Review: Legacy of Dragonholt:: An Indecisive Review of Legacy of Dragonholt

Review: Legacy of Dragonholt:: An Indecisive Review of Legacy of Dragonholt

Peter Williams

Australia

Adelaide

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Legacy of Dragonholt is a narrative-driven fantasy adventure for 1-6 players that will take you approximately 5 – 10 hours to complete (I didn’t time it – and I played over multiple sessions ranging from 15 minutes to a couple of hours). What does this actually mean? Well, it’s kind of like the cross-over between an old school Choose Your Own Adventure and an open-world RPG with no GM. You read some text, you are presented with a few options, you choose one and it directs you to some more text. Rinse and repeat.

To begin, you create your character. There’s a vast array of races, classes and skills to choose from. In my opinion, the skills are by far the most important choices when it comes to playing Dragonholt (noting that your race and class somewhat influence which skills you can choose). You will also have a Stamina stat to represent your health; it is inversely proportional to the number of skills you pick. This immediately opens an interesting decision, for the more skills you have the more likely you are to have an easy way out of a predicament, but if you get stuck in a situation where you have no particular skills to aide you, you won’t have much Stamina to lose before things go bad.

Much of the game takes place in the village of Dragonholt, and this is where the sandbox style of play shines. You have 7 days to kill, just wandering around and talking to people and unlocking story arcs. This is where the mechanics shine; each day is tracked through 8 time periods, and within those roughly 2-hour slots you are free to visit any of the key locations using the village map. It’s a very, very simple and intensely elegant process.

Outside of this, there are a number of side-quests and the like where the mechanics are much more akin to your average Choose Your Own Adventure. There is a clear ‘base’ storyline with arcs and branches depending on your decisions and your character’s skills.

ImpressionsFirstly, the writing of Nikki Valens and the team is quite amazing. I must admit that I was a bit nervous coming into this game as I am an incredibly, insanely, embarrassingly slow reader. I hate reading. I figured this might take me 30+ hours to grind through. But the writing style just flows like a gentle stream and you glide through the chapters like an autumn leaf being taken by the current. There are a load of interesting characters and places to get to know. The story arcs are compelling. You find yourself caring about the inhabitants of Dragonholt, and when the time(s) come to put your life on the line for these relative strangers, you don’t hesitate.

Having said that, there are (just a few) occasions when the mechanics make the story arcs a bit repetitive. When you visit the same location for the third time – in order to progress a part of the story – you are forced through the usual drill of turning to the same or similar entries. In a couple of places I found instances of entry X leading to entry Y which leads to entry X again… Luckily, the game cunningly tracks your time and so it wasn’t actually possible to oscillate indefinitely, but I found it quite jarring and a little disappointing on the very rare times when the magic was torn open and the underlying mechanics became all-too apparent.

Lastly, I’ll say that Dragonholt definitely gives you a sense of achievement. When you complete an obvious fetch-quest for a down-trodden NPC or you do something good for the village or you get to add to your tally of Fame points, you actually feel like you’ve achieved something worthwhile. It’s a really nice and subtle aspect of the game to look out for. This isn’t an abstract “collect gold to improve your game engine to collect more gold to improve your game engine to collect more gold to buy Victory Points” type game. You are the central character in an unfolding and ‘human’ story.

What worksd10-1Your skills are meaningful


From the outset, you’re going to have to decide whether you’re going to punch your way through Dragonholt, or sneak your way through, or talk your way through, or magic your way through, or just run away from everything. And there are no right or wrong answers; it’s been amazingly well balanced so that every skill is useful (necessary) at some point, but no one skill set dominates the others.

