Happy new year! I shall start 2018 as I mean to continue it by composing a blog post that has nothing to do with writing. My original plan was for this to be a summary of the various games I have played over the Xmas period, giving a quick description and critique of each, with some recommendations at the end. Turned out it didn’t quite work that way, partly because we bailed on the latest T.I.M.E. Stories expansion after realising it was, um, really really explicitly based on the murder of Sharon Tate by the Manson family in a way that felt creepy and exploitative, and partly because we got completely sucked into FFG’s new collaborative narrative game thingy Legacy of Dragonholt.
Legacy of Dragonholt is set in Fantasy Flight Games’ increasingly over-populated Runebound universe, where it shares shelf-space with such tiles as Descent, Battlelore (the new version) and, of course, Runebound. The setting is a weird mix of very specific and very generic, and the various games that exist within it only partly feel like they meaningfully take place in the same world. They share some common themes—the towns always have the same names, magic is always worked using specific items called runes that you literally carry around and technically anyone can use, orcs are one of the good guy races (and a deeply spiritual people etc.), and there’s some historical shit with dragons, but there are peculiar little details that seem game specific, like the “good” army in Battlelore is clearly all human, even though the Baronies in Runebound are very cosmopolitan, there’s a recurring low-level villain called Splig the Goblin King but the game seems inconsistent about whether goblins are even a thing, and isn’t it a bit odd to make orcs this noble warrior race but keep goblins as generic low-level enemies you fight? Also Legacy of Dragonholt has cat people in it and I’m pretty sure none of the other game have cat people in them. And, to be fair, it’s probably to the credit of the series that these things even stand out to me because, if it was just a totally generic fantasy world, I wouldn’t especially care but there’s just enough of an identifiably Runebound feel in Runebound that things that don’t fit that feel are jarring.
Anyway, Legacy of Dragonholt is kind of like a Fighting Fantasy novel except it’s designed to be played with multiple players and it’s kind of like Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, except that it’s nothing like Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective. What it’s most like is a really free form D&D campaign that is being DMed by some books. It starts with you (where “you” means whichever humans are playing the game, plus a gnome called Mariam and an orc called Braxton) travelling through a forest with one of those slightly forgettable fantasy woodland names like Ever-something or Even-something en route to the tiny village of Dragonholt. You have been summoned to this village by a letter from your old friend Celyse. This letter is a charming physrep and contains deliberate misspellings that conceal a coded message (this is not a spoiler, this is made really explicit in the first paragraph). There’s something really comforting about the opening. You’re immediately given a very accessible description of very generic fantasy scenario and you get a cool thing to look at and a little bit of a puzzle to solve. The actual coded message itself is about the least useful piece of information that could possibly be communicated to you by a former adventuring companion now working for the ruling family of a small village (it amounts to barely more than ‘something bad is happening’) but it’s just … honestly nice to sit there with a physrep spelling out words and planning your journey through the Ever-whatever forest.
Perhaps the most helpful thing I can say about Legacy of Dragonholt at this point is that it’s really useful to have the right set of expectations going in because there were a number of things I initially found jarring but eventually worked out are kind of the whole point. For example, because the structure is superficially similar to that of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective I think I went in expecting the game to primarily revolve around doing quests, which you would do sequentially and with the village section being the equivalent of a briefing / debriefing. In fact, the reverse is true as, in retrospect, should have been obvious from the fact that all six quest booklets put together are still probably not quite as big as the village book. By a similar token, I was a bit thrown with the very first adventure (To New Roads) because I had assumed that the journey through Eveningwear Forest would be a relatively short scene that led to a wider adventure either in or around Dragonholt. When, in fact, To New Roads is just you going to Dragonholt and the adventure in Dragonholt is, well, everything else that happens in Dragonholt. So I spent about the first dozen or so paragraphs of the introductory quest thinking “why is there so much time here dedicated to chatting with this random orc, we hardly seem to have got anywhere, isn’t there supposed to be an adventure attached to this” when actually the quest booklet was just a convenient way of organising the bits of narrative that make up your journey to the village. You talk to NPCs, you get attacked by bandits, you climb up a cliff, you see a magic tree and find a wooden badger. That’s kind of it. But those are all sort of equally important and prepare you for the sort of thing you’ll spend most of your time in Dragonholt doing.
