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Daggerheart Beta Review

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Daggerheart Beta Review -Critical Role Hit or Fumble?

It’s 2024 and D&D is on the cusp of ticking over into a new “edition” right on the heels of a debacle regarding the open gaming license. That’s all to say that quite a few players have been taking a look at new systems and alternatives to 5th edition D&D. In steps Critical Role, likely the most influential TTRPG group out there with Daggerheart, a soon to be released upcoming fantasy tabletop role playing game that can conveniently be used instead of 5e for your campaigns. Is Daggerheart any good? How different is it from 5e? Grab your hope and fear dice and your class cards as we go through everything you need to know. 

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When Does Daggerheart Come Out?

Daggerheart is still very much in the testing phase, and we won’t be seeing the full release until sometime in 2025, though even that is a tentative release date. 

What’s Out for Daggerheart Now?

Critical Role’s publishing side Darrington Press released a massive 377-page playtest document for free online which contains essentially Daggerheart’s core rulebook. There are some sections that are labeled as “to be filled in later” but the majority of the rules we’d expect for a full TTRPG system are here and ready to be played with.

They also released a 39-page quick start adventure, containing 5 prebuilt level 1 Daggerheart characters and a brief little adventure path to get new players accustomed to the rules.

None of these rules are final and everything is still in playtesting form, so keep that in mind as we go through the core game mechanics and impressions. Everything is still subject to change and the final product might be radically different from what we’ve seen so far.

Do I Need to Buy Cards and Tokens?

Daggerheart uses “domain cards” with class features on them and quite a few different “tokens” for tracking. Thankfully though, those “cards” can just as easily be jotted down on scraps of paper and those tokens can just as easily be dice, generic bits, or pieces of candy for all it matters. There’s no special game pieces you’ll need to purchase, though I’m sure official sets will be sold for swag purposes.

There’s an Online Character Creator?

Yup, just go to and go to their Daggerheart section and you’ll already be able to access a fully functioning Daggerheart character creation tool. Demiplane is a great website and it’s downright impressive that they have a character creator online already this early in the testing phase. 

What Kind of System is Daggerheart?

I’ll get into the core mechanics in just a bit, but as an elevator pitch, I’d describe Daggerheart as 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons that has been pushed hard into the narrative storytelling direction and away from the combat tactics side of the hobby. If you imagine 5e with less crunch, you’re not far off. This is a game system designed specifically to take on the same kind of stories and campaigns you’d expect to use systems like 5e D&D or Pathfinder for, but with as much narrative freedom as possible, and as little math as possible. Or at least as little visible math as possible, but more on that in a second.

Hope and Fear Dice

This is the foundational mechanic that most of Daggerheart is tied to. Instead of rolling a d20, players will be rolling two 2d12s for the majority of their actions, adding the results along with any bonuses they may have and comparing the result to a target number. They should be different colors, as one of these d12’s is their “hope” die, and the other is their “fear” die.

These paired dice do a lot of work in the system, and I’m rather impressed with the systems they were able to build off them.

Firstly, these dice give a roll a success gradient that many players will be familiar with from more narrative systems. When your roll is higher than the target and your “hope” die was the higher result of the two d12s, you “succeeded with hope”. And if your “fear” die was the higher result, you “succeeded with fear”. And you have the same duality if you fail the check, “failing with hope” or “failing with fear”. These results essentially give us a scale going from “unmitigated success” to “complete failure”. If you succeed with fear, you accomplish your task but with some sort of complication or negative side effect, and similarly failing with hope means failing the task but with some beneficial side effect or development.

The next important mechanic linked to these dice are your “hope tokens” and “fear tokens”. Whenever you make a “roll with hope” you gain a hope token, a consumable resource that a lot of class abilities use as fuel. It also has a sort of function’s like 5e’s inspiration and can be spent to grant the game’s version of advantage on an ally’s roll. Fear tokens on the other hand go to the DM, who can spend them to empower enemy features, or to add complications or threats to the situation. 

