When I was 12 years old, I went to the local boardgame store. With my saved-up pocket money I bought the Players Handbook of “Advanced Dungeon and Dragons”, 2nd Edition.
I instantly fell for the concept of roleplaying. In the weeks to come, I got the book for DM and the “Monster Compendium” and with a couple of friends we started our first adventures.
I adored everything about those books. But what I remember most vividly was a paragraph on the first pages of the Players Handbook. I don’t have my copy of it any more, but it must be right at the beginning. It is a description of a short roleplaying session, a fictional transcript.
That short passage instantly clicked with me. It held so much promise about all things possible with roleplaying. All those roads yet to be wandered on, all the mysteries to be unraveled.
I‘m in my forties now, but I still remember that feeling – after all those years of living my life and having experienced the realities of the world (at least some), this feeling has become a distant, nostalgic memory. I learned that with age comes the loss of an imagination that is easily ignited. With every book, movie or game, the threshold seems to rise higher. Everything tends to be just repetition. It is a sad process of desillusion.
“Legacy of Dragonholt” promises to deliver a solo-experience of roleplaying. When I heard about it I was excited of course. Yet I forbade myself to get my hopes up high. But when I started playing something very unexpected happened. That feeling I had when I was a child, it came back. Just a teeny-tiny bit of it. Just a spark. But a very precious one.
“Legacy of Dragonholt” is explained very quickly. It is a “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure”-Book with some well-tuned bells and whistles. For those of you who don’t know the concept:It is a written story in which the player can choose how it progresses. To give an example, the game tells the player (via text) that he faces an abyss. Now the story offers the player different possibilites of action. In the example at hand, the player might be given the option to try to jump across or to take another path. For each choice a different part of the story needs to be read subsequently. Paragraphs are numbered to navigate you through the pages. The result is a branched storyline. Depending on your choices what happens within the story changes.
This concept has been considerably beefed up by Fantasy Flight in “Legacy of Dragonholt”. For one, before starting to read the story/playing the game, you create a character. The process is very similar to a classical roleplaying game. You choose a name, a race and a class. Instead of numerical attributes, you then pick a number of preset skills. While the name, race and class, as well as the optional writing up of a background and physical description of your character are just an addon to thicken atmosphere and immersion, the choice of skills is a crucial element of the game. The skills are handled as an “on-off” mechanism, meaning there is no grading of how well your character performs. You either have a skill or not – if you do, it opens up more options within the game.
Let’s return to the example about the player facing the abyss. If you have chosen the skill “Athletics” during character creation, the game might give you a third choice, say “climb down and up on the other side”. Only players with that skill are allowed to choose that particular story-thread.
This skill system might seem rather low-key, but it greatly adds to the feeling of immersion. It gives the player a feeling of uniqueness and freedom by enabling them to choose a certain path based on the individual skills of the character. This idea is followed through by the presentation of very individual story branches which give the player the feeling that those choices – and therefore the skills – do really matter. I’ve read reviews saying the choices in “Legacy of Dragonholt” don’t really have an impact; that in the end, all turns out the same. I strongly disagree. I have checked on various choices and learned that at least some of the storylines differ greatly.
Another very important and meaningful game mechanic introduced by “Legacy of Dragonholt” is the passage of time. The choices made by the player often lead to story-branches telling the player that “time passes”. Whenever that happens, the player needs to cross out boxes given on the adventure sheet (the sheets are printed on the gamebooks themselves but can as well be downloaded for printout). Those boxes indicate the passage of time – the game will relate to that by barring or allowing choices further along the storyline depending on how much time has passed.
Time has as well a crucial impact on the story. I didn’t realize to what extend in the first place. I thought the time mechanism was just a way to get the player from one adventure to another. But far from it! In that first game my carelesness led to a very tragic turn of events because I took my time when I should have hurried.
The time mechanism greatly adds to the immersion and gives the player a sense of urgency. It makes the game a much deeper and satisfying experience.
