Sunday, 13 May 2018

The Awesome Pain in the Ass That Was DragonQuest

Continuing my trio of bargain-bin rescues from Glasgow (actually a gift from Paolo, in lieu of buying an adventure from the system) I present to you DragonQuest, 2nd edition!

Why does this RPG system set my teeth on edge? My nostalgia should be all for SPI and the days of punching out wargame counters, all for Deathmaze and Citadel of Blood and War of the Ring and Sword and Sorcery. But good boardgaming chops do not guarantee a good roleplaying game.

Let's judge a book by its cover. Sorry guys, RPG players are not just dreaming of being Conan. D&D art got that right more often than not. They are in a fantasy-hero world, but team players; just like they're in a horror world, but not doomed, and in a science fantasy world, but stone cold medieval. The Frazetta muscleman hoisting up the results of his DragonQuest like a trophy bass is someone else's idea of "sword and sorcery".

The writing style of the game is a 180 degree reaction against the fast, loose but evocative D&D writing of the time. No gaps and confusing terminology here! DQ is buckled and strapped into the case law structure of an SPI wargame's rules (see and apply the Rules Writing Procedure). If the GM has leeway, we'll tell you exactly where that leeway is. It's meant to be clear, but it's mechanizing and alienating on the page. The wargame influence also shows in the tight regulation of combat on a hex grid.

Maybe case-law would work if the mechanics were more elegant, as in Metagaming's contemporary offering The Fantasy Trip. But they're standard Rolemaster-type fare, a percentile skill system with "RPG 2.0" features like separate fatigue and physical damage, damage-reducing armor, critical hits, background packages, custom advancement ... Determining target numbers might have you multiplying 39 by 2.5. Damage involves frequent table lookups to see if a crit and physical damage happen. God forbid you should have a d6 laying around the house, here, roll one of your d10's and take half for a d5 instead. And roll four of those d5s to determine your character's stats.

What's a Satanic panic?
But it's funny how often interesting magic systems come attached to clunky base mechanics, while elegant systems like TFT or RuneQuest have difficult or prosaic approaches to magic. Certainly, something was possessing SPI around the turn of the 80's. They had a boardgame about the demons from the Lesser Key of Solomon, and worked some of those names into their Citadel of Blood adventure game. And yes, there's a whole school of DQ demon summoning that ramps up to 16 pages of fully powered Goetic infernal royalty. That menu is clearly where all the love lies, and the other magic schools suffer collectively by comparison. Some are solid, some near-unplayable like the Water Magic school with its Aquaman-style restriction.

By the way, there is a lot of cribbing from D&D, especially in the monster list. And in the kind of rules that compel game balance. Wizards can't cast near cold iron or while being distracted by damage. Player characters who poison their weapons might nick themselves. This points at the heart of the problem, that Dragonquest isn't built around a compelling setting (implicitly, as in D&D, or explicitly, as in Runequest). So much of it is generic that the special stuff fails to stick.

For example, instead of alignment, your characters get a quasi-astrological Aspect which gives them bonuses and penalties for very short periods of the day or year, or around a birth or death. Sounds cool, but it doesn't really resonate with any other social or magical structure, mostly boiling down to an optimum time and place to do housebound skill tests. Only the death aspect has any impact on the typical adventurer, with a +10% bonus just after a mammal dies near you.

At least the 2nd edition book concludes creditably, with a tight little sample adventure in a bandit oasis. It maybe shows, though, that DQ doesn't really know what kind of fantasy game it is. The journey to the camp is described last of all, oh yeah, you might encounter a sand golem. The real detail is put into the characters at the camp, their secrets and intrigues. It's not really necessary that one is a halfling and another is a hobgoblin. The magic, too, is subtle, pulp-story stuff. There are other consequences of aping the pulp era (the camp is run by one "Alla Akabar," and roles for NPC women comprise jealous wife and sex victim). Perhaps the game is more suited for would-be Conans after all?