Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Retrospective: Dragonquest

When it comes to fantasy, I have pretty much always been a D&D gamer. I dabbled in RuneQuest and Swordbearer at various times, but I never really got into any other fantasy RPGs, because I was generally happy with Dungeons & Dragons. That'll probably strike a lot of people as odd, even improbable, especially given the culture of wild invention that so permeated the hobby and the industry back in the late 70s and early 80s.

Odd and improbable it may be, but it has the advantage of being true. I have abandoned D&D many times throughout my gaming history, of course; I think most gamers do. In my case, though, I abandoned it only when I abandoned fantasy roleplaying altogether and moved on to science fiction or horror. I never did so out of disgust or frustration with the game. Each time, though, when the fantasy bug bit me again, I returned to D&D -- except once.

The one time I didn't was during my brief but passionate love affair with SPI's DragonQuest, the first edition of which was released in 1980. I never saw the first edition and I'd have never seen the second if my local library hadn't had a copy in the fall of 1982. RPGs were so popular in those days that even public libraries had copies of them, including less popular ones like DragonQuest. Intrigued, I checked it out and fell in love with the thing, eventually buying a copy, along with SPI's science fiction RPG, Universe, from a toy store in a nearby shopping mall -- again, how different the world was back then that you could easily buy third tier RPGs from toy stores!

I'm still not sure what it was that first attracted me to DragonQuest, but I suspect it was because I didn't perceive in it any sense that it was the designers' attempt to "fix" D&D or do D&D "better," qualities I always perceived, rightly or wrongly, in most other fantasy RPGs at the time. Indeed, DragonQuest struck me as being off in its own little universe, almost oblivious to the rest of the gaming world. Consequently, the game held a strange fascination for me and read and re-read it numerous times. Even now, I can still see its illustrations and page layout in my memory.

DragonQuest used percentile dice for all its mechanics. Character creation was a mix of random generation and player choice, since the game lacked classes and used skills instead. Races were mostly standard fantasy one -- human, dwarf, elf, halfling, etc. -- with orcs and lycanthropes for variety. Characters could begin play under the influence of certain stars or planets, granting special bonuses or penalties, an idea I'd previously seen in Chivalry & Sorcery. Combat was astoundingly complex and pretty much demanded the use of miniatures, since it used a hex grid and facing was very important. At the time, this didn't bother me in the slightest, but I doubt I could stomach it now. Characters had two "hit point" pools, fatigue and endurance, with fatigue regained quickly and easily and endurance damage being more difficult to heal. Magic was divided into several colleges. I recall that the college of summoning included lists of demonic dukes cribbed from Johann Weyer's Pseudomonarchia Daemonum, which I found endlessly fascinating.

In the months following my discovery of DragonQuest, we played it a lot, but, much like Boot Hill, I can't recall now any of the characters or the adventures we had. That's not terribly surprising, since, in play, I found the game system much less enjoyable in play than it was in reading. Back then, we had a higher tolerance for such things and soldiered on, managing to enjoy ourselves despite the game's clunkiness. I know I wouldn't have the patience for that nowadays, but I still look back fondly on DragonQuest nonetheless, since it was one of a handful of RPGs that made me reconsider, even if only briefly, my lifelong devotion to Dungeons & Dragons. The game's also a reminder of the sad, sorry fate of SPI, a game company whose passing is another important marker for the passing of the Golden Age of the hobby.


  1. One of the things I liked about the SPI editions of Dragonquest was the College of Greater Summonings (which disappeared in the later TSR reprint). It definitely inspired me to run a game based on another SPI game: Demons.

    It made an interesting change and my players enjoyed it. It made sorcerors simultaneously the most powerful and the weakest characters in the game, rather than being the walking fire-support batteries of D&D.

  2. A great, if flawed, game. I am still an afficianado. I heavily house rule it though

  3. Your D&D-centric experience is not that unusual. My group that started playing in 1980 continues with D&D to this day, and except for some side-dallying with Stormbringer, Gamma World, and Boot Hill, none of us ever had any desire to try anything else. The rules have always been secondary to the play, hence the ubiquity of house rules and tweaks to customize and personalize systems.

  4. Ran it briefly, played in it once, and have read and re-read it numerous times.

    Good fun to see your review. I concur. :)

  5. I have said it before, and I will say it again (you know what is coming because I sing the praises of this game to you every time we talk) I love this game. I've played this many times, and have even thought about running a few sessions after GenCon to give me and the group a break from Colonial Gothic, Grey Ranks, and the other games we've been playing.

    Though DQ shows its' wargame roots, I just find the whole thing to be fun to play and run.