I was very impressed with how well this system worked and how many ways they integrated it into the rest of the mechanics.

Flow of Combat

Daggerheart doesn’t have a typical initiative order or turn cycle, instead it ties back into the duality dice for a sort of improvised narrative control that bounces back and forth between the players and the DM.

Essentially, the players are free to do anything they want, but whenever they perform an action and roll their duality dice, they have a chance of either keeping that narrative control or giving control back to the DM. Whenever a player rolls “with hope”, the players keep control, and whenever they roll “with fear” the DM takes it back over. I really dig this innovation, and it does feel like the best of both worlds when it comes to narrative vs tactical initiative tracking.

They keep the action economy balanced through “action tokens” and an “action tracker”. Whenever a player finishes performing an action, they place a token onto a “tracker” card. Once control goes back to the DM, they have the enemies (or circumstance) do an equal number of “actions” before passing control back to the players.

My one concern with this is that there doesn’t seem to be any mechanic that makes sure each player gets their fair share of actions. Likely won’t be an issue at healthy game tables, but I could easily see overbearing players monopolizing encounters if the DM doesn’t step in.

Quick and Simple Character Creation

I’m not kidding when I say that while testing this system I created a character in 10 minutes.  Character creation consists of the following:

  • Choose a heritage.
  • Choose a class.
  • Choose Domain cards.
  • Assign traits.
  • Decide experiences.
  • Think up background fluff and physical descriptions.

Your heritage is your physical form, and they start the playtest off with a strong selection of fantasy creatures such as frogmen, steampunk robots, and living mushrooms. I was a bit disappointed to find that your heritage provides only a single feature (or in just a few cases two weaker features). I can appreciate streamlining but it does feel a bit odd that the only difference between a giant and a fairy is a single feature.

Classes are similarly streamlined. Pick one and fill in a few numbers that are determined by your class such as your evasion score (think AC), your hit points, and your stress (more on that in a bit). Other than that, you’ll pick a subclass, which is always a single feature with some additional features at later levels. The classes themselves are also often a single feature, at least at first.

Your primary way to customize beyond basic heritage and class combination comes from something called “domain cards”. There is a selection of “domains” that are basically pools of features you can choose from by selecting their “cards”. Each class has two domains, and you start out with two cards of your choice from those domains to work with. This all boils down to picking two features out of a selection of 10 or so and picking another one sometimes as you level up.

Then you assign your traits (think like ability scores). Rather than rolling for these or using a point buy system, you simply get to place a +2, +1, +1, +0, +0, and -1 as you want across a set of 6 traits.

The last mechanically impactful choice you make are your “experiences”, which are extremely loose. You pick one “thing” to get a +2 in and another to get a +1 in, and while you can’t be overly vague, you’re allowed to come up with basically anything and if a check relates to it you get the bonus. You could pick something silly like “underwater basket weaving” but you’re meant to pick some sort of relevant background, specialty, or skill you want your character to be good at. It could be “noble”, or “sharpshooter”, or “street doctor”, and I do appreciate the amount of free creativity this provides for.

Finally, you have a series of fluff prompts designed to tie you closer to the party. Things like “a secret that only your friends know” and “what did you do that got us into trouble”. These are better than normal fluff entries since they directly relate to the other players and a lot of thought seems to have been put into them to get dialogs going, particularly for a session zero. 

Damage Thresholds and Stress

Daggerheart introduces the “stress” mechanic, which is both a resource and a sort of secondary set of hit points. Some of your character features will let you take stress to do powerful things, and in that respect, it takes on the role typically played by “once per X” limits or other constraints that make sure you don’t spam a powerful ability. 

Explaining the other main function of stress requires explaining the way that Daggerheart manages damage, and something called a “damage threshold”. Whenever a character takes damage, they don’t actually lose an equal amount of hit points. Instead they have a set of 3 “damage thresholds” determined by their class that tell you how many hit points they lose depending on the amount of damage taken.

