Thornwatch Preview – Talking Cards & RPGs With Penny Arcade’s Gabe

thornwatch playtest 2

Mike Krahulik had tooled around with making a card game for years before he really knew what to call it. “At the time, I was fed up with running Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons,” he said. “It had cards, but it wasn’t really a card game. I came from Pokemon and Magic: The Gathering.” He wanted to build a roleplaying game that was easier to play, quicker, and less preparation intensive for gamemasters and players. The game that finally emerged is being called a “card game adventure”, and its name is Thornwatch. It’s based on Penny Arcade’s popular Eyrewood comics. After years of work, he’s begun widely playtesting the game in preparation for a launch in 2015. I caught up with Krahulik at PAX East, where I was able to talk with him about the game and sit down for a few hours of a playtest session.

“Originally the game was just called Card Warriors,” said Krahulik, whose alter ego Gabe is the foil for Penny Arcade’s Tycho. It was a game where players had characters, each represented by a deck, and fought a Game Master’s premade adventure of enemies and monsters. The game didn’t have a fictional home for a long time; it was honestly sort of soulless sounding. So it was thematically stagnant until the advent of the idea for the Thornwatch characters. “Once we put it in the Eyrewood and I came up with the idea of the Thornwatch it just started to roll.” The Eyrewood, said Krahulik, was perfect for what he and creative partner Jerry Holkins wanted to create. “It’s a magical forest, which could be cool, but it’s not: It’s terrifying. The thing we like about it is that you have the Lookouts, which are little kids in this horrible place doing horrible things. They’re being turned to stone by basilisks. But they’re still kids… On the other side you have the Thornwatch, which is a much darker take on the whole thing.”

Revealed during the playtest session was the idea that the Thornwatch, who have already had several comics written about them, are dead. “They are spirits of the forest, so if you are familiar with them before the playtest we talked about how when someone needs their help there’s this ritual that must be done to summon them. That’s how they’re able to travel through trees magically and shift energy between each other, they’re spirits.” Going on, Krahulik laid out the dark place that the Thornwatch occupy in the world of the Eyrewood. “We did a comic a while ago that’s about the Thornwatch from the lookouts’ perspective where the lookouts are being taught never to call the Thornwatch. They actually have a little poem about how horrible it is, and the reason it’s looked down upon is because you’re summoning ghosts. It’s a ritual done with blood.” But the Thornwatch, it turns out, are protectors.

When starting the game, then, every mission begins with a magical knot. “A knot gives you clues about what the mission is,” said Krahulik, “Jerry has this whole list of knots, and the knots mean something. Like, Wagon-Wise tells you that something is missing.” That story plays directly into the design of the game. “The game is focused on: Here’s the knot, you guys arrive, let’s have fun.”

The game will include both a preplanned campaign in the world of the Eyrewood and a stock of quick knots and creatures to draw from for more impromptu adventures. “We want those to take about two hours,” said Krahulik, “and we want the campaign games to take about four hours each.” The game will include a set of maps for that premade adventure, ready to be re-used for custom ones. Krahulik said he had “about twenty-five” maps drawn up, but wasn’t sure how many would be in the final product.

They’re being cagey still about what the exact story of that campaign will be, and Krahulik gave only this detail: “I’d say the initial story will give players a new viewpoint into the Eyrewood. You’ve seen it from the Lookouts perspective but the Thornwatch is very different. There’s even a few secrets about the Eyrewood that we’re excited to share. In terms of [individual] stories we plan on connecting all these groups. You will meet Lookouts and Daughters for sure.”

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thornwatch wallpaper

Theme & Process Are Key

Mike Krahulik didn’t exactly have an easy time adapting his visual design process to making a tabletop game, though. “My sketchbook is all pictures. Whenever I thought of a cool power it came from the idea of a drawing on a card. I would have to draw it out. I would have to draw out entire decks, like for the Blade – swords and daggers and what would his deck look like.” Visuals, then, drove his design process. “For two years it was just me by myself making cards and printing them out and playing with my friends at the office for fun.” He described designing monsters to me, saying “If I’m thinking of the card I have to draw a pic of the skeleton – what the card looks like, whereas I think I knew a lot of other designers wrote out rules or text.”

