Designing a fan-made Return to the Dreamlands #1: Encounter replacements

Intro

A while ago i announced that I started working on a fan-made “Return To” expansion for the official Dream-Eaters campaign. That was originally scheduled to be out by now, but after releasing a first rough edition to a smaller circle of playtesters i got caught up in a mix of real-life distractions, other video and board games from Baldur’s Gate to Frosthaven and most recently of course Hemlock Vale spoiler season took up most of the time i put towards Arkham. All of which kept me from finding the time and motivation to address everything that the playtest uncovered and that i wasn’t satisfied with before that already. So this project rested for almost three months now which is not ideal! To get back on track with finishing the thing (or at least towards another major playtest version) in the new year, i figured i would make an article series documenting the process, for a couple of reasons:
– This is a great opportunity to talk about a range of design related topics, as it provides hands-on challenges and examples.
– It allows me to source opinions and ideas from the community.
– Having a dev diary to look back on sounds like it could potentially be a neat resource for other custom creators.
– Making it an article series helps me to actually stick to doing stuff for it from week to week and not get distracted (again).

Constraints of a Return To

While a fan-made thing could in theory do whatever it wants, part of the appeal and challenge is working under the same constraints that an official Return To would operate under. Most importantly, that means a very limited card budget that can go towards improving the campaign. I also want it to have the same feel as the official Returns, meaning that the card distribution among scenarios and sets is spread out.
To put some numbers on these constraints: The existing Return boxes contain 105-110 cards. 25 to 30 of those go towards upgraded/downgraded player cards, leaving a mere 80ish cards for encounters. Of those, about 25 go towards replacement encounter sets. That leaves about 55 for scenario specific cards or in other words: less than 7 cards on average per scenario. And one of those is going to be the scenario setup card. Yes, those are included in the total count. That leaves us 6 cards per scenario on average which can go towards new treacheries, enemies, locations, agendas and all that other good stuff!
With the numbers being what they are (and they are non-negotiable) that rules out fancy ideas like “Let’s add a new scenario to each side of Dream-Eaters” or similar. We want to improve the campaign with an Unofficial Return, but it will have to do so while still mostly using what is there.

Hey, if it was easy, it would already be done :D

The other constraint is a bit weaker, more malleable, but it should be said that this isn’t starting from zero anymore. I already did throw considerable effort at the design and I am not willing to completely demolish everything. There will certainly be aspects that are already locked in and i will try to make it clear which parts I am especially struggling with still. Everything is up for tweaking, of course. Numbers are never fixed at this stage, even if some concepts might be. As an example, this article today is going to dive into the replacement encounter sets. I am certainly open for ideas on how these replacements look… but the actual decision on what sets are going to be replaced has been made and is locked in.

Which encounter sets to replace?

So let’s just dive in then. As I said, the decision on which encounter sets get replaced has been made and pretty much fixed, but as I’ll show in a moment there’s little room for deviations anyways.

(click to zoom)

This is the distribution of the encounter sets across the eight scenarios of Dream-Eaters. When deciding on which sets to replace, i want to cover the following bases:
– roughly even distribution over the scenarios (about 2 replaced sets per scenario)
– roughly even distribution between the A and the B side of the campaign
– two or three encountersets from the Core, to provide some extra value to anyone who might want to use these replacements outside of the Unofficial Return to Dream-Eaters campaign.
– Every replacement set needs to be used at least two times. Usually i’d want to shoot for three, but due to the nature of the Dream-Eaters campaign actually being two mini-campaigns that doesn’t work out well.
– A total of five or six replacement sets. Anything more would eat too much of our total card budget.

Using those guidelines, here’s the replacement sets as I currently have them in the project:

Some notes :
Everything in yellow is replacements.
Gods Dwell uses only one of them, Kadath uses three. Every other scenario uses two. So that’s good. Distributions across A and B is fine and there’s two Core replacements. Adding up the card counts from the six sets that are replaced here gives a total of 24 cards from our budget which also works.
The two grey cells note that i am want to remove the Ghouls and the Underworld set from Thousand Shapes completely. We’ll get back to that at a later date when i will look at that scenario in detail, it’s not important for now.

Justifying the choices for replacements:
Ancient Evils and Chilling Cold are the only two sets from the Core that are used at least 3 times during Dream-Eaters and the only ones that are used on both sides of the campaign. They are also two high profile sets with good impact in many campaigns. They perfectly fit the bill.
Whispers of Hypnos is the only set from Dream-Eaters that is used in both campaigns which similarly makes it an easy pick. It can also stand to get a bit of a glow up, it’s not really very memorable.
I want to have one of the replacement sets care about swarming and since Merging Realities is the set that is shared across the two scenarios that care about swarms the most (Nightmare and Shapes), it’s the one that will have to make room for the new Ravenous Hordes set.
That settles it on the B side of the campaign, so the remaining replacements should come from the A side. Dreamlands and Corsairs are both chosen to make the “2 replacements per scenario” rule work out. I could see replacing Agents of Nyarlathothep instead of either of them, but i do like the Crawling Mist and it is referred to by name in two scenarios. While the rules do handle replacing cards that are called out by name, it’s something i’d prefer to avoid.

