I finally got to play Dragon Warriors.
You're thinking, "Wasn't that a Nintendo console game?" Well, yes, it was, but I'm talking about the British RPG from the 1980s.
The original '80s Dragon Warriors RPG in cool paperback format
Dragon Warriors was created by Dave Morris and Oliver Johnson in 1985, slipping in just at the end of the 'Old School' era of roleplaying games. DW bucked a number of trends. For one thing, it was a simple rules system, only marginally more fiddly than the BECMI Dungeons & Dragons rules that offered a stripped down alternative to AD&D and are so beloved of OSR purists today. This, at a time when RPG design was tending towards complexity, with systems like Rolemaster and Harnmaster offering (to my mind, excessive) realism through a plethora of tables.
DW's other distinguishing feature was its format: published by Corgi books in the classic 178mm x 110mm trade paperback size. This meant the game was delivered to you in a modular sequence. The first book, Dragon Warriors, introduced core rules with Knights and Barbarians as PCs. If you wanted magic, you needed Way of Wizardry for Sorcerers and Mystics. The Elven Crystals provided linked scenarios, Out of the Shadows added Assassin PCs, The Power of Darkness added Elementalists and The Lands of Legend developed the campaign setting (a world called Legend) and Warlock PCs.
The books retailed at £1.75 back then, which was cheap compared to other games normally priced at £10-12 . But then again, other '80s RPGs tended to come in a box, with a starter scenario or screen, and to acquire all of DW you would need to spend £9.50, so perhaps it wasn't such a saving. On the other hand a young gamer could acquire Dragon Warriors gradually, in pocket money sized instalments, rather than needing to wait until Christmas or a birthday for the substantial gift of a £10 game. (If you want to translate into today's money, multiply mid-'80s prices by three.)
The paperback format probably made sense to Corgi, because the Fighting Fantasy game books were still printing money for Puffin Books and Corgi adopted a similar look with Dragon Warriors, hoping for some crossover purchases.
It was not to be. Dragon Warriors won warm praise from critics and gathered a devoted fan base, but it never secured a place at the top gaming table. There were many reasons. It was quirky British at a time when American culture dazzled. It was conventional fantasy at a time when interest was rising in SF, horror and book/film tie-ins. It was simple when complexity was fashionable. Changes in print technology would soon make RPG rule books into glossy hardback artefacts resembling coffee table talking points and DW's paperback format came to look childish and naff by comparison (but is beloved by collectors now for that very reason).
Dragon Warriors and the '90s competition. 'Game over, man!'
I never played DW when it first appeared. I was starting university and moved past Fighting Fantasy and pocket money sized instalments didn't appeal the way it would have done a couple of years earlier. But I noticed it, especially the adverts that promoted DW's authentic medieval and faerie themes.
I remember being particularly drawn to an advert for the game that promised a RPG setting in which Elves were not cosy woodland party-goers, but alien entities who have no souls!
DW was rescued from oblivion by Mongoose back in 2009, who brought the six paperbacks together as a single volume. When that lapsed, DW was rescued again by Serpent King Games and their edition, as well as many more supplements and scenarios, can be bought at drivethrurpg.
How Does It Play? (but don't bore me ...)
I'll try not to!
You create your character by rolling the familiar 3d6 for Strength, Reflexes, Intelligence, Psychic Talent and Looks. As is traditional for old school RPGs, 'Looks' has no mechanical value in the game and serves as a dump stat for all right minded people.
The important stats are Attack, Defence, Magic Attack and Defence, Stealth, Perception and Evasion. These are dictated by your character class and (slightly) modified by extreme score in Strength, Reflexes, etc. (but not Looks, obviously.) Hit Points are rolled with a modifier based on your class, with Barbarians getting the most Hit Points, as is only right and proper.
The basic mechanism is to roll a d20 and score under your stat. If it's a conflict, you deduct your opponent's Defence or Magical Defence from your stat. If it's a ranged attack, instead of deducting Defense you get a penalty based on their range, size and speed. A 1 always hits. That's it.
