The Independents: Dragon Heresy

“King Krail of Torengar calls you to rid the border marches of Tanalor of fell beasts, unwholesome fae, and the remnants of the ancient dragon empire. Alongside friends and rivals, carve out your legend and your jarldom in the wild lands north of civilization, seeking fortune and glory worthy of skalds retelling.” So begins the Kickstarter pitch for Dragon Heresy, a Norse-inspired roleplaying game built on Dungeons and Dragons SRD5.1! Kickstarter Wonk put it on the Cannibal Halfling radar, now we get to explore it in depth with creator Douglas Cole. Grab a shield, get ready to grapple, and be prepared to fight with all your vigor as we see what this project has in store!

Thankfully there’s no shortage of products ‘based on the fifth edition of the world’s most popular Fantasy RPG’, but that does beg the question: what will make Dragon Heresy stand out and worth backing? To give an overview, the book promises a world inspired by Norse sagas and Scandinavian myths (including the monsters), several unique mechanics concerning shields and grappling, a completely different way of looking at Hit Points, a game where combat is downright dangerous (thus encouraging finding another way). After running into Douglas in the DelveCast Discord he sent us a copy of the PDF-in-progress, and was kind enough to answer some questions. So, first off: where did Dragon Heresy come from?

“Dragon Heresy actually started with mechanics. I had, nearly back-to-back, conversations about the deadliness of 5e (or lack thereof) compared to old-school D&D, about shields and how they really ought to be worth more than +1 or +2 to armor class, and how for one other gamer, the short/long rests of 5e would bring you back to “full-up good to go!” in one evening.

The deadliness is a fair-enough point, though 5e can be pretty ugly at low levels, it’s still fairly light compared to GURPS, which I’ve also been playing since 1989 and writing for since 2002. But the shield thing – that really struck home, and I started to tweak out some rules. But then realizing that while I’ve done unarmed and armed combat, plus some firearms training, I’ve never used a shield. So I went and found an amazing local Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) school, Asfolk here in Eagan, MN, that actually specializes in Viking Martial Arts. And by that time I was well into the game’s development. Turns out that most of my preconceptions about what shields were, in construction and use, were just wrong. It’s been a fascinating learning experience.

The other bits – which is what led me to Threat DC/Hit DC replacing armor class, armor as Damage Reduction, and the split to wounds and vigor instead of just a pool of HP, were to keep the game grounded at any level, giving mechanical bite to Gary Gygax’s comment (AD&D DMG, p. 82):

‘It is quite unreasonable to assume that as a character gains levels of ability in his or her class that a corresponding gain in actual ability to sustain physical damage takes place. It is preposterous to state such an assumption, for if we are to assume that a man is killed by a sword thrust which does 4 hit points of damage, we must similarly assume that a hero could, on the average, withstand five such thrusts before being slain! Why then the increase in hit points? Because these reflect both the actual physical ability of the character to withstand damage – as indicated by constitution bonuses- and a commensurate increase in such areas as skill in combat and similar life-or-death situations, the “sixth sense” which warns the individual of some otherwise unforeseen events, sheer luck, and the fantastic provisions of magical protections and/or divine protection.’

That is at the center of it. Ever since I was 10, about 36 years ago, when I rolled over the AC of a target, it was not described as luck, divine protection, skill in combat, or other things on the defender’s side. The bright blood flew, and my enemy was dismayed and overcome (to borrow a phrase).

So the explicit connection to Wounds for ‘that which makes you bleed’ and Vigor for ‘all the rest’ was worked into the rules, and the Threat DC/Hit DC was a way of throwing that blow that’s just too fast, too skillful, too deceptive to deal with the normal way. Then I introduced frantic defense as a currency to prevent too much one-shotting, but then tuned it to “more risky” by making that frantic defense your reaction, which meant that if you were throwing yourself out of the way of a skilled blow, you weren’t making an opportunity attack or using your shield to take a hit on the shield rather than vigor loss. All in all, then, it started with the mechanics.

There were certain things I wanted in the game from a setting perspective. I wanted dragons. LOTS more dragons. So I got that. And from the early jokes about “heretical D&D” I wanted to make sure there was at least one heresy in there. When I mixed it with an ever-growing fascination for viking/norse mythology and culture, I got all I wanted and more.”

