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Reviews - Dragon Warriors (2008)
by Demian Katz

Dragon Warriors coverDragon 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.

Game System
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.

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