Review – Castle Ravenloft / Wrath of Ashardalon

From Hub_136, March 2011

It’s all about online play nowadays, isn’t it? I’m talking massively multiplayer online role playing games, or MMORPGs, obviously. Well the folk over at Wizards of the Coast, current custodians of the Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) brand, are trying their hardest to show folk just how much fun more traditional role playing games (RPG) still are.

It’s been a loooong time since I last played an RPG. I went through the progression of Heroquest and D&D via Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay back when I was, erm, about 11-ish. Anyway, as is usual in these stories, I hit my teens and got into video games, music and girls. The RPG stuff got dusty and eventually made its way either into the loft at my parent’s house or on to car-boot sales.

Time passed.

I then dabbled with World of Warcraft (WoW) in 2005 but it wasn’t for me. Whenever I wasn’t playing WoW I was always thinking “I’m paying money for a game I’m not currently playing” because of the monthly subscription fees. There were also strange goings on at The Lion’s Pride Inn of a Friday night… So I quit.

Fast forward to late last year. I was looking for something along the lines of a board game RPG, similar to what I’d experienced with Heroquest but newer. I did some snooping around online and stumbled across Castle Ravenloft and a new venture from Wizards of the Coast; The D&D Adventure System, Co-operative Board Game!

I managed to grab a copy of Castle Ravenloft and played through it with friends. Recently, in February, Wizards of the Coast released the second game in the series, Wrath of Ashardalon, and I grabbed a copy of that one, too.

Whilst not strictly being a “dice and paper” or “paper and pen” RPG in that dungeon tiles, playing figures and  item cards are provided, these games give an extremely streamlined and easy to pick up entry point into RPG gaming in the world of D&D.

Both Ravenloft and Ashardalon are very similar; 1 to 5 players can participate, each one picking an already created hero character to play through a series of 13 set adventures. Where Ravenloft acts as the introduction to the system, though, Ashardalon further expands on it, adding more adventure specific items and treasure along with basic campaign settings and new dungeon tiles. Specific rules such as Chambers represent climactic scenes from adventures involving all manner of serious beasties. Rules for using doors are also included in Ashardalon. This last one may seem a bit obvious but, for some reason, doors were omitted from the dungeons in Ravenloft. However, because the games are compatible, there’s nothing stopping you playing Ravenloft and including tiles and treasure from Ashardalon. It’s all good.

My merry band of adventurers for playing through both games was made up of two experienced-yet-lapsed RPGers and two people who had never played anything like this before.

Everything about the games is fairly straightforward. All fights and encounters are dealt with by the throw of a d20 (one twenty-sided die). Every hero and monster has an “Armour Class” (AC), you roll the die, add any weapon or magic bonuses and if the result is equal to or higher than the AC amount then you’ve hit. Simples! Traps and encounters are dealt with by rolling higher than a set number to disarm. All nice and easy!

However, what was a bit unusual for both myself and the other experienced player in the group at first, is that these games aren’t played with any “Dungeon Master” (DM). In regular games, the DM controls all the monsters and, generally, settles any arguments. Here, the players control the monsters and villains themselves at the end of each of their hero’s turns. Each monster has set tactics so there can be no “ganging up” on certain characters. In fact, there’s no point in doing that, anyway, because if anyone dies then it’s game over!

The games are co-operative experiences and if just one character in your party dies at any point then that’s it. Game over. Obviously, there are health boosts and bonuses and magic that can replenish hit points but most things are limited.

On our very first quest we were swamped by monsters early on which frustrated the two newbies of the group. We lost heavily with 3 characters dying in quick succession. Before any serious arguments broke out we went back to the rulebook and realised we’d forgotten a few things, like the fact that experience points can be used to disarm encounters and traps for starters, and we quickly got back into it. The second and subsequent games went much smoother. Like a lot of games of this nature I feel you have to play them more to allow things to flow easily. Repetition breeds familiarity and you stop referring back to the rules and just get on with things.

We played through the games and enjoyed them once the snags had been ironed out but, admittedly, that was probably because we were a bit rusty. Having a DM to lay the law down would’ve helped in some circumstances but we muddled through.

One thing Ravenloft and Ashardalon have certainly done for me has, again, piqued my interest in RPGs and perhaps more importantly in the new D&D 4th Edition system which is the natural progression from these co-op games as the game system employed here is based on the 4th Edition game.

These board games could be considered as pricey to the casual gamer, though. RRP is £49.99 but recently various Amazon sellers had them for sale from £30 upwards and last October, when everywhere else had sold out, copies of Castle Ravenloft were on offer for up to £100 on Ebay. However, you do get loads of items in each box. Castle Ravenloft includes 42 plastic figures, including a huge “Dracolich” and 41 dungeon tiles as well as numerous other cards and counters. Wrath of Ashardalon has the same number of items but different monsters, heroes and dungeon tiles. The games are totally compatible with each other, and other D&D games, so the possibilities are, potentially, endless… Also, each quest is randomly generated to an extent, with the exception of adventure specific dungeon tiles, villains, treasure or traps. Dungeon tiles are shuffled before each adventure and placed turn by turn as each hero discovers a new section and the monsters are also picked randomly using a deck of cards. Repeat the same quest and it’ll be different each time.

I did feel on some occasions, though, that some harder to defeat monsters should’ve been excluded from earlier missions. However, just because this isn’t specified in the rules doesn’t mean that, as a group, you can’t just agree to do that anyway. It’s an RPG after all and the rules/gameplay can be as flexible as you want them to be.

As a lapsed RPGer I found these games to be fun to play and easy to pick up and run through. If you could only pick up one of them then I think the extra rules may give Ashardalon the edge over Ravenloft but then Ravenloft has vampires, ghouls and zombies! Ashardalon has a more traditional pick of Orcs, Duergar and Grell. Oh, and a ruddy great Dragon. Pick your poison. I think the system as a whole is a winner.

Another game in the series, The Legend of Drizzt, is slated for release later this year and I’m certainly looking forward to seeing what Wizards of the Coast add to the game system then.

In the meantime, I have the new D&D 4th Edition Starter Set “Red Box” to play with…