Behind the Curtain – Scenarios
Hello again Arkham LCG fans!
Well, I ran another Twitter poll to see what topic you wanted me to talk about next, and "Scenario Structure" is what you voted on most! So today, I'd like to take a little bit to talk about scenario design in Arkham LCG—what goes into the structure of each scenario, from initial concepts to act/agenda makeup to encounter sets. This might be a long one, so buckle up and read on!
Where to Start?
In the early days of Arkham LCG, Nate and I were pretty much flying blind when it came to scenario design. We had LOTR to build upon, of course, but after 80+ LOTR quests, we knew Arkham had to be versatile enough to support a wide variety of different objectives. So, it was designed from the ground up with this purpose in mind. As a result, we had little to work off of when we designed Night of the Zealot and The Dunwich Legacy. We went with our gut, attempting to showcase the many different kinds of scenarios the game system could support, and writing the narrative around that. For example, The Dunwich Legacy at first looked something like this:
1) classic exploration / clue gathering
2) rescue a person / earn them if you do
3) TRAIN SCENARIO! / locations in a row
4) search for a relic / either earn it or don't
5) each agenda causes long-term repercussions?
6) going on the hunt!
7) stop the ritual / get to the ritual site before the cultists
8) lost in time and space
(this has been literally copied verbatim from my early notes which I saved)
From there, we created the story that would eventually become familiar to so many of you. "rescue a person" became the plot of both scenarios 1 and 2. The train scenario moved to #4 when we realized what the "relic" in scenario 3 should be, and where it should be found. Once we realized a lot of the early sections of the campaign would focus on the three professors from The Dunwich Horror, that led to the determination of the "long-term repercussions" in scenario 5 (that is, killing them off). And so on and so forth. (I do kinda love that my only note for scenario 8 here ended up becoming the name of the scenario.)
This process is what we in the biz call "bottom-up" design. So named because, if you were looking at a single card, you would be designing the "bottom" of the card (the game text / its mechanical impact) before designing the "top" of the card (its title and artwork / thematic implications). Just take that concept and extend it to the process of designing an entire scenario. In other words, a "bottom-up" scenario design would be one in which we thought of the gameplay mechanics of the scenario and then writing the story to suit those mechanics, whereas a "top-down" scenario design would be one in which we wrote/outlined the story, and then designed gameplay mechanics that helped to tell that story.
So, in the early days of the game, almost every scenario was a "bottom-up" design, because we wanted to showcase a particular gameplay feature. (For example, "what if all the locations in this scenario were lined up in a row from left to right? and you just were trying to get from point A to point B? What kind of narrative would fit that? Oh, I know! A train! And you're trying to get to the engine!")
It wasn't until The Path to Carcosa that we started doing more "top-down" scenario designs, because there was a particular story I wanted to tell for a scenario. (For example, "for this scenario, I want it to start off like a fancy dinner party with lots of guests to talk to, but as the scenario goes on things start going wackier and wackier, and it's unclear whether the party is filled with monsters, or you are hallucinating...")
The important thing to note is that both of these methods are totally and completely valid! In fact, most scenarios have a healthy mix of both. And a scenario that was designed from the bottom up might still contain individual cards that were designed from the top down, and vice versa. Think of this as just a starting point. These days, each campaign tends to contain both of these kinds of designs. (I wonder how many of you can guess which scenarios were designed from the top down and which were designed from the bottom up. Make your guesses in the comments below!)
Scenarios Are Like Buildings
...okay, not really, but hear me out.
Over the years, we've come to identify several different categories that scenarios (or individual acts) tend to fall into, even when we're not consciously designing them to fit into one. These categories have helped us to identify patterns, which in turn serve as either cheat sheets for making objectives feel familiar, or allow us to find potential points of departure. Think of this in the same way an architect identifies kinds of houses or buildings, based on their purpose, architectural style, aesthetic, etc. Is it a welcoming place, like a home or a lodge? Or an imposing one, like a courtroom? Does it display strength? Authority? Beauty?
