The Alexandrian

Tagline: If you haven’t read Dragon Magazine in years you should definitely think about picking up a copy. If you’ve never read it at all, come on in and join the party.

Dragon Magazine - Issue #162Those who have been into RPGs for a long time now can look back and remember a time when Dragon Magazine was not only king of the hill, but rightfully deserved to be. It was a time when you felt like the articles you were reading were actually contributing significantly to your roleplaying experience (instead of just being a list of new treasures and magical spells). It was a time when Dragonmirth was funny, and classic strips like SnarfQuest, Phil and Dixie, and (of course) Wormy were all in the midst of their runs. It was a time when, thanks to the Forum and the letters column you felt like part of a community.

Dragon Magazine rocked.

I, on the other hand, pretty much missed all that. I entered the hobby in 1989, right along with the second edition of AD&D, and Dragon (while still a great magazine) was on a declining slope. The classic comic strips were all gone, the big names had picked up their bags and moved on, and things were beginning to slip. But I came in at such a time that I could appreciate what I had missed through discussions with others (plus I’ve read quite a bit of that older material in various forms over the years). There was a significantly long period of time in which the only reason I wasn’t cancelling my subscription to Dragon was, first, because I had always had a subscription to Dragon; second, Yamara was still worth reading; and, third, I was too lazy to send in the cancellation card.

Recently, however, a couple of things cropped up:

1. Because I was involved in a lot of other commitments, a stack of recent Dragons stacked up – from #257 to #262. When I finally sat down to read them, therefore, I was able to devour a total of six issues over the course of a couple of days. While doing so a fact which had been tickling my subconscious for well over a year now suddenly sprang into my conscious mind: Dragon was good again. Actually, Dragon was great.

2. Issue #262 was my 100th issue. My first was #162 way back in 1990.

Put those two little factoids together and I decided it was time to write a review.

IN THE BEGINNING

Issue #162 is still one of my favorite issues of Dragon — a fact which, I have no doubt, is inspired largely by nostalgia. Still, when it first arrived in the mail and I looked down at the skeletal rider upon a living steed done in tones of brown (it was the October issue), I knew I had something special in my hands. Issue #162 is one of only a handful of Dragons which I can honestly say I read cover to cover (the double-sized issue #200 was the last one which sticks out in my memory) – I remember the tome which contained unspeakable spells of undead magic; the article on how to manipulate a game so that your players feel horror and not just their characters; the short story of an undead monster haunting a fantasy village; the peals of laughter from Dragonmirth; and so much else.

That was a lot of fun.

About a dozen issues later things began to taper off for me though. It’s possible my excitement was merely dying (or that overexposure to the same old formulas had finally worn thin), but given not only my feelings but the expressed feelings of many others regarding the magazine I think a serious dip in quality was taking place (along with the rest of TSR’s product line).

THE HERE AND NOW

There was a long span in the early 200’s of Dragon where I was barely even flipping through the issues. The majority of the articles were based on tired formulas (and here’s the monsters of the month, the items of the month, and the spells of the month); I hadn’t read a short story in over fifty issues; and even Dragonmirth had lost its edge.

Then things started to turn up slightly, shortly after Dave Gross took the helm as editor. I still wasn’t reading it a lot (and an impulse to simply cancel my subscription kept cropping up from time to time), but things weren’t as bad as they could be. (Now there’s sterling praise for you.)

Then TSR went belly-up and Wizards of the Coast bought the company.

Which leads me to an interesting digression. It is a testament not only to how little attention I was paying to Dragon, but also my total lack of involvement in the greater RPG community of the time, that it took me three or four months to realize that my issues of Dragon weren’t showing up. Then one day an issue of the Comic Buyer’s Guide showed up with news that TSR had gone bankrupt and been bought out by WotC. Huh. Whaddya know?

Long story short: Curiosity brought me back online to find out the hoary details, which lead me to Heavy Gear and Feng Shui, the former of which (and the latter to a certain extent as well) revitalized my passion in roleplaying games, which, in turn, is why you’re reading this review.

End of digression.

In any case, when Dragon came back things started getting better at a very rapid pace. Indeed, in my opinion, TSR started improving as a whole. But it took awhile for the fact to catch up to my brain (for those of you old enough to have been around then, you’ll remember that for several years prior to the buy-out, TSR was pretty much at the bottom of the barrel in terms of product quality).

