Storytelling Breakdown Blog Entry 019

Let’s Talk: You Have To Learn The Rules To Break Them – By Ben Clemmer.

I am often blown away by the design that goes into tabletop games.

I say design with the intention of applying a couple of different definitions. The first is the beauty of the components of the game. The detail that goes into the colors and shapes of the dice, boards, cards, and other elements gives games character and creates an immersive experience even when you aren’t playing a role playing game (RPG).

The other design aspect is the mechanics of the game. What actions can the players take? Is it cooperative or competitive? 

How do games like Forbidden Desert genuinely make you feel lost, desperate, and a little dehydrated?

As I began to become a more active tabletop gamer, my appreciation for game mechanics grew. I played a ton of online tower defense games in my teens, so I greatly enjoyed Castle Panic, which brought the tower defense mechanic to a tabletop game with terrifying brilliance. 

Again, I feel concerned, desperate, and honestly at this point I’m just expecting another boss to appear in the forest as the endless onslaught continues.

I’ve already referenced a couple games that I really enjoy, but I want to focus on a couple others that just consistently blow my mind with their design. Both support two and then up to five or six players. Both feature extensive exploration of an elaborate map. Both have a gothic horror flavor to them.

Let’s talk about Betrayal at House on the Hill and Fury of Dracula.

I’ll start with Fury of Dracula. The game throws you into the final act of the Dracula story. Four hunters (Lord Godalming, Dr. John Seward, Abraham Van Helsing, and Mina Harker) must travel across Europe, find Count Dracula and kill him before his corruption spells doom for the entire continent. The roles are defined from the beginning with one player skulking from region to region as Dracula while the remaining players must use all of their cunning to locate him. Their enemy complicates this by remaining hidden until a hunter is in the same city as him. Along the way, he leaves behind traps, enemies, and sired vampires thirsty for blood. The game is divided into turns that take place in phases, day and night. During the day the hunters can travel and try to close the net around Dracula. At night, they can take other actions and Dracula makes his moves.

Both sides are fun. In the pandemic, my wife and I have played multiple games trading off who gets to be the hunters and who gets to be Dracula. The thrill of the chase and the need to constantly get the upper hand fuel a tense game that can be played out over a couple hours when the hunters don’t have to deliberate their decision making. When playing in a group setting, it’s easy to make Dracula a menacing threat the hunters don’t want to run into, even though their goal is to locate him. A single hunter  armed with a couple weapons going into battle with Dracula is likely to leave with significant injuries. There’s strength in numbers (both in hunters and weapons), but even then Dracula might not be defeated in a single round of combat.

The subject of this blog is learning the rules before you can break them. Because Fury of Dracula is one of my favorite games, I’ve often thought about what it would take to add a component.

Maybe an additional monster?

Anyone who has played Smash Up with me knows my favorite faction is the werewolves. I’ve thought often about what it would take to add a werewolf to Fury of Dracula. One way to do it would change the game significantly as it would add a player. A sixth character is added to the board. Let’s call him Talbot. He helps the hunters and has his own special abilities and vulnerabilities, much like Mina thanks to her previous encounters with Dracula.

But at some point, and it should be random so the hunters and Dracula can be surprised by it, Talbot transforms into a werewolf. We make it like the Buffy the Vampire Slayer lore where there’s a three day cycle for the full moon and Talbot transforms during three consecutive night phases of the game. He gets his own combat cards that make him more dangerous to the hunters and to Dracula. There is an alternate version of this mechanic that still uses the three day cycle, but you don’t have to add a hunter.

It just means one of the hunters is secretly a werewolf.

Now for Betrayal at House on the Hill. There’s several key differences from Fury of Dracula. At the beginning of the game, you enter the haunted house as one of up to six explorers. They have a range of ages, genders, races, and backgrounds. You are trying to find items (they could help you later), survive encounters (they could help you but will more likely hurt you), and discover omens. Omens are like items except their abilities usually have a large bonus that comes with high cost. Each omen gets you closer to potentially triggering the haunt. A haunt ends the exploration phase of the game and reveals the house’s true horrors. It usually reveals one explorer to be a traitor who then does something terrifying to try and kill the survivors before they can reach their victory condition.

After repeated playthroughs, there’s one modification that’s just kind of baked into the game. The haunt is triggered by a random combination of the omen discovered and the room in which it is discovered. When my wife and I run into haunts we’ve encountered before, we usually opt to delay the haunt until we run into a scenario we haven’t played before. This usually has two added benefits for the players as it causes more rooms to be discovered and items with them, though encounter cards still can pack a punch. It also makes the game last a little longer.

One key difference between Betrayal at House on the Hill and Fury of Dracula is the board. While the latter takes place on the same beautifully rendered map of Europe every time, the former has a different layout in every game. The House on the Hill looks different every time you play and has three (four if you get the expansion) levels.

I’ve taken the opportunity to use the tiles in the Betrayal at House on the Hill for other games, specifically RPGs. If you plan to set a scenario in a haunted house, you couldn’t ask for a better backdrop. You can keep the various room tiles turned over and surprise your players with a bottomless chasm to cross, a piece of scientific equipment worthy of Frankenstein precariously perched on a balcony’s edge, or a long lost ally who has been hiding out in the wine cellar this entire time.

Both of these games drop players into worlds of horror that require wit, planning, and a bit of luck to get through successfully. These games have brought out the competitive side and the creative side of many of my friends over the last few years, when playing the games as intended or when using the beautifully designed components as a setting for our own stories.

If you think Betrayal at House on the Hill lends itself to RPGs, wait until you try Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate.

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