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Friday 21 June 2024

Unseasonal Festivities: Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2024

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 2024—as with the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2021, the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2022, and the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2023the format is very much a British one. This means puzzles and games, 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.

Despite what it says in the introduction, the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2024 is not quite a book for everyone. This is because its content is really geared to towards players new to roleplaying and Dungeons & Dragons, with lots of advice on how to get started and what choices to make, and overviews of many different aspects of the roleplaying game, its settings, and history. This is not the only content in the book though and there is some of it that will be of interest to more experienced players, especially the community creators content. As usual the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2024 is replete with excellent artwork drawn from the worlds of Dungeons & Dragons, a handful of puzzles, and spotlights thrown on some of the baddest villains in Dungeons & Dragons.

Published by Harper Collins Publishers, Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2024 opens with a ‘Quick Start Guide’, a flow chart that takes the reader step-by-step how to get into the hobby and start playing. This begins with finding your people and deciding who will be the Dungeon Master before moving on through character creation, session zero, and all the way to the first session and afterwards. It is simple and it is clear, and it begins a guide that runs through the pages of this annual. It continues with ‘A History of D&D’, a fairly broad timeline that brings the roleplaying game up to today, when its future remains unknown as we await the arrival of a new edition later this year. ‘Finding a Game’ under ‘Roll for Inspiration’ suggests options for finding other players, such as playing by post, playing at a games store, or playing online, again giving each option a thumbnail description, a starting point rather than full advice. ‘Roll for Inspiration’ also suggests ‘Playing in Alternative Settings’, including Science Fiction, Steampunk, Noir, and more. Some of these suggestions point to actual Dungeons & Dragons books such as Curse of Strahd for a Gothic setting. Other entries under ‘Roll for Inspiration’ give a guide to combat, creating your own campaign settings, and more.

The guide to playing and getting ready to play, really begins with ‘Character Creation’, which breaks down the character sheet for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition and details the very basics of the process, whilst the ‘Classified’ feature examines the various Classes in the roleplaying game, explaining what they do, their skills, why they are so good, and so on. Thus ‘Casters’ does this for Arcane spellcasters, ‘Tanks’ for fighting types, and ‘Utility’ does it for the Bard, the Rogue, the Ranger, and the Cleric. The descriptions are basic, but their aim is to sell what playing a member of each Class is like and in that it succeeds.

The ‘Heroes & Villains’ section begins big with ‘Vecna and Kas’, the first look at some the signature figures in Dungeons & Dragons. The descriptions are short, but to the point, and richly illustrated, but each comes with his or her own story, a fact file, pertinent points, and so on. In the case of ‘Vecna and Kas’, this includes both the Eye of Vecna and the Hand of Vecna, and his cult. What is really great about the description of Vecna is that it includes a sidebar about the ‘Head of Vecna’, a non-magical item that would lend itself to a great gaming story and gaming legend. It is a great story, but it is not necessarily a familiar one. So, what it shows about Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2024 is that its author knows or understands the world of Dungeons & Dragons—or at least, has done his homework. Of course, ‘Vecna and Kas’ is also looking forward to the now recently released Vecna – Eve of Ruin. ‘Tasha’ does the same for the Witch Queen, famed for her spells like Tasha’s Hideous Laughter, as does ‘The Raven Queen’ for the divine interloper from the Shadowfell.

‘Mapping the Multiverse’ explores some of the major locations and settings for Dungeons & Dragons. The first location is ‘Candlekeep’ in the Forgotten Realms, presented in rich colour and nicely annotated. It does seem an odd place to start, just a single location, as none of the other entries copy this. Thus, ‘Eberon’ includes a full map of the continent, again nicely marked up, whilst ‘The Sword Coast’ returns to the Forgotten Realms in similar fashion. The world of ‘Krynn’ is treated in similar fashion. ‘Anthologies’ looks back at the last decade of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition by highlighting some of the scenario collections that Wizards of the Coast has published, such as Keys from the Golden Vault or Tales from the Yawning Portal, whilst ‘Shadow of the Dragon Queen’ in ‘Campaign Spotlight’ looks at the return of Dungeons & Dragons to the world of Krynn and Dragonlance. The other entry in the ‘Campaign Spotlight’ sort of brings the numerous settings together with ‘Spelljammer: Adventures in Space’ which takes Dungeons & Dragons into deep space, and potentially to anyone of the settings presented in Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2024.