For example, for our test game I built a goblin rogue and found that the rogue’s damage thresholds were as follows:

  • 4: Minor
  • 9: Major
  • 14: Severe

So, if my goblin takes 14 or more damage in a single hit it’s a severe injury, 9 to 13 damage is a major injury, and 4 to 8 is a minor injury. Minor injuries result in losing 1 hit point, major injuries result in losing 2 hit points, and severe injuries result in losing 3 hit points. Finally, if my goblin takes 1 to 3 damage, that’s not high enough to be an injury, so he’d take a stress instead, and if you ever have to take stress past your stress limit, you lose hit points instead.

From my admittedly brief foray into the system, I find that I do rather like the stress mechanic, and while I was iffy on the damage thresholds at first I do see the appeal. Even though you’re still dealing with hit points, it can feel a bit more like dealing with serious injuries rather than ticking a number down until it reaches 0 (though functionally that’s still what’s happening under the hood). 

10 Level System

Daggerheart uses an advancement track of 10 levels with a leveling mechanic that I don’t think I’ve ever seen elsewhere. For each class you get a list of simple options for every 3 three levels in the form of a card with a set of checkboxes. Every time you level up, you choose two of those boxes and gain the benefits of any feature you’ve filled all the boxes in. For example, on my goblin rogue I had the following options for by 2nd, 3rd, and 4th levels:

  • Increase two unmarked character traits by +1 and mark them: 3 Checks
  • Permanently gain 1 hit point slot: 1 Check
  • Permanently gain 1 stress slot: 1 Check
  • Increase your proficiency by +1: 1 Check
  • Permanently gain 1 armor slot or +1 evasion: 1 Check
  • Increase your major damage threshold by +2: 1 Check
  • Increase your minor damage threshold by +1: 1 Check

Then after these options, you automatically increase your severe damage threshold by 2 and pick a new domain card.

So, this check system is interesting. You’ve got a bunch of options, but once the boxes are checked they stay checked and you can’t repeat the option until you get to the next tier or set of 3 levels which will have a new set of options to check off. My rogue mostly had a bunch of 1 check options but other classes and even later rouge levels there were stronger options that cost 2. There aren’t a big list of class features to gain since it’s all been pushed into the domain cards, which means all of the classes really feel like a central core feature and a selection of à la carte dissociated abilities. 

The fact that for every class it seems that the trait increases (essentially the ASI or ability score increases) cost 3 checks mean you basically have to spend a level and a half to increase any core stats, which is a bit awkward. The whole “mark an unmarked trait” thing also means even at 10th level you’ll only ever get a maximum of +3 in a single stat, so you’re never going to get that much stronger than your starting character even at maximum level. Proficiency seems to be the most powerful option as far as raw damage goes, as gaining proficiency means adding additional damage dice to your attacks.    

Tiered Weapons

One of the main ways characters seem to get stronger in Daggerheart is through a tiered weapon system. The weapon selection is thankfully pretty broad and includes both physical weapons and magical weapons like wands and staves. Each weapon is directly tied to a specific trait. For example, wands will always use your knowledge trait to determine your attack bonus, and daggers will always use your finesse trait.

Damage is determined by the weapon as well and is essentially multiplied by your proficiency score. For example, a longsword’s damage die is a d8. If my character has 1 proficiency, attacking with a longsword will deal 1d8 damage. But if my character has 3 proficiency, it’ll deal 3d8 damage instead.

Then each weapon has tiers of improved version, typically ranging from the basic version available to characters on character creation, an “improved” version meant for levels 2-4, an “advanced” version meant for levels 5-7, and a “legendary” version meant for levels 8-10.

For example, the basic longsword deals 1d8 damage, the “improved longsword” deals 1d8 + 2 damage, the “advanced longsword” deals 1d8 + 4 damage, and the “legendary longsword” deals 1d8 + 6 damage. Note that proficiency only multiplies the damage dice, so those static bonuses will remain identical regardless of your proficiency.

