Classic fantasy in modern times - a Mephisto review
Dragonbane Core Set
The translation of the original title, Dragons and Demons, recalls a classic fantasy RPG. And that is consistent because in the 1980s, Drakar och Demoner apparently was the role-playing game that offered an alternative to D&D in the early days of role-playing in Sweden. The game was based on early Chaosium titles, with the first edition from 1982 being a translation of the Magic World role-playing game. However, the Swedish version quickly took on a life of its own, apparently providing an introduction to the hobby for many Swedish role-playing gamers. Now, 40 years later, Fria Ligan has revived the role-playing game in a new edition, available as a traditional box set (or its digital counterpart). This box contains a rulebook, an adventure book, maps, cards, cardboard figures, character sheets, handout maps, and solo rules. The fact that the rulebook and adventure volume offer only about 120 pages each also seems reminiscent of earlier games.
The rulebook first describes the basic concepts of role-playing games and their core elements before moving on to character creation. Here, players must first choose a kin that gives them innate abilities. Subsequently, they decide on a profession. Then it is a matter of age, attributes, derived stats, skills, and heroic abilities. Optionally, weaknesses can be selected, and gear completes the character. Of course, instead of making the decisions yourself, you can also let the dice decide the character's fate.
The game offers six different kin, of which humans, halflings, dwarves, and elves are well-known examples. Two unusual variants are also available with mallards, duck-like humanoids, and wolf-kin, anthropomorphic wolves. All kin are briefly introduced, and each one has a special ability. For example, halflings are hard to catch, and elves have an inner peace that makes it easier for them to heal hit points and willpower points. When it comes to professions, you will find the usual suspects like fighters or mages and more unusual representatives like artisans, scholars, or merchants. Each profession comes with preferred skills and heroic abilities, as well as different equipment. Once the essential decisions are made that determine the character's basic framework, age is determined by choice or dice, which affects the number of skills and modifies attributes if necessary.
The attributes are the usual six variants known from fantasy role-playing games, and they mainly modify the skills. The idea is that skills have a base value depending on the attributes. Trained skills double this value, and these trained skills are partly defined by profession and partly chosen by the player. The game offers a broad arsenal of skills like bushcraft, performance, or sneaking. The heroic skills are special traits that can differentiate a character, such as the ability to wield two weapons at once or having a magical talent. As optional rules, weaknesses can be used to distinguish the character further. When these weaknesses appear in the game, they provide opportunities for extra advancement.
The advancement system does not use levels but so-called advancement marks. You get these when you roll particular results for skills or at the end of a game session. At the end of the session, you get the marks for questions such as whether you participated in the session or encountered a dangerous enemy. The advancement marks allow one attempt to increase a skill by exceeding the current value with the roll of a d20. Alternatively, teachers can be used to improve skills. Once a skill reaches the value of 18, you also gain a new heroic ability.
As usual in role-playing games based on d20, the extreme values 1 and 20 play a unique role. A 1 is called a dragon, a particularly good roll, and a 20 is called a demon, which brings particular disadvantages. As is typical for newer systems, rolls can have advantages and disadvantages by rolling multiple dice and using the worst or best result. At the same time, there is a rule to push rolls by making another attempt. If this attempt is unsuccessful, the character receives a disadvantage in the form of a condition that limits them.
Of course, an extended chapter is devoted to combat, using the usual mechanisms. There are critical hits and the possibility to roll a mishap. While regular damage reduces hit points, harder hits result in injuries that bring further restrictions. Dragonbane's combat rules include special results at 1 (dragon) and 20 (demon). A dragon may deal a critical hit resulting in additional damage or triggering an extra attack, while a demon causes a mishap. Melee attacks can be parried or dodged but require an appropriate action, while armor simply reduces damage. However, when the hit points drop to 0, the characters must test if they die and at least take severe wounds. There are also mechanisms for dealing with fear when player characters have to face particularly fearsome monsters.
The basic rules of Dragonbane offer three schools of magic. In order to cast spells, a player character must choose the appropriate profession and acquire the appropriate heroic skills. The three schools are Animism, Elementalism, and Mentalism, which cover different application areas and can be mastered by any magical character. The idea in Dragonbane is that spells must be memorized, so mages always have a limited selection of their spells available. There are also magic tricks that are considered simpler spells. Magic is negatively affected by metal, and of course, there are magic failures that can make the game more interesting. The school of animism is reminiscent of druids and clerics and includes spellcasting to animals, nature and healing. Elementalism includes typical elemental spells using fire, earth, water, etc. and also allows conjuring elemental creatures. Mentalism includes abilities such as telepathy, telekinesis, etc.
