Saturday, July 18, 2020

Black Magic, Demons, and Seduction

I know that I’ve mentioned this (briefly) elsewhere, but I’ll go ahead and relay the story with a bit more detail, so as to set the table for this post:

Back In The Day (as they say), I started running B/X D&D for my friends and only gradually came to realize that there was this thing called Advanced D&D which was altogether different, cooler, and more elaborate (it would be even MORE years until I realized there was such a thing as OD&D and DECADES…until after the advent of this blog in fact…before I realized how OD&D and its supplements actually relate to AD&D).

 *AHEM* But I eventually figured out…a long time after adopting the Monster Manual into our B/X game and even making use of some of the goodies in the Dungeon Masters Guide. Sometime around 1983-84 I would receive a copy of the Players Handbook (a Christmas gift from my folks, I believe) and my corruption would be complete.

Now, I said some of the goodies in the Guide. The truth is, for the first couple years of my gaming career I didn't have a personal copy of the DMG, despite being the one (for the most part) running the game. My best friend at the time, a girl named Jocelyn, had one that she'd been given by her older brother (11 years her senior)...or found in a trunk of his old things (Lacey having moved out of the house by then). This I was allowed to borrow and peruse on occasion, but it wasn't something to which I was granted constant access. Jocelyn did not even attend the same elementary school as I did.

[boy, there's a lot of history I should probably write up some day...]

21st century hipster
ANYway, I did eventually acquire my own copy of the DMG, and this is how it happened: my father's youngest sister, my pretty Aunt Charlotte, was in her 20s or 30s at the time and dating a guy who would have fit in quite well with the hipsters of this decade. Svelte but athletic, attractive but sporting glasses and a (neatly trimmed) beard, he was personable, bright, and witty. Played an (acoustic) guitar at times, if I remember correctly. His name escapes me, but I seem to recall it being David...that'll work, I suppose.

The guy straight up gave me my first Dungeon Masters Guide, maybe the first or second time I ever met him. He found out that I played D&D and said, oh maybe you'd like this, and just handed it to me as a gift: a brand new copy, with the later Jeff Easley cover. 30-some years later, it's still sitting on my book shelf (along with four additional copies of the book), the interior binding long since having come loose from wear and tear, the middle most pages torn, crumpled, and stuffed inside, and my name and home phone number penned inside the interior cover by my mother's careful calligraphy.

Reading this, folks might wonder (or make assumptions about) why this practically-a-stranger would gift a kid, even his girlfriend's nephew, with such a book. I mean, I only met this person two or three times in total (my aunt did not hang out at our house...I saw her maybe a couple times a year and, being a young woman, she went through multiple boyfriends during my youth). Here's the thing: "David" was a gamer himself...but he didn't play D&D. He played DragonQuest.

Same cover art as the
first edition. Poor dragon!
If forced to guess (I don't know this for sure), I think he either purchased the DMG or was given it by someone in order to "check out" the AD&D game and, deciding it wasn't to his taste, passed it off to someone who played the game. Dave already had his game: 1st edition DQ, individual books three-hole punched and carried in a binder. Either the same day (or a different one), he was at my family's house and he had his DragonQuest gear with him and he walked us through character creation (my brother, aunt, and I all made characters), and talked with us about the game. I found it fascinating. I may well have been exposed to other RPGs by this point in my gaming career, but this was my first encounter with a game that wasn't A) published by TSR and B) a direct rival to its fantasy niche/genre.

I remember my brother rolled up a stone giant (I was envious), while my aunt ended up with an orc and was none-too-happy about it...though her Physical Beauty (determined randomly) still ended up being higher than our characters. "So I'm a good-looking pig-person?" Yeah, David was a cool guy, but my aunt wasn't really a gamer. Her next boyfriend (who I think was named "Daniel") was an older, chubbier ex-hippy type who also played the acoustic guitar (but better) and the harmonica as well. That guy wore shorts a lot.

Years later, as a teenager, I picked up a copy of DragonQuest myself, the 3rd edition published in 1989 after TSR acquired SPI. I probably picked it up in around 1990 as I was in high school and definitely NOT playing D&D anymore, and was curious to see if it was the game I remembered being so intrigued by in my youth. Yep...sure was, right down to random generation of non-human characters (there was stone giants!) and different colleges of magic (which I had thought was especially cool as a kid...still do).

My old copy.
I ran a little bit of it over the summer, did some character creation, ran the sample adventure, used the system to model the Jennifer Roberson "Cheysuli" books I was into at the time (you can make shape-changer PCs). But I found the actual play to be somewhat lacking. It's not that the game wasn't well-designed (though I recall finding some loophole/break points in the experience system that led to gross abuses) or that its systems were too clunky/chunky. No, the problem was the need for miniatures and hex grids to run combat, and the level of detail/design necessary to create stat blocks for NPCs/antagonists, which made doing prep for the game a lot of work.

