Dragonbane Offers A Box Full Of Classic Fantasy

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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.
 
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Rob Wieland

Rob Wieland


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Zarithar

Adventurer
Mixing Disney-style anthro animals into a traditional fantasy world is still pretty out of place in fantasty in general and RPGs especially.
It's literally been a part of the fantasy RPG genre since the 70s. The duck race in particular dates to 1978-ish with their first appearance in RuneQuest. As for D&D, I will agree with you there. We didn't really start seeing anything anthropomorphic (as player character options at least) until AD&D 2e with The Complete Book of Humanoids.
 


aramis erak

Legend
I was always under the impression that RuneQuest and Dragonbane did explicitly reference Donald Duck and Daffy Duck, and meant it as a silly joke.

What else could it be?
Howard. Unlike Daffy and Donald, Howard is usually presented as competent, which is different from Daffy; Donald's presentation varies. Howard is also humorous as a second intent, while Daffy and Donald are humorous by first intent.
 


I like player facing only rolls. It works excellent in the Talisman RPG.
I will buy this box set to fuel my starter set addiction.
I played DB at a con last year. Me and another player ruined it somewhat with our inability to not roll under 18.
The issue of roll under on a d20 is the limited result range. Roll high in any game gives a very wide results range (1 to say 35 in 5th ed) to play with in your system.
 

Andrea Rocci

Explorer
The ducks are like 75 percent of the reason I want this. It makes no sense, traditional fantasy world plus anthro ducks, how delightfully weird, the sorta thing American designers would never do, I want to see more European games now. Especially if they have ducks.
No American designer? Ducks were in RuneQuest 1978, by the Americans Greg Stafford and Steve Perrin. And still are. The Dragonbane ducks come straight from the BRP roots of the game.
 

Retreater

Legend
So is this a Starter Set? The complete game? Will there be a "full" rulebook and bestiary coming out?
Do we know about Free League's plans to support the system?
 

IMO Dragonbane sits in a bit of a weird spot. In general it's a complete game - you get a rules book and an adventure book, and a bunch of stuff like dice and a map. But on the other hand, the whole adventure setting is not really fleshed out. Also, things like additional schools of magic might be added later, and I feel also a proper bestiary book would be in order. So to me it also has a bit of a starter set feel (and I have already seen people on Twitter who were thinking along the same lines).
There already seems to be a third-party setting for it (Windheim & Horn of the Dawn (Kickstarter)) and as far as I know, there have been multiple settings for the original game, one of which was called Ereb Altor. But I assume the licensing situation around this is more tricky.
Also, I think the Swedish users here probably have a better idea about the ecosystem that existed around the game.
 

Von Ether

Legend
So is this a Starter Set? The complete game? Will there be a "full" rulebook and bestiary coming out?
Do we know about Free League's plans to support the system?
It's a complete game with a starter set attitude as it comes with Pregens, character sheets, and dice. The rule book is 116 pages. It also comes with separate 116 page adventures book with 11 adventures and additional monsters you can run together or mostly one-shots. There is also a booklet for running solo/GMless adventures.

Answering the other two questions in this case are redundant. We know of three additional products being announced soon, includes a bestiary and additional player options and at least another campaign. There is a 3pp license for the game already and there have already been two modest, but funded kickstarters -- one of them by a popular Swedish podcaster who ran a long campaign under a previous editions rules. Both KS are offering a Swedish and English version of their projects.

The unique part of DB is that it has made a big splash in Sweden, being advertised on buses and train stations, as the latest edition of their answer to D&D. It started in the early 80s and kept actual D&D out for decades. There is a lot of love for the game.
 

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