A Dragon Slain By TSR

As I related in my review of Lords of Creation and Powers & Perils, Avalon Hill and SPI – the two big beasts in the US market when it came to wargames in the 1970s – were caught napping when it came to tabletop RPGs. Avalon Hill were left with egg on their face when they turned down D&D, prompting Gary Gygax to set up TSR; rather than being in a position to be the dominant force in an entire market which overlapped with the wargaming fandom enough to draw money from its fans but also could reach a wider audience, Avalon Hill had conceded the nascent RPG industry to TSR and other publishers who jumped onto their bandwagon.

I covered Avalon Hill’s mid-1980s bid to finally break into the RPG market in that review, which resulted in what you could charitably call “mixed success”. To summarise, Lords of Creation and Powers & Perils were poor efforts whose failure in the market was largely a justifiable reflection of their poor design – overly sloppy in the former case, overly fussy in the latter. Their subsidiary. Victory Games, produced James Bond 007, lately cloned as Classified, which was ahead of its time in some ways and, during the window of time when it was on sale before Avalon Hill gave up the licence, beat out TSR’s Top Secret and Flying Buffalo’s Mercenaries, Spies & Private Eyes to become the top espionage RPG on the market. Third edition RuneQuest, though still largely the work of Chaosium, was produced and distributed by Avalon Hill, and despite some issues with both the design itself and Avalon Hill’s management of the game line was still a significant success, selling more in its first four months than Lords of Creation and Powers & Perils sold in their first year combined.

This followed SPI’s own bid to break into the RPG market, which they launched in 1980 and was also a mixed success – and arguably a more intense one at that, with lower troughs and higher peaks. (This is especially the case if you count RuneQuest as a Chaosium game which Avalon Hill happened to have a distribution deal for rather than a “true” Avalon Hill game in the sense of being developed in-house by them or a subsidiary.)

As far as the troughs go, the Dallas RPG lives on in infamy as a major laughing stock of the industry. In more recent years, the existence of games like Fiasco makes me think that the idea of a soap opera-themed RPG or storygame could have some legs – but at the same time, I think such an endeavour calls for game mechanical ideas and approaches which simply hadn’t been developed in 1980. As it stood, the market at the time was not ready for such a product, and the field of game design didn’t offer the tools needed to make it work.

But that trough had its corresponding peak in the form of the mighty DragonQuest. (No relation to the adorable Akira Toriyama-illustrated console JRPG series of the same name – in fact, the reason the first few games in that series came out in the west as Dragon Warrior was to avoid a trademark clash.) Though Dallas bombed, DragonQuest was a hit, selling out completely at the 1980 Origins convention, and in the months that followed gathered significant critical acclaim and commercial success. Origins 1981 was another triumphant moment for DragonQuest, when it took away the award for the best roleplaying rules for 1980. Judges’ Guild did some third party products for it, which of course would have been a pointless endeavour had the game not gained a sufficient following to make it worth Judges’ Guild spending their time on it.

SPI didn’t snooze on this success either: the September 1980 issue of Ares, their magazine catering to SF and fantasy wargaming, was largely dedicated to trumpeting the virtues of DragonQuest and even included a minigame, Arena of Death, offering a taster of the DragonQuest combat system. Further supplements and adventures followed, as did a second edition in 1982 – the significant changes being the presentation of the rules in a single book punched for ringbinder storage instead of the three booklets of the original boxed set, some changes to weapon stats to speed up combats, and the adjustment of the combat system to remove the “action point” system of the original to a simpler “one action each” setup and some rebalancing to account for that. SPI even reached a deal with Bantam Books for wider distribution of the game, much as TSR had landed a deal with Random House.

Then came disaster, as financial chicanery on the part of TSR – as I have detailed in my article on Arcane magazine’s Retro feature – led to the rug being pulled out from under the feet of SPI’s bank accounts, allowing TSR to swoop in, acquire all of SPI’s assets (which had been the collateral on a loan which TSR had extended to SPI – who, having been fool enough to accept a loan from a competitor with an interest in their failure, bear some responsibility for what happened next), including DragonQuest, and then for the most part shut down the game altogether.

Theories swirl that TSR’s actions were specifically aimed at taking out DragonQuest as a competitor to D&D; I don’t think this was the sole factor (eliminating SPI as a competitor full stop wouldn’t have hurt), but it feels like this may have been a consideration. That said, I think the game which DragonQuest was best placed to be a direct competitor to is The Fantasy Trip; as I outlined in my Kickstopper covering the recent crowdfunded revival of that game, there’s some pretty significant parallels between the two, and DragonQuest even emerged at around the same time as In the Labyrinth, the product which turned The Fantasy Trip into a true RPG system (the preceding products, Melee and Wizard, having been skirmish wargames, much as Arena of Death is a self-contained skirmish game using the DragonQuest combat rules).

The main parallel between the two games is that they are designed with a wargaming sensibility – not in the crap way in which Powers & Perils mimiced the overly dry rules approach of some wargaming products at the time, but in the sense that the game is rooted in a robust hex-and-chit based combat system explained clearly and with little ambiguity. (If you have the big fat Fantasy Trip set with all the chits and terrain pieces, those would work very well as play aids for DragonQuest.)

As I said in the Fantasy Trip review, the two games represent perhaps the most significant early RPGs to go hard down a “tactical RPG”-type gamist sort of design philosophy, putting an interesting tactical skirmish game at the system’s heart. In fact, I would say that they were the last really major releases to exhibit this sensibility until D&D 4E came out. Other games had their own combat systems of various levels of complexity, of course, but often with an eye more to plausibility of simulation than producing a robust tactical game.