The final thing I found slightly surprising about the introductory quest was that it was really, really PG. There are a couple of almost jarring moments where, for example, Mariam the gnome alchemist throws a cloud of acidic gas at a bandit and it specifically dissolves the bandit’s shield causing them to run away, rather than harming the bandit at all. It even ends with you reaching Dragonholt and settling down in The Swan (Mariam’s aunt’s inn which will be your base of operations for the rest of the campaign) where you are rewarded for your efforts with a nice glass of milk. And I should stress that I have no problem with PG. I actually quite like PG because I’m heartily sick of things trying to prove how mature, valuable and worthy they are by being gratuitously nasty (just a reminder: we played this directly after abandoning a game that turned out to be poorly translated Charles Manson fanfic). That said, the PGness is sometimes a bit uneven, although maybe this wouldn’t have jarred with me if I hadn’t had to make such a conscious adjustment at the beginning. Most of the time, the game has a fairly Saturday morning cartoon approach to violence, with people falling over or getting trapped under things or running away comically because you’ve done something impressive and/or scary. But then you very occasionally get things like people getting explicitly chopped in half—and it’s never graphic but when you’re used to fight scenes sometimes being stretched a little to avoid actually describing the consequences of violence it’s a bit odd. I’m also pretty sure there’s a bit in the middle where a child can be murdered in front of you which is, y’know, dark. And, actually, you can make a reasonable case that this is a strength of the text in that there’s a tendency to assume that PG things can’t have dark themes and that it has to be “no-one ever gets hurt and good always triumphs” or “blood and bosoms and everything’s bad forever” so it’s quite interesting to see a story which does shy away from, example, describing the realistic consequences of throwing a bottle of acid at somebody but doesn’t shy away from the consequences of grief and trauma and spending too much time shopping when you should have been rescuing somebody.
To New Roads also serves as an introduction to the core mechanics of game which is fairly standard Choose Your Own Adventure fare (to fight the dragon turn to 24, to hug the dragon turn to 17) but with a skill system attached, allowing for character customisation. When you create your character you pick a race (which, in our play through, came up only once and required you to be a gnome, which none of us were), a class (which is never specifically referenced but gives you access to some skills) and then some more skills. This is very system light, remarkably flexible, and positively encourages you to do things that would be severely punished in a more traditional RPG. For example, I decided to play an Orcish bard as sort of joke, which meant I took brawling, endurance, athletics, empathy and performance. In any other system this would have made me a terrible bard and a terrible fighter, because I didn’t have enough people skills to be good at barding, or enough combat skills to be good fighting. But I actually rolled along fine, doing a bit a punching, a bit of singing, and a bit of getting people to talk about their feelings.
This was basically possible because of the way the game handles skills. Periodically, the text will ask you if you have a skill or not, and most of the time if you do, good things happen, if you don’t bad things happen. I mean, I say bad things and good things, but the difference is usually one of degrees, rather than one of category. It’s not like the most extreme of the old Fighting Fantasy novels where if you have a green gem you win and get a magic sword, and if you don’t you die instantly. This mostly works pretty well, although it has the usual problem you get with this type of game, where you sometimes have to guess a bit as to what skill goes with what option (is climbing this wall going to be athletics or agility or can I use either, can I use persuasion or reasoning to talk this person down or does it have to be empathy). But because the results are never especially punishing, even if you make a poor choice, it means you usually feel supported no matter how you decide to approach a problem. And the game is quite good at signalling when you’re about to do something obviously demanding / foolhardy like stepping between an child and an arrow, or charging headlong down a dragon’s throat (both of which I may or may not have tried).
The game is designed with the assumption that there’ll be a party of more than one player. Or rather it’s designed with the assumption that this will be a possibility but I honestly can’t tell what it assumes the default mode to be. There’s an initially unintuitive mechanic whereby each player has a token in front of them and every time you have to make a choice during an adventure (choice is kind of a game mechanical term here – a choice is something where you get multiple red boxes to pick from) only one player gets to make it. That player then flips their token over to indicate they can’t act again until everyone has gone. This system seems partly intended to make sure everybody gets their time in these spotlight, which is cool, but perhaps more importantly it’s a very slight way of balancing the inherent advantages of larger parties. Legacy of Dragonholt seems to follow the basically CRPG rule that it’s always best to take the option that uses a skill and a bigger party means more skills are covered which in turn means you’re less likely to lose stamina (and also you’ll have more stamina between you) so while our little group was initially confused by this “you can only do a thing if everyone else has also done a thing” system I think we eventually realised that it was necessary to stop the game becoming a little bit trivial and to make sure that everyone actually got to do something.
