A review copy of Legacy of Dragonholt was provided by Asmodee Nordics in exchange for a fair and honest review.
|Legacy of Dragonholt (2017)
|Meeple Like Us
|Player Count (recommended)
|Nikki Valens, Daniel Clark (I), Tim Flanders, Annie VanderMeer Mitsoda and Greg Spyridis
Back in the 80s, a kind of cybertextual novel was all the rage amongst a certain grouping of literate nerds. For someone like me, with no friends, they opened up a world of story-driven campaign roleplaying that would otherwise have remained entirely inaccessible. Ian Livingstone, Steve Jackson, Joe Dever – they were my dungeon masters and I have explored worlds thanks to their imaginations. We fought monsters together. We built legacies. We saved kingdoms. Once upon a time all you’d notice looking at one of my bookshelves would be a sea of the familiar green that indicated a world of Fighting Fantasy awaited. Other, more subtle shelves, hinted that all you had to do was pick up the Sommerswerd and venture forth against the darklords.
That was a long time ago though. While I still own a number of these kind of books it’s for nostalgia more than anything else. A lot has changed for me since then. Other things haven’t though – I still have no friends. I appreciate then the attempt that Legacy of Dragonholt has made to reinvigorate what I had thought was largely a dead genre –the choose your own adventure gamebook. The fact that it comes in a box is immaterial – this is closer in spirit and execution to Deathtrap Dungeon than it is to Dungeon and Dragons.
Some of you reading this may genuinely be too young to have had the pleasure of playing a gamebook, so I’ll briefly explain how Dragonholt functions. You spend a bit of time creating a character, approximately 80% of which is completely irrelevant to what will happen in the course of the game. You pick some skills (important), some personality traits (pointless), guiding principles (nonsense) and physical description (absolute waste of time). You then pick up one of the adventure module pamphlets, open it up, and begin reading.
Dragonholt technically supports multiple players, but it’s an odd board game in that it’s better by far as a solo game. In sessions with more than one player you each take turns reading paragraphs and making decisions. Given who you’re likely to have at your gaming table, it turns Legacy of Dragonholt into something akin to listening to a Margaret Weis audiobook that is narrated by your least charismatic friends. I mean, we don’t all know the cast of Critical Role. Few of us enjoy the company of professional voice actors. And if you’re honest, would you want to listen to yourself reading out hundreds of words of fantastical fol-de-rol before pausing to make a brief decision?
The pamphlet is broken up into numbered sections, each of which will terminate in the instruction for you to continue your reading from a different section. Occasionally you’ll be given a choice as to what to do, and your decisions will set you down a branch in the story. Skills that you own, or not, may lock or unlock choices. A combination of careful character design and good instincts for danger will then carry you through a story that is moulded to you.
Back in the day, you’d often play these books with a thumb lodged firmly in the page from which you just came… long enough at least to see if instant death was all that awaited you from your choice. If it did, most people would just rewind to the last choice and choose something else. Weirder people would actually start again from the first paragraph, reading over the same passages, defeating the same riddles, until they legitimately got to the branch. Me? I was a thumb in the book kind of kid.
And… that’s it. That’s the entirety of how the game works.
Gamebooks weren’t t a popular genre with everyone – I mean, how could they be – but for kids that loved to read they were an inspiration. The Choose Your Own Adventure brand was notable for how lightweight it was – it rarely put your fate in the hands of dice. The ones I really enjoyed the most though – Lone Wolf in particularly – they came with a rule framework, informed by dice rolls, that brought everything up to a new level. They reached a point where they became less about your story and more about your game.
There aren’t any dice in Dragonholt, and the result of that is, as you might imagine, things are pretty railroady once you set your foot on the track. You get a chance to hit the switch that changes where the tracks are going, occasionally, but you’ll find an awful lot of your choices end up being:
- If you have the skill ‘Cat wrangling’, turn to paragraph 69
- Or if you previously ate the Scone of Flibberty, turn to paragraph 120
- Or if you went to a Catholic high school, turn to paragraph 8442
- Otherwise, turn to paragraph 2557
This is how a lot of your choices work in Dragonholt, and it’s a bit disappointing to know that many of your outcomes are predestined, and were largely predestined on the basis of the skills you selected before you knew how the game would even work. Did you eat the sconeThat was probably the outcome of some conjunction of skills earlier in the story. Why did you even come into contact with the scone? Yeah, you probably did so on the basis of skill availability. When you’re presented with genuine choices, Dragonholt can be an absorbing game but it’s hard to rid yourself of the feeling that you’re a ball in a pachinko machine that isn’t of your own design.
