|Size of the Encounter Deck
My take on this encounter deck: Before the Black Throne is a very rough scenario with lots of variance in many places. Especially at high player counts, doom amasses very fast here and there are cards in the deck that specifically dish out extra punishment for this doom. The deck is light on enemies and half of them are the Dark Cult. However, the other four enemies are the Piper of Azathoth and the three Mindless Dancers, all of which are terrifying Hunter enemies. Almost all of the other cards are doom related, either adding doom to the board or having some sort of effect based on it. There is also a good amount of effects dealing damage and/or horror here, including cards that invite extra attacks from Azathoth itself, who deals a brutal 3 horror and damage each.
The scenario comes down to finding your way through the facedown location cards, with no real way of determining which path is the correct one. So you have to guess completely blind and either you find your target locations immediately or have to stumble around some more. This, coupled with the high amount of doom treacheries and Cultists spawning in all kinds of unreachable places only to sacrifice themselves to make their doom permanent leads to a very swingy scenario and an outcome that sometimes feels like it’s not really in the hand of the players. While this is appropriate for the theme of the campaign, it doesn’t really make for a great experience playing the game…
Cancel these: Ancient Evils, The End is Nigh. Do whatever you can to stall the doom clock. If you can cancel something that would otherwise add a doom to the agenda, to Azathoth or anywhere else on the board then that is worth doing. The End is Nigh is especially problematic when it threatens to make multiple doom tokens permanent by moving them from a fragile cultist to the Elder God.
What it does: Mindless Dancers are hard hitting Hunter enemies that spawn on the far side of the map, but can make two steps each turn as long as they go through the empty spaces between locations. Their statline of 6/5/3 is about on par with the one on the Piper of Azathoth, with the only difference being that two points of stamina are turned into an extra fight and evade.
My take: These are insanely oppressive. With three of them in the deck, you can easily end up being chased by multiple Dancers. They can not really be outrun. And they hit hard, which is a huge deal in a scenario that is already dishing out damage and horror very liberally. Their combat stats are a challenge for any fighter and the huge health pool is an invitation to spend many actions on them. That way they keep the investigators from progressing while a particularly relentless doom clock is ticking away. These combat tests are also a prime opportunity to fail your tests by drawing a tablet, elder thing or cultists which all lead to more doom or being slapped by Azathoth.
Usually, you’d want to engage Hunter enemies on your own turn so you can attack them first. Since these are able to enter spaces that players can not, even that can sometimes require some setup.
Horrible, horrible creatures. Ironically, they are also the thing i like most about this scenario. They are the sort of challenge that i expect from a final scenario.
Threat level: Very High. It’s basically a boss enemy, except there are three of them.
Dealing with it: Looking at the stat line, it is tempting to try and think about some way to evade them. Their ability to move two spaces and the two damage on their attack makes me wary to try this, though. There are four enemies like this in the deck and chances are you are going to encounter several of them. While one could reasonably expect to run from one of these enemies, are you really able to control and evade multiples? While backtracking from revealing dead end locations?
What this leaves players with is finding ways to defeat these enemies in the most efficient way. If there is no Waylay or similar tech available, that means dealing 5 damage. Preferrably using only 2 actions, since those actions are very, very precious here. The high fight value makes it very benefitial to go for testless damage. Dynamite Blast is excellent here and so are some of the direct damage options from the Seeker card pool.
What it does: The player has to take a willpower test. If they fail, Ultimate Chaos is attached to Azathoth. Once all three of these are in play, they are discarded and either a doom is added to Azathoth or it attacks every player.
Failing the initial willpower test by 2 or more points deals a damage and a horror to that player. Should the test fail by 3 or more, the Ultimate Chaos also gains surge.
My take: This is possibly the weakest card in the deck. It has the same limitations that Terror in the Night from Inexorable Fate has, where it will only do its actual effect if all three cards manage to come together. Arguably, the effect here is even weaker than it is on Terror. If the three cards combine, the choice between doom and attacks should be fairly clear. The pressure on the doom clock would need to be immense to make me pick the other option. An attack by Azathoth means three damage and three horror, having that being dealt to every player is almost out of the question.
Threat level: Low to Medium, scaling with number of players. At low player counts, this is unlikely to do much as long as players don’t fail by 3 or more. Even at higher counts, it’s still one of the milder draws from the deck.
Dealing with it: Having three cards voltron together to payoff as one doom doesn’t sound so bad, actually. So even more than with the Terror in the Night, the prime concern should be with avoiding Surge from triggering. At higher player counts, making sure to pass at least one of these tests is worth some investment into the test.
What it does: After failing a willpower test, all doom tokens from cultists in play are moved to Azathoth. Should no cultists be in play, then a doom is added to Azathoth from the token bank. The willpower test scales with the number of the current Agenda, going from 2 to 5.