That said, I do feel like it would have worked better if you only flipped your token on decisions requiring skills, rather than on largely inconsequential decisions about which staircase to follow or which gnome to talk to. When the tokens work, you find yourself confronted with a locked door and realise that you can’t pick the lock because the player with the thief skills has just disarmed a trap and so a different player has to try to open the door, but that’s okay because that player gets to do something, and the thief has already done a thiefy thing that felt thiefy. When it doesn’t work is when you come to a locked door and you cant pick the lock because the player with the thief skills had to flip their token in order to “make the choice” to turn left at the last corridor. And, to be fair, this sort of thing doesn’t happen that often, but it happens just often enough that it’s noticeable and a bit irritating. We found ourselves sometimes having really meta conversations where we’d say things like “okay, I think if we go this way we’re going to have to sneak up on some people, so I should be the one who makes the decision to take the route that uses the sneaking, because I don’t have the sneaking skills and that way you’ll be free to use your sneaking skills at the next decision point.” And that’s just not a fun way to engage with the game. And maybe we took that too seriously but the trouble is, the only thing worse than not being able to do the thing you’re supposed to be good at is not being able to do the thing you’re supposed to be good at for completely arbitrary reasons.
Once you’ve finished To New Roads, the game opens out massively. You get a map of a village to explore and a big book of cool things that can happen to you in the village, but you’re given basically no guidance about what you’re supposed to be doing. You’re sort of told there’s an odd jobs board by the village hall and obviously you’ve got the letter from Celyse, but other than that a surprising amount of the gameplay is just wandering around town having lovely conversations with lovely villagers, occasionally partaking in lovely festivals and, in our case, completely failing to get with a lovely gnome. Side note: one of the peculiarities of the game’s sort of single player sort of multiplayer vibe is that there seem to be a couple of romance options in the game and you track progress along those plotlines the same way you plot everything else by marking coded “story points” on the back of the book, but the game doesn’t seem much to care which character does the romancing, so you can only progress your gnome romance if somebody in your party has flirted with the gnome at some point but the person who has flirted with the gnome does not have to be the same on any given occasion. So we wound up with a very liberal arc in which a male orc, a male dwarf and a female elf simultaneously pursued a polyamorous relationship with a female gnome.
And I do appreciate “lovely” doesn’t necessarily sound like the sexiest adjective to use in conjunction with a fantasy game experience, but actually the loveliness is really important, because it makes you super, super invested in the world and the NPCs. There’s a lot of really important little details here, like the way that when you wake up every morning or come home every evening there’s always this loving description of the delicious food that the gnome we tried to get with had made for everybody. And it’s always comforting and homey and makes you really want to eat blueberries and griddle cakes in a cheerful fantasy inn. And all of this makes you genuinely engage with the world as a real place, instead of a collection of game mechanics. On several occasions we took fundamentally sub-optimal decisions for emotional reasons (for example we took a doll to an adorable dwarvish child instead of going to train our skills and nearly missed out on one of the game’s quests because, instead of hanging out in taverns, looking for rumours we were picking apples, going to weddings, and delivering love letters), but were completely happy with the outcomes regardless.
One of the things I found cleverest about the game was the way in which it would reward your decisions with things that were commensurate with the decisions you made. One of the problems with a lot of games with RPG elements is that taking particular actions gives you very generic rewards (like experience points) which are useful to you even if you’re not interested in the things that give you those rewards in the first place. Legacy of Dragonholt very much doesn’t do that. If you’re interested in the dwarven child your primary reward is getting to spend more time with the dwarven child, and not a new sword. If you decide to follow the rumour about the tomb where the guy with the magic frostrune is buried your reward is a magic frostrune not experience points which you can spend on getting better at flirting with gnomes. Even our failed attempt to lure a middle-aged gnome lady into a menage-a-quatre feels like it failed because we didn’t spend enough time going to her inn to talk to her, not because we didn’t kill enough goblins. I mean, make enough goblins fall over.
