Scenario Difficulty Rankings #4: Taking Stock


Before we head into this week’s batch of scenarios, let’s take stock. Here’s the scenarios in the lower third of the difficulty rankings, covered in the previous three weeks (#1), (#2), (#3):

At this point, we can already crown the easiest scenario per campaign:

Notably, I got some pushback on my placement of House Always Wins from reactions to the first article, but i stand by it. Blood on the Altar would be next in line otherwise. Regrettably, there’s also three campaign finales on this list. And only one of those finales (Weaver) manages to still be a good time in spite of being just a bit too easy. Honestly, most of the rest i also find lacking. Echoes, HotE#2, Death’s Doorstep, Gates of Sleep, I&D#2… those are all scenarios that i ranked rather low by enjoyment as well, which points towards there being a thing like “too easy”. The Gathering is of course a special case, as the game’s tutorial it should be on the easier side. We’ll talk some more about The Gathering later in this article, though! But first, some more stalling insight, as I want to take a short moment to talk about consequences!

On difficulty: Consequences

When I discuss difficulty in this article series and try to rank them, a huge portion of where a scenario is going to end up is going to be subjective, both because it’s colored by my own experiences (which don’t have to be representative) and because sometimes things appear more dangerous than they actually are. One thing that can really make a huge difference in how a scenario is perceived is the threat of consequences for failing. Often, this will only be relevant on repeat plays, as these consequences are usually not immediately obvious on the blind play. They just happen during the resolution of the scenario.
Going into a scenario knowing that failing it will have a big influence on how the rest of the campaign goes can therefore make every obstacle the encounter deck throws your way appear more threatening. This can be a good thing, for example I’d argue that The Unspeakable Oath gains a lot of punch from the knowledge that failing it will mean you are driven insane. Of course it’s not an easy scenario for other reasons as well, but the knowledge that failing it will doom your investigator certainly adds a lot to how we think of Oath. On the other hand, it can be a bad thing as well as there are some scenarios that make “failing forward”, an important part of why Arkham’s campaign structure works, impossible or at least very difficult or frustrating. Two examples would be Essex Express which is not only easy to fail, but will also undo almost all your campaign decisions and progress to that point (ditch the Necronomicon, lose all story allies) and To the Forbidden Peaks where winning it means going out with double digit XP and a handful of powerful story assets while losing it means trauma, losing two all partner allies that you took with you and like 2-3XP. Continuing Edge of the Earth after a failed Forbidden Peaks is, at least to me, an exercise in frustration. Honestly, I prefer a scenario that just ends the campaign to being crippled in three different ways and having to limp through the rest of the proceedings. Playing Dunwich for the first time, i failed Where Doom Awaits. That scenario is of course a campaign ender on fail, so I wasn’t allowed to continue to the finale. This is actually something i remember fondly and back then it made me want to go back with different decks right away.
So that’s todays little nugget of what I think about when putting this list together. Being threatened by campaign altering consequences is certainly a factor in how difficult I perceive a scenario. In some cases, scenarios will allow mitigating parts of the consequences by giving a Resign option… but let’s talk about that next time. For now, let’s get back to the list, #52 to #46.

#52: Extracurricular Activity

I found this one hard to place in the list. It’s a bit of a wild mix of various things and the luck of the draw can either clobber you or leave you completely unimpressed. Yithian Observers are surprisingly tough for a first scenario and they can definitely put on some pressure if you get one early. But most of the time, the rather big encounter deck fails to produce a level of coherent threat that is worrying. The scenario is usually also over pretty quickly, so Beyond the Veil isn’t able to do too much here yet… most of the time. You get multiple ways to end the scenario, so you don’t have to tango with The Experiment either. Rescuing the students is usually a perfectly fine way to end and not terribly difficult. That being said, EA is not without its teeth, the ingredients for a rough time are absolutely in the encounter deck. It’s just that it’s diluted enough at this point that it merely foreshadows what comes later in the campaign. Honestly, for a scenario 1 i think that’s a win.

#51: Sanguine Shadows

So yeah, I am not going to pretend that getting to the Seeing Red part of the scenario and beating the Sanguine Watcher is easy. Beating notCarmen notSantiago to her game three times without dropping a bout is a tight race and requires some luck as well. That being said, what’s the consequence for “only” winning the first part? You still get the Weeping Lady. And in terms of XP you only miss the 2 from the Watcher, but then again you also don’t have to pay the 2 time for playing the second part. I would make the point that not playing the second part is actually preferrable because you can use that 2 time better elsewhere. And if that’s the bar i am measuring the scenario with, then all it requires is getting to three wins before La Chica Roja does. That’s not a huge ask.

#50: Waking Nightmare

We have something similar going on to Extracurricular Activity here. Most of the encounter deck is not that much of a problem, even in scenario 1… but Grey Weavers play the role of the Yithian Observers here. Luckily they aren’t shuffled into the deck until late in the game, but those things are nasty. What Waking Nightmare does excellently though is the sense of urgency throughout. You are constantly racing against the infestation bag, at least until you get the stairwell under control and can contain the horror tokens behind it. A great example that you don’t always need Ancient Evils and a horde of cultists to create timing pressure.

