Tomas Härenstam’s1 2023’s Dragonbane: Mirth and Mayhem Roleplaying is the English language edition of the most recent edition of the venerable Swedish tabletop fantasy roleplaying game, Drakar och Demoner (DoD).
Dragonbane began as the Swedish translation of Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying and the Magic World supplement from Worlds of Wonder. It has evolved greatly over the decades and I am not sure how many editions it has had (have fun working out which versions were true new editions and which were merely variants!).
What waits the modern player inside the hefty, sturdy shipping box?
WARNING: Excessively Long Review Follows
My order contained the Game Master’s Shield (which fit nicely in the box; however, I gather that is normally not included in the core box and is mailed separately), two decks of assorted cards, plastic stands for cardboard figures, a Fria Ligan catalogue, two sets of green plastic polyhedral dice (one set integral to the core box, one an add-on), a glossy sheet providing a guideline for play to new players, the 112-page perfect-bound Dragonbane Rules, the 116-page Adventure Guide, a solo adventure package, a paper gridded tactical playing surface, a paper map of Misty Vale (the valley where the adventures are set), five pre-generated characters, ten blank character sheets on five leaves and two sheets with an assortment of push-out cardboard figures (which fit into those stands). As far as I can tell, there isn’t a contents list included with the core box. Total weight: almost 2 ½ kilograms.
In keeping with previous Fria Ligan games, the production quality of the game components is high. Properly stored, the contents could last decades. I am a bit concerned about possible heavy wear on the initiative cards. However, those are easily replaced with a ten-sided die or non-face playing cards.
Dragonbane’s d20-based task resolution system invites comparison to Dungeons and Dragons. However, despite the absence of a BRP’s d100-based system, gamers familiar with BRP-derived games will be able to see Dragonbane’s BRP ancestry. There are no character classes, there are no levels, the game is skill-driven, and characters are and remain quite fragile. Playing Dragonbane with a DnD mindset delivers Paranoia-scale life expectancy.
Here are my impressions after having run Dragonbane games for several months.
As the mirth and mayhem subtitle suggests, the intention is a swift-moving game. The combat system assures that character lives are potentially short … but character generation system is quick and easy.
Aside from the card-based combat initiative system, which is better suited to face-to-face play rather than the online game I actually play, combat is fast and efficient. Oddly, in practice, Dragonbane combat does not seem to be anywhere near as dangerous for my groups’ player characters as the math suggests it should be. NPCs, on the other hand, rarely appear twice.
Dragonbane gamemasters on the Facebook group often report losing entire groups in the very first combat. I am not sure why my experience is different2. It may be because I looked at the suggested initial adventure, noted that both of the main monsters could be beyond the player characters’ abilities to affect and in any case cannot be killed in any meaningful way, and chose to generate my own adventure.
The contents of the box are sufficient to run a Dragonbane campaign, either solitaire or with other players. Fria Ligan avoids one of the pitfalls of game design, which is to sell a system so complete that gamers will never need another expansion. There is ample room for expansions here, whether more adventures, a bestiary, campaign settings, new professions and new schools of magic. That said, it will take quite some time, possibly years, for GMs and players to exhaust the possibilities of this game.
I did not find it at Amazon UK, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, or Chapters-Indigo and it’s not at all clear if it’s really available from Amazon Canada.
And now for the contents.
[Bolding denotes an individual item. Non-bolded is a section within a bolded item]
Game master’s shield
This is a sturdy cardboard rectangle, whose three folding sections allow it to be stood on a table as a barrier between players and game masters. This allows the GM to conceal notes and dice rolls. It can be folded up for ease of storage. The GM-facing side has an assortment of frequently used tables. Oddly, the magical fumble table is not on the shield, even though magical fumbles are as likely as combat fumbles.
Assorted green plastic polyhedral custom dice. In this case, the ones and the twenties on the twenty-sided dice have been replaced with symbols with game-mechanic significance.
Although they arrive as two decks, there are four varieties of cards. In order of quantity, they are treasure cards (for generating loot), improvised weapons (for those moments when a weaponless adventurer needs a weapon), adventure cards (rumours), and initiative cards (establishing the order in which characters act). GMs not wishing to begin each session by sorting cards will probably want to invest in Ziplock bags for the cards.
This is a lavishly illustrated glossy-paged perfect-bound book. At 112 pages, the rules are slender compared to many modern roleplaying games. Following a brief discourse on the game’s history and the world background, the rules continue in seven main sections. There is an index.
A note on game mechanics: tests involve rolling equal to or under a target number, using a twenty-sided die. Low results are good. A 1 is very good. High results are bad. A 20 is very bad.
Your player character
This chapter provides the 13-step process needed to generate player characters.
1. Choose or roll your kin.
Kin is the term used instead of race. In addition to the standard humans, elves, dwarves, and halflings, there are the lupine Wolfkin, and the avian (but flightless) Mallards.
Mallards reflect Dragonbane’s connection to Basic Roleplaying and the closely related Runequest.
