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A word of caution on the new D&D campaign, Dragonlance: Shadow of the Dragon Queen

Go too fast and you’ll derail the whole adventure

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A party of adventurers poses for a... a painting?... next to their freshly captured red dragon. Image: Kieran Yanner/Wizards of the Coast
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Dragonlance: Shadow of the Dragon Queen is the latest campaign for Dungeons & Dragons. If you pre-ordered it from Wizards of the Coast, your digital copy unlocks tomorrow. It’s a historic moment — the first time that a D&D campaign has offered digital early access to its biggest fans. Polygon got a copy of the campaign earlier this month, and we put it through its paces for a full day with a team of experienced players. We’re still working our way through the material, but we wanted to give you a heads up on a few pain points that cropped up early on.

How Dungeon Masters should prepare

While some past adventures — Curse of Strahd, Out of the Abyss, The Wild Beyond the Witchlight — are over 250 pages long, Shadow of the Dragon Queen comes in at 224 pages, putting it on the shorter side for officially licensed campaign books. But that’s not a ding against it by any means, considering that the range of levels it covers — from 1 to 11 — is pretty average. But know that things move fast out of the gate: If you don’t pull your punches as indicated in the text, Shadow of the Dragon Queen can get deadly before you even make it to the first town.

In artwork from Dragonlance: Shadow of the Dragon Queen, a city burns in the background. In the midground citizens leap from the docks into waiting boat. In the foreground a man looks back, a look of disgust on his face. A woman holds a swaddled baby. Image: Ralph Horsley/Wizards of the Coast

You don’t want to leave the first act without reaching level 4, that’s for sure. But feel free to linger in those early levels, especially within the three “preludes” that proceed the actual first chapter of the adventure. They are listed as optional, but all three contain good backstory — especially for the setting’s unique organizations like the Mages of High Sorcery. To that end, know that Shadow of the Dragon Queen uses milestones, not raw experience points, for character advancement. Once the players trigger a certain event in the storyline, they gain a level, which is great — no accounting to be done, and everyone stays at the same ability level.

However, these moments can be easy to miss — especially the early notification to move players on to level 2, which is somewhat hidden on the bottom of a two-page art spread. Dungeon Masters will want to make sure that they scan the book ahead of time and carefully make note of every opportunity to gain a level so players aren’t unprepared when they face a big foe. Honestly, a highlighter might actually be the best accessory you could buy as a DM.

Leveling up can be a time-consuming process in D&D, especially for inexperienced players. You should tell your players to come to the first session with plans in hand for getting their characters from level 1 to level 3 with minimal interruption. If you’re providing pre-generated characters, all that work will instead fall to you.

About that board game

The big gimmick with Shadow of the Dragon Queen is that it features a companion board game called Dragonlance: Warriors of Krynn. Most folks should begin receiving their copies of the board game on or around Dec. 6. If you’re getting the campaign on Nov. 22, that could create some lag time between when your group gets started with the RPG portion of the campaign and when you’re first able to transition into the board game. DMs, factor in that you’ll need two or three sessions of the RPG — about six to eight hours of play — before you get anywhere near the board game. So again, go slow and build the tension leading up to that first big battle — especially if you’re using Warriors of Krynn.

A photograph showing part of the battlefield in Dragonlance: Warriors of Krynn. There are three ranks of enemy troops, three ranks of allied troops, all arrayed on an elongated hexagonal tile. Smaller trapezoidal tiles connect them, with large hero miniatures standing atop them. A market denotes that this “flank” of the battle is active at this time. Photo: Wizards of the Coast

This is not your average board game, unfortunately. It’s not even your average wargame. I found the manual very, very difficult to digest — and I read a lot of board game manuals. Worse still, the graphic design of the manual is such that you can’t perfectly understand how to set up the table or use all of the components without laying everything out in front of you. Anticipate running at least one very tedious demo game by yourself before you bring in the rest of the party to the board game portion.

Couldn’t you just hand over the board game to one of the players and let them sort it out, leaving you to run the campaign? I wouldn’t recommend it. Turns out, the punchboard right on the top of the stack inside the box will spoil a later part of the RPG. Additionally, there are narrative elements related to the RPG buried elsewhere inside the box. While they’re a bit garbled and out of order, they’re written in the back of the rulebook rather than inside the scenario book. That means if you hand one of your players the rules to get acclimated, you’ve also handed them some secrets of the story that you’re trying to tell.

Dungeon Masters have a lot on their plates from the jump. They’re teachers, storytellers, rule lawyers, and babysitters all at the same time. This new Dragonlance campaign makes things more complicated than usual. If you’re new to the game or working with a group that has a bunch of newbie players, you should, at the very least, consider holding off on using the board game at first. The campaign book includes everything you need to move the story along without it.

Take your time. Focus on the narrative. Focus on getting everyone used to the rules and the flow of play. Focus on leveling. Focus on making connections with the various non-player characters that get introduced early on. Then you can dip into the board game later, once both you and the whole group are ready.

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