My take: Alright, so let’s talk about the cultists. There is four of them in the deck and due to their spawning restrictions they have a tendency of appearing in undiscovered locations that are unreachable still. So player will have to prioritize the path to that enemy so they can take it out before the agenda advances because each agenda b-side will have those cultists sacrifice themselves and put their doom on Azathoth where it sticks around. Depending on the timing, doom left on the agenda and whether players are already occupied with other things, this can already be a huge source of problems. The End is Nigh is a card that further intensifies this issue, by introducing the possibility that these cultists throw their doom on Azathoth even before the agenda advances. If this happens after players already devoted actions, resources, cards etc towards making their way to that cultist, this can be a major downer. Luckily there is a test attached to give players at least a chance of blanking the card. But man, i am not a fan of the whole cultist mechanic in this scenario.
Threat level: High. Even without Cultists in play, the card still adds a permanent doom to Azathoth. This is a willpower test that is important to pass.
Dealing with it: Cancel it. Or make sure that the willpower test is successful. Since the card doesn’t even allow to kill all Cultists to prevent doom being added to Azathoth, there isn’t really a whole lot you can do about it. Just know that the card exists and that you can not ever waste time on killing that Wizard of the Order unless you want to risk facing the absolute worst case scenario of moving all the doom from him onto Azathoth.
What it does: Out of four possible effects, the player has to choose one for each doom on Azathoth. There are no further restrictions, so the same option can be chosen multiple times. All four options directly impact that investigator, making them lose either a resource, a card, a point of sanity or a point of stamina.
A World in Darkness surges if no doom has been placed on Azathoth yet.
My take: One of the milder draws from the encounter deck, this only starts to become threatening near the end of the scenario. While there is no test on the card to prevent the effect, the player choice involved can often minimize its impact. Of particular note: The discard option is not random, so any player with excess cards in hand can put those to good use here.
Threat level: Low. This is very manageable. Near the end of the scenario, this can escalate pretty hard, but at that point you hopefully know which resources you can spare and which one you need to keep.
Dealing with it: Unless you can stack them favorably onto your assets, taking horror or damage should be avoided here because there are many other sources of that around the scenario. Especially for the effect of the tablet token (an attack by Azathoth), stamina and sanity of the investigator need to stay as high as possible. Cards and resources can be sacrificed to this card as required to fulfill it.
What it does: The player has to choose. Either place a doom on Azathoth or get attack by the Elder God for three damage and horror. The card has Peril so other players do not get a say in this decision.
My take: If i have to take the three damage and horror straight to my investigator card, i would rather pick the doom. Otherwise, it’s less clear cut. Note that taking the doom early on will cost multiple turns as it will subtract a turn from every agenda and not just the current one.
Threat level: High. It’s a scary card, but it does at least offer the option of using soak to take most of the blow.
Dealing with it: This is a very situational decision to make. Both choices are very impactful in their own right, and the current situation will dictate which one matters more. At first glance, taking damage and horror should be preferrable to adding a persistent doom token, but the amount of other effects that deal horror and damage is not tobe underestimated.
Return to Before the Black Throne
My take on the modified scenario: There’s some stuff happening here and to get the full picture one should also include the interlude which happens between Clutches and Black Throne. A couple of ingame decisions (taking over the lodge, arresting Anette, etc) are now rewarded with things that can help with the final scenario. That’s not only satisfying in terms of story telling, but also genuinely helpful with getting through this scenario as it can net you extra XP, resources or card upgrades. At setup, players are now also able to spend two of their special resources to acquire Nightgaunt Steeds. Doing so is highly advised as they do offer the ability to cross empty spaces in a limited fashion. The Steeds do a great job of counteracting some of the randomness from the location layout, thus taking away some of the enormous time pressure. In a pinch they can also tank a good amount of damage instead which can certainly be relevant as well.
Also very helpful with the randomness this scenario is known for: The removal of Ancient Evils in favor of the Impending Evils. This allows players to decide what is currently easier for them to mitigate: Damage/Horror or Doom. It should be noted though that the other encounter set that gets swapped out is Inexorable Fate, meaning that Unavoidable Demise is around to further hammer on the player’s stamina. Having some healing and/or soak goes a long way in this revamped scenario.
Three new locations are added to the Cosmos deck, but that doesn’t change the scenario in a huge way. A new final act card also gives access to a new resolution, but this of course doesn’t impact the scenario itself either.
I think this Return is a huge improvement on the original scenario, mitigating a lot of the randomness from the stacking doom mechanics and the time pressure that was often completely out of the player’s hands. By adding player agency through the Nightgaunt Steeds and the Impending Evils, players now can take their fate back in their own hand. Which feels very satisfying, especially if you failed this scenario a couple of times in the past and felt bad about it. This is of course not to say that Return to Black Throne is easy now. It’s still a very hard scenario with persistent doom from suicidal cultists, massive enemies from Dancers to the Piper and treacheries that dish out damage and horror in huge chunks. But you do feel like you actually have a way of fighting back against it now.
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