Welcome to the Pen & Die Dragonbane Review! Dragonbane is a translation and reimagining of the classic 1982 Scandinavian TTRPG Drakar och Demoner. Designed with wonderful art, concise rules, and more than a dash of danger, Dragonbane is a tight game with a lot of potential. Largely skill based, the system gives a lot of versatility although it doesn’t necessarily have the rulings over rules mentality that many modern minimalist games hold. The solo/co-op player will find much to like here as Free League enlisted the help of Shawn Tomkin (Ironsworn) for the solo rules, which includes a small solo campaign.
The Short of It
I rate Dragonbane at an 8/10. The rule set is streamlined, versatile, and a good fit for new gamers or those looking for something that doesn’t remind you of doing your taxes. The art evokes the setting masterfully and the graphic design makes for easy reading. The set brings great value for the price including two books, maps, standees, cards, and dice. The PDF includes all of the books, card decks, and maps so the only thing missing is the dice.
There are perhaps a couple of house rules that I might implement, as well as some other tables and rule sets that I would meld in to expand with, but the game is a good package that will provide many hours of play time before needing to look for any other books. The adventure book that comes with the boxed set includes eleven adventures that tie together into a campaign. The adventures are definitely written for standard play with a game master. However, it gives information on the towns, locations, and NPC’s to be found. With some careful reading, a solo player could find their way through the campaign without ruining the discovery.
For the PDF head here:
You can find the Boxed Set here:
Check out our unboxing of the set here:
Playing the Game
Dragonbane uses a roll under D20 skill system derived from rolled attributes. Attributes are rolled with the easy 4d6, drop the lowest style. Groups may use other techniques such as straight 3d6 or point buy in order to adjust character capability. Players roll the familiar D20 attributes of Strength, Constitution, Agility, Intelligence, Willpower, and Charisma. Consequently, attributes contribute to Derived Ratings as Hit Points will equal the CON score and Willpower Points equal WIL. AGL modifies movement, while AGL and STR can each add to damage depending on score and attack type. Attributes also provide the base chance for skills based on a provided table. A few rolls will come up in the game based solely on Attributes, such as STR or CON, but most will be based on skills.
Players choose their characters’ kin but they can also roll randomly. Each kin brings a unique ability, but beyond that, they will mostly be for roleplaying purposes. Many of the standard fantasy species are represented as humans, dwarfs, elves, and halflings appear. Wolfkin and Mallards break the fantasy mold with two anthropomorphic animal character choices. The kin have great art and detailed descriptions, but lack mechanical application. They mostly provide possibilities for background, character outlook, and interaction. I have not seen any kin-specific Heroic Abilities or Skills and they do not affect attributes. Each kin section has a table of six names to assist in naming your character by rolling randomly, choosing, or using the names as inspiration to create your own.
In many ways, customization really begins with choosing a profession. You will choose which attributes to focus on based on the profession that you would like to play. On the other hand, you may choose your profession based on the attributes that your rolled. Either way, between your profession and kin, you should know have a pretty good idea of what your character does and maybe a little of the why. The profession gives a list of skills that will be considered trained from the start of the game. It also provides the starting Heroic Ability. Tables listed in the profession section allow for randomly determining (or just choosing) starting gear packages and nicknames.
Dragonbane utilizes twenty skills, plus weapon skills, to determine how good your character is at doing things in the world. Attributes will come up on certain checks, such as STR to push over a stone pillar or CON to resist a poison, but by and large you will be rolling skills to accomplish your heroic feats. Each skill relates to an appropriate Attribute. Players consult a table to determine the base chance on a given skill based on the Attribute. Trained skills chosen from the class list and the general list then double that base score to arrive at the final starting skill level. This is a touch convoluted, but will not need to be addressed following character creation.
Heroic Ability and Willpower Points
Each profession comes with a Heroic Ability that coincides with the theme of the character. These are powered by Willpower Points coming from a pool equal to the willpower attribute. Willpower Points also fuel a mage’s ability to cast spells. The Abilities often provide a boon on a particular skill roll, allow actions that are normally not allowed, or even add to Hit Points or Willpower Points.
Magic evades use by the majority of people in Dragonbane. The Mage is the only profession that begins with the ability to use it, although other professions may learn it later by choosing the Heroic Ability Magic Talent. There are no divine casters in Dragonbane so Mages will be filling in with magical healing as well as the utilitarian roles that clerics often fill. Casting magic strains the user as both a skill roll and the expenditure of Willpower Points are required. Mages also choose one of three schools of magic to practice, learning new schools from scratch. Spell ranks determine how many rungs up a prerequisite chain a spell is, always requiring knowledge of a specific spell of the previous rank. 1st rank spells only require a skill level in the appropriate school. Mages acquire new spells from teachers or grimoires in an otherwise similar fashion to skill advancement.
