The Betrayer's War Designer Q&A
Check Out Some Insights from the Designers of Act 2 of Descent: Legends of the Dark
The release of The Betrayer’s War, the second Act of Descent: Legends of the Dark, is fast approaching! As we count down to the expansion’s launch, we asked some members of the Descent design team to share their insights behind the project.
So, without further ado, let’s hear some words from Phil Henry, Brooks Flugaur-Leavitt, and Aaron Haltom!
What is your role in The Betrayer’s War?
Phil: I am the Lead Designer for the Descent: Legends of the Dark game line, which means I had my grubby little mitts on nearly all the content of the Act 2 box in some capacity. Specifically, I wrote and developed all the new cards, designed 4 of the quests, helped with the other quests, created the way the new terrain and weapon parts work in the game, and turned Dan Clark’s story into a campaign people could play.
Brooks: I joined the Descent team as the physical content stage was wrapping up, so my involvement was primarily in story and scenario design. I designed and programmed three quests that carry a connected plotline through the larger story of The Betrayer’s War, focusing on the rivalry and conflict within Terrinoth’s ruling Council of Barons. I also created a whole host of variant enemy types for both Act 1 and Act 2 miniatures to represent different foes and present new challenges for players! Lastly, I am part of the story group that maintains and reviews the setting’s lore and depiction to ensure it remains consistent and intentional.
Aaron: My primary involvement was in scenario design—I was responsible for four of the quests in this Act. Developing a quest involves a lot of playtesting and scenario design, a lot of back-end work implementing that vision in the app and making sure it works, and a lot of game story text writing. Dan Clark helped me a lot with the story writing, Paul Klecker and his interactive team helped me a lot with the app development, and Phil Henry, the project’s lead, helped me a lot in developing my scenarios.
Can you share some insights into the design and development process of The Betrayer’s War? For example, how did this project get started? What were your goals (both personally and as a team) for creating Act 2 of Descent: Legends of the Dark?
Phil: After the launch of Act 1, I was brought in to help spearhead the development of the new box; first alongside Brandon Perdue, and then as the lead of a new team when Brandon left the studio to pursue an opportunity too cool for him to refuse.
Early design focused on working with Dan and our story team to lock in the narrative we wanted to tell with the campaign, designing the cards, miniatures and terrain that would be in the physical box, and setting the stage for the campaign work to come. After we had all those fundamentals nailed down, we moved into quest development, where our campaign road-map gave us the broad strokes of each quest—along with the important narrative threads that needed to run into and out of each quest—but the designer of each quest had a lot of leeway to determine the specific shape that quest would take.
Galaden’s featured quest in this Act, for example, simply stated that this would be a major showdown with <VILLAIN NAME REDACTED>, giving the players a chance to sideline that enemy for the rest of the Act. I was free to choose the setting of that quest and to determine what enemies and threats might appear there. “A new undead variant of the <REDACTED> battling the heroes in an abandoned <REDACTED> while chaotic magic spilled out of a portal to <REDACTED>” wasn’t in the campaign outline, for example, but our writers’ room decided it would make for a cool quest hook. All of the quests really benefitted from that relatively open approach, and the team built some truly wild ideas that were no where in the story outline.
A major goal for Act 2 was to continue to tell the story of our cast of heroes; the game is about them, and that sharp focus on our cast of characters is what sets this game apart from other titles in the genre. The stakes are personal, and who our characters are is really a driving force in the story. We also knew that we weren’t giving players new heroes to try out, so we made it a priority to give each hero a few different ways they could engage with their niche strategies, while also making sure the game’s overhead didn’t become too unwieldy for players. Your moment-to-moment decisions needed to remain easy to manage, even as you gained more tactical opportunities in your hero’s build.
Brooks: I wasn’t involved in Descent: Legends of the Dark until well into development of Act 2, but I was involved in a much earlier design effort that shaped modern Terrinoth. In the last year of Runewars: The Miniatures Game, we explored returning the dragonlords to the setting and advancing the timeline, so that players could play out new climactic events to rival those of Terrinoth’s ancient history. Though that work was never published for Runewars, a great deal of it, especially concepts and lore for the dragon hybrids and their bells, was carried on into Embers of Dread, and from there to Descent: Legends of the Dark.
When I returned to FFG and joined The Betrayer's War, I was excited to continue that work. I find settings most compelling when they feel cohesive, lived-in, and responsive to the stories told in them, so it has been my goal to develop Terrinoth in those ways. The events of Descent: Legends of the Dark will change Terrinoth, and our heroes (and through them, the players) will be a part of that ongoing story.
Aaron: By the time I was brought on, development was already underway. Phil Henry and Brandon Perdue already had all the physical content locked in, and a solid outline for the Act. I just got to come do the fun part: make quests! My goal was to push the limits on what we could do with the app. I wanted to play with more custom terrain logic, and to make each of my quests feel unlike any other quest we’ve ever done. The three-dimensional aspect of this game is what really makes it stand out from other games, and I wanted to capitalize on that in particular with lots more multi-level designs.
