Dragonbane Offers A Box Full Of Classic Fantasy


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.
Last edited:

log in or register to remove this ad

Rob Wieland

Rob Wieland

Von Ether

Alright, having flipped through the Bestiary, 10 of the 63 entries are 'non-monster', i.e. just stat lines and skills, mostly the new player kins. My complaint is, and will forever be, that all NPCs should have unique monster actions (especially when a goblin does become a monster if it climbs onto a worg).

Another 10 entries are reprints of enemies that are in the core rulebook already! (like, technically there's 4 dragon entries here, but the only difference is that the same effect's power got adjusted up or down from the basic entry in the core book, they don't do unique stuff)

Not to sound purposefully negative, I'm just confused why a third of the book is... like this. Monster actions are a gloriously good idea, they should lean into them!

There is a great third party PDF that puts out alternate attacks for the monsters in the core book.

There is a chart of NPC attacks in the solo rules, which has been great, that and the new Kin abilities (along with these kin NPC having WP to activate them, has been great.

Some monsters have differences, the Hatchling Dragon has a paralyzing smoke attack. OTH, I don't mind that many of the different varieties are essentially different levels of danger as it lets me fine tune the encounter to my party. If they easily kills the young dragon, then here comes the Mama Dragon. :ROFLMAO:

If anything, I wish they had done a few more flavors of wraith. I only soft balled my wraith in the first round and he never got to attack again.

log in or register to remove this ad

Von Ether

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.

I'd say it is more of a feature, not an issue, in this game. This is a game where the only extra HP you get is from an Heroic Ability gives you ... 2 HP. That's it. A goblin with a lucky rolls will always be able to hit and harm even a veteran hero. There's less need for a wide result of numbers to ensure higher levels can hit escalating Armor Classes.

It serves a different type of audience.

My most avid players right now are coming from PF 1/2 and 5e and they are embracing it as they feel their PCs are in constant danger, one PC goes down every game. They've mastered the other three games and their characters are never in any real sort of danger.

The Soloist

We played our first game of DB last night and enjoyed the system. Simple yet not simplistic. Combat with changing initiative each round, parrying and dodging reactions, that forfeit your main action if you have not acted yet was a nice change from the RPG I Shall Not Name. We played theatre of the mind since we are playing remotely. As a GM I want to see the faces of the players not a battle map on the computer.

We reviewed the characters together and did a rules summary. The goblin ambush intro scene was great. One of the PCs was rendered unconscious by the jaws of the Worg. The goblin's random treasure card was a spying glass. Then the characters arrived at Outskirt, the home base for the adventures in the Adventure Book. At the inn, during the evening they picked up two rumours of possible adventure sites. Everyone raised 2-3 skills (+1) at the end of the session.

It's a keeper. We will continue the campaign in two weeks.
Last edited:

aramis erak

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?
I ordered the physical book earlier this week... Mom told me to pick a book... the PDF version, sent automatically upon the CC being charged. Here's the list of files:

Note the 4 different cards files... they're about MTG sized, and when I used Acrobat Reader, I was able to print them 4 across in two rows on US Letter... and they're within a mm of the MTG card I had handy.

Also - the improvised weapons cards, which carry the rule for that particular mode, are NOT duplicated in the corebook.

Remove ads

Remove ads


Remove ads

Upcoming Releases