Wednesday 28 December 2022

[Preview] Dragonbane / Drakar och Demoner Beta

At the end of november Dragonbane's beta version dropped, which I started devouring with gusto. Three days later Free League announced that they are going to heed the wishes of the swedish Drakar och Demoner community, and overhaul the skill list to be more in line with previous editions. I did not expect to see the forthcoming changes before the final version, so I continued reading the rulebook, and took some time to digest the current version. Literally a few minutes after I opened Blogger's editor to write this preview a mail arrived about a major update to the beta rules. Oh well, here I go reading Dragonbone again, cover to cover...

Merry Christmas, everyone!

So, the current beta contains the complete Rulebook, the half-finished Adventure book, initiative cards, improvised weapon cards for inns, caves, forests, a map of Misty Vale, and a map for the town of Outskirt. Each one of them is pleasing to the eye with a predominantly brown and green colour scheme, breezy layout, and stunning illustrations. I would have loved to see some Paul Bonner art too, but I guess his mythic tone would not fit the "mirth & mayhem" motto1.

The Rulebook is 116 pages long and covers both how to play and run the game. The short page count is largely the result of terse, effective, no-bullshit writing. The latter still needs some refinement: some abilities would benefit from more clarification, some skills should have more telling names, and sometimes the text feels awkward - probably the result of English being the second language of the writer.

Character creation is swift and straightforward. There are six kin (human, halfling, dwarf, elf, mallard, wolfkin), each with one or two unique abilities and a table of six names. There ten professions (artisan, bard, fighter, hunter, knight, mage, mariner, merchant, scholar, thief), each with a recommended key attribute, skills, heroic abilities2, three equipment packages, and six names3. Age category is a surprising artifact: the older your character is, the shittier the attributes are, but the more skills they start with. Once you have your kin, profession, and age, you can roll up your six attributes (Strength, Constitution, Agility, Intelligence, Willpower, Charisma) using the 4d6k3 method. After each roll you must assign it to an ability score, and can swap two scores in the end4. Now you can calculate your derived ratings (Movement, Strength Damage Bonus, Agility Damage Bonus, Hit Points, and the mouthful Willpower Points), choose your trained skills, and you are good to go. The base chance for skills is based on their relevant attributes, which is doubled for trained skills. Other than these you must also define motivation, gear, memento, appearance. Every step offers you to choose or roll on a table - whatever floats your boat.

Yes, you can play as a wolfkin
with a catfolk fursona.
Encumbrance and experience are also explained here. They follow BRP traditions with some changes. You can carry STR/2 items, but worn armour and weapons at hand don't count. Heavy objects count as multiple items, while others are so small, that you need multiple pieces to count as one item. Skills gain advancement mark for critical and fumble rolls, plus by answering a post-session questionnaire about your achievements. Once you have all your advancement marks set, you roll for each skill. If you exceed their current score, the skill improves by one point - up to 18. You can also train skills with a teacher, though there is nothing about how much they would ask for their services5.

The mechanics use a d20 roll under method for attribute and skill tests alike. There is no resistance matrix like in older BRP games, they are handled by opposed tests. Instead of bonuses and penalties there are boons and banes, which are akin to D&D's advantage and disadvantage: roll twice, take the better roll if you have a boon, or the worse if you have a bane. Fumbles happen on 20 and are called demons, criticals happen on 1 and are called dragons. Failures can be pushed, meaning you can reroll at the cost of gaining a condition. There is one condition for each attribute, and while they are in effect you roll every test affected by it with a bane.

The current skill list offers 20 general skills, 10 weapon skills, and 3 magic skills. That's around twice as much as the quickstart and first beta had, and probably the most controversial change. Fans of Free League systems argued, that having more than 16 skills is too much and adds a considerable amount of crunch to the game. I disagree with them, for several reasons.