Indeed, I went for an urban rogue type (ex-highwayman) and was decidedly worried when I picked no fighting skills. But I was pleasantly surprised when, for the majority of encounters, my sneaking skills could get me a long way. But then when the situations arose when I was forced into a corner, I felt a very real sense of fear: I was a non-fighter backed into a fight and I knew I was in trouble!

d10-2No random elements


Remember all those Fighting Fantasy books where a poor die roll or two could change the course of the game? (Try starting with Skill 7 and see how far you get!) That won’t happen in Dragonholt. There are no dice and there’s no luck. If a situation can be improved by one of your skills, you will use that skill and it will work (well, at least provide a better result than not having an applicable skill would have). This means that you never feel like you’re wasting your time and effort in developing skills and you don’t feel cheated if you fail a roll on an action which you think should be easy for your hero. Your fate is in your own hands: choose wisely.

d10-3Cheating is discouraged – but also there’s no incentive to cheat


I don’t know about you, but I’m old enough now to admit there were times in many a Fighting Fantasy book where I’d read “You find a large iron door blocking your path. If you have a large iron key, turn to 123. Else you have to turn back. Go to 234.” and I’d sometimes use that phantom key, despite not having it.

In Dragonholt, there’s a slightly more subtle way of tracking whether you actually do or do not have items, or have opened plot points etc. You have an array of cues from A1 to Z8 and at times (such as finding a large iron key) you will be asked to check off, say T4. Then, instead of asking if you have said key the text will ask if you have crossed off T4. Thus, it is rarely obvious what is the better or worse option; you just have valid and invalid entry selections. Having T4 crossed off could just as easily be a bad thing. So you (well, at least for me) never feel tempted to cheat and see what happens if I did have that T4 crossed off. Also, I’m cognisant that I won’t be replaying Dragonholt dozens of times – like the old books from my youth – so I’m happy to leave as much stuff uncovered as possible.

d10-4No Death


Yup, that’s right: you won’t die in Dragonholt. If your Stamina ever gets down to 0 you (temporarily) lose a skill and keep on going. This was a huge relief, because I absolutely did not want to be reading for 10 hours and then suddenly it’s all over and I need to start again. Fear not, friends, that won’t happen.

What Doesn’t Workd10-1Repetition and lack of direction


Most of the game is spent wandering the village of Dragonholt and ticking off the time. And that’s it. The whole purpose of being in Dragonholt is to uncover a plot and defeat the bad guy, but then you spend almost all of the 7 days aimlessly going from place to place and just talking to random people. Sometimes you’ll pick up a clue (e.g. be told “cross off G2”) and you know it will be important later on, but most of the time you’re not sure why and when you’re going to start actually working on the story proper. It’s like the intro chapters in computer RPGs where you’re asked to do meaningless fetch-quests to learn the controls and game mechanics. But in Dragonholt it takes up about 80% of the adventure.

d10-2Multiplayer Issues


Now this is a guess (because I played solo and have never seen it played with multiple characters) but just from reading the rules and my experiences in the game, I can see how adding players just makes the whole game easier and easier. The more characters there are the wider range of skills you can have access to. And in almost all critical scenarios, having appropriate skills will lead to much better outcomes.

It also introduces a reality-breaking artefact because a given test only requires one member of the party to have a specific skill in order to benefit from it. Let me paint you an example.

In the game, you find yourselves in a room and you hear somebody coming; you choose to hide behind a handy barrel. The mechanics will ask if you have a hiding skill (all the text is written in the singular – obviously assuming a solo player by default) and as long as one player has that skill then group can collectively turn to the appropriate entry. Thus, all 5 or 6 members of the party huddle together behind the barrel and remain unseen by the NPC.

Conversely, if something affects one player, it affects all equally. Thus, “a crazy man jumps out and punches you on the nose. Lose 2 Stamina” creates a situation where the six of you line up and allow this guy to run along and punch each of you before anyone decides to react.

The thought of these situations seems ludicrous, and I will only ever play Dragonholt solo.

d10-3Artwork Is Almost Non-Existent


This has been brought up many times before, but it’s a real shame that there’s hardly any artwork to bring this magnificent game to life. There is an illustrated deck of cards to represent items you can pick up on your journey. After the first two, I literally did not pull them out of the box because they play such a minor role. You note on your character sheet that you have them and the in-game text will prompt you later on. If I could offer one piece of advice to FFG it would be to take that time and effort and redirect it to a set of illustrations that would actually help the player.