  6. How times have changed that we call DQ a third tier RPG.

    When it and Universe came out heavily anticipated would have been an understatement. A couple of years later when AH jumped into RPGs we had the same reaction. Now of the six RPGs involved only one remains, Runequest, and it wasn't original to SPI or AH.

  7. What an awesome game! I had first edition, and if you can believe it, the combat system in the second system is *streamlined* compared to the first.

  8. Herb,

    When I was younger, I considered SPI primarily a wargames company. Their RPG efforts, though I liked them both -- I'll write about Universe sometime -- really didn't make a very big splash in my neck of the woods. Same goes for most of Avalon Hill's stuff, even though I really had a blast with Lords of Creation.

  9. Ed,

    That is hard to believe. DQ 2e's rules seemed very "wargame-y" to me, as if they were just barely stripped down miniatures rules. I presume 1e was even more along those lines?

  10. Paul Jaquays' "Enchanted Wood" is the only DQ module I'm familiar with, but it's an excellent sandbox environment, and Paul considers it his best module design: well-worth checking out if you have the chance to pick one up!


  11. After playing the original 1980 SPI Dragonquest a few times back in those days, it took me on an excursion into older wargames. The wargame-like mechanics of Dragonquest got me interested in wargames. (Previous to that time, I didn't know much about wargames).

    Even after I stopped playing 1E AD&D and took a long hiatus for many years, I still occasionally picked up some old wargames to play solo. Usually I found old wargames at garage sales and some bargain bins at FLGS. Back then, I stopped buying TSR AD&D + D&D books and modules for the most part, after 1E Unearthed Arcana. I thought the quality of many TSR products nosedived significantly after 1986/1987.

  12. I loved DragonQuest and Universe. After the disappointment that was turning out to be Metagaming and TFT, I turned to DQ for a year or so. I started out more as a wargamer, so neither was a big jump for me. To this day I'm not sure what it was that drew me to these more than D&D and Traveller. Probably misguided brand loyalty :) Still have them both and would never give them up.

  13. I was wondering when/if you’d get around to talking about DQ. The guy who bought me my first DMG was a DQ (1st edition) player, not D&D. I picked up the (3rd edition?) rules years later when I stopped playing D&D and it’s one of the few games I eventually sold back to the game store. Like you I found it much better in pre-game (reading, making characters) than during actual play.

  14. Odd? Improbable? What planet are you living on, James?

    Those of us who didn't start with D&D have always considered the intensity of the devotion among D&D fans to be scary, maybe even cultish.

    You and the Palladium people often gives us the impression of that well known ivory tower.

    No offense, but getting people interested in playing anything but D&D is sometimes as fun as pulling teeth. Saying that you are a D&D traditionalist, and that you thus didn't did more than dabble in other fantasy rpgs is just what I'd say is probable and not odd at all! :)

    Don't make me wrong, I play D&D too, but I don't do it exclusively, never did.

    Now. DragonQuest. That's a game that smells old school to me. :) I love SPI games, but have never managed to find any of their RPGs for less than an arm and a leg. I'd buy it at once if I found it!

  15. I have 2nd (and, I think, 3rd) edition Dragonquest on my shelves. It's one of those games I've always wanted to play, but have only ever read. Maybe one day.

  16. I've got a copy of the 2nd edition DQ. I haven't read it in years though. I'll have to dig it out.

    For me, the term role-playing game will always mean D&D. I've played other games of course and I own hundreds of non-D&D gaming products. But D&D was my first and I expect it will always be my favorite. Gamma World is a close second though.

  17. "Paul Jaquays' "Enchanted Wood" is the only DQ module I'm familiar with, but it's an excellent sandbox environment, and Paul considers it his best module design"

    And of course most of Enchanted Wood made it into TSR's Forgotten Realms setting module FR5 The Savage North, which IMO is the best of the 1E FR adventure/settings (and honestly probably the best FR setting overall for any edition). That Paul Jaquays guy sure knew how to write didn't he....?

  18. The 2nd Edition's 'The Camp of Alla Akabar' is a great introductory scenario - basically a suicide mission taking a couple of characters into a bandit camp in the middle of the desert - a jolting shift from the forests/fields and hills expected from the illustration in the preceding rulebook. A really odd choice of adventure - It demands intuition, intrigue and most of all, interaction with NPCs. It remains my favourite scenario ever.
    Simple and Brutal

  19. Owned 1ed for both Dragonquest and Universe. I played (and GMd) some great adventures for DQ - one particular based on a very Karl Edward Wagnerian millieu. It was great and the combat was hugely brutal (the Critical Hits table was always a good read for a laugh).

