Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Agency and the Missing X

Recently I have been invited to sit in the guest chair of a Polish videocast called Rozmowy ZnadPlanszy to talk about Ameritrash games (if by any chance you understand spoken Polish, here’s a direct link to the episode). We talked about obvious differences between American and European games, about recent blurring of the lines, and about the evolution of the Ameritrash genre. Little did I know that I would stumble upon a very small but probably also a very important step only a few days later, while comparing the Decent 2.0 and the Imperial Assault dice.

Descent 2.0 Dice.

The Dreaded X in Descent 2.0.
If you are a fan of dungeon crawls, chances are you’ve held a set of these babies in your hand. If you’ve played both editions of Descent, you probably also remember that, although the dice from both sets used the same principal, the original Descent dice and the Decent 2.0 ones were a little different.  But we needed Imperial Assault to introduce one very significant change.

By just looking at the pictures you will not spot the one detail I’m referring to, as
Decent and Imperial Assault dice share Surges, Range (called Accuracy in IA) and damage symbols, with the newer game dropping the tired heart-shaped design for one that is probably more futuristic (although slightly less obvious). There is another dropped element: the dreaded X.

Now, for those of you who have never played
Decent: rolling an X while attacking means that the attack misses completely. No matter how much damage it would deal, the target escapes unscathed and unless there is a reroll available, nothing can be done to deal any damage. Without an X, you get to count the damage dealt, apply possible bonuses and subtract the defence granted by the target’s armour dice.

The (somewhat less) Dreaded X in IA
Well, to be totally honest, the X is not completely expunged: in Imperial Assault it appears on a Dodge Die, but only some characters get to use it. Whenever the Dodge Die is not involved, a smart player may actually set up an attack that will deal some damage regardless of what was rolled. And although the full effectiveness of such an attack is still a matter of a random roll, the basic outcome can be easily foreseen.

Some will probably say that this is coming back to the beginning, to the first edition of Descent, which allowed for precise calculations of minimum damage, as armour was a static value, not governed by any roll. However, as the X was still there (on the first edition Descent dice), the one in six chance of a complete failure used to be constant element of any roll. Until now.

American games have been evolving, borrowing ideas from other genres, approaching their inherent randomness in new ways and introducing changes big and small. Now, as evidenced by what is arguably a top tier product of a top tier company, another important step was made. The removal of the automatic failure allows players to make more accurate approximations. I’d even say that it encourages them to set up situations in which specific goals can be achieved exclusively through skill, without fear of being stopped by a stroke of bad luck.

Imperial Assault Dice

I don’t want to blow this small vanishing X out of proportion, as the whole modification may be just that: a small detail in a big game. On the other hand, it may be a sign of an overall change that will see American style games put more and more power into players’ hands. And that is (in my book at least) great news, as I love the theme, but most often I love agency even more.

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