Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Articles of Dragon: Ares

I'm going to cheat for today's installment of this series. Rather than focusing on a single article from issue #84 of Dragon (April 1984), I'm instead going to talk about Ares, the magazine's new science fiction gaming section. First, a bit of background. Between 1980 and 1982, SPI published a gaming magazine entitled Ares. The magazine included a complete game in every issue (as was once typical of wargaming magazines), along with articles and reviews. Though not limited to sci-fi by any means, Ares did have a slightly science fictional bent to its content. There were eleven issues of Ares before TSR acquired SPI in 1982, followed by five more issues after the acquisition. The last stand-alone issue of Ares was published in "Winter 1983." TSR never really knew what to do with SPI's properties and wound up frittering them away over the course of the next few years, in the process alienating the company's considerable fanbase, many of whom (quite rightly) felt that TSR had handled the situation very badly. Though TSR tried to make some use of SPI's name and products, only the Ares name survived for long -- and even then, "long" is a relative term.

From issue #84 to issue #111 (July 1986), Ares was one of my favorite sections of Dragon, since I've always been more of a SF fan than a fantasy one. The section featured articles on games like Traveller and Star Trek and Space Opera, as well as Gamma World, Star Frontiers, and a host of superhero games, especially Marvel Super Heroes. Because sci-fi has always played second (or third) banana to fantasy, you'd have expected that the pool of articles would have been pretty shallow in Ares but that wasn't the case. In my opinion, the quality of the articles in this section was consistently high, higher even than that of the rest of Dragon (which is saying something). However, its appeal was definitely more limited, which is why I suspect it was eventually killed. Why devote some many pages of each issue to genres that are also-rans compared to fantasy, especially D&D's brand of fantasy?

To this day, though, when I look back on the years when I subscribed to Dragon, the Ares articles are among those that stick out most prominently in my mind. Its coverage of Gamma World, for example, was truly excellent and I used a number of its Traveller rules variants over the years. And of course Jeff Grubb's regular "The Marvel-Phile" column was invaluable if you were running a Marvel Super Heroes campaign (or even if you weren't and were just a fan of the comics). I've always thought it a pity that a non-fantasy-centric gaming mag never really gained any degree of prominence. GDW's Challenge, where my first published writings appeared, was a decent stab at such a thing, but it eventually folded, too, much to my disappointment. Like Ares, Challenge filled a hole in the hobby that needed filling. In my opinion, it still does.

15 comments:

  1. I particularly liked the article on powered armour heroes that they published later on.

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  2. I loved that article about Ginny's Delight, a starship for the Star Trek game in issue #96 of the monthly adventure role-playing aid. The deckplans were great!

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  3. I loved the Ares section in Dragon. My first exposure to MSH was there (I played V&V a bit back then).

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  4. I was disappointed that SPI's (and later TSR's) FRPG Dragonquest didn't get more of an audience. Yes, it showed its ancestry in SPI's wargames, but there was a lot to like about it.

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  5. As a Dragonquest player Ares was a great thing to have. And all that cool Tim Truman artwork.

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  6. <>

    Indeed, we are only left with ezines, blogs and forums. Although, the last seems to be heavily produced by the companies that produce the content. And, it is this policing of intellectual property that is stifling the creativity that led to these games to begin with.

    The second problem is that there is no industry leader, just lots of weak individual games moving in a swarm like fashion or licensed properties which have their own problems of being too closely tied with IP protections thus preventing the emergence of a magazine. However, I do see the ray of hope with the ezines as they are like fanzines of old which nominally paid attention to the rules and were all about being a sounding board for new ideas.

    SFRPGs and Science Fiction publishers should and ought to get together to produce something generic yet supported. As we have also seen the wane of generic SF magazines (here I am thinking of Starlog) and the rise of specialized magazines devoted to one movie/TV Show which are all about control over IP.

