Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Dragon of Icespire Peak - A Review


Icespire GM's Screen - that almost makes up for sparse art.

This blog isn't often kind to the products of Wizards of the Coast - largely because the ‘Crawl’ (as in Dungeon Crawl) playstyle that All Dead Generations champions is very different then the one 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons seems directed towards. Yet, taking a deep look at offerings from Wizards of the Coast is one of the best ways to highlight those differences and understand them. Lost Mines of Phandelver has been the WotC sanctioned introductory adventure since the 5th edition came out, but in 2019 Wizards of the Coast published the Essentials Kit, updating the boxed set concept for 5th edition and including an introductory adventure/campaign “Dragon of Icespire Peak”.

Introductory Adventures

Introductory adventures are interesting things, doing a lot of work to define setting, and if they're part of a particularly successful system they can offer a model for adventure design to an entire generation of players. When the first edition of Basic Dungeons and Dragons was introduced in 1977 it didn’t contain an adventure, though this was remedied by 1978, when B1 (for “Basic”) “In Search of the Unknown” by Mike Carr was included. In Search of the Unknown, despite an alluring cover illustration* and amazing title has to be regarded as a somewhat experimental product, which perhaps took its role of educating the new GM too far at the cost of being fairly uninteresting and a bit unplayable. Alternatively B1 represents an insight into what early D&D looked like -- its lack of naturalism or any kind of monster ecology (it depends on random stocking) and equally unnatural map emblematic of a wargame derived early play that Gygax (for all his flaws) showed an alternative to. B1 was quickly supplemented by B2 “Keep on the Borderlands” by Gary Gygax, which is likely his best work, and still remains a read for anyone interested in adventure design or game mastering.

“Keep on the Borderlands”, the nature of the challenges in its caves of chaos and the playstyle it fairly effectively taught defined Dungeons & Dragons for TSR’s early 80’s golden age: dungeon crawls based on a stilted internal logic and ecology where scheming humanoid factions were the primary foes within a ‘points of light’ setting. That’s the power of the introductory adventure, to not only showcase an official setting (promoted or implied), but to set the tone and playstyle. “Keep on the Borderlands” was removed from D&D basic sets in 1983, which instead included a short solo adventure heavy on scripted events (as it would have to be given it’s solo nature), around the same time as the first Dragonlance module (“Dragons of Despair”) was published championing adventures of the linear, scene-based style where player characters receive immunity from harm to assure the adventure's narrative remains predictable.

Yet “Keep on the Borderland” set the basic model for the introductory adventure, one that “Dragon of Icespire Peak” even follows to some degree, it to is a regional set of adventures set in a lawless region of a world where “[e]ven farms and freeholds within a day's walk of a city can fall prey to monsters” prefaced by more general play instructions and including play aides. The adventures within “Dragon of Icespire Peak” however, and especially how they are structured, vary from the open world presentation of B2. The question for this review is thus “How well does Dragon of Icespire Peak work to introduce players and GMs to the game, and what sort of game does it introduce?” Even more specifically, and derived from looking at other 5th Edition products, “What, if any, are the contradictions between Dragon of Icespire Peak’s fiction (setting and adventure details) and the mechanical playstyle it presents?”

Dragon of Icespire Peak

A 64 (Including 15 pages of 5th editions’ indulgent monster stat blocks) page series of 13 adventure locations ranging in size from 5 (Umbrage Hill - a Manticore attack) to 30 (Axeholm - A ruined Dwarven Fortress) keyed locations and designed to be played episodically, connected by an underlying structure of regional events. I believe the adventure is written by Chris Perkins, he’s credited as the designer in the rulebook, but not the adventure itself. Likewise art in the standard 5th edition style drawn by a passel of artists specifically for the adventure, unlike early 5th edition offerings. The art and cartography has the bright colors and generic fantasy look one expects from a Wizard’s of the Coast product, though it’s pretty sparse - we have illustrations of several monsters, cover art of some adventurers confronting the titular dragon, NPC illustrations, a vista of Phalanden, a random gnome fiddling with a contraption and a skeletal horse. Given the blandness of the wotC house imagination/style and the quotidian content of Dragon of Icespire Peak this is good as far as it goes. No illustrations that are especially useful at the table (magic items, complex rooms), but the NPC cards are a nice touch and drawn in a more whimsical style than most WotC illustrations. Maps are likewise typical of a WotC product, serviceable, not especially complex but not entirely linear either -- though the small number of keyed areas in many of the locations limit the orienteering aspect, which is perhaps a hallmark of 5th edition play.

Reading through the overall introduction of “Dragon of Icespire Peak”, I’m pleasantly surprised by its openness and stated commitment to player choice. The central “job board” gimmick is something borrowed from CRPGs from before they had the budget or graphics to animate NPCs - but I guess it’s an expected trope. I sometimes wish there was a board in my town that said things like “The mayor will pay $5,000.00 to any brave souls that investigate the ruined missile silos and defeat the scabrous vermin that dwells within” but like much of WotC’s brand of D&D fantasy the job board has a logic of its own at this point. Starting quests lead to complications and new quests that all tie into an overarching region's situation of the same sort that this blog champions - factions fighting over land and power, with the adventurers theoretically holding the balance. While Dragon of Icespire Peak still assumes the party and players will be drawn to heroic motives, unlike many WotC offerings it doesn’t lay out how to act on them in a linear and entirely predetermined manner. The seemingly open basic structure is reinforced by a set of advice that might seem familiar to All Dead Generations readers, though it's fairly general in nature.

Old Games

Let’s talk about old tabletop roleplaying games - specifically the kind of games played in the 1980’s and recently depicted in the nostalgia...