[Review] Star Dragon Rage (5e); Regression

Star Dragon Rage (2021)

Joseph R. Lewis (Dungeon Age Adventures)
Lvl 1 – 5

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Joseph R. Lewis is a rare pepe, someone who writes 5e adventures that are not complete shit. His previous entries were on the far side of acceptable and he has even deigned to publish his work in both 5e and OSR format (although his mastery of the principles of oldschool gaming certainly has room for improvement), to which I say, Go You! He asked me to look into his latest offering, to which I obviously said yes.

You can tell Lewis’s campaign world is gaining shape and substance as he plays, a good sign? On the dying world of Harth, the sleepy village of Kettle is disturbed by ominous tremors. It seems hideous Star Dragons are digging their way up to the surface. You had better fucking do something about that. Enter the PCs!

This one tears me apart. Star Dragon Rage is 62 pages long, immaculately laid out, bullet-pointed and useable, its science fantastic world is a vividly imagined atmospheric underworld of science fantasy gothic in the crumbling city of Urrva Effulga, there is creativity and care put into the plentiful NPCs and unique monsters, nonlinearity abounds, there are actual consequences to your actions and I can almost picture each NPC and building in lovingly handmade 16-bit graphics against a matte-painting background. There is one problem: It’s not good DnD.

The way this adventure, or really mini-campaign if you tally up all the hooks and quest items, is constructed is immediately reminiscent of Dark Souls or Hollow Knight or maybe Castlevania Symphony of the Night. There are secret passages to certain areas (although the maps lack scale, it is at least possible to bypass encounters), hidden items in some areas (that you can search for), NPCs require certain items so they can craft other items for you and there are monster fights that are essentially boss-fights. I don’t HATE this but what is left on the cutting room floor is any sort of versimilitude or attempt at simulation. It is difficult to view the entire piece as anything but a backdrop against which the adventure takes place. Artifical. And it doesn’t have to be.

The smith has lost his father’s tools and until they are retrieved he cannot make any weapons or armor. Maaaaybe acceptable if this is some sort of Dying Earth setting and other metalworkers are so remote he cannot possibly replace them. You give the guy shards of Wyrm Glass or Tetrium so he can make you Magic weapons or Trinkets that make you immune to entire classes of damage (very useful against the Star Dragons I might add). The cost: 250/500 gp. This is a mild example. Get a lady some sour apples and she makes you sour cider molotvs that do 6d6 damage for 50 gp. What about a lady on a lake that wants a knitting companion, and if you get one, she will knit you a magic cloak making you immune to all poison, disease and makes all plant creatures friendly. It is worth 1000 gp. She gives it to you if you get her a knitting friend, which is one other specific NPC. She also makes moss masks that filter out airborne pathogens, no cost listed. A transmuter with a pathologic fear of going outside (the light of the underground city causes the mutation that eventually caused the grand underground city to become a wasteland) has forgotten where his three statues are and if you get them he gives you magic items, and they are charming and cool and again worth thousands of gp. These are but a few examples. Magic items are abundant and too strong, total healing abounds and you can even learn a song from a lady to raise people from the dead provided they have been dead no longer then a minute at no cost 1/day. Everything feels too light, like it has almost no consequences and that is a shame, honestly. I feel if this were written with a bit, just a whiff, of versimilitude it could almost be plausible. The teleporter is a statue with a piece missing, if you restore it, BAM teleported to the city. That’s a good example of going just far enough with the fetch-quest stuff. In the later sections, sometimes Lewis plays a bit with the formula, and giving an NPC what they are curious about will actually do nothing and there is an alternative solution.

If you can get over that (in my opinion almost insurmountable) hurdle, Star Dragon Rage is probably…fun? The hazards are simple and colorful, consisting of about 1-6 creatures (the meadowshark, the terrible Solar Zombies, the infectious Myotic Zombies etc), and puzzling together what quest item or person goes where, and slowly figuring out what the fuck is going on with the giant city under the humble village, illuminated by a gigantic radiant crystal that is the Mother Star Dragon, bringing mutation and madness, is actually an intriguing mystery and some possibilities of trying to end it might end up fucking everyone over horribly. I am a bit miffed Lewis has not specified a fixed timeline for the dragons to emerge, because the conceit is that each Dragon that emerges is actually stronger then the last one, and the last one will probably break the crystal and free its mother if it is not stopped so this could be genuine pressure to the adventure.