The following chapter provides a catalog of weapons and equipment, as well as additional rules. For example, when parrying, there is a risk of damaging or destroying weapons.
Of course, a bestiary is present too, which introduces several monsters. Among them are typical creatures such as dragons, giants, and the like. A peculiarity of the rules is that real monsters always hit without rolling dice. Only the type of attack is rolled. This approach is similar to the mechanisms of Forbidden Lands. Of course, there are also smaller creatures, such as goblins and skeletons, for which standard combat rules apply rather than the monster rules.
A chapter for gamemasters provides additional tips, random tables, and rules concepts to cover aspects such as camps, food gathering, and other adventuring activities. There are also practical tips and instructions for designing adventures and campaigns.
The second book in the box is the adventure book. It features a sandbox region called Misty Vale, a closed valley that long ago was home to an advanced civilization that worshiped dragons but was then overrun by orcs. Now that the orcs are also in retreat, the valley is the destination of many adventurers and settlers seeking their fortune here. For the game master, the book provides a more detailed story that explains the background, which plays an essential role in the following campaign. For the players, the start of the campaign is more pragmatic: on their way to the valley, they have a fateful encounter that draws them into the adventures piece by piece. A central element in this sandbox is the settlement of Outskirts, which serves as a starting point for player characters to equip themselves, interact with non-player characters, and dive deeper and deeper into the campaign. In addition to Outskirts, there are 11 adventure locations in the valley whose stories require no particular order. It is up to the players to decide which locations to visit and when. These often serve as stand-alone adventure modules, which do not necessarily contain a fixed task and do not always follow the typical “enter the dungeon, defeat the monsters, grab the treasures” scenario but can have more interesting approaches. The adventure ideas are numerous and varied. Likewise, It is noteworthy that the campaign itself provides some context to the “dragons vs. demons” setting. Overall, the campaign includes adventure material for many evenings of play, allowing players to explore the valley and seek their fortune as they engage in an epic campaign.
If players are missing, another booklet also provides an approach for a solo game, where the rules are modified and countless random tables are supplied to flesh out the adventures. The solo game, however, is not just left entirely to chance. Instead, it also provides a background plot for a small solo campaign in which the player character must dive into the so-called breach to recover a dangerous artifact. There are several adventures here that are described in short, but their elaboration is then up to the tables and the player himself.
In addition to these books, the box contains additional extensive material. There are blank character sheets and five pre-made characters with background information. Also included are handout maps for locations and an overview map of Misty Vale. A double-sided battle map allows you to play with miniatures that are included as cardboard standees for the various monsters. Furthermore, there are various small card sets, including treasure cards, initiative cards, and adventure cards, that contain rumors and clues about the various locations in the campaign. A unique feature is the Improvised Weapons card deck, which can be used for encounters in taverns, caves, and forests. It provides impromptu weapons such as a wine bottle in the tavern or a wasp's nest in the forest to bring additional dynamics to the battles.
When I first read about Dragonbane – especially about the game's background – the project gave me the impression that it was a special interest role-playing game, mainly for the Swedish market and nostalgic role-players there. It seemed like it should appeal to players who want to connect their early memories of the role-playing hobby with this game. However, I am truly surprised and delighted after reading through the system. Dragonbane offers a wonderful blend of a basic approach, similar to the role-playing games of the 80s, combined with a well-designed, functional, but not overly complex set of rules. It offers an exciting and comprehensive sandbox campaign and a well-done presentation with additional material, coherent illustrations, and more. The game makes it easy to get started in terms of rules and campaign without lacking ideas or options.
Although Dragonbane does not provide much background information on the game world outside the campaign and does not come with an epic world description, this fits perfectly with the 80s approach and is more of an advantage than a disadvantage in my view. Dragonbane in this form is suitable for giving new players an accessible introduction to the hobby and appealing to role-playing veterans. At the same time, the game allows you to immerse yourself in a new and straightforward game world that is not overly complex or defined down to the last detail. The books have a good design and great illustrations that fit perfectly the game's direction. Of course, some design choices, like the duck-like mallard, take some getting used to, and one certainly hopes for more schools of magic, more monsters, and the like. But as a starting box, Dragonbane offers enough material for many play sessions and is, therefore, an absolute recommendation, especially (but not only) for players who started the hobby in the 80s.