Then, veteran game designer Mike Selinker moved into an office in the Penny Arcade building. Selinker played the game and told Krahulik that he “had to make this game now.” So Krahulik built a small team within Penny Arcade and set about trying to convert his idiosyncratic designs into a usable format. “Every card was an adobe Photoshop file with about 20 layers of rasterized text that you couldn’t edit, and weird scribbles and sketches and drawings, and any time I wanted to print out a card I had to flatten the thing out and cut it and paste it onto an 8.5″ x 11″ page and cut that out.” When they saw that, apparently, Mike Selinker walked out of the room, and project manager Jamie Dillion’s reaction inspired this comic.

thornwatch panel

You can tell the experience was humbling for him. It made him smile and laugh more than anything else we talked about, saying “I just don’t work in a way that is conducive to designing a game. I work in photoshop. I’m all about let’s all have fun, let’s play in the spirit of the game.” That attitude, though, clearly made rules text frustrating for him. Mike Fehlauer, the Vice President of Penny Arcade, is apparently a huge rules lawyer. “Fehlauer is like, I’m gonna read every word on this card and I’m going to make it do precisely what it says, not what you wanted it to do” said Krahulik. Those kinds of insights from other people, though, have made the game from hobby side project into a publishable product undergoing playtesting.

One of the first pieces of advice Mike Selinker gave Krahulik, after Krahulik ran the original Thornwatch demo for Selinker, was “This is amazing, I love this game: You are not gonna come in the box. You have to create a set of rules and guides so that anybody can pick up this game and do what you just did for me.” That triggered what Krahulik called a “major whoa” moment – he’d been flying blind on tabletop game design, and realized the sheer amount of unfamiliar work required to turn a fun game into a fun game that other people could play. When it comes to the prototype he has, though, his years of instincts and experience with other roleplaying and board games seems to have paid off – he’s got a suite of unique and interesting mechanics to work off of.

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.

Thornwatch Banners 5

When you die, you take what’s called a Scar card into your deck – permanently – and then come back from the dead. Remember, you’re a ghost after all. Scar cards have their own effects – none of them good. The Scar my character picked up, for example cause him to hesitate at key moments, knocking him down the Momentum track. Beyond simple penalties, Krahulik had big plans for the scar cards. “Over the course of a campaign we want the scars you get to be relevant to the adventure you’re playing.” He followed up with a hypothetical situation, clearly excited about the prospects. “Say I go to your house to play and I bring my Blade deck, and I pull a wound where I was run through by a unicorn. I want you to say ‘When the fuck were you run through by a Unicorn?’ and I’ll say ‘Oh, well I was playing last week at Jerry’s…’I want these cards to be history. Just like warriors sitting around a campfire saying ‘Well right here’s when I got wrapped by that electric snake.'” Eventually, he went on to say, you’d retire your grievously wounded character in favor of one with a new personality and a fresh deck – once you had too many negative cards to deal with.

Monsters, however, don’t take wound cards when hurt. That brings us to Thornwatch‘s other killer innovation: What’s called the momentum track – it’s row of cards that determine who acts when during a round. By itself, a basic visual twist on the bog standard roleplaying game initiative system. However, when a monster is hit with an attack, it moves down in momentum – literally slows down – until it’s last in order. If it takes damage while last in order, it’s killed. The momentum is a recent thing for the game. According to Krahulik, momentum was maybe three months old when they brought it to PAX East. “I think at one point Jerry just said, you hit the skeleton, he drops down. Kiko [Villasenor, Graphic Designer for Penny Arcade] and I started nodding. And I said, let’s talk about this. Let’s talk about this for the rest of the fucking day. Kiko was convinced somebody would break it here at [PAX East], but nobody has.”