2. Note your innate ability.
Each kin can do one (or in the case of Mallards, two) things they do well that other kins cannot do. Mallards, for example, are good at productive anger and swimming.
3. Choose or roll your profession.
Professions help determine which trained skills player characters have. There are ten: artisan, bard, fighter, hunter, knight, mage, mariner, merchant, scholar, and thief.
4. Choose or roll your age.
What it says on the tin. The trade-off here is that older characters are more skilled and have better willpower (on which more later), while younger characters are more agile and healthier.
5. Choose or roll your name.
What it says on the tin.
6. Roll your attributes.
Attributes are generated by rolling four six-sided dice, choosing the three highest values and adding them. Once generated, the player can swap any two with each other.
This has the usual six attribute array. To quote:
Strength (STR): raw muscle power,
Constitution (CON): physical fitness and resilience.
Agility (AGL): body control, speed, and fine motor skills.
Intelligence (INT): mental acuity, intellect, and reasoning skills.
Willpower (WIL): self-discipline and focus.
Charisma (CHA): force of personality and empathy.
All of these are useful! That said, Will determines how many willpower points characters have and may be more determinative than the other attributes.
7. Calculate your derived ratings.
This covers how quickly characters move, any damage bonuses in combat, how many hit points they have, and how many willpower points they have to fuel various special abilities.
8. Choose your trained skills.
Influenced by profession, players select which skills their character has been trained to use.
Calculating skill values is very straightforward: most skills have a low base chance determined by the value of the skill’s governing attribute. Trained skills have twice that base value.
Magic is the primary exception. Characters are either trained in it or cannot perform magic at all.
9. Note your heroic ability.
Heroic abilities are useful knacks the characters have, ranging from being superb chefs to combat experts. Using them requires expending willpower points. Willpower points are therefore a valuable commodity. Characters will always want more points.
10. Choose or roll your weakness (optional).
Some characters have personal flaws. On the one hand, flaws are, well, flaws. On the other, giving in to them confers an extra experience roll.
11. Choose or roll your gear.
What it says in the tin. Gear is profession-determined and varies wildly in value. Knights, for example, often have expensive armour and horses. Hunters tend to have camping equipment. Knights are worth mugging if one is in need of a small fortune. Hunters will keep you alive in the wilderness.
12. Choose or roll your memento (optional).
Mementos are small objects of personal importance.
13. Choose or roll your appearance.
What it says on the tin.
While 13 steps might seem like a lot, after having generated a few characters one learns to quickly zoom through the check list. Given how combat works, one may need to frequently generate new characters.
The experience system is the next step after character generation. It is very straightforward: if while using a skill a player rolled 1 or 20, they check to see if the skill improved. They get up to five situationally determined chances to improve their skills of their choice. Skill improvement rolls succeed if the player rolls over the current value of their skill. Success increases the skill value by one. Improving skills one is terrible at is easy. On the other hand, one is more likely to use skills for which one has aptitude, so while one is less likely to improve a high-ranked skill, the opportunities to do so may be more frequent.
Hitting various benchmarks may confer new heroic abilities. As GM, I am pretty generous with these benchmarks, as I believe the more heroic abilities, the greater the shortage of willpower points.
This section details how skills work.
Because I own an assortment of beta versions, I can attest that the skill list was expanded between the original draft and the final. Perhaps as a consequence, there’s one redundant skill: bushcraft does everything hunting & fishing does, and more.
Combat and damage
How to hurt and be hurt, and the consequences of same.
Combat requires judicious choices. In each turn characters can choose to defend or to attack but not both. Having attacked, they cannot then fend off attacks, and vice versa. Injudicious combat choices, particularly with respect to monsters, lead to another round of character generation.
Perhaps to compensate for general fragility, characters heal very quickly. Presumably the gods arranged this after the first version of their world was quickly depopulated.
In addition to combat hazards, there are environmental challenges which if failed result in handicaps and death. A party lacking the requisite skills can very easily recapitulate the Donner Party or the events in “To Build a Fire.”
Mages have access to tricks and spells, both fueled by willpower points. Tricks are weak utilitarian magic, consume fewer willpower points, and never fail. Spells are more powerful, require more willpower points, and fail catastrophically one in twenty times. Fumbles range in severity from mild neuropathy to summoning angry demons3. There are a number of fumble tables in this game. The magic fumble table has the worst consequences.
The rules provide three schools of magic: animism, elementalism, and mentalism. Overlap is minimal, mostly limited to a set of general tricks and spells: if you want a healer, you need an animist. All schools provide useful magic. All are schools of magic player characters might plausibly use, which means GMs may have to create their magic schools for your wilful demonists and necromancers.
Given some of the possible fumbles and the fact the chart uses linear odds instead of a bell curve, it seems unlikely there are many old, bold mages. Except for the ones who have be inadvertently aged by their own magic one or more times, of course.
A short assortment of useful items characters might want to have and, in a few cases, be able to afford.
