Session Report is a monthly series that explores the intersection of narrative and broader themes of game design by focusing on a specific tabletop game each month.
All block quotes are direct excerpts from material found in Arkham Horror and its related expansions, copyright Fantasy Flight Publishing, Inc. The sources for these excerpts was the excellent Arkham Horror Wiki.
Lily Chen hesitated in front of shop’s entrance. The words etched into the glass door, written in a language she could barely make out, read “Ye Olde Magick Shoppe.” She was in the Uptown district of a small town in America called Arkham, Massachusetts, at the dawn of the end of the world. For the first time in a life dominated by training, discipline (mental and physical) and preparation, she was uncertain what to do next.
She knew that this was where she belonged. It had been her destiny to come her, to destroy the unspeakable evil that was rising in this quiet New England town. She could feel its presence even now, distorting the atmosphere around her like heat haze. And yet, at the same time, she knew that she did not belong, that her almond eyes, strange clothes and stranger accent instantly marked her as a foreigner, and that Arkham’s residents didn’t take kindly to foreigners. And, although she knew it was her destiny to stop the ancient thing awakening here, she did not yet know how or when. She desperately needed guidance.
Just then, a mysterious old woman hobbled past her and wordlessly pressed a crumpled piece of paper into Lily’s fist. Unfolding it, she could tell immediately that it contained the words to a powerful spell. The monks that had raised her had already taught her one such incantation, which she could use to summon a shantak, an elephant-sized bird from the realm of sleep. This new charm seemed to contain instructions for enchanting a weapon. Lily smiled. She did not need a weapon; she had been raised, from an early age, to harness the forces of qi and mold her own body into the deadliest instrument.
This thought gave her the confidence to enter the shop. She expected to see surprise and distrust on the face of the shopkeeper, but the other woman’s expression suggested that nothing was more common than Chinese martial artists perusing her wares. In fact, she looked as though she recognized Lily. She spoke:
“It’s about time you arrived. I have a job for you to do.”
A note: Some readers might find Fantasy Flight Games’ depiction of Lily Chen, the protagonist of this story, racially insensitive. A Chinese kung fu monk, she’s not challenging any stereotypes about Asian characters. Like the rest of Arkham Horror‘s extensive cast of playable characters–64 as of this date–she is an artifact, an archetype plucked from the pages of early 20th century pulp adventure magazines like Weird Tales, which originally published many of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories. Arkham Horror is a Lovecraft game, and it reflects a pulp adventure view of the world appropriate to the age of its source material. It’s set in Massachusetts at the height of the Roaring Twenties, and its overwhelmingly white cast, with the occasional token stereotype, is entirely appropriate to the setting the game is trying to evoke, if not to ideas of political correctness. It also plays quite nicely into Lovecraft’s overtly xenophobic themes.
The characters in the base game of Arkham Horror (all white), as mentioned, represent various archetypes to be found in pulp fiction of the era, although few are representative of Lovecraft’s characters, who tended to be intellectuals and introverts, not action heroes. We’re given the Student, the Doctor, the Drifter, the Dilettante, the Archaeologist, the Private Eye, and 10 others along those lines. There are four black characters introduced in Arkham’s expansions, filling prohibitively stereotypical roles: Jim Culver, the Musician (a jazz player whose trumpet is so powerful, even the dead get up and dance); Marie Lambeau, the Entertainer (a blues singer with voodoo ties); Rita Young, the Athlete (a Miskatonic University student from Atlanta, here on an athletic scholarship); and Akachi Onyele, the Shaman (an African witch doctor). Additionally, there are two Asian characters: Minh Thi Phan, the Secretary (an exemplary student and hard worker, originally from Korea), and Lily Chen, the Martial Artist.
Each investigator is given a roughly three-paragraph back story, printed on the reverse side of their character sheet, the front side of which provides information on the character’s stats and special abilities. Here is Lily’s:
The Story So Far: Lily Chen had an unusual childhood, to put it mildly. She was born in mainland China, and on the next day, a group of monks arrived at her home, asking if any children had been born there the night before. The monks were seeking a child of prophecy, and although they were surprised to find that she was a girl, they wished to take and train her at their monastery. Her parents, both poor and devout, agreed, after making sure she would be well cared for.