First, a few more skills don't add more mechanics to the game, but they do help on defining and differentiating the common tasks one can encounter during an adventure. The previous list was uneven in this regard. Social interactions, physical activities, and education alike had only one skill (Persuasion, Athletics, Lore in this order), which made them a cheap and trivial choice for characters who want to focus on either. For other activities it was hazy, which skill one should use. Then there were tasks like performance and crafting, that got no skills, but were tied to professional heroic abilities, which is all fine and dandy for a class-based system - but Dragonbane ain't one of those.

Second, this is a skill-based game (duh). Your characters are differentiated by what skills their had. Their mix and match is what gives these games the flexibility we love these games for. Too few skills, and your game is no better than a class-based game. Heck, some games reduce their skill lists to a point where they should just drop the idea of separate skills and ability scores, and just merge them6. Why write a skill-based system at all if you don't want a proper skill list?

Third, this is a game with 40 years of legacy. You have to keep some degree of similarity and compatbility with older content and appeal to fans of earlier editions. People who know Drakar och Demoner want to play Drakar och Demoner, not "Forbidden Lands D20 Roll Under Edition". Dragonbane already gets way too much crap for having too many D&D-isms and Forbidden Lands-like mechanisms.

Speaking of D&D-isms, we have feats too, called Heroic Abilities. They include passive bonuses (like improving HP and WP) and active abilities (which cost of WP) alike. You get one Heroic Ability in the beginning, and a new one after reaching 18 in a skill or performing a grand heroic deed.7 It is a diverse list that has both some characterful options and some musthaves - like those that allow multiple attacks or parries, dodges.

Onward to battle! The biggest difference from BRP-based games is the lack of strike ranks or DEX/INT ranks. Initiative is determined by drawing from a deck of cards marked one to ten. You can delay action by swapping cards with those coming later down the line, and there are Heroic Abilities that allow you to manipulate initiative. Your character can move and perform a single action. Parries and dodges use up your action too. Because of this brutal limitatation you must take into account the initiative order to make smart decisions. A wasted action can be the difference between life and death. If you are familiar with BRP, the rest of combat will be nothing new: attack rolls are contested by parry or dodge rolls, on a success you roll damage, subtract Armor Rating. There are rules for critical hits, fumbles, severe injuries, weapon vs armour type, and of course a bunch of spot rules for all kinds of hazards. Fear is surprisingly elaborate with is table of random effects.

That's some cool art. It would be a shame
if the chapter didn't have rules for demonology
and necromancy...
Spellcasting requires WP and a successful skill test. Your character can memorize INT spells, but can also cast from a grimoire at a slower speed. Some spells have multiple power levels, which increases their effectiveness and WP cost. Once out of WP, your character can sacrifice HP for more, but it is an unpredectible process. There are bonuses for criticals, and d20 table of mishaps for fumbles. Similar to RuneQuest, iron hinders spellcasting, so you don't dress your mage in plate armour. Besides generic tricks and spells that everyone can learn there are three schools: Animism (nature and healing), Elementalism (elemental attacks and summoning), and Mentalism (psychic powers and chi). The spell lists are solid but short. Some spells even feel redundant, because they are basically the upgraded versions of other spells. There is a hidden spell tree too: advanced spells require another spell as prerequisite before you can learn them. Overall what you get is a generic spell point-based magic system. There is nothing new under the sun, but it gets shit down. Necromancy ASAP, pls!

Gear is usually the most boring chapter of every rpg. I was pleasantly surprised, that even the blandest item got a meaningful effect neatly summed up in a single sentence. Clothes can protect you from environmental hazards, tools can assist you in tests, wearing an extravagant hat can help with persuading others, etc. Sure, there is a short armour and an exhaustive weapon list too, but here it is the rest of the equipment chapter I fell in love with.