Similarly, scenarios can be easily split up into a number of different categories. I'll give you some examples, and then explain what I mean.
Classic Clue Gathering: Pretty simple—get enough clues to advance. This is great for an introductory adventure, or as an act, to establish the start of a scenario. Each act might also throw some kind of wrench in the process, such as requiring you to spend those clues in a particular place or spawning an enemy that gets in your way. Generally speaking, we dislike ending scenarios with the simple expenditure of clues (we sometimes call this a "wet fart ending" because the scenario just kind of ends without any fanfare) so often, there will be some additional wrinkle during the climax, as well. (Examples: The Gathering, Extracurricular Activity, Untamed Wilds)
Race to the Finish Line: Get from point A to point B, usually while racing against the clock or fleeing from a terrifying enemy. Oftentimes such scenarios have locations that go in a straight line, so you have no other path to advance but forward. (Examples: Extracurricular Activity, The Doom of Eztli, A Thousand Shapes of Horror)
Hunt Them Down!: Find or otherwise deal with as many of a specific thing as you can. The harder it is to accomplish each one, or the more convoluted the process, the more it can become the framework for an entire scenario. This could be enemies you have to hunt down or parley, or things you have to discover at various locations. Very often this kind of scenario will be one with a non-binary win condition; that is, the more you accomplish, the better. (Examples: The Midnight Masks, The Eternal Slumber, The Wages of Sin, The Search for Kadath)
Find the Key Location: Reach a specific location, which is hidden from view—either in a deck of locations you have to dig through or by some other method of secrecy. Once at this final location, you must accomplish some important task. Sometimes, I like to close this kind of scenario out with a Super Metroid style "flee for your life" act. What can I say? I like Super Metroid. (Example: The Doom of Eztli, The Miskatonic Museum, The Secret Name)
Slay the Boss: Your classic Arkham Horror climax—an enormous enemy (perhaps even an Ancient One) has spawned, and your goal is to slay it, banish it, or otherwise stop some kind of ritual that will awaken it / send it wreaking havoc across the world. Sometimes this means shooting it with a shotgun, other times this means doing some other alternative thing (such as piecing together scenes from a certain play or assembling a pattern of hidden cards in your hand). Oftentimes we'll include both options so that all characters have an equal shot at winning.
There are a number of other smaller categories, but you get the idea. What's great about this approach is that we can easily identify what other scenarios a work-in-progress is similar to, so as to find points of departure and ways to make this new scenario unique. For example:
(spoilers from The Innsmouth Conspiracy scenarios I–III to follow)
The Pit of Despair was modeled after a "find the key location" sort of scenario—your goal is to find the exit and resign. We added some classic clue gathering to act 1 of the scenario in order to help set things up and introduce some of the new mechanics (keys, flooding, etc) before segueing into the "search for the exit" segment. The Amalgam serves as an additional ever-present threat, hunting the investigators down as they make their way through the tunnels. The point of departure here is the stretch goal of hunting down your lost memories in the form of flashbacks. Simply leaving the pit isn't too difficult—it's leaving with all of your memories that makes this scenario tough!
The Vanishing of Elina Harper was originally modeled after the "hunt them down" style scenario, in which you're trying to accomplish as much of a specific task as you can. In its first iteration, you were trying to collect keys, which made sense as a sort of "keys are important" tutorial. However, this ended up being a little close to at least one other scenario in the cycle, and I got excited to revisit one of my favorite scenario concepts from Lord of the Rings: The Card Game (Murder at the Prancing Pony). It's still kind of a "hunt them down" scenario, in that you're trying to narrow down as many leads as you can during act 1, but it then transitions into a more classic clue gathering / slay the boss style climax, where your goal is to confront Harper's kidnapper and/or find all of the clues at their hideout.
