Sunday, 31 January 2016

Dragon Rampant - second impressions

I realise that conventionally I should write about my first impressions first. But I was far too busy painting a couple of extra orcs for this game, so I'll have to get to that post later.

Having now played a game I have to say I'm really impressed. It's very quick to pick up and get the hang of, but under that simplicity there are enough subtleties that troop types seem to work as they should (although it's impossible to really tell from just one game), and tactical choices count. The dice do have a big impact, maybe slightly too much but again it's too early to really say.

Ahead of the game I'd read through the rules a couple of times, and drawn up a couple of warband options. All my co-conspirator (I won't call him an opponent, as it wasn't that sort of game!) had to go on was a brief flick through the book at the club the previous week and a few emails.

Arriving, selecting his warband, rolling for a scenario and dropping in some scenery took about an hour (bear in mind, this is from a standing start for him) and we were good to go. The first good point to mention here is how central the personality of the warband and the scenarios are for the game. Skirmish games (SAGA, Dux Britanniarum, and hopefully Dragon Rampant!) are popular at the club and all seem have the expectation of a scenario, so hopefully "line them up and knock them down" is on the wane... Anyway, the scenario was Death Chase - my orcs had been ambushed by some pesky elves.

From left to right I had some boar riders (heavy riders), orc warriors (light foot with Short Range Missiles), a shaman (heavy foot with Spellcaster), more orc warriors (heavy foot) and some archers (light missiles). Ambushing me were (top of picture) some mounted elves (light riders), elf archers (light missiles with Sharpshooter), an elf prince with his hangers-on, including a wizard (elite foot with Spellcaster) and some dryads (heavy foot).

We were a bit low on scenery, having skim-read the relevant section - the recommendation is for at least one piece per quarter of the table. One thing I would say about the rules is that they're a strange mixture of chatty and dense. On a first go through it's quite easy to miss fairly important points but it does set a much better tone than a more rules-centric approach might.

In the interests of simplicity we'd not used either Leader Traits or quests (boasts that you make prior to the game and which if met give extra glory points when deciding the winner). I'm looking forward to adding these in another time, as it seems they would really add to the personality of the warband as well as enhancing the game in terms of replayability.

About here is the point where I lost the game - my first turn -

For reasons I'm struggling to explain I decided to escape this ambush by getting the rough terrain (which doesn't block line of sight) between me and the archers while attacking the strong infantry elements head-on. As you'll see that didn't quite work out, but it is good to see that bad tactics are suitably punished.

A key mechanism in Dragon Rampant is the activation test - the player attempts to activate each of their units in turn, and when an activation fails that's the end of their go. Unit types have different activation scores for different actions - attacking, moving or shooting - which are often a measure of their quality or temperament. For example it's easier to activate Light Riders (mounted skirmishers) to move than it is for them to shoot, and more difficult again for them to attack.

This gives a slightly strange air to the game - the elves first turn stopped immediately when needing to roll 6+ on 2d6 the archers' activation failed, and it was then my turn. In fact, despite having a 70%+ chance of passing this roll it would be turn 4 or so before they fired (although by this stage they were always being activated last!). This seemed to slightly promote a devil-may-care attitude, as you know that any moment your plans may stop dead in their tracks, but it impacts both sides and turns come around quickly so it wasn't frustrating. I do enjoy games where command and control has an element of chance to it, I'm wondering though if it's dialled up slightly too high in Dragon Rampant.

This activation score is used quite broadly, for example heavy missiles (crossbows or muskets) have a high activation score for shooting to represent that they may still be reloading, and wizards a reasonably high activation score for spells. So where for example in Warhammer (at least in the editions I've played) magicians start out fairly likely to cast successfully but towards the end run out of juice, in Dragon Rampant they're a bit of a 50:50 bet all the way through. The sensible thing to do of course is to activate them last, but sometimes tactically you want them to go first (e.g. buff a unit and then have it attack, or blast an enemy unit then charge the battered remnants), but this doesn't always work out -

Snake eyes - my attempted Power Bolt! at the dryads fizzles
The good thing though is that it means there are very few mechanics in the game, which makes it very easy to pick up. After a first turn and a couple of combats we were relying on the A4 rules reference sheet almost exclusively, and the game ticked along nicely.

