Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle
Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle is an epic fantasy campaign using the DnD Next playtest rules set, published by Wizards of the Coast. It was exclusively released at Gen Con 2013.
By Martin Tideswell
I’m sure there are still some people out there who love the 4th Edition version of the Dungeons and Dragons (DnD) roleplaying game. Come to think of it, I know one of them… However, I suspect that – like me – most DnD devotees are mightily relieved to see the back of a system which split the fanbase and almost inflicted a mortal wound on my hobby. Wizards of the Coast (WoTC) may still be producing products and writing materials which are compatible to 4th Ed but, in reality, the king is dead. So… long live the king!
DnD Next – or 5th Edition (or whatever they decide to call it) has been a long, long time coming. Yours truly was lucky enough to have been in the Indiana Roof Ballroom in August of last year with Roleplayers Chronicle head honcho Aaron Huss for the inaugural Gen Con keynote address. That was when DnD supremo Mike Mearls and various other WoTC luminaries and DnD authors officially launched the DnD Next Playtest and promised faithfully to take their time and listen to the fans. There was even a tacit acknowledgement that 4th Edition had been a mistake which had alienated many players. Talk is, of course, cheap and many wondered whether or not Mearls and his team could honour their pledges. However, I defy anyone to say that the process hasn’t been rigorous and open to all.
WoTC says that more than 75,000 people signed up for the playtest and my group was among them. Over the last 12 months or more we’ve played through every playtest packet while I’ve tried my utmost to keep my friends updated on the various rule changes. We’ve played through classics like the Isle of Dread and bits of the Temple of Elemental Evil as well as fun new scenarios written especially for the playtest. What has been lacking, of course, has been a brand, spanking new campaign which would allow Dungeon Masters and players alike to get their teeth into (a version) of the new rules and see how characters develop. That was until two months ago when Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle was launched as an exclusive Gen Con attendee purchase.
The fact that this beast of a product could only be purchased at the con was a source of great con-sternation to many. Indeed, there are probably only half a dozen copies of GoDC in the UK and I’m fortunate enough to have one. Such was my excitement as I waited for the parcel to arrive from my friend in the States that I read all I could about the product online. Within days of Gen Con finishing there were reviews online by people who’d bought GoDC and read it from cover to cover – even though they hadn’t yet played it. Those reviewers lauded WoTC’s ambition and said the product was value for money but criticised the ‘rail-roady’ nature of the campaign. I wondered if I’d agree with them. Given that my players and I are about a quarter of the way through GoDC, I will do my best to avoid spoilers.
Suffice to say it involves those nefarious Red Wizards of Thay, the legacy of fallen noble families and more than a smidgen of revenge. GoDC is a hefty tome which comprises four adventures stitched together into a campaign which, theoretically, allows players to take their characters from first level through to 10th. As well as some nice maps and illustrations which are appreciated by people like me who thrive on hand-outs and graphics, about half the product is devoted to a relatively recent incarnation of the rules as well as a bestiary and handy pre-generated characters.
The four adventures revolve around events in the Delimbyr Vale area of the Forgotten Realms – the DnD Next default setting – and, more specifically, the town of Daggerford which will be familiar to many of Faerun’s faithful. Key movers and shakers (notable characters and villains) are well-drawn and the urban, wilderness and underground settings in which the action takes place are interesting and well thought-out. I like the fact that some of the monsters have interesting names and decent back stories and that some magical items are more than just ‘off-the-peg’ artefacts. Is it ‘rail-roady’, as some have said? I’d say the mission presents no more of a fait accompli than many other campaigns I’ve ever played in or DMd. I understand the sentiment expressed by some but, without wanting to give anything away, I’m more than happy with the forthcoming climax of my running of GoDC.
My take on any campaign is that it is the DM’s responsibility to be creative with the materials he or she has been given and there’s no doubt in my mind GoDC gives decent storytellers a great foundation to work from. It ain’t perfect, sure, but the proof of the pudding is whether or not you and your players are enjoying the game and – to date – the only criticisms I’ve received have revolved around the as-yet-unfinished DnD Next rules system rather than GoDC itself. Things like the fact that it seems pretty damn difficult to die (I’ve house-ruled this now) and the fact that decent monsters have Armour Classes ranging from 9 to 12 – making them exceptionally easy targets for characters with plus 5 and 6 to hit. This is, of course, just system mechanics and GoDC itself is robustly standing up to scrutiny by my gang who were desperate to get away from 4th Edition’s eight or nine page character sheets and get back to roleplaying and puzzle-solving.
Call us old-fashioned, but we just didn’t enjoy spending the majority of play sessions wading through pages of abilities and powers and fighting through interminable battles – which probably explains why we were all so excited about DnD Next and GoDC. ‘Enjoyable and thought-provoking’ is how my friend Josh describes this campaign. Fellow player Martin, a 20-year DnD veteran, says it is ‘intriguing and exciting’. My pal Neil commented that he was ‘really enjoying the story’ and the ‘decent balance between roleplaying and combat’. In simple terms, I’d give GoDC 7.5 out of 10. It’s a decent stab at a campaign during what is still very much a transitional period for the game we love.
While it is by no means a classic, it will certainly keep hungry DMs and players satisfied for a few months. That is, of course, if you can get your hands on a copy…
Martin Tideswell is a 30-year Dungeons and Dragons veteran who also likes to dabble with other RPG systems. He has written extensively for Raging Swan Press’s Pathfinder publications and, in 2012, he won the Cthulhu Masters Tournament at Gen Con Indy during his first visit to the States. He couldn’t travel this year but Martin’s bags are already packed for Gen Con 2014. We kid you not…