I’m Danielle Lauzon, the new project manager for the Gloomhaven RPG, and this is the start of a new series I’m going to do monthly in which I unpack some of the design decisions behind the RPG. Each month I’ll pick a topic about the design to discuss. The purpose of this design diary is to give you a little sneak peak at what’s coming from the RPG, and also give insight as to why things will look the way they do.
This month, I’m going to cover the very basic concept of turning a board game into an RPG. In a lot of ways, a board game is already pretty similar to an RPG. That’s especially true for Gloomhaven, where you pick a mercenary, go out on missions, earn rewards, level up, and learn a whole story about the town of Gloomhaven. Honestly, it’s the most RPG-like board game I’ve ever played. So how do we ensure that we preserve the great elements Gloomhaven already brings while making it more like an RPG with open narratives, more player agency, and connective tissue between combat?
The great thing about Gloomhaven is that it already has a pretty robust tactical combat system in the form of ability cards. The modifier deck similarly already provides an excellent randomizer system. So the goal is to keep these two elements and make them work both in and out of combat. The modifier cards are the easiest. Every time you take an action in which the outcome is uncertain, you flip a modifier card and add its value to a score. In the board game, this is always attack values, and it makes sense for negative numbers to bring your attack value to 0 or less. It makes less sense for that to happen on a check to pick a lock or calm down an outraged Vermling. We solved this problem by slightly tweaking the modifier deck to have two numbers present. One number is the familiar -2 to +2 from the board game, and the other number ranges from 1 to 6. This isn’t a perfect fix, but it allows the same cards to handle both attacks and other types of checks at the same time without needing two decks or to over inflate stat numbers.
Speaking of stat numbers, the other thing we needed to do was to ensure that there was some way to stack that card flip in your favor. Just like in combat when you want to do a big attack vs a small attack, your attack value will be different, we realized that we needed the character to have another set of non-combat stats to handle other types of encounters. So, characters have a set of Attribute scores, rated 0-3. When you flip a modifier card, you add the value to the appropriate Attribute score and compare it to a difficulty. Our Gloom Master (GM) sets the difficulty level, anywhere from 3 on up depending on how difficult it is to accomplish, and you see how well you did compared. There’s more ways to get bonuses to your checks, but we’ll cover that in another design diary.
Now we come to the role of Ability Cards. In the board game, Ability cards are both how you take actions and a measure of your character’s stamina. If you run out, you are out for the count. In an RPG, it sucks to run out of resources and suddenly be completely out of the action. While Ability cards are still an expendable resource, if you run out, you can still take actions, just at a small penalty. Ability cards are still how you take most actions, although only big or stressful actions will require a card expenditure (discard or loss) outside of combat. So while sweet talking a guard might not require a discard, calming that Vermling probably will.
A lot of the Ability Cards will look familiar to those who have played the board game, but there will be a few changes that I’ll chat about later in future design diaries.
I think that’s it for this month. I hope y’all are excited to see more each month as I reveal our design elements for the Gloomhaven RPG as we move forward.
Danielle Lauzon is a freelance game designer, writer, developer, and gamer living in Austin, TX with her husband, two dogs, and three cats. When she isn't writing, developing, designing, or otherwise occupied in getting games organized, she is playing games instead. She has been working in the ttrpg industry for over a decade and has over 50 credits to her name from companies such as Onyx Path Publishing, Magpie Games, and Green Ronin. She’s excited to be working with Cephalofair on the Gloomhaven RPG.
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