Another feature is the embrace of character points for character creation, though the exact number of points you play with are based on a random roll. If you roll poorly and therefore have less character points, your starting attribute cap is higher than if you roll well – so if you roll badly you can still make your character distinctive and uniquely capable by concentrating on one particular stat to an extreme, whereas if you roll well you won’t excel at any one attribute more than a low-roller but may be able to afford to have a broader range of competence in compensation. It’s an interesting attempt to create a character generation system which includes randomisation to add a twist of the unexpected, but at the same time gives distinct and different advantages to low rollers and high rollers so that an unlucky roll doesn’t mean you’ve flat-out screwed yourself before the game has even began.

The magic system is also interesting for the different schools of magic available, which include summoning techniques calling up demons based on the actual entities named in medieval and renaissance grimoires. A skill system is also provided in which the different skills represent not narrow, specific tasks, but the broad areas of expertise associated with a particular profession, and your rank in a skill gives you various bonuses to all the different stuff that getting a basic level of competence in the skill system unlocked.

I do wonder whether Tom Moldvay heard a garbled account of this skill system when designing the one for Lords of Creation and then fucked up the implementation, since that one is also career-based, except each rank you buy unlocks a different professional ability, not always in an especially logical or reasonable order.

Another contrast with Powers & Perils is that whilst that game represented the worst of wargame writing – all very dry paragraphs and excess complexity – the presentation here is reminiscent of the very best, with each paragraph giving a full, clear explanation of the rule in question, with a useful summary in bold at the start of the paragraph getting across the basic idea before the full text expands on that. I can see this presentation being extremely useful both for the purposes of learning the game and for looking up rules in actual play. To modern eyes the old wargame numbered paragraph style of presenting rules can seem archaic, but when done well – as it’s done here – it’s highly useful.

On the whole, the game design here – spearheaded by Eric Goldberg who would later be a significant figure in West End Games – is pretty solid, yielding a pretty decent game. It is easy to see why gamers at the time looked upon this fondly, and why it may have seemed plausible that it could have been a viable competitor to D&D. In a box with the same form factor as the 1981 Basic Set (but more conventionally professional-looking art), and at a cost factor significantly below the outlay for the three hardbacks of AD&D, it offered a game which at once offered more depth than the Basic Set itself and a much more smooth, unified system than AD&D (it even has a clear set of mechanics for attribute rolls to cover actions not covered by specific skills, which AD&D didn’t have at the time).

That said, there’s a few aspects of the game which sit oddly with modern sensibility. Like all too many games of the era, the game differentiates between men and women by making attribute adjustments based on gender – women’s Physical Strength stat goes down by 2, and their Manual Dexterity and Fatigue go up by 1. (This is not the worst possible way to do this, but is still annoying; that said; because this is a character point system it is at least still possible to give a female character damn good strength simply by spending 1 less on Dexterity and Fatigue than you were going to – since you’ll be compensated for that anyway – and sticking the 2 points thus saved on Strength.)

Even more weird is the rule on crossplay. If a player wants to play a character of the “opposite gender” (enby players break this rule horribly), they have to roll percentile dice to see if they are allowed to do it. It’s particularly interesting that the target number varies depending on player gender. Dudes have a 25% chance of being allowed to play a woman, women have a 75% chance of being allowed to play a dude.

I suspect that this was Eric Goldberg’s rather droll way of trying to encourage a friendly playing culture for women and girls interested in the game. Since female characters will be able to attain levels of Manual Dexterity and Fatigue that male PCs can’t, that will yield significant advantages in some spheres of activity – in particular, note that spellcasting works off spending Fatigue points. This makes playing women desirable if you want the party to have a very capable wizard, but at the same time if men have less chance of being allowed to play a woman but women have the automatic right to play one, this could encourage boys to be more welcoming to women joining the game.

At the same time, allowing women more ability to play a man in theory means that if they are worried about immature dudes being lewd at their character in-game, they could shut that down by playing a dude, but a) making it a 75% chance rather than 100% undermines this and b) dudes inclined to be shitty to fellow players are already acting in bad faith and so will just ignore declarations about a character’s gender they don’t like.

All this illustrates the essential folly of trying to solve an OOC social problem through IC game mechanical means – if that was even Goldberg’s intention. If it wasn’t, I have no idea what he was thinking with this. Gender rules in games of this vintage are usually trivially easy to ignore, and that’s certainly the case here, but it’s a pity that this daft rule mars an otherwise very solid design.

After their absorption of SPI, TSR put out a third edition of the game on a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it basis in the late 1980s, presumably to meet US legal requirements in order to keep the trademark alive and not available for use by anyone else. Notably, this edition excised the demonological content from the magic system, in keeping with TSR’s timid reaction to the Satanic Panic (because TSR was run by Midwestern squares who didn’t realise that controversy and bans in the Bible Belt leads to big sales in hipper markets).

On checking the US trademark register, I note that the original DragonQuest trademarks were allowed to lapse in 2004 – and indeed, Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro seem to have been so utterly disinterested in it that they didn’t even bother to have the trademark assigned out of TSR’s hands into theirs. It seems likely that the system is ripe for cloning – but I am not aware of anyone having done so as yet. Hopefully they will get around to doing so – leaving the gender rules back in 1980, preferably. As a slice of gaming history and as a well-designed game in its own right, DragonQuest doesn’t deserve to completely vanish.

3 thoughts on “A Dragon Slain By TSR

  1. I found the DQ wargaming case-system presentation very off-putting as a younger gamer (who wasn’t much into wargaming), but might prefer it now.

    Also, was “controversy and bands in the Bible Belt” supposed to be “controversy and bans in the Bible Belt”?

  2. Pingback: RuneQuest Classic: Six Years That Changed Gaming – Refereeing and Reflection

  3. Pingback: Two Designers Enter, Two Designers Leave – Refereeing and Reflection

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