It seems that RPG boxed sets are everywhere from online sales to the shelves at the local Target store. There’s something primal about cracking open a box and digging into a brand new fantasy world. Even if the majority of these boxes are built as starter sets that offer up a fun experience in the hopes that the table will buy a core book to continue their adventures beyond the one contained within. Dragonbane, from Free League Publishing, offers a full campaign experience in this boxed set much like their Forbidden Lands and Twilight: 2000 boxes. You can tell lead designer Tomas Harenstam is in for the long haul. There’s a heft to this box that caught me by surprise when Free League sent the physical review copy. Is Dragonbane worth its weight in gold pieces? Let’s play to find out.
Dragonbane is a modern update of Drakar och Demoner, aka Dragons & Demons, which blended elements of Dungeons & Dragons and Chaosium’s early fantasy work into a game that a lot of Swedish kids played in the 1980s. I’m not familiar with the game beyond what I’ve read in the introduction of the boxed set and a few interviews with designers but I can say that this game blends those old-school influences with modern designs such as 5e and Free League’s own Year Zero titles. Attributes set up the base chance for 30 skills which players must roll under to succeed on a d20. Classes determine which of those skills can be improved. Individual skills are improved in play by earning a check and rolling higher than the skill after the session. On the modern side, the game uses advantage and disadvantage, or what it calls boons and banes, to reflect difficulty adjustments rather than hard modifiers. Heroic traits are gained on a rare occasion in a manner similar to milestone levelling.
Players can choose to reroll if they risk taking a condition that affects their character such as getting angry or exhausted. Each condition affects one of the attributes and the skills connected to it and forces a bane on all rolls on that attribute until the condition is cleared. (For those min/maxers in the audience, Constitution has the least amount of skills and Agility has the most, so keep that in mind in play) This is one of many optional rules called out in an emerald green sidebar, but reading those optional rules made me want to play this game with all those switches turned on. They are one of the many things that help differentiate Dragonbane from the many wonderful OSR games on the market.
The art also puts Dragonbane in its own class. Johan Egerkrans is the lead illustrator here. His style is one of the big draws to Vaesen and he and his collaborators here bring that same aesthetic to this game. While most throwback games go for gnarly line art or weird doodles that wouldn't look out of place in a third period Spanish class notebook, there’s an animated quality to the art in this game that still feels of the period even if it's more polished and colorful. I think that black and white art can be evocative for throwback games like this, but the painted illustrations here kept bringing me back to the Rankin-Bass Tolkien films and the paperback covers in the fantasy section of my long gone Waldenbooks. That art spreads out through the accessories included in the box: the maps, the pawns, the pre-generated characters. Even the treasure cards have unique illustrations of just how much gold a player might find in a particular room.
The box includes a campaign that charges the players with looking for a magic sword. First they have to find the pieces of a statue that unlocks the tomb. Then they have to get the sword and put it to use against the forces of evil who want the sword for their own nefarious purposes. It’s pretty basic stuff but it’s very well executed. The nature of the artifact hunt gives the players the ability to tackle the adventures in whichever order they want except for the final confrontation. Each adventuring site is built for a night or two of adventure and while there is dungeon plundering a plenty to be had, many of the sites also come with rivals or potential allies to talk with during the exploration. Each of these NPCs comes with a character portrait and a well-defined motivation which help the adventures stand out from the usual dungeon crawls.
Should the players wish to keep going (or the GM wish to break up the storyline with some standalone adventures), the boxed set provides two adventure generators. The first has the GM roll one of each fantasy die type to put together some writing prompts for an adventure. The second are a set of solo rules written by Shawn Tomkin of Ironsworn fame that give one site something of an endless dungeon feeling. Perfect for players who miss a session but still want to get involved in a story or for those unfortunate souls who haven’t convinced their table to try something other than D&D that want to enjoy the world of Dragonbane.
I think this game is an excellent opportunity for GMs who want to play other systems but have tables that are too locked into D&D. A lot of this is familiar; dungeons, sword, magic, d20s, but there are some elements that are different. Perhaps if the table enjoys pushing rolls, for example, they might be up for some Tales From The Loop after this game ends. There’s also an appeal to a campaign that lasts between 12-24 sessions with options in the box to expand the story if everyone’s really enjoying themselves. I wouldn’t be adverse to more Dragonbane either with new boxes exploring new ancestries, locations and storylines. It seems ripe for playable goblins to go along with the duck people and the talking dogs.
Dragonbane offers a throwback experience that has everything the GM needs to play in one hefty box.