For instance, when you first arrive in the village of Dragonholt you are thrust into a small world of many, many places and people. As a very much visual person, I found it confusing to remember which Inn is which, who Steve and Becky are or where I met them [names have been changed to protect the innocent!]. Using that deck of cards to give images of what the different landmarks look like and who the characters are would have really assisted me to track who I had seen where and when and why.

The VerdictUsually, I am very quick and confident to rate a game after investing so many hours into it. I’ll snap out a bold “8 out of 10 stars”, or a mournful “3 stars”. But, upon reflecting on my experiences in Dragonholt, I find it very hard to rate exactly how I feel about the game.

On the one hand; I had a wonderful time and the game design was extraordinarily ambitious. You could see how Nikki Valens and the FFG team wanted to create an open-world RPG experience within a single box with no need for a dedicated GM. The freedom to walk around the village of Dragonholt, the number of NPCs to interact with, the optional side-quests; all were designed and written exquisitely. This game certainly has to be commended for pushing the bounds of written, narrative-driven adventures.

But then the other hand abruptly steps in; at no point does Dragonholt feel like a truly open world. You are always aware that you’re constrained to a set number of locations to visit, NPCs have set dialogues and you can see the side-quests a proverbial 0.62 kilometres away and can manipulate the plot to open them up. At the end of the day – despite the cool time-tracking and skills progression and wide array of options – it still feels and plays very much like the classic Choose Your Own Adventures. It’s not a particularly revolutionary game, despite the enormous amount of work that went into it.

When I put it side-by-side with the likes of Diplomacy, Dominion, Mysterium and the like, it is left wanting in terms of originality and sheer captivation.

Indeed, now that I’ve played the entire campaign through, I’m left to ponder what gain I would get from going back to Dragonholt. There’s no skill involved. So, unlike Santorini and Star Realms and Terra Mystica, I won’t get any ‘better’ by playing it more. And it feels like there’s a good chance I could have at least 90% of the same encounters and the same choices. Sure, I’d definitely pick a different character with very different skills, but ultimately the game provides enough flexibility and inherent safety that any option should be workable. It was clearly designed so that any race, class and skill combination can make it through okay. So, what’s to be gained from replaying?

As I try to articulate my feelings, I find them becoming schizophrenic. For instance, I noted earlier that the lack of player death was a positive. But it’s also a huge negative too; you never feel truly scared for your character. ‘Dying’ only results in the loss of a skill. This will make subsequent adventures more dangerous and, hence, you’re more likely to suffer damage and ‘die’ again. But ‘dying’ then only causes the loss of a skill. Which makes subsequent adventures more dangerous… And yet you still continue with the story. You could literally start the game with no skills and 1 Stamina and there is nothing in the game to stop you from finishing. So you’re not really risking anything at any time.

After all this deliberation I then come back to the time in Year 11 (11th Grade) when I wrote my own Fighting Fantasy with 500-odd entries. That experience alone lets me appreciate the full grandeur that is this multi-tome behemoth. “Quantity is a Quality of its own”, and Dragonholt has quantity for days (literally!). Surely, it is worth 5 or 10 hours of my life to go back and see how many new secrets I can uncover? Undoubtedly. Not right now maybe, but definitely within a couple of months. And what I can say is this: if Nikki Valens ever decides in the future to take what she’s learned from writing Dragonholt and design the next evolution in narrative gaming, I would easily buy it straight away. I guess that’s a pretty strong statement on my feelings for this game in itself.

Until then, I shall bravely/timidly not score Dragonholt; my thoughts are twisted and tormented. I can’t decide whether it’s a so-so use of a lot of time, or the closest thing to a completely automated sandbox RPG you can get. At the very least, it’s definitely interesting and worthy of much discourse.

Thanks for reading.


Reed Dawley

United States

Delmar

New York

Playing more games is better!

