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Monday, 2 August 2010

A sense of otherness

Paul Mason once said that I had "sensibly used a professional career as a stepping stone to fandom". There was a lot of truth in that. When writing for publication, you often have to compromise for the sake of being commercial. This was particularly true in the early days of gamebooks, when the key to an extra fifty thousand copies was how much you could bear to write it like Fighting Fantasy.

That's one reason why the DW books started off in a rather generic fantasy world (if you look at the bestiary in Book One, for example) and only gradually developed their non-dungeoneering, anti-high fantasy flavour. Martin Scorsese calls it smuggling, and I like that because it sounds quite respectable. The truth is, you don't want to write things like "all elves have the senses of a 2nd rank Mystic" and you really don't want to include furry-footed halflings, but that was (or seemed to be) the price of getting the series published. It's only with the Magnum Opus Press re-release of the series that I feel Dragon Warriors is finally finding its proper niche among a small but highly committed group of serious roleplayers. I would love to have done supplements such as Jewelspider and The Legend Sourcebook, but even today it would be hard to make them viable except as pure labours of love.

Anyway, back to 1986. I know Ian Marsh from his days as editor of White Dwarf. He knew Paul Mason through RPG fandom - and in fact at that time they each rented a floor in the same house. Paul had written a Dragon Warriors scenario for his fanzine imazine, following that up with a review. Ian wasn't in any hurry to show me the review. I suppose he thought I'd be offended, but when I tracked down the review (below) I agreed with everything Paul had to say. His comments helped encourage me to accelerate the process of turning DW into a proper roleplaying game. Okay, that led to Book Six, which sold far fewer than the rest of the series and canned future plans for Books 7-12 - but I'd rather have written that book than a dozen D&D-ish bestsellers. (Hence Paul's comment about fandom - very perspicacious.)

This review appeared in the Autumn 1986 issue of imazine and I've kept it word for word. I'd like to run Paul's DW scenario, which is not available on the web as far as I'm aware, but I'd better properly get his permission for that. The timing is opportune: he is staying with us this week on a trip back to Britain with wife Keiko and son Misha. If he can bear to allow twenty-five-year-old fanzine writing to see the light of day, and if my scanner can cope with the faded text, watch for "The Tower of Horglin" here soon. Paul described the scenario as "an exercise in irony"; FF fans better look the other way.

After last issue's Dragon Warriors scenario, one question that's cropped up in many letters is 'Why Dragon Warriors?'That's one of the questions I'll be answering in this comparative review. But first, a few nuts and bolts.

King Arthur Pendragon, in the form currently available, consists of a box, containing two books (one only 16 pages long), a large poster-map, plenty of charts and character sheets and dice. It costs quite a lot of money (depending on where you get it from, but it's on its way down from the mid-twenties; it's currently around £17). And to be honest, that isn't the whole game. If you're at all serious about Pendragon then you should also buy the Pendragon campaign (to the unenlightened, this is what is known as a rip-off).

Dragon Warriors is presented in paperback book form. Individually, the books cost £1.75, and you only need the first two to play the game (number three, while it has a few token additional rules, is mostly scenarios. I haven't read books four onwards thoroughly, but I gather they're much the same), This is what is known as cheap.

The reason why I chose to review the two games together is because they have the same subject matter, and yet are so intriguingly different. Both are games about Medieval Europe, an area formerly dominated by the awesome shadow of Chivalry & Sorcery. Yet the differences leap out at you before you open the books. Dragon Warriors is a British mass-market game, clearly aiming for 'the kids', that hotch-potch of individuals of both sexes and with ages ranging from 6 to 60 who play Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. The back cover blurb is predictably cringeworthy. It appears to be cobbled together from adverts for D&D as well as promotional literature for Fighting Fantasy. In short, it's a cash-in.

In contrast, Pendragon oozes refinement. The price quickly signals that this is a game for the cognoscenti, and the cover art and copy is tasteful. It's a game of 'Quest, Romance, and Adventure', we are told, and none of, that crude hack 'n slay stuff. It enables you to play out the lives of a dynasty of characters against the tempestuous setting of Malory's Albion.

First impressions upon perusing the contents of the respective packages tend to confirm the initial impression. In Dragon Warriors we find a seen-it-all- before array of introductory material. This breaks no new ground in explaining the concept to newcomers I can't help wondering whether it isn't a little pointless trying to interest new gamers by using the same old approach. The book then goes on to fill vast amounts of space with combat, with the glib assertion that the rules for this are 'the most fundamental element in any FRP game.'

