Daggerheart Beta Review

Daggerheart Playtest – A Review

Daggerheart Beta Review

Review in Summary

Daggerheart, published by Critical Role’s games publishing outfit, Darrington Press, has just released its first open beta. We previously reviewed the beta of Candela Obscura on the RPGBOT.Podcast, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting Daggerheart ever since.

Intended for long-form fantasy stories, Daggerheart contains rich character options and mechanics which will support similar storytelling to popular fantasy RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder, but shoots for something less crunchy than DnD.

The game’s introduction lists several touchstones which inspired the games design, including many of the most influential TTRPGs of the last decade. Players with broad experience in the hobby are already pointing out mechanics adapted from or obviously inspired by other systems.

Characters are built similarly to those in DnD, at least in concept, but your abilities are represented by a hand of cards, and benefits from gaining a level include picking from a menu of options for your class, allowing you to customize your stats without big changes in complexity.

The dice system is asymmetrical. Players roll checks with 2d12, and the higher of the two dice generates a metacurrency for either the player or the GM (Hope and Fear, discussed below). Conversely, the GM always rolls a d20 for checks. The rules specify that this is intentional, providing the players with reliability while also making the outcome of the GM’s actions surprising and unpredictable. The economy of the metacurrencies fuels big parts of the game, especially in combat.

Many of the concepts in Daggerheart are novel (at the very least I haven’t seen them before), and many of the subsystems look very satisfying. For the right group, I think this game could work very well, providing much of the swashbuckling adventure of DnD with less of a crunchy, tactical implementation.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is that Daggerheart expects players to be consistently good about both occupying and passing the spotlight, which may be difficult for new, shy, or quiet players. If your table has a few big personalities and a few players who generally wait for someone to stare at them before acting, Daggerheart may be a struggle to play. If your party is comfortable enthusiastically participating without stepping on each other’s toes, Daggerheart should work very well.

If you’re interested in Daggerheart, you may also enjoy our review on the RPGBOT.Podcast.

Hope vs. Fear

“Action Rolls” are used to resolve actions by the players. An Action Roll is 2d12+modifiers, but with some extra steps. Modifiers can come from your character’s Traits, from Experiences, etc.

One die is your Hope Die and the other is your Fear Die. Using two differently-colored dice is recommended. When rolling, you add the values and note which die was higher. Rolling doubles is a Critical Success. If your Hope die is higher, you report the numerical result “with Hope”; if your Fear die is higher, you report the results “with Fear”.

Advantage and Disadvantage add or subtract a d6 from a roll. Advantage can come from several sources, such as a player assisting another player.

Character Creation and Advancement

The rules include a helpful single-page guide to creating characters, breaking down the process into 14 steps. I’ve seen many people online applauding this as the most clear and concise step-by-step explanation of how to build a character which they’ve seen to date, conveniently forgetting that DnD 5e did the same thing 10 years ago. It’s obviously a good design decision, and I’m glad that they did it, but it’s table stakes for a TTRPG at this point.

Many character options are represented by selecting a card, such as the Human Ancestry card. While I’ve had some “get off my lawn” feelings about the card system, it’s mostly there to provide a visual representation of your character’s options which might otherwise be lost in a sea of text written on your character sheet. If you use spell cards for your spellcasters in DnD, it’s basically the same thing, and provides the same helpful visual representation.

Characters have six numerical Traits:

  • Agility (gross motor skills)
  • Strength
  • Finesse (fine motor skills)
  • Instinct (perception and intuition)
  • Presence (social skills)
  • Knowledge (analytical ability)

Compared to the classic 6 ability scores from DnD, Dexterity has been split in two and Constitution has been removed. Traits are determined using a standard array and can be increased when your character gains a level.

Your choice of traits will also impact which weapons are effective for your character. The majority of weapons are tied to Strength or Agility, but there is at least one option for every Trait, such as the Rapier for Presence.

