A Dungeons & Dragons Holiday Gift Guide
Dungeons & Dragons is having something of a renaissance. After a somewhat awkward period era known as “fourth edition,” the most popular roleplaying game in the world has attained a greater reach than anytime in its history.
If you’re looking for some good setting materials or adventures for Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, this last year has shown the release of a handful of fantastic resources. Last spring was Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, a great resources of various races, including the Devil/Demon war between Hell and the Abyss. But two books released this fall focused a little closer to our fantasy home, with the classic city of Waterdeep.
Waterdeep: Dragon Heist is an urban-based adventure for characters of level 1-5, centered around a massive treasure embezzled from the government of Waterdeep and rumored to be hidden within the city. The GM picks the main villain at the outset from four options, a choice that determines the season of the adventure, which alters how the subsequent chapters will unfold.
In addition to the adventure itself, Dragon Heist contains a chapter detailing the specifics of Waterdeep. This is really the first of the 5th edition supplements that has focused heavily on an urban adventure, providing some good information for anyone who wants to set their adventure within the streets and society of Waterdeep.
Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage picks up where the previous adventure drops off, taking characters level 5 through 20 from the streets of Waterdeep into the deepest catacombs and dungeons of the Undermountain lair beneath. The Undermountain city of Skullport is detailed, as well as 23 dungeon levels that players can search after for Halaster Blackcloak, the Mage Mage. Whether used as a massive dungeon crawl or individual levels used as side quests for adventurers who want to foray into the Undermountain on brief excursions, Dungeon of the Mad Mage provides a wealth of encounters. Not to get too spoiler-ish, but there is a certain treasure to be found within these Undermountains levels which, together with Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, makes me think that maybe a Spelljammer-related supplement might be in the works for sometime in the future.
Wizards of the Coast, the company that produces Dungeons & Dragons, is also the owner of Magic: the Gathering. So it’s little surprise that they have finally combined those two most popular properties, by releasing a full D&D setting book that explores one of the major MTG settings, the massive city of Ravnica. The Guildmasters’ Guide to Ravnica gives the information needed to play a Dungeons & Dragon campaign in Ravnica, including rules for playing adventures and campaigns centered around the guilds of Ravnica. The character creation options include a diverse array of new player classes, including iconic goblins, centaurs, minotaurs, and the loxodon elephant people. (Sadly for this old blue deck player, no merfolk.)
And if you somehow haven’t yet gotten around to playing 5th edition, or know someone who hasn’t, then you could consider this Core Rulebook Gift Set.
Beyond the RPG
Though Dungeons & Dragons is primarily a roleplaying game, over the years it has become a valuable intellectual property in its own right, a franchise that has expanded well beyond the original game. There are a variety of accessories, including an official Dungeons & Dragons ugly sweater.
The novels related to the game have always helped to build a connection with the world. I still consider the Dragonlance: Legends trilogy one of the greatest fantasy storylines. These days, the books related to D&D take many forms:
- Endless Quest: This is at least the third incarnation of the Endless Quest series of choose-your-own-adventure style youth books that I’m aware of. The first series of 36 books was released by TSR from 1982 to 1987. From 1994 to 1996, the series resumed for 13 books. This format has the benefit of walking a reader through a different adventure each time they read it, as they make different decisions about how to proceed, but without having to devote any energy to tracking rules for the progression of the story. The newest set of novels are written by Matt Forbeck and are all set in the Forgotten Realms setting of Faerun, tied thematically to the main adventure books in choice of setting, major enemies, and storyline. The main character for Into the Jungle is a cleric who has been sent to the jungle continent of Chult by the Harpers in search of one of their missing agents. To Catch a Thief tells the story of a thief who, after a failed robbery, is forced to help a wizard move against Xanathar, the beholder who runs the Waterdeep Thieves’ Guild. Escape the Underdark makes you a fighter who awakens captured in the Underdark, without weapons or armor, and must fight his way out of the hands of the drow to find his way back to the surface. The reader of Big Trouble takes on the role of a wizard who has to track down his family, who fled in the chaos as giants attacked their homeland.