The other key mechanic is the Battered status and the Courage test. Here my boar riders had become Battered after a bruising charge into the buffed dryads -

Once a unit is Battered it must always take a rally test before anything else happens, and even if it passes can then take no further activation that turn. I was lucky here - the riders passed their test, and my wizard was able to heal them back up to full strength before the dryads were able to attack. My one success of the night was to severely wound that unit (with my riders reduced to 1/3 strength in the process), the dryads then repeatedly failed their own rally test and fell further and further back for the remainder of the game. The courage / rally test becomes progressively harder as a unit is damaged, and failed tests result in a further loss of a strength point as demoralised troops slip away from the battle. At some point the test is failed entirely and the unit routs from the table (as happened to my own archers early on in the game, and my heavy foot after taking sustained missile fire for most of the battle).

A few last points that seem worth a mention -

Units are sized in the game by strength points - cavalry having 6 and most infantry having 12. A key facet of this is the concept of the reduced or single model unit - my wizard being one such, the idea being that his magic gives him enough strength and protection in combat that he fights like 12 men. As well as powerful characters this can also be used to field trolls and so on, where you might have a unit of 3 each representing 4 of those strength points. However strength is a bit of a misnomer (at least to me) - whether having 6 or 12 strength points units roll 12 dice when shooting or attacking if over half strength, and 6 if at half strength or fewer. Strength points more accurately are hit points - cavalry and the low strength infantry units hit hard, but are rather more fragile than the standard infantry units.

Armour makes a big difference in the amount of damage a unit takes when being shot or attacked. My heavy infantry lasted a fair while when taking punishment from two missile units - but was eventually whittled down (good Courage also helping with this).

With both players having been "brought up" on Warhammer it seemed slightly odd (though not necessarily bad) that the orcs and elves essentially fought as equals. If you want to model say elf light infantry being better in a fight than orc light infantry there are plenty of ways to do so. What there's not however is a way of saying that some species are better disciplined and more likely to be well led. You can see how this might be done - for example elite riders have a special rule of "Wild Charge" (if they can attack a unit they probably will), with an option available (Level Headed) to negate this rule and also make them easier to activate for a move. You could add in a house rule of "Well Led" for a blanket improvement in activation scores, but it's hard to know what to cost this at for a given improvement. Also, given the low costs of units (e.g. heavy infantry are 4 points) any upgrade will by definition be a big percentage of that cost and so need to be significant to justify it.

In summary my first game of Dragon Rampant was thoroughly enjoyable, seemed to do a good and simple job of running a fantasy skirmish, and (once we got started) played through in about 1½ hours. I prefer the paperback but the PDF is less than £10. Highly recommended!


  1. Very interesting to see your exploits! Andre and I will be taking Dragon Rampant for a spin on the 2nd weekend in Feb. Whilst we all enjoy the rich melody of the 5 day test that is Warhammer 3rd edition, sometimes, just sometimes, we have to admit that the excitement and practically of twenty20 is quite appealing. Especially as I think this will probably be a much more compelling offering than Mantic's offering.

    Keep us posted as you go!

    1. Hi Weazil. It'll be interesting to hear your thoughts once you've tried it. There will be some chaos on the table I take it?

      I'm left slightly wondering where the slowness of 3rd ed comes from. The obvious difference with DR is the skirmish nature, so that you don't worry about facing, wheeling, etc. to see if you can charge someone. There's a fair bit of flavour in that complexity in early Warhammer but also it can get in the way of the fighting.

      But another aspect is the sheer simplicity of the Dragon Rampant rules - while having enough depth to represent most things you'd like them to I imagine that they can be reduced to about 3 sides of A4, plus all the abilities and so on that should be on your roster. Whereas while we tend to think we know 3rd edition through and through there's always that need at some point to refer back to the book!

      There will definitely be more outings to come - no idea when though...