Format is loosey-goosey, a series of numbered encounters on a free-flowing map. It feels large, it feels sprawling and it feels a bit empty, with one point of interest for each delineated area. Occasionally Wyrm glass shards will be hidden in some area but there is no pressing reason why you would search there. Again, it’s more like a video game secret. I get placing a Black Dragon Horn behind a thick hedge of thorns, to reward investigation, but in a fucking field where peasants are working it? I dunno about this man. The palace in the centre of the City could have easily been a dungeon, but instead it is 4 floor descriptions, and its doors can only be opened with a quest item key. DnD is among other things a game of open-ended solutions and thinking outside the box.

Encounters are essentially straightforward, although to his credit mr. Lewis has A) essentially made his own bestiary so everything feels fresh, B) occasionally throws high level monsters that would pose a deadly challenge to a low level party in some areas and leaves it up to the PCs to figure out what the hell to do with them. There are factions you can join like the Knights Vagrant (homeless anti-oligarch fighting men) or the Knights Revenant (undead knights that guard cemetaries), but this just gives you an ability, as though the alliance has been abstracted into a mechanical bonus (just offer a retainer or a place to sleep!). I am missing the complex encounter, the dilemma, the ambush, the alert that triggers reinforcements from other areas. It is all very atomized, it does not feel organized. Even if you find the lair of the Star Dragons there is no listed order, no procedure for maybe multiple dragons to wake up, with only a note for at least one Dragon to be awake. No treasure hoard at the end? It’s eggs but still?

The creativity on display is good and should probably be called out and encouraged. There are clockwork angels hiding in a tower, a warmage who can shatter mountains with a single punch in search of an apprentice, an illusionist wasting away in self-imposed solipsism, a decaying city that was once great, inhabited by mutant nobles, the list goes on and on. It feels out there but intermeshed, like there is thought put behind it. It has an atmosphere. But its relegated to artificiality when this is hardly neccessary. Integrate it, say I, if not in the framework of an OSR system, then at least with the framework of 5e. Throw some versimilitude in there. Getting arrested, okay, very DnD, then you just fight the two judges in a boss fight and bob’s your uncle? What do all the guards do in the meantime?

As written there’s multiple ways of resolving the dillemma but the best way seems to be to FUCKING MURDER ALL THE DRAGONS before they free their mother (which is good) and in the process do horrible damage to the countryside. I would have liked to see some XP added or deducted based on how many civilians the PCs save or what damage they inflict, maybe some ZZarchov style end game resolution. As written it’s perfectly possible to murder everyone in the city to which I say well done!

Lovingly crafted, nothing but unique magic items, unique creatures, unique NPCs, well-laid out, art that doesn’t suck, maps that need a scale but are legible and not an embarassment, terse, punchy writing that mostly works:

Video games can be a source of inspiration but a lot of the abstractions you see in video games were made because technology is limited. Computers are great at resolving just identified problems. Skeletons are harmed by fire. This door is opened by a crystal key. Human brains are great at fuzzy logic and open-ended problems. This sword is +5 against anything the wielder would feel remorse about killing. The door stops all who consider opening it. TTRPGs excel at different things then CRPGS, even though they have a lot of overlap. Occasional borrowing and switching is par for the course, but don’t limit the format of TTRPGs when they can be much more, and much greater, then mere key-hunts and fetch quests.

A ** that hurts the soul. You are close yet far.

Anyone interested in checking out Star Dragon Rage can do so here. I recommend the 5e version, as the OSE conversion looks a bit dubious w.r.t. GP prices and treasure (unchanged from the 5e version) although the monster statts look pretty good at a casual glance.

12 thoughts on “[Review] Star Dragon Rage (5e); Regression

  1. Sounds like crap. Creative…or at least “imaginative”…crap. But crap.

    Man, I am SOUR these days. *sigh*

    Look…video games are way cool. Addictive, obsessive. Fascinating. Fun. Playable. I’ve lost many hours of my life (hours that I’ll never get back) playing games like Bards Tale and Fable and Knights of the Old Republic and…what’s that one in space? With Commander Shepherd?
    I can’t remember at the moment, but I always liked the “Vanguard” build, ‘cause I’m a run up and shotgun-in-the-face kind of guy.

    Point is: I appreciate the vids. D&D is not a video game. Unfortunately a lot of young(er) designers came to the hobby with vids as their foundation, rather than the other way around. These folks generally suck at designing for the tabletop. Which is sad and unfortunate…even more so because there are OTHER persons with the SAME (video game) sensibilities that see their adventures, etc. and say, ‘hey, this is fantastic!’ Except it’s not…they just don’t know any better.

    Those folks will of course say I (and geezers like me) are full of shit, stuck in the past, raining in their parade, blah-blah-blah. I’d just say: if that is the sole of your idea of D&D, you’re not doing it right. Play a video game if you want that style of game. You’ll have more enjoyment; you’ll have your expectations/needs met. You won’t need to worry about the “clunkiness” of the page-flipping, hard copy, rules-and-dice thang. Just do the CRPGs, fella. So much simpler, easier, more convenient.

