Dungeons and Dragons is slowly losing its nerdy mystique. People are waking up to the joys of sitting with a group of friends adventuring and generally causing chaos. It is a fabulous way to be creative and have a laugh. But it can be a bit intimidating to get into. The Player’s Handbook is so dense with information that it can overwhelm a beginner. However, so many games have clearly taken their inspiration from D&D that you can get the Dungeons and Dragons experience without committing to hours of reading.
The first step of DnD is to create a character, someone that you are going to embody. My first character was Ugh, the sexy dwarf who just wanted to smash things. She was supposed to be a fierce warrior, but I had no idea how the ability scores worked. Her dexterity was so low that every time I tried to hit something, I missed. To be fair, it made for an entertaining campaign, but it was frustrating picturing my poor dwarf wind-milling wildly, missing every baddie we came up against. Luckily, Eldritch Horror puts the characters together for you. Together, you and your fellow investigators will battle monsters and try to stop an Ancient Evil surfacing. Make sure to play to your strengths. Some characters are best wielding an axe and storming in, others should gather spells and protect their companions.
Eldritch Horror has also narrated encounters for you. As you try to solve the evils of the world, Fantasy Flight has taken on the role of Dungeon Master. The cards tell you when to roll a test and then paints a clear picture of what happens next. A great DM creates an interactive world for you to become a part of and Eldritch Horror does this through its encounter cards. Eldritch Horror feels like a D&D campaign. There are mysterious encounters and a lot of fighting...
Mansions of Madness comes from the same people who made Eldritch Horror, so it is not surprising that they have very similar concepts. They are based around Lovecraft and you are trying to stop great evils uprising in both. Some of the playable characters are even the same between the two games. What Mansions of Madness has, though, is a sense of continuity. With Eldritch Horror, you select a card to get the next encounter and see what happens next. Because it is a random card, the story isn’t necessarily consistent throughout the game. Mansions of Madness, however, is not random.
Instead of selecting cards, the encounters are generated via an app. Sometimes nothing happens at all and other times everything goes down. The app is your DM. It reacts to what you do in the game and gives a realistic feeling of unpredictability. When I have been a Dungeon Master, a large part of the fun is knowing what is coming next when no one else does. As a player in Dungeons and Dragons, you think you are in control, but you aren’t. Mansions of Madness works in the same way. Things escalate before you even realise what has happened.
Mansions of Madness is much quicker than a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. When we first started playing The Curse of Strahd, we thought it would take a few months. Years later, we are still working our way through the campaign. It is still just as fun as the first session we had, but sometimes it is nice to get a sense of completion. This is where the board game alternatives are so useful. Mansions of Madness has all the unpredictability, immersion and panic of actual D&D without having to spend months working your way through.
But sometimes the commitment of a campaign is what you want! Gloomhaven is not a quick game in the slightest. You really get your money’s worth. Each scenario takes about 30 minutes, but the whole game is going to take multiple sessions. You won’t be able to do it in one go. Get a group of like-minded individuals together and book in a regular meeting time. Together, you will adventure across Gloomhaven, plundering dungeons and investigating forgotten ruins. After each scenario, there is a choice to be made that will drive your campaign forward. It is like a “Choose your own advenure”. Depending on what you pick, doors will open and close for you. Not unlike D&D.
Everyone takes on a different character with a different set of abilities. To be able to win, you have to be able to work as a team. Co-operation is key in Dungeons and Dragons. Your campaign is going to fall to pieces if someone goes off on a vigilante mission. You have to be in sync and be able to make long term plans. This is the same with Gloomhaven. Everyone plays simultaneously and everyone has a limited number of actions. It takes balance and synchronicity to complete each scenario successfully.
So far, the games I have mentioned all follow the same general gameplay of Dungeons and Dragons. You roll various dice to pass and fail tests. Gloomhaven doesn’t follow the same system. It is about card management and strategy. It is the theme and campaign element that makes it so similar to Dungeons and Dragons. Gloomhaven is a great game to see if your friendship group has the commitment to keep a full D&D campaign going. If you are going to take on Storm King’s Thunder, you need everyone to be fully on board and ready to turn up each week.
Betrayal at House on the Hill starts off with the teamwork required for D&D. As a group, you explore a haunted mansion. You build the board by revealing rooms and triggering events. It is unsettling and tense. While you are all working together, at some point, someone will turn against you. Then you are running for your lives as one of your companions hunts you down. Suddenly you have to make plans and problem-solve to escape catastrophe. There is never one solution in Dungeons and Dragons. It is all about problem-solving and deciding how your character would react. Betrayal at House on the Hill gives you an opportunity to think quickly and decisively.
Dungeons and Dragons is pretty much always set in a fantasy world, but it doesn’t have to be dark and ominous. The Lost Mines of Phandelver in the Dungeons and Dragons: Starter Set definitely isn’t as menacing as Curse of Strahd. However, I like the sinister and foreboding elements. And that is my favourite bit about Betrayal at House on the Hill. One of the possible characters is a little girl. The idea that a small girl can betray a group of adults and hunt them down is just appealing to me. I imagine that says more about me than the game, but it is still great. Deep down, you all know that psychotic little girls are as intriguing as they are creepy.
So far all my suggestions have had clear links to Dungeons and Dragons: fighting, monsters and destruction. They all involve taking down a great evil in one way or another. Mysterium is not as obvious a choice but it is a great game and deserves its place on this list.
The concept is that there has been a murder. One person is a ghost and the other players are psychics. The ghost is trying to tell the psychics how they died, but they can only communicate through strange pictures that look incredibly similar to the ones in Dixit. It is a very difficult party game, but it is so satisfying when you actually get it right. You get ghosts in D&D, but this still doesn’t sound that linked to Dungeons and Dragons. Mysterium is a fantastic chance to practise being a Dungeon Master.
As Dungeon Master, it is your responsibility to control the narrative, bring it to life for your players, but also to guide them through the world you have created. But you can’t just give your players all the information. They have to work things out for themselves. If they are investigating an area, they need to roll to see what they have discovered. Rolling high means you give them a lot of information, rolling low can have unfortunate consequences. Working out how much information to give or how to give little hints is a tricky skill to perfect. Mysterium is all about giving solutions in the subtlest way possible. If you can manage that, you are going to be a brilliant Dungeon Master!
Just Do It!
If you are interested in Dungeons and Dragons, you should just go for it! It is a terrific way to spend an evening. I have said that my campaigns have taken years, but I have also played campaigns that only lasted an afternoon. You have to be ready to make a bit of a fool of yourself, but who doesn’t do that every day? There are Dungeons and Dragons Starter Sets that introduce you to it slowly. All you need is one friend who is brave enough to take on the role of DM. Even that isn’t too arduous. As long as you do the prep work, and maybe throw in a silly voice or two, everyone will have a good time. Dungeons and Dragons is a laugh. Just do it!