Pendragon is elegantly laid out with plenty of space, and tasteful illustrations. Each page has a narrow column running down its edge of heraldic motifs, quotations from Malory, examples and so on -- little bits and pieces that complement the main text. However, in stark contrast to Dragon Warriors, it contains no introduction to role-playing whatsoever! Purchasers of Pendragon are thrown straight into a discussion of the feudal background, followed hard by the section on character generation. There's not a word about what role-playing is. Clearly, this game is aimed at people who know already. Pressing on into Pendragon we discover that it has an elegant system. All stats and skills are rated from one to 20. Any activity is attempted by rolling a D20 and comparing the result to your skill. If you're 'unopposed' then you have to roll under to succeed. If you're 'opposed' then you have to roll under your skill and have a greater score than your opponent if they, too, have rolled under their score. That's the game system. I like game systems that can be explained in less than a paragraph.

What I don’t like quite so much is game systems which have lots of chrome bolted onto them. Having established that it has an effective and up-to-date system, Pendragon then does its best to spoil things with a lot of niggly problems. There are a host of secondary mechanics which all work in different ways (the AD&D problem). There is the strange tradition of making improvement dependent upon a successful use of a skill. Apart from leading to the infamous Golf Bag Syndrome ('I've hit with my sword, so I'll get out my mace') this is simply wrong in describing how people improve their abilities. And there are tables, tables, tables (few of them round).

Another quirk is the game's use of various game systems, casually slung into the rules before they've been explained. Very disconcerting. A good set of rules should playable after the first reading.

These gripes about Pendragon pale rather in comparison with Dragon Warriors. Dragon Warriors is elegant insofar as RuneQuest and D&D are elegant - for the simple reason that Dragon Warriors is D&D grafted onto RuneQuest. There are no skills. Instead activity is run off attributes, and there are lots of little paragraphs covering special cases ('Dragon Warriors -- the Ultimate Role-Playing Game for GMs with eidetic memories').

The Dragon Warriors combat system is simple - but bizarre. There is a standard 'To Hit' roll, simply discovered by subtracting your opponent's Defence from your Attack. After this you must roll again - rolling a special dice (depending on weapon) to 'bypass' or penetrate the armour, If successful you do a fixed amount of damage, if unsuccessful you do no damage. This is an odd system.

The quirky combat system highlights one of the major problems with Dragon Warriors - the game is dice crazy. In a game for the mass market, it is unforgiveable to demand that they go out and buy all these funny shaped dice, when it is perfectly possible to come up with a system as good as or better than the DW system using only six-sided dice (I know - I've done it). If you are trying to get people into roleplaying, there's no point in alienating them with unnecessary expenses.

Thus far, the message of this review could probably be summarised: 'Dragon Warriors is cheap and nasty; Pendragon is costly but good'. It'll do for now, but there's a little more to it. Pendragon is considered by many to be the future of rolegames. If so the future consists of absolute regimentation. Not regimentation in the wargamer/simulationist sense, but an even more insidious control. Because Pendragon, in its pure form, wrests the control of the player characters away from the players, away even from the referee, and invests it firmly in the rules. The game features a selection of quantified personality traits and features, which must betested against in order to take actions. In the hands of a powerfully motivated referee, who was prepared substantially to ignore these rules where it seemed unnecessary, the system would work very well. Give it to a relative novice, however, and what resulted would not be what I understand by role-playing. Pendragon also has a slight thrown-together feel to it. The Player's Book and the Gamemaster's Book don't appear to have been so named out of any desire to be functionally accurate. The Player's book is full of information about the running of the game. Separating the two books, particularly when one ends up only 16-pages long, makes no sense at all. It looks to me like one of the classic game company 'Oh sod it, chuck it out like that and nobody will notice' decisions.

And to be honest, Pendragon is not well written. it is a very dry set of rules. The attempt to conjure up the legendary atmosphere of the Arthurian romances is made only through odd quotations from books. The rules themselves might as well be for chicken farming.

All of this brings me back to the question I stated at the beginning of the review 'Why Dragon Warriors?' Well, despite a magic system with little Magic, ancient rule systems, scenarios that are mostly dungeon encounters with no internal logical and precious little atmosphere; despite all these, and the many more faults of the game - there is something there. There is a little spark in Dragon Warriors which comes out ever so occasionally. Whether it be in the sample game conversation (far better than I've seen elsewhere), the faerie quality of some of the monsters, or the feudal feel, something with atmosphere does come across in Dragon Warriors. One or other of the authors have clearly done their best to slip in this 'Sense of Otherness', 'Sense of Wonder', 'Sense of Faerie' between all the sub Fighting Fantasy stuff that supposedly sells the books. And Dragon Warriors is cheap, and Dragon Warriors is aimed at a mass market. Sonething good in the mass market is qualititatively equivalent, in my eyes, only to something superb in the specialist market.

