Defender’s Quest: A Review and Conclusions on Integrating Tower Defense into Tabletop RPGs

As I mentioned the other day, I may have finally found a game on which I could model a Tower Defense-style D&D encounter. The game is Defender’s Quest and the first half of it is available to play for free on Kongregate.

Like your typical Tower Defense game, the main objective is to stop the mobs from getting from point A to point B. In Defender’s Quest, however, point B is the main character, who is some combination of mage and psionicist and is the party leader.  Instead of Towers, you strategically place party members along the path to prevent the mob from killing the mage.

One of the things that is interesting about the use of ‘party members’ is how they are identical mechanically and functionally to towers in terms of gameplay, but the feel is very different. Because each tower is a named, customized and equipped individual, you have more attachment to them (especially the first characters from any given class you gain access to, as they are featured heavily in the cutscenes) than your typical arrow firing tower.

A significant difference between this game and other Tower Defense games is that in any given mission, you are restricted to your current party members; you can’t just buy more towers in the middle of a mission to pad out your defenses. You CAN, however, generally place all of your towers (party members) at the beginning of a mission, though it is not necessarily beneficial to do so.

Rather than gold to buy and upgrade towers, the party leader (here’s where the psionicist part comes into play) uses psi points to deploy party members on the map and upgrade them, which both increases base stats and unlocks the use of any additional abilities that party member has access to. This psionic upgrade is a temporary upgrade, lasting the mission’s duration only. The true upgrading/scaling comes between missions when party members gain levels, gain access to new abilities through a development tree, and are equipped. Additionally, you have the opportunity to recruit new party members in towns to help deepen your ranks, though these green recruits will be of limited usefulness until they get some kills under their belts.

Because Defender’s Quest attempts to combine tactical RPG with Tower Defense, the way that combat is handled is slightly different from most Tower Defense games. In a game like Kingdom Rush or Demonrift, melee exists primarily to block paths, either slowing mobs down while towers get kills or doing the killing themselves. In Defender’s Quest, there are two distinguishable mob types (not unit types, there are many different units): monsters who are determined to make a bee-line for your mage and monsters who will pause for a moment to take a swing or shot at whomever is near by while making a bee-line for your mage. Unless they are heavily armored and have massive damage resistance, like some of the Revenant Knights, the former are more of an annoyance than anything. The difficulty arises from the mobs who stop to take an 8-10 HP swipe at your swordsmen or spit gobs of acid at your ranged fighters. You have some magic to patch your companions up with, but that damage can add up quick. So unlike most tower defense games, your towers can “die”. You can redeploy them with the psionic points you earn for killing enemies, but they are placed back on the map at minimal strength without any previous psionic boosts you may have given them.

Like other Tower Defense games, you can “sell” towers, regaining some of the psionic energy invested in them, and be able to put them elsewhere on the map. Again, though, the difference is in how it feels despite mechanical similarity; your party is sacrificing certain tactical advantages to try to gain others. There is a boss fight against a powerful undead where your strategy is to deploy and redeploy your melee fighters further and further up the path until you can fully wear him down.

Rather than the abstract leveling of the player in terms of overall points to spend on your meteor attack or general tower bonuses or whatever you typically find in fantasy Tower Defense games, you level in a concrete manner alongside your party members, because you are represented on the map by the main character mage complete with spells and HP just like your companions. It’s this mage character who is giving boosts to party members, casting spells to aid them, and zapping the monsters who get past them with lightning bolts rather than a disembodied player power. The in-game justification for the character’s use of psionics to deploy and boost the party’s strength is a bit silly; I think that the maps and all of the battles may actually be some sort of abstraction or they’re in the shadow realm where they can hurt revenants or something ridiculous to try to explain a mechanic that works amazingly well without requiring an explanation. Whatever, it’s great.

Given enough time, this is probably close to what I would’ve come up for making a D&D Tower Defense scenario, but since it’s right here in front of me, there’s no reason not to just steal what is so close to perfection.

The main thing I can think of to change would be using basic movements rather than re-deploy and not using psionic points for everything; basically use D&D for that (duh). In Defender’s Quest, monsters that attack the party members aren’t stopped, rather they stop, attack and keep going. In D&D terms, this would be move into melee, take a round of attack, make an attack, receive a round of counter-attack, move on. It doesn’t have to be that rote, though; borrowing from Kingdom Rush, while one or two monsters stay engaged with melee characters, other monsters break through.

Ultimately, I think the main thing needed to make such a scenario work is a combination of a plausible goal for both sides and workable map.

The goal part is difficult but flexible. If defending a town, you can base outcome based on something like how many hit-dice worth of monsters getting past is beyond what the townsfolk and constabulary can handle on their won. Or how many of certain goods can be stolen without it being disastrous. Goals can be keep the town guard from being overrun, keep x trade goods from being stolen, keep monsters from preventing wizard from casting a spell, keep monsters from carrying off an important person/thing, so on and so forth. The really hard part will be making a map. You’re going to want a big map and probably lots of counters. You can’t do this without lots of counters.

