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Beyond Combat

by on October 24, 2013

Recently, an intriguing thread on the LOTR LCG forums at the Fantasy Flight Games homepage asked readers to submit the top ten things they would like to see from the game before it ends (may that day be far in the future!). I would recommend giving it a glance just to see some of the creative ideas that people have come up with, but I wanted to focus on a particular theme that was repeated several times: the tension between combat and “adventure”. Specifically, there is the reality that this game is in many ways a combat-focused experience, whereas the actual story of The Lord of the Rings is not as heavily focused on bloodshed as many other fantasy narratives. Of course, this is not to ignore the epic set-pieces exemplified by Helm’s Deep and the Battle of Pelennor Fields, nor the smaller skirmishes that take place throughout the series, but these moments of hack-and-slash are not all there is to the story. Whether or not you view the fact that LOTR LCG is largely a “combat game” as a problem greatly depends on your perspective. For my part, I’m generally happy with the game as it currently exists, but I’m always open to dreaming up new possibilities that can breathe new life into it. Therefore, in this speculative piece, I will be examining the issue in greater depth and dreaming up some possible ways that the game can expand upon non-combat aspects of the player experience. This would be a way of creating quests that feel, well, “questier”, in the hopes of expanding the horizons of the game.

Alternatives to Combat

1) Focus on locations

So far, this is the main avenue that the designers have used to try to steer certain scenarios away from a focus on combat. By stacking the enemy/treachery/location ratio of the encounter deck in favor of locations, the hope is that travel, and presumably adventure, will gain emphasis instead of fighting enemies. The Hills of Emyn Muil is perhaps the most famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) example of this approach. I know that some players out there have a fondness for this quest, while others despise it to the core of their being. Wherever you fall on the spectrum, I think it has to be conceded that this scenario has some major flaws that highlight why the location-heavy approach to moving beyond combat is fundamentally doomed.

Most importantly, travelling to locations is just not that interesting, at least as the process currently exists in the game. Despite the coolness factor and thematic satisfaction that certain locations provide, there’s just no getting around the fact that the travel phase consists of picking one card and moving it to a certain spot. That’s it. Yes, a travel effect might activate, and yes, the designers have been doing a better job of making travel decisions more meaningful, but, at the end of the day, there’s just no comparison to the danger, unpredictability, and satisfaction of combat. When playing a location-heavy scenario, your entire experience is reduced to one decision per round, which may or may not be meaningful. Granted, you have to make the usual choices regarding which characters to commit to the quest, but since much of the dilemma of questing revolves around the need to hold bodies back for combat, location-heavy scenarios make this phase less exciting as well. Thus, simply loading up an encounter deck with locations is not an effective way to move beyond combat.

2) Focus on treacheries

If you are trying to move away from enemies, and emphasizing locations is not the way to go, then perhaps increasing the proportion of treacheries in an encounter deck might provide a solution? After all, if there is anything that can rival the sheer menace and “wildcard” nature of combat, it’s a soul-crushing, truly nasty treachery. Other than combat, the staging step is the most exciting moment of the game, because (in most cases) you never know whether that next card will be a relatively harmless location, an enemy you will have to deal with, or a devastating treachery. Surely, filling up an encounter deck with treacheries would lead to an exciting scenario that avoids using combat as a crutch.

While this approach hasn’t really been tried yet (there have been horrible treacheries, but no quest that really can be said to be truly treachery-heavy in terms of quantity), I think it should remain purely a thought exercise.  The nature of treacheries is that they are impermanent. While a quest that focused on this encounter card type could certainly impact players in a major way, once questing was over, there wouldn’t be much to do. You could emphasize treacheries that bring out enemies, but that would run counter to the goal of minimizing combat, while focusing on permanent condition attachments might be intriguing, but would suffer from the lack of interaction with other card types. Perhaps a quest that hobbled players at every turn with treacheries, and then forced them to deal with more conventional threats, might work. Personally, I’ve toyed with the idea of a custom quest that forced players to discover, disable, and deal with a bunch of traps, and that concept does have some measure of merit. Overall, though, focusing on treacheries is probably not a solution with a broad enough applicability. This means that the designers must look beyond simply altering the ratios of encounter card types if they want to provide a questing experience rather than a combat experience.