Pendragon is aimed at experienced gamers. It is probably the commercial game with the most pure 'narrative' approach. I like it, and I recommend that you buy it when Games Workshop bring out their hardback (which will include the material from the Pendragon Campaign, and parts of the Nobles Book - thus eliminating Chaosium's shameless rip-off). But it's a game which inserts the rules forcefully into areas where I think they should tread delicately, if at all. It's a game that will be a 'story-telling boardgame without a board' in the hands of any referee who accepts the premise of its system. Pendragon is a flawed masterpiece. Unfortunately, it is not superb.

- Paul Mason, imazine, 1986


  1. Strange that Book 6 of DW sold less than the rest ! I think it was better than the other ones, and the universe of Legend could be adapted to other game-playing systems.


  2. Hi Olivier - I thought the same, but I guess the "mass" market for RPGs at that time was not interested in that kind of roleplaying. I did have a brief discussion with Steve Jackson (US not UK) years later about a GURPS version of Legend, which would have suited me fine as we use modified GURPS for our own games, but there wasn't enough awareness of DW/Legend in the States to make it worthwhile.

  3. I suspect the limited sales of DW Book 6 may be due to limited distibution [in Australia]. I only ever saw 1 copy of DW Book 6, which I bought, and not too many of 4 or 5. The first 3 however, were everywhere!

    This also applied to Blood Sword, where Book 5 was also almost non-existent, but the first 3 were quite ubiquitous.

  4. I just remember that, in France, books 5 & 6 seemed to have been released later than books 1 to 4.
    I had begun to make play the 4 first books without knowing the existence of the 2 last ones. That's a pity, since the 6th book brought a quality to the rest of the series.

  5. Originally the whole DW series was supposed to be published in France by Gallimard. However, the rights director at the UK publisher had the "bright" idea of licensing the books instead to a small start-up French publisher. That deal never went ahead, so finally Gallimard stepped back into negotiations with (of course) a much lower offer. The upshot was that the books came out later in France, and with a lot less marketing behind them, than if the UK publisher had just made the deal with Gallimard in the first place.

    Btw Gallimard have actually been my best publisher over the years. Not only do they get the best sales, but the cover design and attention to detail is far higher than in Britain. An example: one of the illustrations in one of the Blood Sword books was published upside-down in the UK. I wrote to Gallimard's editors pointing out the mistake and asking if they would correct it in the French edition. I got back a letter from the CEO of Gallimard, no less, saying that they had already spotted and corrected it. If I had sent that letter to the UK publisher, they almost certainly would have gone and printed one of the *other* illustrations upside-down as well!

  6. Sure that Gallimard was. Indeed, I only bought gamebooks from them, as they held the top of the market. To my knowledge, there wasn't any promotion of DW/Les Terres de Légende by Gallimard and I discovered your books by chance among the other gamebooks in the supermarket...
    This means of publication had its advantages and its drawbacks (this brought a role-playing system to a public other than the one that used to haunt the specialized bookstores...)
    The higher attention of Gallimard may have been simply due to the fact that they had to adapt books originally written in English into French. For example, French is said to take more place in writing than English and I know that Gallimard dropped some wonderful illustrations in the Fighting Fantasy series (I don't know for your books)
    For DW6, I have realised (when I downloaded the original version from the Underdogs) that they have dropped the schedule for determining penalties at the end of your chapter dedicated to justice in the Lands of Legend. They did the same with the map of political divisions and the table of creatures (indicating their number, their treasures..) in Book 4. A few details were missing in the individual description of the regions of the World of Legend, like the name of the Selentine Emperor, Ardax Baltissa (but this may be an error of the translator). And, in the table for jungle encounters in the scenario "the gold of Mungoda", they indicate a "jumbee", but I still don't know what it is since it appears under this name neither in DW1 nor in DW4.
    You may check the French editions there:

  7. Jumbees were described in the UK version of Book Four: a trio of hovering, misty undead who would surround a character and leach him out of existence. They were inspired by one of Henry S Whitehead's voodoo-inflected stories for Weird Tales in the 1920s. But possibly they were cut out of the French version of DW4 to save space. I know that, in preparing the French version of my Mirabilis comic, I found that the French text took up about 20% more space than the equivalent English.

