Moe Tousignant Reviews Dragon Heresy (preview edition)

Moe Tousignant has a rep for thorough and detailed reviews. We’ve been in each others’ gaming orbits for a while, as he discussed below. When his dance card came up empty after reviewing James Spahn’s White Start, I teased him about reviewing Dragon Heresy.

He accepted.

He’s working through the preliminary-but-playable PDF file I’ve been working with, screen-shotting, and from which the edited manuscript will emerge, eventually. He notes the fix I made to moving Alignment where it’s supposed to be under Character Background somehow didn’t “take.” A few other things need fixing as well. This is why you need an editor.

Even so, he’s posted two long examinations so far, and will continue through the book. It’s readable, it’s thorough and fair. And he’s given me permission to re-host it.

So here we go, from Moe Tousignant’s RPGaMonth Group in Google+:

My history with Dragon Heresy and first look.

I’m finally caught up. It’s the fourth month of the year and I’m starting on my fourth RPG book for #RPGaMonth. If I can finish this one by the end of April then I will actually be on schedule!

For those just joining in, I’m reading this book as part of #RPGaMonth, where the goal is to read one RPG a month for the entire year. The main drive is to get those books that have been sitting on your shelf/hard drive unread and unused for far too long off that shelf/drive and get them read or, even better get them read and run.

My history with Dragon Heresy and it’s designer, Doug Cole

That goal of getting stuff off my shelf/drive? Well, that doesn’t apply here. Dragon Heresy is new to me, as of yesterday. Actually right now it’s kind of new to everyone. Well, really, it’s not new to anyone yet as it’s not actually out, or finished.

Dragon Heresy is a new fantasy RPG written by +Douglas Cole aka Gaming Ballistic. It’s up on Kickstarter right now (there will be a link at the end of this if you want to check it out).

So why am I writing about a game that’s not even finished yet? Well, it seems I must be doing something right with these reviews as Doug really liked my White Star Review and contacted me and asked if I would consider reading a pre-production copy of his new game next.

Now I’ve known Doug for as long as I’ve been on social media. From what I remember we first “met” in the Old School Gamers group on Facebook. Over time I’ve also grown to know him as That Thursday GURPSday guy, and now he’s becoming that Dragon Heresy guy (and with that, the Viking shield making guy).

I’ve always enjoyed my interactions with Doug so agreed to give Dragon Heresy a read. So take this as my full disclosure. While I don’t know Doug personally, as in, in real life (we’ve never met), I do know and respect him through our online interactions. Also, he did send me a pre-production copy of this game. Will that affect my thoughts on the game itself, I don’t think so, but it is something to consider when reading my thoughts on Dragon Heresy.

What I know going in

Due to the fact Doug was on pretty much every RPG podcast ever created in the last few weeks, I’ve heard quite a bit about Dragon Heresy. I know it uses Dungeons & Dragons 5e as it’s base. I know it’s more crunchy than D&D 5e. I know it’s about Vikings but still keeps all the magic and fantasy and I know that you don’t need to own D&D 5e to use it. It’s a standalone game. That’s pretty much it.

What is going to make this review interesting is that I have not read Dungeons & Dragons 5e. Yes, you read that right. I don’t play nor have I read the worlds most popular roleplaying game. For shame. Now I did do the whole D&D Next playtest, back when it was just the Caves of Chaos and Fighters still did damage on a miss. I’ve also got a ton of XP with D&D 4th Edition, 3.5 edition, and AD&D 2nd Edition. So it’s not like Fantasy D20 games are new to me. But I thought it worth noting that I haven’t played/read 5e so in some cases I’m not going to know if a rule in Dragon Heresy is new or something straight from the D&D 5e core rules.

First Look

Obviously, Dragon Heresy isn’t done yet and that needs to be taken into consideration for the entirety of this review. I’m dealing with PDF files here and not physical books.

That said, I was very impressed by how far along the game is. There’s art. It’s laid out. It’s full color. It looks like a complete RPG. Which I have to admit is awesome to see for a Kickstarter. When I received files from Monte Cook for playtesting they were just word documents. I really wasn’t expecting to see something this polished.

