My friend Aaron got me playing the first Descent, and then he ended up getting the Second Edition a few years ago. Neither of us really likes the second edition as much, the mini-sized cards I find terribly annoying, and the defense dice instead of a fixed number makes things feel even more swing-y/less predictable. But overall it's not a bad game, and we play from time to time.
A while ago we got the Forgotten Souls expansion, which claims that you can play Descent (2nd) without an Overlord. I like this idea, I don't really like adversarial games, and while a GM in an RPG does have to play the "bad guys" the goal is to provide something for the players to work to overcome and unexpected twists and a logical sequence of events (that on a good day even resembles a plot). So I've never felt an RPG was adversarial, but the Overlord in Descent always seemed that way. After all, the Overlord doesn't set the board that the players have to run, placing traps at predefined points like in an RPG, instead the Overlord dynamically spends points to create traps and monsters and such out of thin air in the most effective/dastardly way possible. So, as I said, the idea of a non-Overlord game sounded nice, in theory. And a few weeks ago we actually played it for the first time.
Forgotten Souls is basically a set of cards that describe each room of the dungeon and what happens. There is one opening encounter, represented by a card that has any special rules (in the first room I believe one was that the heroes could not heal) for the room. There are 3 more encounters that are a part of the story, which get shuffled into a set of 8 other rooms that act as filler. I actually like this idea, I think it's kind of cool to build the dungeon one room at a time, with each having its own gimmick or purpose. I don't think it would be bad if you just decided on how many encounters you wanted, like 2 random in-between every story encounter, so that you could shrink or grow the dungeon for the time you had available.
Once you draw the room you set the tiles up according to the rulebook - which I would prefer if the map was on another card or a poster. You drop more monsters based on the number of players, so it scales well from 2 to 4 people. And then you draw a card that tells you how the monsters are going to act. Players go first, until they meet the victory condition for the encounter card. But, if any figures are still on the board, random "peril" events trigger to encourage the players to keep moving. That was a kind of odd system, and I'm not sure I even played it right. Then you move on to the next encounter until you reach the end.
Overall it did what it said on the box, it was a way to run a dungeon without an Overlord - but it was also fairly limited enough that you couldn't use it in general - you had to be playing the particular dungeon it came with. Not a bad thing, but also with lots of room for improvement and expansion.
What I liked...
- No Overlord - makes the game feel a little more co-operative (to bad the rules don't always support that).
- Room By Room Design - it was actually really nice to look at the dungeon as a series of little rooms each with a purpose instead of the one giant floor of regular Descent. I liked the pacing and flow a lot better, not as many random hallways and stuff.
What I didn't like...
- Random Monster Goals - each encounter you draw an Activation Card that says what the monsters are going to do in that room. Which is kind of weird. In one room the monsters targeted the character with a ranged weapon, which only one player had - so the other player was pretty much free to act. Or another room they targeted the farthest away character, running past the closer one. Really, this over-complicates things. Unless a set of different monsters were specifically chosen to do something (tanks in front, archers in back) then really they always move and attack the closest character - if they want to be effective. There is not that much tactical depth, at least in the limited playing I've done, to justify having lots of different targeting/action conditions. And really, the monster tactics should be specific to a room - if the room has something to be guarded, then some number of monsters should be guarding it, regardless of what the players do.
- The Peril System - when you complete the goal of the encounter, but have not cleared the map, it seems to switch into some sort of countdown timer with random "peril" events triggering at the end of each round. This felt really arbitrary and artificial.
- No Example Of Play - this is a very different way of playing Descent, it really should have had at least one room written out in some detail with an example of play to help you understand what you were supposed to be doing.
What I wish I knew before I started playing...
- The Rulebook Is A Fancy PDF - along with the new sets of cards you need the rules for how to run the expansion, which is not included in the physical package. Instead you have to go online and download the PDF of the rules, and said PDF is full-color with lots of background graphics and gradients on each page. So, printing it in color is going to use a lot of ink, and printing it in black and white is going to have a lot of grey - not ideal either way. When we played I ended up running between the game board and my laptop (didn't think my phone was big enough to read it) to figure out what to do next. This isn't too bad, if you play it enough times I'm sure it'll become second nature, but at first it is annoying. Don't know why they couldn't have printed at least the room layouts in a folded poster format.
Recommendation- If you like the idea of Overlord-less Descent give it a try, or at least go to the company's website and read the rulebook and see what you think.