The game will be played on maps that, like comic book pages, tell part of the story of the mission that the Thornwatch is on. Panels of comic with text on the outside of the battle map grid will tell a story about what’s going on, often dropping clues, hints, or game mechanics. Krahulik said they want to put puzzles into it, too. “Say you have some archaic statue with runes, and that describes some puzzle to you. What if as they’re looking at the board it’s right there? And [players] are like wait a second – there it is – almost like a hidden object.” It’s almost like the booklets of visual cues for players in old TSR Dungeons & Dragons modules, but with a more transparent and open flair inspired by the kind of storytelling that the game wants to do.

Some of the game’s mechanical features more obviously stem from modern roleplaying games: Each character had a set of two traits, either randomized or chosen by the player, like “bloodthirsty” or “optimistic.” Those traits serve not only as cues to what kind of spirit is playing the part of Blade or Guard this game, but as incentives to roleplay to the hilt. If you play out your traits you get a special D10 called the Action Die, which you can roll as a bonus to anything you’ve done or hand to an ally so they can hit with a clutch attack.


Other mechanics clearly grew out of Krahulik’s frustration with the table environments of many roleplaying games. “I got rid of players having to take notes or track their HP,” he said. “My whole thing about Thornwatch was getting rid of all the bullshit I hated about running [RPGs] for two years.” He went on to give examples. “I hated that it’s not your turn, so you’re on your phone. So, the Synergy cards – everybody’s gotta be watching everyone’s turn all the time.” The Synergy cards were some of the simplest design in the playtest, you didn’t feel obligated to pay attention to others’ turns, or grudging – you wanted to use your interesting power, so you were always on the lookout. My Guard, for example, could take a wound for an ally before it went into their deck, or give an ally a chance for a free attack when an enemy missed. It was much like watching for the perfect time for an Instant spell in Magic: The Gathering. In the game’s story, the synergy cards are the spirits being connected by the forest, able to push energy back and forth between each other.

Other personal frustrations drove some of the design decisions as well, like this one: When you miss by one point, if you can describe to the GM why you actually hit, then you do. A very straightforward rule, but for reasons that might surprise some. “I’ve played at a lot of tables where people are uncomfortable with roleplaying,” said Krahulik. “I wanted there to be a mechanic that gave you the slightest thought about not you as a player at the table, but you as a character in the game.” It’s clear that though the game definitely straddles the nice between roleplaying game and board game, Krahulik doesn’t seem worried about whether a mechanic fits one style of game over another – nor should he be. He should make a good game and let everyone else figure out what to do with it.

Some things did get left out for the playtest, Krahulik told me. “We have a Sister of the Eyrewood deck, which is sort of like our pet class, and then we also have the Briarlock.” Where the other characters would use a combination of two core skills like Dexterity and Strength, the Briarlock deck uses Spirit – like, say, the Greenheart does – but also wounds. “It’s a literal blood mage,” said Krahulik. “The Briarlock deals damage based on wounds in hand , so the more fucked up the whole party gets the more damage he deals.” The Briarlock’s deck was mostly done, but the implementation of the Momentum system was, according to Krahulik “the big moment, and it was awesome and it broke the Briarlock deck.”

So there are still kinks being worked out, but if what I saw was a realistic indication of what’s coming, this is game is full of sound, and fun, mechanics. If it sounds like it’s something you’d like, well, you can comfortably get excited. Look for more about Thornwatch later this year on Penny Arcade and here at The Escapist. The game is expected to release in 2015 – “whether that means PAX East or PAX Prime we can’t gauge exactly,” said Krahulik, laughing. Like much about the game, it seems like that too will be a process of learning.

If you’re interested in what else happened with tabletop games at PAX East 2014, check out our extensive roundup.

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