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[Lets read] Dragon magazine - From the beginning

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T. Foster

Retired User
The mock antagonism thing was gone by the time I got into gaming. The vibe I got from Gygax, Moldvay, and Cook was an impartial referee who built a reasonably sensible world full of challenges for the players, and then adjudicated their attempts to overcome them as dispassionately as possible. (Not that the DM doesn't care. Only that he doesn't let his rooting for the PCs interfere with running the game.)

So when I got to read some of these earlier Dragons a few years ago, yeah, that reads like antagonism to me. And when I was 10 years old, I'm not certain I would have gotten the subtleties of it. But maybe I'm selling myself short.

- Brian
Yeah, the later Basic etc. sets played down (or even eliminated entirely) the "mock-antagonism" pose, presumably because they were targeted at a younger audience who couldn't necessarily be assumed to pick up on the subtelty, but also perhaps in part because with a few more years' experience observing how people outside their direct circle of influence were playing the game they realized that too many people were misconstruing their intent. Note that Gygax himself kept up (or perhaps returned to) that stance in later years, in his "Up on a Soapbox" articles in Dragon, Actual Play reports from his home games, and in the GMing advice of adventures like Necropolis.


Making the Legend
Validated User
The Dragon Issue 21: December 1978

30 pages. Dragon is rushed to the printers this month, and consequently, is cut down in size slightly. The amount of articles is still about the same, just of shorter average length than the last few issues. With paper prices up, they hint that they may have to raise prices again soon. All in all, it puts a bit of a damper on what should have been a christmas special.

|n this issue:

Garys review of Search for the Nile gets a prompt reply from the creator. This is pretty dull, and has the danger of turning into an academic love-fest. Another example of things that would never make it in now, as it would be handled via the intarweb.

The Tomb of horrors! Another classic module gets its release now. Prepare to die horribly, again, and again, and again.

You don't kill too many characters, do you: A textbook example of a GM being a complete arbitrary bastard, changing things on a whim to amuse themself and keep the players from ever winning. Another case of things that were laughed off then, but would cause massive amounts of complaining these days. Have we all gone soft, or it this a sign of improvement? Who can really say?

What do you call a 25th level wizard? Eventually, the level tables run out of titles for class levels. Which means you're badass enough to make your own title. The longer and more floridly descriptive, the better. Another tremendously amusing article that seems very dated now.

Review: The Dragonlords. Another review that is mostly description.

Cure for the same old monster blues: A reminder that real animals, particularly insects and deep sea creatures have more than enough incredibly weird stuff to match the stuff from fiction. Just do a little research and stat it up if you're short of ideas.

Inflation in D&D: Another thing that has always been a problem, particularly as these are before the days of treasure guidelines for level. If players come to expect a certain amount, it becomes increasingly difficult to take it away. So be carefull. Nothing unusual, really.

Prophet Proofing: Another problem that has always been the case, and probably always will be. That of divination spells spoiling the surprise. This article is once again written from a very antagonistic viewpoint, where it is assumed that the players and GM will be using every resource to beat each other.

Sensible sorcery. Another article on the same theme as the last 2, encouraging the GM to be carefull what they allow with spell research. Spells should always be equal or weaker than published spells of the same level, otherwise balance goes out the window. They really are pushing the player disempowerment this issue.

More random encounters for boot hill.

Encounters with personality: Finally, a wandering monsters table with individual characters with distinct personalities. Many of them are joke characters, so this may not be suitable for some campaigns. Still, its another sign of the penetration of roleplaying into RPG's. :p

Review: Olympica. Another wargame, involving the elimination of a martian hivemind. Mostly a description, it does give me a pretty good idea what the game is like.

The hall of mystery: A mini adventure (well, dungeon is still 8 years away, so I won't be surprised if we see more stuff like this for a while.) full of puzzles. Another thing that can be dropped into an existing game easily. Plus bad poetry.

An extensive article for Rail Baron by Gary. Very heavy on the statistics, which makes it pretty impenetrable for those of us who don't know the rules of the game.

Review: King arthurs knights! ( quite a while after its release, but hey, this was probably before comp copies became common, plus they had a several month lead-in time.) The direct boardgame ancestor of Greg Staffords Pendragon. (another bit of history I am looking forward to eagerly) Another review that is mostly just a description, but still gives you an idea of the tactical setup of the game.

Our first reprint (sigh, already.) The new character classes for Dungeon! get a recap, due to being used in the gen con tournament. I suppose they have increase circulation quite a lot in the past 2 years, so at the time most people wouldn't have them. Still feels odd for me to be seeing reprints only 3 weeks in. Does include some new material as well.

Review: The Muthafuckin SILMARILLION! bitch!! Let me rephrase that. In the beginning, Tolkien, the one, made middle earth of his thought, and so inspired an army of imitators. I'd forgotten that this was only published after Tolkiens death. Funny to think he died just around the time D&D was first published. If he had been around a decade or two more to see this and correspond with its creators, how different would the game, and middle earth be now? Not too surprisingly they complain its a bit dense, which you really should expect from a bible analogue. Really, there's no way I can give this one an objective review, so I'm not even going to try.