[looking back, I can see that these things are what eventually soured me to running 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons as well, but 3E took things to even a greater level of headache with the vast multiple of modifiers available to skills and combat maneuvers and the arithmetically increasing stat blocks of high level NPCs/high challenge monsters; by comparison, DQ could be considered "3E light." However, I still find square-shaped grid combat to be far less cumbersome than hex maps]

Sometime in the early 2000s, DQ3 was purged from my game collection during some a general clean-out of "games-I'll-probably-never-play-again," back before I started keeping games around for inspiration and design analysis.

Fast forward to NOW: in considering how I might modify dragons for my campaign setting (and the possibility of blogging about said modifications), I found myself wanting to review the creatures in DQ, as I remember that system being an interesting take on the potent creature. As I don't have my copy of the text anymore, I start surfing the web (natch) to see what I could find in the way of a PDF. Since this post is already overlong, I'll go ahead and bullet point the interesting finds of my research:
  • WotC/Hasbro owns all the DQ stuff, having acquired it along with all TSR property. They have since put it "on ice;" it isn't available in any form, and there appears to be no plans TO release it in any form. It is, for all intents and purposes, dead (though I suppose someone could resurrect it in the form of a retroclone...I am not volunteering!).
  • The 3rd edition DQ book I owned was, almost completely, a word-for-word reprint of 2E which was nearly an exact copy of the 1st edition "David" had showed me all those years ago. Even the interior illustrations had been retained. The reason the instructions in the book were so much like my memory because it was pretty much the same game.
  • That being said, there were indeed some missing bits. TSR's DragonQuest suffered a similar "purification" process to what AD&D did in the late 1980s: an attempt to clean up "the naughty bits." What was culled included the College of Black Magic (separate and different from the College of Necromantic Conjurations which was retained in DQ3), the College of Greater Summonings (including extensive write-ups for more than 70 demons, all taken from the Ars Goetia of The Lesser Key of Solomon), and a couple references to SEX, specifically the cutting of the "seduction" ability from the Courtier/Courtesan skill and editing an example of how hypnotism cannot force "a woman with prim demeanor" to "run naked through a deserted street at night" if her culture has a strong nudity taboo.
  • Including these missing pieces, especially the colleges, gives the game a far more "medieval Europe" vibe, not only because of the use of 16th century magical treatise, but because the inventory of "Black Magic" spells includes traditional powers and traits associated with witches and witchcraft. Pacts with the devil, familiars, and the evil eye...yes, of course. But ALSO spells to bless (and curse) crops and livestock, spells to bless an unborn child in the womb, and spells to increase male virility. Fertility magic, in other words: very useful in a game that seeks to simulate a particular type of setting, not so practical in a game of looting subterranean troll lairs.
Looking back at the game with older, more mature eyes, I see a lot of interesting and innovative design choices. No intelligence score, for example...instead a "magical aptitude" and a separate "perception" ability (which starts at a universal number for all PCs and can be increased through experience). No charisma score either; "physical beauty" (an OPTIONAL score, determined randomly and unadjusted for race or gender) has almost ZERO system impact on the game (it factors in a character's seduction skill if you use pre-3rd edition rules; otherwise, its only effect is to reduce the EP needed to advance the courtier/courtesan skill (PB 20+) which simply increases the amount of silver one can earn for "entertaining"). The inference I draw is that a character is no smarter or more charismatic than the player running the character.

Combat is fine for folks who want something more tactically granular than AD&D. For folks who like defense to be modified by agility and shield work (while armor simply acts as damage mitigation) the system is nice and simple; I also like that there is a "close" range inside "melee" (for grappling and knife-work). Weapon use is influenced somewhat by minimums in "physical strength" and "manual dexterity" but not overly much. Rather than simple hit points, characters have separate "endurance" and "fatigue" scores, which are reduced in different ways and are straightforward in their handling (much more so than similar "dual life" systems in games like Shadowrun and Deadlands).  Fatigue is the battery for casting spells, similar to what one finds in Ars Magica or Shadowrun, but again more straightforward (a successful casting always drains fatigue, but not overly so, leaving you have a simple "quiver of ammo" to track that can be depleted by other stress, pain, and hardship).

The magical colleges are very nice, even if they leave no room for the "eclectic" mage or wizard (you can never belong to more than one college at a time, and you cannot learn magic from a college other than your own). Magic s disrupted by more than a few ounces of iron, so leather armor...or even bronze! acceptable garb. Weapons larger than a dagger are generally out unless composed of wood and stone (or, again, bronze).

Weights are in pounds and ounces; that's nice. Silver pennies are the usual currency. All abilities, skills, weapons proficiencies, magical abilities, etc. require differing combinations of experience, money, and time to improve, but it's all straight forward and noted on easy-to-read charts and tables (all at the back of the book). There are no classes, but for folks who enjoy building characters from scratch / in a more "natural" fashion (picking and choosing what skills, crafts, or abilities to learn), I don't think I've seen a better system for customizing. There is no "universal skill system" here (Thank goodness!); each skill (of which there are few, all pertinent) being individual. Even weapons differ individually: some train to a high rank (ten being the limit for weapons the like of the rapier) while others top out pretty low (mace, for example, reaching its limit at five).

