Vault of Draggin’
Sons of Anarchy: Men of Mayhem wasn’t a perfect game. Throwdowns, its fanciful term for when two grunting crews of motorcyclists settled their differences by any means other than words, were a colossal waste of everything but ego — which in hindsight was an entirely suitable, if accidental, commentary on stupid machismo. But like the rest of Gale Force Nine’s licensed catalog, it carried itself with enviable thematic cohesion, capturing the petty squabbles, unchecked greed, and hooting apeness of its source material.
Contrast that against Vault of Dragons, the systematic sequel of Sons of Anarchy that transports the action from Charming, California to Waterdeep, Not California. Set in the world of Dungeons & Dragons, what thematic core does it capture? Tedium? An over-reliance on dice? Overburdened game systems? Because as far as I can tell, those are what Vault of Dragons values most.
For those not yet patched into the motorcycle club, here are the basics, rebuilt almost brick for brick from the Redwood Original.
Picture the city of Waterdeep. Its twelve bustling districts, hotly contested by four gangs of color-coded adventurers. Its one neutral tavern, which serves more as a dungeon hub than a source of ale. Its… well, that’s Waterdeep in all its splendor. A dainty place, that Waterdeep.
For the most part, the adventurer’s lot consists of paying thugs to visit destinations around town, rake them for resources, and then wait around until additional income is triggered come evening. Every so often somebody will grab one location too many, or nab something desired by one of their rivals, and be forced to fend off an incursion. Maybe the local constabulary will show up to get trounced. Either way, battle dice will clatter, items will be deployed, casualties will be inflicted, and would-be heroes will breathe their last over three petty flerkins, or whatever passes for currency in this fantasy universe.
Crucially — thankfully — this boilerplate processional is only the fundraising portion of the game. Once your outfit is comfortably staffed, funded, and equipped, it’s off to the tavern. From there you’ll pay your way into the dungeon, where you’ll roll more dice, deploy more items, absorb more casualties, and hopefully bring home more loot. As Waterdeepers are fond of saying, “As above, so below.”
At this point, none of this is bad, just uninspired. Resources consist of gold flerkins, rumors that gradually “age” and eventually disappear altogether — which is a cool idea, really — and two item decks that produce either trinkets or epic-level loot that can swing the game wildly. The city watch that chases you down feels like a pointless nuisance. Brawls between players are every bit as pyrrhic as they were in Sons of Anarchy, likely to cost actions and manpower without producing much in return. And don’t get me started on the actual process of fighting those brawls.
Fine. If we must. Fights in Vault of Dragons are determined by chucking dice, which is fine, but the nature of that chucking is slow and flimsy, dragging the gameplay to a standstill every few minutes. Each type of adventurer rolls their own die — d10 for a fighter, d12 for a mage, and a d4 for the rogue plus a special casualty die. Weirdly, your dice pool is limited to only one from each class, and with only a single result ultimately selected as your combat total. This prevents anybody from amassing a super-group and chewing through every rival and dungeon, but also results in uniform fellowships and relatively flat combat outcomes. Why tinker with your party composition when the holy trinity of fighter, rogue, and mage are as strong as they’ll ever be? Throw in another cheap warrior to sponge a casualty roll and you’re set.
Even worse, combat is a checklist of rolls and items and modifiers that sticks around like a bad case of dungeon poops. Unlike the throwdowns in Sons of Anarchy, which were immediate, uncertain, and finished faster than this sentence, brawls are too finicky for a mere strength/casualty result.
Unfortunately, the comparisons to Vault of Dragons’ predecessor continue to be almost uniformly unflattering. Consider the objective of all these gathered resources and contested districts and muscle-flexing brawls. In Sons of Anarchy, the answer was money, cash, and Benjamins. Simple, but also serviced by nearly every element of the game. Better yet, the whole thing was put on a timer and obfuscated by a player shield. You had a few short rounds to transform drugs and guns into stinking wads of green, and couldn’t ever be totally certain who was in the lead. You had to expedite your transactions, follow your gut, and choose your fights carefully. Between this tight focus and tighter time pressure, Sons of Anarchy was a furious tricycle race, culminating in everybody revealing their warehouses of greenbacks.
Vault of Dragons, on the other hand, meanders from one act to the next with all the hustle of a hobbit after a five-day feast. Your goal is to successfully raid three dungeons, which gradually increase in difficulty — by which I mean their target combat number creeps higher — in order to lay claim to three secrets. These secrets unlock access to the dragon’s hoard, where another battle takes place, this time against such a soaring target that you can anticipate a few deflating failures before somebody finally lands a lucky mage roll.
And the entire journey lacks both punch and momentum. Your preparations in Waterdeep are determined by presence and bluster; as long as you put troops in position and ward off attacks, you’ll earn coins and cards. The outcome of this daily grind, however, comes down to the crassest variety of chance. I’m not only talking about the battles, which conclude with either blaring trumpets or a sad trombone based on nothing at all. The bigger problem is those cards. While everyone else is tinkering with meager +1 bonuses, the right draw might give you a powerful weapon, artifact, or even a secret — which if you haven’t been paying attention, is potentially the equivalent of multiple adventurers, items, and a lucky roll. It’s the equivalent of a random card in a WW2 game that says, “Okay, you liberate Paris.”
To be clear, this isn’t just chance. It’s chance where you barely have any input or control. It’s chance where the results don’t mirror your investment. It’s chance that throws multiple turns of preparation into the grinder on a whim. If you’re struggling with a dungeon, you can’t hire a plus-sized party or front-load your odds. At best, it’s possible to spend rumors for a slight bump. The rest of the time, it’s back to the item decks with ye. All the thrill of plumbing for better kit, none of the leveling up.
When you get right down to it, Vault of Dragons feels like nobody cared enough to shape it into a functioning product. That lack of care extends in every direction, from the shoddy rulebook and typo-ridden cards to ambiguous rules and the tedium of the gameplay itself. By forgoing Sons of Anarchy’s quick-draw combat and constant pressure to pull in more cash, Vault of Dragons is slow, overly flighty, and burdened with unnecessary cruft. It somehow leaches the thrill out of dungeon diving. As we used to grunt while playing Sons of Anarchy, “Ride!” And just keep going.
A complimentary copy was provided.