by Demian Katz
Dragon Warriors (2008)
Published by Magnum Opus Press,
in association with Flaming Cobra (Mongoose Publishing)
Written by Dave Morris and Oliver Johnson
Edited, revised and expanded by Dave Morris, Adrian Bott, Frazer Payne, Ian Sturrock and James Wallis
Cover by Jon Hodgson
Interior artwork by Andy Hepworth, Jon Hodgson, Scott Neill, Scott Purdy and Erik Wilson
Maps by Andy Law, Russ Nicholson and Frazer Payne
256 page hardbound book
This game is featured in the OgreCave Christmas Gift Guide 2009
While Dragon Warriors probably doesn't ring any bells for
American gamers, it holds an important place in British gaming. In the
mid-eighties, solitaire gamebooks like Fighting Fantasy and Lone Wolf
had a massive audience, but role-playing games were comparatively
expensive and delegated to specialty shops. Dragon Warriors was
one of a small group of RPGs (along with Fighting Fantasy spin-offs and
the recently-reprinted Maelstrom) to bridge the gap by presenting a
full-fledged multi-player game system in the same inexpensive, compact
format used by the simpler, single-player gamebooks. With a deeper game
system than Fighting Fantasy and a larger range of available material
than Maelstrom, it was the stand-out offering in its class. This,
combined with its affordability and availability, means that Dragon
Warriors likely introduced an impressive number of gamers to the
hobby during its time in print. Many of these gamers remained loyal to
the system even during its long time out of print - it had a strong
Internet following even before its recent reprint.
Dragon Warriors was originally issued as a series of six
paperbacks. The first volume introduced the basic game system and rules
for creating warrior characters. The second volume introduced magic.
Subsequent books contained a mix of adventures, advanced rules, new
character professions and background on the game's setting of Legend.
The incremental approach was useful for introducing new players to the
hobby gradually, but it was not ideal for veteran players. The new
second edition changes very little from the original game, but it tries
to rearrange the content into a more useful form. The core rulebook has
all of the rules and most of the background material from the original
books. A separate Dragon Warriors Bestiary collects detailed
monster information (the core rules contain only basic stats and
abbreviated descriptions), and all of the classic adventures will be
released as stand-alone volumes.
Unfortunately, this reorganization could have been better. While there
is no question that getting all of the similar content in one place -
spells, professions, etc. - is a dramatic improvement, the actual order
of the content doesn't always make a whole lot of sense if you read the
book from cover to cover (a reasonable thing for a new player to want to
do). Special character abilities are described before the core game
system. There is a lot of name-dropping with regard to locations and
characters within the game's setting long before they have been
introduced or explained. It's not a fatal flaw, but if the material
were arranged a little differently, concepts would build upon each other
more naturally on the first read. A brief introduction to the world and
core gameplay concepts earlier in the text would go a long way to help.
Organizational issues would also be a less serious flaw if the book had
a general index, but it does not. There will inevitably be some
frustrating flipping and skimming when you need to find a particular
rule or refresh your memory on an obscure place name. This is also a
game that would benefit tremendously from a GM screen - I hope to see
one on the market sooner or later.
Dave Morris himself acknowledges in the introduction that the game
system is hardly the most important part of Dragon Warriors.
Still, it's worth taking a look at what we've got here. As noted
earlier, the actual game here has changed very little since its
introduction in 1985, so it is not surprising that it feels a lot like
generic-brand Basic Dungeons & Dragons. Like D&D, there
are character classes (here called "professions"), experience levels
(here called "ranks") and dungeons (here called "underworlds").
Characters have attributes rolled up using 3D6. There's no real core
mechanic like you would expect from the d20 system; none of the rules
are complex, but there are different formulas and die rolls to take into
account for situations like combat, spellcasting, surviving hazards, and
so forth - hence my desire for a GM screen to summarize it all. It's
definitely antiquated by current RPG standards, but I rather like it
that way - a little bit of inconsistency in the mechanics can add to the
flavor of a game; sometimes it makes the die rolls less tedious if
they're not all structured exactly the same way. This certainly
wouldn't be my first system of choice for role-playing in general, but
if I were to run a game in the Dragon Warriors universe, I see no
reason not to do it with its own system.
Fans of the original game will probably be thrilled to see it revived in
a sturdy hardcover format. This is a nice-looking, solid-feeling book,
and it should stand up to heavy use. Copy editing is a bit better than
average, though the book is not without its share of typos and misplaced
words. All of the original art has been replaced with new material,
though I can't say that either edition of the game is outstanding in
this area. The original edition has competent and consistent artwork,
but nothing as stylistically outstanding as the work of the top-tier
gamebook artists like Russ Nicholson and Iain McCaig. While the reissue
does feature a map drawn by Russ Nicholson, it would have benefit more
from some of his artwork. Jon Hodgson's work (seen on the cover and in
many interior illustrations) has a distinct flavor of its own and makes
good use of atmospheric light, but it doesn't mesh particularly well
with the simpler line art contributed by other artists featured in the
volume; I think I would have preferred to see less art overall in the
interest of establishing a more unified Dragon Warriors style.
