Simulation Publications, Inc.’s 1980 roleplaying game DragonQuest (DQ for short) is the third game in the trifecta of RPGs on which I imprinted some thirty-eight years ago. Principle designers were Eric Goldberg, Gerard C. Klug, David James Ritchie, Edward J. Woods, and Redmond A. Simonsen.
Nota bene: I am cheating a bit because I’ve long since lost my original box with its three stapled booklets. Instead I wrote this review based on my second edition hardcover, which I acquired after I turned twenty.
My other RPG faves were Runequest and Traveller. DragonQuest was a fantasy RPG, as was Runequest. Traveller was SF. But RQ and Traveller were alike in that they both had extensively developed campaign settings1. DQ, on the other hand, assumed a bog-standard medieval fantasy Europe but failed to flesh it out. This is because DQ was published by a company that was doomed. Doomed, I tell you,doomed.
But first! A note on dice. DQ used ten-sided dice (D10), after a fashion. Because this was in the old days, sorry, the ooooooooollllllllllldddddddddddddddd daaaaaaayyyyys, when polyhedral dice manufacturing was in its infancy, there were no D10s as such. Instead, they used twenty-sided dice, numbered one to ten, twice. And if you wanted the numbers inked in, you had to do it yourself2.
And second! A note on language. SPI did their best to convey their rules in a clear, well-organized, unambiguous manner. Clarity came at the cost of a text which achieved the light-handed tone of a mortgage contract.
First Book: Character Generation, Combat
Character generation used an interesting mix of random generation and deliberate player design. Instead of rolling for each of the six primary characteristics (Strength, Agility, Manual Dexterity, Magical Aptitude, Endurance, and Willpower), players rolled to see how many points in total they could spend on characteristics. Lucky players might have many as 98 points, while those who rolled badly might have but 83. Having chosen their primary characteristics, the player would then calculate their secondary characteristics. Math is crucial to all truly fun activities.
Players could choose to be other than human—or at least try to be. To play a non-human, the player had to roll low on a D100. The more special abilities a non-human race had, the lower the necessary roll the player had to make. The odds of being a dwarf or elf were poor; playing a giant or shape-shifter was nearly unheard of.
Players also had to randomly determine their family’s social rank (which would affect how much money they had to spend at the beginning of the game) and their own astrological aspect.
This section of the manual doesn’t fully describe how to complete a character. Non-combat skills and magic are discussed later. The manual rolls right along with an outline of combat rules.
The game designers assumed that players would use a paper map and lead figurines. However, the combat system could be used on its own as a tactical game, if so desired. Combat tended to be less lethal than it was in RQ or Travellers. One exception: a good roll sent a player to the critical hit table. Table results could be instantly fatal for non-player and player characters alike.
DQ had an interesting approach to game balance: the more points the player had to spend on characteristics as whole, the lower the maximum cap on the highest value of a characteristic allowed. 83-point characters could have a stat as high as 25, the maximum allowed a human. The player with 98 points to spend could spend no more than 19 on any given characteristic. The high-point-total characters tended to be solid generalists, while the low-point-total characters could be superlative in a few specific ways.
As for the non-human races: each had gifts denied the humans. But … in almost every case non-human player characters laboured under an experience-point penalty. An exception was made for the poor orcs, who got a slight experience point bonus compared to humans. The catch was that because orcs were not a long-lived race and because they took longer to master skills than the other races, it was in theory possible for them to die of old age before they could turn their experience points into skills.
Someone else should write an essay re: racial subtext in 1980s RPGs. All I will say is that, while the game designers set it up so that the older races were slowly being displaced by the humans, they also suggested that the orcs, who were even younger as a race, were fated to replace the humans.
2nd edition DQ combat was slow. This was an improvement on combat under 1st Edition rules, which was glacial. I remember spending a whole evening gaming out a particularly heated fight with a dozen or so characters, only to realize that what had taken the players five hours was only a minute or two to the characters. I credit my later love of Champions to having played DQ. All other combat systems seemed lightning fast by comparison to DQ 1st edition.
DQ demonstrates its cultural context in a couple of ways. It was explicitly assumed that game-masters and players would be male. Not all characters were men; the text makes a passing comment to the effect any women adventurers would be even more extraordinary than the men (unless the game was set in a matriarchy, in which case the men would be the oppressed ones). Also, there’s an off-handed reference to rape in the orc section. Bleaaggh.