And here’s where the real structural issue in Legacy of Dragonholt comes to the fore. It sets itself up as a kind of roleplaying game – that’s why your character sheet is so focused on incidental details. It wants you to engage with your character on a performative level. To think about them and their motivations and how they inform what happens in the game. And then it gives you zero tools to actually do that, other than projection, hoping that maybe you won’t notice that the largest fraction of your character creation process is spent doing things the game will never acknowledge.
Mrs Meeple and I engaged in the process of putting our own layer of roleplaying on top of the narrative. I made a sage that couldn’t be called racist only because he hated all races equally. Well versed in persuasion, deception and logical deduction he was basically a kind of Tesco Value Breitbarter. If my character had a brand identity, it would be ‘I know things, I don’t do things’. I had a secret backstory in mind to go with this, expecting that at some point it would be important given the vast amount of the sheet given over to these kind of background details. Mrs Meeple created a cat that was something of a loner. So… a cat, basically.
And to begin with, we did play up these characters a bit. During my readings I’d interject anti-gnome racism liberally into the narrative. When given a choice I’d pick the one most likely to sow disharmony into our happily diverse group of fellow travellers. But in the end that was a layer of engagement that was as fragile as a daydream – as soon as you realise how little the game cares it becomes something sustained only by the energy of its participants. That might be enough for some people but it’s a bit like playing dress-up for the benefit of a mirror. Fun for a while but it only really feels like matters when I take the stage as my alter ego ‘Lady Glitter’ and start stripping. It only has impact in the reaction it provokes in other words. Which, in my case, is alarm and panic.
So, I did try to meet the game half way on that but that leads to the second structural problem – that’s only fun, as much as it can be, when you have multiple players… and multiple players is not the strong point of the game. I’m sure there are friend groups that would happily spend an evening reading extracts of functional fan-fiction to their buddies but that’s not me. If I’m going to read of an evening, it’s going to a solitary activity. DON’T COME IN, I’M READING, THAT’S WHY THE DOOR IS LOCKED.
But let’s say you just ignore all the trappings of the RP. What about the G part of the experience?
The good news there is that Legacy of Dragonholt, while being nothing more than a fancy gamebook, is actually a very good fancy gamebook. It’s got a number of lovely innovations in its mechanisms.
For one thing, I love the story point system that creates a coherence across all the disparate campaigns. When certain important events occur you’re directed to mark off an alphanumeric code from the back of the rulebook. ‘Mark story point U2’ you’ll be told, and you will. Later on – perhaps much later on – the game will say ‘If you have story point U2 marked, turn to paragraph <whatever>’. The game has a memory – perhaps even a better memory than you do – and it ensures that there is a chain of consequence that lasts longer than the current branch of your current story. I mean, other games have done the same thing before but none of them have been quite so effective at this kind of scale.
Another thing I especially like is the powerful relationship the game has with temporality. Time is an important resource here. Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective had a similar kind of mechanism but Dragonholt refines it into something much more important. When you visited a location in SHCD it cost you time, but otherwise did very little. In Dragonholt the time of day as well as the day itself will lead to different outcomes. You spend a good chunk of your life between adventures in the village of Dragonholt itself and different stories will play out depending on when you visit any of the locales. And, importantly, if you dilly-dally in the village before departing on a quest it’ll have a powerful impact on the time-mechanics of what follows. It’s really nice even if it does occasionally lead to the annoying Skyrim style scenario of having to patiently wait outside a shop like a hungry cat in the hope someone will come and feed you at some point in the future.
The levelling system too is great – as you engage with characters and opportunities in the village you mark off progress in certain areas, and when you’ve marked off enough you get to spend some of your experience to learn a new skill. It’s practice based rather than merely arithmetic – if you want to spend your experience on becoming a better fighter, then you better do fightery things. Nobody becomes better at stealth by studying history in the library.