The monster list is barebones with its 15 entries and short chart of 11 common animals. You won't find imaginative weird abominations here, just tired and tested classics. Dragonbane introduces the monster mechanics from Forbidden Lands, which lead to a lot of confusion, partly because the unfortnately chosen name. There are "monsters", who act like environmental hazards with HP, and include supernatural creatures, colossal monstrosities, and swarms. They have a crapton of HP, a chart for attacks, they always hit, but some attacks can be parried, dodged, or resisted. Then there are "not-monsters", which includes NPCs, humanoids, and animals, who work just like your player character. While the monster mechanics are interesting, I would have preferred a more consistent system8. On the other hand, the attack charts have some fun moves, not just Fifty Shades of Damage, and I also dig the Ferocity value, which means how many times a monster can draw initiative9.

The final chapter about running the game is a mixed bag. The rules for handling journeys, foraging, hunting are concise, yet comprehensive - I adore them. The stat blocks of typical NPCs and the random NPC generation table is servicable, though I would move them to the bestiary. There is some generic GM advice and a short guideline for writing adventures supplemented by three random tables, but beyond that you are left to your own devices. Like most modern games, the rulebook doesn't teach you how to properly design an adventure10. I don't expect an entire Tome of Adventure Design in the back of the book, but some more advice accompanied with exact examples would be welcome.

Kudos to Free League for listening to the community and including a printer friendly character sheet in the back.

All this map needs is a hex layer.

The current version of the Adventure Book is 54 pages long and introduces the town of Outskirt, its points of interests, its important personalities, regional random encounter tables, and three adventures: Riddermound (the one from the quickstart), Bothild's Lode, and Temple of the Purple Flame. All three adventures are shorter affairs with simple layouts, but they all have some cool encounters, interesting NPCs, and memorable gimmicks. The presentation is top-notch, with terse writing, clear layout, and effective use of highlighting, colours, and bullet points. I won't take a deeper look into the book for now though, because it's far from complete. Rest assured when the final version drops, I will return to the topic.

Free League has no easy job with balancing between their in-house design principles and the legacy of Drakar och Demoner, especially with both sides having fervent advocates among the fans11. Rewriting the skill list and professions was a big decision that will get a lot of praise and booing alike on the forums. As for me, I am happy with which way then went, and how quickly they applied the changes. Dragonbane promises to be a fun game. The boxed set will be perfect for one shots and short to medium length campaigns, and with proper support I can easily imagine Dragonbane as one's primary game for years long campaigns too.

Until next time!

1 Boy, do I hate this slogan... The game isn't as light, goofy, and heroic as the motto suggests, thanks to its nigh-BRP level of lethality. I guess they had to justify ducks somehow...

2 In the previous version the beginning Heroic Abilities were set in stone for each profession. Opening them up is a welcome change.

3 While I dig the profession-based nicknames, the racial names table feels pretty low effort and useless. Those charts should be at least twice as big. Heck, the Creating NPCs table later has 60 names on it!

4 This method feels awkward. It makes more sense to me to roll first, swap two scores, and then decide about kin, profession, and age.

5 Baffling considering it took a half sentence to do so for the original Magic World back in the day.

6 RuinMasters is a good example: with four attributes and six skills based on them, what's the point of having both? That game also suffers from badly defined attributes and skills, which is partly the result of the excessive minimalization.

7 Originally they were awarded every fifth session. I prefer this approach.

8 Consistency is a key feature of BRP-based games for me. That's why BRP works well as a generic system and why it was big deal compared to D&D back in the day: everything worked the same way. Separate mechanics for monsters feels like a step back, no matter how mechanically intriguing they are.

9 This way monsters can have multiple attacks spread out over the combat round, instead of fucking someone up with one long attack routine once it's their turn.

10 While it's absolutely not my cup of tea, WFRP3e still deserves some praise for having a GM's book that actually tells you how to design adventures and build up a campaign.

11 And then there are the OneD&D refugees too!

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  1. Sounds cool. I'd love to check it out.

    1. The quickstart is still available on the Kickstarter campaign's frontpage, it is good to whet one's appetite. The beta is for backers only, but you can make a late pledge by now it seems.