Friday, 5 March 2021

Review: Dragon Warriors

Dragon Warriors labels itself as "The Classic British Fantasy Roleplaying Game", and with good reason. It is the quintessential "British D&D", systemically and in scope very close to B/X D&D. Although its popularity has waned, it is experiencing a sort of rediscovery (see this thread on the RPGPub, for example).

System Summary
  • There are five characteristics (Strength, Reflexes, Intelligence, Psychic Talent, and Looks), determined by 3d6 in order. Characters with more than two scores below 9 can be re-rolled with GM permission. These values are often used for roll under d20 checks, but - similarly to D&D - they also confer various minor bonuses and penalties to derived attributes.
  • Characters belong to one of seven Professions: Knight (equivalent to fighting-men, despite the name), Barbarian (warriors from Thuland or the Eastern Steppes), Assassin (specialists of stealth and trickery and murder), Sorcerer (well-rounded casters and creators of magic items), Mystic (psionicists), Elementalist (casters specialising in three of the five elements: Fire, Air, Water, Earth, and Darkness), or Warlock (masters of sword and sorcery). Profession determines starting and progressive values for Attack, Defence, Magical Defence (and Magical Attack for spellcasting Professions), Evasion, Stealth, Perception, and Health Points as well as starting equipment and abilities.
  • Not universal amongst British games but noticeably more important than in American games is character background in terms of social class. The book provides detailed tables to randomly determine background based on Profession. Literacy is also dependent on background.
  • Forcing open locked doors requires a Strength check (d20 roll under Strength score), unless the character has 16+ Strength or 18+ in case of very sturdy doors. Each attempt costs 1 HP.
  • Stealth rolls are made with 2d10. If the result is equal to or less than the sneaking character's Stealth minus the lookout's Perception (after modifiers for lighting, movement, armour, etc.). Each sneaking character must make their own roll, but only against the highest Perception score in the opposing group.
  • Tracking is a Perception roll (d20 roll equal or under), but for each day past the third add 1d4 to the total and 1d6 for each snowfall or heavy storm.
  • Climbing uses Reflexes (d20 roll equal or under), unless the character's Reflexes score meets or exceeds the "difficulty factor" of the climb (e.g. 6 for dangling rope or 13 for a cliff).
  • In fact, this can be thought of as the non-specific resolution mechanic of the game: determine which characteristic (or average of multiple characteristics) is relevant, assign a difficulty factor, and make a d20 roll (equal or under for success) if the difficulty factor isn't met.
  • Surprise chance is 1-in-6, but if the characters are carrying light sources in a dungeon, they have no chance of surprising the monsters. Conversely, when they pass through a door, each group has 1-in-6 chance of surprising the other.
  • Battle formation is handled similarly to OD&D: most fighters with one-handed melee weapons take up 1.5 metres of space, while those armed with two-handed weapons take up 2 metres. Spearmen, archers, crossbowmen, and spellcasters, however, only take up 1 metre.
  • Combat is made up of 6-second Combat Rounds. Characters act in descending Reflexes order, performing a single action (such as closing in and attacking, shooting an arrow, drawing a weapon, casting a spell, or moving).
  • Attacks are d20 rolls. If the result is equal to or lower than the attacker's Attack minus the target's Defence, they hit. Then an Armour Bypass Roll is made (weapon-specific, modified by high Strength) against the target's Armour Factor (e.g. 0 for unarmoured, 3 for mail hauberk, 5 for plate armour, etc.). If the ABR exceeds AF, then the weapon's (static) damage is subtracted from the enemy's Health Points. A roll of 1 on the attack roll is a critical hit and automatically bypasses armour. However, if the opponent is wearing a shield, they have a 1-in-6 chance of deflecting the blow (even critical hits).
  • Defence is naturally not applicable against missile attacks (so the attacker's Attack score is only modified for movement and range).
  • However, the character may still dodge certain attacks and hazards (such as a dragon's breath, a javelin, or a rolling boulder). These attacks have a Speed rating (e.g. 11 for a boulder and 18 for an incoming javelin). The attack procedure is 2d10 against Speed minus the victim's Evasion score (equal or lower results hit). This roll is only necessary if dodging is physically possible, naturally.
