5e ends the year strong with some good releases for new and veteran players alike- and one of the year's best board games.
Dungeons & Dragons is on its third 5E starter set and although the new introductory set is good, it’s still a pale shadow of the excellent one released way back in 2014, which featured an outstanding, all-time great intro adventure in “Lost Mines of Phandelver”. That module ranks among the greats and it is arguably a better example of the platonic idea of D&D than even hoary old B1 is. But with that said “Dragons of Stormwreck Isle” feels very much like a modern D&D adventure for an era when streaming and online play are more common than at-the-table interaction.
Like the previous starter sets, this box is an extremely inexpensive way to get into D&D and it does in fact include everything you need to get going from zero, although it isn’t quite as robust as the previous Icespire Peak set. There’s a magazine format rulebook, the titular adventure also printed in a stapled magazine style, five pre-filled character sheets, and six dice. Yes, that’s right, six dice. Apparently the tens d10 was lost in the cost saving measures. There are no treasure cards, sidekick cards, DM screens, or anything like that. It’s pretty bare bones, but speaking as someone who just sold every D&D miniature I owned in order to get back to a simpler way of playing, I’m pretty OK with that.
When I got this box, my crew’s two-years-and-running Temple of Elemental Evil campaign had started to falter due to the usual adult scheduling issues so we missed a good two months of sessions. So when we had another session collapse after a player had to miss (in order do an improve comedy show - can you believe it?), I decided to run this for our D&D-starved group. WOTC was kind enough to comp us a review copy for There Will Be Games, but I wound up buying the $15 module on Roll20 and was completely delighted that virtually all of the prep work was done from the sheets to the maps to the tokens. I spent 20 minutes reading through the adventure beforehand and it was off to the races.
We’re still in the middle of the level 1-3 Forgotten Realms adventure and it is firmly in the “pretty good” band, at least as written. The party is stationed at a kind of monastic retreat on an island where dragons have fought and died, and of course there are some secrets to be uncovered. There are dungeons and there are dragons, as you want there to be in an intro adventure. It’s written very much in the same way that Icespire Peak was, which is to say informed by open world video games and MMORPGs. There are quest-givers, side quests, etc. but the whole thing feels quite small and restrained- the island’s topography isn’t clearly defined or explained. But it’s almost kind of refreshing that there’s a blank slate element to it.
The simplicity of it has made it a delight run – getting back to basics is nice, and the relatively restrained adventuring area and storyline feels just right for new players and for online play. However I also kind of feel like this adventure, without an experienced DM, is likely going to suck. That’s putting it bluntly, but without a DM that can bring some embellishments to the NPCs (a small group of humans and kobolds, mostly) and expand on some of the proscribed elements it all seems kind of thin. Granted, we are also coming out of a 1985 epic length adventure. But I’m not sure that this is a great first D&D experience in the way that Lost Mines of Phandelver was. But then again, as I stated it does feel like it is written to modern D&D specs- it doesn’t require a mountain of prep work (even if you are running at the table), there’s nothing too funky or weird, and if you play with the pregens as you should, it’s just basic classes and ancestries. All of this is perfect for kids, adults, and online play. So I suppose it’s right on target.
One thing I really like about it is that the cast from the D&D cartoon is in all of the illustrations and artwork. This is a fun touch. But it’s a bit baffling as to why they didn’t just go all in and make them the pregen characters.
The other winter release is the grand entrance of Dragonlance into the 5e line and this time it’s brought along a great board game designed by Rob Daviau and Stephen Baker. Those names should raise some eyebrows – Daviau has turned out tons of great mainstream-adjacent games over the years through Hasbro, Restoration Games, and other publishers and Stephen Baker is the guy that did HeroQuest, ‘nuff said. I got the game as part of the big box set that includes the Dragonlance: Shadow of the Dragon Queen book and a DM screen, and it’s a nice package if you want both the RPG content and the board game but each are sold separately.
The board game, Warriors of Krynn, is actually one of my favorite games of the year. I thought it looked cool, but I didn’t expect to be fairly blown away by how idiosyncratic and unlike just about anything else out there it is. I’ve never played a game quite like it, and that is an absolutely wonderful feeling to be left with in a time where most games are remixed and recycled mechanisms with remixed and recycled gameplay concepts. It’s a mixture of a simple, highly abstracted rank-and-file medieval wargame with some character-based co-op adventuring elements. So infantry, archers, and mounted units clash on the battlefields while the players, working together, run around to gather treasures, defeat monsters, inspire commanders, and use their unique abilities to turn the tide of battle. Flanks collapse, fires break out, reinforcements are called, and dramatic dice results come in across a number of compelling scenarios (playable as a campaign of course). And you can use the game in your Dragonlance campaign to model big battles and the player character’s actions in them- they can even bring their own characters right into the game – which, as far as I recall, is the first time RPG player characters have translated directly over to a board game.
It’s such a cool game and it has some very late ‘80s/early ‘90s vibes going on. You could easily imagine it releasing in 1989, 1990 and frittering away hours with friends. I love that it brings in the core six stats as gameplay elements, I love the uncertainty of which fronts will execute a battle, I love the sense of the players having small scall encounters while a war rages on around them. The cardplay and decision-making can feel tense and impactful- you’re not just killing a monster for treasure, you’re killing it to help secure a battlefield victory. The combat is simple, with each rank drawing a card to indicate what types of troops they are (a little weird at first, but that’s how abstract it is) and then what they do when they are called to fight. Both sides have unique possibilities and decision points, and the visual appeal of the oddly shaped tiles and small plastic unit bocks give the big battles a strong sense of atmosphere. It’s a little bit of a downer that, like a lot of D&D board game products, there’s not that much in terms of illustration (monster tokens with just the name of it on them, for example), but this is not a $200 Kickstarter game. Go there if you want that.
As for the book, I have to admit that I was never that big into Dragonlance so I’m not over the moon that the Kender are back and all that, but I was kind of stoked to see Lord Soth again on the alternate cover edition- he’s a classic D&D character for sure. The book offers a fairly scant overview of the history of Krynn and the War of the Lance and offers up a full level 1-10 adventure. There’s plenty of new character options included and that helps to flesh out the setting a bit, but as a whole it feels almost like a product made for folks who grew up reading those Weis/Hickman books and already fairly familiar with Dragonlance. It reminds me of the Spelljammer books from a few months ago- another D&D brand that previously had multiple books, novels, and other content to create a robust and comprehensive setting now sort of squished into the first ten or so pages of a new book. There is sort of a workaround in place as it specifically focuses on a particular region and isn’t even really trying to remake all of Dragonlance. After reading through, I kind of felt like I wanted more of it, but I suppose there is more than enough legacy Dragonlace content out there to fill in the gaps should anyone desire a more detailed backdrop.
That said, I did find myself interested in the content and it is something I’d like to run. I really like that it has a different tone than some of the more recent 5e books – it’s very much a darker, old school epic fantasy set against the backdrop of a major war with, as you might expect, a heavy dragon emphasis. It is quite a far cry from the kinds of intimate, more whimsical stories suggested by Candlekeep Mysteries or Wild Beyond the Witchlight for example. After reading through, I kind of felt like I wanted more of it, but I suppose there is more than enough legacy Dragonlace content out there to fill in the gaps should anyone desire a more detailed backdrop.