Thursday, February 29, 2024

[Obscure Games] DragonQuest

There were quite a few attempts to break the near-monopoly that D&D held on the early fantasy adventure gaming industry. A couple have withstood the ravages of time and have editions even to the present—here I'm mostly thinking of RuneQuest, The Fantasy Trip, and Tunnels & Trolls, but there are probably a few others. Many more lie by the wayside, though, and deserve to be examined for what they can tell us about their design and the interests of their designers.

DragonQuest was an entry from wargaming company SPI. Ironically, TSR would eventually buy out SPI and spend a short time publishing both games in competition with each other. Obviously, DragonQuest never presented a real challenge to the dominance of D&D, but it's a strange circumstance that it should have shared catalog space with the 800-lb. gorilla, however briefly.

The most immediately apparent difference in style between D&D and DQ lies in an artifact of SPI's design philosophy. In their search for exacting specificity in rules presentation, developed so that wargamers would always be operating from the same interpretation of rules with as little ambiguity as possible, SPI had adopted the "case system" for laying out the rules of the game. In this system, a main rule category would get a high-level denomination, say "1.". Then, specific subcategories would get their own denominative level, such as "1.1", and those could be broken into further levels, as for instance "1.1.A.". DQ mostly stuck to just two levels, with a few exceptions, with 87 numbered rules cases in the basic game book, most divided into multiple sub-cases. The book is also divided into 9 broader sections numbered with Roman numerals, but those did not break up the basic run of 87 numbered rules. Even the sample adventure, "The Camp of Alla-Akabar", uses this structure, with 17 numbered sections divided among 9 sections designated with Roman numerals. This layout philosophy makes the game easier for some people to learn, while obscuring the game for others. In the end, I'd say that it tends to make the game seem more closed to outsiders.

Characters in DQ are designed by a point system, but the number of points is random. A roll on a table gives between 81 and 99 attribute points to the player to divide among the 9 attributes, with results of lower amounts of total points giving higher maximum attribute ratings. So, a result of 81 points would allow the character to have attributes rated as high as 25, while the other extreme of 99 total attribute points would limit any one attribute to being no higher than 19. The average result is 90 attribute points, with no attribute higher than 22. Players then select the sex/gender of the character, with female characters losing 2 points of Physical Strength, but gaining them back as a point each to Dexterity and Fatigue ratings. A quick dice roll determines the handedness of the character, then the player gets to attempt to make the character a nonhuman if desired. A character can always be a human, so if that is selected, it is the case and things move on. Otherwise, the player can attempt up to three different "race" types with a percentage chance of successfully having a character of that type. The options are: dwarf, elf, giant, halfling, orc, or shape-changer. The percent chances for the nonhumans are fairly low, so there is a 30% chance of being an elf if that is desired, 6% of being a giant, down to 4% for being a shape-changer. Then, if the character is successfully a nonhuman type, they receive a multiplier for experience points, changing the number needed to buy various skills. Elves require 1.2 times as many XP, while orcs are allowed to buy skills for only 0.9 times the normal cost. Giants and shape-changers need to make another roll to find out which exact sort they are: giants can be of fire, frost, cloud, or stone varieties, while shape-changers can change form into a wolf, tiger, bear, or boar. I imagine that some GMs are likely to just allow players to select their character's "race" and leave the experience point multiple as the balancing factor that limits the desire to play a character of that type. After that, determine the character's astrological aspect, their family status, and starting money and experience. Like the attributes, more money means less starting experience and vice versa. After spending those and choosing elements like name and so on, the character is ready to play.

Combat is nominally a board game, with turns of 5 game seconds (called "pulses") and hexes of 5 scale feet regulating movement and position. It is derived from a melee skirmish game SPI had published called Arena of Death. The whole combat system takes up a bit less than 17 pages and has no surprises. It's well-designed, but brings no real innovations to the table.

Magic is a major portion of the game, and the designers even forgot to give any benefit to characters for choosing not to learn magic. This is remedied by a suggestion in Dragon magazine issue 86 in an article titled "The Warrior Alternative". As written, a player selects one of 12 magical "colleges" for their character to specialize in, or a couple more that were presented in an unpublished product that can be found out in the wild these days, which determines which spells the character can learn. Spells are cast by spending fatigue points and taking a minute outside of combat or one pulse when in combat. Why the difference in times? Because! You will get no further explanation. One college, the College of Greater Summonings, allows the character to call up a variety of demons. The demons are given names taken from the various spirit catalogues of the medieval and early modern periods, such as Gaap, Vassago, or Balam, though I don't think they owe much more than that to those real-world magical books.

As noted previously, skills are acquired by spending experience points, and can be raised in level by spending more experience points. The list in the rules includes: Spoken and Written Languages, Alchemist, Assassin, Astrologer, Beast Master, Courtesan, Healer, Mechanician, Merchant, Military Scientist, Navigator, Ranger, Spy/Thief, and Troubador in addition to various weapon skills, magic skills, Stealth, and Horsemanship. The more expansive a skill is, the more it will cost at each Rank. Skills are rated, generally, from Rank 0 to Rank 10 and can cost anywhere from 25 (e.g. Dagger) to 1000 (e.g. Healer) experience points for Rank 0. In addition, experience points can be spent to increase attribute ratings. Ranks are used to figure out the percent chance of success for an action using the skill.

In general, it's a solid game. The main complaint I'd have is that I can't see the point. It doesn't do anything particularly innovative, other than providing a very structured presentation of the rules. That said, its presentation can be a very useful matter, and certain elements like spending fatigue for spells cast and the tactical game are certainly solid ones. But it doesn't seem to have much that isn't already found elsewhere, such as The Fantasy Trip, RuneQuest, or even Chivalry & Sorcery. Plus, of course, there were numerous later games that did everything it did but better, such as GURPS, Fantasy Wargaming, or such modern games as Worlds Without Number. Still, it's not bad, just insufficiently ambitious, both for its own era and for posterity.


  1. You were more forgiving in your review than I was (and reaped the whirlwind of displeased DQ fans!):

    1. Yeah, I can't really disagree with many of your complaints, though I do give more leeway to people with a different approach/preference than my own, I guess. I do wish that I could figure out what the designers were trying to do, exactly, other than to Put Out Product.

  2. I had first heard about DQ when I stumbled across some house rules by a group in New Zealand. On further investigation their campaign has apparently been running for 42 years with multiple GMs and seems to be ongoinh - their wiki is here:

    1. I think that such long-term campaigns are great to hear about, and I sort of wish that my life might have gone in a way that would have made such a thing possible for me. Alas, I ended up moving around too often.