"Welcome to the village of Dragonholt, let this be your home," She said, in her satin coat, the lovely gnome. "Dance with him in the moonlight, enjoy your stay. Eat well, sleep tight, and come again another day!"
Legacy of Dragonholt is a game that has found its place in a very interesting hybrid state between board game, RPG and classic choose-your-own-adventure books. But it has brought its snuggly comforter and intends to stay there.
Legacy of Dragonholt is a cooperative narrative adventure game designed by Nikki Valens (Mansions of Madness: Second Edition). It’s a campaign game, meaning you won’t finish it in one sitting (unless you’re very dedicated). Instead, you’ll set it up, play a session of however long you wish, pack it away, rinse, repeat. All in all, the game is probably going to take approximately 16-20 hours.
But then the question is: how do you spend those hours?
A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.George R. R. Martin
The first step when starting this game is to create your character, choosing from six different races (humans, elves, dwarves, orcs, gnomes, catfolk). This task may seem daunting at first, especially if you’ve never played a role-playing game before, but the included Character Creation Guide instead turns this into an evocative creative challenge, making it very easy for you to pick your race, class and skills with just a little snippet of lore attached to each decision to get you interested.
So far, so RPG, and in fact, it won’t stray too far from that. However, there are no dice in this game, and, more importantly, there is no GM. Instead, it relies on seven, count ’em, seven huge books to do the storytelling for you.
Legacy of Dragonholt is the first (and so far only) game to use the Oracle system from Fantasy Flight Games. You read a (sometimes quite long) passage of text, and at the end you’re presented with anywhere from two to four (sometimes even six or more) choices, and you get to decide what happens.
Soooo, so far, so choose-your-own-adventure books, right?
Well, not entirely wrong, but it’s more than just that. What sets this apart from traditional CYOA-books is the concept of Time.
Unlike other adventure books where you’re allowed to go everywhere, exhaust everything, and when you want to, you can continue the main story, in Legacy of Dragonholt, you can’t do that. A common occurrence in my own play-through was me (being the reader) getting to the end of a paragraph, looking up at my friends and uttering the dreaded phrase: “Time passes.“
See, whenever that phrase appears in the book, it means that the day is closer to being over. You track that on a sheet and when certain amount of time has passed, the day is over.
And this works great! It keeps the story going and it works as a constant reminder to all the players that everything we choose to do means we’re also choosing something not to do. Sure, we can help these farmers with their fields, but will we then have time to go talk to that person that we need to talk to? Stores have openings hours, so which stores do we want to visit today? And it helps bring this world to life, making it ooze with personality (if personality-oozing is a good thing).
All in all, I only checked the rulebook maybe once or twice which is quite impressive, considering this game took us several months to complete. The main reason for this lack of rules-reading is simply the fact that there’s not a lot of rules. There is really only one rule (exaggeration may occur), and it’s the golden rule that powers this metaphorical steam boat and makes sure it gets safely across The Waters of Mediocrity.
When you get to the end of a paragraph and it’s time to choose one of the paragraphs, one player has to be the Active Player, which means that you flip over your Activation Token. This disables you from being the Active Player until after everyone else has had their go. The reason why this matters is that certain options are only available if you have certain skills.
Do you want to break down that door?
Well, you better have a strong character, who hasn’t acted this round yet, then. This may seem like it limits your options, and it does. But it works wonders.
In my own play-through, this meant that we would often have less-than-ideal outcomes, simply because one of our players was playing a grumpy, angry gnome who wanted to show their fist to everything and everyone. This meant that if we weren’t careful, brawls and fights may have been our only option. And we weren’t very careful.
People who deny the existence of dragons are often eaten by dragons. From within.Ursula K. Le Guin
Legacy of Dragonholt is set in the Runebound universe (like Descent and Heroes of Terrinoth). This is a high fantasy world filled with mystical runes and mythical creatures. But importantly, there is no need for you to know anything about the universe before playing. There is about half a page of lore on each race and class, but it’s definitely not necessary for you to read that if you don’t want to. You can also just let the universe unfold as you play through the game.
I don’t want to spoil any of the story for you, but you start the game with a cryptic letter and intrigues ensue.
There is death and destruction in this game, but your character can’t die. They’ll get bruised and hurt, but they won’t die.
This looming danger is juxtaposed with the sweetest, most wholesome moments in all of board gaming history as you help pick flowers for a wedding or jump rope with an orc child (these aren’t actually things you do in the game, but it definitely could happen (maybe it actually does, I don’t know)). This gives the game an ebb and flow that is amazing!
Sometimes, your life depends on what you choose, and sometimes, you just get to decide what you want for breakfast.
But importantly, you get to decide.
And you change the world around you with those choices.
My imagination functions much better when I don’t have to speak to people.Patricia Highsmith
The box says you can play Legacy of Dragonholt anywhere from 1-6 players, but because of the nature of this game, I have only played it once at three players.
I can definitely see this game played as a solo experience with a cup of tea and some background music. The game will be less RPG and more CYOA with one player, since you don’t get the chance to negotiate amongst yourselves and crack jokes and such, but the quote above may hint at what you gain instead.
At five or six players, I’m afraid there may be too much down-time between when you get to be the Active Player. It can definitely work and you can be kept engaged if the amount of discussion goes up.
If you don’t imagine, nothing ever happens at all.John Green
Legacy of Dragonholt is a great introduction to RPGs, and I can definitely see people using this as a first endeavor before jumping into a full-scale RPG, either as player or GM. Like I said, you don’t have to know anything about the Runebound universe before playing (I didn’t), and this is such an important fact for an introduction to an RPG. Just open it up, create your character, and read.
Even if this is not your first RPG, this game will still be amazing if you role-play your character. My group spent a lot of time out of the book just goofing around and role-playing our characters. You can lean into it if you want to. You have choices in the game, but even if only one person is left with an Activation Token, you still need to discuss the options. Think about what your character would do, and read on.
And that’s another key to finding success in this game: You have to enjoy reading, and, in case you won’t be the reader, you have to enjoy having stories read to you. As the reader, you can liven up the characters by giving them voices (and then promptly forgetting those voices when you have to do them again) and putting on your best narrator voice complete with dramatic pauses and intonation. You don’t want to rush through this game, because then you’ll just be rushing through a lot of reading and then it’s over.
Legacy of Dragonholt helps engage you in the story with its amazing writing. It’s evocative and descriptive and filled with interesting, great and lively characters with personality and their own motives and wants. So it won’t be difficult to enjoy the reading, but you still have to do it.
In terms of replayability, there is some. You could definitely replay this game, moreso if you wait a year or longer before playing it, so you give yourself the chance to forget some of the story. So many of the choices cut off entire branches of stories, and in my own play-through, there was one of the books that we never even got to open.
Now, would I want to play it again with a new character?
The truth is that I don’t really know.
On the one hand, I would love to return to Dragonholt Village and visit all the places I never got to see, befriend all the people I never got to befriend and eat all the food I never got to taste. But on the other hand, I don’t know that I want to. See, in my mind I currently have my one version of Legacy of Dragonholt, and I’m afraid that if I were to play it again, I would taint my memories by mixing the two versions together.
More likely, I’ll just wait patiently for the next game using the Oracle System. Unfortunately, I may have to wait a while. The original team has split up, meaning there’s a big chance, we’ll never see the follow-up. But I’ll gladly wait and hope.