Well, not quite. Weapons do a fixed amount of damage, like 4 for a dagger or 6 for a morning star. This is modified for very high/low Strength (but not Looks!). You then roll to bypass armour. Each weapon has its own Armour Bypass Die (a d4 for a dagger, a d6 for a morning star) and you have to roll it and match or exceed the armour rating (4 for full mail, 5 for plate armour) otherwise you do no damage at all. On top of that, a shield gives a simple 1 in 6 change of negating all the damage.
This means you end up imitating D&D by rolling a d20 'to hit' then a weapon die, but the weapon die is really a second 'to hit' roll versus armour. Fixed damage takes some of the unfairness out of dicey mechanics, but it does make combat somewhat predictable. Heavily armoured PCs have a definite edge over monsters. The combat feels a bit clunky and unresponsive to dramatic improvisation, but it captures the brutal tone of medieval melee and it gives armour the right sort of value.
There are Spell Lists and some of the spells are quite distinctive. Magic using characters can cast any spell (no Spell Books, which is disappointing) but have to spend Magic Points (MP), which recharge once a day. Mystics are a bit different; instead of MP they have a push-your-luck mechanic which can result in losing all magical power for the rest of the day.
There are a few fiddly details. Some rolls are made with 2d10 instead of a d20, which additional penalises low scores and further rewards having high scores. I can't quite see the point of this.
In a nutshell: It's a fairly boilerplate RPG rules set with a heavy focus on fighting, no social mechanics to speak of and a fairly gritty feel to it. Character classes are prescriptive but are nicely locked into the medieval setting. You get to choose skills at higher levels, but otherwise characters of the same class are as undifferentiated as D&D - perhaps more so, because draping yourself in goofy magic items is less of a thing for DW.
What's the Setting Like? (please be brief)
DW's biggest draw is its world and the tone created by that setting. The world is called Legend.
Legend has more than a passing resemblance to 13th century Europe, with Ellesland (NW corner) having a kingdom called Albion - where (with the patriotic perspective we expect) the campaign is assumed to start. From there, PCs can explore such exotic and threatening places as Chaubrette (France), Algandy (Spain), the New Selentine (i.e. Holy Roman) Empire and on south and east to caliphates, sultanates and emirates and Mungoda, which is plainly Africa. I'm sure Edward Said would have turned in his grave, if he wasn't alive and well at the time, having published Orientalism just a few years earlier, denouncing this sort of other-ing and fetishizing of African and Middle Eastern culture.
Once we've had the mandatory cringe at all this eurocentric bias and cultural appropriation, let's put this in a RPG perspective. Dragon Warriors was in good company. Gary Gygax ran his original D&D campaign in a fantasy world that was a map of North America with the names changed. Expert D&D, published just a couple of years before DW, introduced the Known World setting, later named Mystara; this spawned a set of gazetteers in the late 1980s, most of which explicitly modelled fantasy realms on historical civilisations - for example, Ken Rolston's The Emirates of Ylaruam (1987) bundles the Islamic Middle East into a single fantasy realm.
At around about the same time, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay was developing the Old World setting, which pastiched Michael Moorcock, H P Lovecraft and Renaissance Europe into a distinctive fantasy world.
(And of course, 1996 George R R Martin published Game of Thrones.)
It's to DW's credit that it treats Legend as more than a gauzy historical backdrop, but rather expects players to lean in to its culture and cultural conflicts. Knights are expected to live by the feudal code and Barbarians and Elementalists are explicitly the warriors and mages of the northern and eastern expanses. The scenarios go out of their way to illustrate medieval norms and assumptions about class, nationhood, honour and the supernatural.
Faerie is another feature of this setting and DW strives to evoke a numinous and threatening feel for the Fae: beautiful but alien, feared, fickle, otherworldly, uncanny. Very different from the humdrum Elves of D&D and Warhammer, but not unlike the Others/White Walkers of Game of Thrones.
My friend Simon Barns reminds me of other '80s games that explored a fantasy/historical setting. Chivalry & Sorcery rather beat you over the head with its historical verisimilitude and DW is a light-footed, free-spirited nymph by comparison. Pendragon excels at this sort of roleplaying, but only in the Arthurian theme and with the convention that you all play Knights.
So, Are You Going to Play It?
No, I don't think so.