If I can find some butcher paper, I just might see if I can make a big climactic tower defense style battle for the end of Shadow Over Alfheim.

Oh, yeah, and when I finish the demo, I’m probably going to go ahead and buy the full game of Defender’s Quest.

12 responses to “Defender’s Quest: A Review and Conclusions on Integrating Tower Defense into Tabletop RPGs

  1. The whole shadow realm thing makes a lot more sense as the story develops, but I did find it kind of weird too.

    I guess it’s a decent explanation for why your defenders can die or take damage, but not actually die or get wounded after the battle. They’re not fighting in their physical bodies, they’re fighting in the half-way world.

    You should definitely check out the full game, though. 🙂 It has a ton of content to offer, from the main storyline, to NG+ with additional mechanics and mechnaics, the mod workshop and the upcoming free HD update to improve the graphics and inject more bonus story into the game. You can read more about the HD update + the sequel here.

    • Thanks for commenting! Yeah, I got that, but at the same time, I don’t think it’s entirely necessary to justify the mechanics, at least to where you could extract the mechanic without needing to include the in-story justification of a half-world. Still, it works and is a pretty great game.

      I saw the dev’s website and the announcement of both the free HD version as well as development of the sequel and was pretty stoked about it. These guys strike me as a great model of how to do the free-to-play vs. premium content model of indie game development. I definitely plan on checking out the full version and will be looking forward to DQ2.

  2. My wife and I got Defender’s Quest on GoG a while back. I think I completed the demo but I have yet to play the full version.

    Fun stuff! I played it ages ago but I don’t think we’ve ever discussed it.


    • I’ve really been enjoying it! My only worry is that by grinding to get 3 stars on earlier missions, I’m devaluing game-content by making later 1 & 2 star missions too easy.

      Though it is fun to see all of my swordsmen just dogpile a monster spawn point on a 1-star mission, ratchet the speed up to 4x and watch the slaughter commence.

  3. “The in-game justification for the character’s use of psionics to deploy and boost the party’s strength is a bit silly;”

    Actually, it’s not. At least not if you think about it a little and especially if you read the article, made by one of the creator, about how they got the idea.

    It of course depends on how you define “psionics”. In the end, it’s just a word that is a little differently used in the game as it is used in a lot of other media.

    As was already pointed out, it makes more and more sense as you progress with the game and learn more about what those enemies are or how Azra actually got her power, but I don’t want to spoiler anything here. Just enjoy the game 🙂

    • Truth is, I didn’t look much into the background of the game or the original inspiration behind it; I just started playing it. The feeling of silly mostly came from the first few mission when it was being explained as a mechanic. At the time, it felt like a weak-point, if only a small one. Certainly not enough to be a detraction, especially considering I felt it worth writing a thousandish words about 😉

      As for psionics, I’m working off the old D&D kind-of-like-magic-but-not-point-based-mind-powers psionics.

      • Ok, I admit that at first it might look a litte strange, but that doesn’t mean that it’s silly.

        In the early missions (at the colluseum and after that) and in the cut scenes you already get a lot of explanations about what going on.

        From the beginning you find out that those revenants can’t be killed, as they will just come back to life. Then you find out, that Azra has a way to get to some other plane of existance, where the mind only can exist, and that at that place, you can destroy them. And it also explains that she has to concentrate a lot (needing more psionic power) in order to pull other people into that other plane of existance and manifest them there. Thus the more concentration (i.e. psionic power) you use on an individual, so better he can manifest there and, as a result, the stronger he is there (based on his real strength).

        So, if you think that another plane of existance is silly, sure, then the whole game story is kinda silly. But that would be the same for the entirety of D&D.

        But just to be clear, I’m not trying to attack you or anything (I have heard from some people that my wording often sounds like I’m trying to attack people, so I’m writing that here if by chance you might get the same impression).
        I just whole heartedly disagree with your claim that the justification for the game mechanis are silly. Because I really think that they’re not and that they make a lot of sense in that game.

      • “Thus the more concentration (i.e. psionic power) you use on an individual, so better he can manifest there and, as a result, the stronger he is there (based on his real strength).”

        Y’know, that actually does make a lot of sense.

      • “Y’know, that actually does make a lot of sense.”

        See? 🙂
        That’s what I meant by “if you actually think about it a little”.

        And that’s what makes this game so great because there was so much thought put into it, not only the mechanics, but also the story and the world.

      • “Ultimately, I think that the mechanics work with the story, but that the mechanics could work beyond the story without any real tweaks.”

        I completely agree here. The game mechanics are wunderful on it’s own, putting a new twist on the Tower Defense genre by mixing it up with the RPG genre and producing a wonderful result, regardless of the story (but with the Sotry it’s even better :)).

  4. Pingback: Rumors of War » Farms and Town Halls

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