Now, as mentioned above, Dragon Heresy is made using SRD5.1 D&D as a base, although as you can tell by now there have certainly been some changes. Somewhat unusually, though, Dragon Heresy is a standalone game, and you won’t need any other books to play it; the basic rules of the game that could be found in 5e’s PHB/DMG are found here as well. Page count is an issue with any project like this, so I asked Douglas why he designed it that way instead of as the more common supplement model.

“Heh. The original version used the SRD5.1 nearly completely, and edited clocks in at 410,000 words: 672 pages. (The current version currently sits at ~256 – Ed.)

The short answer was that during my early writing, that’s exactly what I wanted to do. A short supplement that would give a rules tweak. But the early playtest made me realize that without rippling the changes through the entire rules text, in-game you’d be stopping every three seconds to calculate something. Oh, what’s the wounds/vigor here. How does this spell translate from 5e to the new system? What about sneak attack damage for the rogue? Bah. That’s a game-killing thing. So I set out to do the work for the GM and players, which meant a stand-alone game.”

Vigor Points and Wounds are mentioned above by Douglas, and you can probably get the gist of them, but to cover the details: Vigor Points are more plentiful, comparatively easy to recover, and don’t represent health, instead quantifying the defensive capabilities of a character. Vigor Points are lost when you’re preventing actually getting hit, or having a close call. Wounds are actually injuries, and you only take them when your defenses/Vigor have been bypassed. Suffice to say that once you start taking Wounds, thing are going to start degrading quickly. So, why leave Hit Points in the dust and create this new system?

“Folks seem to like D&D and the one-roll hit resolution. GURPS has a rolled active defense, which has its own charm and mechanical utility, but one cannot deny the speed of play benefits to having an unopposed roll against a target number. I did, though, want to narratively differentiate between “I parry the blow, which tires me out” and “Oh, god, my leg!”

Vigor provides that. They’re basically hit points, in quantity and function. But being able to go right past those to wounds, that was cool. Also, because even a Level 20 barbarian with STR/CON 24 only has 31 wounds, it also in passing solved the “ambush and firearm” problem with ablative HP system. The old d20 Modern had a .50 machinegun as doing 2d12 damage (about the same as a 2d6+6 two-handed sword blow) which meant that same high-level barbarian could essentially take a stream of bullets and be just fine.

Now, one could rationalize that as “near misses,” but I’ve been in games where you could always dodge incoming ranged weapons fire, and when that was applied to lasers, it broke the game’s willing suspension of disbelief. So providing a mechanical/narrative unification of “if that bullet hits you, it will on the average do 13 damage; if it crits, it will do 26, and could do anywhere from 4-48.” So even a high level barbarian equivalent, if caught unaware (and therefore can’t employ frantic defense to turn Wounds into Vigor) will be felled by a bullet or two. Note this also applies to giant-flung spears, or siege weaponry like ballistae, so it’s not just a modern issue.

This inherent risk level changes how folks approach the game to a level approaching old-school low-level play. The motivation there was “XP for gold,” a 10 HD monster had 50-60 HP, and 1st-level characters had but a handful. You were always one or two blows from inglorious death. Changed how you approached the game. Combat was risky and therefore not the only answer to everything. And that’s good.”

Shields and Grappling along with the vigor points area are probably the two biggest deviations from standard SRD5.1. Shields have been made much more useful, and Grappling has been built up quite a bit. Shields are actually really simple in D&D5e, and Grappling has a reputation across multiple systems as being particularly onerous, so I definitely wanted to know more about how these rules changes worked.

“Shields are amazing. As Matt Finch realized during our podcast discussion, they hide a huge proportion of your body from casual view. They extend well out of normal one-handed weapon range when used as we think they were used. They’re the primary weapon in some kinds of fighting styles when the shields are 6 lbs or so, like they are in D&D. They can trap blades, and are remarkably robust, despite how thin they really are.

None of this is captured in most RPGs. In most games, it’s weapon weapon weapon weapon weapon. In sword-and-buckler or viking fighting, you do a ton of shield work, and reserve the weapon for “striking into inevitability,” which means you only use your weapon when you’re highly likely to score a critical hit, in game terms, and one that will bypass vigor as well.

