Thornwatch Preview - Talking Cards & RPGs With Penny Arcade's Gabe

Jonathan Bolding | 24 Apr 2014 13:00
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thornwatch playtest 1

So how does it play?

In short, smooth. I played in a playtest session that took about two and a half hours, and the disclaimer as to what I saw there is that according to Krahulik the primary goal was "to stress test the basic combat system." By his own admission some of the more roleplay focused mechanics, or abilities that required heavy Game Master rulings, were left out. That playtest, and the mechanics showcased in it, were remarkably well-fitted for a complicated, multi-part, asynchronous design in a game category without much prior work in it. Most of all, though, they were fun. They were readily easily understood for a tired person, late at night, on the second day of a convention. That goes along with what Krahulik's design goals are for the system. "I think the barrier to entry on Thornwatch would be a lot lower," he said, comparing his game to traditional roleplaying, "you could show up to play Pandemic or Ticket to Ride and just put Thornwatch down and start playing it." I'd guess it took me about ten minutes to learn the game's basics, and I learned the rest as we played in about fifteen more.

The game revolves around the idea of class decks. Each character embodies one of the Thornwatch's Icons, ideals of heroes that have lived on for years as different ghosts take on the role. Each of those decks has a suite of moves and abilities for you to play, and each of those cards has a skill type. For the melee-focused Guard, for example, every card in the deck is either Strength or Vitality. For the Blade, each is Dexterity or Strength. Your character has a couple statistics independent of their deck and hand: A movement speed, a few Traits for roleplaying, a defense value, and a wound threshold that determines when you drop dead.

In the playtest there were four classes available. The Guard was a brawler who drew enemies' attacks to himself and supported his allies. He had various stances, like a battlerage that turned his wounds into Strength cards that fueled his abilities and a defensive stance that made him harder to hit. The Greenheart was a healer and utility fighter who not only dished out damage in melee, but could create magical trees on the battlefield by planting seeds inside of key enemies. Those seeds exploded into, for example, a Tree of Vitality that gave healing fruit to nearby allies. The Blade was a fast, maneuverable class themed around having more swords, knives, and daggers than everyone else out there - and doing more with them. He appeared the most straightforward, but clearly had nuanced abilities to dart in and out of combat. The Sage was a spellcaster like a traditional D&D Wizard: Able to hurl damaging fireballs, but clearly more useful when employing powerful utility magic to boost allies and hamper enemies - like a mirror image that allowed him to discard cards in exchange for penalties to enemy attacks.

As you played abilities out of your hand, you'd then have to fuel them with certain kinds of cards. Each turn you could play other cards with the right keywords out of your hand, one of each of your character's skills at a time, to fuel your attacks. For example, my Guard character had an overhead smash attack that had to be given a Strength and a Vitality card before it could be activated, and could be boosted to greater levels with more cards. When you attack, roll two ten-sided dice and add the number of cards powering the attack you're using, trying to hit the target number of your enemy's defense. Enemies, likewise, do the same to hit you - but they have set attacks and damage not based on cards. The clutch to your attacks is that the Strength and Vitality cards you're playing to fuel your ability are themselves other abilities - a Cleave card would be tagged Vitality, while the aforementioned Overhead Smash was a Strength card itself. That way, you're losing a bit of flexibility to power your attacks at base strength, and losing a lot of flexibility to boost them to their maximum level. At the end of each turn, you'd draw back up to five cards.

As your character gets damaged by enemies, you shuffle wound cards into your deck. Those wound cards, when drawn into your hand, get stuck there. When you have more wound cards in your hand than your wound threshold, you die. That wound system, said Krahulik, was one of the seeds of the entire game. "I've had that for over two years," he said. In the playtest, the Guard had the highest wound threshold at 5 and the Sage the lowest at 3. The wound system is remarkably simple, but it's definitely Thornwatch's killer innovation, taking the boring death spiral of hit point based roleplaying systems and giving a satisfying amount of randomness to it. You know how many wounds you've taken, but not when you'll succumb to those wounds.

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