Design Diary: More Than Punching

Afternoon, Needy Cat fans! 

Blimey, what a week it's been, eh? For those who have been living under a rock, Hellboy hit Kickstarter on Wednesday last week. And boy, it hit hard. Reaching its £100,000 funding goal in a gobsmacking 18 minutes, it went on to raise over four times that much in its first day thanks to five thousand backers. Five thousand backers in one day. For context, Mantic's most-backed campaign before now was Dungeon Saga, which had 5963 backers across its entire 28-day run. 

 You're telling me, HB. 

You're telling me, HB. 

The campaign's been going strong ever since, and is now close to a million pounds (!!!) with over ten thousand backers.

Blimey. 

So yeah, it's been an interesting week! I've mainly put Hellboy to one side while I've caught up on other projects, but I'm keeping an eye on the forums and answering questions where I can. (You should definitely check out the Hellboy forums at boardgamegeek - there's loads of interesting discussion going on there, with plenty of cool ideas being put forward.) 

One of the things that's been most hotly discussed is narrative - some people are concerned that the game just doesn't have enough story poking through the mechanics. I absolutely understand why they're concerned - after all, it's Hellboy! If the narrative isn't front and centre, we're wasting our opportunity. The stories are about as far from generic dungeon-crawling as you can get. 

 Case in point

Case in point

I think it's probably my fault that this misconception's built up, though. I don't think the Let's Play videos do a great job of showing how the story comes through in the game, for two reasons: 

  1. The Case used in both videos is deliberately story-light and action-heavy. It's designed as a demo scenario, a way of showing people how the game works - but in hindsight, I should probably have been focusing just as much on showing how the game feels
  2. I was running both games, and between having played the scenario umpteen times already and wanting to keep the runtime down, I may have slightly glossed over / skimmed through the bits that do feature some story goodness.

As I say, in both cases, that's totally my bad. This post is a chance for me to redress the balance!

One of the things that various people have been critical of is the way "information" is gathered. They see the use of Insight Markers as a bit of a cop-out, it seems - they'd prefer something more bespoke, like a deck of cards that's drawn from every three-or-so steps on the Information Gathered track, giving a little bit of flavour text, or a clue, or something similar. 

Weirdly, that was the case in an earlier version of the game. Let's have a little peek into the past, and see why we ended up where we did! 

Back in the Hellboy Alpha (I'm not sure of the exact version number, and looking it up feels unnecessary, but it was definitely the case at the Playtest Day), Information was gathered very differently. There was no Information Gathered track, for starters! Instead, the game had a deck of Investigation Cards.

Clue counters were still a thing, but here they were double-sided. They were placed face-down, with a "point of interest" symbol showing; when an agent moved into their area and spent an action to Survey the Area they were revealed, showing either a Clue (with a variable target number, from 3 to 7) or nothing at all, representing a red herring. 

An agent could then examine the clue using another action, which was resolved a bit like it is now - but instead of moving a token up a track, success meant drawing an Investigation Card. These could represent any number of things, from telltale footprints to a powerful artifact. A few would be usable pieces of equipment, but most would just have a number of "Information" symbols. These did nothing immediately useful, but paid off in the Confrontation.

It was a nice idea, but it had plenty of problems - chiefly that it's difficult to implement effectively. The point of the deck is to add narrative flavour, specific to the Case in question, so you have to go down one of two main routes:

  1. You create an entirely bespoke deck for each case, with the cards in a given order so that information is drip-fed in the correct manner.
  2. You create generic "atmosphere" cards that evoke the Mignolaverse in all manner of ways, and shuffle in a few specific ones for the Case you're playing. (This is what we had on the playtest day.) 

The problem with 1) is that you can't shuffle or alter the deck without getting into some rather complex deck-building. After all, if the intention is to slowly reveal the fact that the agents are hunting a werewolf, you want to make sure "you find traces of animal hair" comes up before "sweet crikey he's a honking great wolf".

