I’ve been thinking about Gloomhaven lately and why I have slowly gravitated more towards board games vs other forms of entertainment. I love that everyone can participate, as players, and so I will talk more about why Gloomhaven is great without a DM but also how you can DM Gloomhaven if you want.
Does Gloomhaven have a DM? Gloomhaven does not have a DM. It is a euro based tactical dungeon crawler that uses a scenario book and artificial intelligence to allow play without having a DM or GM.
Gloomhaven uses various systems to simulate a DM. This is a fairly common theme in these type of games nowadays. If you have any interest in learning about how Gloomhaven manages to be engaging and quite frankly great, without using a DM like typical pen and paper role playing games, then read on.
Adding a DM into Gloomhaven isn’t for everyone but if you have a person in your group who enjoys being a DM then I will also lay out some common ways that people are currently adding a DM into Gloomhaven. It’s not perfect, but if this is what you are looking for then skip down to the bottom.
The scenario book in Gloomhaven has quite a few similarities to a campaign in D&D.
First off it sets up the conflict. Every great story needs conflict and each scenario starts off with a story. This is quite like a D&D campaign as every great D&D campaign has a great story and great combat.
The story in Gloomhaven is good but not as good as it normally would be in D&D. Also it is easier in D&D to have surprises as the DM is controlling things behind the scenes and can hold back a lot of the information that Gloomhaven must share as it doesn’t have a person running it.
The combat in Gloomhaven is excellent. It is nuanced and very tightly built. Each scenario has been tuned to be difficult, but fair. Frequently my group beat scenarios on the last couple of turns before we would have become exhausted. I would say Gloomhaven has the tactical edge over D&D but D&D definitely has an edge in complexity. For some people complexity is good, for others bad; your call as to what makes you happy!
Gloomhaven is a legacy game. This means that actions you take permanently change the world state, altering future events.
Gloomhaven tracks the legacy state in a few different ways. First off it uses stickers to alter the world-state. Next it uses party achievements and personal achievements.
When you play a scenario you will check the requirements and if you meet them then you can play the scenario. If you do not then you will have to go back and play different scenarios until you can meet the requirements. This way the game becomes more dynamic than a standard, static board game and simulates some of what a DM would do.
City and Road Events
Gloomhaven uses City and Road events as random encounters between each scenario. These add flavour and variety to the game and usually involve an A/B choice.
Often, in each choice there are symbols for characters and depending on your party composition the path you chose can be altered. Interestingly, this has been updated in Frosthaven and changed to traits so that each character class is assigned multiple traits and the choices on the cards will be affected by the traits. This will make sure that all future games can use the cards from various iterations and games within the Gloomhaven universe. Pretty cool!
But, I digress. The city and road events help to simulate a DM and have some very interesting decisions. They help a lot with world building and I looked forward to them each session. Sometimes we would have heated debates about what course to take and would have to end up flipping a coin to decide on the course of action.
Monsters in Gloomhaven follow a set of basic instructions on how to target, move and attack. The rule book has these in detail so I won’t describe each of them but the monsters always follow a set protocol.
This might sound a bit boring but luckily Gloomhaven also has monster ability cards and a monster modifier deck. These add variety and so even though monsters always act in simplistic, predictable ways at a surface glance, they end up being much less predictable than you would think.
I like this system far more than a DM deciding on who the monsters will attack. It definitely feels more fair and is more consistent than a human making the call.
Monster Modifier Deck
Every time a monster makes an attack you pull a modifier card from the monster modifier deck. This adds a certain amount of randomness to the cards. There are 20 cards in the deck and there is 1 miss and 1 2x damage card.
Monster Ability Cards
Monster ability cards are what really make the monsters in Gloomhaven more dynamic. After players have decided what cards to play a card is flipped over for each monster type and then the monsters base actions are modified by the ability card.
Sometimes they might not even attack and will instead shield up or heal. Other times their movement may change and that perfect plan you had is now completely ruined. They might even target multiple people and attack your whole party instead of just the closest person!
The rules around attacking and movement are simple but allow for a lot flexibility and in my opinion combat is better without a DM.
How to DM in Gloomhaven
Some people just like to DM. Or maybe you have 5 players. Gloomhaven is built to be DM’less however I figured I would lay out a couple of suggestions as to how you can DM, if you don’t want to play a character, or you have too many people. Side note, there is an unofficial 5 player variant that involves cranking up the difficulty and using an app and the monster modifier deck for the 5th person.
- Run the administrative side of the game. You can handle all of the nuts and bolts of the game. Turn over monster ability cards, manage elements, move the monsters, control damage and status effects, etc. You get the point, you take all of the admin duties allowing the other players to immerse themselves in their characters and the game. You are clearly a great person!
- Read the stories. You can read the story parts allowing the players to immerse themselves in the story. If you play it right you can also hide some of the scenario goals as long as it won’t cause problems for the players
- Setup one one room at a time. You can setup the rooms one at a time and keep the sense of mystery for the other players. There are also apps that do this.
- Playing monster turns. The difficulty in Gloomhaven is tuned for an AI. I would suggest not playing the monster turns. If you do want to play the monster turns I would suggest pulling 2 monster ability cards and deciding on 1 of them. Do this before you hear the players talk strategy or play their cards.
Gloomhaven vs D&D
Gloomhaven and D&D share a lot of similarities but in the end they are quite different. Gloomhaven is more structured and even though it has the ability for you to choose some of your path, those choices are quite limited. Think of it as a very complex adventure book with great tactical combat.
D&D is much less structured but relies on an extra person to control the narrative and the world. I find the combat to be a lot more finicky and less structured which leads to a lot of judgement calls. I still love D&D but prefer the structure of something like Gloomhaven. Also finding a great DM is often very difficult and if you can’t find one then Gloomhaven will definitely help to partially scratch that itch.
Even if you are playing Gloomhaven you can still take it upon yourself to insert some role playing. Flesh out your characters, give them back ground stories. This will add even more depth to the game. Have fun!