I'm not sure I took the name 'Epic Encounters' seriously at first. Yes, it looks awesome in a 1980s-sword-and-sorcery sort of way. With the logo's splash of neon font and spiky, fanged monsters across the packaging, it's a nostalgic throwback to old-school fantasy that ticks all the right boxes. But is it really memorable enough to live up to the title and stand alongside the best Dungeons and Dragons books?
Well, its creators aren't kidding. The scenarios you'll fight through in this series are brutal. And I don't mean that they're unfair; instead, the combatants you'll face here are legitimate threats. Once a party has struggled its way to victory in Epic Encounters, players will feel like they've achieved something genuinely impressive.
At its core, Epic Encounters is designed to make Dungeon Masters' lives easier. Conceived as plug n' play adventures you can slot into any Dungeons and Dragons campaign, it allows you to take a break from your long-running story or cap one off with an end-boss. However, these aren't sweeping narratives like Curse of Strahd Revamped. They're single-session scenarios with one or two areas to battle through. They also come complete with all the miniatures, tokens, battlemaps, and tips you need to run them in one of the best tabletop RPGs out there.
For the most part, they work really well. The miniatures are gorgeous (which isn't all that surprising considering the fact that Epic Encounters is made by the same studio behind Godtear, one of the top board games for 2 players), the writing is punchy, and it offers fun twists on D&D combat. Its box-sets can be taken as individual scenarios or two-part adventures that complement one another, too.
Sure, they're not quite perfect. But would I still recommend them? Absolutely.
Shrine of the Kobold Queen
There are a couple of things you need in a good Dungeons and Dragons adventure: a threat worth your time and cool monsters to do battle with. This box-set from Epic Encounters has both.
In Shrine of the Kobold Queen, your party is on the hunt for a lizard priestess who's been capturing locals for horrendous blood sacrifices. Or maybe you're tracking her because she's sitting on a giant hoard of treasure. Or perhaps she's trying to turn a slumbering dragon into her flunky. It's up to you; the fun thing about this set is that it offers plenty of hooks for a Dungeon Master to choose from. It's a neat approach with more longevity than a single, set plotline.
No matter why the adventurers are there, they'll be going up against the titular villain and her crew of kobolds (diminutive reptilian warriors). Each one is represented by incredibly detailed miniatures that are really rather impressive, especially considering their price. It's welcome news for DMs who like to use physical minis - finding good models in bulk that won't break the bank is a constant struggle. Epic Encounters fills that niche, so Shrine of the Kobold Queen is worth considering even if you just want good miniatures. It puts many of the best board games to shame in that regard.
Not that they're the only thing in the box. As with all Epic Encounters, you also get the battlemap and rules you need to run this scenario. The latter is an A5 booklet around 35 pages long, and it's filled with details about the lay of the land, stats, and defining characteristics that make this narrative different from run-of-the-mill combat. More specifically, it includes some truly grisly areas and ideas - like cultists that burn their arms in lava as a rite of passage - to help it stand out.
Unfortunately, these concepts don't always cut the mustard. Although everything surrounding the central conflict - the cult's goals, its grim sacrifices, and their pet fire snakes - is interesting, the villainous priestess isn't as memorable. It feels like more could have been done to help her stand out, at least in terms of her personality.
I'm also a little concerned that this scenario can be too punishing at times. This is a difficult challenge with plenty of pitfalls to end an adventurer's life, and I worry that some of it goes too far. For example, anyone that falls into the lava and dies cannot then be resurrected. While that adds tension for sure, it's something of a blunt instrument.
All the same, the vicious monster attacks lead to more thoughtful combat that is legitimately dangerous. Fire snakes cannot be touched or struck by melee weapons without inflicting fire damage to the attacker, for instance. Equally, the pack's basilisk can turn you to stone if you look into its eyes and fail a saving roll. The boss herself also takes three attacks per turn thanks to a double-ended sickle staff, poison, and wings that go with spellcasting abilities. It's a tough fight.
Overall, then, Shrine of the Kobold Queen is worth you and your party's time. While it's not perfect, the positives far outweigh any negatives.
Lair of the Red Dragon
This is the poster-child of Epic Encounters; a fire-spewing dragon that guards a mountain of gold. And even though players will be very familiar with these monsters by now, they shouldn't underestimate this particular example. It lives up to the franchise's name, and then some.
Open the packaging and you'll be greeted by an enormous model dragon, complete with wings that had to be packaged separately because otherwise it wouldn't all fit inside the already sizable box. Detailed, ferocious, and impressive, this is exactly the sort of thing Dungeon Masters dream of slapping down on the board in front of their players (particularly because it's not all that expensive).
Touch of the theatrical
The booklet that comes with it is also a hit. Laced throughout with a wry, playful sense of humor, it offers a clear picture of the dragon's personality - if you accept the suggestions, anyway. This is a cripplingly paranoid yet theatrical beast that should be a memorable foe, and I wish other villains in the series were as interesting.