In Too Deep, on the other hand, is a classic "race to the finish line." Your only goal in this scenario is to reach the abandoned train station at the far end of town to escape from Innsmouth. But unlike other similar scenarios, we opted not to make the map a single straight line, instead offering the players an enormous, wide-open map with many possible routes, then blocking off their paths with barriers that the investigators could bypass in different ways. This proved to be a lot of fun and easily sets this scenario apart from its predecessors!
Once we know the basic act structure of our scenario, we have a general feeling for what the core gameplay loop for that scenario is going to be, and therefore have a better idea of what encounter cards would be ideal to challenge investigators trying to accomplish that goal. For example, if an investigator's goal is to race to a certain location, throwing enemies or treacheries at them that slow them down or prevent them from moving—such as adding more barriers in In Too Deep—might do the trick. If we're designing a scenario with a non-binary win condition, having cultists or treacheries that quickly advance the doom track is a great way to add difficulty and instill uncertainty without actively getting in the investigators' way. If the goal is to collect a certain trinket, maybe we'll add cards that scale based on how many of that trinket you've collected, that way the scenario gets naturally more difficult as the investigators succeed.
Encounter Sets Fill The Gaps
From there, it's time to think about encounter sets. If the above framework provides the skeleton of a scenario, then the encounter sets are the...umm...meaty muscley bits. Hm. This metaphor might be a bit gross.
Essentially, encounter sets provide us with a way of saving card space by repeating effects that we want the players to have to confront multiple times over the course of a campaign. They also become staple threats that players eventually learn how to overcome. If you're a veteran player, the moment you know Chilling Cold is going to be in a scenario, you know your assets will be at risk of being discarded. We also want each encounter set, generally, to play with some kind of common theme. For example, the Deep Ones in Innsmouth are all about doing something bad when they engage you (complete with a treachery that forces them to engage you). This makes it easy for us to look at the list of available encounter sets we've designed for a given campaign and choose the 3–6 sets that are most appropriate for whatever scenario we're working on.
Of course, there are many other things that must be considered, such as:
Are these sets thematically appropriate for the story? This is especially important for enemies.
What's the ratio of enemies to treacheries? Typically we like a ratio of 1:3, though this ratio may change depending on the nature and theme of the scenario.
How big is the encounter deck? A deck under 25 cards may be too small for 3–4 player games, whereas a deck of 45+ cards might be too large for 1–2 player games.
What's the ratio of horror to damage? If the encounter cards heavily favor one over the other, this might be fine for a given scenario, but's definitely something to keep in mind and ensure is balanced across an entire campaign, for example.
Do the effects, generally, combo well with one another? Are any of them anti-synergistic? It's a bad sign if, for example, one treachery refers to a trait and there are very few of that trait in the scenario. (Unless that's the whole point, such as the Witchcraft set in The Secret Name, which refers to the Witch trait and Keziah is the only Witch in the set.)
One of my personal favorite things about encounter sets is that it lets us revisit effects players already are familiar with, but in a new light that makes them seem completely different—for example, how the aforementioned Witchcraft set changes drastically from The Witching Hour to The Secret Name.
Obviously, there is a lot more that goes into scenario creation than the above. Believe it or not, everything you see here is usually just the first few days of scenario development, as we like to plan out entire campaigns pretty far ahead of time so we can do things like order artwork, plan out the story, etc. It's also important to stay flexible when designing scenarios—sometimes a gameplay mechanic doesn't work out and we have to move things around, swap out encounter sets, or even change entire story beats to accommodate the change. Other times, the opposite occurs, and we may have to change the gameplay to suit an addition or an alteration to the narrative. Almost no scenario ends up the way we originally envisioned or outlined. Flexibility and adaptability is key to scenario design—and game design in general.
Anyway, as always, I hope this has given you some insight into just a little bit of what goes on behind the scenes when we're working on campaigns for Arkham Horror: The Card Game. Thank you for reading!
Each investigator earns 1 bonus experience, as they have gained insight into the machinations of The Keepers.