Ancestry represents your character’s biological heritage. The beta rules include an impressive 27 options, including the immediate crowd favorite, the Ribbit. Each ancestry provides 

mechanical benefits, such as the Halfling’s ability to give everyone in the party free Hope and the ability to reroll 1’s on the Hope die (one of the two d12’s rolled for checks).

Community represents your character’s cultural heritage, and provides another mechanical benefit, such as Seaborne letting you take an extra Rest Action during a Short Rest once per game session.

Class and subclass represents your character’s training. Each class has a unique class feature, and subclasses provide an initial feature, plus more features as you gain levels and improve the subclass. If you multiclass, you give up your top-tier subclass feature.

Classes each have two Domains, which are thematic collections of special abilities represented by cards. Overlaps in these Domains show conceptual and mechanical overlap between classes. You choose two Domain cards at level 1, then add more as you gain levels. Higher levels unlock access to higher-level cards, diversifying your options as you level. You’re free to pick from either of your class’s Domains.

The Domain names are confusing. It feels like they tried to make them sound cool, but the names don’t explain what they do clearly enough that you can remember what most of them are. This is likely a minor pain point when you’re playing the game.

Each class provides some starting equipment chosen from a series of multiple-choice options. Equipment is detailed enough to feel meaningful, but there’s no detailed tracking of gold, rations, or ammunition.

You can have as many as 5 Domain cards in your Loadout. The others are set aside. These sidebarred cards are available by spending Stress, or you can change your Loadout any time that you take a rest. This might help with analysis paralysis at high levels, but it likely also means that utility options will be permanently sidebarred in favor of combat options.

Characters also have a loosely-defined set of “Experiences”. These reflect capabilities from your character’s backstory and allow you to spend a Hope when your Experience is relevant in order to add the Experience’s value to the roll. Characters start with one +2 Experience and one +1 Experience, and you can gain more as you gain levels. I think players will find the term “experience” confusing since it has such a well-established meaning in games, but I do like the mechanic a lot. It’s a great way to represent loose mechanical benefits based on a character’s unique life experiences in a way that strictly-defined character options can’t.

Character levels run from 1 to 10, with tiers from 1 to 4, 5 to 7, and 8 to 10. Each tier grants access to a list of benefits which can be selected by checking 2 boxes when you gain a level, such as increasing attributes or increasing your hit points, as well as selecting a new Domain card.

Combat and Other Violence

“The game takes a more rules-light approach in its design, encouraging players and GMs to focus on the story they’re telling rather than the complexity of the mechanics. It asks them to act in good faith with one another to tell the best story they can, and looks to provide structure when it’s unclear how things might resolve within that story. The system has a free-flowing approach to combat to avoid stopping down the game into rounds, and it doesn’t rely on grid-based movement for the maps and minis.”

Characters have a pool of “Stress” which functions similar to hit points. Stress is “marked” under several circumstances, and can be removed by rolling a Critical Success or by resting. Stress can be spent to use special abilities, but if you’re out of Stress you’ll instead mark a hit point. Characters start with a stress maximum of 5 and can raise that maximum to 9.

Players attack against a creature’s difficult score, rolling the usual 2d12 action check and adding modifiers. On a hit they inflict weapon damage multiplied by their Proficiency stat, which can range from 1 to 6, meaning that high-level characters can do a ton of damage.

When the GM attacks a player, they roll a d20 + modifiers against the player’s Evasion. A character’s base Evasion is determined by your class (8 for wizards, 12 for rogues, etc.) and is modified up or down by the character’s equipment and character advancement decisions.

When creatures take damage, the damage is compared to their Damage Thresholds, and categorized into minor (1 hp), major (2 hp), and severe (3 hp). Characters begin with 6 hit points at level 1, and will have at most 12 at level 10, so the damage thresholds matter significantly. Damage which doesn’t exceed a character’s Minor threshold instead inflicts 1 Stress, but if a character’s Stress is full, any Stress instead inflicts hit points.