The book (you still call it a book when dealing with PDF’s right?) looks beautiful. It’s two-column justified text that looks to flow well. Most charts are in line as is most of the art (with a few bigger images squeezing one column or the other). I’m not sure if more art is coming but there are some sections where it’s a bit sparse, I found one section where it’s 12 pages between pieces of art. The art that is there is solid and appears to feature multiple artists (one of the pages I don’t have are the credits).

As expected from a book based on D&D, it looks like a large portion of the book is dedicated to spells and monsters. It’s also worth noting this is a one book system. No separate campaign book or monster manual. It does look like there’s still art coming for the Monsters as I didn’t notice any during my flip through the book.

First Impressions

My first thought as I scrolled quickly through the Dragon Heresy PDF was: man this looks like a complete game. As I got near the end I noticed there was still some layout to be done and art missing but overall it looks done, at least as far as the rules are concerned.

I haven’t actually read any rules or anything more than some random headings so I can’t speak about any of that yet, but I can say this is going to be a great looking game once it releases.

Now we just need to see how the rules look… next time.

Part 2 Covering: Introduction, Core Mechanics, Creature Characteristics, Ability Scores, Generating Characters, Character Races, Character Classes, Character Background, Beyond 1st Level and Equipment

A bit of background:

This is the second part of an ongoing read review of Dargon Heresy by +Douglas Cole, a Norse-themed Fantasy RPG currently up on Kickstarter (link at the end of the review). Douglas sent me a pre-production copy of the game and asked if I would be willing to read and review it as part of #RPGaMonth.

Note that this review is based on a pre-production copy of the game. It’s not done yet. So anything I note here is technically subject to change. That said, Doug has indicated that the rules are pretty much done and set and it’s mostly layout work still to be done.

You can find part 1 here which gives my background with this game and Doug:

https://plus.google.com/+MoeTousignant/posts/Xp47b4m22yU

Introduction

This is a typical introduction that lets you know that this is a traditional RPG (requiring a set of players and a GM who is the arbiter of the rules and the one responsible to present the structure and tone for the game). It notes that the game is based, loosely on Norse Mythology. This actually surprised me as I was expecting something more historic. That’s not this. To quote the book:

“No real attempt is made to follow the mythology exactly. The trappings of the legends, and the feel of the setting, provide a living and vivid canvas. It’s a fantasy roleplaying game, not an historical simulation. Have fun with it.”

Core Mechanics

Right away it caught me that this section existed before the character creation rules. It also leads me to another note mentioned in Part 1 of this review. I have not read the D&D 5e rulebook that Dragon Heresy uses as it’s source. So I don’t actually know how this compares to the source material. For me, I’m used to every edition of D&D I’ve ever read starting with Character Creation. I found it interesting that Dragon Heresy instead starts right into the mechanics of the game.

Most of this is old hat for anyone who has ever played an F20 game (Fantasy RPG based on the D20 system). The usual dice. Ability checks that are D20+ ability rating. A difficulty class chart ranging from 5 to 30. Etc.

There are some bits that stuck out to me. Advantage and Disadvantage. Now I didn’t read the 5e PHB but I did take part in the D&D Next playtest (the very first part with the Caves of Chaos) so I know about this system, and I’ve loved it since I first tried it. I’m glad to see it here. There’s a bit on contests (opposed rolls) I liked: that if there’s a tie everything stays the same. I’m used to this meaning a tie and roll again. In this case, if you are trying to hold a door and an Orc is trying to get in and you tie, the door is held as that’s the initial state.

Saving throws were also different than I remember. Instead of set saves for specific things, characters can make saves with any of the 6 statistics. Now I think this is probably also from 5e, either way, I dig it. Better than WIll saves and Reflex saves and way better than Save Vs. Rod Staff or Wand.

Creature Characteristics

This chapter was rough. It’s the first chapter that it became blatantly obvious the game is still being laid out and edited. It was also the chapter I learned how much this would drive me nuts. I kept wanting to make notes. I wanted to PM Doug and point out all the issues I found. The stuff that didn’t quite make sense, etc. Now I know that Doug is probably paying someone good money to do this for him, someone who’s probably way more qualified than I am. Plus he only asked me to read it over and give my thoughts, as I’m doing here. So I had to keep reminding myself “While reviewing do not edit”

So this chapter starts saying that it’s only going to talk about two things and that other info will be later in the book but then talks about six different things. I’m certain that will be fixed. Remember, unfished, pre-release copy.