With that, let’s finally get down to individual card designs and take a look at the replacement sets how they are looking in my design file right now.

Ancient Evils -> Looming Evils

Ancient Evils is a very notorious card and I want to get it right. It definitely needs to keep its high impact status. One wish that was relayed to me several times after announcing the Unofficial Return to Dream-Eaters was that I fix the issue with Dark Side of the Moon where Ancient Evils in a reshuffling encounter deck causes too much variance. I would like to fix this with the replacement version, so i don’t have to address it in Dark Side itself.

Alright, starting with one of the problem children immediately.
I’m not really happy with this yet, it’s one of the cards i am struggling with. The idea for stopping the bad interaction with the encounter reshuffles is having it stick around in play for a while that keeps it out of circulation for at least a bit. There’s currently a minor “victory display matters” thing going on in the fan-made Return which is why i am using that particular trigger here to dump it into the discard pile eventually. The ability to put it in the victory display itself allows players to take it out of circulation completely and allows the card to possibly interact with other cards that care about the victory display.
It works, but it feels a bit clumsy to me. And honestly i am not sure if i actually do want the victory subtheme after all.
Status: I would be down to starting completely from scratch with this one. Maybe I put the doom on a Victory enemy in play? I think i need to make a decision about the victory display thing before i move on with this one.

Chilling Cold -> Freezing Blood

Again, I don’t want to make this significantly weaker. In general I believe that player assets are too safe, so I am looking to at least match Crypt Chill with its replacement here. The general vibe of the set should stay the same.

Freezing Blood: This has gone through a bunch of alterations already. It started as a treachery that would just simply take up a handslot. Since that just dunks too harshly on two-handed weapons, it was changed to its current effect that goes after one-handed and two-handed assets indiscriminately, but is less harsh. This set is used in Thousand Shapes, so Freezing Blood does count as a treachery in the players area for the cards that pay off of that in that scenario.
Status: Effect is done. The thing still in question is the test to discard it. I’ll probably tone it down further to difficulty 3.

Fogging Vision: This is rather close to the original Obscuring Fog. The ability cost to discard cards from your hand is meant to play into all the hand disruption that is baked into Gates of Sleep.
Status: It works, i like it. Not terribly sexy, but does the job and does it well.

Corsairs -> Marauders

The original set is used in Kadath and Dark Side and does a good job of linking the two scenarios thematically. The pirate theme definitely has to stay for the replacement for that reason. The treachery has a lot more punch than the enemy in the original set, i would like to swap that dynamic and make the Marauder the focus.

Marauder: The Marauder combines aspects from both original cards. Like Hunted by Corsairs, the Marauder waits for the players to advance the act, ready to strike when they do. As an enemy it is easier to interact with, but i gave this one some considerable resilience between Aloof and 3 health that should hopefully make it a non-trivial decision on whether to ignore it or defeat it. It also inherited the Spawn instruction from Corsair of Leng, i did however change it to City or Ruins instead of City or Surface because i believe this to work slightly better in Dark Side.
Status: Done. This guy plays very well.

Besieged by Pirates: This is another one that has been going through a lot of changes over time. Since the Marauder unites elements of both of the original cards in it, this treachery can be pretty much be whatever i want to. Since Marauder is pushed a bit, i decided to ease up on Besieged. This card is mostly the result of thematic design, trying to push the Pirate angle. And what do pirates do? They plunder. Lose some resources! Riveting stuff, i know :)
Status: Could still be almost anything. I think this works as it is, but i wouldn’t be opposed to better ideas.

Dreamlands -> Dreamscape

Used in Gates of Sleep and Search for Kadath, the Dreamlands set has the job of setting the stage, of giving an impression of how the Dream-Lands look and work. The original set has two treacheries in it that are both reasonably impactful and that are themed around stalling the player’s actions and impacting their clue effort.

Lost in Dream: Hooks into the discard theme of Gates of Sleep and the piracy theme from Kadath. Not terribly impactful due to how much choice it gives players in handling it, but suitably … alien. This is a weird card in some ways and that seems appropriate for this set.
Status: Note to self because i am seeing this only now: The textbox uses both “Lost in Dream” and “Lost in Dreams”. Fix it! Otherwise done.

Mesmerizing Images: A fairly straightforward spin on Dreamlands Eclipse from the original set. It also penalizes going after clues for a turn, but it does so for everyone, no matter if they get clues through investigations or other means. This is a souped up effect from the base card to compensate for Lost in Dream being less impactful than Prismatic Phenomenon.
Status: Done. It’s fine. Not something to get excited about, but it’s a solid card that does its job.