Essentially, the best way to engage with the game is to allow yourself to react emotionally rather than second guessing and min-maxing. This becomes especially important where quests are concerned. If you’ve played any CRPGs you’ll probably be very used to the convention that when somebody comes up to you and says, for example, “help my son has been kidnapped” what this really means is that you can go shopping, sleep for eight hours, take a different quest that takes you to a totally different kingdom, come back, go to the market again, sell all the stuff you looted from that other quest you did, sleep for another eight hours, cast some healing heals, sleep for yet another eight hours to get your healing spells back, then at last saunter off to do Operation Child Rescue and everyone will act as if you’ve just left that minute. Legacy of Dragonholt very much does not work like this. While some quests (for example, the ones that involve mines that have been infested by goblins since time immemorial or mythical frostrunes in long abandoned crypts) really will just sit there while you do other things because, well, it’s clear from context that they’ve been sitting there for centuries others (like kidnapped children and attacking dragons) really won’t. I think probably the best thing I can say about the time critical quests in Legacy of Dragonholt is that I don’t know how difficult they are. We managed to bring both of them to what looked an awful lot like the optimal conclusion but it always felt down to the wire, and on both occasions we had to do some really desperate shit (cf previous comments re dragon throat), which we did because we cared enough about the world and the people in it that we didn’t want to see what happened if we failed. Although we did actually check in one case to see what would have happen if we failed and, dude, it was really sad.
If you look at reviews of this game online, a sizeable percentage of them will be people freaking out over its “political agenda”. And this, well, this gets really complicated. I mean, in some ways it’s not complicated at all. There’s quite a lot of women, LGBTQ+ people and people who clearly aren’t white in this game. That, from my perspective, is broadly a good thing. From other people’s perspective that is broadly a bad thing. And there’s an extent to which there’s no middle ground here. I think I’m particularly troubled by the way “political agenda” tends to get used as a pejorative in this kind of context because, while I could stand here and say “the game doesn’t have a political agenda, what are you talking about, it just happens to have LGBTQ+ people in it”, that’s not an entirely helpful line of argument. The fact is that where we are right now culturally putting LGBTQ+ people (and POCs and women) in things that they don’t “have” to be is making a conscious political statement. And it’s a political statement I agree with, and think needs to be made, because that statement basically boils down to “these people exist and are people”. And if we’re accepting that putting marginalised people in things they don’t “have” to be in is a conscious political statement, I think we should probably also admit that not putting marginalised people in things they don’t “have” to be in is also a political statement, although often an unconscious one. Because, actually, writing a fantasy world that unthinkingly reflects the cultural prejudices of the real world is as much a political act as writing one that challenges them.
The thing is, the “right-on” style of representation in Legacy of Dragonholt is of a very specific type and even if you aren’t the sort of person who objects on principle to a fantasy world having same sex marriage or female soldiers, the particular ways in which its “right-on-ness” manifests aren’t going to work for everybody. Speaking very very personally, I really loved how many women, queer people and incidental POCs were in it, but found its handling trans issues kind of dodgy. I fully respect that everyone’s mileage is going to vary on all of this. If I had to characterise Legacy of Dragonholt’s attitude to marginalised identities in general it basically goes with the assumption that they are not only equivalent to but interchangeable with non-marginalised identities, which I suspect will read as either really empowering or really problematic depending on who you are and what your perspective is. So, for example, one of the subplots that we got most invested in was that Mariam and Braxton (the gnome and orc who are with you from the first adventure) are strongly implied to be in a relationship at the start and, within about two days of your arrival in the village, they actually announce their engagement, and everybody is overjoyed and it’s just adorable, and you get to go a lovely orc-gnome lesbian wedding, which game mechanically, and I think in real life, we spent more time on than we did saving a village from a dragon.