Leveling up and advancement usually bring as much joy to players as defeating a tough enemy. Dragonbane is more of a level-less system with advancement focusing on skills and Heroic Abilities. Players gain an Advancement Mark whenever they roll a Demon or a Dragon in a particular skill. In addition, they also receive them depending on how they answer a short list of questions at the end of a session concerning their actions and involvement. Characters increase in skill level after spending an Advancement Mark and making an Advancement Roll. Players will roll a D20 hoping to roll over the current skill level. Advancement can also be gained by spending time and money with a trainer. Players choose new Heroic Abilities at milestone points determined by the game master, generally upon completion of a dungeon or adventure or if a skill is advanced to 18. This means that players can expect some advancement at the end of each session as well as less frequent Ability gains.
Dragonbane uses a D20 roll under system for everything except damage rolls. This means that there is no need to set target numbers, armor class is not used, and some discretion needs to be used determining what is actually possible. Players and game masters utilize a bane and boon system on rolls similar to advantage and disadvantage. Players can also “Push” a roll, taking a Condition on one of their Attributes in order to obtain a re-roll. Conditions bestow a bane on all rolls against that Attribute or skills based on that Attribute. Players and non-player characters make their rolls the same way. Monsters, however, will only occasionally make skill rolls and their attacks always hit.
How it Plays
Dragonbane’s reasonably light rule set keeps things moving quickly. Players will make choices about their characters’ appearance, personality, and background either on their own or with the help of provided random tables. For those new to TTRPG’s, this game gives an easy to learn system without very much dice changing and straightforward mechanics. The base game lacks the depth that some veteran players will be searching for but it does have enough to be able to straddle the fence for a mixed group of experience. Combat is swift and deadly. Advancement does not gift Hit Points except by taking the appropriate Heroic Ability, so player characters will always be in danger from an unlucky hit. Monsters and NPC’s are simple to run without lengthy stat blocks. The designers streamlined Dragonbane very well so that games should run smoothly while allowing for a good amount of freedom.
The Adventure Book
The Adventure Book contains most of the available setting information for the starting area “The Misty Vale.” You will find encounter tables, town and NPC descriptions, and events within. Except for the showdown adventure, the other ten adventures can be played in whatever order the player(s) wish depending on location etc. Groups should complete the adventures in around two sessions although lengths vary a little. The adventures in the book also effectively convey the feel and atmosphere that the designers intended for the game and setting.
Free League hired Shawn Tomkin, the creator of Ironsworn, to create the solo rules and campaign for Dragonbane. Mr. Tomkin did a great job, creating rules that are concise and will give a good introduction to new solo players. Since Dragonbane and its challenges usually accommodate group play, the solo rules provide a couple of new, solo exclusive Heroic Abilities as well as allowing for an additional Heroic Ability for lone characters. The rule set includes an oracle for any questions that would normally be asked of the game master. The Inspiration Table presents ready spark words to inspire descriptions of everything from scene and mission types to NPC motivations. Mr. Tomkin also included a location in the Misty Vale built principally for solo play that features exploration tables and missions that will use those tables to generate unique adventures each time. Eventually, the solo player will want to branch out and explore other areas as well as perhaps adding some new tables for new experiences. However, this supplement will definitely get you started.
The designers of Dragonbane produced a game that is versatile, easy to play, beautiful, and well thought out. Right now, it is a fairly small sandbox to play in. Game masters have a fair amount of material to work with out of the box, but it won’t be too long before they will have to start creating their own. Since the main mechanic is roll under your own stat, compatibility with other games and modules shouldn’t be too difficult. I really appreciate the inclusion of solo rules into the box, obviously. Game makers are starting to take notice that not everyone has the ability or desire for group play. Hopefully they will continue to support everyone that likes to get a little adventure time on their own. Overall, an 8/10. The art shines, the mechanics hold up well, and the solo module does a good job bringing an introduction to solo gaming. The bestiary contains very basic monsters and not very many of them. Some of the rules can be difficult to decipher and are scattered through the rule book. But overall, I have enjoyed my time with Dragonbane and look forward to seeing how Free League supports this system.
If you’re interested in bringing Dragonbane to your table, please see the links below. If you’ve enjoyed this content, I would greatly appreciate it if you would share this article on your favored social media platform.
For the PDF head here:
You can find the Boxed Set here:
Check out our unboxing of the set here: