The Sands of Al-Kalim is an excellent and highly recommended big-box expansion for Runebound. However, after playing it several times, I have noticed (as have others) that the endgame tends to be anticlimactic.
In SoAK, defeating three red challenges (or the big bad) is no longer the victory condition. Instead, the player must be the first to complete four quests to win the game (or, if playing solo, complete four quests before the threat track runs out). This mechanic adds a welcome variant (questing) somewhat lacking in the base game. The problem, however, is that to win the game, you need to defeat only one red challenge (to allow yourself to take on a fourth quest). Even worse, by the time you are strong enough to defeat a red challenge, the quests themselves, typically requiring a series of skill tests or defeating a specified number of challenges (of any level), are generally trivial to complete. So the final moves become a matter of who gets where they're going first. This is neither particularly dramatic nor especially heroic.
This variant provides a simple method for scaling quests so they will provide a challenge more in line with your Hero's increasing abilities. I have playtested this variant with each character, and have personally found it well-balanced, fun, and successful in increasing the tension as the game escalates.
1. Every unfinished quest on a Hero's quest tile has a quest level ranging from 0 to 3. The quest level of each card is always equal to the number of quest rewards (i.e., finished quests) the Hero currently has in his possession. The quest level of any unfinished quests will therefore change as the Hero completes other quests.
2. The requirements to complete a quest become more difficult as the quest level increases, in the following manner:
a. If the text of the quest requires the Hero to make a skill check or combat check, increase the difficulty of that check by 2 for each quest level. This increase is applied to every skill and combat check listed on the card.
b. If the text of the quest requires the Hero to defeat a challenge, the minimum colour of the challenge necessary to satisfy this quest is increased by one level (starting with green at level 0) for every quest level.
c. A few quests do not easily fall under either of these two cases and so require special adjustments. See below for more details.
3. The reward for completing a quest is always exactly determined by the text on the card. Rewards are not dependent on, and are not affected by, the quest level.
Except for the following cards, all cards read exactly as printed (with the difficulty adjustments noted above).
Enthralled a Band of Thieves: If quest level 3, you must defeat a challenge in the Bitter Barrens instead.
Befriended a Beast Tamer: If quest level 3, you must defeat three challenges in at least two different terrain types (since red challenges only occur in two terrain types).
Sailing the Sands: This quest will only be completed when, of the three story die rolls used to satisfy this quest, at least as many were made at night equal to the current quest level.
Crafted a Rune of Life: If quest level 3, you must defeat a challenge in the Gray Wastes instead.
Crafted a Rune of Summoning: If quest level 2 or 3, the Lost City must be discovered at night.
Notes and Clarifications
1. The increase in check difficulty only applies to checks specifically listed on the card. The increase is never applied to skill checks or combat rolls made when fighting challenges, whether defeating a challenge is part of the quest or not.
2. If it isn't already clear, for skill tests and combat checks and quest level, 0=+0, 1=+2, 2=+4, 3=+6. These adjustments are applied to all checks needed to satisfy that quest. (The only quest where combat checks are necessary is Trained with the Exiles; all others are skill checks.)
3. If it isn't already clear, for challenges and quest level, 0=green, 1=yellow, 2=blue, 3=red. Remember that you may always satisfy a quest requirement using a higher challenge than necessary.
4. Regardless of quest level, challenges only count if met through an adventure counter, not a story die.
5. If a quest level increases before a quest is completed, past efforts to satisfy the quest by defeating challenges only count towards completion if those challenges satisfy the new quest level, not the old one. (For example, when Befriending the Beast Tamer, you cannot defeat two green challenges when quest level 0, complete three other quests, then complete the quest by defeating a single red challenge.) For the travel-from-one-bazaar-to-another quests, previously made skill checks still count and do not need to be re-rolled.
6. The quest level is dependent on quest rewards currently in your possession. If you complete a quest, then the quest level of all your other unfinished quests immediately increases. If you lose a quest reward for any reason, then the quest level of all your other unfinished quests immediately decreases.
7. It is possible that an adventure counter needed to satisfy a quest will not be on the board when your Hero seeks to complete that quest (just like in the standard game). If this is the case, the counter may be refreshed as usual by any of the permitted methods (sunburst or story die roll). A rival Hero may attempt to slow you down by taking a counter you need. However, if a Hero refreshes a counter needed to complete a quest in a hex he currently occupies, only that Hero may attempt to obtain that counter until the end of the turn following the one in which the counter was refreshed. In other words, a Hero gets one free crack at a counter he regenerates for a quest if he regenerated it in the same hex as himself. (This is to prevent opponents camping on you to spoil your quest.)
8. Remember that you do not adjust quest rewards according to quest level. The quest reward is always precisely the one given on the card.
9. For added tension, have Heroes choose quests randomly.
At first glance, it may seem there are a lot of rules and special cases, but when you look at it, the rules are pretty straightforward: increase checks by 2 for every completed quest, and face harder challenges for every completed quest. The notes are just to make sure everything is clear.
I've found these rules to make the midgame and especially the endgame of SoAK a lot more fun, and I hope you do too. As always, comments are welcome.