The monks began her on a rigorous training program nearly as soon as she could walk, teaching her every martial arts technique they could, going so far as to invite instructors from other countries to teach her. She knew from a young age that she was fated to perform an incredibly dangerous task when the time came, so she pursued her studies with a will. Lily learned not only a myriad of deadly unarmed combat techniques, but also how to link her mind to her body on a fundamental level, each supporting the other.
Finally, last month, it happened. One of the monks awoke from his meditations screaming, “The Great Eye is opening! The final days are upon us!” before falling dead.
Now, Lily stands inside a magic shop in Arkham, hoping to find someone or something that will aid her in fulfilling her destiny.
The bruising winds make movement difficult. Lose 1 Stamina.
Lily pushed forward, even though every muscle in her body rebelled against the notion. She was hungry, the food she’d purchased with the last of the monastery’s money having been stolen by the hideous rat-thing that had emerged from this inhospitable place. She was tired. But at least she knew what awaited her at the end of all this.
“The evil one has many guises,” the shopkeeper had explained. “It has existed for as long as there has been corruption. Some have known it as The Dark Pharaoh. The Black Man. The Bloated Woman. God of the Bloody Tongue. We know him as Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos. He is the avatar and form of the Outer Gods, who rule this world from beyond angled space and desire nothing short of absolute chaos.”
In their service, she had explained, Nyarlathotep was attempting to tear down the walls of known reality. Even now, gates were appearing across Arkham, gates connecting to worlds beyond human ken. Lily had only one chance of stopping this: she must visit four of these strange planes in sequence, spilling a drop of her blood in the soil of each one. Then, after she had returned to Arkham, she must make “the ultimate sacrifice.” If she should fail at this task, there was another way: sealing six of these gates with the mysterious and powerful elder sign. But this, the shopkeeper hastened to add, could not be done, not before the Ancient One reached full power.
Lily had already passed through the first of these gates, a place of darkness and impassable terrain known as the Abyss. She pushed onward through the screeching wind, undisturbed by the knowledge that, in order to fulfill her destiny and save the world, she would have to die.
Dying in Arkham Horror isn’t a particularly difficult task. Like Dark Souls, it offers its players countless and diverse opportunities to do so. In the game’s obscure, specific terminology (the use of which is the reason that we love and hate the American school of board game design), it’s called being “devoured.” Your investigator–every character is an investigator–starts with a small pool of sanity or stamina. If either one runs out, you are knocked unconscious or driven insane and taken to the appropriate institution, gaining an Injury or Madness card that gives you a permanent handicap for the rest of the game. If you ever lose your sanity and your stamina at the same time, though, you are devoured. If you ever get two identical Injury or Madness cards, you are devoured. You are devoured if you are Lost in Time and Space (Arkham‘s equivalent of “lose a turn”) when the Ancient One awakens. If you fall unconscious or insane during the Final Battle with the Ancient One, you are devoured. If you fail to defeat or evade certain monsters, you are devoured. Ancient Ones can devour you for looking at them funny–literally, in the case of Ghatanothoa; if your investigations reveal his terrifying visage, you are devoured. Expansions bring in new and exciting ways to be devoured, such as holding cursed objects or making the wrong sort of deal.
Being devoured isn’t actually that bad: it just means you pick a fresh investigator to play with. Sometimes, it’s even an improvement over the cobbled, debt-ridden investigator you had previously. However, this doesn’t mean that Arkham Horror is an easy game. Its difficulty is appropriate to its theme: when you have flappers and mobsters going up against cosmic beings beyond mortal understanding, you don’t want to get your hopes up.
The difference between Arkham‘s difficulty and Dark Souls‘ is that in a cooperative board game, it’s very difficult to reward actual skill without turning the game into a cakewalk for any reasonably competent player. Dark Souls is hard but fair–you can learn its tricks and get better at surviving its challenges. Arkham Horror is arbitrary. The skills rewarded by most video games are things like precision and reaction time. Tabletop games reward more nebulous, fickle skills like pushing your luck or playing the odds. And when a game’s said to be difficult, as Arkham is, that simply means that it’s less forgiving when it turns out you bet on the wrong horse. In some cases, there wasn’t ever a right horse.