  • Retreating takes a full Combat Round to move out of melee range (the enemy can, of course, simply follow and attack), while routing allows a free attack (with 0 Defence) against the fleeing party.
  • Reaching 0 Health Points renders the character unconscious (1-in-6 chance of waking up with 1 HP per minute). Reaching -3 HP means death. Natural healing kicks in after 4 days, after which a number of HP equal to the character's rank is restored per day.
  • Each spellcasting Profession has their own spell list (the Elementalist has one for each element). Spells have levels, and casters cannot use spells of higher level than their own rank.
  • Sorcerers, Elementalist, and Warlocks have a pool of Magic Points (based solely on rank), and casting a spell costs MPs equal to its level. Elementalist actually have separate MP pools for each of their elements. Mystics, on the other hand, can cast any number of spells - as long as they don't fail the subsequent Psychic Fatigue Check (a d20 roll vs. 13 + their rank - spell's level).
  • The ability to cast spells (whether by regaining MPs or removing fatigue) returns at a different time for each caster type: Sorcerers regain MPs at precisely midnight, while Warlocks do the same at sunset. Elementalists must enact a short ritual at a time specific to the element in question (and MPs are only returned for that particular element), while Mystics recover from fatigue at the break of dawn.
  • Direct-attack spells and abilities (such as the Fossilize spell or the touch of a wight) require a 2d10 roll - if equal to or under the caster's Magical Attack minus the target's Magical Defence, the spell takes effect. Indirect-attack spells (such as Dragonbreath) usually follow a similar procedure using the spell's Speed vs. the target's Evasion.
  • Spells without a specific duration require a Spell Expiry roll after every Combat Round. For Sorcerers, Elementalists, and Mystics it's a 2d6 roll, where the spell expires on a 12. For Warlocks, it's a d20 roll, and the spell expires on a 20.
  • Warlocks are trained in the use of armour, and Mystics need only use their mind, but Elementalists and Sorcerers have a chance to miscast while wearing armour (percent chance based on armour type). If so, they use twice as many MPs, and a random spell of the same level is cast instead.
  • There are a total of 60 spells for Sorcerers (6 per level), 36 for Mystics (4 per level), 50 for Elementalists (1 for each element per level), and 45 for Warlocks (5 per level).
  • Against poison, you roll a number of six-siders (results equal to or below Strength mean the poison doesn't take effect).
  • Morale is rolled as (rank + Strength + Intelligence) minus enemy's Attack score - a roll higher than this value is a failure. Once failed against a particular enemy type, their Attack is considered twice as high for purposes of the morale check.
  • Experience is attained for surviving the adventure and defeating opponents. Renown normally corresponds to rank.
  • 1 gold crown = 10 silver florins = 100 copper pennies. Encumbrance is slot-based (the maximum is set between 6 and 14 items, depending on Strength).
Things I Liked
  • The way characteristics affect derived attributes (such as Attack and Stealth) is superb - their impact is noticeable but never overly so. I especially like the overlap among characteristics (Attack, for instance, is affected to various degree by Strength, Reflexes, and Intelligence).
  • All Sorcerers are left-handed.
  • Sorcerers begin the game with two potions (chosen from a list of five).
  • Elementalists choose one major and two subsidiary elements, but the latter two cannot be opposed to their major element (cf. Air-Earth and Fire-Water), and Darkness can only be one's major element.
  • Assassins have a large number of abilities to choose from, explicitly aimed at suppoting non-evil thief-like characters.
  • Literate characters automatically have a chance of knowing some ancient languages.
  • Simple guidelines for illumination, surprise, formations, etc. (similar in scope to OD&D), covering all the bases for dungeoneering.
  • I really like how multiple attackers are handled: Defence can be divided between up to three attacks (announced before any roll is made).
  • Thankfully, the authors provide a simpler Spell Expiry Roll to be made after every minute: for Sorcerers, Mystics, and Elementalists, there's a 75% chance that the spell is still in effect, while for Warlocks it's 60%.
