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Friday 2 July 2021

Unseasonal Festivities: Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2021

The Christmas Annual is a traditional thing—and all manner of things can receive a Christmas Annual. Those of our childhoods would have been tie-ins to the comic books we read, such as the Dandy or the Beano, or the television series that we enjoyed, for example, Doctor Who. Typically, here in the United Kingdom, they take the form of slim hardback books, full of extra stories and comic strips and puzzles and games, but annuals are found elsewhere too. In the USA, ongoing comic book series, like Batman or The X-Men, receive their own annuals, though these are simply longer stories or collections of stories rather than the combination of extra stories and comic strips and puzzles and games. In gaming, TSR, Inc.’s Dragon magazine received its own equivalent, the Dragon Annual, beginning in 1996, which would go from being a thick magazine to being a hardcover book of its own with the advent of Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition. For the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2021, the format is very much a British one—puzzles and games, yes, and all themed with the fantasy and mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons, along with content designed to get you into the world’s premier roleplaying game.

Published by Harper Collins Publishers, the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2021 opens with a history, done as a timeline, which runs from the Dungeons & Dragons of 1974 to the recent release of the Baldur’s Gate III and Dark Alliance computer games. It includes each of the roleplaying game’s various editions, and highlights their best features, plus notable highlights such as the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon and the estimated number of players. The ‘D&D Quick-Start Guide’ suggests the first steps that a prospective player take to get into the game, from choosing the party and deciding who would be Dungeon Master to grabbing pencil and paper and selecting a campaign. Then it is onto ‘Creating a Character’, which actually serves as an easier to grasp guide to the process, and actually better than that given in the Player’s Handbook. As you would expect, it neatly breaks the character sheet down and takes the reader through the process step-by-step—though of course, the reader will still need to refer to the full rules.

The would-be Dungeon Master receives a similar treatment, beginning with ‘Master Dungeon-Mastering’, looking at a possible next step the player might want to take after playing a few games of Dungeons & Dragons. This takes her from ‘Choosing your Campaign’ and ‘Setting the Scene’ through to ‘Planning Encounters’ and ‘Roleplaying’, and includes a quick guide to running combat. The one issue with this article is really the choice of illustration for when choosing the beginning campaign—Dungeons & Dragons Essentials rather than the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set. There is nothing wrong with including the illustration of Dungeons & Dragons Essentials, but the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set is the more obvious entry point. The next step for the Dungeon Master is ‘Tips for World-Building’ which poses her several questions should she want to begin creating her own setting, her own campaign world. Unsurprisingly, it is fairly basic, but it serves as a set of beginning pointers.

One of the best features about any new roleplaying game is an example of play since it showcases how the game is intended to be played and be played. ‘A Tale of a First Encounter’ is a lengthy, three-part example of play which is set in an inn where several adventurers come together to form a party before an unexpected showdown with a bunch of bandits. It weaves in and out of game play and table talk and ultimately shows how dangerous combat can be as well as giving some idea of how Dungeons & Dragons can be played. Unfortunately not set in a dungeon, it does however show it is very much a social game, a game played by a diversity of players. If ‘A Tale of a First Encounter’ shows how the game is played, two other articles showcase how Dungeons & Dragons can also be consumed. The first is ‘Spectator Mode’ which features the seven most well-known real-play live streams, with Critical Role at the top of course. The second is ‘Audiophile’, which does the same for podcasts. Although there are no links, but they point to another way in which a prospective player can learn how the game can be played and enjoyed if he cannot immediately begin playing, and so ease himself into Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition vicariously. ‘Beyond the Tabletop’ does a similar thing, but points towards some of the card games, computer games, and comics currently available for Dungeons & Dragons.

Once a player begins play, the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2021 suggests options to improve both his gaming experience and that of his fellow players. ‘Level Up Your Table’ gives a host of accessories that he can add, such as DM Screens, maps, miniatures, apps, and more. Similarly, ‘Adventurers League’ and ‘Extra Life’ point to how a player can take his Dungeons & Dragons away from home and into the gaming community itself. The former with regular events at his local games shop (and ‘Your Friendly Neighbourhood Game Store’ points to just a very few of the very many available, as well as giving a player an idea of what they look like), whilst the latter tells the player how the gaming he normally does for fun can mean a bit more by raising money for charity through playing Dungeons & Dragons, and is a worthy inclusion in the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2021.