Second Book: Magic
Players could opt to have their characters learn magic. Magic came with benefits (you can cast spells!) and drawbacks (mages could not wear iron if they were casting spells; they were more vulnerable to magic; some colleges of magic would literally demand one’s soul).
It was a good bet that the more awesome spells would fail more often. Particularly dismal rolls earned one a tour on the magical fumble table, with results ranging from inconvenient and embarrassing to potentially career-ending. Despite this, mages who did not self-immolate could with practice become quite impressive in ways mundane fighters could not match. It is an example of what TV Tropes calls “Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards”.
There were twelve colleges of magic, each with its own specialty. Most specialties were useful under certain circumstances. The one college that inspired universal fear and loathing was that of the Greater Summoners. They could summon dread beings of tremendous power, but tended to have little ability to control such beings once arrived. Death, doom, and destruction ensued. The only reasonable reaction to learning that someone’s character was a Greater Summoner was to hit them on the head with a brick before sewing them up in a sack and pitching them into the nearest piranha-filled river.
Hitting the character, I mean. Disposing of players is illegal.
And wrong! it’s also wrong! Plus none of the local creeks have piranhas. They did when I lived in Brazil, but I wasn’t playing DQ then. You wouldn’t believe how much a piranha-filled pool costs in Canada.
Third Book: Skills, Monsters, Adventure
Skills: descriptions and costs of each non-combat skill. DQ skills tended to be broader in focus than skills in either Traveller or RQ. Perhaps a better term would have been “occupations”. Interestingly, healing, while often magical in nature, is one of the skills any character could potentially learn. As far as I can tell, contact with iron didn’t suppress this specific arcane activity.
Monsters: the usual fare. Unlike AD&D, where it was possible to inadvertently subdue a dragon to death, DQ dragons were quite formidable and taking one on likely to be the last thing one did. Interestingly, the same was true of whales. Moby Dick would be at best a brief tragic anecdote in DQ.
Adventure: rules for designing and running an adventure. Also guidelines for managing the process of spending experience between adventures, which could consume surprising amounts of time from the characters’ perspective. Training takes weeks or months, so adventurers better have a tidy amount of money set aside to support them while they work on self-improvement.
One skill in particular was given some misleading names; Male characters could be courtiers; female characters could be courtesans. Both courtiers and courtesans earned their keep as musicians, players, and professional bon vivants. Neither participation in a royal court nor sex work were implied. Or at least they were not required. This skill paid well (better for women than for men—except in matriarchies,where it was the other way around). Which made me wonder why anyone with those skills would be going out adventuring. Nobody ever got et by a dragon in the court of the Sun King.
There is no index.
I’d like to thank the cover artist for proving men can wear armour every bit as silly as a chain-mail bikini. The fellow on the cover shown here may be a barbarian who has somehow defeated a great beast despite his badly constructed leather armour. But he could also be a courtier preparing a fancy meal. It’s all a matter of interpretation.
When I picked up this long-forgotten book, I was surprised by how little it weighed and how slender it was. But … but … the long, long list of rules? Was my memory at fault? All was explained when Iopened the book and noted that it was laid out as three columns of tiny print. As I recall, DQ came out when paper prices were soaring; this must have been an attempt to keep the final product affordable.
I played DQ avidly from 1980 to the mid-1980s, after which everyone else drifted off to other games and I couldn’t find campaigns. Despite the glacial nature of the combat system, I liked how it played. I also really enjoyed the process of creating characters. I could happily spend entire evenings painstakingly optimizing each character design. Nothing says fun like hours and hours hunched over sheets of paper with a calculator in one hand and visions of perfectly min-maxed orc mages in my head; in this way, DQ prepared me for very similar experiences with Champions.
DQ assumes that campaigns will be set in a vaguely European-flavoured secondary world, but the designers failed to provide outlines for detailed campaigns. There was nothing like Chaosium’s Big Rubble or GDW’s Spinward Marches. Perhaps the company might have elaborated the game given time, but they made some extremely poor business decisions and were absorbed by their worst enemies, TSR.
TSR had little interest in promoting or developing their rivals’ game; they published one tepid, watered-down edition and then allowed DQ to lapse into obscurity. Comparative obscurity, because there are to this day some avid DQ fans. Players, I salute you!
DragonQuest is extremely out of print.
- Granted, such detail was not included in the main rules for Traveller. But it was available in a nearly infinite series of supplements and adventures.
- Even by 1984 most dice came un-inked and it was worth my time, when business in the store was slow, to hand-ink the numbers on the dice I sold. Customers were willing to pay slightly more for inked dice.