And the problem is that this is more complicated than it seems, and it’s sort of a problem that that’s a problem, because it shouldn’t be complicated but it actually kind of still is. Basically, our (mixed identity) group loved it. We appreciated the fact it was normalising, we’d actively invested in those characters so we genuinely cared about their relationship, and it just, well, really worked for all of us. All of which said, I can see that some people might feel that it’s harmless to an almost harmful degree. Weirdly, for something that’s about two women getting married, it’s inescapably heteronormative. The gnome is flamboyant, playful and kind of girly while the orc is tough and taciturn and even her name doesn’t entirely code feminine. The wedding is obviously run through a light fantasy filter but it exactly fits the traditional heterosexual paradigm of what a wedding should be like. And the thing is, a lot of same sex weddings fit this paradigm, and there is something affirming and validating about recognising that same sex relationships can access the same rituals and fulfil the same social functions as opposite sex relationships. But at the same time there are people who still feel excluded by those rituals and who may feel frustrated that a marginalised identity is, arguably, reduced to a heartwarming trope. And I should reiterate that this is not at all how any of the members of our group felt about Mariam and Braxton but I think it’s important to acknowledge that there’s a very good chance of other people feeling differently.
An even more, and I’m aware I’ve said I’ve complicated a lot, but complicated aspect of the very, very non-threatening lesbians in the very very PG game is that it throws light on some quite deep seated differences in what people think is appropriate for what age groups. Which is to say, that while there are some people who just hate the idea of gays in fantasy, there are others who would be fine with it but don’t think it’s suitable in a game with an “otherwise” kid-friendly tone. I think there are a reasonable number of people who, although they are generally okay with the idea that LGBQ+ people exist and sometimes appear in things, file them in their head alongside cancer, street crime and tax returns as things best not shared with children. And this, again, is where the charges of the game having a “political agenda” become really problematic, because it is absolutely political to write a game that could work really well for a family audience and put a very explicit (in the sense of “written about on page” not in the sense of “bonking”) homosexual relationship in a prominent position.
Obviously I’m not going to speak for the designer but I assume that part of the intent was to signal to a potentially young audience that it’s normal to be LGBTQ+ identified. And I think it’s the normalisation that some people believe is a step too far. One of the things I’ve noticed and have been generally pleased about over the last several decades of vaguely paying to social justice stuff is that we’ve moved further and further away from talking about “tolerance”. Because, let’s face it, tolerance is an awful concept. It’s predicated on the assumption that the majority way of life is the correct one, but if some people aren’t able to live up to society’s standards we should try not to hold it against them. I think we’re genuinely getting to a point where we can stop trying to convince people that it’s wrong to be actively mean to each other on the basis of gender, ethnicity, religion, sexuality and so on, and start talking instead about actually accepting that there multiple valid ways to be a human. I think the thing is that a lot of people who are willing to go as far as tolerance get really upset if you ask them to go further. To put it another way, I suspect the people who have a problem with the “political” content in Legacy of Dragonholt as regards their children would be fine with a story aimed at teaching young kids not to be homophobic, but balk at the idea that kids should be taught that marrying a member of your own sex should be seen as equivalently valid to marrying a member of the opposite sex.
I mentioned at the start of this section that I wasn’t wild about the game’s handling of trans issues. I should, of course, massively stress that I am not qualified to talk about this, but I wanted to give people a quick run down because I think it could potentially be triggering or upsetting. I should also stress that I absolutely think the game has its heart in the right place – for example, one of the steps in character generation specifically references giving your character a gender identity rather than a gender, and one of the pre-generated sample characters on the FFG website is explicitly a trans woman. There’s also a genderqueer elf who, admittedly, seems mostly to be there as Prince tribute, but they are appropriately pronouned and that’s just a thing. To speculate wildly for a moment, I suspect that the issue that writer had (I should mention that Legacy of Dragonholt seems to have had a single writer than a team of designers) was wanting to include trans people to show that trans people are a part of that world, and not having a really good idea of how to do it, especially in such a truncated medium. This was probably especially difficult because the game is designed around the assumption that there’s basically no real world prejudice (although some people are mean about orcs and dwarves) which means that sort of by definition a transgender person in that world will in virtually all situations be treated exactly like a cisgender person—making it very hard to signal to the reader/player that they exist at all.
Unfortunately, the ways that the game chooses to signal that one of the characters is transgender (that I’ve found at least) are:
- seeing Hunter (the man who runs one of the pubs with his wife) leaving the apothecary, you have the option to ask Mariam why he is there (which is sort of a nosy question anyway, but in these games you just instinctively ask the more specific question first) at which point she informs you that he’s there buying a particular herb which, it becomes fairly clear is the magic equivalent of testosterone—after which she’s embarrassed she told you, and swears you to secrecy.