A short list of entities one might encounter. These fall into two general groups, non-player characters and monsters. Non-player characters follow the same rules as player characters. Monsters do not. Perhaps of most significance to players, monsters do not need to check to see if their attacks connect in combat. Monsters always hit their target with one of six special attacks specific to their kind. Some attacks can be avoided by player characters … provided they have not chosen to attack in that round and still have defensive options available.
NPCs and monsters have streamlined stat blocks. The game provides guidelines about how to proceed when the supplied information is insufficient.
Advice and random tables suitable for generating adventures on the fly.
A perfect-bound 116-page book, providing GM’s with a ten-adventure campaign. There is an index.
I have not tried to run these at all, but as mentioned above, I have seen other GMs mention losing entire parties to the initial adventure.
Alone in Deepfall Breach
This is a compact perfect-bound adventure-generating package for individuals and groups lacking a game master. It’s also of potential use to GMs having a creative dry spell. Oddly, it does not have an index, possibly because the designer didn’t think a 12-page booklet needed one.
A paper gridded tactical playing surface
Tabletop roleplaying games began as an off-shoot of miniature wargame (that is, games using “miniatures” or small figurines, not games which are themselves petite). Using figures can facilitate visualizing combat and other activities.
I am not in any sense a fanatic on the subject but I am a little disappointed the playing surface uses a grid rather than hexes. Tastes differ on this, I know, but hexes are the correct choice and squares an abomination. The paper map is a bit small, 17 squares by 11 squares, in a game where characters cover between 4 (a particularly clumsy Mallard) and 16 (an especially dextrous Wolfkin) meters per round. Gamers dedicated to using miniatures may want to invest in a larger vinyl gaming surface.
Map of Misty Vale
This is a paper map of the valley where the adventures are set. A cloth map of the same region is available; Kickstarter backers received it.
The map is nice enough but it’s not to scale.
Five pre-generated characters, in case players don’t want to spend session zero rolling up characters, and to facilitate replacing characters on the fly.
There’s a nice assortment of characters given that there are only five.
Blank character sheets
There are ten blank character sheets on five paper leaves. I suppose one could use them up, but it seems more prudent to scan and print them as needed.
Forty-three sturdy cardboard figures, for use on the tactical map. Some are suitable for player characters and NPCs. Others are monsters.
1: Roleplaying games are almost always a team effort. The full credits are:
Lead designer & editor: Tomas Härenstam
Other writers: Roger Undhagen (Outskirt and Isle of Mist original texts), Andreas Marklund (introductory text, monsters, Riddermound, The Secret of the Dragon Emperor, new versions of Outskirt and Isle of Mist), Krister Sundelin (magic), Niklas Natt och Dag (The Village of the Day Before), Moa Frithiofsson (Oracle Cave), Johan Sjöberg (Bothild’s Lode), Gabrielle de Bourg (Dead Eyes Cave), Magnus Seter (Troll’s Spire), Gunilla Jonsson & Michael Petersén (Tower of Sighs), Svante Landgraf (Temple of the Purple Flame), Pelle Nilsson (Road’s End Inn), Mattias Johnsson Haake (Fort Malus, profession quotes), Mattias Lilja (new version of Isle of Mist), Shawn Tomkin (solo rules), Marco Behrmann (pre-generated characters), Nils Karlén (GM advice and tables), Kosta Kostulas (tables)
Lead illustrator: Johan Egerkrans
Additional art: Anton Vitus and Niklas Brandt
Graphic design: Niklas Brandt, Christian Granath, and Dan Algstrand
Layout: Dan Algstrand
Maps: Francesca Baerald and Niklas Brandt
Translation: Niklas Lundmark
Proofreading: Brandon Bowling
Rules review: Jonas Ferry, Marco Behrmann, and Nils Karlén, and Kosta Kostulas.
Digital platforms: Martin Takaichi
PR manager: Boel Bermann
Event manager: Anna Westerling
Customer support: Daniel Lehto, Jenny Lehto
Playtesters: Marco Behrmann, Nils Karlén, Kosta Kostulas, Anna Westerling, Jonas Ferry, Fredrik Jarl, Kristoffer Sjöö, Henric Löfqvist, Kalle Henricsson, Krister Sundelin, Andreas Ekeroot, Johan Osbjer, Niklas Fröjd, Emma Fahlström, Olle Karlsson, Mattias Strandberg, Sara Engström, and Maximilian Pukk Härenstam.
Special thanks to: Roger Undhagen, Orvar Säfström, Fredrik Malmberg, Anders Blixt, Pelle Nilsson, Kiku Pukk Härenstam, Stella Härenstam, Stephen Perrin, Chaosium Inc., and everyone who contributed to this game by crowdfunding it and giving feedback.
2: Aside from the matter of my cursed dice, that is. Until now I’ve been using the dice out of my Runequest Starter Set. Of course, cursed is merely a figure of speech. Let us just say that they prefer to roll a narrow subset of the numbers they could roll, one that does not favour my goals.
3: Result 9 is potentially civilization-ending: “The spell gives rise to a magical disease with virulence 3D6. You and everyone you come into contact with during the next shift are exposed to the disease.”