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PeterWilliams wrote:

The Verdict

Usually, I am very quick and confident to rate a game after investing so many hours into it. I’ll snap out a bold “8 out of 10 stars”, or a mournful “3 stars”. But, upon reflecting on my experiences in Dragonholt, I find it very hard to rate exactly how I feel about the game.

This sums up my experiences with most games vs this game. I played with my girlfriend and as much as I enjoyed the time we spent together, I am still not sure how I feel about the game itself. The writing is good, it was fun, but I felt like I had agency in my pre game choices and then it was just an on rails experience where my out of game choices had an effect but I could not change the outcome as the story moved. I enjoyed the experience, I wanted more, but then is that my problem with what I want? It never promised a choice filled adventure and I think as a warm up for playing a RPG for non RPGers it may fit a niche. I started playing RPGs when I was 8 and I felt so hemmed in while my girlfriend had not so she enjoyed the story being told. I liked it as a whole, it made me claustrophobic with what I wanted to do but I enjoyed the story of what we played. Once I filed it in my head as a well made activity rather than a game it clicked better. In the end I would rather play Tales of Arabian Nights where I know every choice will totally mess me over because I have choices to make and a sense of agency even in the face of non connected nonsensical outcomes. But I would totally bring this game on a car trip or camping where space and losing bits may be annoying.

Yours Truly,

United States

Raleigh

North Carolina

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There must have been a moment at the beginning, where we could have said no. Somehow we missed it. Well, we’ll know better next time.

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Nice review. I have some thoughts in response, I will post later, but for now just briefly:

PeterWilliams wrote:

d10-2Multiplayer Issues

Now this is a guess (because I played solo and have never seen it played with multiple characters) but just from reading the rules and my experiences in the game, I can see how adding players just makes the whole game easier and easier. The more characters there are the wider range of skills you can have access to. And in almost all critical scenarios, having appropriate skills will lead to much better outcomes.

This is actually not the case on quests (i.e. anything not in the Village sandbox part). When you are on quests, every time you reach a decision point, one player has to step up to “make” that decision. You can discuss it as a group, but one player is the “active” player that makes that decision. Any consequences until the next decision will only apply to the skills of the active player. (There are some rare points where the text specifically says “all players lose X stamina” etc, but the skills check and consequences are usually the active player only.)

When an active player makes a decision, they exhaust their token. They are not allowed to make another decision until everyone else has made a decision and taken a turn as an active player, then everyone reactivates their tokens and everyone is eligible again.

So yes there are more skills in a multiplayer group, but you don’t know when you make a decision which skills will be required, and the effects will only apply to a single player’s set of skills, the active player. Makes for some interesting decisions when deciding who the active player will be. And this is a nice way of scaling the game so as not to make it easier for larger groups (on quests at least).

PeterWilliams wrote:

It also introduces a reality-breaking artefact because a given test only requires one member of the party to have a specific skill in order to benefit from it. Let me paint you an example.

In the game, you find yourselves in a room and you hear somebody coming; you choose to hide behind a handy barrel. The mechanics will ask if you have a hiding skill (all the text is written in the singular – obviously assuming a solo player by default) and as long as one player has that skill then group can collectively turn to the appropriate entry. Thus, all 5 or 6 members of the party huddle together behind the barrel and remain unseen by the NPC.

Conversely, if something affects one player, it affects all equally. Thus, “a crazy man jumps out and punches you on the nose. Lose 2 Stamina” creates a situation where the six of you line up and allow this guy to run along and punch each of you before anyone decides to react.

This ONLY applies in Dragonholt Village, for the “sandbox” part of the game.


It does not apply to quests. For quests it works as I described above.

If I have the “hiding” skill and you are the active player who made the decision to hide behind the barrel, and hiding required the “hiding” skill… too bad for you, your butt is sticking out from the side of the barrel easily visible (and in the vast majority of cases, only YOU will take the stamina hit due to the arrow now lodged in your butt…)

For me the main part of the multiplayer that doesn’t work as well (as written) is what you described in passing above:

Quote:

all the text is written in the singular – obviously assuming a solo player by default

It requires some ad-libbing and tweaking on the part of the narrator to adjust the text to multiple players. Once you do that it actually works great, but the narrator needs that skill, and the text as written is just solo, and the rules as written make no mention of the need to tweak the text for multiple players.

