Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Review: Dragon Warriors

A couple of posts back, I promised a review of an old RPG I was happy to see back on the shelves. That game is the classic British fantasy game known as Dragon Warriors, recently re-edited, re-packaged, and re-released late last year by James Wallis' Magnum Opus Press.

(I should warn readers that I find talking about game mechanics at length incredibly boring. If you're interested in the particulars of how swinging a sword or casting a spell works in Dragon Warriors, I recommend perusing the reviews section at RPG.net.)

Dragon Warriors originally saw life as a series of six digest-sized paperbacks released by UK-based publisher Corgi Books. Dragon Warriors appeared in the mid-80s, as gamebooks like Fighting Fantasy and Lone Wolf were at the height of their popularity. Dragon Warriors, unlike those books, was a full-fledged RPG, rather than a "choose your own adventure" style game. It enjoyed a good amount of success in Britain (and also in Australia and New Zealand), but the books were unavailable in the United States. Magnum Opus Press recently collected all of the rules and setting material from across the six original books, did a little bit of editing and tweaking, added new artwork, and re-released the game. This new version of Dragon Warriors has been distributed worldwide. So, while many outside the US view Dragon Warriors with a fond sense of nostalgia, the vast majority of Americans are now reading it for the first time.

I have described Dragon Warriors in the past as the UK's answer to "red box" D&D, the introductory version released by TSR in the early 80s, but now that all of the rules and world information has been collected from across the various original books, a better point of comparison would probably be the D&D Rules Cyclopedia, a book that has largely become accepted as the definitive one-book fantasy RPG. But what makes Dragon Warriors shine in comparison to it is its attention to mood and atmosphere.

The game's introduction, written by co-creator Dave Morris, describes the goal of Dragon Warriors as putting "something dark, spooky and magical back into fantasy role-playing." Morris relates that he and Oliver Johnson wanted to create a vivid, folkloric Dark Ages setting in contrast to "the medieval Disneyland of Dungeons and Dragons."

In that goal, Dragon Warriors succeeds admirably. Even the brief example of play at the beginning of the book - which, in a nice touch, consists of several knights meeting and getting into a discussion about tourneys, the Crusades, and pagan gods - labors to set the tone of the game even as it discusses the most basic nuts and bolts of roleplaying.

Character generation likewise evokes the tone of the setting. Unlike the bulk of fantasy RPGs, there are no races to choose from - all player characters are assumed to be human. (As Dave Morris writes in his introduction: "Walking into a tavern in Legend and finding an elf at the bar would be like strolling into your real-life local and seeing a polar bear.") Dragon Warriors also eschews D&D's generalized character classes in favor of more flavorful professions - so, rather than fighters, thieves, and magic-users, DW characters are assumed to be Knights looking for something to do after returning from a Crusade, Assassins on the run from secret societies, left-handed Sorcerers feared by the peasantry, and so on. The magic spells and artifacts available to players also evoke a world with history. Yes, there are the fantasy staples of magical swords and bolts of fire, but also terrible curses and saints' relics.

But I don't want to make Dragon Warriors sound like a "historical" fantasy game. The Lands of Legend are clearly inspired by medieval Earth, with some regions essentially being real-world locations renamed (such as the assumed starting point of Ellesland, which is much like medieval England). However, there are also high-fantasy elements, such as the blasted plains of Krarth, ruled by the descendants of powerful magi, or the bizarre bridge-city of Rathurbosk. But throughout is a feeling of deep mystery. Never do the setting's creators let magic seem everyday or predictable. This is a world where magic is old and terrifying. This is Legend, where a goblin is something that lives in your rafters and curdles your milk, an elf is as unpredictable and cruel as a child, and a dragon is the very symbol of evil... and this is a game that dearly makes you want to play in that world.

I should point out that Dragon Warriors is over twenty years old, and while its system is simple and straightforward, there are some odd warts here and there. There is something approaching a "unified mechanic", where one rolls under a target number on a d20... unless you're using magic, when you use 2d10, plus there are a few "special case" rules that work quite differently (such as poison, morale or the dreaded Fear Attack). The abilities of the professions themselves - which include the aforementioned Knight, Assassin, and Sorcerer, plus Barbarians, Mystics, Elementalists, and Warlocks - vary considerably in complexity and customizability. The description of the Barbarian, for example, takes up scarcely a page, while eight pages are devoted to the highly mutable Assassin profession. This may rankle fans of modern RPGs, as some professions certainly offer less options to the player, though they aren't necessarily weaker for it. Again, however, I feel that the game's strengths vastly outweigh its weaknesses.

Happily, the new incarnation of Dragon Warriors seems to be doing well for itself. There has been a steady stream of interest in the game on various RPG message boards, and it has received glowing praise from Mike Mearls, co-designer of the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons. I am optimistic about Dragon Warriors' future, and am hoping that it leads to more old gems being uncovered, polished, and readied for release.


  1. sounds interesting. is it more gritty in the way that the newer version(s?) of Warhammer Fantasy RPG is? (i know that you were a big fan of that).

  2. It certainly feels gritty, but different than Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. The system itself doesn't encourage "grittiness" in the same way WFRP does. There aren't nasty, gory critical hit charts or anything like that.

    Characters do start out a bit more powerful than, say, old-style D&D characters do, but the game stays lethal at high levels (unlike D&D) and there are a lot of ways for your character to die outright. You can die of fear, for example.

  3. The game seems interesting, quick and fun. The intro adventure did seem a little too funneled and plotty to me. I'm tempted to check out Sleeping Gods to get more of a sense of the tone of how the thing plays out.

    It does seem a little too focused towards "why would you take that?!" options like, say, wands, and ways to totally fuck your character at high level for little reward. A lot of the "you can do this!" options seem like a lot of trouble for little benefit...a really late 80's kind of design sensibility that doesn't sit to well with me. I do want to give it a shot at playing, though.

  4. Dragon Warriors is a product of its time, so if you're a big fan of "sandbox" play or plotless dungeons, the published adventures probably aren't going to be your cup of tea. Sleeping Gods has some fairly open-ended scenarios ("Mungoda Gold" springs to mind), but some railroady stuff too.

    I'm not sure what you mean by "why would you take that?!" options. If you mean that some of the high-level abilities are kind of blah, I agree. However, I don't see DW as being much different than other games made at the same time, in that respect.

    Certainly there are some things that could have stood to be tweaked a bit more than they were... I was hoping that the classes would be evened out a bit more, but James Wallis is steadfast about not wanting to change the game too much. At least, not yet.

  5. Nice review. I'll be buying it.