Here it starts off with things like size and space but quickly gets into combat-related mechanics. Specifically, Damage Reduction and some funky new terms that I’m certain are unique to Dragon Heresy.

The first is Defensive Target Numbers. Each creature (including PCs) has a Threat DC and a Hit DC. The Hit is always higher than the Threat. The Threat DC is what you need to score what many would consider a “hit” in most RPGs. Here it represents causing exertion to the target.

See in Dragon Heresy you don’t have Hit Points, instead, you have Vigor Points. When you are “hit” by your Threat DC being met or beat you lose Vigor. This represents exertion, getting tired, minor scrapes and bruises and loss of will to fight. It’s not “damage.” There’s no broken bones or anything happening when you lose Vigor.

One of the ongoing RPG arguments that have existed since 1974 is exactly what to Hit Points mean and with it what exactly does an attack roll mean. Way back attack rolls represented a long period of time and a series of feints and attacks and Hit Points were both damage and wearing down the opponent. Over the years this shifted to a hit roll being one swing of a sword and Hit Point loss being real damage. D&D 4e even had the “bloodied” condition when you hit half hit points. Well, Dragon Heresy seems to be taking things back to the roots somewhat. I do really dig the fact that it’s very clear what Vigor points mean.

So what about damage? Well, that’s where Wounds come in. Once your Vigor is gone you start taking wounds. Now I’m reminded of Warhammer Fantasy Battle. Where you have a buffer (called Wounds in that game) and once they are gone you start taking real damage (crits). Well, Warhammer is my favourite RPG of all time so I have to say I dig this. Wounds are based on your Strength and Size.

So what’s that Hit DC? Well at this point that’s not totally clear. It seems to be something better than scoring a threat. “If an attack meets the Hit DC, the target must either take the hit or spend a reaction to employ a desperate defensive measure” I’m not exactly sure what that means, so I guess it’s something we will learn about later.

There’s one other unique term here Control and Control Maximum. This has something to do with Grappling. Now the biggest thing Doug worked on before Dragon Heresy is a book called Dungeon Grappling. Obviously upset by the way Grappling has been handled over the years Doug came up with his own system. I have to assume that this whole Control thing has its roots in Dungeon Grappling. The actual rules aren’t described here just how to figure out the numbers that I’m sure will be explained later.

Ability Scores

Nothing new to see here. At least not that I noticed. I have no clue if the modifier chart is the same as D&D or not. I do know it’s way bigger than the one in White Star which I just finished reading 😀

This is your usual list of the six stats every gamer knows and what you use them for.

Generating Characters

No dice needed.

Yep, that’s right. You don’t roll your stats during character generation. I know right there that I would have some upset players on my hands and I would probably be forced to house rule this. Now, this is something else I don’t think has come up. This rulebook is for the Introductory Edition of Dragon Heresy. This means that there’s a full rulebook coming at some point as well. I would guess that rules for rolling “4d6 drop the lowest, set where you want” will probably be in there.

Character Races

I was very surprised to only see four options here and they aren’t the four you would expect (or at least that I would expect). We start with Dwarves, then move on to Humans, Dragonborn and Half-Elves. That’s it. And Dragonborn being one of the “core four.” Interesting choice. The most notable absence to me is Elves. Especially with the inclusion of Half-Elves it seems odd to not have Elves.

Each race gets a multi-page write-up. We learn where the race fits in the world. Where they live. Stereotypes for each race and how they get along with the other races. General appearance including size, weight, distinguishing features, etc. There’s a large section on culture next.

This culture section really showcases how Dragon Heresy races may not be the fantasy tropes you expect. I particularly enjoyed the way dwarves are raised and their relationship with their parents vs their mentors (Kennari).

Along with culture we also get customs and traditions, religion, language and forms of government. It’s only after all this that we get into actual game mechanics with Racial Traits. It’s nice to see much fluff for each race.

