Dungeons and Demons at the OK Corral

Trying to keep this one short, not much time today but I wanted to share a new gaming experience with you all. I had a chance to play Shadows of Brimstone for the first time last night, which is an… “interesting” game. It’s a fully cooperative dungeon crawl, set in an alternate Wild West with monsters straight out of the H. P. Lovecraft mythos.  Grab the loot, upgrade your boots, and try not to go insane.  Our adventuring crew sounded like a bad joke about a spaghetti western; a Saloon Girl, a U. S. Marshall, a Gunslinger, and a Bandita walk into a bar, realize they’re all broke, and head out on an adventure.
Synopsis: The group is in search of an easy score. So when a productive mine gets abandoned because the mining crew starts making up stories about some sort monsters down in the dark depths of the tunnel, the party sweeps in to gather up anything left behind. Easy score? Naah, the monsters are real.
Every adventure in Shadows of Brimstone is different. As your party moves throughout the mine, new dungeon tiles are randomly added to the map. Random items can be found on each new dungeon tile, and the larger rooms have the chance to spawn random encounters that aren’t directly tied to the tile, they can be anything from a collapsing mine shaft, to a horde of monsters attacking.
I love the concept. But the execution leaves a lot to be desired.
Granted, we were just learning the game and playing our first adventure. But it took FOREVER to do anything. With two regular gamers driving the action and our better halves playing along with us, exactly half the party was anywhere near awake by the time real action took place. We had to explore nine dungeon tiles before we found any monsters. This process consisted of rolling a d6 for movement points, and seeing if we had made it to the other side of that tile or not yet. Yay, fun! For bonus fun, we passed on those rolls and made small talk while waiting to see if party members who had rolled poorly on previous turns had caught up to us yet. Yay, more fun!
There’s a reason for the labored movement to remain in place though, you can’t just skip those die rolls and say that players can move freely without breaking designed game mechanics; each turn the party leader (holding the group’s only lantern) rolls to “hold back the darkness”. Failing this roll brings impending doom just a little bit closer to the surface, which is supposedly where the really nasty stuff starts happening; your characters REALLY don’t want to still be in the mines when that happens.
Even after exploring those nine dungeon tiles, we only encountered monsters because I convinced the party to try and dispose of an arcane summoning circle we found on the last one, knowing full and well that we would probably fail and that failing meant that monsters would attack.
So we failed that check, and the summoning circle spawns an encounter of 1 level higher than normal. Which in turn became 2 encounters of the level we would normally expect to fight. One of those ended up being two more smaller groups. And then for the weakest of the monsters, you roll a die to see how many show up. By the time we were ready to place the miniatures, we had run out of one particular type. There’s rules for how to handle that, but I stepped in and house-ruled that we just rolled less of them “because-holy-crap-we’re-about-to-die-in-our-first-fight”.
Thar’s demons in dem there hills!
The movement mechanics really bit us here. We were tightly packed at the end of this hallway, with the Saloon Girl up front, one of our weaker (but thankfully more agile) characters. Since the monsters couldn’t move through us, they pretty much all lined up to attack her. And perhaps we had a perfect storm situation going on, but this was a brutal fight. The spiders up front had really high initiative, moving before any of us could react and blocking our path forward, which prevented us from spreading out into the room and thus balancing the incoming attacks. We blasted a couple of the spiders, which only cleared room for the tentacle beasts to reach us and pin us in place (their specialty), leaving the Saloon Girl unable to pull back to a safer position. We had to kill those to try and get some mobility, which opened up gaps for the lumbering behemoths behind them to charge forward and hammer away at the poor Saloon Girl with their heavy damaging attacks.
We eventually won the fight, but the Saloon Girl was knocked out even after we used all the bandages that we had, and the encounter didn’t really feel fun. In particular, we were never actually able to move around in the fight, we never once succeeded in an escape roll that would let us reposition and cause the monsters to rechoose their target. So the board might as well have been a conga line leading up to a piñata, with monsters lined up to hit our closest party member. I’ll say this again in clearer terms – it’s a map based game where we couldn’t move around the map at all when it mattered.
On top of all that, the rulebook is laid out atrociously, even as a veteran of similar games I couldn’t figure out what some things did. We stopped mid-fight and searched for about 5 minutes looking for “what happens when a player gets KOed?” before ruling that we would go back in time a turn and use bandages to heal her, which in turn we assume is a free action but couldn’t find the rules for that either. Then she was knocked out again just before the end of the fight, and we just decided we would figure it out later.
A little over three hours in, we had figured out some of the rules, mostly survived one fight, and lost half our party to exhaustion. We’ll try it again another day after doing some more reading, but I can’t recommend the game yet. Maybe after another session or two. This time we’ll start at high noon.
– The Tabletop General