So shields needed fixin’. So I fixed ’em. They give a higher AC bonus. They can be used actively to take hits that would otherwise deplete Vigor. And they’re very effective, for various reasons, against bows and arrows, which you can’t really defend against well unless you have thick armor or a shield.

The grappling discussion is worth an entire Q&A by itself. But the short answer is that by making grappling turn into the same mechanical combat resolution process as melee combat, it blends seamlessly with striking. In Dragon Heresy (which birthed Dungeon Grappling), you make a hit roll, just like you normally would. If you exceed the target numbers, the “Grapple DC,” which in DH is just the same Threat DC/Hit DC as for just about anything else, then you . . . roll damage.

That damage is equal to your hit die type (for PCs; monsters go by size) plus STR bonus. The damage TYPE is control. And each character and monster has a Control Maximum similar to Wound Maximum above which they’re Incapacitated, and other conditions apply at lower levels. You can also do nifty grappling techniques, which again are resolved with “first make a hit roll, and if you succeed, you may do this cool stuff instead.”

That’s takedowns, throws, disarms, applying pain, and even trading control points to inflict actual wounds of injury. And all of it is at the abstraction level common to striking. In fact, you can even add grappling control damage to a weapon strike, which would represent pulling your foe into the blow.

I have a theory on why folks went down the rabbit hole of overly complicated grappling systems, and that’s based on a misunderstanding not of how technical and intricate grappling can be – they get that right – but rather by not having a good ground in how detailed and intricate and complicated weapon fighting is. Look at the historical texts. Fiori. 1.33. Talhoffer. Silver. This stuff – weapon fighting – is amazingly complex. And yet we’re rolling 1d20 plus a bonus against an armor class anyway. And if you can do that for striking (and you should!) you can do it for grappling (and you should!).

In the game I played yesterday, there were smooth transitions between striking and grappling. The dragonborn barbarian fought with a net and it was resolved smoothly and quickly in the midst of all the other combat raging, using a simple but satisfying set of rules.

Even if I do say so myself: it’s just better than most other systems. You can even grapple effectively with weapons and shields, keeping it abstract. All of the blade binds, shield manipulations, beats, and tricks you see in the manuals that allow you to mix moving your opponent and his defenses around? That’s *grappling*, and being able to do that without busting out a flowchart or a series of special cases makes it more true to how folks were taught to fight in that era, while still remaining mechanically simple AND satisfying.”

Outside of the nitty gritty of mechanics the book also has a fair bit else to offer. New builds for classes like The Path of Jarnhuð for Barbarians, the Renewal Domain for Clerics, and the School of Doors for Wizards. New Backgrounds like the Combatant and the Freeholder. Past even those mechanical offerings is the setting of Tanalor.

“The Norse immersion and cosmology, taken back to old-school levels of menace, I think is the unique bit. Some of the deviations from standard games (monks don’t fit real well, halflings are very Tolkien, my dwarves are not tiny bearded scotsmen, a trope that dates back to Three Hearts and Three Lions) make it feel different, and of course it’s a fully-realize setting. With VIKINGS. You can never really have too many vikings.

Where it’s the same is that if you’ve played Fifth Edition, you will very rapidly assimilate the core. The players I gamed with yesterday made their own characters, played for four hours, and really got into the game with no long, detailed explanations from me. It’s accessible, and just different enough to enhance the experience.”

One thing I didn’t get to look at were the monsters that Dragon Heresy is bringing to the table (that section of the book is still being put together), but the Kickstarter mentions them prominently, so Douglas talked about them for us.

“There are over 100 monster variants that are in the Introductory Set, a reduction by 2/3 (!) from the number I wrote for The Book of Foes, which started at 135,000 words. Stat-wise, you’ll be able to squint and see some of the underlying creatures (eðlafolk are lizard-folk; fiðrildi are kobolds). Others are unique and made to fit certain setting elements.