The actual mechanics are what we’ve come to expect. Stat Bonuses (no minutes), alignment choices, size, speed, special abilities like Darkvision or specific racial weapon proficiencies and bonuses.

I have to assume these races are directly based on same/similarly named races in D&D, but as noted, I haven’t read that so I couldn’t tell you for sure.

Character Classes

Based on the last chapter I wasn’t surprised to only find four classes. I was again surprised by the choices: Berzerker, Cleric, Fighter and, Wizard. No Theif/Rogue? And where’s the Skald? If I buy a Norse based game it better have a Skald. So far this is my biggest disappointment with the game so far.

Each class starts with a brief description. A bit too brief compared to the amount of fluff under races. After that, it’s just a bunch of mechanics and abilities. Vigor dice, Vigor at first level, Vigor at higher levels, Proficiencies (Armor, weapon, tools, saving throws, skills) and starting equipment are in every class. After that, you get class-specific abilities.

This is pretty typical stuff and I’m sure there’s some stuff here that’s cut right from 5e, mixed with new unique stuff. There’s a lot here and I’m not going to repeat all of it. Instead here are some highlights:

At third level each class branches. Players choose a path, a direction or specialization. For example, the Barbarian can learn to go into a Frenzy or become an expert Grappler. The Fighter picks a Martial Archetype one of which includes some of my favourite class abilities in this section. The Commander Archetype has a bunch of abilities that give advantage to allies, allow allies to move, or give disadvantage to opponents attacking allies. This brings back memories of my favourite 4e D&D class: The Warlord.

I liked the way spell slots work. Again I have no clue if this is just a 5e carry over or not. I would call the system pseudo-Vancian. Spellcasters get a certain number of spell slots (based on their class level) and can memorize a certain number of spells (based on your INT/WIN and your level). The thing is you don’t have to actually slot those spells and when the spell is cast you don’t forget it. So if you learn Magic Missle (no clue if that spell is even in the game), you can just keep casting it as long as you have slots, or you can go a full day without using it and it doesn’t take up room. This is the same for both Clerics and Wizards.

A character’s class also determines their proficiency bonus. Which is a bonus given on a D20 roll whenever doing something that proficiency applies to. This I think I remember this from the D&D Next playtest and I liked it then.

Character Background

Now, this is another one I know stayed in the 5e rules from the playtest and it’s another excellent improvement to the system I’m pleased to see carried over here. The only problem is that it has the same issue as the last two sections. Only four choices. Yes, I get that it’s an intro ruleset but four seems so limited. My regular RPG group is 5 players, that means no matter what I’m duplicating at least one race, one class and now one background.

For some reason, half of the alignment rules end up here. Something I’m sure will be fixed during editing (I made my save vs Notify Doug). These are your typical 9 alignments that you expect from an F20 game. Languages also show up here. The one thing that stuck out was that Gnomish and Elvish are listed and, again, you can’t play elves (or gnomes. Maybe it’s like D&D 4e and you find the Gnome in the Monster Manual…. “rawr, I’m a monster!”).

Okay back to backgrounds. Each gives you a list of proficiencies to choose from, some languages you may learn, equipment you get to start and suggested characteristics.

This last bit confused me. There are four charts with each background and while I get what they are I have no idea what they are supposed to mean. We have Suggested Characteristics, a D8 chart. Ideal a D6 chart, Bond a D6 chart and Flaw a D6 chart. The stuff on these charts are pretty sweet and I’m guessing they are just roleplaying prompts? It’s not really explained.

The four Backgrounds are Acolyte, Artisan, Combatant, and Karl (Freeholder). Looking at each of these, they also give a feature. This is a neat in-game bonus for playing that class that is very lore based. For example, the Acolyte can perform religious ceremonies and can expect free healing and care at a temple.

As is becoming a trend. I like what I see here I just wish there was more of it.

Beyond 1st Level

Again, pretty typical stuff. It’s worth noting that all classes advance at the same rate. The main thing you get when you level is more Vigor dice and potentially new class abilities which were discussed earlier.

Equipment

Agan, not a lot to say here. Pretty typical stuff. Coinage is the usual gold/silver/copper 1/10/100 system. We have lists of weapons, armor, adventuring gear, tools etc.