  • Hireling availability chart based on settlement size (similar to the one in Kazamaták és Kompániák).
  • Typical stats are provided for all Professions of ranks 1 through 12. If equipment were also part of their description, this would be perfect.
  • Random treasure tables (Scant, Meagre, Poor, Moderate, Average, Good, Bountiful, Grand, Fabulous), including coins, gems, jewellery, and magic items.
  • The availability of items is given as a percentage, separate for castle, town, and village environments (e.g. a bow is given as 95%/50%/90%, whereas mail hauberk is 100%/70%/10%).
  • I'm a little disappointed that the monster descriptions don't include their treasure hoard, but they are all collected right after the hoard descriptions in the treasure chapter, which is still a great move.
  • Crime and punishment (including potential number of witnesses and their inclinations), jousting, and ransoms are given special treatment.
  • A number of variant rules are detailed: variable weapon damage, reduced HP inflation, long-term injuries, mooks, and fate points, among others.
  • Rules for undermanned ships (I can't tell how many times I wished other rulesets say something about the matter).
  • A reasonably generic fantasy setting, Legend, is described to accomodate all the options, treasures, and monsters in the book. The map, right before the table of contents, is charming, and quite a lot of legendary items and such are detailed beyond the usual region descriptions.
Things I Disliked
  • Although I like a lot of the abilities (especially the Knight's combat techniques), most of them are only available for higher rank characters (in the Knight's case, they "only" know how to use plate armour without penalties, ride warhorses, and track enemies, while their combat techniques are only unlocked at rank 8).
  • A minor quibble, but the Barbarian's description specifically mentions Thuland and the Eastern Steppes as places of origin, but the Barbarian Origins table actually has the Mercanian Coast as the most likely outcome.
  • Even though forcing doors open uses the same "roll only if your characteristic is below a benchmark" mechanic, it's never called properly a difficulty factor - even though it clearly is. I'm also not enitrely convinced about using 1d20 for everything but 2d10 for Stealth and Speed (although it certainly makes having a high Stealth/Perception/Evasion score more impactful).
  • On the one hand, I really like the idea of difficulty factors (it's something I, and I assume many other GMs, have been using to simplify gameplay or just avoid awkward situations); on the other hand, I can't help but be annoyed about the probabilities not following suit - what I'm saying is that the difference between the difficulty factor and the characteristic in question doesn't affect the chance of success (e.g. with a score of 12, the probability of success is 60% whether the DF was 13 or 18).
  • The spell lists are sometimes confusing as some of the spell names take up two lines.
  • There's a table for determining the magical items carried by high rank NPCs (not unlike in OD&D), but the table only provides details for Barbarians, Knights, Sorcerers, and Mystics.
  • The PDF is neither bookmarked, nor hyperlinked.
  • A few times, notably in the setting descriptions, the headings are placed at the bottom of the page and the corresponding paragraphs are to be found on the following page.
  • No random encounter tables (but fortunately they are included in the Bestiary).

Dragon Warriors features a particular flavour of fantasy that is "dark, spooky and magical", in contrast with "the medieval Disneyland of Dungeons & Dragons" - a distinction which is characteristic of virtually all British old-school fantasy games (most notably Fighting Fantasy and Warhammer). At the same time, it stays close enough to the adventure fantasy of D&D (particularly if we disregard the epic tier) that the same lessons learnt in running B/X and AD&D can be reasonably applied.

The revised edition was originally published in 2008 by Magnum Opus Press, but it is currently owned by Serpent King Games. It is available in PDF/POD on DriveThruRPG, and the PDF is, at least at the moment, PWYW!

1 comment:

  1. I'll have to take a look at that PWYW pdf - I've got the original paperbacks, but wouldn't mind comparing. DW had a lot of what I was disappointed D&D didn't - it ramps up the folklore and horror aspects of quasi-medieval Euro-fantasy.

    Those books & paperback T&T 5e are the most consistently reread of my old rpg material.