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- Hero's Handbook: Dragonborn Review
I rarely ever buy third-party role-playing game products, and by rarely I mean never. This game paranoia was seeded years ago during the age of 3rd Edition, when a friend brought over the Quintessential Elf, by Necromancer Games (I think). A quick perusing of the book had me checking out some kind of skirt that had chains and could make attacks, at which point I closed the book and assumed that it was just a collection of funny, stupidly conceptualized mechanics that you could dare your players to use.
However, its a new year and I decided to break that habit and get Hero's Handbook: Dragonborn from Goodman Games. Red Jason swears by it, and honestly most of the stuff that Goodman Games produces like its literal gospel from Christ written on hundred-dollar bills, so I figure that if anyone can instill some measure of faith in the third-party companies out there, why not them?
The book itself weighs in at 93 pages if you arent counting the ads in the back (and I'm not), and the cover is of decent quality. What caught my eye, of all things, is the back of the book. It depicts a somewhat more crudely drawn dragonborn almost leaping at a dragon over the obligatory scantily clad human maiden and a hoard of treasure. Composition aside, I was overjoyed to see that the dragonborn did in fact not have pred-dreds that I could see. Instead, its a purely draconic head that includes horns.
See, I'm not a fan of the look of dragonborn in the canonical sense. When I heard about them being in 4th Edition, I was optimistic because I liked half-dragons but hated the Level Adjustment that might as well have said Useless instead of +3. Then I saw the art for them, and the combination of no tails and odd-looking fleshy dreds didnt go easy on the aesthetics.
You can argue that appearances are the easiest thing to change, but its a pain in my ass to have to explain and re-explain what dragonborn look like in my games, especially given the fact that painful reminders of my deviation are printed in full-color througout every damned book to date.
Moving on to actual content, the book opens up with the Code of the Dragon, which sums up everything that we already know about dragonborn: courageous and loyal so long as no one is beating their Will defense with something carrying the Fear keyword and a push effect. It then moves on to explain in a nutshell the various clans that are currently still kicking around today right before it moves on to the chapters actually devoted to them.
The first actual chapter of the book goes into the origins of the dragonborn in three parts, which can be best divided up into dragons creating dragonborn, dragonborn commiting a terrible sin that dooms them, and dragonborn losing to tieflings during the Blood War, not to be confused with the other Blood War from all previous versions of D&D that was fought between demons and devils.
Its not the same thing as what Wizards did, having Io crank them out using the astral leftovers when he was done making actual dragons, but you can just as easily combine them and get the best of both worlds.
Our next stop: culture. HHD starts from the day a dragonborn is hatched through a rigorous trek to adulthood, usually involving a lengthy mentor program that for some reason reminds me of the part in Kill Bill 2 where Uma Thurman recounts her past when she trained under Pai Mei. There are some points of interest here that mostly involving weapons in a ritualistic fashion, but it got the gears in my head turning about a few dragonborn characters, so thats a good sign.
Other than that there isnt a lot to say about the story elements. You're going to like it, hate it, or parse what you like and mercilessly rip it off for your homebrew. If you are particularly adventurous, you'll integrate it into Wizards' own material that they published in Ecology of the Dragonborn. Most of the book is occupied with the history of each individual clan (and there is a lot), which includes a handful of feats and a paragon path thrown in for good measure.
Speaking of crunch, in any new book game mechanics are what generally draws my attention, and this book is full of it. The book divides dragonborn into clans, with clan-specific feats and paragon paths like Wizards did in Oriental Adventures. For example, one feat boosts your defenses everytime you use an encounter or daily weapon attack, and another gives you a defense bonus whenever your allies invade your personal space. The paragon paths are oriented towards the clan's unique gimmick, and combined with the likewise thematic feats it all fits together very nicely.
Some of the terminology gets muddled up a bit, such as when one feat says that the target takes an AC dive until the end of the encounter, but also amends the line with "(save ends)". However since Goodman Games isnt exactly the game creating juggernaut that Wizards is (that also happens to make glaring omissions), these are really just minor nitpicks.
Another thing I liked is the chapter on ancestor paths. They make a point of driving home the notion that the life of a dragonborn is affected by his or her ancestors, and so they included a section containing tables (glee!) to help you pick and choose one for yourself, or to chance it all and roll up one. Its not very long, involving a pair of d12 rolls, but at the least should allow you to excuse the dark, dreary upbringing you had. Unless you roll well, in which case you'll have to try and think up an actual personality.
The art ranges from decent to crap, which is the usual range I expect from RPGs in general, though I suspect my expectations are being intentionally lowered through the inclusion of the stuff that looks like it came from a Junior High drawing class. This isnt a snipe at Goodman Games specifically, as more than a few pieces in WotC's books looks equally, if not moreso, like crap.
Will I use this book? Probably not much. There are currently so many feats, paragon paths, and monsters that I already like and want to use, that everything in this book would be relegated so far down the list that I might as well not include it at all. This is an unfortunate problem with third-party products in general, that they are essentially competing against bigger players with nicer-looking books and layouts in addition to bigger design teams that can push out stuff faster.
Now, what I will probably do in my homebrews is take the concept of clans and apply it mechanically. I prefer my dragonborn being more closely aligned with actual dragons, so having some kind of red-dragonborn clan and a gold one and etc etc has great appeal. Since I'm such a whore for game crunch, this is something I will actually have fun doing.
If you really like the dragonborn race as a DM and/or player, then this is defintely a good book if-you-are-looking-for-more-material. If you have already created an established place for them in your game world, then the history wont help you a whole lot. If you are starting to, or stuck, then you could certainly do worse. If you want more options for your dragonborn characters, then this is a superb resource to strip mine.
If you've never played a dragonborn before, then you can steal some sample adventurer ideas from one or more of the clans to give yourself an excuse to kick in doors and start murdering indigenous life inside.
Finally, if you dont like dragonborn at all, this book just might change your mind.