- talking to Hunter about how he met his wife, during which she mentions she was comically surprised “when she took his clothes off”, having had their meetcute fighting some ogres together
With my principle of charity hat on I can see where both of these are coming from, and how they sort of fit into the broader fantasy of a world where these kinds of issues just aren’t issues. I mean, almost everyone you meet seems to be bisexual, although having said that it might be more accurate, and perhaps more illuminating, to say that nobody you meet gives any indication that this is a world where gender is a factor in attraction at all. Which sort of has the same problem of being either normalising or erasing depending on how you look at it. The thing is, both of these scenes include quite specific elements that, from my understanding, a lot of trans people I know get really explicitly upset by.
In the first scene, where to begin. Mariam just randomly outs Hunter because you asked a casual question (and, okay, this is a world where it’s not a big deal, but she also swears you to secrecy) and also, even leaving identity politics aside, this is medical information as well. And, even if, you live in a world where it’s socially acceptable to talk about people’s non cis-normative gender identities I can’t imagine that it’s acceptable to talk about what medications they’re taking. It also ties into the really problematic tendency that cisgendered people have to over-focus on the physical and medical aspects of transgender people. Which is just not a way to behave about anybody else’s body. The second one, similarly, places an uncomfortable amount of emphasis on Hunter’s body. And I can see that, within the very specific fantasy of a world where all of these things are absolute non-issues, a story about picking up a hot guy in the woods, taking him home and getting his clothes off, only to discover that his body was not that of a cisgendered man, is nothing more than a cute, slightly romantic anecdote. But, the thing is, I really don’t think we’re in a place culturally where that works because our dominant narrative is still, well, really transphobic. And until we are far further away than we currently are from trans identity being treated as a plot twist, a betrayal or a mechanism for cis people to demonstrate virtue I just don’t think you can tell a story like this and not bring a whole lot of baggage with you.
And, once more, I should stress that this is all very subjective, I don’t have standing to talk about this, and mileage varies massively. I just wanted to flag it up because I’m very aware that this would be really upsetting for some people.
Anyway, I should probably wrap this up because I’ve written nearly six thousand words about an adventure game for fourteen year olds. I normally try to conclude my game reviews by talking specifically about whether I recommend them for couples or families. We played Legacy of Dragonholt with three, but I’m sure it would work fine with two (it’s designed to be playable solo as well) and, actually, with two I think the action passing mechanic would be a lot less faffy.
As for families, as always I don’t have a massively clear idea of what the hypothetical ten year old really likes in a game, but I could see this working really well if your kids are in that quite narrow window where they’re old enough that they can pay attention to a reasonable amount of text but not so old that they wouldn’t be caught dead playing a fantasy roleplaying game with their parents. It divides itself up quite nicely into playable chunks, in that it’s fairly easy to stop at the start or end of an adventure, the beginning or end of a day, or during codified chapter breaks. It contains a lot of very young-person friendly LGBTQ+ content, which you could reasonably see as a positive or a negative depending on your perspective and your politics. Obviously there’s some fantasy violence, which is kind of Disney level in that it runs to spectrum from “you hit someone and they fall over comically” to “trampled to death by wildebeest”. There is one very upsetting thing that can happen but which isn’t handled graphically in the moment, and which, from the bits of cheat-reading I’ve done, seems to be dealt with sensitively afterwards.
It does cost about £50 in UK monies, which is a little bit more than some people think it should cost. It’s a Fantasy Flight game which means it has fantastic production values but the things that are being fantastically produced are maps and cards and pamphlets not miniatures, so if you feel that you need to get a lot of actual stuff for your money you might be slightly disappointed. Having said that, I do think it’s more replayable than similar book-in-a-box games because it definitely has a non-linear story (within reason) and, while I wouldn’t want to play it again right away, I’d actually be quite interested to come back to Dragonholt in six months to a year with some fresh characters and see how the village is different if you approach it differently. Also, in terms of your actual entertainment budget, it kept three of us pretty much rapt every night for a week, which is about £3.50 per person per night. Which makes it better value for money than it seems but obviously this depends on how many people you play it with, for how long, and how much you like it.
In summary: I really loved this. It’s like the least edgy thing ever, but I found that super refreshing.