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Friday, 14 May 2010

Revamping Dragon Warriors

A guest post of sorts today from my very dear friend and fellow gamer, Tim Harford, who has achieved fame in the mundane world as the Undercover Economist, but who is better known to us as the brilliant GM of the very best Legend games ever, as well as being forever remembered as the creepily untrustworthy Kal Ki-Lan Tor, Krarthian mage and ne'er-do-well.

A few years ago - well, all right, a decade or more - Tim and I were chatting in the canteen of the Clapham Picture House about doing a full revamp of the Dragon Warriors rules. This wasn't just to be the continuation of the series contemplated with the Invaders & Ancients books, but a ground-up overhaul to create a system that would really deliver the land of Legend as it "really" is.

In our own campaign we use a variant of GURPS, but it's not ideal, particularly as far as magic is concerned. The task of actually writing DWII will probably have to wait until Tim and I have retired and have idle days on our hands (neither of us plays golf) but in the meantime I'm going to run the first-pass design notes he came up with after our discussion. To kick off, here is his design philosophy for the new rules:


Any set of game rules needs to honour the 'reality' of the game world rather than any kind of historical reality, however construed. Judge Dredd RPG rules [the version by Marc Gascoigne and Rick Priestley] allow an experienced Judge to get of well-targeted shots eight or nine times in a round while an inexperienced perp will be lucky to get off a single shot. The rules are completely 'unrealistic' but true to the source.

In contrast, the old Middle-Earth Role-Playing (MERP) rules feature ubiquitous spell-casting, which really doesn't chime true. At the same time, the rules also need to trade off faithfulness to the source against speed of play.


Alignment fails to do justice to Legend. There are more variables at play: a character's status, his face, his faith (with various heresies imaginable), etc. Then there are the Ta’ashim, who are quite outside the standard world view defined by the 'True Faith'. Elves are also neither good nor evil. I've not found rules-based approaches which help me much here.


I don't feel DW needs an overhaul to improve its 'realism'. It's fast and fun, which is one of the appeals. But it would be nice to get some more player-choice into combat. Dave's later systems allow simple choices: full attack, two half-attacks, half-attack and half-parry, full parry. Without going crazy it does improve the quality of the combat experience, which in DW is either mindless die-rolling, or improvised out of all connection to the combat rules.

I think DW's magic system also fails to do justice to the spooky nature of the background. It's all too predictable and too regularised. There are lots of ways this might be done:

Frazer Payne has a system which draws heavily on Maelstrom's magic system. The idea is that magic is easier if it doesn't noticeably contravene the laws of nature. You can teleport up to a high window to make an escape, providing you're out of the line of sight: after all, it's just conceivable that you climbed up instead. Similarly, people falling over, gusts of wind blowing windows shut, etc. This introduces a nice and elegant constraint on spell-casting.

Alternatively, magic might need to be performed in advance. Sorcerers would carry with them all kinds of trinkets and scrolls into which had been embedded one-shot spells.

I toyed for a while with making most magic a battle-of-wills with otherworldly forces. Sorcerers don't cast spells, they summon sprites or sandestins (faltyns) and force them to cast the spells instead. This makes every spell risky and also leaves open the possibility of favours being traded, hard bargaining, and so on. Sorcerers can make enemies, but also allies, in the Otherworld.

An option is to allow sorcerers to cast spells directly rather than relying on spirits, but to suffer permanent damage as a result.

GURPS Magic has a nice but under-developed system of 'rune magic'. Each rune is a verb or a noun (of a quite generic nature, such as 'flesh' or 'stone', 'create' or 'move'). More elaborate spells need more runes and more skill. Bonuses for using proper runes (runestones, runes on scrolls) and penalties for improvised solutions (tracing runes in the air or in the dust). In my own long-running campaign, Cynewulf Magister, Montombre's court sorcerer, was a formidable rune mage. None of the players had a good idea of how he was doing it (and indeed I was playing fast-and-loose with the rules). I am not sure the rules would really cope if played straight.

Monsters. The monster list in DW is just daft - a relic from a bygone age when people thought this kind of thing was a good idea. There is little enough sign of such foolishness in Dave's DW scenarios: most of the monsters are eerie (wights, boggarts) and the most memorable ones are human.

In the most recent game Dave ran, set in Krarth, we encountered: the freaks from a gypsy circus; Koschei the Deathless (a fleshless apparition who stole the skin of others as a disguise, and whose heart was contained within a silver box in a silver minaret); a strange giant stork-like bird (Oliver Johnson found a titanic egg in the ashes of its burning nest and pronounced 'This is the egg of the world, my friends' before breakfasting upon it); and finally a sorcerer who had been hurled into a glacier twenty years previously and was thawing out, having been horribly disfigured by the long, slow journey to the bottom. There were no orcs and no sign of a Malgash.

In my own game there are some staples, like trolls - but they are not the humanoid battering rams of D&D, but skulking creatures who (guess what) have been known to lurk under bridges. Strangulation is a favoured method of attack. Think of a 9-foot tall Gollum.

Magic items, when encountered at all, show invariably be the kind of unique artefact described in Book Six.