Which brings me to the here and now. You already know what I think (because I mentioned it above): Dragon rocks. Let’s take a look at the last ten issues and find out why.

THE GOOD STUFF

ART

Let’s start on the outside. For the longest time Dragon Magazine was cursed with covers depicting nothing but dragons. While at first this seems appropriate, in truth it was just repetitious. And while I like dragons, a steady diet of them is like a steady diet of anything else: Boring.

I bring that up because the cover art of the last ten issues hasn’t only been of fantastic quality – it’s been creative, original, and (at times) cunning. Ten issues ago, on the cover of #253, we have Brom offering us up the seemingly serene image of a young beauty dipping her feet in a river while playing on the harp. It is only after admiring the picture for a few moments that you realize that her eyes are mysteriously filled with an unexpected sadness. Then you see that the riverbed is composed of skulls. Finally a shocking truth reveals itself to you: The young woman is chained to the rock upon which she sits. The initially tranquil, peaceful vista gives away to a frightening scene, made all the more horrific by the subtle, hidden nature of it all.

Issue #254 has the incomparable Jeff Easley (famed for his dragons) exercising his comedic talent, with the picture of a hill giant who has obviously been knocked unceremoniously onto his rear by the fighter who, although he and his mount are clenched in the giant’s palm, still struggles to slay the poor fellow. (And for those of you disappointed that Jeff wasn’t depicting a dragon, you might notice the silhouette swooping across the sky in the background.)

Dragon Magazine #258 - Todd LockwoodWe’ll skip ahead now (noting that there “be no dragons here”) to issue #258.

Oh. My. God.

It is, quite simply, gorgeous. So gorgeous you just sit there staring at it for a few moments, and then you open up to the interior page where they reproduce the cover art full-size and uncluttered with text (a very nice feature, I might add) to stare at it some more. Todd Lockwood, the artist, deserves every piece of kudos possible for this stunning, haunting image of a young female mage, clenching a green-glowing staff, after slaying some sort of mechanical monster. Inside you discover that the image was an office favorite; so much so that it inspired Bruce Cordell to write an article based on the cover.

(Coincidentally, I mentioned above that issue #200 was the last issue I read all the way through. That is, up until this issue; and I’ve been reading all of them since then the same way (except for any game-based fiction, I have a weak stomach).)

Skip up to #260, where Jeff Easley returns with a stunningly rendered dragon steed (complete with rider) – excellent stuff – and then onto issue #261.

Oh. My. God.

Did I say that already? Well, it bears repeating. Fred Fields’ dark interpretation of Boticelli’s “Birth of Venus” is every bit as stunning and evocative as Lockwood’s cover for #258. You should track down these two issues just so you can see these covers, if for no other reason. They’re that good.

We’ll wrap up our tour of the recent covers with the most recent: Tony DiTerlizzi’s painting for #262 (of a halfing holding a lantern while walking under a fallen tree as fairies dance in the shadows) is simply heartwarming.

Since I’ve waxed on and on (and on) about the covers, I will simply say of the interior art that it matches the exterior step for step. Undoubtedly this is the finest Dragon has ever looked.

LAYOUT

And speaking of that, let us move onto the sterling interior lay-out. Let me keep it brief and sum up: Clear presentation. Easy to read. Finding information is a simple task. Graphically rich (complementing without overpowering the text). Best looking magazine I subscribe to – in or out of the industry (and I subscribe to, literally, dozens).

GENERAL CONTENT

Keeping it general: The overall quality of the articles, columns, and features has improved tremendously over the past couple years — I’ve already mentioned that I’m reading the issues cover-to-cover again. Some specific features I’ve taken note of are discussed below.

THE SPINE

Another quickie: In the past couple years Dragon has adopted a squared-off spine. This, in itself, was a good idea. It makes storing and stacking the magazines a lot easier. Then they made it even better by printing the number and the theme of the issue on the spine – which means you can find the issues you’re looking for very quickly and very easily. Kudos.

THEME BALANCE

And speaking of themes, let me say that the balance between theme related and non-theme related material in each issue is balanced very nicely. When the theme idea became particularly prominent in the 190’s and early 200’s there was a tendency to put far too much themed material in each issue – so that if, for example, the theme was “Dark Sun” and you didn’t run a Dark Sun campaign there would be next to nothing in the issue of value to you. In response to complaints regarding this Dragon then entered a stage where, although the issues still had themes, there was almost no theme-related material in the issues. This defeated the purpose. They seem to have found an appropriate balance now where you can pick up an issue just for its theme and get enough material to make it worthwhile; while subscribers who don’t have any use for the theme won’t feel jilted.

