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Monday, 20 December 2010

Airbrushing history

It happens whenever somebody comes along and cleans up an old painting. The example above is, of course, from the Sistine Chapel restoration project of the '80s and '90s. One critic will say, "This reveals the true genius of Michaelangelo!" while another will say, "We used to say Michelangelo was a genius because we liked the old paintings; these new versions look like poster paints!"

A fair point. The Author is dead, after all. It is the work that stands alone, and on which we rest our judgement. I was reminded of this recently while talking about the poor fit between the Dragon Warriors rules and the world of Legend (as I see it) and the guy I was talking to said they seemed like a perfect fit to him, because his version of Legend was a fairly high-fantasy medieval place with orcs and hobbits. That's all he'd ever known, and he liked it.

So, in the interests of balanced reporting, I thought I'd seek out the opinion of my 28-year-old self when flushed with the pride of having actually managed to get a role-playing game into high street bookstores. This was an advertorial that appeared in White Dwarf #72 (December 1985):


This being White Dwarf, we figure our Dragon Warriors advertisement ought to amount to a bit more than a pretty picture and a string of wild claims. Dwarf readers are RPG enthusiasts, so presumably you'd rather have some hard facts, some real details about the game. Of course, since this is an ad - and we are the authors of Dragon Warriors - you can't exactly expect objectivity. So will you settle for reasoned argument?

Dragon Warriors is the new fantasy role-playing game. (Fact.) There have been several new games recently, so does the market need another? Absolutely! Taking a look at some of the other FRP games that have come out over the last couple of years, we were beginning to get a feeling of deja vu. A lot of the game systems were just old rules rehashed, and the approach always seemed to stress technicalities and dice-rolling at the expense of intrigue and action. The only thing about each new game that really changed was the price. They kept getting more expensive!

We decided that the time had come for a next generation fantasy game. One that was affordable. (Who wants to pay £15.00 for a game they may not like, plus another £5.00 for every new scenario pack?) Hence Dragon Warriors - a very complete set of rules and a total of six scenarios for £5.25 in all. If you want to just try out the game, Book One has been written to stand on its own. It includes the essential rules, monsters, campaign map, adventure and tactical hints, plus an introductory adventure, all in one volume, all for £1.75. If any other game beats Dragon Warriors for value, we haven't seen it.

It's not enough to be the cheapest, of course. We also wanted Dragon Warriors to be the best. With ten years role-playing experience behind us, trying out a lot of different systems, we've come to some conclusions about how to create a good set of rules. They must be easy to use but convey the feeling of a convincing `fantasy reality': simple but not simplistic. Dragon Warriors had to handle the nuts and bolts (melee, tactics, magic) efficiently, without the need for lots of complicated charts.

So let's look at combat. Just two rolls are used. Because look-up tables slow down the game, Dragon Warriors uses a straightforward principle here. To hit your opponent, you subtract his DEFENCE from your ATTACK: the number you get is what you must roll equal to or under on d20. If you hit, you check for armour bypass: you roll a die (what sort depends on your weapon; d4 if it's a dagger, d8 for a sword, etc) and try to get higher than your opponent's armour factor. If you do, he takes a wound (constant for a given weapon type).

That's it - the full Dragon Warriors combat system. Well, not really, because there are special situations and tactical bits and pieces, but that's the bare bones of it all. We made it simple so that new players could quickly get the feel of the game, and experienced players will find plenty of room for development.

Book Two, The Way of Wizardry, expands the Dragon Warriors rules to include the magical arts. As well as nearly a hundred spells, you will find the rules for Alchemy, Calligraphy, Artifice, Enchantment, psychic senses and a host of magic items. Two eerie scenarios, "A Shadow on the Mist" and "Hunter's Moon", can be used to follow on from the events of Book One as part of an ongoing campaign.

Book Three in the series. The Elven Crystals, features a trio of linked adventures that lead to a fateful climax: a mission into a forest steeped in sorcery, a raid on a castle (a fiendishly well-defended one, as our own players can attest), and a visit to a fishing village where things are not as they seem.

We decided to do something pretty drastic with the folklore and milieu, too. Things have got too cute, too twee. The old primordial horrors have been turned into nice, safe, human critters straight out of a cartoon show. Elves have become just hippies in green tunics. Dwarves run the corner tavern in your average fantasy village. But the Green Knight was an elf. Grendel was "troll-kin". There's nothing cosy about those guys. In the world of Dragon Warriors, elves are feared for a very good reason: they have no souls. Monsters in Dragon Warriors are eerie supernatural beings. They are not simply in the world to provide player-characters with sword fodder.
Now, that was signed by me and Oliver but I'm quite sure the publisher's marketing people will have juiced it up a bit. It wasn't either of us who coined the term "the ultimate role-playing game", you know. (In fact, what does that even mean?) Still, the undeniable truth was that we had created a game system we were proud of. It wasn't what we played ourselves, but it had some features we liked. Why else single out the armour bypass mechanic, for example? And I know we really liked psychic fatigue and spell expiry rolls: no more book-keeping!

That was the 1980s and DW now falls into the category of being so old it's almost back in fashion. I have some sunglasses I bought in Miami in 1982 that my wife thinks are really quite stylish too. I don't get it myself, but then I've never been interested in things just because it's fashionable to like them. And btw if you're still thinking, "Hang on, did this guy just compare himself to Michelangelo?" - rest assured that it's only hubris if I'd said Leonardo.


  1. If "Fabled Lands" has been resurrected, then it means it has a "soul" !

  2. BTW, what's with this modern trend of calling him, "Leonardo"? When I was growing up, he was always referred to as "Da Vinci" :-) It's like Thomas a Beckett losing his "a".....

  3. His name was actually Leonardo di ser Piero, he was just born in Vinci. And seeing as Michelangelo is just known by his first name, and Leonardo is at least as famous, it seems consistent.