There are, incidentally, an awful lot of dice in Arkham Horror. It’s a game of two halves: combat and encounters. During the first part of their turn, players move around a simplified map of Arkham, which is made up of centralized street areas that branch off into specific locations. Monsters patrol the streets, spat out by the gates that open at the end of every round. If you run into a monster, you either need to evade it–which means rolling dice–or engage it in combat, which means losing some sanity from glimpsing its hideous appearance…and then rolling some more dice. If you make it to a location, you have an encounter, which gives you a little snippet of story and then, usually, asks you to roll some dice. There’s a lot of strategy that goes into manipulating and judging the odds of these myriad dice rolls, but it doesn’t hide the fact that the outcome of the game is, ultimately, out of your hands. This might have been frustrating in a game about superheroes, but the ultimate futility of your actions fits Arkham Horror‘s Lovecraftian theme to a tee.
Walking into a clearing, you feel that you are at the center of a web of enormous magical energy.
Lily paused. The flow of qi here, just outside of where she had closed the Abyssal gate, was unlike anything she had ever felt. She felt connected, not just to the world around her, but to cold planets on the edge of the solar system and realms even more distant. With a wave of her arm, she felt that she could control the dimensional folding that was occurring here in Arkham, to a small extent. She concentrated, and a gate in the Rivertown district that had previously connected to the sunken city of R’lyeh closed of its own accord. Another opened in its stead, to an unnamed other dimension.
The moment passed. Lily had been hoping for Yuggoth, the next stop on her list, but she would take what she could get. Most places were better than R’lyeh.
A sodden shape emerged from the waters of the river. It looked like a man, but with large, amphibious eyes and squamous features. Her mind recoiled at the implications, but she was able to dispatch him using her fists and feet. Then, no longer able to fight her exhaustion, she lay down on the soft ground and slept.
Falling asleep beneath one of the ancient willows on the island, you dream of another life, one in which you called down strange entities and sacrificed in their name. When you awaken, you have retained some of the memories from that other life. Gain 1 Clue Token and 1 Spell.
When Lily awoke, she could sense a new power within her: the power to seek out the otherworldly gates leading back to Arkham, foreshortening her trips to the other side.
Like many of Lovecraft’s characters, Arkham Horror has a complicated genealogy. On the front of the box, a logo proudly declares it to be “A Call of Cthulhu Boardgame.” Call of Cthulhu is a tabletop roleplaying system, like Dungeons & Dragons, created by Sandy Peterson and published by Chaosium. The original release of Arkham Horror, in 1987, was also published by Chaosium, but the current version, which differs in enough areas to be called a completely different game, is published by Fantasy Flight Games, who now own the rights. The Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game is inspired by the Cthulhu Mythos, which takes its name from the H.P. Lovecraft cosmic horror story “The Call of Cthulhu.” However, the Cthulhu Mythos does not necessarily represent the universe as Lovecraft imagined it; it’s been expanded, revised and codified, most extensively by Lovecraft’s contemporary August Derleth.
And, since its reconception in 2005, Arkham Horror has become a universe in itself; several more recent releases from Fantasy Flight explore the same characters, themes and settings using different gameplay constructions, such as the push-your-luck dice game Elder Sign and the scenario-based Mansions of Madness, which reinstates the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game’s notion of a Keeper player, or game master, running the show. These newer releases, which hew so closely to Arkham Horror’s established characters, objects and terminology that they now represent an insular mythos of their own (in the same way that Final Fantasy players can expect to find largely the same creatures, summons, spells and items in every game, regardless of setting)–these newer releases are brought together under the banner “Arkham Horror Files.” In other words, the universe has moved on. The Call of Cthulhu logo, in newer titles, is conspicuous in its absence.
The society’s latest treasure, an ancient cask from Europe, is not altogether harmless. A monster appears when it is opened, attacking you.
Passing through and ultimately sealing the gates required a great deal of arcane knowledge. It was a good thing that the monks had taught her patience; otherwise, Lily would have been unable to handle the drudgery of research and investigation that took up most of her time in Arkham, knowing that the clock to Nyarlathotep’s awakening never stopped ticking as she chased down false leads or got caught up in endless complications. She had heard that Arkham’s Historical Society held a great deal of papers of arcane interest, so she’d paid them a visit. And now, she was being hunted by a swarthy, horned man-thing that she recognized as Shugeron, one of the many masks of Nyarlathotep.
