Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2013/09/04/tabletop-review-ghosts--
Note: The review was originally written when this was a convention exclusive and a physical release only. I'm EXTREMELY happy to see a digital release made available to everyone as this was one of my sticking points back in September when I reviewed this. CONVENTION EXCLUSIVES BAD!
I’m not a fan of Convention Exclusives. In fact, I outright hate the very concept of them. Why have an item that could easily make a company a lot of money and make a lot of fan happy by giving it a general release, but then limited production for a few thousand people that feel like going to a convention. No, whether it’s a Heroclix miniature, a core rulebook variant, a Botcon Transformer exclusive or something else, there is something logically and ethically shady about convention exclusives to me. At least some companies like Catalyst Game Labs make their convention “exclusives” available digitally layer on (like the award-winning Elven Blood, so the exclusivity is only on format rather than the number of people who can get their hands on it. This thing is already going for $75-130 on the secondary market and that just makes me sick.
Here I am though reviewing Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle. Why? Because it’s the first physical release for Dungeons & Dragons Next aka Fifth Edition for the world’s oldest tabletop roleplaying game. I felt it was very important, both as a journalist for the tabletop industry and someone who has been on the ground floor of D&D Next since before it was announced to the general public to see how the first purchasable version of the game holds up. One of our staffers, Matt Faul, attended GenCon 2013 and grabbed me a copy (which I paid for in advance – this is not a review copy unlike 99.99% of what we do here) and I’ve spent the past few weeks reading, playing and most of all comparing this version of D&D Next to the many versions I have saved to my hard drive after a year and a half of helping with the rules revisions. I wanted to see some sort of end result, even it is actually a midway result.
I’m happy to say that while D&D Next still does need a lot of work (especially regarding class balance and design), Ghost of Dragonspear Castle is a worthwhile purchase as it contains everything you need to play a long running D&D Next campaign. It contains four adventures that will bring your PCs from Level 1 through Level 10. Best of all, these four adventures only make up half the book. The other half includes things like a quickstart set of rules so that even if you’ve never played ANY form of D&D before, you can still play Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle without any trouble. The quickstart rules are roughly twenty-two pages long and cover combat, initiative, stats, progression through the game and are simply wonderfully done. Sure any fan of the previous four editions of Dungeons & Dragons will find things to pick apart or outright dislike, but they will also find things that remind them of “their” version of the game. I was really happy with the QSR in Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle as they show that even with a long way to go before D&D Next in truly ready for a wide scale release, what’s here is useable, playable and fun.
The four adventures in the book are interconnected, with the first three having players trying to keep three elemental keys out of the hands of the Red Wizards of Thay. These adventures lead into the 2014 D&D Encounters season, so they do kind of end on cliffhangers in regards to why the Thayans want the keys and the eventual ultimate goal for them are. The fourth adventure is a final encounter between the players and a running antagonists that ISN’T a Red Wizard who has annoyed them through the previous adventures. Of course you just may get a climactic battle with the Red Wizard’s big gun (No, not Szass Tam. That’s too big). I really liked the first and third adventures (especially since the third has a very large Twin Peaks homage that the adventure revolves around), but the second and fourth just seemed a little underwhelming to me. The adventure balance seemed way off as well, as often, the enemies seemed far too powerful for the character level. A lich with multiple mummy bodyguards is not an appropriate encounter for characters between levels four and five, for example. The lack of a Challenge Rating seems to have stymied the writers of the adventures and the end result is that combat and the challenge of the encounters seems to be a bit too off, meaning the DM will have to scale things back with alarming frequency. Still, I liked the way all four adventures interconnected and the story they told when all was said and done. Again, Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle is meant to be an example of a work in progress and so noticing things like class and encounter imbalance is bound to happen.
Another twenty-four pages are devoted just to a magic spell compendium for wizards and clerics. Every spell locked in for the game so far are provided here, which is nice. It’s a short list, but the book contains every spell a NPC, PC or monster would want to cast in your playthrough of this campaign. It’s interesting to see some of the spelling changes like Burning Hands and Chill touch are now considered cantrips (One of many reasons I consider the new Wizard to be the most powerful and unbalanced the class has ever been)or how much damage Fireball now does. Again, everything you need to run the campaign is here, although once your characters get past Level 10, you’ll be stuck.
