I recently published an article summarising my thoughts on CMON’s new Dungeon Crawler, Massive Darkness. It ended up being a LONG article, and there were still a fair few things I didn’t get the chance to go into properly, so I’ve decided to pull out a few chunks, and give them a more detailed look at in their own right. This is the first of those articles, and it’s concerned with the issue of Loot.
At the start of a game of Massive Darkness, each hero gets a starter weapon (which won’t be very good), and some starter armour (similarly poor quality). Luckily, there are plenty of ways for you to find new pieces of gear for your heroes:
- Every time you open the door to a new room, you will spawn some loot chests.
- Every time a “Guardian” (any monster except a minion) spawns, it comes with a piece of equipment
- At the end of every round, an event happens, and a few of these will spawn more loot chests.
Ongoing access to loot in the game is necessary. At any given point in time in Massive Darkness, the game will be at a particular “level” somewhere between 1 and 5. Barring other factors, you will start on tile 1, drawing level 1 loot, and fighting level 1 monsters. When you advance to tile 2, the game’s level will increase, so you’d better find some level 2 weapons to keep the fight on an even footing.
How much loot?
There is A LOT of loot: When you open a door, you reveal a door card which will determine the number of enemies and the amount of loot present – typically, each room-space will have 2 or 3 chests of loot (at the level of the current tile), or a single chest of the next level up. Most tiles probably have about 2 sets of 2 or 3 rooms – maybe 12 items per tile.
One of the issues that people have pointed out with loot, is that it doesn’t scale with the player-count. So, if you have the maximum of six heroes, you’re probably only getting 1 or 2 new things per tile, and it’ll probably take a fair bit of horse-trading just to get something vaguely suitable for your character. By contrast, a solo hero will get all of that gear to themselves, allowing them to pick exactly what they want to equip.
Personally, I don’t have a problem with lots of loot: it’s cool to have lots of stuff. Various people have drawn parallels with Diablo, the computer game which lets you smash your way through a multitude of monsters and rewards you with a cornucopia of goodies for doing so. The last thing I’d want to happen with Massive Darkness would be for it to somehow get turned into a Mage Knight-style grind, where getting a single weapon upgrade takes 45 minutes.
What do I need?
It’s also worth pointing out that a new loot card, however powerful it might be, won’t necessarily be any good for your character.
Most characters – or at least their chosen class – will lean towards Melee, Magic or Ranged for combat, and will need to equip a matching weapon to benefit from many of their skills. You can give the battle Wizard a longbow, but none of his “Magic:…” skills will activate.
I think that the need for a specific type of weapon goes some way towards ironing out the scaling issues – with 6 heroes, there’s a pretty good chance that at least one character will want whichever item has just been found, whereas a primarily Ranged/Magic party of 2 Heroes (the campaign my wife and I are playing) won’t want 90% of the melee weapons they pick up, meaning that the “excess” isn’t quite as big as it might seem.
It’s also worth pointing out that when you do have multiple weapons that suit you, it’s still not always an easy decision which to take: 1 sword has better attack dice, but another gives a defence boost. One deals wounds (i.e. unblockable damage) on special symbols, whilst another heals the wielder with the same symbols. Sometimes you’ll be able to make a decision and stick with it, based on the party composition (I’m the tank, I’ll take the defensive boosts, and not care about my low damage output because others are taking care of that), but sometimes you’ll need to switch between the healing weapon and the wounding weapon in the face of an enemy that’s turned up rolling 5 defence dice. Whilst you can keep hold of as much stuff as you like, your character only has 2 hand-slots, meaning a maximum of 2 weapons equipped at a time (often just the 1 in practice as many of the good weapons are 2-handed), and it takes a full action to swap out one weapon for another in your bag.
Not all weapons are created equal
It’s also worth noting that even if you ignore the divisions into Melee/Ranged/Magic weapons, some are simply better than others: a Sword which offers 1 Yellow Dice is not as good as a sword which offers 1 Red (assuming they have no additional benefits, and both use a single hand-slot). The overall trend as you move up the levels will be towards increased power, but a strong Level 1 weapon can (at least situationally) be the equal or even the better of a weak Level 2 weapon. This helps retain a bit of interest in searching for loot, as there is no guarantee of getting something much better than you currently have equipped, and with this chance to ‘fail’ to upgrade, it’s important to have repeat opportunities, in order to avoid a negative experience.