If it had been a regular monster, it would have been no match for Lily. But the masks, Nyarlathotep’s earthly forms, were different. Her only hope was to evade it. It cost all of her newly gained arcane knowledge to do so–knowledge that the Ancient One now knew she had, and that was now rendered useless against it. She had accomplished nothing on this trip but waste another precious hour.
Arkham Horror is a game that often overstays its welcome. The information on the box promises 2-4 hours’ playtime, which either sounds insanely long or average, depending on your experience playing board games. The actual length of a game of Arkham Horror can fall within those bounds, or it can double them, 4-6 hours being a more reliable average.
It is a game of dashed hopes and unexpected reversals of fortune. You can have a win in your pocket, only to have the next two gate openings undo a half hour’s worth of progress. The game is designed to quickly bring players teetering on the verge of victory or defeat, and to suspend them in that state for as long as possible, until the cards or dice fall into play in exactly the right way to force a resolution, like tumblers in a clockwork mechanism.
Upon entering the church, you are attacked by Father Michael with a giant cross, who for some reason believes you to be in league with the devil.
Apparently, the American priesthood were as fickle as their gods: a few hours ago, Lily had presented evidence of closing the Abyss gate to Father Michael, who ran Arkham’s South Church, and in turn, he had blessed her, muttering a few words over her body. She had felt the shift in her qi and known the blessing to be true, but a half hour later, it had already worn off. So she’d returned to be re-blessed, only to be accosted by this same priest as a foreign devil.
They exchanged shouted words through the Church’s enormous double doors as Arkham went to hell around them. Motor vehicles growled past her on the main road out of town, spewing black fumes. Eventually, she said something that convinced him and, ushering her back inside, the repentant priest re-blessed Lily Chen for free.
Trophies of the gates she’d sealed and the monsters she’d subdued were still burning a hole in her pocket, so Lily stopped in at Ma’s Boarding House, in the same neighborhood. There, she tossed a bloody, serpentine skull, the corpse of the hideous rat-thing, the toad-like arm of a Moon-Beast, and the ashes left over from when she’d sealed the gate to another dimension that had opened at the infamous Witch House, down onto the table of Ma’s drawing room. The assembled guests stared at her in startled silence, and then an unbelievably tall and thick American stood up, silently nodded, and went upstairs to pack a few of his things. A few minutes later, she was back in the Southside streets, accompanied by the feared bouncer Tom “Mountain” Murphy, whose physical strength nearly matched her own.
For a game with so much specific language in its main storytelling devices, the encounter cards, two of Arkham Horror‘s core mechanisms are surprisingly abstract. Throughout the game, the players collect clue tokens. These clue tokens, spawned in random places on the board, provide motivation for moving around and having encounters in different places. And it’s pretty good motivation, too, since clues are integral to the central method of winning the game: permanently sealing six gates, which requires a total of 30 clues to accomplish. Additionally, clues can be spent to add additional dice to any roll and can turn the tide even on impossible situations. It took 3 clues to successfully evade Shugeron at the Historical Society, exactly the same number of clues I’d gained from going there.
Importantly, clues don’t represent anything specific, which allows them to serve this dual function without breaking the immersion of the storyline. Why did Lily Chen gain 3 clues when she visited the Woods location? Perhaps she found some bloody footprints, or trees that waved their branches even when the wind was still, or an arcane carving etched in a rotting stump. Whatever the specifics, the visit expanded her arcane knowledge, and this same knowledge later allowed her to seal a gate (she used the arcane symbol in a sealing ritual), evade a monster (the bloody footprints clued her to its patterns of movement), or pass a skill check (the moving trees inspired her to check a certain page in the arcane encyclopedia, revealing the spell she was looking for). The clues’ vagueness is not a weakness in the storytelling, it’s a strength; by putting the details in the players’ hands, they become a glue that can adhere to any surface, pasting otherwise unconnected events into a cohesive story.
The trophies are similarly abstracted. Whenever a player kills a monster or closes a gate, they receive it as a trophy. The tougher the monster, the more valuable the trophy, and gate tokens are worth 5 toughness in monster trophies. These trophies can then be spent at various locations for various effects: dissected at the Science Building for clues, traded at the Docks for money, used at the South Church to be blessed, at Ma’s to recruit allies, or at the Police Station to become deputized (which comes with several benefits: a stipend, a service revolver, and even a paddy wagon). In some of these locations, the trophies clearly represent tangible things, like a claw or a clump of Yuggoth soil, but in others, they could simply stand in for rumors of your heroism, for the experience written on your face, like XP in a roleplaying game. Again, the non-specific nature of these trophies allows them to bond the story together wherever it needs it most.
Assisting a professor in his research, you find a valuable Spell.
Lily couldn’t believe it. Here, in her hands, she held the power to control the gates, the power she had momentarily sensed before, just after closing off the Abyss. The time of Nyarlathotep’s awakening was drawing close, but with this power, she just might have a shot at fulfilling her mission.
She had to disable, with a quick jab to a pressure point, a sticky-fingered student who tried to make off with the scroll outlining her mission, but this distraction didn’t diminish her joy. As though the Ancient One sensed her intentions, the gates that had been opening until now had all led to exactly the wrong places. With this spell, she had some hope. It could only be used once, but…she had hope. Uttering the eldritch words, she shifted the alignment of the gate at the Unvisited Isle, where she’d first entered the Abyss, so that it connected her with distant Yuggoth, the next plane on her list. Finally, she was getting somewhere.
Just as she felt the spell taking effect, she felt another shift in the world around her: her blessing had worn off. Again. American gods, like American food: you eat, and within ten minutes, you’re already hungry again.
Board game design is all about elegance. It’s about creating rules that are simple and intuitive enough to be practically self-enforcing (you can’t really play a game if you are constantly stopping to look up some obscure bylaw), but that fit together into something greater than the sum of its parts, a microcosm of mechanisms and interactions that feels like a living, breathing thing. It’s about boiling your story down into snippets that can fit onto the front side of a card, cards that are already dominated by necessary gameplay information, but still having these story moments mean something. Board game design is all about using a little to do a lot.
Arkham Horror is inelegant. It sprawls across your tabletop, laughing in the face of your vain attempts to squeeze its mountainous components onto a reasonably proportioned planar surface. It refuses to end after a reasonable timespan, demanding you make time for it, make playing it into an event. Its rules are clunky, chock full of fiddly modifiers and one-off ambiguities. It doesn’t do more with less; it does more with more.
And, I’ll admit, its wanton vastness is a significant part of its appeal. Its absurd maximalism is reminiscent PC games like Skyrim, and like Skyrim, nothing quite works right, but the overall effect is still impressive. The base game of Arkham was already large–nearly 400 cards, a 6-square-foot board, over 200 cardboard tokens, 16 playable characters, 60 monsters and 8 Lovecraftian “Ancient Ones”–but since the release of its new edition in 2006, Arkham Horror has become one of board gaming’s most famously expanded lines, with 4 large expansions and 4 small expansions released to date, as well as at least 4 spin-off titles (with their own line of expansions) and even a series of novels. And when I say “large expansions,” I’m talking about an addition 2-square-foot board, further humiliating your table’s dimensions; 300 more cards; 30 more monsters; 8 more characters; 4 more Ancient Ones; as well as new rules and other enhancements…and that’s just in one expansion. The latest of these, Miskatonic Horror, is actually an expansion for the other expansions, doing nothing but fleshing out the mechanics they introduced and helping them integrate well with one another, in case you ever wanted to play a game in which you have to stand up to see the board over the teetering skyscrapers of multiple 1000-card decks.
I’m only slightly joking when I saw that its magnitude is the only thing Arkham has going for it. If you want a challenging cooperative game of high strategy, look elsewhere. If you want a rollercoaster ride of a story, you should probably be playing a video game instead. But the sheer vastness of Arkham Horror with even a couple of its expansions mixed in has a specific gravity that’s undeniable. The piles of cards and tokens assert their potential by sheer force of table presence–you know you’ll never experience it all in one game, or even a dozen. Like the Great Old Ones of Lovecraft’s fiction, Arkham Horror is incomprehensibly vast, and it doesn’t give a rat’s ass about you.
Lily Chen was in a bind. An hour earlier, a cover-up had wiped the town clean of the arcane knowledge she’d need to seal the gates. Nyarlathotep had almost awakened, and one of his masks, the Dark Pharaoh, was patrolling the streets of Arkham’s Northside district, along with a horrifying shoggoth. In those streets lay the Curiositie Shoppe, at which she had a chance of finding an elder sign to seal a gate, or at least a powerful spell to use in single combat against the Ancient One. She had just taken out a bank loan worth $10, but didn’t have the strength to fight the Dark Pharaoh and couldn’t risk trying to evade it.
Then, she thought back to when she had first arrived in Arkham, what seemed an eternity ago, with nothing but her martial arts skills, a few dollars, a bundle of food, and…the Summon Shantak spell her masters had taught her. With a smile, she spoke the words of the spell, and the giant bird-like creature materialized in front of her. She hopped on its back and sailed over the bemused monsters in the Northside street. In the shop, she saw no elder signs for sale, but did notice a strange painting that seemed to contain the secret to a forgotten sealing ritual. Armed with this knowledge, she summoned the Shantak once more and sailed back across town toward the Witch House and her destiny.
Then, she felt the walls of reality crumbling around her as another gate opened in Arkham, weakening its dimensional stability enough for the Ancient One to slip through. She had failed at her mission. She couldn’t understand; wasn’t it her destiny to stop the Ancient One?
Maybe she still had a chance. She closed her eyes, meditating, feeling the energy of the universe flow over her, and waited for Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos, to come to her.
There are three ways to win a game of Arkham Horror: simultaneously close all gates in Arkham (unlikely), seal six gates, or defeat the Ancient One in combat. There are also several ways to lose, most of which involve awakening the Ancient One and losing in combat (very likely). The Ancient One awakens if one of three primary conditions is met: the number of open gates surpasses a certain threshold (8, in this game), the Ancient One’s doom track fills up (a doom token being added to the track each time a new gate opens), or Arkham’s streets become overrun by monsters. There are other ways to win or lose the game, such as Lily’s mission For the Greater Good in this session, but those are the basic ones.
I mentioned earlier that Arkham Horror is a game of two halves, but there is a third half to the (non-Euclidean) game, a sizable portion of each round that makes no pretensions about being under the players’ control. This is the Mythos phase, during which the players draw and resolve a Mythos card. The Mythos cards are basically the game’s way of fighting back (remember that, as a cooperative game, the players are competing as a team against the game itself). They dictate where new gates open, which monsters move and in what direction, where new clues are spawned, and they also have a special effect that either helps or hinders the players. Most of these effects are immediately resolved and forgotten, but some linger, and others open up sub-missions that vie for the players’ attention, such as the Cover-Up Rumor that Lily essentially ignored.
The Mythos card that awakened Nyarlathotep was called “The Stars are Right.” Again, raw chance conspired to create a perfectly appropriate story beat.
In this session, I’m using a curated sampling of material from the first three large expansion boxes, as well as two of the smaller ones and, of course, the base game. Mixed together willy-nilly, the cards from these 6 boxes–only about half of what Arkham has to offer–can create a game experience that is truly unpredictable, but that randomness has a price–on the one hand, it can further reduce the players’ ability to strategize as weird, unlikely clumpings of cards become more prevalent; and on the other hand, it can outright break some of the game’s mechanics by making once-common cards impossibly hard to find, a problem known as “deck dilution.” To avoid these two issues, I’ve split the cards out into smaller decks that include materials from the various expansions, but in a more controlled, predictable way reminiscent of the unexpanded game, where, for example, experienced players can arm themselves with the knowledge that a gate opening at the Witch House is virtually guaranteed, whereas a gate opening at the Science Building is fairly unlikely.
By the way, the gate opening that awakened Nyarlathotep? Science Building, natch.
Although I didn’t expand the game’s geography into the neighboring towns of Kingsport, Dunwich or Innsmouth, as players can do if they purchase the appropriate large expansions; and I didn’t have the Ancient One’s appearance heralded by the Lurker at the Threshold or the King in Yellow, which come into play with the smaller expansions; I did use a number of mechanics not present in the base game of Arkham that deserve further explanation.
Lily Chen’s mission, which drove my actions for much of the game, was from the Dunwich Horror expansion, which adds in new features such as Missions, Tasks, Injuries and Madness.