As mentioned above, Dragon Warriors is a classic class-and-level
system. Given this, it has a fairly interesting breakdown of classes
(or professions, to use the game's own terminology). The fighter and
thief archetypes are handled fairly typically - Knights and Barbarians
cover both ends of the fighter spectrum, while Assassins encompass all
of fantasy roguery. Players interested in magic have a lot more
options, however, with four different professions. Sorcerers are the
classic "academic" mage, studying arcane text, writing scrolls and
avoiding combat. Mystics are intuitive spellcasters, relying on psychic
power and inner strength rather than book learning to achieve magical
effects. Elementalists use the forces of nature, each specializing in a
different element (including the fifth element of Darkness, which puts a
nasty twist on everything). Warlocks are more combat-oriented, blending
some of the strengths of Sorcerers and Knights. Each magic-using class
has its own unique spell list, with many spells having similar effects
but showing up at different experience levels.
As characters grow in experience, they gain special abilities.
Spellcasters obviously learn more spells and can cast them more often,
but the fighters and assassins are not left out - every class develops
new skills over time, and by the time they reach high levels, they are
formidable opponents. Of course, spellcasters are arguably the
deadliest of the bunch - the game does not shy away from instant kill
spells or spectacularly destructive effects, though many of the most
intimidating spells have a heavy cost for the caster.
Dragon Warriors is set in a world called Legend, which is very
obviously modeled on medieval Earth. Most places and events have some
basis in actual history - there are analogs for everything from ancient
Egypt and the Roman Empire to the Crusades and the development of
Christianity. All the names have been changed, but it's not too hard to
figure out what's what. Some will love this - new evocative fantasy
names to tie to subjects that a GM can study in real history to add
depth to a campaign. Others will wish they hadn't put up the facade and
had just left the names alone so that we wouldn't have to remember so
much new stuff. I have a low tolerance for learning lots of new place
names (I hate fantasy gazetteers), but I do appreciate that the extra
layer of fantasy is probably necessary here, especially given the game's
textured handling of religious issues.
Of course, names aside, this version of Earth has magic and monsters
added, but the game discourages overuse of fantasy elements,
recommending that they instead be reserved for special occasions and
replaced with rational explanations whenever possible. This more
restrained approach is the main thing that distinguishes the game from
games like D&D, and I find it to be a welcome change of pace.
Another distinguishing factor is the game's Britishness - while Legend
mirrors all of Earth, the published Dragon Warriors adventures
focus on Ellesland, the game's fantasy equivalent of feudal England,
with a history of conquest from the mainland, and dark faerie magic at
work in its woods. Some of the game's specialized rules (such as a
surprisingly deep and interesting discussion of legal systems) also
reinforce the history-driven, low-fantasy flavor.
The core rulebook really only skims the surface of the setting, devoting
about a dozen pages to an overview of key geographical areas and a bit
more space elsewhere for specialized topics like languages, social
classes, possible character origins and legendary artifacts and events.
I would not be surprised to see whole volumes released in the future
expanding upon the world as a whole or even specialized regions; even
though I'm not a fan of such things, I wouldn't mind having a better
geographical reference. For the time being, though, the material here
is adequate for setting the tone and provides enough starting points to
give a creative GM an almost unlimited range of campaign possibilities.
Game Master Advice
Speaking of the creative GM, the book offers a brief but helpful
"Setting Your Campaign" chapter with advice on changing the game's
settings and rules to serve the needs of a particular gaming group. A
broad range of recommended reading is presented, and most of the advice
is sound. By contrast, the actual chapter on being a GM is rather
sparse, devoting more space to miscellaneous rules that didn't fit
elsewhere than to actual advice. Fortunately, tip boxes embedded within
the game's introductory adventure make up for this to some extent.
As a fan of Dave Morris' innovative gamebook work, I was looking forward
to seeing some of his RPG scenario designs, which I expect are a major
highlight of the Dragon Warriors game. Unfortunately, I'll have
to wait for future volumes to have that pleasure - the only adventure
included with the core rules is a new one, "The Darkness Before Dawn,"
written by Frazer Payne. Fortunately, this new material is a good
introduction to the game and does not feel out of place despite being
written more than twenty years after most of the other material. The
overall structure of the adventure is fairly linear, but there are
several points where the players will have to puzzle their way through
situations with a wide range of possible solutions. There's a touch of
the supernatural, a taste of politics, and opportunities to build
character background and gain connections to important NPCs - a good
introduction for new players, but with enough meat to give veterans
something to build upon.
If you're already a fan of Dragon Warriors, there is no reason to
avoid picking up this book. The spirit and content of the original game
are fully intact, so there will be no need for traditionalist outrage.
The organization, while imperfect, is still an improvement over sifting
through a (probably tattered) pile of old paperbacks. There is no
question that this is a respectable revival of an old favorite.
If you're new to Dragon Warriors, the decision to purchase this
rulebook is a little less clear-cut. If you want a modern system, you
won't find it here; that's not the point of this release. If you want a
new campaign setting, you'll find good ideas and fragments, but better
and deeper material is probably coming later. If you want classic
Dragon Warriors adventures, those are sold separately. All that
being said, I'm personally glad to own this book. It's a less familiar
system in an old style that I still find appealing. It's a nice first
taste of a campaign setting and style that I look forward to exploring
further. While it's not for everyone, I welcome Dragon Warriors
back into print. It seems that the best is yet to come.