The ‘Bestiary’ feature looks at numerous types of monsters in Dungeons & Dragons. Every entry tells the reader how dangerous the monster is, where it is found, what to watch out for, and their battle plan. The monsters covered include the undead, Illithids—Mind Flayers and the like, giants, and what it terms ‘The Classics’. These consist of the signature creatures of the Dungeons & Dragons game, the Gelatinous Cube, the Mimic, and the like.

The biggest features in the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2024 are ‘Meet the Creators’. These profile and interview players and creators who have taken their hobby and brought into the public sphere with a podcast. They include Shamini Bundell of RPGeeks, a podcast which combines Dungeons & Dragons with science and Science Fiction; Daniel Kwan from The Asians Represent Podcast is interviewed about Asian creators, representation, and what an Asian perspective brings to Dungeons & Dragons games that he runs; and Connie Chang, of the all-transgender, Person-of-Colour-led podcast, Transplanar, talks about running a campaign about love, yet set in a dark, apocalyptic world. All three of these podcasts have lasted more than the one season and the interviewees have a chance to reflect on how they started, the Player Characters, games played, and their opinions on Dungeons & Dragons. At four pages each, these interviews are the longest features in the annual—and easily its highlight, providing a different and far from unwelcome aspect on playing and creating for Dungeons & Dragons.

Elsewhere, ‘Beyond the Tabletop’ does what it says and look at the hobby away from the table. So ‘Conventions’ gives a very quick guide to the hobby’s big events like Pax and Gen Con, and though it is nice to see Dragonmeet, a convention in the UK, it seems curious not to include UK Games Expo, and ‘More Than a Game’ looks at aspects of the hobby in a similar fashion—cosplay, listening to actual play, miniatures, and more. Perhaps one of the most entertaining entries is ‘D&D in a Castle’, which looks at the event which takes places three times a year at Lumley Castle, a fourteenth century, hosting a long weekend of playing Dungeons & Dragons. It looks a lot of fun and perhaps the apogee of the progress made by the reader of Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2024 from his reading the first few pages, starting with ‘Quick Start Guide’. ‘Level Up Your Table’ suggests ways to enhance play, such as including ‘The Deck of Many Things’, though it does come with a warning about the derailing effect of its cards. It also ties into The Deck of Many Things release from Wizards of the Coast.

Like all British annuals, the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2024 has puzzles. In previous editions, such puzzles—or ‘Activities’ as they are titled here—have been the simplest of retheming of perennial standbys, such as having to move the minimum number of matchsticks around to solve a puzzle or a maze or… To be blunt, they did not look much different to the puzzles found in other annuals for other intellectual properties. The puzzles in the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2024 are better and more strongly themed. They begin with ‘What Type of Player Are You?’, a classic quiz which determines what type of person you are, or this case what sort of roleplayer you are. It is a bit broad in its definitions, but that is the nature of such quizzes. There is also a maze, which is not easy, the wordsearch is done as a ‘Hex Crawl’ in which spell names have been hidden, the Sudoku-style puzzle substitutes symbols rather than numbers and comes in two levels, ‘Cryptograms’ provides a Dungeons & Dragons code-breaking task, and there is an ‘Intelligence Check’, a quiz about the roleplaying game’s lore, much of which is previously detailed in the book. In comparison to previous editions of the Dungeons & Dragons Annual, there are fewer puzzles and not only are they of higher quality, but they are also better themed. In the past the puzzles have always felt like a waste of space, but that is not the case here.

Physically, the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2024 is solidly 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.

In past years, entries in the Dungeons & Dragons Annual series have proven to be decent enough introductions to Dungeons & Dragons, but did not always feel as if they were not written by authors who knew the world of Dungeons & Dragons very well. Fortunately, the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2024 feels different. There is a strong focus on the worlds and worlds of Dungeons & Dragons, its settings and its villains, but coupled with a decent guide to getting started and taking the first steps. The interviews with the podcast creators really standout as showing how the hobby embraces and has the space for such a diverse range of creators, which means that players of different backgrounds can see themselves reflected in the hobby. Of course, for the veteran there is less in the pages of the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2024 that will be new and unless they are a collector of all things Dungeons & Dragons, this is not a book that they need on their bookshelves. As something to receive at Christmas (or not) in your Christmas stocking (or not), the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2024 is the best yet to be published by Harper Collins Publishers. It is informative and it is engaging, providing more and more useful details about the world of Dungeons & Dragons before the reader takes his first steps into actual play. It will be very difficult for the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2025 to improve on the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2024.

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