As a result, Lair of the Red Dragon provides roleplaying opportunities to complement its battling. Because fights are only as good as their bad guys, I have a lot of time for this. Sure, the scenario doesn't provide many chances to talk things out. But the DM should have a great time putting on the role.
The ideas behind combat are similarly good. There are many environmental hazards players can use to their advantage (be it razor-sharp stalactites they drop onto their foe or discarded dragon teeth they can fashion into weapons), but these same hazards can also be used against them. It provides tactical depth worthy of the best cooperative board games, and the book even has suggestions on how to introduce those ideas seamlessly.
The dragon itself isn't as accommodating. While you have a choice of three monsters with varying difficulty levels (Young, Adult, or Ancient), all of them are utterly devastating and have the capacity to wipe out members of a group without much trouble. This definitely isn't a challenge for adventurers who are just starting out.
That makes for a greater payoff, yet it's a tricky balance. I worry it'll lean too far into 'unfair' territory if DMs aren't careful. For example, the dragon's flame attack will maim or outright kill many heroes. DMs are advised to use it against martial characters presumably due to the fact that they have more health than anyone else, but still, I'm slightly terrified of this thing. Though I suppose that's the point - this is an 'Epic' encounter, after all.
I'm less forgiving of the map. I get what the designers were going for, but it doesn't quite work; it's much too vague thanks to very dark shades, and I struggled to make out certain features even though I knew what they were supposed to be. It's confusing as a result, and a lot of those issues could have been solved by upping the brightness.
Still, the impression Lair of the Red Dragon leaves is a good one nonetheless. There's a lot of scaffolding to help DMs make an engaging, smart battle here, and it's a proper threat worthy of questing heroes. The model you get is incredible, too; in fact, it's cool enough to justify the price tag.
Halls of the Orc King
Adventurers never seem to be done fighting orcs, but Epic Encounters: Hall of the Orc King takes it one further. Namely, the King can't die. Not permanently, anyway - he'll just come back after a short period of time, good as new and ready to fight again. How? It's an intriguing hook that draws players in.
...Or maybe it's a load of bull and isn't true at all. That's the fun of this set; much like other packs in the series, Epic Encounters: Hall of the Orc King offers 'rumors' like this one that you can use or ignore at will, allowing Dungeon Masters to adjust the backstory for taste. This helps it fit into almost any game or setting. Indeed, that sort of flexibility is why it ticks so many boxes.
Meat's back on the menu
No matter what backstory you choose, there's something odd about these particular orcs. Rather than sticking to the usual tropes, some interesting additions have been woven into their DNA. Sort of. OK, so they're still bog-standard in their love of the fight and dodgy food (looks like gone-off meat is back on the menu, boys). However, this is all made more interesting by additions like polar bear mounts. Yes, these orcs are riding dirty great polar bears into battle.
It's the same story with orc cooks who seize any cuts of meat they can find (including eel bodies and yeti legs) to throw as weapons or brewers hardened by their toxic concoctions. This helps Hall of the Orc King stand out mechanically, and the villains have plenty of character as a result.
Much like the sculpts, for that matter - as always, they're tremendously distinct and worth the price of admission by themselves. The polar bear riders and cooks in particular are a delight.
Their rules are equally cool. For instance, the Grog Masters only take half damage when within five foot of their drinks (due to them being absurdly sozzled) while the cooks can scoff some grub as a bonus action to regain 1d6 health.
Breaking the ice
With those fun ideas on the table, the Orc King himself seems disappointing. The model is great and his characterisation is good throughout, but he doesn't have much to help him stick in the memory when it comes to rules. His only unusual move is an ability to use two attacks instead of one when facing multiple opponents. Otherwise, he's a bit dull.
Fortunately, it's not all bad. As with Shrine of the Kobold Queen, Hall of the Orc King uses its environment in interesting ways. Besides rules that can influence visibility and combat effectiveness, anyone that's knocked prone during part one slides back down an icy slope and out of combat - they need to spend a turn getting back up. Similarly, the ice on a river can take damage and break during battle, dunking everyone in the drink without warning.
There's also more scope for stealth, too. Certain groups of orcs don't have to be tangled with at all if you play your cards right, and the same is true of getting into the Orc King's hall itself. Find the right entrance and you can set up an ambush. Basically, players have options. That can make a world of difference to their enjoyment in-game.
The quirkier elements of this scenario are where it truly takes off, though. If players opt to try some of the orc grog, they'll have to roll from a d6 table that could replenish their hit points or make them blind drunk for a few turns. Similarly, the cooking pot's stink is so rancid that getting close to it - or dunking an orc in head-first - will inflict poison damage. I'd have liked to see more of this. As with Lair of the Red Dragon, it makes the story truly come alive.
When combined with a surprisingly low cost, Hall of the Orc King hits enough of the right notes to be worth checking out. Even if you only use the minis for your games, it's a worthwhile purchase that you won't be disappointed with.