  8. I've just downloaded the English version to be sure. Jumbees are indeed in the French DW4 but they are "triades" ! Apparently, the French version takes back all monsters from DW4 (I wonder if the English DW1 included "Tigers", since you mention them for in stealth table), but most illustrations for the adventures, and a few for the monsters were dropped.
    Thus, in French DW6, this was a mistake of the translator since, in the same book, he lists them as "triades" in the table of sea encounters.
    Hmm, I must confess that I thought that the "jumbee" of the jungle encounter table was a kind of "jumping bee". Don't mock, and remember that, in the 1st adventure of the Elven Crystal, the players could fight against a giant bee.
    I remember well this adventure because it was the most pitiful adventure I've ever led as a gamemaster...
    One of the players was an elementalist and his self-esteem sank before his comrades when they saw him talking to plants... The self-esteem of the warrior sank when all he could vanquish was precisely this giant bee. Finally, one of the members of the party fell into a hidden pit and was impaled, gravely injured. "Hey, said his companions, we must save him from there. Let's take the rope !"
    "Hmm, problem... He has the rope in his haversack...."
    Finally, the rest of the adventurers got killed by the mad hermit...
    At the end, all my friends were laughing about their "deeds". This proves that the funniest adventures are not obligatorily the most successful ones !

  9. I love your description of that adventure! It had me laughing out loud. We played that scenario with sales reps all over Britain as part of the DW launch, so we had all these hard-drinking guys who had never role-played suddenly discovering the fun of pretending to be someone else. They arrived at a village late one night and were pleading with the innkeeper to give them room in his stable when one of them said, "Hang on, we're knights, aren't we?" and turfed the innkeeper's family out of their own room. They never looked back after that :)

  10. Btw I take no responsibility for the giant bee. That was Oliver!

  11. Yeah ! it's funny to see how some people gets inspired by their character... Later I had a larger party of players and one of them was a barbarian. This long-haired boy could not help himself from always saying, with a terrific african accent (though he was from Emphidor): "Je suis un barbare !", making everyone laugh out loud.
    Likewise, he couldn't help himself from interpreting Bretuald the abbot (I had merged the scenarios with Vallandar and Tuannon into a single campaign) and making him always tell: "Je mangerais bien quelques pâtes/I would gladly eat some pasta" in reference to a famous character of French advertisements:

  12. A late comment on this entry but i'm just back from vacations...

    I want to mention that like Carifesteir I came across DW because it was published among Gallimard's gamebooks line. The only other role-playing I had played (and was still sometimes playing) at that point was the german game Das Schwarze Auge/The Dark Eye/L'oeil noir, also published by Gallimard in french (though while the scenarios were released in the same format as gamebooks, the rulebooks and maps were sold in boxes...that were made to look like giant plastic gamebooks!). Needless to say I soon dropped The Dark Eye in favor of DW. Gallimard definitely needs to be credited for introducing a LOT of french speakers to the world of role playing. Sure everyone knew D&D but as a kid and preteen in the late 80's (though by the time I played DW I was an early teen) it seemed way too complex for me to understand, but being eased into the concept through gamebooks...then releasing actual role playing games through their gamebook line, it was a great and easy introduction. And design wise those gallimard first editions look terrific. Their classy and "restrained" (no such thing as bloody or fantasy looking fonts here) look and the uniformity of the design just begs for you to collect them. So much that i today own every single one they've ever released...(which if i'm not mistaken totals 205 books in 24 series)

    Oh and as a side note gallimard only published ONE other role-playing game aside from Dark eye and DW...the game? Pendragon. I got it about two years ago out of curisoity and because i wanted to have everything Gallimard ever published in the genre and i leafed through it but i don't think i could have got into it back in my teens. I don't feel it does a good job at drawing newcomers in, and thats exactly what the review says.

  13. Hello Dave, what dice might I need to play Dragon Warriors? I've been thinking about purchasing DW but I only have 6-sided dice at the time and I assume DW uses those oddly-shaped dice. -Matthew

    1. I'm afraid it does, Matthew. Oliver Johnson tried to convince me to design the rules to just use d6 but, like a fool, I didn't listen. I suggest keeping the setting of Legend but using whatever system you like. My group uses GURPS 4e, others use Runequest.

  14. Alright, all I've got is Torchbearer so I'd have to use that system. Thanks anyway! -Matthew

    1. I don't know much about that, but I see it's described as "a dungeon crawl RPG" so it's probably the last thing you need for Legend roleplaying. Chaosium's Basic Role-Playing rules are online for free somewhere, and you can also download GURPS Lite I think. This post might be a good place to start: