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Svarog's Den - Board Games

Designer Diary: Dungeons & Dragons: Onslaught

by Nicholas Yu

General Development

My co-designer Travis Severance and I were invited to pitch our concept for a Dungeons & Dragons-themed miniatures game. It was a closed-door affair, all very hush-hush, because this is D&D, after all, one of tabletop gaming’s best known intellectual properties! Going into the first call, I’m pretty sure they’re just taking our pitch out of courtesy, and I’m sure other better-known veteran designers are also going to pitch their vision for a D&D miniatures game — but heck, if we were going in, we were going to go in prepared.

The first call was just supposed to be an informal 10-15 minute “getting to know you” call, but Travis and I had a five-page slide deck ready to go and a rough prototype on hand that we’d assembled over the course of the week leading up to the call, in case things got that far.

After introductions are made, we were told that WizKids was looking for a tactical miniatures game with its own set of rules and play style, but something that still captures an essence of Dungeons & Dragons that fans will recognize and enjoy. It needed to employ twenty-sided dice but should also appeal to miniatures gamers who might resent how “swingy” a D20 is. At that point, I piped up to talk about using D&D’s Advantage system by default and how we can assign target Armor Class numbers that fit comfortably within the general probability curve of using 2D20 and taking the best result. Of course, we’d also feature critical hits and misses on natural 20s and 1s. It’s D&D after all, right? Total silence…but I could “hear” them thinking. I also casually mentioned that we had a presentation prepared and forwarded the file to them.

A couple of weeks later, we were informed that our pitch was selected. “Dungeons & Dragons Unnamed Miniatures Skirmish Game” is a go!

Travis realized right away that Dungeons & Dragons: Onslaught should be a player vs. player vs. environment game. D&D has too many iconic monsters not to use, and that extra monstrous element helps set the game apart from some of the other games that occupy a similar space. We decided pretty early on that the other player should move and roll for monster attacks against you, so there’s a strategic element and the thrill of rolling dice for the monsters, too.

Again, one of the key missives was to make a game that felt true to D&D, but also had its own unique gameplay. We kept the grids that section out the game board so that players can calculate the distance between character pieces and plan out how to navigate the various terrain types across the map, but balanced movement out by keeping character movement to orthogonal directions only. Attack range could still be counted diagonally, so you don’t end up with weird cross shapes or misshapen “Area of Effect” blasts. This is a system I’d used previously that was chiefly inspired by tactical video games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre.

Originally, there was going to be just one dial that tracked Hit Points, Armor Class, and Speed — pretty similar to what you’d see in HeroClix, for example. But then they told us we could have more dials, maybe as many as three or four more in addition to the main dial. Sounds like a pretty cool way to track ability cooldowns to me!

If you’re not familiar with it, D&D: Fourth Edition introduced the concept of ability cooldowns, something that seems clearly influenced by video games. Maybe that wasn’t the ideal decision for D&D, but that kind of approach made a whole lot of sense for a tactical skirmish game.

An early design tentpole that Travis set up was that it should be exceedingly easy to set up your team in Onslaught. There are many awesome points-based army systems out there, and we didn’t want to be in that space. “No points!” was something Travis always highlighted while we were discussing party creation. The role-playing game offered some insight into that, too, with the concept of party roles, as did a number of PvP video games like Overwatch and League of Legends. Again, for a proper role-playing game, you don’t necessarily want to pigeonhole your players into a specific role, but it sounds pretty good for a tactical skirmish game, right?

In Onslaught, characters are divided into six distinct roles: Vanguard, Melee Damage, Ranged Damage, Healer, Tactician, and Hybrid (which are all different combinations of two or more other roles). After seeing which mission they’ll be playing, players choose five characters from their faction, each with a different role. With this one clean rule, party creation is simple: just “grab and go”. This system also makes army building and game balancing easier even as more characters and factions are released. There will be, of course, a few interesting twists to the roles and factions as Onslaught continues to mature, but we can save those for the future…

The Harpers

Anyone who’s even a little bit familiar with Dungeons & Dragons and its Forgotten Realms setting has probably heard of the Harpers. One of the most famous Forgotten Realms characters, Elminster, is a Harper. Played an old Baldur’s Gate video game? Gorion was a Harper. Jaheira and Khalid? Harpers. Chris Pine’s Bard in the upcoming movie has a Harper pin. “Those Who Harp” are dedicated to maintaining order in the Forgotten Realms. They’re a force for fairness. So how do we get that across in Dungeons & Dragons: Onslaught? What makes The Harpers feel like Harpers in a tactical skirmish miniatures game?