Will Shaw

United Kingdom

Fleet

Hampshire

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JohnnyDollar wrote:

This ONLY applies in Dragonholt Village, for the “sandbox” part of the game.

It does not apply to quests. For quests it works as I described above.


Not quite, what you described applies both on quests and in Dragonholt village but the duration is different.

Whilst in the village, one player will choose a location to visit and become the active player for the encounter at that location. That player will remain the active player until the encounter is completed.

Yours Truly,

United States

Raleigh

North Carolina

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There must have been a moment at the beginning, where we could have said no. Somehow we missed it. Well, we’ll know better next time.

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willshaw67 wrote:

JohnnyDollar wrote:

This ONLY applies in Dragonholt Village, for the “sandbox” part of the game.

It does not apply to quests. For quests it works as I described above.

Not quite, what you described applies both on quests and in Dragonholt village but the duration is different.

Whilst in the village, one player will choose a location to visit and become the active player for the encounter at that location. That player will remain the active player until the encounter is completed.

But “skill-sharing” occurs in the Village (but not on Quests):

p. 6 of the rulebook, Dragonholt Village section:

All decisions made during an encounter should be made as a group. You do not exhaust your activation token when you make a decision, and requirements on options can be fulfilled by any of you. As the active player you have the final say on those decisions.The bolded part is the skill-sharing.

I do think the Village and Quest differences in decision-making (duration) and skills (sharing vs not) is a little awkward and at first hard to remember, we would have to refer to the rulebook a lot early on. I’m not sure why they decided on making separate rules for the Village vs Quests; it would’ve been easier from the player perspective to just make it work the way it does on Quests apply globally.

Will Shaw

United Kingdom

Fleet

Hampshire

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JohnnyDollar wrote:

But “skill-sharing” occurs in the Village (but not on Quests):

p. 6 of the rulebook, Dragonholt Village section:

All decisions made during an encounter should be made as a group. You do not exhaust your activation token when you make a decision, and requirements on options can be fulfilled by any of you. As the active player you have the final say on those decisions.The bolded part is the skill-sharing.



Ah, I missed that. Thanks for clarifying.

I agree the differences do make things a little awkward, which makes me think the multi-player rules were added late in development.


Spoiler (click to reveal)

I found the romantic storyline with the aunt the oddest in this respect. One character could initiate the romance and mark off a particular checkpoint, but another character could pursue it later…

Jamie Vantries

United States

Woodbury

Minnesota

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re: “dying”

Yes, regardless of what happens you will make it through to the end. But the thing is, there’s four different possible endings. And I don’t know about you, but I got emotionally invested in the characters and I would have been upset if I had gotten the worst ending (my friend told me about it cuz that’s what he got). So “dying” can still cause you to “lose”, assuming you care about the story (but then why would you even be playing a game like this if you didn’t).

Yours Truly,

United States

Raleigh

North Carolina

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Burnham wrote:

re: “dying”

Yes, regardless of what happens you will make it through to the end. But the thing is, there’s four different possible endings. And I don’t know about you, but I got emotionally invested in the characters and I would have been upset if I had gotten the worst ending (my friend told me about it cuz that’s what he got). So “dying” can still cause you to “lose”, assuming you care about the story (but then why would you even be playing a game like this if you didn’t).

And even on a smaller scale, at the level of specific quests, there are major stakes, as in life-or-death situations which even if it’s not YOUR life-or-death, it has potentially huge impacts on the world you are in.

Characters in this universe are not invincible and can definitely live or die, even if the character you play is pretty much invincible (but handicapable). Think of it as you are playing as the main character of a tv-show… week in, week out, you know you’re not going to die, right? (Because the show is about you.) But your companions/redshirts/etc, everyone around you, are vulnerable.