- Arts and Arcana: A Visual History is a massive tome about the history of Dungeons & Dragons told through artwork and pictures dating back to the early days of the game. The nostalgia related to the various editions and supplements, and the artwork tied to them, flows through all of the pages. It has renewed my desire for some new Al Qadim or Dark Sun setting material for 5th edition. One of my favorite features of the book are two-page spreads that show the evolution of creature artwork across the editions. One spread shows 6 images of orcs, from the original edition 1974 through to 2014’s 5th edition. Similar spreads for the roper, dragons, Drizzt, the Demigorgon, and other creatures are throughout the book.
- Children’s Books: The ABC’s of D&D and The 123’s of D&D explore the world of Dungeons & Dragons through a pair of children’s books, with bright and fun images bringing to life the enjoyment of the gaming world for younger readers … and future players.
- Coloring Books: Heroes Outlined is new coloring book featuring unique designs from Todd James of a variety of classic creatures. Monsters and Heroes of the Realms features official artwork from the D&D 5th edition sourcebooks that have been converted into an adult coloring book style, making it a great resource for players who are looking to adapt iconic artwork to represent their own characters.
If you’re looking to play games, but maybe for something with more boundaries than a full roleplaying game campaign, there is no shortage of other games in the Dungeons & Dragons franchise:
- Lords of Waterdeep: The intrigue of Waterdeep unfolds by the masked lords sending adventurers out on missions to further their goals. This is the premise of this board game, where you are one of these masked lords, and by controlling areas within the city, gaining adventurers, and using them to complete missions, you gain victory points, ultimately becoming the dominant force within the leadership of Waterdeep. Buy the game, or if you or someone you know already owns it you can expand on it with the Scoundrels of Skullport expansion, offering new quests, areas and buildings for control, and a new Corruption resource mechanic.
- Dragonfire: This deck-building game can be played as standalone games or as a campaign over a series of adventures. Though it’s a cooperative game, it has a fairly high difficulty level, requiring some real strategy to achieve success. But the campaign mode of the game grants XP if the players lose the scenario (although you get more XP if you win, obviously), so that even lost games help you improve your characters. A variety of expansions are available, allowing for more diverse race and class combinations, enemies, adventures, and power combinations.
- Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate: We announced this game last year when it was released, but if you haven’t gotten this re-skin of Betrayal at House on the Hill, it’s well worth looking into. Instead of curious folks exploring a haunted house, you are a group of adventurers exploring the streets, buildings, and catacombs of Baldur’s Gate. It’s a cooperative game … until one of the characters becomes a traitor, and suddenly the randomly-determined traitor is in league with a randomly-determined villain or monster to destroy the rest of the adventuring party. Two booklets of scenarios describe how the betrayal unfolds, and what the heroes can do to claim victory against their traitorous former ally.
- Tyrants of the Underdark: This is another deck-building game, but with a board control element that makes it particularly unique. Instead of building a card deck that represents a group of adventurers, the deck represents a Drow noble house that is attempting to gain power and influence throughout the Underdark. The cards in the deck help you move against other houses, and also to place and move warriors and spies on a board that represents control in different regions of the Underdark.
- Dungeon: A great introductory game for youngsters, this board game features players competing against each other to move through a dungeon, battle monsters, and gain treasure.
- Dungeon Mayhem: This is a fast-paced card game for 2-4 players battling against each other in a dungeon full of treasure. I can’t speak from any experience on this one, but you can check this one out on this Learn to Play video.
- Rock Paper Wizard: Players in this card game are wizards who have just defeated a dragon, but are now competing with each other in a spell battle over how best to divide the treasure. The mechanic involves playing cards, and then performing the proper hand gesture to trigger the spells shown on the cards. This is another one that I haven’t personally played, but you can get a look at the rules on the Wizards of the Coast website.
- Vault of Dragons: This is a board game version of the search for the treasure at the heart of the Dragon Hoard, as the players represent a faction trying to get control of that treasure. Though I’m adding it to the holiday list, it’s just now being shipped out and there’s no guarantee it will arrive before the Christmas holidays. It is available for pre-order both through Gale Force Nine and Amazon.
I’m a big fan of Tyrants of the Underdark, and the expansion (which gave a couple new half-decks) was pretty great also. Although, fair warning, the cards in the expansion are physically different enough from the cards in the base game that I ended up sleeving them just to kind of mask the differences.
Also worth checking out: The big box games (Ravenloft, Wrath of Ashardalon, etc.), which I’d argue are the only good things to come out of 4th Edition.