Merging Realities -> Ravenous Hordes

This one is a bit difficult to talk about without the full picture of what i am doing to Thousand Shapes. The important bit here is that i want to make swarming a more prominent thing in Waking Nightmare and Thousand Shapes and to that end i created an encounter set that interacts with it. Merging Realities is to me mostly notable for Threads of Realities which goes after assets and Night Terrors which removes cards from the game. I’ll want to make sure that Ravenous Hordes features those elements.
In terms of theme, i was faced with either making it about spiders or rats. I decided to lean into rats because that part in Thousand Shapes is interesting but very undercooked. Spiders already have plenty of presence.
This is the set that got the most attention from me so far because it has to do some heavy lifting for what i want to do with Thousand Shapes. Accordingly, it’s in a spot where i like it a lot right now and i do consider it done except for one detail.

Surge of Rats: A rather heavy-handed plant for Thousand Shapes. Counting as a Swarm of Rats lets it get bonuses from the agendas there and become swarming. In Waking Nightmare, they are just a surging nuisance but i do believe that rats do actually fit into the creepy hospital quite well thematically.
Status: Done.

Ravenous Horde: Like Threads of Reality, Ravenous Horde goes after the highest cost asset of the player and disables it. It does so through turning it into a swarm card though, so this is pretty hard removal. It also props up the number of swarmers through searching them up when none are around, adding to the spider and rat troubles in either scenario.
Status: Done.

Nothing Left But Bones: Like Night Terrors, it plucks cards from your deck permanently. This explores swarming a bit more, specifically the part where it actually uses your player cards.
Status: The effect that the swarms end up eating your cards is great and that part is absolutely done. The thing that is still up for debate here is the discard trigger for the treachery. Right now it’s timed to trigger the removal of cards at least once, potentially more if you fail the test. But that’s not set in stone.

Whispers of Hypnos -> Song of Hypnos

The neat thing about Whispers is that it’s used across both sides of the campaign. Less neat is how it’s not impactful at all. 90% of times you can just call agility and enjoy your free mythos phase. I would want this to leave a bit more of a mark, but without being overbearing.

By taking away the player choice of skill that is impacted, Song of Hypnos will at least not run into situations where you can completely ignore it. Instead, the card pushes the players to diversify their skill tests because repeatedly passing tests on the same skill is going to ramp up the difficulties over time.
I am happy with this effect as such, i do believe it fixes my issues with the original card and gives it some interesting play patterns. It does pose a bit of a memory issue in 3p and 4p though as you do need to remember through the round what tests your team already took. I do not believe this is a dealbreaker here, but it’s something to be conscious of to not do too often.
Status: Mostly done. I wouldn’t mind keeping it as it is now, but if there’s a good way to address the memory issue that’d be worth exploring.

Open Questions

And that’s what i got so far for the encounter cards that aren’t part of a scenario set. These questions are still in the front of my mind when looking at these:

Is introducing a “victory display matters” theme something that is worth doing? You only get a small part of it here, but there’s more in the scenario specific cards. During the initial design phase it sort of just happened to become a thing, but i have my doubts that it’s really appropriate to introduce a completely new theme with a Return To set. I should probably use the card space to further existing themes instead. In these encounter sets, the only two cards this impacts are Looming Evils and Besieged by Pirates and I don’t feel particularly attached to either.

Is the memory issue with Song of Hypnos actually an issue?

And what the hell do i do with the Evils replacement?

As you can see, there’s not actually all that much that is left open for these sets. The more contentious bits still require work come in the scenario specific stuff. But i did want to open with these because we are going to need them as context when talking about the scenarios in the following weeks.

Part of why I am doing this article series is crowdsourcing opinions, so by all means let me know what you think about any of this. I am aware that much of it requires more context, but I’ll take what i can get!

2 Replies to “Designing a fan-made Return to the Dreamlands #1: Encounter replacements”

  1. Freezing Blood: After dealing with Straitjacket from Unspeakable Oath, I have become very, very sensitive to encounter cards that specifically target certain slots. I’m (almost certainly overly so) worried that Guardians especially are going to struggle with this, either failing to get rid of it right before drawing a chunky enemy or drawing Freezing Blood the same turn as a cluever ally draws an enemy. But, if the effect is done, I’ll trust your playtesting experience.

    Besieged by Pirates: Honestly, losing resources often isn’t a problem for me, so this seems very low impact. Maybe make it a variant of A Phantom of Truth’s Deadly Fate, potentially pulling out one of the Marauders for you to worry about?

    Song of Hypnos: I don’t think the memory issue is going to be that big a problem, don’t worry.

    Victory display theme: Personally, I think that any themes added in a Return To should already be present, at least to some degree, in the base, for example Hidden cards in Carcosa or the exploration deck in Forgotten Age. I think it could be argued that there is a “victory display matters” theme already, but personally, I think it’s a bit of a leap.

    1. Thanks. Yeah, i am coming around to the same conclusion about Return To sets and new themes. It’s not really what they are about, they are about deepening what is there and not about introducing whole new things. Especially in a campaign that is already ripped in two.

      Besieged by Pirates i will likely completely redo, but it being somewhat weak is intentional to balance out the Marauder which is pushed a bit.

      I am fine with Freezing Blood’s effect. I think that the fact that it goes after specific assets is balanced out by not actually being hard removal. You get your asset back once you discard the treachery and unlike with Straitjacket you don’t need to pay and play them again either.

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