I also really like the system of recording each of the passages that you’ve read during the course of a story. I enjoy that for several reasons – one is that it makes it a little more intellectually difficult to honestly do the ‘thumb in the book’ trick because you’ve got an awkwardly public audit right there in the back of the document. At the same time it acts as a kind of CYOA rewind feature too – if you do need the thumb, it’s part of the mechanisms. It’s also a great memory aid – write it down before you go to the next section and no matter how many times you’re interrupted you won’t forget where you’re supposed to start reading. This audit also has comedy value – it’s the black box recording of your failure and you can play it back to any point you like to see how your incompetence unfolded.
And finally, an underused element of the game is that it comes with what in the old days we would have called ‘Feelies’. One of the best thing about getting a new Infocom text adventure or Lucasfilm point and click was that the box would come with props. Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders for example came with an actual tabloid newspaper full of clues and context-setting details for the adventure to follow. Legend of Dragonholt does the same thing – there’s a letter, a map, a journal, and all of them are important game elements with plot important content. I really wish though that this had been carried through more comprehensively. Fill the box with props, even if some of them are red herrings. I love having things to pore over, especially when they might come with encoded clues. That’s me though, and I imagine for others that they might see having to read a whole in-character journal to be something akin to an unwelcome homework assignment.
The stories themselves are engaging enough – nothing special but they’re competently written and competently plotted. Terrinoth has never been a world that I thought had more than surface level lore to go with it, but working within that environment the game does well with some pretty uninspiring material. It’s no Sommerland, but few things are. The characters are pleasingly diverse, broadly representative across a range of categories, but they also suffer a bit from that in that the Terrinoth of Dragonholt feels a bit like the Sesame Street version of a fantasy village. I half expect to hear muppets breaking out into song every time I go anywhere.
All of this is good, and it makes Dragonholt a worthwhile experience that I do recommend. Let’s come back though to the diceless nature of play though.
Dragonholt in many respects feels like how I’d imagine a D&D game written by Telltale Games to work. It’s basically one big quicktime event of a CYOA game. When combat occurs, it’s entirely narrative. That’s lovely in that it does make things feel more… cinematic, I guess. But there’s no sense of tension when you go into a fight because you don’t get a lot of meaningful choices in how it ends up going. Tales of the Arabian Nights suffered in that there was often no obvious link between skill and outcome. Dragonholt doesn’t have that issue but it does have something equally aggravating – weird skill blends that make creating anything like a consistent character build largely pointless.
I understand why that’s the case – a game built for solo play cannot assume a well-rounded party of specialists is available. When you encounter situations like ‘If you have brawling or reasoning, turn to paragraph 4332’ though you get a weird sense of futility with regards to your choices. Your ability to progress seems to be based on a kind of percentage level equity of coverage rather than a natural consequence of decision. It’s not like the rule is ‘avoid combat encounters if you have no combat skills’ but rather ‘Hope you have whatever non-combat skill lets you get past this gate’. A more mechanistic approach to the action sequences of the game would have been great. Similarly for stealth, or for persuasion, or for… anything. I don’t feel a lot of the time like my character’s effectiveness is due to anything more than happy coincidence. Some mechanisms to handle these rather than predetermined story content would have alleviated that considerably.
Let’s pull all these threads together. Legacy of Dragonholt is a very good choose your own adventure that cleaves too close to ‘story’ as opposed to ‘game’ for my liking. As a result, it’s difficult to recommend it to people over just grabbing a pile of Fighting Fantasy books, or getting stuck into the (somewhat problematic) Lone Wolf stories. It’s very well executed, but its design philosophy results in something that is too close to exploring a story rather than participating in making one. It’s at its absolute best in my opinion as a solitary experience, and really that’s not why I play board games. However, within the gaming ecological niche it has occupied it is a very competent, well executed, and interesting title.
Legacy of Dragonholt then is a bookgame as opposed to a gamebook and that’s not a great fit for my preferences. It’s still something I can acknowledge as being a good, effective and worthwhile piece of entertainment. I just don’t see myself continuing with it now that I’m done with the review.
A review copy of Legacy of Dragonholt was provided by Asmodee Nordics in exchange for a fair and honest review.