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

Von Ether

Legend
IBut 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.
The adventure setting was designed to be light on purpose as a Points of Light setting in the style of the OSR or the early days of setting like Nentir Vale, Mystara, or Greyhawk. Lots of blank spaces on the map and the campaign to add your own stuff. And there are 12 more monsters in the adventure setting.

Tastes vary, but I personally don't need a mini-gazetteer in my core set. In a Points of Lights setting, you don't get big cities and tons of factions.
In DB, we get a page of history (thank goodness), the bad guy, a gold rush town with a conspiracy that is covered all the way down to the bakers, the bad guy, and 11 adventures all over the map. Within the adventures, you may meet other NPCs who may or may not be an allies.

The whole design is less "starter" and more streamlined. Your character building chapter is about 10 pages and that includes rules for encumbrance and character advancement, along with 6 Kin and 9 Professions.
 

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The adventure setting was designed to be light on purpose as a Points of Light setting in the style of the OSR or the early days of setting like Nentir Vale, Mystara, or Greyhawk. Lots of blank spaces on the map and the campaign to add your own stuff. And there are 12 more monsters in the adventure setting.

Tastes vary, but I personally don't need a mini-gazetteer in my core set.
I found some of the locations and people to be a bit too generic and the whole the thing generally fell a bit short for me. But you are correct to remark that this is, to a larger extent, also a matter of taste.
I think the main takeaway is: if you are used to stuff like Coriolis, Forbidden Lands, etc. (leave alone Symbaroum) from Free League, you will not get the same amount of information here. And it's also not the weird and wondrous stuff you get from OSR products, but rather staple fantasy tropes. Whether that's a plus or a minus, you will need to decide based on personal preferences.
 

Arnie_Wan_Kenobi

Paranoid Robot Lamborghini
Oh look! My two favorite categories of TTRPG products to throw money at: "Starter Sets I'll Never Play" and "Free League Products"! (Seriously. I have two intertwined problems.)

I've been half-seriously developing a bard with a duck familiar (for the one time I get to pull off the "Put it on his bill" joke to an innkeeper) for a while now, but haven't had the opportunity to play a bard recently.
 


CharlesWallace

enworld.com is a reminder of my hubris
Oh look! My two favorite categories of TTRPG products to throw money at: "Starter Sets I'll Never Play" and "Free League Products"! (Seriously. I have two intertwined problems.)

I've been half-seriously developing a bard with a duck familiar (for the one time I get to pull off the "Put it on his bill" joke to an innkeeper) for a while now, but haven't had the opportunity to play a bard recently.
You could do something about he's not restrained by a spider's web attack. Ducks walk on webbed feet all the time.
 

Yora

Legend
The adventure setting was designed to be light on purpose as a Points of Light setting in the style of the OSR or the early days of setting like Nentir Vale, Mystara, or Greyhawk. Lots of blank spaces on the map and the campaign to add your own stuff. And there are 12 more monsters in the adventure setting.

Tastes vary, but I personally don't need a mini-gazetteer in my core set. In a Points of Lights setting, you don't get big cities and tons of factions.
In DB, we get a page of history (thank goodness), the bad guy, a gold rush town with a conspiracy that is covered all the way down to the bakers, the bad guy, and 11 adventures all over the map. Within the adventures, you may meet other NPCs who may or may not be an allies.

The whole design is less "starter" and more streamlined. Your character building chapter is about 10 pages and that includes rules for encumbrance and character advancement, along with 6 Kin and 9 Professions.
I'm really just looking for a game engine without a setting.

There is a little bit of fully optional setting with the game, so this is working perfectly for me.
I'm curious to see how Dragonbane develops (especially the monster book), as I felt the core book was very sparse.
It's the rules only. The core, so to speak.
 

Von Ether

Legend
I found some of the locations and people to be a bit too generic and the whole the thing generally fell a bit short for me. But you are correct to remark that this is, to a larger extent, also a matter of taste.
I think the main takeaway is: if you are used to stuff like Coriolis, Forbidden Lands, etc. (leave alone Symbaroum) from Free League, you will not get the same amount of information here. And it's also not the weird and wondrous stuff you get from OSR products, but rather staple fantasy tropes. Whether that's a plus or a minus, you will need to decide based on personal preferences.
Agreed 100%
As a side note, a good chunk of the OSR weird and wonder is in adventures and 3 pp settings, not the B/X//OSE core rules. That said the adventure book has only a few weird adventures but most of the 11 are standard fare.

At a different point in my gaming tastes, I might be more "meh" but right now, it fits my needs and I see a lot of potential.

I am currently running an open beginner table. If players are on time, we only need to spend 10 minutes to make a character from the 10 page chapter. The flatter advancement with a lot less powers/abilities means new player can still come in with a new PC when a leveling system as compared to either using a pregen or have me put the whole game on hold for a much longer time to help the newbie create a higher level PC with a higher learning curve.
 



Yora

Legend
I've been thinking recently that Dragonbane would be a great match for the 1st edition Forgotten Realms sourcebooks from the 80s. I feel that they are both envisioning worlds with very similar feel and also looks.
 

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