What is the most exciting thing about The Betrayer’s War to you? What do you think fans of Descent: Legends of the Dark will look forward to the most?
Phil: We really tried to take everything we love about Descent: Legends of the Dark and just turn it up. The new hero weapons and skills give players more ways to explore (and exploit) the game’s systems—the heroes can choose their skills and cards to lean into new builds and strategies, so my Galaden can focus on a very different thing than your Galaden, for example. The new quests do some really wild stuff with the app, and we let the 3d terrain get bigger and more impressive. Act 2’s quests really lean into the verticality offered by the terrain—we built them tall, not wide. And the new minis are amazing; our sculpting team knocked it out of the park, and it’s a real treat to see them on the table, especially when you’re not expecting it (like in an Act 1 quest)!
Brooks: For me personally, I have to admit that the best part was getting to return to Terrinoth and explore its identity, culture, and history! It’s a pretty nerdy answer, I know, but it was so rewarding to get to flesh out the setting through new characters, locations, and events with their own art and lore. Some of these call back to older stories, paying homage to previous games in Terrinoth, while others are new creations as we grow and advance the setting.
For our fans, look forward to even more tightly interwoven story and gameplay! Narrative events and decisions from both Acts will increasingly have gameplay consequences over the course of The Betrayer’s War, and many of our new quests incorporate story scenes and even cutscenes at dramatic moments, making the whole experience as immersive as possible.
Aaron: I don’t want to get too specific, because of spoilers, but I’m really excited about several of the quests that introduce new goals besides the usual loot and fight. I’ve also got a particular soft spot for an as-yet-unnamed NPC of the draconic variety.
What were some of the challenges involved in designing The Betrayer’s War? How did you overcome them?
Phil: The biggest challenge with this game is also its biggest strength. As I told my fellow designers when we started, the development tools for the app are so robust that we can do almost anything we want with them. The flip side of that, though, is that you have to learn how to do it, and there are so many moving parts behind the scenes that things can go wrong.
When we design scenarios for a game that’s entirely cardboard based, we are limited by what we can fit onto a handful of cards. In Descent, even more than our other app games like Journeys in Middle-earth or Mansions of Madness, the only real limit is what you can think up, and Aaron and Brooks really found some incredible ways to push the envelope with their quests.
Brooks: The greatest challenge for me was in channeling my ideas through the programming of the game’s app. I leveraged my roleplaying experience in crafting the story and scenarios, but the computer can't improvise like a real Game Master, so my creativity had to be expressed through scripting out all sorts of possibilities for what might happen as a result of each different choice the heroes might make. Several times during development I said that it was like having to GM every group of players who will ever play that quest, all at once!
It was a lot of work, but it was also incredibly rewarding, and the whole team was very supportive of each other. We had plans in place to pace ourselves, and checked-in regularly to avoid overcommitment. I think every single draft quest got feedback that “this is awesome, but it’s a lot, do you feel up to it?” The answer was usually “yes,” but there were definitely times we re-evaluated to focus on what aspects would be most meaningful for the player experience.
Aaron: Since I was trying so hard to make my quests feel new and innovative, they involved a lot of programming on the back-end. That took a lot of time, but eventually we figured out how to do all the outlandish things that I wanted to do. Thankfully, I was able to turn to my fellow designers Phillip Henry and Brooks Flugaur-Leavitt, for guidance on whatever was stumping me, and the interactive team (especially Michael Carney) were also there to support me and to give me software tools to help me achieve my lofty development goals.
What were some ways you expanded on what was set up in Act 1 of Descent: Legends of the Dark? How did you build upon what was established in the core set?
Phil: In a lot of ways, the Act 1 story is about defining what the modern era of Terrinoth is. It (along with Legacy of Dragonholt) expanded the lore of the setting in some bold ways that really, finally, let the setting be a unique and interesting take on high fantasy that wears its hopepunk heart on its sleeve.
Act 2, then, let us get into the people that make Terrinoth special: it defines who Terrinoth is. We get to spend more time with our six heroes, we get to expand our cast of supporting characters, and we get to show players more of the faces and personalities that the game represents. Act 2 tasks the heroes with recruiting allies to help them save Terrinoth, so the players also get a voice in deciding who gets a seat at the table.
Brooks: A recurring theme in modern Terrinoth, and an intentional feature of Descent: Legends of the Dark, is the hopepunk tone of the story and setting. Our heroes are determined to save Terrinoth, and make it a better place, but they can't do either alone. The heroes' (and players') actions at the end of Act 1 have drawn them into the setting's broader conflicts, not all of which can be solved with spell and sword.