3) Making locations explorable

Now we move to innovations that I think might actually help to create quests that emphasize adventure rather than battle. The first is the idea of making locations explorable, meaning that they can be interacted with beyond their text and beyond being moved between the staging area and active location spot. The Steward’s Fear is the quest that has come closest to this possibility, and is perhaps the best example of what I’m talking about. With the underworld mechanic, locations suddenly become more interesting because there are other cards attached to them, which come into play when the location is explored.

This dynamic could be expanded upon in future scenarios to really give the feeling that players are actually exploring locations, rather than just idly passing through them. What if certain locations were associated with specific encounter sets and separate encounter decks, and which location you were at on a given turn affected which deck would be drawn from during staging? What if there were several locations in play, and each had a stack of hidden encounter cards underneath them that could be revealed by placing progress tokens on the location? This is something that the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game has executed well: by making locations explorable and attached to a face down pile of cards, that game really makes you feel like you are “at” a certain place (don’t worry, faithful readers, LOTR LCG remains my first and true gaming love). Another possible mechanic is to give players the option of different paths through a scenario, each of which would be represented by a different quest stage and location.

The potential here is tremendous. The most important thing would be to move beyond the underworld mechanic, which mainly threw enemies at players (and thus brought back the focus on combat), to something more expansive. This would mean making liberal use of objectives, both positive and negative, to provide rewards for exploration, but also traps, ambushes, and other dangers beyond conventional combat.

4) Set up multiple paths

This partially connects with the previous point, but I’m talking about something slightly different here. Part of a meaningful adventure, especially as exemplified by The Lord of the Rings, is the need to make meaningful decisions that have a dramatic narrative impact.  For example, the choice to brave the Mines of Moria rather than venture near Isengard certainly affected the outcome of events, as did Bilbo’s decision to spare Gollum’s life or Gandalf’s determination to face the Balrog alone. While players certainly make important choices throughout the regular course of a game, whether it’s which character to sacrifice to an enemy, when to play certain cards, or what tasks should be assigned to their heroes, this is an area of the game that could be brought to a higher level. Besides generally improving the player experience, this would have the benefit of also moving the game beyond combat into other areas of experience.

For example, what if a scenario offered players two or three different paths through a quest? Here, I’m imagining something along the lines of the heist options provided by Grand Theft Auto V (apologies for the video game reference), where players can choose to break down the front door and come in guns blazing or use subterfuge to infiltrate a target. Again, this dynamic does exist to a certain degree in the current game, as players can run a low-threat deck and hope to quest by enemies or a high-threat deck that is designed to smash foes with brute force. Still, though, how cool would it be to choose between battering through the gates of the enemy stronghold, which would lead to one quest stage, and finding the back entrance (a la the Dwarves and The Lonely Mountain), which would lead to another path based on stealth? The main challenge here would be that there are only a finite number of encounter sets that the designers can feasibly provide in each Adventure Pack and expansion, but there are still many possibilities to be explored.

In addition to multiple paths, there should be hard decisions that the players have to make that impact the course of a quest. Choosing to kill that pesky enemy may be satisfying and useful for the first two quest stages, but what if it makes the third quest state significantly more difficult? What if you have option of sacrificing a hero within the first two rounds to make the rest of the quest easier, but have to face the risks associated with that decision? Even more thematic would be the option of pursuing powerful means of fighting the Enemy that would appreciably add to your strength, but would also carry with it the real risk of corruption? I want to see players debating with each other the best course of action, just as Boromir and Aragorn did, and the stakes need to be real to make this work. One of the difficulties here is that the impact of such choices may diminish after multiple play-throughs, when players are well aware of the costs and benefits associated with certain paths. Still, the same could be said of more linear quests, so I don’t think that’s really a deal-breaker. What I will say is that implementing a Campaign Mode beyond the Saga Expansions would drastically expand the potential here, as it would allow decisions to resonate over the course of several scenarios, rather than have their impact limited to a single quest.