    Have been flicking through a PDF of 2ed DQ which has my brain ticking over for a couple of reasons...

    As for Universe (still got it too)- had some great fun there as well but that's another story Miss Pat...

  20. We used to play a lot of DQ, off and on. It has a fascinating magic system and its experience system -in which longer lived/more powerful races paid more for their skills- I found very clever. Lots of good ideas even if the game as a whole was a bit clunky.

  21. I’d never seen DQ until I spotted it in a Half-Priced Books a few years back. I almost bought it simply because it had the filled-out but never sent in registration card. Filled out by Loyd Blankenship.

    The combat section made me leave it on the shelf, though. I don’t want that in my role-playing games these days.

  22. I have both DQ 1e and 2e, James. Although I don't remember the details, the combat rules in 1e are indeed much more elaborate. Basically it uses an Action Point system where each combat round is broken down into phases, and all movement/activity is done simultaneously, point-by-point. I played Arena of Death, which was a game based around just the combat system, a few times, and it worked well in that context. But I think SPI definitely did the right thing with 2e.

    Personally I admire the feel of some of the other modules which have somewhat of a Middle-European/Northern Italian feel to them. Also, I like how the rules subtly encourage spellcasters to use ritual preparation in order to boost their chances of success.

  23. I got the TSR-produced 3rd edition of Dragonquest, new, back when I first realized there were other games than D&D and wanted to look at other ways to scratch the fantasy itch. However, more than two decades on and I -still- haven't finished reading the book. My first exposure to the case-numbered organization of wargames, its easily the most stupefying game text I've ever attempted to slog through.

  24. I am currently running a DragonQuest Second Edition campaign here in the Denver, Colorado, USA area. I started with wargames in the mid-70s as a middle-schooler, buying many of SPI's and Avalon Hill's legendary titles. Of course, when D&D came along, my teen-aged buddies and I were caught up in the craze.

    Still, we *were* brand-loyal to SPI, so we definitely wanted to try the SPI RPG. After DragonQuest second edition came out, it was our primary RPG system for several years. I got out of role-playing gaming for many years, but my buddies soldiered on with GURPS.

    I *like* the fairly realistic combat system of DragonQuest. God forbid you should have to draw a line-of-sight between your target and your missile weapon! :) Ah, geez, it's not *that* complex. RuneQuest and Chivalry and Sorcery - now those are complex games.

    As a wargamer from the old school, I want to enjoy the "game" part of the role-playing game, as well as the role-playing, so I like the fairly detailed combat rules of DragonQuest. I also like, unabashedly, DragonQuest's kitschy graphics and literature and myth-inspired magic system.

    Running my re-started DragonQuest campaign has been enormously fun for me and for my players. The "retro" feel is awesome. This is why I got into RPG's - to be a part of an epic story in the making where the simulated combat has a great deal of verisimilitude.

    I have to admit that I am not all that turned on by the quite "dark" themes and feel of today's "cyber-punk-blade-runner-turned-vampire-zombie-flesh-eater-hit-man" RPG's. These games are published as lushly illustrated, slick paper books that I could never have dreamed of back in 1982 when I bought my Bantam copy of DragonQuest. But I like DragonQuest better.

    I am not an actor. I do not live vicariously through my role-playing game characters. Who needs an RPG "system" if all you do is pick an "archetype" personality and then sit around and ham up the melodrama? I can do that with just a couple of beers and some inspiration!

    Long live DragonQuest! Long live the golden age of gaming!

    1. nailed it. If i want to woo a princess I'll do it at the local pub. RPGs ..ARE.. the combat and skill section. And weapon tables. Lots of weapon tables! Some of the clown world stuff today seems like 'On Golden Pond, the game of Drama and Feelings' Yuck!

  25. I would like to second what Brock Wood has said: one of the great appeals of DQ, when it came out, was its more realistic combat system compared to D&D. For a wargamer, which most of DQs first purchasers must have been—i.e. SPI consumers—the system was not all that complex (compared to say Terrible Swift Sword, Wellington's Victory, Highway to the Reich, etc.). In our group, of which i was the GM, I was the only experienced wargamer; but the other guys caught on to the system quick enough, and it wasn't long before we could all move through the battles efficiently. The second edition's streamlining of combat, for me, disemboweled much of the nail-biting realism. It did speed things up; but then the long-drawn out epic combats were one of our favorite parts.

    Final note: DQ didn't died out because of being in any way second rate: from the beginning it had no prayer against D&D's greater market presence, and of course after the catastrophic fall of SPI it was purposefully shelved by TSR / WOTC. But it remains a magical game, having emerged from SPI at the peak of their evolution.