There's an introductory scenario in the revised rulebook called The Darkness Before Dawn which I ran with a group of friends. It's a fine scenario, illustrating feudal duties, community tensions and faerie malevolence. Everybody enjoyed themselves. But the session illustrated both the strengths and shortcomings of Dragon Warriors as a rules set.
Character creation is quick but rather unsatisfying. Put simply, you are your character class. The background tables prompt you to deviate only slightly from the medieval stereotype (our PC Knight was the son of an ink maker and must have been knighted as a mercenary). Combat is similarly clunky - not laborious or longwinded or fiddly, just lacking in drama. The magic system is solid and might have seemed very fresh and rational compared to the lottery that is D&D, but again lacks colourful moments. Judged as a OSR product, DW feels as if its moment has passed.
A good comparison might be that other 'fantasy heartbreaker' that I love: Forge Out of Chaos (see blogs passim).
Forge and DW offer a similar departure from old school D&D without questioning its core assumptions. They both retain the 3d6 characteristics and the roll-a-d20-to-hit combat system. But Forge has more interesting quirks, like weapons notching, time out to repair armour, harmful side effects from spells and a distinction between damage done to armour and damage done to its wearer.
The crucial problem with DW is that the stuff that makes it so distinctive - the twilit, Celtic-themed Faerie vibe - isn't part of the rule set at all. The PCs aren't faerie themed - they don't have mystical geisa binding them to tragic dooms, they can't go into warp spasms, they don't have Fae heritage or the second sight, you can't roll to be the seventh son of a seventh son. The magic system is sturdy but generic: there are no faerie themed spells, you can't tap ley lines, open portals at standing stones, commune with river goddesses or learn someone's True Name.
All of which adds up to this proposition: I explore the world of Legend and DW's excellent scenarios without having to use the Dragon Warriors rules set, because the rules set is no necessary part of what makes the setting and the scenarios so good. If I wanted to emphasis gritty combat and white-knuckle survivalism, I'd use Forge: Out of Chaos; if I wanted to retain the simplicity and the sense of being ordinary mooks in a big bad world, I'd go with Warlock!. If I just wanted to tell wild fairy tales in a romantic medieval setting, I'd use Blueholme or another D&D retroclone.
Warlock! and Blueholme are available at drivethrurpg (click the images) but Forge can only be found in (vintage) physical editions at the moment - albeit inexpensive ones
Sounds Like You're Being a Bit Harsh ...
Maybe I am. I can certainly see why people who discovered Dragon Warriors in the '80s stayed loyal - and I can see why DW might be an exciting discovery for someone delving into RPG products of decades past. It's probably the best of the 'lost' RPGs of that era and, if it were categorised as one of Ron Edwards' 'fantasy heartbreakers' then it is an exceptional one.
I'm judging DW from my own perspective, of course. If I run a fantasy RPG, it will always be in a historical setting or one inspired by a historical era. Faerie is a big influence on my imagination and I represent Faerie in my games very much as Dave Morris & Oliver Johnson advocate in Dragon Warriors. I prefer low-key fantasy RPGs where wounds, trauma, supplies and the like all matter.
And because of this, I'm disappointed to find Dragon Warriors isn't offering me anything except exhortations to roleplay in the way I already do, in a world very like one I would create myself, and a rules set that has no distinctive advantages over other OSR or fantasy heartbreaker games I already own,.
In other words, by the time I finally got round to reading Dragon Warriors, it was too late. The moment has passed. The passion isn't going to ignite. We're in the friendzone, DW and I.
But you, Dear Reader, maybe you're different. Maybe you've never done a fantasy RPG in a historically inspired setting. Maybe this Faerie theme thing is new to you. Maybe you're wanting to try one of these 'old school' RPGs and don't know which of the many out there to begin with.
I reckon, if two out of the three above apply to you, then Dragon Warriors will blow your mind. I think it would have blown mine if I'd discovered it back when I was 18: with her moody Celtic beauty and quirky medieval style, Dragon Warriors is the one that got away.
30 Minute Dungeons
Essays on Forge
I'm a teacher and a writer and I love board games and RPGs. I got into D&D back in the '70s with Eric Holmes' 'Blue Book' set and I've started writing my own OSR-inspired games - as well as fantasy and supernatural fiction..