5) Change the way players interact with allies and enemies

There have been hints of this approach in The Druadan Forest/Stone of Erech, where enemies must be attacked with willpower instead of strength, as well as in those quests that feature objective allies. Basically, rather than totally replace or de-emphasize combat, scenarios could focus on prioritizing the “questing” aspects of quests by changing how players interact with allies and enemies. Here, I’m thinking of The Two Towers, where one of the central tasks set before the characters in the story was rousing Theoden (and, by extension, Rohan itself) from the state of despair wrought by Saruman, and ultimately inspiring him to the point that he could play a decisive role in the War of the Ring. This type of interaction is not adequately represented by the mere spending of resources to pay the cost of an ally. Creating mechanics that require players to acquire objective allies through progress tokens, the use of stats, or, even better, the fulfillment of certain tasks (finding and fetching an item, defeating a certain enemy, putting out a certain number of allies, etc.) would add flavor to scenarios above and beyond combat. Similarly, big, epic battle quests could be enhanced by putting players in control of large regiments of troops, once again represented by objective allies, and requiring them to strategically position those forces against the Enemy. Over-using these types of mechanics might lead to them quickly growing tiresome, and their very existence tends to take away some of the freedom and opportunities for individual expression from players, but this doesn’t have to negate their use altogether.

Changing the way players fight or interact with enemies is another way of fleshing a quest out beyond conventional attack and defense. Simply changing which stat is used to attack or defend certainly adds a thematic and gameplay wrinkle, as with the two quests previously mentioned (TDF and SoE), but there might be other possibilities. Tapping the source material again, Frodo and Sam’s journey through Mordor involved both stealth and the use of disguises. In my opinion, stealth is not fully represented by just keeping a low threat and leaving enemies in the staging area. There should be other ways to deal with enemies other than just destroying them (or ignoring them). A mechanic that allows players to sneak past enemies and thus remove them from play without resorting to combat, while simultaneously involving some kind of constant risk of discovery, would be fantastic.

6) Allow enemies to interact with other card types

Players have the ability to interact with pretty much everything on the board, from attacking enemies to traveling to locations, to playing cards to improve their position, while the minions of Sauron are fairly static in comparison. Granting a greater level of agency to enemies would enhance non-combat aspects of a quest, while still placing the focus on tangible foes. For example, if certain enemies could kidnap allies, thus requiring you to free them, this would certainly raise the stakes (although perhaps it would be a bit frustrating). Similarly, enemies that could act to interfere with the playing of attachments or could outright steal them would also add a level of intrigue. Ramping this idea up a notch, what if enemies could actually take over locations or influence which quest stage would come up next (obviously with the potential for players to fight them off to regain control of these decisions)? One of the greatest episodes of The Lord of the Rings is the epic quest of Legolas, Gimli, and Aragorn (the Three Hunters) to free Merry and Pippin from the clutches of the Uruk-Hai. Combining this idea with some of the others on this list, imagine the possibilities if one of your important allies (or heroes) was taken captive by an enemy, removed to a certain location, and then you were presented with the option of taking one path to free them, with certain dangers and perhaps a quest stage or two associated with it, or plunging ahead with the current objective, which would be a whole different experience. Obviously, granting more intelligence to enemies that are fundamentally unintelligent is a tough ask, but I don’t think it’s impossible.

Conclusion

Obviously, I have a great love for this game, and I’m actually continually impressed by how much room for creativity and entertainment is contained within the existing structure of the game. However, there is always room for the LOTR LCG experience to be taken to all-new heights. Combat is an engaging aspect of the game, but I do think there is an opportunity to flesh out other parts of the player experience so that all elements of Tolkien’s creation are represented well. Having the opportunity to take on Nazgul or huge trolls toe-to-toe is uniquely satisfying, but so would having the chance to convince Theoden to abandon despair or experiencing the wonder and potential perils of Lothlorien.

Readers, what’s your take on this issue? What would you like to see in the game? How could the non-combat elements of the game be improved?

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16 Comments
  1. throttle permalink

    Being new to the game, I’ve yet to experience everything this game already has to offer. Having said that, the ideas you’ve expressed seem like they’d be great fun.