This has interesting implications for how combat works: a character dealing 20 damage is no more effective than a character dealing 30 damage when an enemy’s Severe Damage Threshold is 15 because both characters will only inflict 3 hp. Looking at this from a character optimizer’s perspective, I wonder if this will give players space to select fun situational abilities without feeling like it’s a huge sacrifice to do so. Alternatively, it could result in players optimizing for specific damage breakpoints where the big attack with a large cost does no better at hitting the Threshold than the perfectly average swing.

Armor offers another pool. Each armor point can be spent to reduce incoming damage, ideally moving the incoming damage into a lower Damage Threshold so that you suffer less hp loss. Armor values range from 3 for leather armor to 12 for plate armor with shields and certain character options adding additional armor.

I really don’t care for the Damage Threshold mechanic. It’s hit points with extra steps. I think the intent is that more durable characters are less impacted by the same amount of damage, but that can be very easily handled by having a larger pool of hit points so that the damage is a proportionally smaller portion of the character’s hp.

If they want some damage to be so negligible that it doesn’t affect hit points, they could subtract some value from incoming damage and anything reduced to 0 would inflict a point of Stress, just as they currently handle damage below your Minor Damage Threshold.


Daggerheart does not use a strictly-defined turn order. It’s close to “side initiative”, but since there’s no strict limits on how often a player can act, that’s not an accurate way to explain Daggerheat.

Combat begins with the players. Players can act in whatever order they like, potentially acting multiple times or not at all if they so choose. Each time a player acts, they place one of their player tokens on the “Action Tracker” (which is described as a card but would probably work better as a bowl). This helps to note who has and hasn’t acted, visually encouraging players to share the spotlight so everyone gets to act.

When a player rolls a failure or Rolls with Fear, play passes to the GM. The GM then spends those player tokens on the Action Tracker to activate enemies, remove conditions from them, fuel their special abilities, etc until every enemy has acted (only once each time the GM acts), the GM runs out of tokens, or the GM decides they’re satisfied and passes play back to the players.

All of this depends heavily on good behavior by the players. They need to consciously share the spotlight and encourage everyone to take turns rather than allowing less boisterous players to sit in silence.

In addition, the GM can interrupt the players’ actions by spending 2 Fear to pass play to the GM. This gives the GM a way to respond if the players have a long series of lucky rolls, but it does also require that the GM keep some Fear in reserve.


When characters drop to 0 hp, they can choose one of three “death actions”:

  • Blaze of glory: one action w/ automatic critical success
  • Avoid death and face consequences: roll your Fear die, potentially permanently reduce your Hope capacity
  • Risk it all: roll both dice. If Hope wins, you stay up. If Fear wins, you die. If they tie, you clear all hp and stress.

I love this. It feels very dramatic, and even if you choose the “safe” option, you still risk consequences. The roll of the Fear die gets more likely to reduce your Hope capacity as you gain levels, so higher-level characters are more likely to suffer Scars than brand new characters who are more likely to fall to 0.

Resurrection is also very difficult. A few classes can get a single-use Resurrection spell at level 10, which is the level cap. Expect death to be permanent most of the time.

Why Can’t I Hold All These Props?

Playing Daggerheart requires an unusually large number of physical props.

  • Dice: You need a full set of dice at minimum, but more likely you’ll need two full sets of 7 dice in different colors.
  • Tokens: You need roughly 7 tokens to represent your character. These could be whatever you want. Pogs, poker chips, very tiny hats, whatever. But you need roughly 7 depending on your character’s build.
  • Game Cards: You will have cards representing your character’s various abilities. One from each of your Ancestry, Community, and Foundation, then from 1 to 10 Domain cards (essentially class features). Don’t worry, you won’t use all of these at once; some of them get put into a sideboard so that you can have Magic: The Gathering trauma flashbacks.
  • Action Tracker card: I don’t know if this has anything on it or why everyone needs one since it’s shared by the table. Also, I’m strongly of the opinion that a shallow bowl would be much more effective so that tokens don’t form a precarious tower.
  • X-Card: The game assumes safety tools. 
  • Character Sheet: There is one, and it looks like a trading card game playmat.
  • Character Sheet Sidecar: If you multiclass and/or if you get a ranger’s beast companion, you add an extra column alongside your character sheet.