The problem with 2) is that it's so generic it misses the point of adding case-specific narrative. If you start shuffling loads of case-specific cards in you start running into the same problems as option 1, but if you don't put many in you might as well not bother - after all, they might not show up at all depending on how the deck's shuffled. 

After the playtest day, this was one of the biggest pieces of feedback we had. The mechanics were feeling right, but investigation felt tacked-on. Anyone who'd played as Johann - the most investigatey agent of the lot - often felt a bit like their part of the game was dull. The Investigation cards rarely had anything to do with the overall plot of the Case, and it felt like an exercise in turning over cards. 

 If I had one of these, this would have been the point at which I'd have gone back to it. And probably sobbed into it for a bit. 

If I had one of these, this would have been the point at which I'd have gone back to it. And probably sobbed into it for a bit. 

After a lot of reworking, and the merciless slaughter of a few darlings, we ended up with what we've got today. Through lots of iterative playtesting we honed and refined and chipped away until we had a system that felt rewarding and interesting. 

In short, it's a mixture of abstraction and narrative detail. It's a best-of-both-worlds approach; I am proudly having my cake while stuffing it into my gob. The introduction of the Information Gathered track serves as both a lovely visual reminder of your progress and a thematic contrast to the Impending Doom track. At the start of the game a token is placed on the first space, and advances along the track whenever the agents successfully examine a clue. This represents them finding small clues or discoveries, the sort of things that don't mean anything by themselves but start adding up to a workable theory. 

The track is loaded with Insight Markers at the start of each Case, generally two or three spaces apart. When the token hits one of these, the agents take the Insight marker; each of these pays off in the Confrontation (they're the descendants of the Information Symbols from the old system); the exact details of how they work varies from Case to Case. In the demo scenario, they represent the agents discovering possible vulnerabilities in their main foe, so during the confrontation each Insight that's been discovered gives you a free upgrade when you attack the Giant Frog Monster at the end. (Not sure what upgrades are? Here's a post about how dice work from a couple of weeks ago!) In other Cases, they'll have different effects; maybe each Insight represents a significant discovery that will help stop a dark ritual, and the number of Insight markers will determine how long the Agents have to defeat Rasputin in the Confrontation. Or maybe they'll...

...actually, I don't want to spoil any surprises. The point is, Insights turned out to be a great way of presenting abstract information in a way that still has some narrative flavour, without having to spell out what each small discovery is. This means you don't need to worry about including irrelevant or insipid reveals, and you don't have to create loads of bespoke components for each case. 

The bit I'm really happy about, though, and the part that does most of the narrative heavy lifting, is included in the Case Files deck. 

At certain points, the deck will bring a card into play which shows a particular symbol, and will instruct the players to put an Information counter with the matching symbol on a particular space of the Information Gathered track. When the token reaches that counter, it is discarded and the card is flipped, revealing something important. This gives the chance for a chunk of relevant descriptive text that advances the plot and significantly rewards the players for their investigative efforts. Maybe they discover an ancient weapon or relic that will help them triumph against the Boss; maybe they find an ally who will help them, or learn a new trick. This could open new areas of the board, bring new cards into play... there are loads of possibilities. Most importantly, whatever happens will happen because of the agents' actions, at the appropriate time, and will tie directly into the current Case. The Case File deck gives the opportunity for several such reveals in the course of a game, and thanks to its modular nature it will even possible to swap parts out (especially with the BPRD Archives expansion) to change the details of the Case while maintaining this narrative integrity. 

Basically, the system we now have - a mix of abstraction (with Insight markers) and narrative discoveries (managed by the Case Files deck / Info Counters) is a sweet spot, and is the result of a lot of refining. It lets the players do lots of information gathering that feels worthwhile and relevant, then brings in interesting narrative when it matters, at key moments.

So there you have it - the story of how H:tBG's engine was fine-tuned for narrative punch. Hopefully this has been insightful (pun very much intended, and not apologised for). If you've got any follow-up questions pop them in the comments below (or find us on social media) and we'll do our best to answer them!