  2. Tonskillitis permalink

    I really enjoyed reading this article and think that there is a lot of potential for some of the ideas you propose such as linking the encounter decks to different locations which would certainly make for some interesting travel decisions. I suppose the problem that the designers face is that the game has been very combat orientated in the past, the card pool is strongly weighted towards dealing with enemies and so it would be hard to develop alternative objectives to a sufficient level of complexity and interest to rival this primary goal (smash orc). I suppose they could do more with optional hide check mechanics to discard enemies and objective allies which contribute threat until you are able to persuade them to join your cause with some sort of exciting card-flipping test that rivals combat. There is quite a lot in the books about the battle of wills between different people (Saruman/Gandalf, Aragorn/Boromir, Sam/Smeagol) which needs more than its current representation in the game which is fairly abstract. The “Persuade” keyword maybe on the horizon with the Saga Expansions…

    • TalesfromtheCards permalink

      Indeed. I’m particularly interested to see how the interaction with Theoden and Rohan will be handled in the Saga Expansions. My hope is that there will be a strong focus on persuading/freeing Theoden of Wormtongue’s “spell”. I’m not sure exactly what it will look like, but I think there’s ripe potential there for a great quest.

  3. I’m going to be very interested to see the Nightmare version of Hills of Emyn Muil – I’d like to see them try to ‘fix’ the really location heavy quest, rather than just bulking it out with enemies to restore a balance.

    I definitely think it would be good if there were greater consequence to travel decisions. That said, there’s only so much text you can get on a card.

    • TalesfromtheCards permalink

      I’m definitely looking forward to Nightmare Emyn Muil as well. I imagine that they will be throwing a ton of enemies into the mix, but it would be interesting to see them try to make the location-heavy aspects of the quest more interesting.

  4. Excellent article, because it covers a lot around Locations and their weight in the game.
    I think the game is not that focused on combat, but the turn order makes the combat more important than questing. The game is incredibly versatile, and we may see more “adventurous” quests, but mostly based on special mechanics (like Hunt for Gollum or Dungeons Deep) than stablished or branched paths (through quest and Locations placing in the game). The best quests are yet to come. Also, I wan’t to note that we have already seen a lot of the suggestions you make, to bigger or less extent, but I like specially the Campaign mode card that alters rules under certain conditions.

    Following thoughts are based on your regular quest (no special mechanics). Quests with special mechanics can’t be measured by the same terms because they change game flow and players’ behaviour.
    The reason why we don’t see often Locations with Travel, “while is active” or “while in the staging area” effects with big impact in the game (like “all characters -1 defense” or “draw 1 more card during Resource phase”), may be because having another phase with big impact on the game could increase even more the luck factor, depending if we get Locations with effects good or bad for player.
    The game may have a design flaw in how the quest>travel>combat phases work togheter, making it too rigid. I said “may have a design flaw”. We have already seen scenarios where a phase or step is ignored. Why not scenarios that change phase order? Moving the phase order to combat>quest>travel changes the game flow, and players may find themselves failing the quest phase more often (think on “after X attacks, move it to the staging area” or ambush effects). People may want to try playing this way, just for the fun. Specially Hills of Emyn Muil and Road to Rivendell.

    I design custom quests, and because of that I’m facing all the design problems you discuss here (and more).
    The defined path (put these cards into play on this stage) reduces randomnes and makes quests more predictable. Not that it’s a bad thing, because it may increase the theme around a quest, but this also makes specific strategies and decks much more efficient.
    The branching paths can be done in two ways: based on players decisions (put chosen stage into play) or based on players achievements (like having a Threat level higher or lower than 24 when clearing certain stage). To make these paths really branched and thematic, game setup must become more complex, building different Encounter decks depending on the path. This could lead to not using certain Encounter Sets, something that I think is not good from FFG’s perspective.