Where it Goes – Transmutation
In low player-count games, even with 2 or 3 weapons you want to keep on hand for emergencies, there’s still going to be some stuff nobody wants, and with no backpack limit [cf Zombicide Black Plague where each survivor is limited to 2x Hand-slot, 1x Body-Slot and 5x Backpack space], you can keep hold of it all. More fun though, is to transmute it!
When you transmute you discard 3 items to draw a new item. The new item comes from the deck with a number 1 higher than the lowest level item you discarded. Assuming you can discard 3 of the same level (generally your current level), that means you can get an item that’s a level ahead of where you and the monsters currently are.
Transmuting is a fun idea, and I think it’s a strength of the game that it’s included. However, the execution is a bit wonky.
As I mentioned above, normally it takes one of your 3 actions this turn to re-organise your inventory (i.e. put away the sword and replace it with the longbow) or to trade equipment with another hero in your space. Transmuting however not only doesn’t cost an action, but it also gives you a free reorganising action!
It’s not the only time you’ll come across this in Massive Darkness, but the idea of adding a bonus to something that’s already really good just feels slightly out-of-whack to me. I think it’s understandable why Transmuting is at the top of a lot of House-Rulers’ hit lists.
As I’ve talked about elsewhere, I think that people have been getting very carried away with trying to change too much too quickly in this game, and I certainly can’t claim to have any properly tested house rules. However, I do want to at least touch on the issues around loot
Fix 1: Too Much Loot
There are a lot of suggestions out there around the various different things that people think should be done with loot. Some people suggest reducing the amount of loot spawned, based on player-counts, whilst others think you should draw the required number but then be forced to choose one/some, and discard the rest.
If you want to get really far into it, there are even some fairly involved schemes out there where the chests count as “points” towards getting things, but you need points equal to the current level to get an item – so 3 chests on tile 1 gets you 3 things. 3 Chests on tile 3 gets you 1 thing, and 3 chests on tile 5 leave you still needing to find something else in order to actually get a weapon.
Personally I don’t see much appeal to most of these suggestions – I’d certainly be quiet happy to see CMON produce a more involved, more appropriately scaled set of door cards for a future iteration of the game, but beyond that, I don’t want to bring in a level of fiddly bookkeeping where I have to keep swapping things around.
As I’ve already mentioned, a lot of people are drawing the parallels between Massive Darkness and Diablo, and I think that having bucketloads of loot is a good thing. If I really wanted to cut down the piles and piles of cards we were dealing with, then I think I’d just impose a Zombicide-style Backpack limit: Characters may carry a maximum of 5 non-equipped cards at any time, rather than getting too much more complicated (Story mode already does this to an extent, but that’s another story…)
Fix 2: Transmuting
Tweaking Transmute does seem like one of the most obvious places in this game to add a house-rule. Any situation where an activity costs you an action by itself but can be done for free whilst doing something else that doesn’t cost an action is clearly a bit skewed.
I think that something as straightforward as “Transmuting costs an action (after transmuting, you may reorganise your inventory for free)” would probably quell the worst abuses without making the game too complex, or requiring additional book-keeping. Equally, for those who want to be more hard-core, adding a limit once per turn, or a limit to the level to which things can be Transmuted (“players cannot transmute above the scenario’s current level” / “Heroes cannot equip items above the scenario’s current level” could be workable. However, with each additional step you’re introducing more complexity into the game, which is potentially a drawback, along with creating a greater workload in terms of play-testing.
As I say, lots of people have identified the tides of loot with which Massive Darkness is awash as a real point of failure for the game. I certainly don’t see it that way. This game is light and fun, and the gear you have fits that theme. It’s not supposed to be a grind like Mage Knight where you spend 3 hours trying to get enough together for a sword.
I’ve mentioned a few things that could be done, for personal preference, simply because I thought it might be interesting to do so, but I don’t think that any of them are “needed.” Aside from the Transmute adjustment, I highly doubt I’ll try (m)any of them out.