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How to play Daggerheart: Where to start with Critical Role’s fantasy RPG

A beginner’s guide to the new D&D rival’s playtest rules.

Image credit: Darrington Press/Nikki Dawes

The open beta rules for Daggerheart, Darrington Press’ newest tabletop RPG, are here. From the people behind Critical Role, Daggerheart returns players to a familiar high-fantasy setting that feels akin to Dungeons & Dragons 5E. However this time around, the nitty-gritty has been left at the wayside. Instead, this new tabletop RPG looks to focus more on narrative and character growth.

How to play Daggerheart

Similarities to the most popular tabletop RPG in the world aside, Daggerheart (in its early form, anyway) is much more narrative-focused than the likes of D&D, with a system that thrives on character and player creativity. Many of the rules and guidelines that make up the crunch of D&D, such as initiative, movement speed and other combat-oriented mechanics, fall to the wayside for something that’s much more rules-light and forgiving for players who prefer to keep the good times rolling, rather than get bogged down by numbers. The story, as collaborated on by GM and players alike, is king in Daggerheart.

That, of course, doesn’t mean that Daggerheart is simple. That’s where our guide on how to play Daggerheart comes in, getting you up to speed up with the basics of the RPG, its playtest rules and how to create your first character.

It should be noted that Daggerheart is, for now, in early open beta. That means that this guide could change over time as Darrington Press and Critical Role continue to update the tabletop RPG's playtest rules ahead of its planned release in 2025.

Wheels and Maddie share their thoughts on Daggerheart's playtest rulesWatch on YouTube

What is Daggerheart?

Daggerheart is a fantasy RPG that sees adventurers working together to solve (and sometimes cause) problems set in a fantastical realm. The players are guided by a game master, similar to a DM in Dungeons & Dragons, who describes the world, embodies the non-player characters, throws creatures and adversaries (the game’s term for enemies) at them in combat, and sets the rules and limitations for the players.

When the players want to interact meaningfully with the world, the GM asks them to make an ability roll and, depending on their results, narrates whether they succeed or not. The same goes for when players are in combat.


What do I need to play Daggerheart?

Here’s everything you need to start a Daggerheart session, whether it be a one-shot or campaign.

  • 2-5 players: This is the general range of players the Daggerheart playtest rules recommend when starting a session. Each player will create a character.
  • A game master: A game master (GM) will be the storyteller who collaborates with the players to narrate their journey.
  • (At least) 2 sets of polyhedral dice: Daggerheart uses a full set of polyhedral dice: a d4, d6, d8, d10, d12 and d20. It’s best to have more than one set, as you’ll need at least 2d12 with a distinct colour difference to represent your Duality Dice.
  • Character tokens: Each player will need to gather a pool of small objects, such as coins or even marbles. These are to help players count their modifiers each time they roll, placed on ability cards that require a token, and used when you make a roll during combat.
  • Game cards: Daggerheart comes with game cards that represent many of the game's core mechanics, such as a character’s ancestry, community, foundation and domain. Alongside the Action Tracker and X-Card, players and GMs will have access to these in-game cards via the official rulebook and playtest materials.
  • Character sheet: Depending on your preferences, whether you’re playing in-person or not, you’ll want a physical (or digital) character sheet to help track your character’s resources and actions.
  • Recommended stationary: Again, this is highly dependent on how you’re playing Daggerheart, but it’s always recommended to have pens, pencils, rubbers and whatever else is necessary before starting a session.
Daggerheart has some similarities to other RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, but with a typically lighter set of rules and more of a focus on storytelling than combat. | Image credit: Darrington Press/Nikki Dawes

How to create a Daggerheart character

Making a character is always one of the most exciting things about playing a tabletop RPG, and creating a character in Daggerheart is no exception.

Characters in Daggerheart are defined by a number of character options, including their class, foundation, ancestry, community and experiences.

Class and Foundations

For their character’s Class, players are able to choose out of the following selection:

  • Bard
  • Druid
  • Guardian
  • Ranger
  • Rogue
  • Seraph
  • Sorcerer
  • Warrior
  • Wizard

Each class has two Foundations, which is a fancier way to say subclasses. Each foundation is represented by game cards, and convey two very distinctive styles on how to play said class. For example, the two foundations for a Seraph character are Winged Sentinel and Divine Wielder, and their differences are rather stark. For Winged Sentinel, the Seraph may spend a Hope to do extra damage, as well as fly. On the other hand, Divine Wielder can summon a spiritual weapon to fly from their hand and attack adversaries, or touch another creature to heal their hit points or Stress. The player can only choose one foundation.

