What The Average Joe Thinks… D&D: Legacy of the Crystal Shard

by Joe Lastowski

As a boy growing up in the 80s & 90s, Dungeons & Dragons was a significant part of my activity calendar for many of my formative years1.  One of the things that pushed me towards that world was the awesome work of great writers like R.A. Salvatore (who I actually got to meet at Modern Myths back in September 2012).  The latest D&D release from Wizards of the Coast, Legacy of the Crystal Shard, takes us to the Icewind Dale, site of many of Salvatore’s novels, where we can see what happened to the world 100 years after heroes like Drizz’t, Bruenor, and Wulfgar went on their iconic adventures.

To look at it on the shelf, the packaged Legacy product doesn’t look like something you’d want to pay $35 for.  It’s got the same flimsy outer packaging that its predecessor, Murder in Baldur’s Gate, had.  It contains two flimsy staple-bound books and one DM screen.  It looks, as one other reviewer put it, as if “Wizards is just phoning-it-in until D&D Next gets released.”  And to some extent, I don’t disagree with folks who are disappointed with this release.  However, I do like to look at the positives2, and this product does have quite a few positive things to enjoy.

First off, the DM’s screen is fantastic.  The maps on it are gorgeous, with details that are actually useful.  The big populations within Icewind Dale, The Ten Towns3, have their own area map on the other side of the screen, along with break-out maps of two of the largest towns of that grouping.  In addition, the random encounters charts are something I haven’t seen since much earlier editions, yet somehow manage to transcend editions by simply listing the sort of monster you’d run into, without giving edition-specific stats for those monsters.

The second portion, the setting book, is full of lots of useful information, but not so much that you are overwhelmed by it.  Based in the setting of many of Salvatore’s books, the brief historical bits of each area are supplemented with the “current” situation in that region – namely the events of the massive, edition-changing event known as The Sundering.  It’s nice to have this perspective, because many of Salvatore’s earlier books happened about 100 years prior to the current timeline, so you can see ripples of what was done by the heroes of the books, without having to worry about those same heroes showing up as Deus Ex Machinas to Gandalf all over your low-level adventuring party4. It also does a good job of explaining the motivations of different groups in different areas around Icewind Dale, so you get a very good sense of how to run scenes in any of the described regions.  There is more artwork than in the Baldur’s Gate product here, and on the whole it’s fairly useful artwork that shows you different NPCs or areas.

The third section, the adventure book, is where this product is a bit lacking.  Much like Murder in Baldur’s Gate, this product is meant to be “edition-less”.  That means you can run it using D&D 3.5, 4th ed D&D, or the still-in-development D&D NEXT versions of the game.  While the Baldur’s Gate product at least provided set-ups for specific scenarios in which you could run combats or other encounters, Crystal Shard does none of that.  Instead, it introduces 3 major evil NPCs, each of whom have big plans for the region.  It then goes on to describe how their plans will progress if nobody stops or hinders them.  But the details of how that happens are left up to each individual DM.  Normally I like a little sandbox-style play, and having options as a DM… but this isn’t a sandbox… it’s a wide open desert5.  We are presented with 3 “Big Bads” with various goals, plus 10 towns that each have their own NPCs and sub-plots, and are asked to create the rest.  In a home game, this could be spectacular, especially if you don’t like boxed text and having your DMing hand forced.  For an organized play setting, however, it’s a DM’s nightmare, requiring hours of prep work and downloaded content to run anything from it.

And that’s where this product really disappoints me.  You see, Legacy of the Crystal Shard is not just a for-sale setting/adventure combo.  It (like Murder in Baldur’s Gate before it) is also meant to encompass an entire 12-week season of the D&D organized play program run at stores across the nation: D&D Encounters.  The idea of organized play, and of Encounters specifically, is that anyone can show up at any store, sit down at a table, and play some D&D.  It’s designed both to introduce new players and to give seasoned vets their weekly fix.  It’s also meant for new DMs, who could (in theory) pick up an adventure book and with 5 minutes of prep be ready to run a discrete, 2-hour session that connected to a bigger plot.  That’s they way the previous 14 seasons or so of D&D Encounters ran.  Then they decided to try this edition-less thing, which gummed up the works… and Legacy continues that trend.  With 10 towns, 8-10 other locations, 3 main villains, and plenty of sub-plots, there’s no telling where any one group might end up.  That means that there’s no consistency across tables, which means that if a player is at Table A the first week, she may have no idea what’s going on when she ends up at Table B the second week.  It’s also been a big pain for DM communities online6, who often share tidbits about what did or did not work on any given week of Encounters.

In addition, there are several other things that are NOT included with this product that you might want.  First off are stats for any of the foes you might face.  Now sure, for the time being you can download those for free from Wizards of the Coast, but that still means that you’re spending your paper & ink to print them, and there’s no guarantee that those stats will always be easily available.  Also, there are no tactical maps included (which really matter for 3.5 & 4th ed), so you’re forced to find other snowy-type maps to use as make-shift battlefields7.  There are also no map tokens or player hand-outs, which is not a huge loss, but still worth noting.

So in the end, is the product worth getting?  If you’re a huge fan of Salvatore’s books, you’ll enjoy it.  If you’re running a home game that involves snowy terrain, you’ll get some decent use out of this8.  If you’re trying to run a D&D Encounters session, then you’ve probably already purchased a copy of this product.  We’ve created a more consistent, 4th edition-focused version that we’re running at the two Modern Myths stores, but it’s entirely possible to run many adventures with players new and old with this product as a base. As long as you’re not expecting things to be laid out for you, and you don’t mind doing some leg work to turn what they provide into a full adventure, you should be fine with this.  It’s not what it could be, but these days, what is?  As 4th edition winds down and the release of whatever “D&D NEXT” will be looms on the horizon, I have to admit that despite its flaws, it is impressive they’ve managed to put together as much as they did with this product, given the general lack of releases that comes with the end of any edition of the game.  And heck, there’s a chance for all you folks who bought the gargantuan-sized Icingdeath dragon miniature9 to use it in game, so that’s always a plus, too.

And if you’d just like to see how we translated this product into an awesome weekly adventure, stop by some Wednesday evening at 7pm over the next couple months at either the Northampton or Mamaroneck stores for D&D Encounters.

1. Along with video games, X-Files, and AWESOME dance musicA
          A. “Yo, it’s about that time, to bring forth the rhythm and the rhyme.”  Yes, it was an awesome time for dance music…
2. You’re on fire?  Well, at least now you can stay warm this winter…
3. Actually 8 Towns, 1 Village, and a Mead Hall surrounded by shacks… but who’s counting?
5. Yes, I realize I just used a desert metaphor in an article about a glacial, snow-filled region.  Try to be a little more temperate in your judgments of me here…
6. Like www.dungeonsmaster.com, where I frequently post our store’s adventures
7. There are several good ones… Pathfinder makes a great Frozen Pass 2-sided map; there’s a nice ice fortress in the D&D Maps: Shattered Keeps map pack; and there are a couple smaller-press map-makers that have winter-themed mini-maps… all of which you can get through Modern Myths.  If you’re an old-school map person, there was also a D&D Miniatures ice-themed map released several years ago, but I think you can only find that on secondary markets now.
8. Though I also highly recommend the older 4th ed super-adventure “Revenge of the Giants” for more frosty fun.
9. More like “max”iature

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