The big thing that sticks out here is that armor does not affect your Threat DC. Now I get why Doug didn’t keep the armor class name. What armor and shields do subtract from the damage “in the event a blow strikes the defender directly.” I think this goes back to that whole Hit DC thing, which still isn’t explained, but I’m sure will come up in the Combat chapter.

There’s another positive carryover from D&D Next here as well, the Lifestyle Expense system, where each week you choose how well you want your character to live and pay a set rate to represent expenses spend during downtime.

Thoughts so far

So far so good I think. There’s a lot here that looks very familiar. I’ve read and played plenty of F20 games, despite not having actually played 5e, I did spend many years playing D&D 3.5, dabbling in Pathfinder and even checking out interesting fan OGL settings (I remember one called Cornerstone where everyone started with an ECL of 5 at a minimum). I will admit there’s nothing here that made me go: Woah that’s awesome.

That said, there were lots of things that I saw that made me think: “that’s pretty cool”. The whole Vigor, Threat DC and Hit DC (which I’m sure will make total sense soon enough) sound rather solid and interesting. As noted in the read review it reminds me a bit of Warhammer and I love me some Warhammer. The magic slot system also seemed like a good compromise between casting anything all the time and D&D’s Vancian roots.

The fluff that we are introduced to in these early chapters is interesting enough. I really enjoyed the bit on Dwarven culture and it gave me that “please tell me more” feeling.

My only real complaint is how few options there are. I mentioned this already and I get that it’s an intro box, but with my usual group, it would be a bummer to have to have to double up on everything. My biggest complaint: Where’s the Skald!?! Doug, you made a Norse game without a Skald, how could you?

Check out Dragon Heresy on Kickstarter now! Ending soon!

If any of what I’ve said here appeals to you head over to the Dragon Heresy Kickstarter page where you can learn more. You can check out some pre-gens and the combat system for only $5 or get a PDF of the full rulebook for only $20.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2101297466/the-dragon-heresy-introductory-set-fantasy-rpg

Disclosure

I’m in no way affiliated with this Kickstarter or Doug (other than being social media friends) nor was I paid to write any of this and all the words (except some direct quotes) are my own. Doug did provide me with a pre-release PDF of Dragon Heresy for the purpose of this review.

Doug Replies!

As noted, Moe’s review style is very thorough. He did bring up some actionable items to which I responded in G+ and copy here.

I’ll have to make explicitly clear what it means to roll above Hit DC. When one lives with rules for two years, sometimes things seem obvious that aren’t. If you exceed Hit DC, a blow goes right to wounds unless you employ a frantic defense, which is a reaction, so you only get one. Makes being surrounded by foes really dangerous. Also means that you can bring a foe from hale and robust to “strong resemblance to doornail” in one shot, with a good-enough roll if he can’t employ the frantic defense.

I did choose to eliminate random die rolling for chargen. Not because I don’t like it, but choosing between a high variance, mid-variance, and low-variance statline seemed good enough to get going with, and folks that are “dammit, roll 3d6 in order!” can and will always do so.

I had to make tough choices on races, classes, and backgrounds. I chose to eliminate elves, as they’re so long-lived that you really only play them in a particular phase of their lives, but half-elves are much more approachable. Dwarves are important, and not short bearded Scotsmen. The remaining races are gnomes, tiefling, and dragonborn, and I picked dragonborn. The “more content” stretch goal was passed, and no one gives two rips about more races. Pity, Tieflings and Gnomes are fun.

Character classes had even harder choices. The vikings were warriors, and so you needed combatants, and if you have fighters, you have to have berserkers. Rogues (thieves, really) were dishonorable non-persons in viking culture, so thematically, they’re low on the list. Ranger, Paladin, Skald, Trevinur (means tree-friend), Sorcerer, and Warlock were fully written up, but the character classes chapter was probably second only to the ginormous list of spells of things that had to be brutally chopped.

It very much looks like folks agree with you, and skalds will make it back in. If for some reason we hit the $16-20K stretch goal area, I may wind up just saying ‘frack it!’ and extending the book to 304-320 pages to put in more character class options.

Thanks again for the thorough review, and yeah, hopefully my editor is brutalizing the text as we speak, both for wordcount and clarity!

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