Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle Earth
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RPG Elements in Board Games

Normally I’d be doing an Friday Night D&D article, but it’s an off week for playing, and I don’t have a new campaign idea floating around my head right now. So instead, I want to talk about how some board games use RPG elements and how well they work, if they work, and what makes some of them work better than others.

Firstly, let me say that I won’t be talking about Legacy of Dragonholt. Legacy of Dragonholt is a simplified and good RPG that is meant for families, I’d say, and keeps everything very basic and simple.

Key Elements of an RPG

When thinking about what elements are taken over from RPG’s to board games, you need to ask what elements the board games are going to try and emulate. There’s a lot of things that they try to, but not all of them work as well and not all of theme are key.

Character Creation
Image Source: Cephalofair Games

Not one that’s used in a ton of board games, but it’s a core part to RPG’s. Most players I know of have about ten to fifteen different ideas floating around in their head. And that’s great, some board games try and add in elements like this. How does this work for board games, and does it work well? I think a lot of board games kind of half do this, and mainly focus on the next thing I’m going to talk about. When I say half do this, I mean they give you some characters out of the box to work on with maybe limited customization to start with. Gloomhaven, for example, you get your class, and you get cards with 1 on them and that’s your starting set of cards, but you can technically change things up a little bit, because you can swap in X cards, and you can buy gear, so you’d be slightly different than other characters. From what I’ve seen, Folklore: The Affliction maybe does more, but I need to delve into it. Sword & Sorcery also kind of does it with the abilities that you can take at the start.

So does this work well, I think it works okay, a lot of games kind of do it because it’s a lot of work to actually implement, and more board games play with tighter rule sets than RPG’s do.

Character Progression
Image Source: Board Game Geek/Awaken Realms

This is what most board games try and emulate and might be one of the better things that they do emulate. By character progression, I don’t mean narrative growth, I mean leveling up. Who doesn’t like getting a new skill, more health, better stats overall, that’s one of the fun parts of Dungeons and Dragons for me.And there are a lot of board games that do this very well, something like Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-Earth has you progressing your deck and swapping out cards, Gloomhaven has you getting access to new cards and getting more hit points, Sword and Sorcery it’s new skills, weapons and more that you can get. Even stuff like Pandemic Legacy which borrows a few RPG elements lightly gives you an option for character progression.

I think this works extremely well in campaign games. In fact, that’s a knock I have on SeaFall and Charterstone as Legacy games is that I didn’t feel like my character continued to progress over time. Once I’d progressed to a certain point, I could optimize how I’d progressed but not progress further really. But then there are games like Tainted Grail which uses a lot of RPG elements and it’s great for their progression, and even a more limited progression like Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-Earth has interesting progression.

Image Source: Fantasy Flight

A huge thing about RPG’s is obviously the story that the Dungeon Master and the players are weaving together. This is an area that I think some board games are better at emulating than others. The issue with story often is that the story doesn’t feel as immersive as an RPG. A good example of this would be Near and Far, it has interesting story in it, but it’s more about the worker placement style mechanics and leveling up your team to get victory points. Most of the time I just want more story and a more cohesive story, because they don’t expect the story to be read in any particular order. That was the issue and a big issue with SeaFall, there was no specific order for the story, so it felt like it started and stopped telling the story at different times. Then, however, there are other games, like Gloomhaven or Tainted Grail that tell a good immersive story, and while the mechanics might get ahead of the story at times, I don’t feel like it breaks my immersion. Now, all of those games I mentioned use some other RPG elements, but some games, like Mansions of Madness just has the story element of RPG’s that it adds in, and it works well there.

This element is interesting, because sometimes it works well and sometimes it doesn’t. I think it can be a key component and should be the main focus for board games that want to be RPG like board games. I also think that it’s an area that games often oversell themselves on. I like TIME Stories a lot and it calls itself an RPG, it’s one of my favorites thus far, but I don’t get the story RPG feel.

Wrapping Up

Now, I’m a huge fan of RPG elements in board games. It can give a really immersive experience in a lot of different ways. For me, story is definitely king. I want a game with a great story that draws me into what is going on and gives me an experience w hen I play it. However, without solid mechanics to back it up, a game with a great story might as well just be the story. And character progression and even character creation really can give a game a great RPG feel when the story is good but not great.

One game that I’m extremely excited about is the new Roll Player Adventures that’s coming out this year. It builds upon a game, Roll Player, where you are literally just rolling up a character in a D&D manner and makes it into a board game RPG experience. I think it should work really well and the fact you can roll up characters in Roll Player and bring them into Roll Player Adventures is awesome.

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