#49: Return to The Gathering

The first instance in the list where a Return To significantly adds to the difficulty of a scenario. Two more big ghouls show up in the house and as a result there is a sizeable amount of chunky enemies to get past before even reaching the Ghoul Priest. The scenario specific The Zealot’s Seal is also quite impactful. As a small mercy, Return to Gathering takes Grasping Hands out of the encounter deck, which does counteract some of the pain the additional ghouls can dish out.
The most relevant that the Return does is add more locations and pad out the scenario a bit. By making it last longer, you get more opportunities to draw into Rotten Remains and friends, as well as the assorted ghouls in the deck. Thanks to Lita’s help and the option to run out of the front door, the scenario is still not horrible, but it does pose a credible challenge now. I like it quite a bit.

#48: A Thousand Shapes of Horror

Thousand Shapes is for the most part rather benign. Moving around the house and doing some tasks isn’t all that difficult, even with the Unnamable being around.
This changes abruptly with the stair section, though. I base this placement in the list pretty much exclusively on the flight down the stairs, without that final part Thousand Shapes would very likely have been a part of the first article. However, with how often I got defeated on the stairs in the past, I will have to show the scenario some respect. And, to get back to my earlier ramblings about consequences, knowing that I need all the headstart I can get for the stairs does inject the first part with some extra urgency as I will want to not lose unnecessary time there. I especially don’t want to start that bit with the Unnamable already on top of me without Aloof.

#47: The Point of No Return

This is to me another case of classic Arkham gameplay, similar in broad concept to last week’s Pallid Mask. What i like in Point of No Return in particular is how it ramps up its difficulty. It’s a rather long scenario and it starts out somewhat unassuming, with some Gugs and Ghouls roaming about. And over time, as more of the map opens up, you get the big spiders and Nightgaunts added to the deck. And that terrifying Dhole thing. Even one of the scenario specific treacheries has scaling, with getting additional effects if the investigator is at certain locations that are further into the map. I’d point to this scenario as difficulty done right. It has a lot of impressive challenges for the players, but introduces them gradually and gives them the chance to meet it on their own terms.

#46: On Thin Ice

A scenario about a interdimensional Chimera that consists of multiple Elite enemies and abducts players to its own location. Yet, the most scary thing in it is a Grizzly bear.
This is a scenario where I found a huge difference in how it feels between the first play and the second/third. If you don’t know what’s going to happen, there are some things here that can give you trouble. The Void Chimera is rather difficult if you don’t put down the tokens on the wilderness locations. But on the repeat play, you are just going to always do that… and what’s left isn’t that spectacular to be honest. On your first play you might get the bright idea of antagonizing Thorne and in turn having to face one mean enemy where you have to wonder why they don’t just bareknuckle the Chimera in the first place. They have the stats for it, it’s not like they need the help of the players 😀 But if you ally with Thorne you won’t be getting any trouble on that front either. I’ve recently read a scenario report by someone that opened up my eyes to something else that ties back into the topic of Consequences as i touched on earlier: After meeting Thorne and striking a deal with them you can just wander over to the Resign location and leave without any ill effects, ignoring the Chimera and well, your part of the deal. Presumably Thorne just goes ahead and does indeed bareknuckle the thing to paste once you are gone. Like with Sanguine Shadows, you miss out on some XP, but also save an equal amount of time… so yeah. On Thin Ice looks a lot worse than it actually is, even if you do play it out.

2 Replies to “Scenario Difficulty Rankings #4: Taking Stock”

  1. That’s a very interesting comparison on “Sanguine Shadows”! To insert a standalone scenario into the campaign you pay the equal amount of time instead of XP, so they should indeed be valued about the same.

    In my experience, “Edge of the Earth” is the worst campaign to fail forward, even before “Forbidden Peaks”. We botched “Ice & Death. Part 1” on our blind run, and it was misery all along. Had an easy time on the rerun. “Essex County Express” on the other hand seems very low impact for me. Sure, loosing the Necronomicon sucks, if you took the squid token to get it, what I usually avoid. But the allies might be alive and kicking, if you do well on the next scenario. In general, Dunwich seems very suitable to fail forward. Nothing before “Where Doom Awaits” matters too much.

    I’m quite surprised, you still did not rank “Horror in High Gear” yet. In my experience one of the “too easy to be fun” scenarios. Would have expected it in the second entry at the very latest.

    1. Horror in High Gear barely missed the cut for this week’s article, it will be early in the next.
      I do have quite a bit of respect for it. It is doing its best to kill you. What really elevates Horror in High Gear for me is how non-interactive it is. You just kinda let Jesus take the wheel and hope for the best while the encounter deck rains its bullshit onto you. It’s still no Essex Express of course. HiHG pretty much has no doom clock.

      I agree on Edge of the Earth. They kinda dropped the ball on it with regards to the “fail forward” aspect of the game. It’s my least favorite campaign and the campaign structure is the main reason for it.

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