Monty strikes back: The GM overpowers the ridiculously twinked characters, and sends them on a metamorphosis alpha crossover. Yeah. No matter how powerful your characters, if the GM really wants to they can just kill or ruin them without a roll. (unless you play something like burning wheel, or god help you, synibarr, that explicitly forbids GM fiat and has rules backing that up.) Bitter? Moi? Nah, I won't tell that story, because I know members of that group are registered here, and I have no desire to cause a flamewar by airing that bit of dirty laundry.

Fineous fingers continues, but no wormy. I guess something else had to be cut to make pagecount, and that was it. Or Trampier was otherwise occupied that month.

Not an exceptionally good issue, but a distinctive one, nonetheless. With big names, tons of reviews, a proper dungeon area and loads of stuff going on, they are certainly trying, but it isn't quite working for me. Maybe next year.
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Wooly Rupert

I love Tomb of Horrors. It always amazed me how few people every picked-up on the idea that it was a competitive con module. You wanted lots of deaths so that the last man standing could be the winner. :)

Grab some pre-gens and it's a hoot.


Registered User
Validated User
Really good thread. We had a translation of Dragon at one point (early 90s mainly) and I got all the issues, even if didn't play any D&D games at that tilme (never own a DnD book until 2005 in fact).

There was a lot of good material for games, mostly fantasy, but very open. In the french magazin, you had about 75% of articles without any rules, and at the end the rule part of the articles, with scenarios and how to adapt it to other games. That was a great magazine, but I've lost them all in a moving. Too bad.



Registered User
Validated User
You are my new RPGnet hero, as you found a way to work the World of Synibarr into a discussion of Dragon magazine from the '70s. Brilliant!

(You, not the game. Most definitely not the game!)


Making the Legend
Validated User
The Dragon Issue 22/Little wars 13: February 1979

56 Pages. Due to Tim the editor requiring surgery, and being incapacitated for quite a while after, the schedule is thrown into disarray, and we miss january's issue. (this is the last time that they would miss a month up till the collapse of TSR and takeover of WotC, as soon after this their staff expanded and they became less dependent on any single person.) As a result, they've thrown together Dragon and Little wars this issue. Which results in a considerably larger page count than any previous issue. If they get a positive response they intend to merge the two for good, and cover both RPG's and wargames in a single magazine again. I know that doesn't stick, but it should make the next few months pretty interesting. Lets see what the response is.

In this issue:

The first assassins: Go go arabian adventures. A load of real world history stuff, well presented and condensed. Shame we have yet to see any adventures covering that style. And curious that assassins don't get the same kind of flak as monks for not being drawn from medieval european archetypes. Oh well, the first problem will be rectified in time. The second, who can say.

Gary goes back to his roots, and writes an article on the rise and fall of the swiss confederation. Another historical essay, this time more slanted towards wargaming. Cavalry has its problems when faced with rugged terrain and people with pikes. But pikes don't really work against heavy artillery. And if you don't adapt, you lose. Another pretty interesting and well thought out article, which incidentally reveals that gygax actually means seesaw in macedonian. Just in case you were wondering. :D

Armies of the renaissance: A third historical article in a row. This one is neither as good or long as the previous two, being very vague, and trying to cover too much in a page. It does have a good sized bibliography though, so if you want more info, you have better places to go.

Reviews: Up scope! a submarine boardgame, The face in the frost, a book. Panzerkrieg, another wargame. And two magazines, Apprentice and pheonix, get very scathing reviews from Gary. He does so love blasting the competition. I suppose when you are the creator of the best selling game and magazine in your field, you can justify saying that you are better than them. But it would show more grace to not be so crass about it.

Mapping the dungeons gets by far its most comprehensive listing yet, 9 full pages long. Of course, it's still a small percentage of the people that have actually bought the game, which the editor complains about. Maybe some people just don't want a bunch of strangers inviting themselves to their D&D game.

What is D&D, and where is it going? Gary goes into an explanation of where D&D is coming from, and where he sees it going. Most interesting is that he doesn't see D&D changing that much after the DMG is published, apart from minor errata and revisions, because it is good enough as it is. Like chess or monopoly, it doesn't need more stuff to retain a decent market position. Constant barrages of supplements would only deter casual gamers. Man, he really got the direction wrong. But as D&D sold more copies under that policy than its current several splatbooks a month schedule, I'm not so sure he was philosophically wrong. But that's something we could debate forever.

4th dimension: A new boardgame from TSR, intended to rival chess or something like that. So much for that plan. I wonder how long it lasted?

An extensive preview of the AD&D DMG, including lots of tables that really are needed to play the game properly. This is the problem with staggering your releases of corebooks. It stops people from playing the game properly for a while. We see that the Great Wheel has now been organised into the order that it would retain for the forseable future, but there is still no outlands. Lots of other classic magical items also make appearances.

SPI on D&D: Gary attacks a reviewer from another magazine who dared to be unimpressed with AD&D. Comes very close to descending into personal attacks. I know people get attached to their creations, but really, this is a bit much.

