After purchasing TSR in 1997, Wizards of the Coast (WotC) rolled-out the 3rd edition of Dungeons & Dragons in 2000. That edition simplified some of the more confusing rules found in Advanced D&D 2nd edition (yes, THAC0 I am looking at you) to streamline the experience, but also marked another major event: the decision to release the foundations of the new system in a document known as… System Reference Document (SRD). The SRD was under the Open Game License (OGL) and the aim was quite simple: provide the opportunity and motivation for 3rd-party companies to publish more material for D&D 3E. It was a decision that seemed (and was) altruistic in concept. D&D had, for the most part, cast off its stigma and had started to break into the mainstream with momentum, owing quite substantially to videogame legends (Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale series) which introduced the game to a whole new generation. The SRD would provide an opportunity for extra exposure (and revenue) to both the game and the companies using it.
The plan would unfortunately produce some controversial effects. On one hand, we had the development of amazing systems which finally broke away and became great, if lesser known, RPGs on their own (e.g., 13th Age). On the other hand, 3E was plagued by an absurd number of 3rd-party supplements, but also core books due to the “conquer with volume/quantity” publishing strategy adopted by WotC. The result was quite confounding and 3E despite its simplification(s) became a different beast on its own. This partly affected the decision to move to a stricter license with the release of the 4th edition of D&D which, despite personal preferences, has its merits (no, it doesn’t). Silver lining: due to this strict license, Pathfinder emerged as the “definitive 3.75 D&D” experience, based on the original 3E SRD while trying to fix some of the game system errors (that is another story, though).
The release of D&D Next (now known as 5th edition) saw the return to the basics with simplified rules, a complete overhaul of the combat system (compared to the MMO-ish 4E), and a far grittier feeling which was tagged as a “return to the basics” bringing together concepts from both AD&D 2.5E and 3.5E. It reinvigorated the interest of a whole audience who, like me, turned to Pathfinder when they saw that 4E deviated too much from what they have been used to. The success of Critical Role provided the necessary breakthrough for the hobby to be embraced and become mainstream. Quite importantly, WotC decided to return to SRD once again. In 20 years, we have seen in the videogames medium some stellar titles (Infinity Engine games) and some subpar ones. WotC have been quite protective of their IP especially after the release of subpar quality material for 3E/3.5E under the SRD. It was quite astonishing, even though it was a well-founded rumour, when they agreed with Larian on the release of Baldur’s Gate 3, as the only established game by that time was D&D Online. However, we are not here to discuss BG3, but a small gem from a small team that decided they could do just fine by using the SRD of 5E (SRD version 5.1, 2016) to release a D&D-based videogame. And fine they did, because Solasta: Crown of the Magister is, quite boldly, the modern Temple of Elemental Evil (by Troika Games).
D&D but with different flair
All in all, SRD comes with three caveats: a) whoever wants to self-publish they can use the basic fifth-edition ruleset, b) this ruleset is quite trimmed and, up to point, may prove restrictive, c) no mention to already established IP is possible. So, the team of Tactical Adventures had to create a new world when they proposed that they could provide a faithful recreation of SRD 5.1 back in 2019 on the Kickstarter platform. The premise in the world of Solasta is quite simple: a massive world-event known as the Cataclysm played an immense role in formulating the world of Solasta, changing the balance between races. Some after-effects have slowly started to creep out in the Badlands and the Legacy Council, the neutral representatives of the Eastern Kingdoms, hire adventurers to investigate. On to the party creation!
Tactical Adventures have put quite an effort to establish factions, relationships, and systems which flesh out the world. However, the project’s budget is evident and any players who are looking to experience complex choice-and-consequence decisions, intricate quest structure etc., should probably look elsewhere. The story progression is quite linear and there is limited player input on how it would be affected. However, I will not delve into the actual plot any further, as there are some interesting turning points in the story. The narrative flair is different among multiple playthroughs; you could kill a hostile NPC that you chose to spare in a previous playthrough or have different character reactions based on their dominant personality aspect, but that’s just about it. I would not be too prompt to classify this as a negative. Despite its linearity, the story delivery is lukewarm and appeals to the nostalgia by delivering all the tropes and clichés (“party meets in the same table of tavern for the first time, GO”) in a light-hearted way. It wants to tell its story in a very defined way, and I appreciated it for what it is. In that sense, the game is quite honest with the player, it does not want to provide a complex story (BG3 may do that and that absolutely fine) but focuses on an entirely different aspect of the 5E system, instead.
