First things first: this article is spoiler free.
About a week ago, Limitless Adventure Games announced a Kickstarter for their new 5e DM-less adventure: Journey to Beryl’s Reach. Thing is, a game without a DM usually wouldn’t appeal to me. I would probably classify myself first as a game master, and a RPG player character as a distant second. I like the cohesive style and vision you get from a single, dedicated dungeon master. I’ve played a few single player TTRPGs, and while some of them are decent, it’s not close to the same experience as being at a table with actual people. However, I decided to check out the precursor to Beryl’s Reach, The Blood Queen’s Defiance to see how their no DM required system works. The PDF had a bunch of encounters, so I figured I could re-purpose even if I didn’t like it as a master-less game.
I was pleasantly surprised with how simple the implementation was. The adventure is broken up into several segments, and in each one the players get a hand of cards with the type of encounter listed on them. They roll a sort of initiative and place the encounters in that order. For each encounter (Combat, Roleplay, Skill Check, Puzzle, and Wildcard), you flip to the specified page and the player that placed the card reads the encounter and plays their player character as appropriate.
I didn’t really know what to expect. I was thinking it might be some setup where there is basically a revolving GM, who would prepare a session and then hand over the reigns the next week. Separating the responsibility by encounter makes it truly a DM-less adventure and let’s everybody be a player when they run Blood Queen’s Defiance.
The adventure could easily be set in most game worlds. Its content is high-fantasy- almost fairy-tale like with a fair amount of goblin mischief in the early encounters. The story is easy to follow and the villain has a clear motivation, but the narrative is pretty spartan. If your group is full of rich-lore junkies, you’ll probably want to do quite a bit of embellishing when it’s your turn to run your encounter. Part of the fun can definitely be keeping the plot moving in a cogent and engaging way without knowing what comes next, and then tying it into what came before.
The game really shines in its puzzles, roleplay, and skill encounters. I’d consider stealing nearly every puzzle in here if I need one for any of my home brew games. There’s a good balance between ones with a specific answer and more open ended challenges. The sheer variety of encounters ensures pretty much any character archetype has a moment where they can take the spotlight.
Combat on the other hand is fairly vanilla. There aren’t any maps, so if you’re a theater of the mind group, you’re in good shape. If your group is more towards the wargamer end of the spectrum, you’re going to want to break out your erasable battle-matt. Part of the beauty though is that this does afford you the ability to throw in exciting set pieces when it’s your turn to run a battle. I’d recommend you challenge yourself to add in an interactive set piece to every combat. For example, place a chandelier to swing on, a barrel full of something you can know over, or at the very least some broken furniture for a little difficult terrain.
That being said, the adventure is highly entertaining and a ton of fun. I’ve been pondering the question of “who is this for?” I’ve been able to come up with no shortage of answers. If your DM is getting burned out or is sick of being the ‘forever DM,’ this is perfect for you. If your regular game master has to miss a session, you could easily slide into Blood Queen’s Defiance for a night. It’s also great if you just want to try something a little different. However, I think maybe the best fit would be for newer players who don’t if they’d want to be the DM or don’t feel confident that they could run a game on their own yet. When I think back to my earliest experiences with D&D, I remember really wanting to experience being a player character. I tried in vain asking around my high school trying to find somebody who was able or willing to run a game. In the end, I turned out to be the one best suited to run our first adventure. Blood Queen’s Defiance would have been an ideal way to give everyone a taste of both roles.
While I was initially resistant, Limitless Adventure Games has won me over to the concept of a DM-less adventure. Their system is easy to grasp and streamlines the process. Additionally, the content itself is high quality and could easily be sold as a traditional module. I highly recommend you check it out, and now I’m looking forward to more in Journey to Beryl’s Reach. As of this writing, there’s still 11 days left on the Kickstarter, so get in early if you can!