A brief note on spoilers: Despite the title, Legacy of Dragonholt is not a legacy game, but it is a campaign game with many narrative features that should only be revealed to players at the appropriate time. I will not describe any story elements or components that might constitute spoilers, but I have pictured a number of game components you’ll discover either immediately upon opening the box or within five minutes of beginning the game. The instruction booklet advises players not to thumb through the items deck, so I’ve only shown “generic” items which don’t contribute to the overarching quest material in any meaningful way.
An orc, a gnome and a human walk into a bar. The orc and the gnome shout their orders of dark ale and sweet wine toward a passing waitress whilst the human watches and waits to catch the bartenders attention. Finally, a barrel-chested dwarven man with a trimmed beard and rosy red cheeks momentarily stops wiping the bar, sighs and turns, frustrated, toward him.
“What’ll it be, tall-tree?” he asks. “If you choose to buy the dark ale, turn to entry 2024, if you choose a sweet wine, turn to entry 3245, or to take a chance on the local water supply, turn to entry 5562.”
This, friends, is Legacy of Dragonholt, the first game to feature designer Nikki Valens’ new Oracle System, and a legitimate multiplayer equivalent of the classic Fighting Fantasy or Choose Your Own Adventure series.
Split across five individual missions with a continuous campaign and featuring a number of other stories which take place in a kind of hub world (the village of Dragonholt) Legacy of Dragonholt is a fairly fast-paced action RPG allowing up to four players to create unique characters and venture into a fantasy realm. Whilst the kind of escapism offered by the Dungeons and Dragons universe is traditionally only experienced by relatively hardcore adventurers, Legacy of Dragonholt is designed specifically to introduce a more casual audience, whilst still offering a number of elements from more complex role-playing canon.
To set the scene, up to four players can indulge in Legacy of Dragonholt at once, with each of them able to create a character and record their details on a specific sheet. Players can choose any name they wish, pick from one of several interesting races and classes and can then add a number of named skills. The more skills players choose, the less endurance their character has, which makes the first choice you’ll make one of the most important ones — do you want to be highly versatile or extremely hard to kill? With everyone written up and ready to go, players each take turns to read passages from the current quest book, with each player taking an activation token to exhaust when a decision is made.
Activation tokens are the first of a few systems that help to bridge the gap between the complex, infinitely variable nature of traditional RPGs and the extremely limited, insular experience that text-adventure RPG’s have usually offered to date. First, everyone takes a turn to read passages aloud, but the activation system can also result in decisions that might affect only one character, or all of them. The system is probably intended to eliminate alpha gaming, but because it doesn’t actually stop conversation, I don’t think it really does. It would take a very plucky amateur role-player to push through the “strong recommendations” of an experienced player with an exhausted activation token suggesting a contrary action, but hey, I can’t fault Valens or Fantasy Flight Games for providing a mechanic that at least addresses the issue.
There are two other systems Legacy of Dragonholt uses to elevate itself above and beyond the norm. First of all, it has a simple system for measuring time which can affect the way stories progress, who is available to speak to and other features in the game world such as which locations are accessible. This is as simple as crossing out squares on a tracking sheet and responding accordingly, but it works well and as with all other writing in the game, there are no major continuity errors as the result of one outcome or another.
The other system is perhaps the most thematic and important of all, and is based on story points. As the party makes decisions, the relationships they form with NPCs in the game world, for example, will change. If the story advises players to mark story point X1 early on, then depending on yet more choices made throughout the game, you may be forced to do without the help of a potential ally, or vice versa. Some of these story points are quite minor, but whilst I’ve used the example of NPC relationships, others are much more far reaching and can affect the largest area in the game — Dragonholt Village — in fairly significant ways.
And actually, those are the only real gameplay systems in Legacy of Dragonholt. The game is literally all about immersing yourself fully into the character you create and then acting as them within the game’s fairly limited remit. Often, choices you’re able to make include one or more that are influenced by skills, for example brawling, military, sneaking or alchemy, which offer a thematic twist a little more akin to traditional role-playing. Where in a normal game of Dungeons and Dragons you might want to test your might against the weight of a heavy oak door or your dexterity against its lock, in Legacy of Dragonholt, a brawler might kick it down, whilst a thief might pick it simply by choosing the corresponding passage of text.
Many passages throughout the game result in one or more player characters taking damage, which is where the balance of skills versus endurance comes into play. Skills almost always offer better outcomes (or at least give you more options to choose from) when resolving situations, but eventually you will take some damage from one source or another. I found this most frustrating when a decision tree took me two skills deep — for example after resolving a choice with the military skill, I was then forced to have also chosen duelling in order to escape the next stage of a fight unscathed. Granted, I probably took less damage than I would have had I not chosen the military skill, which can reduce the feeling of achievement on occasion, even if it is how the game provides balance.
Sad as I am to say it, I had the most fun with Legacy of Dragonholt when I was on my own, although with that said, it was always enjoyable. The writing is top notch and the story pure, escapist fantasy, constantly challenging and interesting in equal measure. Whilst I often felt as though I had the measure of what was going to come next, the game frequently surprised me and plenty of chase, fight and dialogue scenes unfold across multiple decisions with surprisingly variable outcomes. Playing with friends introduced humour, but removed some of the laser-like focus of a single player and increased playtime from about forty minutes per scenario to well over an hour or longer depending on number and disposition of players.
As a campaign-driven, highly thematic and very enjoyable Choose-Your-Own-Adventure–esque title which introduces new complexities and features for the solo player, Legacy of Drahonholt is superb, albeit very expensive in comparison to the books still readily available. As a light, self-contained role-playing game that could act as a gateway for Dungeons and Dragons, it is perhaps less successful when played with a mainstream audience, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. Had I already assembled a role-playing group who wanted a lighter experience without the need for a Dungeon Master, then I could see Legacy of Dragonholt offering at least one enjoyable playthrough, perhaps over the course of two or three condensed evenings.
If there’s one thing I have no doubt about, it’s the Oracle System itself, which I am sure we will be seeing more of. The tracking of time and story points as well as the liberal use of skills feels fun and brings a level of balanced risk to proceedings, which I certainly did enjoy playing with. The components, as always with a Fantasy Flight game, are excellent, with features like maps, notebooks and other correspondence thrown in to enhance the experience when a simple image on a page would have sufficed. All in all, Legacy of Dragonholt offers a fairly unique and always enjoyable experience which any RPG-curious player should look into.