Ancestry

Next, a character should choose their Ancestry. This represents your character’s heritage and comes with a unique feature that symbolises their lineage.

Players can choose from the following ancestries in Daggerheart:

  • Clank
  • Daemon
  • Drakona
  • Dwarf
  • Elf
  • Faerie
  • Faun
  • Firbolg
  • Fungril
  • Galapa
  • Giant
  • Goblin
  • Halfling
  • Human
  • Katari
  • Orc
  • Ribbet
  • Simiah

If they so choose, players are able to mix their ancestry by deciding how they would like their character to represent themselves. For example, if the character decides their ancestry comes from both a Drakona and a Halfling, they could decide to call themselves a ‘Drakona Halfling’ or make up their own name meant to represent these two heritages.

Mechanically, a player who comes from two (or more) different ancestries gets to choose which unique feature of the two represents their character.

Daggerheart's character options include ancestries such as the turtlefolk Galapa. | Image credit: Darrington Press/Jessica Nguyen

Community

After that, a player must pick their Community - in other words, where their character was born. Players can choose from the following communities in Daggerheart:

  • Highborne
  • Ridgeborne
  • Seaborne
  • Underborne
  • Wildborne
  • Loreborne
  • Wanderborne
  • Slyborne

A character’s community comes with unique traits that help shape their past and how they interact with the world. For example, a character from the Underborne community gains an advantage on rolls to hide, perceive, and investigate details while in low light or heavy shadow.

Experiences

Next are Experiences. Experiences in Daggerheart are words or phrases that sum up key parts of your character’s background or expertise and are entirely player-defined. For example, in Critical Role’s own one-shot session of Daggerheart, Laura Bailey’s character Sweetpea has an experience called ‘Sneaky Little Mushroom’, which represents how great her character is at remaining unseen. It is completely unique to her character.

That said, if you’re having trouble thinking up your character’s experiences, then don’t fret. The Daggerheart playtest rules offer several examples that can help you figure out what you’re looking for - and you always have your GM to help build on your character as well.

Mechanically speaking, experiences are used by spending a Hope die and adding the relevant experience modifier to a roll. At their first level, player characters will have two experiences - one with a +2 modifier, the other with +1 - with an additional Experience being added at levels 2, 5 and 8.

Character traits

Finally, you must assign values to your Character Traits. Character traits in Daggerheart are the following:

  • Agility: Sprint, Leap, Manoeuvre
  • Strength: Lift, Smash, Grapple
  • Finesse: Control, Hide, Tinker
  • Instinct: Perceive, Sense, Navigate
  • Presence: Charm, Perform, Deceive
  • Knowledge: Recall, Analyze, Comprehend

The starting standard array each character gets to add to their Character Traits is: -1, 0, 0,+1 and +2

Each Daggerheart class has a choice of two foundations, which grant unique skills and abilities. | Image credit: Darrington Press

Daggerheart rules

These are the essential Daggerheart rules you need to know and understand which will make your time learning how to play the RPG much simpler.

Duality Dice: Made up of two d12 (12-sided dice), the Duality Dice are used whenever players interact with the world, both inside and outside of combat. The two dice represent Hope and Fear; depending on whether the player succeeds or fails with Hope or Fear against the GM’s difficulty checks (DC), what occurs next can change significantly.

GM’s Die: While players roll their Duality Dice, the GM uses a single d20. This is largely due to the unpredictable nature of the d20, familiar from the likes of Dungeons & Dragons, which can help enhance gameplay in new and exciting ways.

Hope: Hope is a resource that can be used to use special abilities, use an experience, help out an ally or activate a Hope feature.

Fear: Fear is a core resource for the GM, though they can never have more than 10 Fear. Fear can be spent in a number of ways by the GM, such as using an adversary’s Fear move or taking advantage on a roll.

Rolling Hope: If you roll and your Hope die is higher than your Fear, your character gains an additional Hope (up to five).

Rolling Fear: If you roll and your Fear die is higher than your Hope - even if you succeed on your roll and meet the GM’s difficulty check - there are consequences that come from your actions.

Advantage and Disadvantage: When players roll with either advantage or disadvantage, they roll a single six-sided die (d6) and either add or take away the score used for advantage or disadvantage respectively. For example, you roll 12 with Hope and 14 with Fear. You roll 2 on the d6. With advantage, you end up with 14 with Hope and 16 with Fear. With disadvantage, you end up with 10 with Hope and 12 with Fear.

Difficulty: The GM sets the difficulty of challenges that the players encounter. If the player’s roll beats the DC, they succeed. If they don’t, they fail.

Stress: Stress is the physical and mental strain put on the player characters - whether because of something traumatic they witness, an ability that calls players to spend it or a consequence for failure. Stress is a resource that can be cleared during Downtime.

