Dragon Warriors and me, Part II: Beyond the 1980s
It’s the early to mid 90s. We’re living in The Future already (how did that happen?); most of the 1970s-era SF paperbacks I grew up reading were set around this point. I’ve left school and been through university.
Most of my university and immediately post-university gaming was Cyberpunk 2013 and Cyberpunk 2020; we would run games set around urban Manchester, mostly around the walkways and stairwells and squats of Hulme, regarded as Europe’s worst housing estate, where most of us lived. It didn’t take much imagination to think of that gang-infested ghetto as a… gang-infested ghetto only with smart drugs and cyberware. We played a lot of other games too: Amber Diceless, RuneQuest, Pendragon, and Call of Cthulhu, mostly. Then one of the group mentioned Dragon Warriors.
“I used to love those too! Pity they never brought more adventures out.”
“Yeah, though six books’ worth kept our group in school going for ages.”
We played Dragon Warriors, again, because I needed to know more about these new books. And I was just as terrified as my players had been nearly a decade earlier, with a new adventure; there we were trapped in some benighted underworld complex with a damn assassin loose among us. I had no clue what his game stats were, but it seemed like he was coming out of the walls, striking us at will, totally evading our attempts to hit him back.
I’m still not quite sure if the GM was fudging things (it would have been his way), or the original Assasin class was way overpowered (that would certainly fit with most people’s experience), or a bit of both (very likely), but the terror of being powerless in the dark stayed with me.
It was immersive enough (GM or game or scenario? bit of all three, again, perhaps?) that the closest parallel experience for me was a live-action roleplaying game a couple of years earlier, run by a company called Spirit of Adventure, in the old engineering works that they’d rented near Manchester. I was playing a sorcerer with no melee combat capabilities at all, cut off from the rest of the party, in a pitch-black room; I’d used up all my spells for the day and there was a monster in there with me. As silently as I could, I felt around and found a half-ledge partway up the wall, and clambered up to it. I heard the thwack of the orc’s mace as it came around the room, probing the walls violently for me. Tension rose. He passed me, striking the wall a little below me, and I could breathe again, and snuck back out to rejoin my comrades.
Alone and unarmed in the dark. With a monster.
In the dark, with only your stalwart comrades and your sword and your bravery to defeat the monster.
Two different situations, but close enough, terrifying enough, atmospheric enough. The latter can degenerate into the former so easily; that’s part of the terror.
Another part is not knowing what the thing can do. Again, there’s a stark contrast with D&D here. Is that just a 10th-level rogue, going up against our 8th-level party, so he’ll be a challenge but, well, there’s only one of him, so we’ll win? Or is it an assassin, a member of a mysterious order with near-supernatural capabilities, found only in a book the GM didn’t let us read…? Most of the scariest things in Dragon Warriors are at least to some extent unknown. You know that the hobgoblin can sour milk and steal barmaids, but you’ve no idea of how many hit points he might have, or what offensive magical powers he might have, or what allies, or what traps around his lair. That, right there, pulls the play in a new direction, away from game and towards… towards story, myth, immersion, and peak experience. That’s what I want.
Is it what people want, nowadays? Maybe not. Shouldn’t we be aiming more at the World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy market (hey, we do sort of have ninjas — will that do)? Maybe.
We’re not going to, though. We’re banking on at least some people still fancying the idea of folklore, and myth; of building a legend around their characters’ exploits, rather than building a flying castle using the mountains of gold they’ve taken from the carefully catalogued critters they’ve slain in their tactical wargame. (Not that there’s anything wrong with tactical wargames; I love tactical wargames, but I want something different when I roleplay.)
My experiences of playing Dragon Warriors in the 21st century suggest that some people might.
Mostly I’ve played it with kids. It was the second tabletop RPG my son played, when he was five or so; I’d run DW games for him and my wife when we went on holiday, because the system was simple enough for kids, the books were portable (theme, anyone?), and the game was still amazingly good. We revisited it a few months back (he’s ten, now), with a couple of his friends who are big WoW players and computer gamers in general.
“It’s a good game. But it’s really hard. There’s no walkthroughs.”
No walkthroughs. No challenge ratings or monster levels. Just you, and your sword, and the dark. And the monster.