Peter Williams

Australia

Adelaide

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JohnnyDollar wrote:

When an active player makes a decision, they exhaust their token. They are not allowed to make another decision until everyone else has made a decision and taken a turn as an active player, then everyone reactivates their tokens and everyone is eligible again.

Yes, this is true, but if you consider an extreme case of 6 players with 8 skills each (quite viable within the rules) that’s 48 total skills. Given that I would say the following 10 skills would cover 90% of situations:

Spoiler (click to reveal)

Brawling, Agility, Survival, Deception, Runes, Military, Stealth, Reasoning, Persuasion and Archery

then the party could easily have 3-4 copies of those skills distributed. And, given you can generally sense whether a fight or a chat or something is coming, a smart group should be able to sort it out. Way, way easier than a solo player can – which I guess was my main point.

Peter Williams

Australia

Adelaide

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Burnham wrote:

re: “dying”

Yes, regardless of what happens you will make it through to the end. But the thing is, there’s four different possible endings. And I don’t know about you, but I got emotionally invested in the characters and I would have been upset if I had gotten the worst ending (my friend told me about it cuz that’s what he got). So “dying” can still cause you to “lose”, assuming you care about the story (but then why would you even be playing a game like this if you didn’t).

Yup, great point. And this is the big risk of writing a review after one play: I’ve only seen one ending (and I would assume it’s not a ‘bad’ one). I’m not sure if I got lucky with the skills I happened to choose, but I felt most things worked out for the better as I wandered through the story.

I will come back and update my thoughts after 2 or 3 more plays, but for now I’ll be opening up my stock of games-in-wait for the next little while…

Yours Truly,

United States

Raleigh

North Carolina

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PeterWilliams wrote:

JohnnyDollar wrote:

When an active player makes a decision, they exhaust their token. They are not allowed to make another decision until everyone else has made a decision and taken a turn as an active player, then everyone reactivates their tokens and everyone is eligible again.

Yes, this is true, but if you consider an extreme case of 6 players with 8 skills each (quite viable within the rules) that’s 48 total skills. Given that I would say the following 10 skills would cover 90% of situations:

Spoiler (click to reveal)

Brawling, Agility, Survival, Deception, Runes, Military, Stealth, Reasoning, Persuasion and Archery

then the party could easily have 3-4 copies of those skills distributed. And, given you can generally sense whether a fight or a chat or something is coming, a smart group should be able to sort it out. Way, way easier than a solo player can – which I guess was my main point.

Maybe… but specific skills required are still a little unpredictable…


For example I’m a brawler Orc and my wife a Gnomish thief. In a recent quest I was active and the decision was to go “brute force”, or do something sneaky. So I did the sensible choice given my character and went “brute force”… well I do have several combat skills (brawl, dueling, etc) but I did not have “military” which was the combat skill required for that particular decision. So I still took a hit. So there are no guaranteed “slam dunks” even if you think you have the type of skill-set for a given decision.

But yeah when everyone is still active I could see your point of a large group having a bit of an advantage. But, as characters start “deactivating” by making decisions, it becomes less and less of an advantage until everyone is active again.

More to the point though, I would really not suggest playing this with more than 2 or maybe 3 players, regardless of whatever advantage there might be with larger groups – quality of play and player enjoyment would suffer at higher player counts. That seems to be the consensus as well looking at the player count poll.

Peter Williams

Australia

Adelaide

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JohnnyDollar wrote:

More to the point though, I would really not suggest playing this with more than 2 or maybe 3 players, regardless of whatever advantage there might be with larger groups – quality of play and player enjoyment would suffer at higher player counts.

Then we, good sir, are in agreement.

You have, however, now made me exceptionally curious to try a 2-player campaign. Quite sadly, though, my wife is one of those ‘non-gamer’ types and I couldn’t imagine trying to organise that many sessions with a friend to just sit and read together.

I wonder how it would go if I just used two characters…