In a word: Camaraderie. Harper agents are trained to act alone and rely on their own resources, but the bonds of strong friendships inspire them to help each other when in need. Thus, the Harpers have more support abilities and buffs than any other faction in the game. They work together to tirelessly thwart tyrants and oppressive governments. As such, they also specialize in battlefield manipulation and positioning.

Let’s start with their iconic character, Chloe Amasnodel. Bards are the favored class of the Harpers, embodying both their playstyle and philosophy. Since the Harpers are dedicated to their comrades, we decided to give Chloe the Healer role of the faction in the core set of Onslaught. In addition to her Bonus Action, Healing Word, she also has the Inspiration ability, which buffs herself and all allies around her. We also wanted the Harpers buffs to feel a little different (and better) than just a basic plus to hit modifier, so the Harpers can modify the die roll itself, turning a natural 18 or 19 into a natural 20 (or critical success). It also increases the damage of every friendly character’s basic attack by 1 while they’re in range of Chloe’s sick riffs.

This is an incredibly impactful ability because the Inspired token lasts from the moment it’s applied until the end of Chloe’s next activation. This means that if you position your party and assign your initiative cards just right, they have the potential to benefit from two full rounds of increased attack rolls and bonus damage. Chloe is truly the ultimate support piece in a faction that embodies the concept of support.

Lightning-Dancer fills the Vanguard role and enjoys access to a number of highly impactful battlefield manipulation abilities. Charge and Challenge allow him to reach hot spots and pull enemies towards him, setting up Opportunity Attacks for others or just buying them some breathing room. He also has the unique ability to move his targets around every time he lands a critical success, which both Chloe and Sedonna Sparklebang make much easier to achieve.

Drakmau Rockbiter hits harder than any other character with her basic attack, especially if she’s raging. All that power comes with a price, however, as she has the lowest “to hit” bonus of any character in the core set. She can attack recklessly on her own, but she really shines when paired with Chloe and/or Sedonna for maximum effect.

Speaking of Sedonna, she also has quite the suite of battlefield manipulation and support. The so-called “blaster casters” felt more at home with other factions, so we made her a specialist in Enchantment. Sedonna doesn’t have a lot of overt firepower, but she can regularly and subtly influence positions and trigger Opportunity Attacks with her Twitch ability. Twitch seems like a minor nuisance until you use it to push an enemy character off of a critical objective or cut them down with Lightning-Dancer’s Combat Reflexes! On top of this, a timely Hypnotic Gaze can completely turn the tides of battle, and Guided Strike ensures that her allies find their marks when attacking, often landing devastating critical hits in the process.

Abelio Mac Gabhann is an interesting study in how different players (and even designers) react to different characters. I love him, but my co-designer Travis Severance hates him with the burning passion of a thousand suns. He can get around the battlefield very quickly for a couple of turns with his Wild Shape ability, but his real value is in dropping a Spike Growth at a critical juncture. In our playtest pod, Abelio is known colloquially as “Wall Guy”. Spike Growth was originally a 1×5 wall, but that ended up feeling extremely oppressive in certain scenarios where he could just seal off an entire section of the map for a round. Consequentially, we shrank the wall to 1×3 and reduced its cooldown to compensate. Now he can still force the flow of action with his walls, but it’s a much smaller hindrance than it used to be. We expect him to be a low-floor, high-ceiling type of character.

Finally, that brings us to Grabbleshanks, the Ranged Damage-Dealer of the Harpers. He might not be the most exciting character in terms of exploring design space, but Grabbleshanks is the gold standard of what a simple-but-powerful ranged character can do. He has the best range on his attacks out of anyone in the core set, he can focus fire a character with his Mark, and sometimes he can shoot twice. Plus, his name is Grabbleshanks. He’s been a crowd favorite, and I expect his fame to continue to grow as Onslaught spreads among the general public.

Overall, the Harpers are a faction that really rewards careful positioning and stacking multiple sets of bonuses for an overwhelming advantage. If you love the idea of teamwork, support abilities, and battlefield manipulation, give the Harpers a try!

The Zhentarim

The Zhentarim are almost as well-known across the Forgotten Realms as the Harpers. Known informally as The Black Network, they’re made up of mercenaries, thieves, and assassins. Originally founded by the wizard Manshoon, they’re also servants of Bane and Cyric. Generally known to be unsavory characters, but they do prize loyalty above any other trait and regard their fellow Zhentarim as family. The result is an extremely powerful and well-armed mercenary organization who are often at odds with The Harpers.

