Sunday, November 27, 2011

Dragonriders of Pern

As others have mentioned around the blog-o-sphere, the scifi world mourned the passing of Grand Master Anne McCaffrey this week. Her accomplishments are a little too numerous to mention here, but folks interested in Old School D&D would do well to read her books, which readily mix science fiction and fantasy...she IS one of the authors listed in the inspirational source material of the Basic rules, and I know she's been an inspiration for me, even mentioning her Pern books as "game setting" material in my B/X Companion.

Though I haven't read a single one of her novels.

Nope, I haven't. Don't look at me like that! I have read many of her short stories, and I do know quite a bit about Pern. And her Pern novels are high on my list of "books to read" that I just haven't got around to yet.

[truth be told, I don't do much fiction reading these days, except for "research" purposes. Right now I'm in the process of reading someone's rather dry, if fascinating, doctoral thesis on the state of science fiction literature for young adults and children]

Thing is, when I was first introduced to her books (back in grade school by older friends), her stuff was a little "over my head." I was busy reading Piers Anthony and Robert Aspirin and Steven King...sleezy fantasy of the type that appeals to adolescent boys, in other words. But then, I'm a guy that didn't even get through The Lord of the Rings trilogy until after high school...

Anyway, that's all beside the point. I recognize her work and DO intend to read more of it (as soon as I can find it at my local used book store); however, my interest is more in the "game design" department than "classic literature" anyway. For me, I celebrated Ms. McCaffrey's life by picking up a copy of the Mayfair Games' old boxed set Dragonriders of Pern. There was a complete (though used) copy down at Gary's for $20 and I was more than happy to snatch it up.

Dragonriders of Pern was published in 1983 and I can recall seeing it at a game shop or bookstore "back in the day" and wanting it (my friends and I were into Anne McCaffrey, even if I personally hadn't read the novels at the age of 10-11), but having no money to spend. Or maybe I did, but I was put off by the fact that it was a board game and not an RPG (in my younger days, I snubbed many a game for not being of the "cooler" variety). As I hinted earlier, I was a pretty dumb kid when it came to some things.

I can say "pretty dumb" with my adult hindsight now because I spent yesterday reading and exploring the game: what a great piece of design!

[the following is a gross simplification, but I'm pressed for time at the moment]

Dungeons and Dragons started its existence as a war game (via Chainmail) and has (since then) moved into the realm of true "role-playing," given birth to numerous "role-playing" games, and then morphed (in its current state) into some sort of board game with computer RPG sensibilities.

Dragonriders is a bit of what Chainmail might have morphed into with an Indie-game sensibility and a strong commitment to the source material. By "indie-sensibility" I mean, the indie concept of making a game with a specific purpose in mind, rather than a generic "this game system can model EVERYthing approach." Dragonriders has definitive, specific objectives of play, not the least of which is being true to the themes of the novel. This in addition to being a fun, balanced game.

But what is this? you ask. Is Dragonriders of Pern some sort of role-playing game? Yeah, I'd actually go so far as to call it a primitive form of RPG...definitely moreso than Chainmail, maybe a bit less than OD&D. Here's how it works:
  • Each player takes the role of a specific weyr (i.e. "dragon rider clan") with specific named personalities.
  • Game play is played in turns consisting of two phases, an alliance (political) phase and a combat phase (where players must repel the spaceborn menace, thread, from threatening the planet).
  • Play continues until all city-states (called "holds") are aligned and all thread destroyed OR until the thread has managed landfall in enough locations wreck the ecosystem and cause mass extinction; in the former case, the player with the most political alliances wins, but in the latter ALL players lose.
Doesn't sound like much of an RPG, does it? It's not "open-ended." Play is divided into distinct phases (alliance and fighting). There's a definitive "endgame," and nothing in the way of serial/campaign play or character development/advancement. In addition, a number of external factors are determined by random "event cards" drawn each round.

And yet...

Players represent specific, named persons (characters from the novel); those familiar with the books can add their own spin to their actions. Each of the two phases have distinct "role-playing" opportunities...decisions that need to be made by players that are completely at the discretion of the players.

For example, the alliance phase...which dragonholds characters decide to "woo" to their cause, where they devote their resources (money and personality-wise) are all determined by the individual strategy of the players. However, players also have the option of playing (or not playing) Event cards that cause gatherings of individuals...conclaves, weddings, dragon hatchings...that are "invitation only," based on politicking and jockeying for position.

Likewise, the combat phase seems fairly simplistic...commit certain troops (dragon flights) to areas of thread incursion, roll dice and determine victory and casualties sustained. However, it's NOT straight-forward as that as:

- weyrs need to commit strong forces to fighting thread lest they risk threadfall hitting the surface and burrowing.
- damage to weyr forces means full-strength flights are not always available
- invitations to other weyrs can be extended...and the other weyrs can either choose to come or not

The invitations are complicated by the penalties imposed on ALL forces for failing to defend against thread, but calling for help means rewarding (monetarily) those forces that respond...possibly heated rivals or those who have been thwarting your alliance attempts or otherwise being a pain in the ass. And yet NOT inviting help can have absolutely disastrous consequences for your own weyr and for the planet in general.

It's an interesting, fine line, couple with the game's own explicit instructions regarding diplomacy:
Any deal may be made between players including exchange of Event cards and Marks, and permission to use another player's Weyrleader or Weyrwoman for an Alliance Attempt. No rule requires any player to fulfill his end of a bargain.
That's from the basic rules and is similar to what one finds in Monopoly...except in Monopoly there's no risk that the world will end and EVERYONE loses due to the petty squabbles and in-fighting of robber-barons.

I find it fascinating...especially with the addition of the Masterharper character, available in games of 4 or more. This Taliesin-like wild card picks his own agenda, not shared with the other players, of either favoring a specific weyr leader or maintaining the status quo. He then lends aid (or hindrance) to the various players during the alliance phases, along with his little apprentice helpers. It's a nice way to play "spoiler," though if he rocks the boat too much and the weyr leaders are unable to effectively fight thread then everyone dies...again, it's a fine line.

Couple all that with the in-gam glossary and discussion of how to curse with Pernese the example of McCaffrey's novels...and you have a game that can allow you to live the danger and intrigue of the Pern dragon lords.

Only if you want to, of course. I'm sure there are those completely uninterested in this kind of play, just as there are players of Once Upon A Time who don't give a shit if the story told is any good, so long as they can empty their hand of cards (yes, I've played Once... with players like's a bit frustrating). Again though, to me the interesting thing is the rudiments and potential of an RPG in the can see how one could easily elaborate on the existing system (much as D&D is an elaboration of Chainmail) to create a true RPG.

Not that I'm interested in doing anything of the sort...I've got plenty to do with my own RPG projects as it is. And Dragonriders of Pern is a fine game as written...I wouldn't mind playing it with some like-minded folks.
; )


  1. JB -- any way I can get a copy of that thesis? I'm thinking about writing some YA SF and I'm wondering if there's any advice to be had within... Thanks so much!

  2. @ Jim:

    The name of the book is "The Inter-Galactic Playground; A Critical Study of Children's and Teens' Science Fiction," by Farah Mendelsohn. It's fascinating and I'm finding it incredibly interesting.