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Several characters face off against a dragon in art for Gloomhaven: The Role-Playing Game Image: Cephalofair Games

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Gloomhaven’s designers took board games by storm — now they’re coming for RPGs

Isaac Childres looks to combine RPG mechanics with flexible, character-driven stories

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Gloomhaven designer and Cephalofair Games CEO Isaac Childres has always been fascinated more with the combat and technical aspects of tabletop role-playing games than the actual character interactions. That led him to adapt many of the mechanics of the 4th edition rule set of Dungeons & Dragons into the massively successful board game, tying it together with a story that players could uncover as they go. But now he’s working in the opposite direction, using the board game’s combat mechanics as the basis for a new TTRPG.

“I wanted to create this RPG-like experience that didn’t require a GM [game master], a big open world that you could explore and pick what you wanted to do and go through all these combats and just have a good time,” Childres told Polygon. “It just felt natural to take it full circle and go back and make an RPG, since a lot of fans said they’d be interested in that. I figured it probably wouldn’t be too much work, but then I realized it was still a lot of work, but at that point we’d already invested in it.”

Pledges are open for Gloomhaven: The Role Playing Game on Backerkit until July 19 as part of a massive crowdfunding campaign that has raised more than $4 million. The core rulebook includes rules for both players and the Gloom Master, along with an adventure module designed to provide about 20 hours of gameplay. A deluxe box set contains a GM screen, character sheets, class decks, and card holders. Copies of both are expected to ship in July 2024.

While Cephalofair has already released videos of several actual-play sessions to demonstrate the RPG, the game is still being playtested with a particular eye on how to make the previously GM-less Gloomhaven game easy to run.

“It’s all about creating a robust rule set that can guide the GM through that process of adventure building and giving them the tools to run combats and make decisions for monsters while not being too overwhelming,” Childres said. “The board game has guides on how to build scenarios, and we’re using that for monster numbers and threat values for what would be a challenging encounter for a group of role-playing adventurers.”

The RPG’s combat system will largely use the rules of Gloomhaven: Second Edition, which can be purchased through the same Backerkit campaign. Childres expects most players to buy both and use the board game’s maps and minis for the RPG. Cephalofair is also releasing a separate Miniatures of Gloomhaven set for anyone who wants extra copies of monsters.

The designers have changed some of the board game’s mechanics in order to better fit the flow of an RPG. As in the board game, each character will have a set of ability cards that allow them to perform specific actions in a combat scenario. In the RPG, however, players can also discard a card to use skills that don’t involve attacking an enemy, whether it’s climbing a wall with their athletics score or persuading an NPC to help via influence. These attribute checks are resolved using the new modifier deck, which has a second set of numbers next to the ones that apply to combat damage.

“Your hand of ability cards becomes like a stamina system where every time you do something strenuous outside of combat, you’re also discarding cards, so you feel like you’re working on a limited supply to do things throughout the day,” Childres said. “We just tried to bleed the mechanics over as much as possible so it feels integrated.”

The world map, stylized as if on medieval parchment, from the second edition of the Gloomhaven board game Image: Cephalofair Games

The RPG is designed to support several small combats during a day of adventuring, as opposed to the one big encounter players would face in a traditional Gloomhaven session. If your character runs out of hit points in the battle, they don’t die. They get back up with one hit point at the end of the fight, but they’ll be exhausted and for the rest of the day, and they can’t do anything more strenuous than walking around and talking. Characters who run out of cards will also be exhausted, but can still take basic actions in combat.

In playtesting, those mechanics have pushed players to lean on their role-playing skills instead of their tactical combat knowhow.

“Players got into a combat and got brought to the point of exhaustion, but weren’t in a place where they could rest,” Childres said. “They were forced to say, ‘We’re just going to go talk to this person who clearly wants to kill us and hope that we can resolve this situation in a non-combat way because if we get into combat, we don’t have enough cards.’ That was pretty cool to see.”

The RPG also adds a deck of background cards that provide role-playing suggestions and can be used to provide bonuses on relevant checks. Some backgrounds connect characters to one another socially, as anything from best friends to employee/employer, which Childres said was inspired by character creation in the RPG Fiasco.

“We wanted the players to have more agency in the world than just ‘You’re a mercenary and you’re going to go on a mercenary quest,’” Childres said. “These backgrounds gave them the opportunity to communicate to the GM what is important to them. If I have a demonic pact, I expect that at some point during the adventure some demon comes out and wants to call in my debt.”

Another challenge of adapting Gloomhaven into an RPG revolved around gathering all of the game’s lore in one place, rather than having it scattered throughout scenarios on a need-to-know basis.

“It’s a much more exhaustive process, but it’s also a good opportunity to fully define the lore, because some of the stuff was not fully set in stone before we started on the RPG, because it was only ancillary to the story we were telling,” Childres said.

Given the scope of the project, Childres has enlisted plenty of help. BJ Hensley, founder of the family-friendly RPG publisher Playground Adventures, joined Cephalofair last year and helped recruit other industry veterans to work on the RPG. Childres has continued to have cultural consultants vet his work, a pledge he first made in 2021 when he was finalizing production of Frosthaven with the goal of avoiding racial stereotyping or forcing players to be complicit in the colonization of indigenous populations. For instance, Coyote & Crow contributor Weyodi Oldbear is leading the development of the lore surrounding the Inox, which the original Gloomhaven describes as “primitive and barbaric.”

“We wanted to be more sensitive to how they’re portrayed and make sure we’re not harmful to any real-world groups,” Childres said.

The Gloomhaven: The Role Playing Game core book costs $30, and the deluxe set is $90 through Backerkit. Orders are expected to be fulfilled in July 2024.


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