Dragon Meh-iors

Back in the height of the Fighting Fantasy craze there were a number of RPGs released in the UK market not as standard-format RPG rulebooks issued via game publishers to the gaming market but as small paperbacks released by book publishers to the book market. This provided a range of gateway drugs into the hobby marketed to young readers outside of the usual channels. Fighting Fantasy had its own RPG adaptations, of course, and the Corgi reprint of Tunnels & Trolls arguably falls into this category; there was also Maelstrom, whose rich historical flavour made up for many of its system quirks, and Dragon Warriors.

Penned by Dave Morris and Oliver Johnson, this is another one issued by Corgi, and originally came out as a series of small paperbacks which each added a little more wrinkle to the system – so the fighter-y classes were in the first book, the magic-y ones in the second book, and so on. This was neat enough, but the format did mean that it could become awkward to play as you flipped about between the different books to find the information you needed.

20 years later, James Wallis was planning a return to the RPG industry, having stepped back and sold off Hogshead Publishing some years earlier. The project that brought him back was Dragon Warriors – specifically, a new edition of the game with the material comprehensively reorganised, so the rules are all to be found in a single book along with the key setting information on the world of Legend. Although Magnum Opus Press has to all appearances collapsed as a result of Wallis moving on to other things, their edition of the game remains available via Serpent King, who sell PDF and print-on-demand copies of the game via DriveThruRPG.

To be honest, the first thing that puts me off about the current edition of the game is the introduction by Dave Morris, in which he more or less directly says that the system ain’t that hot and claims that he’s had the best results running games in the setting under GURPS. He also points out that the setting isn’t that original, being a “skewed version of Earth”-type world of a sort that isn’t exactly uncommon.

So if the setting isn’t that much of a departure and the system isn’t so hot, why do we care? Morris tries to argue for the particular atmosphere of the Legend setting here, but in classic Fantasy Heartbreaker fashion he defines this largely as a reaction to perceived failings of D&D. Moreover, most of the aspects of the atmosphere – the darkness, the interesting use of medieval fears, the way an entirely mundane explanation for a scenario was considered acceptable and the low-fantasy approach – weren’t exactly ideas which were thin on the ground at the time in the British RPG scene. Indeed, there must have been something in the water since then, because with the likes of Maelstrom, the Fighting Fantasy world, and the Warhammer world all working in many of these features, Legend doesn’t seem so distinctive by comparison. (Having your game reprinted by James Wallis may in retrospect not be such a hot way to establish a clear distinction between it and WFRP, come to think of it.)

It should also be noted that there are several aspects in which, as Morris tacitly admits in the introduction, the system is just bobbins. Perhaps the most notable issue here is in the combat system, where you get your target number to roll on a D20 by subtracting your Attack score from an opponent’s Defence score. The problem on this is the scale of these scores. You can viably have a starting character with an Attack of 11 and a Defence of 9 – with the result that a) unless your opponent is almost completely incapable of defending themselves, you’ll be missing over half the time, probably well over half the time and b) if you end up fighting someone with similar capabilities to you, you could both end up having to roll 2 or less on a D20 to hit at all.

Now, people complain that low-level D&D combat, or WFRP combat with starting characters, or Fighting Fantasy combat is a bit too swingy – and those are examples where you are dealing with probabilities of hitting well in excess of 10%. Here, you can have a duel between knights which takes an absolute bloody age to resolve, with most rounds having nothing significant happening at all. Admittedly, the system does have some nice tweaks for how you handle being outnumbered – you pick who you target your Attack against and you apportion your Defence against the different people attacking you as you choose – but otherwise it’s just a bit bobbins.

There are additional issues. Weapons do not do variable damage – instead, when you successfully hit you make an armour penetration roll, and if you succeed at it you do a flat amount of damage. For one thing, I am just not sure this is particularly realistic – OK, having a variable chance of penetrating armour is fine, but I am not convinced that all stabs that penetrate armour are equal when it comes to the injury they do someone, and furthermore there’s entire classes of weapon out there which don’t rely on penetrating armour at all. (Pretty much anything which involves bashing rather than stabbing, for instance.) For another, the numbers are set such that (for instance) if you are in good plate mail someone with a dagger physically cannot hurt you, and I don’t entirely buy that – a lucky shot at a join between plates should at least have a remote chance of doing a bit of damage.

The whole concept feels to me like what I think of as “misguided realism” in RPG design – a deviation from basic D&D-derived assumptions which the designer believes results in something more realistic, but actually when interrogated from a realism perspective actually ends up being much more unrealistic than the original. That’s something which tends to be a hallmark of Fantasy Heartbreakers – and that’s exactly what Dragon Warriors seems to be when you take away the evocative cover art of the original paperbacks and demystify the system by gathering it all together and laying out out clearly in a single volume.

6 thoughts on “Dragon Meh-iors

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  3. Andrew

    Very late to this party, but I’ve only recently stumbled across your blog. Really enjoying your reviews, and was interested to see what you made of this one.

    We had a blast playing Dragon Warriors back in the day, but it’s certainly showing its age. Characterising it as a “fantasy heartbreaker” isn’t unreasonable. I agree the Introduction is a bit off-putting, and the combat system certainly has the problems you’ve identified. One slight correction though:

    “a lucky shot at a join between plates should at least have a remote chance of doing a bit of damage.”

    It does: a critical hit (a natural ‘1’) automatically hits and bypasses armour, so even with a dagger you have a 1 in 20 chance of injuring a knight in plate armour every time you attack.

    Given the relatively low number of Health Points, and the fixed weapon damage, you don’t actually have to hit someone that often to take them down, but all of the rounds in which both combatants miss can be frustrating.

    Incidentally, Dave Morris is apparently working on a “second edition” or, rather, a complete rewrite. Same name, entirely new system. Whether it ever sees the light of day. . . who can say?

    1. Thanks for the clarification – somehow I missed that. Still, a combat in which the participants could only be hit one time in 20 can end up becoming a super-long combat!

      Interesting to hear that a new edition is in the works, though I hope Morris has taken the time to think through his plans and actually come up with a distinctive reason for the new edition to exist in terms of filling a niche, rather than it just being an exercise in churning out a fantasy RPG for the sake of it.

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