Myth and heroism. I like the 'skills of the mighty' section but feel that such skills should get ever closer to magic... such as 'The Ghost Road', where the defender evades the attacker by turning out to be standing behind him, or 'The Elf King's Parry', where the defender parries a sword bare-handed, only for it to turn out that the defender who has the sword and the attacker whose hand is wounded.

We also need to go further in exploring the idea that a character is of mythic proportions and the rules just aren't the same. Dave gives the example of Little John wrestling with a disguised Richard the Lionheart in Robin of Sherwood. King Richard beats Little John and lifts the man-mountain high above his head - at which point everyone realises who he is. Why did King Richard beat Little John? Not because of superior strength or wrestling skill, but because he's THE LIONHEART, of course.

This is where the idea of 'myth levels' comes in - although the name is clunky. Let's say there are four levels: normal, notable, heroic, mythic. Most characters start off as 'notable' and that would give them certain advantages. For instance the 'Hand of Glory' puts 0th rank characters to sleep, but not ranked characters. In the new language, that's a magical effect which works on normals but not on notables.

Being of a higher myth level should allow you to shrug off quite a bit of what is going on at a lower myth level. Mythic characters, like Hunguk the Pirate King and Sa'aknathur, simply don't get bumped off by mortals. It isn't the way the world works.


  1. The idea of 'Myth Levels' is very similar to something that I discussed way back on the DW mailing list, where I proposed separating the mundane 'Rank' of the character (how good they are at doing 'stuff') with the importance of the character within the game world (their 'Fate' or survivability).

    Fated characters wouldn't necessarily have exceptional physical or mental abilities, but would rather be very difficult to harm or otherwise restrain - luck just always seems to be on their side.

    Separating the two aspects allows for high fate, low or normal skill characters to be thrust into quite high risk environs and survive - the street urchin, the farm boy, the archeology professor, or any number of non-combat roles. Of course eventually they may mature into exceptionally skilled and world-wise characters - it's perhaps at this point they become legends.

    On the flip side it also allows high skilled, low or zero fate characters (most likely NPC's) who may be specially trained ninjas or stormtroopers, but have a habit of being felled rather easily when wounded. There's no lucky mitigation of critical wounds when they get hit by blade or bullet.

    Heroes don't necessarily have to be savants to survive or do legendary things, they just need fate on their side.

  2. Absolutely. I wanted to detach the character's skill from his "story importance". What's that 007 movie where Bond has to fight the top guy in a martial arts school? And Bond is no Bruce Lee, but he's got the highest myth level in the room. (I say that even though it was a Roger Moore one, gak, but it would've worked a lot better with Timothy Dalton in the role.)

  3. I may be a little off topic, but why not use the system of "Destiny points" of Warhammer fantasy (in French: "points de destin"). By using such points, a character could cancel any fatal action directed against him (for example, he was not killed by his foe, but left for dead..). Starting characters were entitled to a few destiny points (I remember Humans had more PDs than Elves)which helped them performing dangerous tasks and thus gain more experience. Normally, one could not gain new PDs, except after exceptional deeds (ex: preventing the resurrection of an evil demon).

  4. Personally I don't care for fate/destiny points because they induce the player to think authorially about their character. The systems I like are simulations, where players think about goals and how to achieve them from the same POV as the character.

    With myth levels, you don't have to think about how to spend them to change the story, they are "always on" and intrinsic to the character.

  5. Another problem I've found with 'Fate Points' or 'Bennies' - do I use them now, or later? Use them now and invariably the player comes up short when faced with the 'ultimate' challenge in the adventure (that may be balanced to take into account the use of fate points). Save them up and they all get blown on the final few rolls, making the ultimate challenge somewhat redundant.

    Hmm. Something that also tends to affect magic systems with MP's, though less so as they tend to regenerate frequently and are usually drawn from a larger pool of points.

  6. Frazer Payne, in his Paragon system, has 'Ace Points' that can be used to alter damage taken so that the character was on 1 HP instead. They were specifically added to the rules to deal with all the nasty accidents that were claiming PC lives :) And you can't use them to win a fight, only to save your character from annihilation. But even there, I'd prefer an in-story explanation - eg that the character is calling on the gods rather than that the player is temporarily putting on a GM's hat.

  7. Hi Dave ! I remember that you (or Oliver Johnson), in DW 3 (the Elven Crystal), had invented a rule about maledictions. Sometimes, by performing certain actions, the characters could get a malediction and they were unaware of it (unless they used some magics to discovered it). The effects of maledictions could be delayed in time (you had provided a table for the determination of the event). I remember, as I acted as GM, my friend had gotten a malediction according to which a brick would fall on him the next time he would enter a building. Indeed, this happened when he came back from the forest. He was not injured a lot (he still wore his full armour !) but he became very suspicious and thought there were people trying to murder him (he wanted to become king of Erevorn...)

    So, my idea is that there could be the exact opposite of maledictions, i.e. benedictions. The characters would not know they have gotten such a benediction and these benedictions would have predetermined profitable effects (ex: the character will automatically survive his next shipwreck, the character will be left for dead at his next fatal fight, etc...)