Some weapons also have some keywords and effects. Using our longsword again, every version of the longsword has the “reliable” rule, which grants you a +1 bonus on attacks made with it.

There are also some more unique weapons that only have higher tier versions, with effects more powerful than a normal weapon.

While it does seem like proficiency has a big impact on the damage numbers, I’m still a bit wary of weapons tiered like this. Only time will tell if these weapon tier options end up functioning like fun adventuring rewards or like a necessary upgrade the DM is responsible for providing.

Is Daggerheart a Good Game?

I believe Daggerheart will be an excellent game for a small number of playgroups, and a mediocre to terrible game for many playgroups. I think it really comes down to the question, “who is this game for?”

Fundamentally, Daggerheart is a hard push into the group narrative side of TTRPGs and away from the tactical wargame side of TTRPGs, using 5e D&D as a starting point. The combat encounters are loose and free flowing. Crunch and math have been stripped out wherever possible and character sheets are going to look very simple. There’s nothing wrong with group narrative and rules light games, but I worry it doesn’t go far enough. My initial thought was that this would be a great system for kids and newer players, but the more I read through it the more I found that the math wasn’t really removed, it was just hidden.

A good example of this is how the system handles gold. Nothing in the book has a gold cost and they specifically mention how gold and money is sort of up to the DM to do with as they please. Gold isn’t even given out as a number of gold coins, instead you have “handfuls”, “bags”, “chests”, “hoards”, and “fortunes” of gold. The obvious intent here is to handwave a somewhat fiddly number into just an “item” in your inventory, but it’s still fiddly. Six handfuls of gold equals one Bag of gold. Five bags of gold equals one chest of gold and so on. The result is still a fiddly number, and now you have to remember their weird conversion rates to keep it straight.

The rules for ranged attacks and effects are very similar to this. Daggerheart wants really hard to handwave the fiddly math of measuring exact distances with feet or meters into distance measurements like “very close” or “far”. But rather than committing to that group narrative style of play it then assigns ranges in feet to each of those measurements anyway. Very close is 5-10 feet, and close is 10-30 feet. But instead of telling us these ranges within features, we’ll have to remember what “close” means. The math is still there, it’s just hidden.

My other main issue with Daggerheart lies in how much of the game relies on players not being jerks. That may sound silly, but group narrative games need to integrate safeguards against divas hogging the spotlight, and make sure players who don’t have the loudest voice in the room get a fair chance to roleplay. Daggerheart gives the “players” plural control quite often, but without any kind of turn system there’s nothing stopping the “players” from leaving wallflowers to languish in silence as the more vocal players dominate the narrative. 

You might think “well just behave and be a better playgroup”, and you’re right, but it really causes problems if you try to hand this system over to kids or inexperienced groups. Newbies may not realize they’re causing problems by hogging the spotlight, and this is a serious issue that makes me second guess recommending the system for newer players.

That brings me back around to my real issue with Daggerheart, who is it for? The grognards and tactical wargamers will hate this game. And for group narrative gamers this system still likely has too much crunch lurking in the rulebook. I think the answer is that it’s for Critical Role, and playgroups that want to be Critical Role.

Critical Role is a playgroup of experienced roleplayers that get along well and create great narratives together, a group of theater kids happily turning dice rolls into memorable moments. They are a peak group narrative playgroup, who very understandably would prefer a less crunchy version of the game they’re already playing that gets less in the way of them acting their hearts out. They don’t need to worry about divas or power gamers because their group is already in sync, and the turn order is just a narrative constraint for them. For Critical Role and playgroups like them, Daggerheart is the perfect game. 

If every playgroup and campaign was like Critical Role, I would recommend Daggerheart in a heartbeat. But I just think it is trying to both have and eat its cake. I hope the final version implements some safeguards and mechanical ways to keep the quieter players from getting left behind. I really wished I could recommend this game to kids and new players, but I can’t. Instead, Daggerheart feels like the fantasy roleplaying system for streamers and by streamers, likely coming soon to a podcast near you.   

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Last updated: January 27, 2019

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