The next chapter in the book is Equipment and it’s another dozen pages. Here you’ll find all the armor, weapons and equipment a PC will need to go dungeon crawling. It’s short and sweet but all the basics are here and a DM will only be lacking a list of magic items, weapons and the like. Unfortunately the book is missing a section for those, but you do find a dozen magic items in the next section, the DM Guide. This chapter is done akin to quick start rules, but for the DM instead of the PC. Here is where you will find a host of ability checks, information on traps, advice on doling out experience points and/or treasure. As mentioned earlier there ARE a dozen magic items listed, but there are only two weapons (a flame tongue sword and a javelin of lighting) followed by four potions, a wand, a staff, a bag of holding, gauntlets of ogre power, dust of dryness and a horn of blasting.
My favorite chapter is the sixth which is the Bestiary. Think of it as a mini Monster Manual/Monstrous Compendium. It’s crazy how many monsters they fit into this thing, and the layout is similar to the old 2nd Edition AD&D style, which made me happy. There are close to 100 different monsters for your PCs to face down here, ranging from the cannon fodder goblins, zombies and gnolls to powerful creatures like liches and death knights. This section really runs the gambit and with roughly fifty pages devoted to all these antagonists, the Bestiary is well worth the sticker price on the book alone.
Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle ends things with the six pregenerated characters to use. While the Bestiary was the high point of the book or me, these characters are easily the low point. I’m find with pregens, except that the pregeneration goes from Level 1 through Level 10 with everything laid out for your characters path. Even this wouldn’t be so bad if the character classes weren’t exactly the same in terms of growth and distribution. The Dwarf Warrior and Human Warrior get the same exact changes at each level, meaning the only thing separating the two from being carbon copies of each other are the racial bonuses and the character background options (think Secondary Skill from 2e AD&D). This is also true for the Human Wizard and Elf Wizard, although at least each one gets different spells in their spellbook to make the two slightly different from the other. I’d have liked to have seen something else differentiate the characters that have the same class. Perhaps The Elf Mage could have had something different than Brew Potions at Level 6 or Overchannel at Level 9. They’re just too wooden for my liking and character customization is one of the most important things about a game system for me, so anyone like me who hasn’t been taking part in D&D Next playtest and rules-writing will be instantly turned off by the character class system presented here thinking you have no real path or control over what your character gets at certain levels. That thankfully isn’t the case, but this is one area where the team behind Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle fell way short and could have done so much better. I also really don’t like the layout of the two page character sheet that comes with the book. It’s far too busy, with things jumbled up and the lines for writing/typing things out being far too much for 99.99% of people. Supposedly this thing won a contest for best designed character sheet but holy hell – if that’s true, I’d hate to see the losers. Seriously, it’s one of the worst I’ve ever seen, especially for D&D. Here’s one thing I really hope gets retooled before the official edition launch.
Finally, a word on the art. I liked that much of the art used in Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle was taken from previous editions of D&D and AD&D. There is some really good (and bad) classic artwork proliferating this book and it was fun to see what I recognized and what was new to me. The book also includes faux post-it-notes with sarcastic or comedic commentary about the book, which is a nice touch as much of the WotC versions of D&D have been lacking a sense of humour and/or took itself FAR too seriously.
So as you can see, Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle is pretty well done. It’s not great, and as the first physical beta test of D&D Next I’m pretty happy with it and would happily recommend it to everyone at the MSRP on the cover. Unfortunately, Wizards made this a GenCon only and it’s already going for more than double the cover price, which disgusts me. Wizards could have made so much more money by making this publicly available while also making D&D fans everywhere happy by letting them have unfettered access to this release and keeping the secondary market gougers from making a mint off the people who really love and care about the game but couldn’t go to a four day convention for whatever reason. At least the contents of Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle will keep you and your gaming troupe busy for months as you play through the adventures, read through the weighty tome and get a real sense of where Wizards of the Coast is heading with D&D Next. What’s here is far from perfect with a terrible character sheet, cookie cutter pregens and some horribly unbalanced encounters for PCs in the adventures, but for the most part, what’s here should satisfy the curious and D&D faithful alike. I’m pretty excited for the end result myself, and my thought is that between this and Murder in Baldur’s Gate, you will be too.