By Dave Morris and Oliver Johnson
Serpent King Games
Back in the 1980s I used to watch a television show called ‘Robin of Sherwood’. I’d been playing RPGs, primarily the red box Basic Dungeons and Dragons game, for about a year and I had been subjected to a lot of fantasy literature via Tolkien and Howard, so here was a show that I enjoyed immensely – the Robin Hood legend given a historical look and a fantastical, low-magic edge to it. There were sorcerers, witches and a demon even popped his head up in one episode, but mostly it was about Robin, his friends and their battles against the Sheriff of Nottingham. A lot of the episodes didn’t even touch on the fantasy and concentrated on historical figures, places and adventures. This was my kind of fantasy. It had a historical feel to it so it was identifiable and even recognisable and there was also a dollop of adventure and mystery.
I could never truly find an RPG that emulated this. The closest I ever got was Middle-Earth Roleplay (MERP), and even this was only because we dropped the Tolkien setting and made it a fantasy version of Europe. The MERP rulebook, however, didn’t give us any atmosphere or hints on how to run such a pseudo-historical game so the GM I was playing with had to pretty much develop it himself. I thought I’d never find a game that could emulate my favourite TV show from when I was a kid.
Then I came into the possession of the Dragon Warriors game.
Dragon Warriors was originally published as a series of six paperback books in the 1980s and they completely passed me by. I was into Basic D&D and the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks at the time so Dragon Warriors, which was an actual full RPG in novel size and not a choose-your-own-adventure style book at all, got missed. I never even glanced inside to see what it was all about and, of course, we didn’t have the handy Internet for me to read up on what it was like. I had enough money for my current games and any others were not a consideration. Now that Dragon Warriors has a new home and is now available once again, I’m more than happy to report that it is an excellent, excellent game.
The hardback book is a 262-page combination of the original six books with all the tools you’ll need to run a game. It’s crisp and very pretty, with clear and concise explanations and examples, and has plenty of atmospheric illustrations. I like the sense that the author is talking to you about how the game works rather than a bland lecture-type writing style that makes many games dull and uninspiring. My gripe is that the rules seem to be scattered throughout the book, with many early paragraphs telling you about a skill and then asking you to turn to page ‘x’ to read about it. It’s not a flaw, just a bit of an annoyance when you just want to read through without page-flipping.
What is most impressive about the book is that it oozes atmosphere – in between the illustrations and the writing an aspiring GM can’t fail to be inspired.
Dragon Warriors is a very simple system. You will need all of the standard dice, from D4 to D20, and they all have their uses. Stats are decided by rolling 3D6 - D&D style, I know, but this game was originally conceived as the UK rival to Dungeons and Dragons, after all. Straightforward successes are rolled using 2D10 whilst combat is decided with the D20, in both cases you have to roll equal to or less than a target score for success. There’s a neat Armour rule that works well, which is that each weapon has a two-code description; a dice type and a number. The dice type is the ‘Armour Bypass’ code and this ranges from D4 to D10. The roll made with this dice has to be higher than the number that represents the armour your opponent is wearing. So, if they are wearing Mail armour it has an Armour Factor of 4 – you will have to roll more than 4 on your weapon’s die code to get through the armour, and then the second number is the amount of damage done if you’re successful. Most games deal with the amount of damage rolled by the weapon used, whereas this game is more concerned with getting through the armour in the first place! It’s neat and easy and it makes you think twice before attacking an armoured foe in full plate armour with nought but a dagger.
Dragon Warriors has no skill list. There are certain skills that the main character careers are capable of and these affect rolls but there is no long skill list to choose from. This is not a bad thing as it tends to stop pigeonholing characters and enables them to do many, heroic things no matter what profession they have chosen.
Talking about careers, this is my second gripe – There are only seven professions to choose from and four of them are magic users; Assassins, Barbarians, Elementalists, Knights, Mystics, Sorcerers and Warlocks. It seems a little constrictive but each one is open to interpretation depending on the game you want to play. It would be nice, however, to see other professions included in future books.
Magic is vast, with a plethora of spells at a magic user’s fingertips as they grow. Magic points is the tried and tested order of the day with three of the professions – cast a spell and your pool of points dries up until you’re out of energy – but Mystics have a unique ability that means they do not have a magic point pool, but every time they cast a spell there’s a chance they suffer from Psychic Fatigue and are unable to cast any more spells that day. Whether this fatigue takes hold is decided by a dice roll. It makes them unpredictable and fun to play, as you never know what’s going to happen in an encounter.
Characters can level up in Ranks (all characters start at Rank 1) and they do so via gaining experience points from defeated foes and the game itself. Advancing in rank enables skills to increase and spells to be learned.
All in all the rules are simple, effective and extremely user friendly. I’ve run through two games and it only took half the first session to create characters and get the rules straight. They’re simple without being dull and have enough depth so that you can get your teeth into a decent character that you can develop as the games go on.
Now we get to some serious meat – the wonderful setting of the Dragon Warriors game.
The Lands of Legend is a pseudo-historical setting based heavily on Europe from the 10th to the 14th centuries. This gives you versions of some of the best eras of the periods – Vikings, Crusaders, Saracens, Knights, Kings, Barons, Lords, Saxons, Mongols, Feudal Japanese and Chinese Empires. They all have their own versions in the setting and they are direct interpretations of their historical counterparts.
The setting gives you detailed information of the primary location of the game, that of the lands of Ellesland (a fantasy version of Great Britain) and then details of other areas covering the neighbouring kingdoms and the south (basically Europe and the Middle East). It even gives you some details on the far east, should you want your players to go there. There’s only a few pages of this information to give you a basic feel as to what is going on but the wonderful thing is that the details are already there for you – actual history fills in the gaps. There can’t be a single fantasy GM reading the book who can’t help but be inspired by the descriptions and know straight away what the land being described is like.
Dragon Warriors isn’t limited to the setting in the book. You can use the rules for any fantasy setting of your choosing, either an established one or one of your own design.
OTHER MATERIAL IN THE BOOK
Inside the book you’ll also find: A section on GMing a game, a very large bestiary that’ll keep you in encounters for dozens of games, an introductory adventure ‘The Darkness Before dawn’, details on other aspects of the setting including travel, hazards and even madness and diseases, some legends and myths from the Legend setting to help inspire you, information about the historical theme such as laws and languages, magical items, hints and tips on world building for your own setting designs, and variants on the rules for a more detailed experience.
The book is certainly concise and detailed and has everything you’ll need to run a fantasy RPG of any description. I do feel the chapters are sometimes in the wrong place and you have to do some searching for a particular section, but the book is not that big and once you know your way around it it’s not that hard.
I’m finding it a tad difficult not to gush about this book because it’s what I’ve been looking for in a fantasy RPG for quite a while. I’ve spent years playing MERP and WFRP and I liked them both but this game has come along at just the right time for me – I was looking for a game that wasn’t as complicated as the games I just mentioned but had enough meat for me to create a detailed game, and I was getting nostalgic for my old games from the 1980s, the games where I was trying to emulate Robin of Sherwood. Well, here is the game I’ve been looking for. In this book I have that historical context and I have those rules that won’t weigh me down with numbers and charts and tables but will give me enough detail to make my games grow. I have my gripes with the book, notably the rules layout and the constant page-flipping I had to do, but once you get past this what you have is a wonderful game with a rich, deep setting that allows you to create pretty much any kind of fantasy game you want.
This review originally published July 2009