Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Retrospective: Dawn Patrol

As I've stated repeatedly here and elsewhere, I don't consider myself a wargamer, although I have played and enjoyed wargames over the years. I'm intensely interested in wargames in the abstract, but my eyes tend to glaze over when it gets down to the actual rules of most such games. This didn't stop me, of course, from dabbling in wargames over the years. Most of the older guys who initiated me into the hobby were avid wargamers and I did my best to share their enthusiasm for hexes and counters, since, at the time, I felt that having a love for wargames was a necessary adjunct to being a roleplayer.

Unfortunately for me, I never really managed to fall in love with wargames, with a few exceptions. One such exception was Mike Carr's Dawn Patrol, which I first encountered in 1982, when its seventh edition, whose box is pictured here, was released. Dawn Patrol began its life in 1972 as Fight in the Skies, which Carr self-published in its first three editions. The fourth edition was published by Guidon Games, the same company that published the early editions of Chainmail, while TSR released its fifth and subsequent editions. Fight in the Skies is in fact referenced in volume 3 of OD&D in the aerial combat rules section "with no apologies to Mike Carr."

Dawn Patrol was a game of air combat in World War I. It wasn't a simple game by any means, but, for whatever reason, I didn't find it as complex as I found many other wargames. Perhaps it was because it was a tactical wargame on a relatively small scale with comparatively few combatants in each scenario, I don't know. I imagine, though, that a big part of the game's appeal was its roleplaying elements. Unlike its predecessor, Fight in the Skies, which billed itself as "a realistic game simulating World War I aerial combat," Dawn Patrol called itself a "Roleplaying Game of WW I air combat." Players generated pilots, who accumulated experience, rank, and medals as they succeeded in their missions. There were rules for determining if a pilot survived a crash, whether he'd be captured or killed behind enemy lines, and so on. I remember there were these wonderful lists of names by nationality so that young kids like me would be able to come up with plausible names for their Austro-Hungarian pilot characters.

All of this made Dawn Patrol "more than a wargame" in my mind. Whether that was TSR's plan, I don't know, but it seems to have worked on more gamers than just me, since the 1982 edition of the game sold over 20,000 copies, which is astounding. Can you imagine a board wargame selling that many copies nowadays? My friends and I had a lot of fun with Dawn Patrol, which encouraged us both to study history and to take a greater interest in more complex wargames. Our burgeoning interests also gave us yet another bridge with the older guys, including my friend's Dad, who was an aviation buff and took pleasure in seeing us playing out dogfights over No Man's Land in 1917.

I won't deny that I miss that kind of cross-generational camaraderie, which seemed a lot more common back in my youth. Part of that, I think, is that my friends and I made a concerted effort back then to "fit in" with the existing gaming scene. We tried to adopt the culture of the old guys, which is why we all started reading Howard and Lovecraft and Leiber and tried our hands at wargames. None of these are things we'd probably have done unbidden, but we simply felt that to be a gamer was to understand and like these things. I still never managed to like wargames, at least not enough to play them regularly, but I did try to do so and I still have an intellectual fondness for them that served me well then and now.

Dawn Patrol was the first wargame I ever played that I actively liked rather than merely suffered through as part of my initiation into the hobby. I wish I still had a copy of the things. I'd love to give it a whirl again. It's been too long since Oberleutnant Alois Kirchmann took to the skies.


  1. My friends brother had it and I used to pester him to play it with me. I only remember actually doing so once and being quickly shot down in my Sopwith Camel. I tried to make my own version by making little counters and fitting together several sheets of graph to make a game board. I mined some states out of an old Jane's guide and cobbled together some crude rules. Soon we moved on to making our own homebrew FRPG's. The closest thing to wargames I'd ever play after that were BattleTech and Car Wars.

  2. I'm still hoping that the "cross-generational camaraderie" will return once gamers start to play with their kids and their kids' friends.

    I've taken the first step by playing with my best friend's kids.

  3. My older brother, my cousin and friends were all avid wargamers before discovering RPGS, many of them still are.
    We played a lot of Dawn Patrol as well as the simpler Blue Max by GDW and we had a lot of fun.
    In the following years my cousin Andrea (the guy who introduced me to gaming) became a game designer in its own right, and you might be interested at having a look at his Wings of War, by Nexus Games and distributed by Fantasy Flight.

  4. The tail-end of my favourite historical period.

    Could never get anyone to play Dawn Patrol. Now, Wings of War is the closest thing anyone would want to play, and it just isn't the same. :(

  5. I bought it when I was a kid because the cover said it was a "Role Playing Game". I loved Boot Hill, and thought a World War I roleplaying game would just rock.

    Discovering it was a tactical wargame after opening the shrinkwrapped box was a little disappointing.

    Despite that, I had a lot of fun with it, even going so far as to write up some crude rules (mostly stealing from Boot Hill) as to handle exactly what happened after your character got shot down behind enemy lines.

  6. If you are looking for a copy of Dawn Patrol look no further:

    Its on Ebay, and the price is good.

  7. Hanging out regularly at a local game shop as a kid, I was there for part of the transition from wargames to rpg's. The owner, Gary, had owned the place since right before the dawn of D&D, so the shop still had big, old, smelly wargamers hanging out while the younger, hipper new breed tried to keep out of reach of their breath, their smelly green army jackets and their dirty finger nails.

    Most of these old bastards stayed at the game table of the years, and made the transition to rpg's. The die hards just eventually faded away.

  8. I had the same experience buying DP and thinking it would be a role playing game like D&D and Gangbusters. The role playing "aspects" are literally tacked on in that they aren't even included in the main rulebook but are tucked away in the reference sheets. I still had a lot of fun with it though. I too expanded the rules to play the pilots behind enemy lines but I can't remember exactly what rules I used. I expect they were very fast and loose and very home brewed.

  9. We played a lot of DP when the 7th edition came out - we used to set up the card table on my front porch during summer vacation (I want to say 1983 though I'm not sure anymore) and play for hours on end. It and Boot Hill are the last two games I need to pick up to complete my "boxset journey" through my early adolescence.

  10. Played FITS/DP with Mike Carr and his group last night! Had alot of fun with it! Played a observer/gunner in the first mission and a pilot of an Albatros in the second - survived both, the second one just barely. Hopefully, I can join their group for next week's session!