|1. Dragonbane uses a “roll-under d20” system instead of a “d20 + modifier” like Dungeons & Dragons.
|2. Characters don't gain XP to level up, but they advance in skills based on experiences they have during a session.
|3. Johan Egerkrans's illustrations are perfect for the game's mirth and mayhem vibe.
|4. The Dragonbane Core Set is the best RPG box set I've ever had.
Overall Rating: 5/5
Free League Publishing's RPG Dragonbane is a new version (edition?) of the massively popular Swedish TTRPG Drakar och Demoner. They thankfully decided to translate this version into English and ran a very successful Kickstarter for the game. Rather than translating the name literally to Dragons & Demons, which would be just shy of toe-stepping on WotC's D&D, the Stockholm-based publisher went with the title Dragonbane, which is a good thematic fit, and released it to the wider world in late 2023.
If you're like most Americans (myself included), you've probably never heard of nor played Drakar och Demoner, despite it being a massive success in Sweden for decades. Back in the '80s Dungeons & Dragons didn't have the distribution it enjoys now, and Sweden wasn't really on TSR's radar. So Fredrik Malmberg created his own TTRPG in Swedish, using the Basic Roleplaying System. He called it Drakar och Demoner and it soon became as synonymous with RPGs in Sweden as D&D did in the US.
Note: I was provided a copy of the Dragonbane Core Set, and digital copies of the Dragonbane Rulebook and Bestiary by Free League Publishing. However, I have since bought the physical collector's editions of the Rulebook and Bestiary with my own money because I like the game so much.
What Is Mirth & Mayhem?
Pretty much everything about Dragonbane is awesome. I don't say that because I was provided a free copy, either. I say that because it's an amazingly simple system that is easy to pick up and fun to play. Calling it “mirth & mayhem roleplaying” is spot-on. There's room for a lot of silliness built in, but also a system that lets players really dig in and cause some chaos.
The core gameplay is a “D20 roll-under” system, not a “D20 + modifiers” like D&D. For instance, for a Mallard Knight in Dragonbane to hit something with a greatsword, they would roll a D20 and compare that to their Swords skill. If the D20 is under that value, they hit. No matter what the monster is, goblin to dragon. It's about how good the PC is, not how scary the monster is.
It's So Pretty
When I first discovered Free League's games, it was around the time that Vaesen first released. I fell in love with the art style before anything else (and the game itself is a ton of fun, too). Johan Egerkrans's art is beautiful. It's gritty but whimsical, fantastical and still earthy. His stuff is 100% my favorite TTRPG art on the market right now. Hands down.
When I saw that he was doing the art for Dragonbane, I knew it was going to be a home run, and I'd want it on my shelf. His art makes the world feel lived-in, even though the setting for the 2023 edition of Drakar och Demoner is a brand-new creation called The Misty Vale.
He illustrated the last version of Drakar och Demoner, too, and I am seriously considering hunting down the physical versions of that game, too, just to have more art for my games.
Duckies and Doggos And Kitties, Oh My!
One of the staples of the Drakar och Demoner game, regardless of edition, is the Mallard race. (Though they're called Kin in Dragonbane.) Mallards are duckfolk. They have been a part of the TTRPG since the beginning, and from what I understand, they're pretty much a straight yoink from Chaosium's RuneQuest.
And then there's Wolfkin. Dogfolk are amazing and fun, and for some reason, 5e does not have a playable dog race. (I made one called the Goodest, though.) The Wolfkin are really neat, and the miniature for Bastonn that comes with The Adventure from MyMiniFactory looks wonderful when printed out.
The Dragonbane Bestiary also comes with new playable Kin, too, including Cat People, which are a pretty standard TTRPG choice for players. They're sure to be popular when people get their hands on that book. But still, I think the Mallards are going to be the most popular because of novelty and cuteness, and the Wolfkin should be a popular choice because of edgelord players who think they're badass. (Which, to be fair, they are.)
Leveling Up With Experience But Not XP
There are no experience points (XP) in the game. Instead, you make advancement marks at the end of a session, based on things the character experienced. Exploring a new location, defeating really dangerous adversaries, maybe overcoming an obstacle without using force (sorry, murder hobos).
Then, you decide if you want to increase a specific skill, roll against your current score, and if you beat it, then you improve it by 1. Easy. Once a skill reaches the max of 18, you can gain a new Heroic Ability, which is sort of like a Feat in Pathfinder or D&D. The image below has a few examples:
Dragonbane Is Hard And Dangerous
The game isn't quite CY_BORG hard, but the world is unsafe from the very beginning and manages to stay that way. There is no challenge-rating system for the game, which I find refreshing. New characters have the means to take on any challenge immediately, but they have fewer resources than veteran characters when doing so.
This means that power-creep is significantly slower than in many other games, but it also means that characters don't become demigods, either. HP is a set number, but it can be increased with Heroic Abilities and maybe magic items if you're lucky. This all culminates in the world being very dangerous and that characters can (and will) die.
For some players, that's a very bad thing. For me, though, I like there to be real stakes in TTRPGs. I want death to be on the table for every character and NPC. With that in mind, there's a really cool mechanic where all monster attacks always hit. No rolling, no saves. Monsters have their own sets of abilities and on each of their turns, one happens (just never the same one twice in a row). NPCs are treated differently, so orcs and goblins and those kinds of creatures still roll. But the big bads, the dragons and giants and ogres, they get some really cool stuff for the GM to play with. And for the players to be scared of.
Is Dragonbane Worth Playing?
Unabashedly yes. Grab the Quickstart for free (it has a full adventure called “Riddermound” that can be run as a one-shot and five pre-generated characters to choose from). Then, when you've fallen in love, buy the Core Set. It comes with the softcover rulebook, multiple sheets of cardboard standees with bases, a full campaign adventure book called Secrets of the Dragon Emperor, a party of pre-generated characters and high-quality blank sheets, a separate booklet of solo rules, a huge poster map of the Misty Vale setting, a gridded battlemat, playing card-sized decks for initiative, treasure, improvised weapons, and adventure seeds.
Oh, and it also comes with some really pretty green dice that have special designs for the 1 and 20. The Dragonbane Core Set is the best box set for a TTRPG I've ever seen.
Honestly, I like it so much that I want to convince one of my groups to either abandon The Lost Mine of Phandelver/The Shattered Obelisk for DB or swap from 5e to Dragonbane. I can still use a lot of the story and such that I've set up in it, but combine it all with the cool stuff that Free League did here that I like better.
If there's one real downside, it's that this version of the game is very new, so supplements and community are sparse. That will change over time, which I am very excited about. Already there are third-party creators hard at work making new schools of magic, professions, treasure, monsters, you name it. (I've even made a new Chronomancy School of Magic myself that's pretty cool.)
Since it's a Swedish game first and foremost, there are some media tie-ins and collaborations like the novel Drakar och Demoner: Uppvaknandet that aren't in English (and probably won't be, I was told, when I asked Free League about it). I'm sure that I'll buy it anyway because it's got illustrations in it, and if you recall, I'm a sucker for Johan Egerkrans's art.
TL;DR: Buy it. It's great. You won't be disappointed.
Overall Rating: 5/5