    Ops, I think I overdid the “comment”…

    • TalesfromtheCards permalink

      No, you definitely didn’t “overdo” it, this is a great comment with lots to dig into. I too agree that the best quests lie ahead, and overall I think the existing structure of the game still has plenty of untapped potential. One major tension is between providing a defined, deep narrative experience that can sometimes feel too deterministic, and providing more freedom, which can increase randomness, as well as the complexity of set-up. Different players have different preferences along this scale, so I think a balance of both, spread out amongst the quests, is best.

  5. The Steward’s Fear remains one of my favorite quests because of the more meaningful function give to locations. For a thematic player, I’m embarrassed to admit that I never really balked at how combat heavy the game was compared to the novels, though it did feel strange hearing everyone talking about killing Bill Ferny or having Barliman Butterbur killed in their play sessions of Black Riders. You’ve got a number of clever options and I can imagine some combination of those adding variety to future quests. I think the most promising is using the Objective cards more creatively. If the strength and defense stats weren’t seen strictly as combat strength and defense, I could see objectives coming off the encounter deck that need to be claimed in the combat phase (rather than defeated) but would need players to exhaust a certain strength or defense value to do so (like enemies). This could open up some exciting new quests based more on exploration or discovery than playing whack-a-mole with enemies. Thanks for great topic!

    • TalesfromtheCards permalink

      I too really enjoy The Steward’s Fear. It has stood up over time, at least in my opinion, because of the strong narrative elements and unique villain/plot mechanic. In fact, it’s probably my favorite of the Against the Shadow cycle. I hope to see more quests in the future that have a similar feel.

  6. Tiandes permalink

    Nice article, lots of interesting idea.

    I’d like to add my 2 cents and bring back an idea I already discussed here, plus it kinds of follow heavykaragh idea of the phase order.

    I’d love to have a way so the player shed the first blood during combat. Personaly, I think that would change a lot of things, just because your Heroes could be free to do other stuff than havign to defend.

    As for specific encounter decks for locations, we already have some quests that use separate encounter decks, I tought they would have bring that to a new degree with the new saga expansion and the highly thematic locatiosn like the Prancing Pony and Weathertop.

    • TalesfromtheCards permalink

      Yeah, I was particularly inspired by the Over the Misty Mountains Grim quest that used two different encounter sets. I thought that there would be more use of that mechanic in subsequent quests. One of the obstacles is probably the fact that the designers likely only have a limited amount of encounter sets that they can include in any given expansions, when you consider that there are a certain amount of cards included in each box.

  7. I don’t think the game is combat focused, I think it is questing focused. The ratio of enemies to locations and treacheries is pretty balanced in most quests, and the majority of actions during a single turn are on questing, since you are always questing and you aren’t always in combat. I think the game seems combat focused because the goal apart from questing has usually been to attack or defend, and those two actions use up two character turns on their own which seems to give them more weight.

    I would like to see the game explore questing goals that are more than just attack and defend. The Druidan Forest has the last Quest Stage where the focus is on swaying others to your side using Attack and Defense stats to represent persuasion, and this I would like to see expanded.

    I could see Elrond’s Council where this mechanic is used to represent the peoples of Middle Earth in conflict over whether to join together to take the ring to Mordor. Failure would represent the eventual downfall of good in Middle Earth, so there are the stakes that are needed to provide tension in a story, and they involve more than attack and defend.

    • TalesfromtheCards permalink

      I like those ideas for improving non-combat aspects of the game. I would argue that the game is combat focused in the sense that the lion’s share of the drama and danger of the game comes from combat, more so than any other part of it. The ratios tend to fluctuate from quest to quest, but combat takes center stage in terms of gameplay in most of them.

      • I respect your opinion, so we will have to agree to disagree on this one. 😉

      • TalesfromtheCards permalink

        Indeed 🙂 There’s certainly room for interpretation.

  8. sweetnesswhachacha permalink

    Great bunch of ideas! I especially like the points in #4 and #5. Number 6 I think they did somewhat with the scroll in peril in peligar.

    I think they’ve done a great job making all the quests pretty different and this cycle especially by changing up the way we quest. Traveling and questing and threat is half the game, so it does do way more than games that solely focus on combat.

    The stewards fear definetly was the coolest way of dealing with locations. It’s one of the best quests thus far, and feels super thematic. I hope to see more of this type in the future.

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