So where is the player input in all this? The answer is obvious from the main menu and character/party creation: the aim was to deliver the best D&D 5E system implementation on a CRPG and Solasta hits bullseye. It may as well be considered the best introduction/tutorial on the fundamentals of the 5E ruleset. This is achieved by two main factors: a) the minimal yet magnificent UI, which relays all the necessary information, b) the implementation of all SRD rules and the overall presentation. Solasta is as close as it gets to the tactical aspect of D&D. The UI design should be considered a benchmark in the industry: slick, cohesive, not overbearing. It did not take more than a few moments to be completely in tune with what each button does, what effect any command will have etc. At the same time, it serves as a visual representation of what is going on the battlefield, how many available spells I have etc. Even outside combat the game succeeds to introduce its systems in a very simple yet instructive way. All in all, I cannot praise the UI enough; pure sexiness.
Combat-wise, the game really shines. It offers quite a few options on how to approach combat (surprise your enemies or face them head on?) but also quite a few tools to achieve this. Min-maxers will have a jolly good time, surgically manipulating the battlefield with a well-placed rogue or a wizard with the Misty Step spell. The game also offers exceptional verticality in the battlefield. Walls are considered surfaces which can be traversed, character positioning affects line-of-sight and cover and so on. Extra emphasis has been put on exploiting enemies’ weaknesses; the bestiary is updated every time you finish an encounter with an enemy unlocking precious information which can be used against them. There are some cases for which the game also prepares you by dropping some well-placed hints on how to exploit the environment surroundings in upcoming encounters to your best benefit.
Quite a few steps have also been made to enrich the “watered-down” ruleset of SRD 5.1. Through community voting and consultation during development, Tactical Adventures have implemented two subclasses (to a total of three) for each available class (Cleric, Fighter, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Wizard – Sorcerer will be added at a later point as DLC). Admittedly, some of them may look lacklustre on paper compared to the SRD ones (e.g., Loremaster), but their true potential depends on the campaign options as well. Speaking of which, I wouldn’t be surprised to see future campaign implementations (or different campaigns altogether) using the Dungeon Maker tool, which is still in Beta. Solid foundations have been laid to support Solasta and its community in the long term, a fact that is quite promising.
I previously compared Solasta to Troika’s Temple of Elemental Evil (ToEE) as I believe there are considerable similarities between the two games. Both games were the best implementation of their current D&D ruleset. ToEE achieved something spectacular by successfully implementing the radial menu (an idea that was seen, albeit poorly, in Planescape: Torment) and considering all the different combat options D&D 3E had to offer. Similarly, Solasta has a turn-based system that draws influence from all recent videogames (XCOM, Wasteland 3) and works spotlessly. Both games have a cap at level 10 (vanilla) although this may be altered quite soon with modders taking over (Tactical Adventures has implemented rules which are not taken advantage of in the campaign, but are there for reference). Last but not least, I am worried that Solasta may not receive the attention it deserves because it fails to satisfy the dogma “RPGs should have complex stories and be 100 hours long” (wait for Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous for that sort of thing) or “that particular character model looks poor for my taste”. It may be a relatively short experience (we are looking at 40 hours addressing most content), but it shines as a proof-of-concept both in terms of design and iterative development process, as well as in delivering an amazing foundation to be built upon.
As a closing remark I would argue that Solasta succeeds in meeting all the goals it set out to fulfill. The asking price of 40€ may seem a little bit steep, but it offers a very solid and satisfying experience. We are usually “accused of” being lenient and sympathetic to the underdog, i.e., indie studios. The truth is that our subjective opinion is formed on examining some key facts which can be considered objective enough. In the case of Solasta, the original scope was delivered with a significantly low budget by a small team. It did not overpromise, yet it manages to be a reference point of implementation of the D&D 5E ruleset for all future titles (BG3 I am looking at you and some of your combat mechanics). It satisfies the itch for D&D tactical combat and pure mechanics with its excellent turn-based system and maps. Although it seems to cover a niche right now, it is brimming with potential. On a more personal note, Tactical Adventures poured their heart and soul to produce a love letter to D&D and that they actually pulled it off. I can only imagine what they could do with a bigger budget and the full support of e.g., Wizards of the Coast. The have certainly shown that they absolutely love the hobby to its finest detail. The final grade is irrelevant, they have won me over.