    D&D is not like this thing being described. Well, “bad D&D” is…but there are MANY ways to do D&D badly; this ain’t the only one.

    *sigh* I’m a bit loaded at the moment (plus tired and cranky). My two cents don’t mean a whole helluva lot in this state. Apologies.


    1. You are thinking of Mass Effect.

      Thing is, J.Lewis did a few prior adventures that I’ve given a pass and they were alright and used a dungeon/village format, which is a bit closer or more bounded so it might be easier to conceive of as a video game. I haven’t seen him try a mini-campaign before so its a big step, and maybe 5e players don’t mind it as much. I can see this working as a Numenera game maybe?

      There’s another example with the Palace in the centre, where it’s described in an abstract fashion and it FEELS static, there is no consideration of maybe trying to climb in via a window or whatever. It feels like a wasted opportunity, and it doesn’t have too.

      You’ve been cranky this month, aye. Splurge on some takeaway, take a day off, go to church, hang out with the kids, anything you need to get back on your feet. I still have Comes Chaos and if its any good I might consider integrating it into the B2 game I will start running on Sunday.


      1. Yes. It was Mass Effect I was thinking of. Had to play it multiple times in order to have sex with everyone.
        ; )


    2. For what it’s worth, you’ve described my position very accurately, at least in terms of D&D. I only experienced AD&D as the mechanism for single player CRPGs (Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, Planescape Torment eventually) and my sense of what works on the tabletop is defined much more by storygames (Fighting Fantasy with its hokey fantasy film feel, then Call of Cthulhu and the World of Darkness with their literary sensibilities – well, up to a point, Vampire in particular is more of a cinematic experience, but whatever).

      My interest in the OSR comes from knowing in my bones that those classic Nineties CRPGs were debasing something different from themselves, and not quite making it work (why the hell weren’t they strictly turn based?). The modern game doesn’t particularly appeal to me either – too self referential, emulating and modelling its own branded material and “lore”. Therefore: the old school. What was all the fuss about? What was the thing worth adapting in the first place?


    3. For what it’s worth, I recognise myself in this. Sort of.

      I only experienced AD&D as the engine for those late 90s CRPGs (Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and Planescape: Torment, which I skipped at the time). All my tabletop instincts are from – they’re not all storygames, but they’re more about media emulation. By which I mean Fighting Fantasy (shlocky sword and sorcery pitched at pre-teens), Call of Cthulhu (literary weird/pulp, obviously), Vampire: the various (either literary gothic or dark action cinematic, depending on whether the Storyteller’s had their meds today). WFRP is the odd duck and even that has a weird Renaissance-noir vibe that is Not D&D.

      My interest in all this OSR caper is “here to learn.” I tried d20 and 5e and there wasn’t anything there; the games felt like a multi-tool when what I wanted was a hammer. So many bells and whistles to ultimately play mother-may-I with a DM either overloaded by the nitty gritty details or pedantically obsessed with them. There must be something in the older game that made it catch on, before it had became the corporate-owned heavily-marketed marketplace-distorting behemoth it is today, but I can’t figure it out by myself. I only knew it from the vidyas, and I know the vidyas ain’t it.


  2. A totally fair review! Maybe my head was in more of a storyteller than a game designer place when I wrote this one? At any rate, it was a lot of fun cranking out new, weird stuff for my players. Next time, I will focus more on the game-ability of the overall package / scenario / world. Thanks!


    1. The vision, the unique monsters, that’s all good stuff. There’s a lot of potential here, and there’s no reason why you couldn’t tighten those screws and make something that is both fantastical and palatable to the more oldschool-minded.


  3. I really liked your monsters in this Joe, gonna be using these for sure. Nice work. Your other long form work was the witches one yeah?

    I wonder what do you think of that one Prince?


    1. Thanks Paul!

      I try to create a completely original bestiary for every adventure now (which seems to be 30-100 new monsters every time!), I’m glad you’re digging them.

      And yes, my last “campaign-style” adventure was Witches of Frostwyck. I hope you enjoyed that one too. I’ve got a lot of new stuff coming up soon, I’ll definitely be absorbing all this feedback to try to keep improving for you guys


  4. Sounds like a mismatch between “whimsy” fetch quests and apocalyptic threats. If everyone is about to be immolated, there will be a dearth of potential knitting companions. And are the high level heroes of the realm too busy with the flower arranging competition?
    Maybe if this was all about making sure that Countess von Trapp wins this year’s beautiful people competition, and the PCs are her entourage, it could make a decent chance of pace.


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