In The Betrayer's War they'll have to mediate disputes, recruit allies, and build a coalition to resist Levirax's invasion and thwart Waiqar's plans. Players will meet and engage with diverse characters from across Terrinoth, each of whom have something to contribute to the story. We really want to drive home that as brave and skilled as our protagonists are, it is their bonds with and leadership of their communities that make them the heroes of our story.
Aaron: Act 1 already gave us beautiful, functional systems for spawning maps, terrain, and enemies, and handling combat. We expanded on this in natural ways by simply adding more new terrain, tiles, and enemies, and by raising the tiers of how powerful the enemies can get. We also expanded on this infrastructure in more customized ways, introducing new functionality to the world map and using more customized logic for our quests and the objects within them.
What is your favorite part of The Betrayer’s War that you were involved with? For example, if you helped design some of the scenarios, which one is your favorite?
Phil: I really love the new villains we’ve developed for Act 2. We’ve got a great set of recurring antagonists that show up throughout the Act, and I love the way those villains react to the heroes based on what the heroes choose to do and how they fare in their quests. I think players will really get to know the villains that face them – and hopefully they have some pretty strong emotional reactions too. (My favorite things to write are food scenes, weather, and scathing insults. Our villains don’t do much of the first two.)
Brooks: The last scenario I designed is set at a meeting of a large portion of the Council of Barons, and it is really my pride and joy. The players get to engage with a number of supporting characters, trying to scheme against, learn from, or persuade them on various matters, but they do so during an active quest, with the pressures of exploration and potential combat. Having to interact with these allies and rivals on the map, uncertain of what might happen next, really heightens the tension. Since you already know this expansion is titled The Betrayer's War, it shouldn't be much of a spoiler to say that the name of this quest is "The Betrayal"...but you'll have to discover the details for yourself!
Aaron: My favorite of the quests that I worked on is probably the one where the heroes have to navigate a labyrinth. The entire quest is a big puzzle to some degree, and I like the trippy, otherworldly vibes of that location.
Of the six heroes in Descent: Legends of the Dark—Brynn, Chance, Galaden, Kehli, Syrus, and Vaerix—who among them is your favorite, and why?
Phil: What a terrible thing, to make me choose. I love playing a support character, especially if they work well on their own too, so Kehli and Vaerix are always great choices for me, but I also love shenanigans, so Syrus and Chance are also my favorite. (You can probably see where this is going.) Also, I really love hitting things so hard that they can’t hit my friends, so I’d say Brynn or Galaden is probably my favorite. One of those six, yeah.
Brooks: I don’t have a favorite in gameplay, they all have fun skill sets to explore and The Betrayer’s War has only enhanced that, so I change which hero(es) I play almost every quest. I won’t cop out of the question, though: they’re all wonderful, but my favorites are Brynn and Chance for their narrative arcs and personalities.
I’m a huge sucker for stories where a tragic hero is bound by duty: Brynn never wanted to be – wasn’t supposed to be – baroness, but she’d never abandon her people in their time of need. Her role in the story means she has a lot of ties to the supporting cast, and her relationships with those characters let us see and show who she is from lots of different angles. Her relationship with her kin is particularly touching, and their depictions in The Doom of Fallowhearth just makes their shared family story all the more tragic and compelling.
Chance, conversely, we know the least about his history and he has the fewest existing ties to the rest of the cast. Escaping the Outlaw Prince has freed him to be himself, but over the course of The Betrayer’s War he gets to figure out what that means. He’s compassionate and deeply empathetic, and he helps people simply because it is the right thing to do. His interactions are always heartwarming to write, full of expressions of kindness and care.
Aaron: I love them all for different reasons. The ones that I end up playing the most are Chance and Galaden. I love Chance’s “criminal with a heart of gold” personality, and his playstyle has a really cool twist to it in Act 2. I love Galaden’s gruffness and blunt honesty, and he probably fits my own personal playstyle the best, moving quickly across the board and focus firing down problematic enemies.
Are there any additional thoughts about The Betrayers War and/or Descent: Legends of the Dark that you would like to share?
Phil: I could talk for hours about how this project came together, but I’ll stop here to avoid rambling (barring some more focused questions from the community or from marketing). I can’t wait until you all see the wild and crazy stuff we put in this expansion! We followed up the most ambitious game in FFG’s history with an expansion that just kept raising the bar.
Brooks: I've said a lot already, so I'll leave you with this: The Betrayer's War is a game and a story all in one. There's a lot to take in, so take your time and savor your Descent into Legends of the Dark!
Aaron: Don’t sleep on the trinkets! We continued to do fun and whacky things with them this time, but you have to try them out to figure out exactly how a lot of them work. We intentionally baked in that ambiguity to encourage player experimentation and discovery. I hope everyone has as much fun playing Act 2 as we had making it!