Dragons differ by color, but they all breathe fire (if they breathe anything at all). None of this Godzilla-like lightning blasts coming out of the creature's gullet.

Yeah, all in all, there's a lot of nice stuff. Considering its small size (both the 2nd and 3rd edition come in at about 150 pages), the game is densely packed: not in the "tiny-font-on-crammed-pages" sense, but in the usability, no padding sense. There IS flavor to the book...including a number of's just kept to a minimum. I still don't find myself wanting to run DragonQuest, but there are quite a few ideas in here that I'd like"harness" to my own devices. If possible.

Later, Gators.


  1. I wonder if you remember more about you aunt's old boyfriends that she would after all this time? DQ stands out for me mostly because it was only the second RPG I'd seen at the time that had armor reduce damage rather than making it hard to land a telling blow, the first being Runequest. I see the fan community is still plugging away over here:

    1. RE: My aunt's boyfriends

      That may very well be true. My aunt has/had a very rare degenerative physical condition that has done so much damage to her that she hasn't allowed anyone to see her for years. When her longtime, live-in partner of many years died (more than a decade back) she didn't even attend the funeral, and he was her primary caregiver for a long time. I'm not sure she's even still alive...I'll have to ask my father the next time I talk to him.

      Thanks for the link...that's not one I found (though I was able to get copies of the rules on-line for purpose of this pseudo-review/trip down memory lane). Glad to know that there are still people keeping DQ's memory alive; it's not a bad game, and would probably be much easier to run these days, for folks who can do hex overlays (with their computer-machines) and such. That's just not my area of expertise.

    2. Sorry to hear about your aunt's health issues. Always very sad to hear about that sort of thing. Must be very difficult to be isolated physically like that.

      Glad the link helped - I actually had lost it in a computer crash myself but the wiki page for the game had it, and I see there's some new (from my POV) material there from the gap period. Good to see older RPGs supported by their fans.

      Also hadn't realized the game had been "purified" in the later edition. Courtesan just wouldn't be the same without seduction rolls, even if it makes the prudes and godbotherers upset. :)

  2. An interesting trip down memory lane. I knew a few fans of DQ -- 1st edition. Didn't know it had been purged, either. The game didn't appeal to me, but I remember my character. Used a rapier (because I'm usually playing a fop). Summoned demons, because the other colleges just didn't light my fire. Someone gave me a copy of the rules in a transparent attempt to get me to run it, but I ended up giving it away. For me, it's just another game on the long, long list of stuff I've tried.

    1. It’s a strong man who can admit they “usually play a good.” ; )

      I think it would be a tough game to run long least, compared to D&D. But it’s Got a lot of good bits. I’m currently “mining” the thing for inspiration.

  3. I had only heard of DragonQuest as the one game that forced the JRPG series to be called "Dragon Warrior" in the US for the longest time. For the sake of learning more about it, I'll give this entry a deeper look later. However, something sticks out as I attempt to hack my favorite OSR game.

    I guess body armor gives damage reduction, while Agility and/or shields add to normal AC (or their equivalent thereof)? It is a contentious house rule for various D&D editions, but I'm curious how well it could be implemented into a OD&D, B/X or AD&D game?

    There was an OSR article called "Speed Metal D&D", which removed attack rolls and, among other things, delegated AC toward reducing damage. However, all sources of AC did this: armor, shields, and Dexterity bonus. So, IDK, how well did it work in DQ?

  4. In DQ, you have a skill % for attack rolls that is dependent on the weapon being used and the training you have with the weapon. Opponents have a "defense" percentage (based on Agility) that is subtracted from the roll, so it's still one-roll-to-determine-success. So long as you have all the stats in front of you, it's easy more difficult, really than reviewing a D&D attack matrix.

    Damage is a D10 + modifier (for weapon) - modifier (for target's armor). Combat is far more deadly than D&D. Damage has two tracks: Fatigue (similar to D&D HPs, but also used as a pool for casting spells and absorbing trauma and exhaustion) and Endurance (similar to CON but the real "meat" of a character). Critical type hits ignore armor and go straight to Endurance (which is a non-escalating stat, unlike HPs in D&D) and there's a rather nasty critical damage table based on weapon type (slashing, smashing, or stabbing) will all sorts of messy and gruesome results.

    In practice it was "fine." However, for this type of system (skill %s, defense %s, damage reduction, and critical maiming), I've never found a better system than 1st edition Stormbringer. The basics of DQ combat are simple enough...but then you add in tactical maneuvering rules, granulated magic system, and a double track "life point" counter and the crunch starts to bog the thing down. And I'm not a huge fan of large opponent stat blocks just to have some fast-paced fantasy combat.

    As for implementing an armor reduction system and removing attack rolls: yeah I went down a similar design road in 2010. Here are the pertinent links:

    The TL;DR result: it's not nearly as much fun in play as the "standard" D&D combat system. I ran a session or two with There's a reason the old rules have lasted as long as they have.
    ; )