Growing up, I never played Dungeons & Dragons. It was probably a combination of the game seeming overwhelming with its many races, classes, and rules to learn, but also because it seemed like it was too dorky for a kid who was already spending most of his time playing video games–cool ones, though. However, and as my eventual career path would prove, I was lying to myself. I found the appeal of Dungeons & Dragons growing stronger as I discovered hilarious shows like Nerd Poker and, more recently, Dimension 20. I was starting to learn the basics of Dungeons & Dragons’ rules despite only tuning in for laughs, but everyone I knew who played the game was already very experienced. Who wants to play with someone who’s still learning how to tack on modifiers and roll for initiative? Video games seemed like a good alternative, but choosing one wasn’t so easy.
There have been countless official Dungeons & Dragons games released over the years, though not all of them have stuck to the tabletop version’s gameplay style or rules, and most of them–Baldur’s Gate 3 being the biggest exception–use older D&D rulesets. Because they use old rulesets and often different game mechanics, these other games are much less useful for actually learning how to play D&D.
Enter Xbox Game Pass and Solasta: Crown of the Magister, a game you probably haven’t heard of, especially if you aren’t staying up-to-date on all things D&D.
It’s one that, admittedly, doesn’t sound revolutionary by its name. I discovered it on a whim when browsing the Xbox Game Pass lineup, and the elevator pitch in the description sold me immediately. It has kept my attention since then, and I’ve found myself itching to return to my party’s story whenever I’m doing practically anything else.
Chungledown Bim is shaking in his boots.
Utilizing a licensed D&D 5th Edition ruleset without being an official D&D game, nearly every feature in Solasta is word-for-word the same as Dungeons & Dragons. The majority of the races, classes, weapons, spell types, and possible combat moves are pulled straight from the tabletop game. What this allows for is a seamless transition from Solasta to playing D&D, as the game is training you without you even realizing it. Learning how to set up attacks of opportunity, surprise enemies, and best utilize each class becomes second nature, as does knowing when it’s best to avoid combat and get a little more creative. I got the very basics of this from those comedy-centric D&D shows, especially Dimension 20’s Fantasy High, but I was able to see all that crash-course knowledge in action because of Solasta.
The aesthetics match up with classic tabletop games, too, in a very literal way. When attempting any sort of attack, saving throw, or ability check in Solasta, dice appear on the screen. You even hear them clack before the numbers are revealed, and you can customize what the dice look like if you don’t like the standard option. It’s something that, in terms of how the game operates, changes literally nothing, but it further hammers home the idea that you are effectively playing the tabletop D&D game in another form.
It’s not just the combat or window dressing that really show off how authentic the Solasta experience is, either. Before starting a campaign, I had to choose my four adventurers. Solasta offers a selection of pre-made characters, but it’s a whole lot more fun to make your own, and you can customize practically everything. Picking character traits affects the alignment of your squad, and I noticed it reflected almost immediately. My lawful-good paladin Aldritch wanted to de-escalate most situations, while the hot-headed fighter Mason preferred more of an “anyway, I started blasting” strategy. They felt like my characters, and their flaws–just like their strengths–shaped what I could do. Sometimes, that even meant simply avoiding a side mission because my party wasn’t equipped to deal with a certain enemy type, but surviving is about being smart as much as it is about being strong.
Situations can often play out very differently if you try to avoid combat.
Solasta’s story isn’t anything to write home about, but that’s hardly a deal-breaker for those still getting their bearings. A substantial user-creation tool called the Dungeon Maker allows you to effectively DM your own games, creating areas, encounters, and stories via existing assets. Sure, you aren’t going to make a John Hughes coming-of-age tale via this tool, but it allows those interested in running their own games to get the hang of what’s necessary–and potentially fail without wasting anyone else’s time. You won’t be able to pull from your stash of silly voices like Brennan Lee Mulligan, but you can keep those in your back pocket for when you’re ready to run an honest-to-goodness D&D campaign.
It’s through playing Solasta and enjoying those different shows that I grew to understand what Dungeons & Dragons is, and what it isn’t. There are lots of carefully crafted official worlds like the Forgotten Realms, but those exact characters and landmarks are not what defines D&D. Instead, its game systems and mechanics do that, and in its most basic form, Dungeons & Dragons is a malleable framework onto which you can apply almost anything you want. I’ve been kicking around the idea of a modern espionage setting, renaming weapons and spells as necessary without having to actually break any rules. Playing Solasta has made me confident that I could actually achieve this. Everyone will be making deception checks and hiding while an evil mastermind tries to enact a world-ending master plan. There may or may not be sharks with laser beams on their heads.
When it’s eventually out of early access, will Baldur’s Gate 3 scratch the same sort of itch that Solasta does right now? Chances are that it will for many, but being able to play it on a whim via Xbox Game Pass allowed me to fully embrace the D&D ruleset and start seriously thinking about starting my own campaign. Developer Tactical Adventures has plenty to be proud of, and it will be exciting to see if a larger budget or development team could lead to even more authentic D&D gameplay or storytelling systems. My insight check says it’s likely.