Downtime: Downtime is when players can take either a Short or Long Rest. During their Downtime, they can perform actions to tend to their wounds, restore armour slots and more. Some players use this time to form connections with the rest of their party, which can have narrative and mechanical benefits, such as clearing Stress or working together on a project like creating weapons and armour.

Daggerheart designer Spenser Starke discusses the fantasy RPG's influences and ambitionsWatch on YouTube

How does combat work in Daggerheart?

If you’re coming from playing Dungeons & Dragons 5E, combat in Daggerheart will seem, on the surface at least, much more chaotic in how it does things.

For one thing, there is no initiative order during combat encounters. Instead, players are encouraged to take turns describing the action (or reaction) they are taking in combat. However, if a player rolls with Fear or fails the action they were attempting, it becomes the GM’s turn.

If combat looks like it will last more than one or two rolls, the Action Tracker card should be used. Players are required to place their Character Tokens on the Action Tracker card when they take an action. GMs then use these tokens to do a number of different actions, such as activating adversaries or removing a Condition like Poisoned or Restrained, when it is their turn to make a move.

Damage Rolls

Once you know whether an attack against an adversary hits or not, which is calculated based on their difficulty level found in the playtest rules, players must roll for damage.

To make a damage roll, players must look at the weapon or spell they’re using to determine what trait it uses. For example, your Guardian character uses a Battleaxe, which uses the Strength trait. At Level 1, the Guardian character only has 1 proficiency in the Battleaxe, making the full roll 1d10+2. The 2 comes from the Guardian’s Strength, which is a +2.

Once the damage is rolled, you tell the GM your score, and they calculate whether or not it was a Minor, Major or Severe hit to the adversary, depending on the adversary’s threshold.

Hit Points

Instead of numbers representing a character’s hit points (HP), HP is represented by six blank boxes. When you take hits, players fill in those marks depending on your character’s damage thresholds. If you take Minor damage, you mark one box. Major is two hitpoint boxes, and Severe is three hitpoint boxes.

If you take damage below your Minor damage threshold, you take Stress instead of damage. Once all of your Stress boxes have been filled, you have no choice but to take damage to your HP. If you take zero damage, you take no Stress, nor mark a HP box.

Daggerheart is available as a set of playtest rules for now, with some details likely to change ahead of its final release in 2025. | Image credit: Darrington Press/Samantha Joanne Key

Damage Thresholds

Both player characters and adversaries have Minor, Major and Severe damage thresholds. These thresholds depend on various factors, such as the player character’s class. For example, the Minor, Major and Severe damage thresholds for a first-level Guardian are 6, 11 and 16. If an enemy character attacks the Guardian and hits them for 17 damage, the hit would be considered Severe on the damage threshold and the player character would mark down 3 HP.

There is an optional rule that if the player character or an adversary rolls damage that goes beyond the Severe threshold, 4 HP will be marked down instead of being nullified to just 3 HP.

Stress in Combat

While Stress in combat can be considered a good thing, as it means that the damage from an adversary was so minimal it was below the Minor threshold, too much of it can have drastic consequences. If your Stress meter is full, and you take damage or a complication that causes you Stress, you instead mark down 1 HP.

Death and Death Moves

The stakes in Daggerheart can be quite high. As such, there are expectations that your characters may perish during a campaign or even in a one-shot adventure. However, when your character marks their last hit point, it doesn’t necessarily mean game over. Instead, they’ll need to make a Death Move.

A Death Move offers players three different options:

  • Avoid death, but with consequences: Your character becomes unconscious. You then roll a Fear die which, if equal or under your level, means your character will take a Scar. Each Scar will permanently rid the player character of one Hope box. Only when one of your HP marks is cleared, either by an ally or on a Long Rest, will they return to consciousness
  • Risk it all: Roll your Duality Dice. If Hope is higher, your character lives to fight another day, clearing HP and/or Stress equal to the value of the Hope die. If Fear is higher, your character dies. If the Duality Dice are tied, you clear all HP and Stress and survive.
  • Embrace death: The character takes one last action with an automatic critical success before they perish.

The narrative impact of a Scar is entirely up to the player character, but mechanically, it also has dire consequences. If a character has too many Scars - and thus, have no more Hope slots left - they die permanently and nothing (barring Resurrection, which is still being worked on due to the playtest rules’ open-beta nature) can change it.

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Aimee Hart

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Aimee is the deputy editor of Gayming Magazine and a huge fan of everything tabletop. When she's not writing, she can be found obsessively trying to corral her Dungeons & Dragons group into setting an actual time they're all free to play.
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