When the realm of adventure game was ruled by Talisman, grabbing dice and strapping in for a wild, mostly uncontrollable ride was the standard. Thirty years after the magical quest game first hit the shelves, cardboard adventuring seems very different. But is it really?
I’ve recently purchased a copy of Runebound 3rd Edition, and even managed to get it to the table a good few times, to see how exploring the world of Terrinoth has changed since the previous version of the game, and I must say I am quite impressed. The game is somewhat streamlined, with a healthy mix of old and new mechanisms, and altogether driven more by player decisions, than by RNG. That is, driven more than many other adventure games, including Runebound 2nd Edition.
Adventure gaming has been steadily moving towards increasing player agency for years. Newer games, such as Mage Knight, the much less known Venture Forth, or my own Mistfall and Heart of the Mists would offer meaningful decisions centred on deterministic mechanisms in place of simply rolling dice. The very idea of strategizing in an adventure game became a valid notion, instead of a joke.
However, before you think that Runebound is now a game driven purely by player decisions, you should know it is not. For all the smart mechanisms working under its hood, it can still make you a king or a beggar within a few turns. Even with very deliberate probabilities meticulously worked into its new decks, your game can still be royally screwed if Fortune decides to take its cigarette breaks during your turns.
Many well-known adventure brands take the agency plunge. Talisman became fat with expansions some of which gave more power to the players, and somewhere on its way it spawned Relic, a game using the same base system, but from the start geared more towards agency. Arkham Horror seemingly never gave up on what it was, only now you have an alternative in the form of Eldritch Horror, once again, a game allowing for more meaningful decisions.
It seems the general consensus is that more agency is good… unless it isn’t. While I never encountered anyone saying that Relic is less of an adventure game than (base) Talisman, I’ve heard people complaining about Mage Knight (or Mistfall for that matter), that the optimization required ruins the experience for them, and that it no longer feels like an adventure.
Similar complaints were levelled against Venture Forth or the more recent Witcher, were some people said that they are not there to do pickup and delivery, but to be a hero in a land of magic, monsters and wonder. And I fully get that.
It seems that a certain degree of randomness is required for many adventure game fans. Maybe it’s because we’re escapists at heart, and we want to stand a chance of winning the game even if we don’t feel up to the task of forming a strategy out of a string of meaningful decisions. Or maybe we don’t want to completely control the environment of the game, as letting it do its own things makes it feel more like another world which we get to visit.
It’s easy to see Runebound and Relic as parts of one group, and Mage Knight and Mistfall as parts of another. But what about games like the Witcher? What about Legends of Andor or Darkest Night? Is there more of a general line which allows us to precisely divide adventure gaming into two (or more) distinct groups? Or maybe, everybody has a line of their own, and trying to build two distinct categories is a fool’s errand?