There are more mentionable aspects to “Legacy of Dragonholt”. Players can collect items, represented by cards, which broaden their choices. There is the “Dragonholt Village Tracking Sheet”, on which players – apart from the passing of time – mark progress in areas like Heroism, Combat/Physical Training or Spiritual Meditation. The progress made in those areas is dependant on the choices the player makes. Once a certain threshold is met, a reward awaits. For example, if the player decides to lend a hand with the harvest, the progress in physical training could eventually give them an additional physical skill.
All those elements add to an experience in which “Legacy of Dragonholt” is not only a story, but a game. However, the narrative is the heart of the matter, accompagnied by the game mechanisms.
Therefore, he most important aspects, overarching the whole game experience, are the story and the writing. The story is rather standard Fantasy. It starts on a low level – the character is not yet a hero, not already known by his deeds, not yet equipped with legendary items and artifacts. For me that was a plus. I find stories to be more believable if they don’t overdo the initial load of information. The rest of the story is a matter of taste – while it does invoke a lot of clichés, I liked it a great deal. I feel that while a cliché found in a story must not necessarily be boring or bad, a clichéd writing-style almost always is. The writing in “Legacy of Dragonholt” however, in my opinion, is completely fine. There is a huge caveat to that judgement: I am not a native user of the english language. So I might be way off. I have read a lot of english books and I like to believe that I am able to at least notice when writing is really, really bad – but I cannot say for sure.
I find it particularly annoying when the writing-style is lazily clishéd – an example are unprecise metaphors which have been used excessively (“His heart was pounding like a sledgehammer”). This almost always kills immersion for me. With “Legacy of Dragonholt” nothing of that sort happened. I want to emphasise this point because I think the judgement of story and writing will be decisive for the players feelings towards the game. I did like both story and writing. But others might not. So be sure to ponder whether a rather classic fantasy story, a lot of reading and skimming, flavoured with some clever game elements, is enough for you.
The adventures are laid out in different adventure books. The thickest one is about the village of Dragonholt itself. It is used in combination with a map, so the player can choose freely where to go. Depending on day and daytime, things will change. And now and then, the player will embark on an adventure outside the city walls. That’s when the other adventure books come into play.
Material and Setup
The gaming material is well done. There are almost no illustrations, so you have to rely on your “theater of mind”. For me that worked out well. There is additional content: twenty item cards, a map, a journal and a letter. Those are of decent quality and help with the immersion. But as said, this game is really based on the written word.
There is almost no setup time. You just assemble the sheets and the adventure books, take a pen and start playing.
Overall I was very much surprised with “Legacy of Dragonholt”. I can’t remember the last time something captured and gripped me that intensely. The game really got my imagination going and immersed me into its world – I did not expect standard fantasy could do that to me anymore. There were very intense and dramatic moments when I couldn’t put the game down. When I think about it now, I really feel the need to return to Dragonholt and wander on to the next adventure.
Because I played exclusively solo, I can’t say anything about multiplayer. I imagine it is a lot of fun with the right people – as with most boardgames.
“Legacy of Dragonholt” offers hours and hours of gameplay to go through one time, so I got my bang for the buck. I cannot judge on replayability yet, but I think it will be fun to go again with a different character.
I am eagerly awaiting that Fantasy Flight puts out more adventures, either in Terrinoth or in a completely different setting (lovcraftian, please!).
I am very thankful for my experience with “Legacy of Dragonholt”. The designers deserve high praise. It is an extraordinary game – you can feel that it was created with care, that the game-elements are very well designed, balancing narrative and gaming mechanisms just in the right way. Already for taking me back to my childhood days it is worth every dollar. Just be sure about what you get – this is a standard fantasy, written story with gaming elements. I think for this game more than others the opinions will widely differ. Regardless, it is safe to say that this is a quality product, and for a lot of people out there – including myself – it is much, much more.