Exploring with the Rangers of Shadow Deep!
There seems to be a new kid on the fantasy gaming block trying to make a name for itself. You see, the author of Frostgrave is an ambitious chap full of gaming ponderings and explorations. I feel his sweet babychild, Frostgrave, is constantly evolving and finding ways to change and meet the demands of every type of gamer. It all started with the frozen wastes. Then it was expanded upon by a hailstorm of campaign settings to match popular fantasy tropes. The core mechanisms were then tweaked slightly and set gently in to the pulpy jungle ruins with Ghost Archipelago. By this time, with fiction novels, accessories and so many game books, I dare say it's a sustainable franchise all of it's own....but our dear Joseph McCullough has not stopped!
This time he arrives to cater to a special breed of dungeon denizen....the solo gamer! *insert audible gasps of shock and awe*
Well, solo and co-op. Welcome, friends, to Rangers of Shadow Deep!
This time 'round, Mr McCullough has gone the self-published route. The pdf of this gaming system is available for purchase on wargamevault, and also available as a print-on-demand book.
I chose the latter option when I ordered mine as I'm an old-schooler who likes the touch of a page and the stain of ink resting upon my calloused fingertips. The book took a few weeks to arrive, but it's a fairly nice tome. Approximately 200 pages, black and white, large print with some nice, moody, classic looking sketch art. I love this kind of art in rpg books, so it's nice to see it pop up in this game which is really setting out to capture a story-telling feel.
How does it play?
If you've played Frostgrave, I'm mostly thrilled to say the core rules are about 90% similar. You'll be controlling a much smaller band of ruffians this time around, led up by your Ranger (as opposed to a caster), and anywhere from 1-7 cohorts depending on the overall player count. Spells and abilities are one-time uses, so there's not tons of casting every round. The stat lines and combat mechanisms are similar. For myself, who is a big fan of Frostgrave, this allowed for a rapid read-through of the book and jumping right in to the game....well...sort of.
What really sets this book apart from just a solo Frostgrave campaign, is the progression and emphasis on pre-set events happening during the game.
The book contains several separate scenarios, each of which has a chapter or three. There is sort of a mini-campaign feel to them. As you play the game, you'll be drawing from a small set of poker cards set aside. Depending on which card you've drawn, things will happen that change the state of the gameboard at the end of a turn. (This also acts as a turn counting mechanism, ensuring things end in a timely manner...or putting the rush on you to get things done!) I like the feel of this, as it reminds me of turn limits in dungeon crawl board games that keep things from degrading in to a simple loot fest. The decision of whether to keep trying to kill monsters for xp or discover the next clue token should feel like a tough choice to keep the game interesting.
Speaking of which, the clue tokens in some scenarios may also act like mini-event decks of their own. You may go through some random rolls when you discover a token on the table, and have to perform skill tests for some reward, or even uncover more dangerous enemies. Your ranger and minions also have skill ratings for those various tests in game, which is an added type of stat category.
And more dangerous enemies WILL show up. Since this is a solo/coop game, the soul of it depends on the artificial adversary. There is much more of a monster presence than Frostgrave tended to have with it's rare random monster rolls.
How does the AI work? Well, frankly I feel the actual AI is a bit uninspired. Most monsters are just the mindless charge-players/stick-to-them and keep biting kind of AI. If they can shoot, they'll do that instead. But for the most part they all act similarly. Where the diversity comes in, is their basic stat-lines as well as potential conditions they may cause when damaging a player. Some wretched beasts may have poisonous venom or disease causing bacteria in their gums waiting to infect careless adventurers.
However, simplicity in the AI system can also be a blessing because it's easy to keep track of. There seems to be a lot of bookkeeping in this game. I'm perfectly ok with bookkeeping during my campaign progression, which there is a lot of in this too because your companions may also "level up" over time; but in-game tracking of various things can feel like a bit of a chore. Mid-way through a mission you may have it memorized, but each scenario seems to dish out different XP for a much wider variety of actions than Frostgrave did. You might get X xp for killing this, Y xp for discovering that, Z xp if you did some skill successfully, some for discovering clue tokens, saving a villager, etc, etc. At times I felt I had to pre-read the xp sections and plan things out like I'm trying to win Xbox achievements.
Again, how fun something like that is depends on the type of gamer you are. I'm ok with it personally because I find it fun to figure out efficiency puzzles as well. I'm a fan of the D&D Adventure board games for this reason. A lot of people hate on those because they're simplified and sort of random compared to an actual RPG. When I play them, I see them as optimization adventures, very much in the style of Diablo or casual dungeon crawl games.
Rangers of Shadow Deep does well at striking a balance between that. It has the optimization puzzle in there once you're familiar with the scenario, but the random events and linked chapters line up to tell a decent story.
Oh, and a bonus is included: the book also comes with it's own "expansion." Once you've played and mastered the core scenarios, there is a longer campaign of sorts at the back with some freedom of mission order and story blurbs that add flavor whilst you make your way through the missions! I really like that as it feels like a taste of whats-to-come in terms of actual expansion material that will undoubtedly be released! (I believe there already is one.)
Overall, my impressions so far have been mostly positive. It's not exactly a ground-breaking design with it's Frostgrave roots, and the scenarios require quite a bit of preparation before you can play, almost to the point where you must spoil the surprises of what may occur in game just to make sure you have the right monsters and terrain to put on the table, but the flavor of the game comes off extremely well and the simplicity of the actual play, particularly if you're a Frostgrave fan, is hugely appealing.
I'm looking forward to exploring more of this game, and I think a lot of fantasy fans will enjoy it, particularly if you're the type of minis fanatic that finds it difficult to get to the club meetings or game shops.