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  7. I'm probably going to be against the grain but I'll go on record as saying I disliked the ARES section in Dragon mags. I didn't play any SF RPGs, and thus for me the section was really a waste of space. I was buying Dragon for the D&D and fantasy content, not articles on Star Frontiers or Marvel Superheroes, and I suspect many others were like me (one of the big complaints at the time in my gaming circles was the ARES section in Dragon).
    I don't know the final reason it was killed but I will say everytime they had some sort of survey I consistently wrote in the ARES section as the one part of the magazine I disliked the most.

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  8. Oh how I loved the Ares section of Dragon back in the day... the sci-fi and superhero RPG content was some of my favorite.

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  9. Count me as someone who would have loved the Ares section had I been playing RPGs and reading Dragon during this timeframe.

    I loved Dragon when it wasn't just a house organ for TSR and AD&D. I didn't like Dragon when it became what most gaming mags seem to be required to be these days.

    Stuff for systems and genres you don't play is a way to maybe make you want to play them as you get exposed to SOMETHING NEW which is never a bad thing.

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  10. I didn't play the Marvel game because I didn't like the game system, and the fact that you pretty much had to buy a second box set just to REALLY create you own characters without all that random power B.S. from the original box. We played D.C. Heroes so the Ares section was always of interest to me because there would be a one page ad for it by Mayfair which would have stats for a character or whatnot....maybe some rules alternates IIRC. The Marvel bits were great as well, even thought I didn't play the game. Even though I didn't care for the system, reading the stats was a bit of a treat for me.

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  11. I picked up a handful of issues at a used bookshop last summer and fell in love. I'd never heard of it previously and was elated to see Marvel, Gamma World, and a slew of other games I'd never heard of before. Man do I wish there was something like this now.

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  12. Loved the Ares section.

    Especially the Marvel-Phile (it was only about 10 years ago I go the entendre). It was better than the Official Guide the Marvel Universe as far as I am concerned.

    I always remember the one with all the different Iron Man suits, the one with the Serpent Society, and the one with the Soviet superheroes.

    I enjoyed the Gamma World ones as well. The one on secret societies was a favourite.

    So, was Ares the last place Dragon had articles for non TSR products?

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  13. When Dragon cancelled the Ares section and pulled adventures (in #100 I think) was exactly when it started seriously going downhill.

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  14. I remember Ares from its days as a stand-alone SPI magazine. It was basically created in the late 1970's after SPI's Strategy & Tactics subscribers started to bitch as SPI dipped its toes further and further into Science Fiction and Fantasy, first with wargames, then with RPGs.

    I've actually been of the opinion that TSR didn't buy SPI so much for its wargame titles, but rather to get its RPG titles, DragonQuest (a Tolkeinesque fantasy RPG) and Universe (a Traveller-esque hard SF RPG) off the market. SPI was one of about three companies with the marketing clout in those days to get their games into places besides game stores (along with Avalon Hill and TSR), and they were the only one that was publishing a competing RPG products (Avalon Hill wouldn't dip their toes in the RPG waters for another year or two).

    Ares was a great magazine. Like Strategy and Tactics, there were frequent board game releases, ranging from the bizarre, to the campy. It was also the main source of support for Universe and Dragonquest (Universe's ship combat system was first published in Ares, for example).

    Truthfully, as much as their wargames titles slipped in quality the last year or two SPI was still function, Ares and the two RPGs were about the only things worth saving from SPI.

    As you say, TSR made a number of missteps, starting with not acting quick enough to keep SPI from selling the rights to some of their better selling titles to AH, followed by telling a bunch of New York based game designers that if they wanted to keep drawing a paycheck, they needed to move to that cultural capital of the world, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin...yeah...good luck with that. The design staff walked, met with Avalon Hill's parent company, and became Victory Games.

    Net result was that it was a boneheaded buy out by TSR. They were left with SPI's second-tier titles, no design staff, and a bunch of former customers who were pissed off when TSR cancelled all the old subscriptions to Ares and S&T.

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  15. I was a fan of the Ares articles as well. Super hero rpg material couldn't be found all over the internet back in those days, so Ares was my fix. I missed most of the really good articles on Star Frontiers and Gamma World, and remember spending a good amount of time (and money) trying to track down back issues.

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