But the challenges you face define your story! If you do nothing but mow down mooks, that’s one version of a story. If you fight mighty dragons, that’s another. The nature of the System Reference Dictionary means that while all the stats are written for you, not a single word of fluff-text is present, so all of that has to be written. And so I was able to tightly tie each creature to the setting I wanted to write, and every creature has a description, details about habitat and where they’re found, and a bit on behavior, which is often “how they fight.”

We also gave rather lavish attention to beasts – things that you might wish to hunt, kill, and eat for survival. There are simple rules for field-dressing game and freezing or overheating to death, so that man-vs-nature stories are supported both mechanically and narratively.

So, monster examples?

Bears (two types). Deer (two types). Horses (four types). Sharks (three types). Various spiders of the wolf, widow, and phase varieties. True dragons. Ormur (worms, usually poisonous). Eðlafolk (four types). Fiðrildi. Half-dragons. A box and section to customize your dragons and ormur. One of the major factions in the cosmology are the fae. Not tinkerbell fae, but the darker faerie of myth and legend. So there are goblins, trolls, true high fae – the alfar, and many more. They are masters of glamour and deception, and even goblins can cast a veil and fog the senses. Horned men and hulder. Nixes and Nisse. There are also fiends. The tyrann (lawful evil and wishing to conquer Midgard) and kvoldur (who wish to watch the world burn). Falleglygi (succubus) and bolvaðr (think tiefling but without that pesky soul, with free access to Midgard). Giants. Humanoids. Plenty of NPC types. Monstrosities. Lots of stuff to play with; the monsters section is fully 1/3 of the book.”

So with all of that there’s a fair bit that sets Dragon Heresy apart from your standard 5th Edition campaign. I asked Douglas what he’d point out as things-to-pay-attention-to for a D&D5e veteran, player or DM, who was looking into Dragon Heresy for the first time.

“I’d say that the interaction of vigor, wounds, and frantic defense is really important.

Don’t forget to grapple, and animals in particular are usually grappling not striking.

Shields are important and should be used actively.

The combat is very swingy and prone to death spirals; be careful not to overwhelm your players accidentally.

If you’re a player, you might wish to read the sections for your race/class in some detail to get the right feel for the setting and character of each.

If you’re a GM, always remember the rules are there to help you play, not to replace your volition. If something’s cool, don’t bother picking up the dice. That’s basic Rule Zero stuff.

Players AND GMs will need to read the bow/arrow rules a few times. They’re handled differently. They’re not HARD, but because of the shield/no-shield thing, and Threat DC/Hit DC, you don’t add your DEX bonus to damage; your critical threshold goes up instead by a bit. So cement that in your mind and maybe work through a few attacks and defenses to get a feel for how that works. It plays out well, but differently, than in other games.”

Final words for prospective backers?

“Every time I’ve played, I’ve even impressed myself with how smoothly it goes. Once you get used to the basic concepts, the rules mostly help the story, as they should.

We’re over halfway to the Big Stretch Goal at $16,000, but as is typical for a Kickstarter mid-campaign, we’ve hit an equilibrium point and things are slowing down. The Big Goal is an offset print run, which will get backers full-color, smyth-sewn books that will be glorious to feel. If you have the Adventurer Conqueror King System Corebook, or the Symbaroum core, or even Shadows of Esteren: built like THAT.

So please come over, and spread the word. My reach isn’t what I need it to be – yet – though I’m hoping Dragon Heresy really puts me on the map. There’s no reason why this kickstarter shouldn’t hit 500 backers, and that would make an AMAZING book. A longer book too, since I’ve promised to add quite a bit of page count in races, classes, and other goodies to the book if we hit $22,000.

Also: check out the viking shield level! Even if you don’t pledge what it takes to get there, they’re awesome. But you really want one. You know you do.”

The Dragon Heresy Kickstarter goes through April 28th. $20.00 nets you the PDF of the full book. You can find more information, along with other creations by Douglas Cole, on the Gaming Ballistic site, or find Douglas himself on Twitter. The project has already funded: now it’s about Douglas improving it as much as he can.

Want to play a 5th Edition game with your shields up, the fighting down and dirty, in a world of Vikings where you’ll carve your own chunk of the world out of the unforgiving wilderness? Then give Dragon Heresy a look.

Go forth and stake your claim. Your saga starts here.

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