Stalemate at kassala: Another wargaming actual play, and a pretty fun one, making little attempt at historical accuracy, while still giving plenty of tactical variation.

Fineous fingers takes the piss out of gollum this issue.

Gary reiterates his love for polearms again, in even greater detail. Just when you thought that topic was finished, he trots it out again for all the new readers that have come along in the last couple of years.

In search of the unknown! Another classic adventure out now. Any month now, people are going to start complaining about the glut of modules. ;)

A hell of a lot of controversial stuff this issue, mostly coming from Gary. Agree or disagree with him, his opinions are always entertaining to read, and you can see how he managed to get people to follow him. Having a strong identity makes you more interesting to be around than the average person. Which is something we can all aspire too. Now, how do you do it and not have a big proportion of people consider you annoying? Not by snarking about the hero and founder of the hobby you're playing, I'll wager ;)


I'm a boat
Validated User
Most interesting is that he doesn't see D&D changing that much after the DMG is published, apart from minor errata and revisions, because it is good enough as it is.
Anyone recall how long after this it is before Gygax starts talking about a second edition? ;)


Making the Legend
Validated User
The Dragon Issue 23 : March 1979

The page count returns to 32 pages briefly, for the last time. From next month on, Dragon's expansion of size really starts in earnest. I guess they managed to solve their paper shortage. This issue starts with a blast at the running of origins, calling it inherently faulty and self-serving, only concerned with the profits of the manufacturers. An accusation which would be leveled at T$R as well, but there you go. There's always going to be organizational and financial problems, and people are always going to complain about them.

In this issue:

En garde in solitare: Does what it says on the tin, providing a system by which you can run opponents for yourself without scripting, which wouldn't work in solitare. A short but sweet article, which looks like it would work quite well.

Gary lists the gaming companies that were present at the Hobby industry Convention that year, and talks about how much of an improvement that is over 10 years ago. Another sign of the wave that they were riding, but also of how many of the big players of the 80's and 90's hadn't even been founded yet. We're still a long way from the present.

Fiction: The thing from the tomb, by Gardner F Fox. Niall returns for a fourth time. Increasingly, it seems like he's never in any real danger, thanks to his demonic patroness. Which does detract from the tension somewhat. Plus, for the same reasons, he grows decreasingly tactically intelligent and proactive. Yeah, I'm not enjoying this as much as I used too. If it continues like this, he'll be an unstoppable gary-stu in a few episodes time.

Mind wrestling: An alternate system for psionic combat, trying to make it model the visuals of psychic fights in movies better. Not sure how well this would work, as I never read the 1st ed psionic rules, but it does substantially change the tactical considerations of the game. It certainly looks like another fun little system I wouldn't mind trying out.

Water adventures for Metamorphosis alpha: Lots of new monsters, plus a little bit of game advice. Typically weird mutations make this a pretty entertaining read, as well as driving home how huge the starship warden is. If only red dwarf had though of doing a flooded level episode at some point during their run.

It weighs What?!!!: Armor and weapons were designed for effectively fighting in and with. Any game designer or GM (yes, you SPI) saying otherwise and trying to stop you from doing basic things like stand up from lying down or getting on and off a horse on grounds of "realism" is being silly. I suspect that they'll have to debunk this persistent myth again, since it showed up here recently as well. When will people learn.

Random generation of creatures from the lower planes: No, not a reprint. Gary liked the idea so much that he decided to do his own take on it (plus, that means he doesn't have to pay the original writer royalties). This would be incorporated into the DMG, and later on become the basis for the hordlings. Lovely stuff, although not quite as overpowered or gonzo as the original. Includes some sample illustrations, which really help you visualize how to take these fucked up combinations of random rolls, and turn them into creatures.

Fineous fingers is on vacation. Wormy is also still absent. Dear oh dear.

Damage Permanency: Ahh, attempts to introduce realism into D&D. How we laugh at ye. Involves lots of tables that are not always entirely sensical, such as losing levels in spellcasting ability because your arm was damaged. I think we'll avoid using this one. Long experience has shown that people react to their character getting random crippling injuries even worse than they do to their being killed. When the rules governing it aren't that good, (FYI, the only crippling injury rules that I've seen that I actually like are the ones from Savage Worlds) its even less desirable.

Imprisoning Characters: Another badly thought out article based on the principles of antagonistic GMing and players with multiple characters being common. Doing stuff like this may be fun for the GM, but having your character put out of play, but not killed for extended periods of time can quite justifiably induce frustration. Or are we just too soft these days?

A very advert heavy issue this time, which combined with its page count, makes this issue feel a little light on content. The article quality is about average, but the overall product feels a little subpar, with the artwork below standard as well. Guess they were gearing up for the big changes coming shortly, and not putting quite as much effort into this issue.

T. Foster

Retired User
By this time TSR was way behind schedule getting the AD&D DMG out the door, so I suspect they were probably devoting all their resources to work on that which meant letting the magazine(s) flounder for a bit. Luckily we know that by a few issues later they'll be back on track :)
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