Lily also had a Personal Story, not covered in great detail here. The Innsmouth Horror expansion adds one of these for each character. They’re basically a single objective that will define your early game, with a pass and a fail condition; you want to achieve the pass condition before the fail one. Lily’s objective was simple: because she was born the Chosen One, she would get a boost in final combat against the Ancient One if she could make it that long without being knocked unconscious or driven insane, which added a great deal of tension to the game and made otherwise mundane moments, such as her face-off against Shugeron at the Historical Society, heart-pounding affairs.
As suggested, these cards also expand the story of the characters in one of two ways, depending on how they turn out. At the start of the game, in addition to Lily’s Story So Far, I got to read the following:
Lily closed her eyes and focused. Balance. Grace. Serenity. With every new horror that came shambling out of the shadows, Lily found it harder to return to a state of inner calm. The trial before her was so great. Surely her teachers could not have anticipated the challenges she must face. But she could not falter now, with her destiny so close at hand. Balance. Grace. Serenity. Lily opened her eyes and focused.
Finally, Lily herself comes from the Kingsport Horror expansion, which also introduces the Epic Battle cards that transform the final battle with the Ancient One from a somewhat repetitive series of dice throws to a dynamic fight suitable for the climax to an action/adventure story, as Arkham is. They even add three Special Attacks specific to each Ancient One…as you will see in a moment.
This Is It: The illusions of the mundane world were torn away and the horrible truth lay revealed. But Lily had never been deceived by the illusions of this world. Now that her moment was at hand, she stood calm and ready to fulfill her destiny.
The horrible, lumbering creature looming over her was ugly, no doubt about it. But Lily Chen was not fazed. She knew that what she was facing now was but another of its many masks, and though it appeared large, she could destroy it. It was her destiny.
With a flailing tentacle, the thing deftly plucked a tree out of the ground and hurled it in her direction, trailing a gout of earth and worms. She spun out of the way and, in the same silent movement, punched at the creature with her fists.
It was visibly weakened already. This would be easy.
Before she could attack again, the creature lunged at her, jaws snapping open. This time, there was no room to dodge. If Lily did not land a blow hard enough to stun it, she would be devoured.
Her fists moved like a gale.
Several more rounds of fighting took place, and the Ancient One was on the brink of defeat. Only one more solid hit needed to take it down. Lily focused.
It was then that I remembered a terrible thing. Nyarlathotep had a thousand faces with which to battle us–all at once if he so chose.
The Special Attack card instructed me to draw a random monster marker for each doom token left (in the final battle, these represent the Ancient One’s hit points) on Nyarlathotep’s doom track. For each Mask monster I drew, an investigator would be devoured.
I need to emphasize the odds against this happening. There were two doom tokens remaining, so I’d only have to draw two monster tokens. There are 10 total Mask monsters buried in a pile of 148 monsters total, leaving me with roughly 87% odds of surviving this attack and almost certainly killing the Crawling Chaos on the next attack.
Of course, given those odds, it’s no surprise that the first monster I drew was the Haunter of the Dark, one of the many masks of Nyarlathotep. Of course it happened this way. I was playing Arkham Horror.
Devoted players of Arkham Horror will swear up and down that the game knows what it’s doing, that somewhere in the pile of random mechanisms lies a sinister intelligence. I believe it. This is a game that transcends randomness, that turns bad luck into destiny.
Several times during this session, things happened that, statistically, should never have happened. Lily Chen receiving a mission of self-sacrifice during her first encounter. The several opportunities she was given to manipulate gate openings, making her mission seem somehow achievable (though of course, I never had a real chance–this is Arkham Horror). The panicked chase through the halls of the Historical Society. And finally, the memorable way in which the game ended, such long odds, such a fitting way to die. Each of these instances on their own were remarkable coincidences. That they should all happen during the same play of the game seems astronomically unlikely. And somehow, that unlikelihood works in the story’s favor, turns an arbitrary coincidence into something that was somehow destined to be.
There are other games that use mechanisms, sometimes clunky and sometimes elegant, to ensure their story pieces fall together coherently. Arkham Horror has none of these–it relies completely on the players’ desire to see a story happen, their ability to recognize and seize on chance coincidences. The odds of this happening aren’t great, and that’s exactly why it does happen, every time. It’s because you’re playing Arkham Horror. And Arkham Horror…it knows.