Novel Approaches to Classic Challenges

Hope vs. Fear

Action rolls have a roughly even chance to roll “with hope” or “with fear”, each generating a currency of the same name. Hope is the players’ most fluid resource, coming and going quickly to power special abilities, to use Experiences, and to help allies. 

I say “roughly even” because rolling doubles is a critical success and gives you Hope, so you’re marginally more likely to roll with Hope than with Fear.

Fear is for the GM to hurt you with. They can use it to end temporary effects, such as ongoing spells cast by players or conditions on enemies, to get additional action tokens in combat with which to activate monsters, and to activate “Fear Moves” like having a bunch of minions attack at once or having a powerful enemy attack the entire party.

Players can each have up to 5 Hope, while the GM can have up to 10 Fear at any given time. Hoarding is not recommended and generally not helpful.

I’m curious to see how these metacurrencies work in practice. The rules document mentions players monitoring the Fear pool and optimizing characters and actions to make efficient use of Hope. This could either provide a fun but subtle mathematical equation underneath the narrative, or it might turn what is supposed to be a narrative-focused game into competitive accounting. It might depend on your group.

Nap Time

Rests can be short (1 hour) or long (a full night). Rests allow players to perform two rest actions of their choice, choosing to restore hp to themself or an ally, restore armor slots to themself or an ally, remove stress from themself or an ally, or to gain Hope. During a long rest, if two or more players gain Hope together, they instead gain 2, encouraging characters to spend time encouraging each other and bonding during rests.

I really like that the rest mechanics allow two actions to remove some of the analysis paralysis and that you can use your actions to help allies, so if one ally is in really rough shape but everyone else is fine, the party can spend their rest actions to heal them, remove Stress, and repair their armor. No resource goes wasted, everyone comes out feeling good, and no one is forced to dedicate a bunch of build resources to a medicine skill or magical healing.

Biggest Playtest Document I’ve Ever Seen

The playtest manuscript is 377 pages, but it’s also accompanied by 10 PDFs of character sheets, a few 1-page reference documents (character creation, starting equipment, etc.), 3 maps to choose from for your game world (you get to populate them collaboratively with your group), PDFs of all of the character option cards to print and cut apart, a 36-page adventure, and three pages of double-sided paper pawns which you can print and cut out to use for monsters. 400+ pages of content.

Pain Points

I think Daggerheart will be a lot of fun for experienced groups playing in person. The narrative-focused approach and loosely defined turns are great, but adding the cross-chatter difficulties imposed by a video call will make things grind to halt for many groups.

The number of tokens, cards, and other accessories seems frustrating. Losing or accidentally walking away with Player Tokens will be a persistent problem. I don’t know how I feel about the card system yet.

I do not like the damage threshold mechanic. I’m perfectly happy subtracting hit points. But that may be personal preference and familiarity bias.

Conclusion and summary of personal opinions

I can usually read a game system and get a sense of whether or not I’ll enjoy playing it. My tastes lean toward crunchy games like Pathfinder, but I also enjoy lighter games if the mechanics are satisfying

I don’t know what to do with Daggerheart.

There are some really cool ideas here. The asynchronous dice system is novel and I like the justification behind it. I love a metacurrency, and the constant back-and-forth with resources looks like a lot of fun. The rest system is fantastic. Character creation and advancement both look great.

With the right group, this could be a ton of fun. But the people I play with split evenly into the “loud, boisterous player” and “quiet, observant player” groups, and the latter group would probably suffer while the former had a great time. 

You can download the Daggerheart playtest document for free on DriveThruRPG.

In addition, the beta is available via Demiplane, including free character creation tools.

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