Much of the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2021 can be divided into four strands, including ‘A Tale of a First Encounter’, that run throughout its pages. The first of these is ‘Xanathar’s Classes 101’, which provides an overview of each of the twelve Classes from the Player’s Handbook. Each profile states what a Class is good for, what Proficiencies and Special Skills it has, and why a player should select that particular Class and why he should avoid it. Thus a Bard is described as a jack-of-all-trades, has boosts to his Performance-based skills, and his special skill is Inspiration, used to boost the attacks and saving throws of his allies. Lastly, the descriptions suggest that a player chose the Bard if he wants a character who can perform, persuade, and strategise, but avoid if he instead wants to inflict lots of damage. The counterpart to this is ‘Folk of the Realms’ which does the same for the Player Character Races in the Forgotten Realms and thus the Player’s Handbook. ‘Adventures Across the Multiverse’ guides the reader round some of the most notable worlds and locations in Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. Thus for ‘Adventures Across the Multiverse: Forgotten Realms’ it identifies Icewind Dale, Neverwinter, and the Lost Mine of Phandelver, whilst Waterdeep is linked to the campaign, Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, Baldur’s Gate to Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus, and Chult to Tomb of Annihilation. The series does the same for Ravenloft and Eberron, although there are very few actual campaigns and supplements associated with them for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition in comparison to the Forgotten Realms. Later on though, the ‘Adventure Collection’ highlights all of the releases and campaigns for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition to date.

If ‘Xanathar’s Classes 101’ showcases the Classes of Dungeons & Dragons, then ‘Volo’s [Abridged] Guide to…’ does the same for its monsters. It covers the classics, including Rakshasa, Mimics, Wights, Liches, Beholder, and Duergar, telling the reader what they look like, what their favoured attacks are, how to defeat them, and other pertinent facts. This is a decent enough strand, but perhaps the choice of monsters is not as interesting as it could have been, but with so many to choose from…

Scattered throughout the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2021 is a handful of puzzles and games. This includes ‘Scrambled Spells’, anagrams of spells taken from Player’s Handbook, Sudukos for both spells and Player Character details, a treasure hunt set on the Sword Coast of the Forgotten Realms; a wordsearch of Dungeons & Dragons monsters, a spot the difference puzzle, a maze, and more. They are clearly designed for a younger audience—as is the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2021—but do show whatever theme you apply to them, the puzzles themselves have hardly changed, if at all, in decades.

Physically, the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2021 is snappily presented. There is plenty of full colour artwork drawn from Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, and the writing is clear and kept short, so is an easy read for its intended audience. One nice touch is the inclusion of photographs of game shops and people playing, showing that the game has a broader appeal than just at the potential player’s table and that they are having fun at the table. In comparison to the annuals past, the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2021 is slim, but still packs a lot into its pages.

Unfortunately, the two elements that are missing from the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2021 are those of the very title of the roleplaying game itself—no dungeons and no dragons. As inclusive and as well written and as well presented as the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2021 actually is, that really is a major omission.

Over the years, there have been plenty of introductions to Dungeons & Dragons, some of them decent, some them of utterly pointless and useless, such as the Dungeon Survival Guide and the ‘What exactly were you thinking, Wizards of the Coast?!’ Wizards Presents: Races and Classes and Wizards Presents: Worlds and Monsters books that heralded the arrival of the Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition. Fortunately, the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2021 is far superior to any of those.

The Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2021 is genuinely an interesting and informative read. To be fair, this is not a book or supplement that a dedicated player or Dungeon Master is going to need, or even want, to read. After all, much of this will be familiar to him or her. However, the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2021 provides a good introduction to the roleplaying game, especially as a next step after reading the Dungeons & Dragons Young Adventurer’s Guides series and playing the Endless Quest series. It provides a broader overview than either of those two series and better showcases the next steps that a player and a Dungeon Master take should he or she want to start playing. And like all Christmas annuals, the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2021 is a good gift to the younger reader, especially one with an interest in fantasy and games, but better than those Christmas annuals of old, for there is much, much more fun to be had beyond the pages of the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2021.

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