:  Nicely done.  And now another call out to our readers--GET YOUR SUBMISSIONS IN!  Remember, they don't have to be strictly boardgame-related...if it pertains to Trash Culture, we will give it a look.  That means TV, movies, music, comics, videogames, whatever.  Session reports, reviews, op/ed...if you've got something to say, now's the time to say it.  Click "Community" and "Submit Article" to get started.

And we're still looking for Snapshots and Mailbag items, so if you've got those, definitely send them in.


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