We wanted The Zhentarim to be mobile and hard-hitting, specializing in spikes of burst damage rather than sustained damage over time. As a result, you won’t find a speedier or trickier faction in all of Faerun.

The Zhentarim’s iconic character in the core set is the Drow Rogue, Lasaelle Du’Arathmierre. Her name is a bit of a mouthful, and she’s also got the most card text in the core set due to all of her abilities. Like all good Rogues, she has Sneak Attack and can deal extra damage in the right situation. She has a high base Speed and the ability to zip around the battlefield, or just slip into the shadows until trouble blows over. Her Cunning Action is an incredibly powerful ability, useful for loot grabbing, objective nabbing, or targeted melee assassination from a great distance away. She’s the Melee Damage character of the faction, which seems a little strange until you realize she can regularly deal 3 damage with her melee attacks as long as she has a friend along to cover for her.

When it comes to triggering Lasaelle’s Sneak Attack and making sure she stays alive to use them, there’s no better friend than Barachiel. With the highest base armor class in the core set, this Vanguard is great at tanking blows and occupying the enemy’s attention. That said, Barachiel doesn’t hesitate to bring the pain as well! This is the kind of Paladin who burns all of their spell slots on Smites and doesn’t want to hear another word about it from anyone else at the table.

Rokpyratrix the Clanless picked up the nickname “Roxy” at Gen Con, and it appears to have stuck with our testing crew. She’s the kind of Sorcerer who picked nothing but damage spells at character creation. Her solution to everything is to apply more firepower. She’s got area-of-effect spells aplenty, and opponents will have to engage her carefully as attacking her lets her use Burning Hands and Fireball more frequently! That said, she’s a squishy character who’s vulnerable to being focused down in a hurry, with limited HP and AC. The key to playing Rokpyratrix successfully is balancing aggression with careful positioning or clutch healing so that she doesn’t get overwhelmed too quickly — or her Ranged Damage potential is so high when the enemy is grouped up that sometimes it’s worth a sacrifice play if the set-up is right.

Mistral is one of our favorite miniature designs because this was the first time we wrote an art and sculpting brief from top to bottom. Although we had done some brief art requests for everything in the core set, we had less specific input than we did for later sets. Alex Davy walked Travis and me through their art process, and we all thought long and hard about what kind of characters didn’t exist in the WizKids miniature line yet. There are many Clerics in the line-up, but how many Trickster Clerics are there? And an Air Genasi to boot? The sculpting team ended up nailing the look, and she has one of the most unique sculpts I’ve seen. Mistral is great at dealing with spike damage with a big heal, but it takes her a standard action and has a long cooldown to do so, providing a nice contrast with Chloe of the Harpers who has a smaller Bonus action heal that cools down quickly. She’s also hard to take down as she can reduce incoming damage and teleport out of hairy situations — or onto crucial objectives! She’s an absolute star support piece and a tough puzzle for any opponent to solve.

Bedlam is a Hexblade Warlock with balanced melee and ranged damage capabilities. She’s not particularly hardy, but the threat of her Hellish Rebuke means that she’s going to try to take someone with her on the way down. Focusing on her can be a bit of a poison pill as any large attack is subject to instant reprisal, and if Mistral is nearby to Cure Wounds, the attacker can be left bruised and bleeding with Bedlam still at full HP. That said, leaving her alive too long or peppering her with little attacks gives her the opportunity to heal back up by defeating the targets of her Curse. Overall, Bedlam is the embodiment of a “glass cannon” but can absolutely shine in a Party full of brutal damage dealers. Bedlam is a Hybrid role with much higher than usual damage for that position, which leaves both the Ranged Damage and Melee Damage slots wide open. With Lasaelle, Rokpyratrix, Barachiel, and Bedlam all in the same party, the Zhentarim can focus down an enemy character faster than any other faction.

Jeevika the Flowing Maple shares the highest base speed in the core set with Lasaelle and Chloe, and her passive ability allows her to run around the battlefield with impunity. No need to worry about Opportunity Attacks over here, folks! Her ranged attack is not great if you judge it by the hit bonus and its low damage, but it’s a bonus action, so you can chip a little damage turn after turn — or remove a pesky Kobold without using a standard attack! She also has the ability to inflict an incredibly demoralizing Stun token on a critical enemy, but since it costs both a Standard and Move Action, it requires some careful setup to utilize properly.

Overall, the Zhentarim are the fastest, slipperiest, and most lethal faction in Dungeons & Dragons: Onslaught, equally at home playing the objectives or going for the throat. Do you like quick and tricky characters with a dubious moral code and a host of lethal skills? If so, The Zhentarim might be for you!

Nicholas Yu


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