Dragon #261 - Fred FieldsMy one problem with this, however, is that I used to like the fact that the April issue was all comedy and the October issue was all horror. The “balance” here is actually, in my opinion, out of balance: I encourage them to return to a practice of having those two issues “overburdened” with themed material.

D-MAIL/FORUM

Properly handled letter columns are the life-blood of a magazine – particularly in fan-oriented publications. In the 1960s Marvel Comics had a multiple page letter column for each of their comics, in which Stan Lee (and, later, the other editors) engaged in active dialogues with the readers (and allowed the readers to engage in active dialogues with one another). Since then Marvel has continuously shrunk the size of the letter columns in synch with limiting their content – reading a letters page today you get 2-3 letters of congratulation and little else. It is a noticeable loss. (You can chart a similar decline, and disappearance, of the letter columns in F/SF magazines.)

Similarly, during its early days, and at its height, Dragon’s letters pages were one of the focal points for gaming fandom. Reading them (and perhaps participating in them) you really felt like you belonged to a community of people. During Dragon’s darkest days, on the other hand, the letter columns declined into a self-congratulatory mess (with the occasional exception). It was sickening watching people fall all over themselves congratulating a magazine of such poor quality through pure ignorance of their other options (except, of course, when they were congratulating other crappy TSR products through sheer ignorance of their other options).

Under Dave Gross, this has all turned around. He restructured the mail columns (and renamed the primary column to D-Mail) and then added the “Question of the Month” to the Forum. The most noticeable demarcation point between the old school letter columns and the new ones came when the question was asked, “What would you want to see in a third edition of AD&D?” (paraphrased). Critiques of AD&D were suddenly allowed and, with them, serious critiques of the magazine re-entered the columns as well. Gross has allowed a feeling of community to ferment and grow once again in these pages, making them one of the strongest features in the magazine instead of one of the weakest.

DUNGEONCRAFT

Starting in issue #255 a new department started in Dragon: Dungeoncraft, written by Ray Winninger (an active freelancer in the industry and the creator of the defunct Underground game). Since then Dungeoncraft has been presenting a step-by-step procedure for creating a new campaign world for AD&D — starting with basic elements and slowly building up to a world of great complexity and depth. Although most of the stuff in the articles is going to be old hat to the old hands of the industry, Winninger has done an excellent job of packaging and presenting the material in an easy-to-use manner for newcomers.

Personally I’ve had a great time reading it for a couple of reasons: First, Winninger occasionally comes up with a new way of doing something that I hadn’t thought of before. Second, it’s a great nostalgia trip. Who can’t remember grabbing a pencil and graph paper for the first time and sketching out a crude dungeon and a home base for the PCs? Great times.

WYRMS OF THE NORTH

For years now Ed Greenwood (creator of the Forgotten Realms) has been writing the Wyrms of the North column for Dragon. The concept for the column is simple: Every couple of issues Greenwood dedicates an extensive discussion to one of the dragons which lives in the northern parts of the Forgotten Realms. I have to admit that I didn’t think this column would last anywhere near as long as it has (or, if it did, that Greenwood could keep it interesting for very long), but I was wrong. I have to admit that there have been quite a few clunkers that had me skimming after a couple of paragraphs, but there have been plenty of times when Greenwood’s ideas are original and creative – showcasing the great depth and breadth of possibilities which dragons have.

A couple of additional points. First: Whatever faults it may have, Wyrms of the North is ten times better than its preceding Greenwood column (in which Elminster and major mages from the Greyhawk and DragonLance worlds got together for a chat at Greenwood’s house while he hid in a suit of armor and listened in). That column was just painful.

Second: Wyrms of the North would probably benefit if it became simply Wyrms — opening the discussion up not only to other sections of the Realms, but also to other TSR worlds (including generic write-ups). Since Greenwood doesn’t fill up every issue, it might even be conceivable that other people could do some of the columns (while Greenwood remained focused on the Realms).

PC PORTRAITS

Unfortunately I can’t pinpoint the exact issue when this feature started (as several of my back issues are stored in boxes elsewhere), but it is comparatively recently. Essentially, in each issue of Dragon you get a page full of thumbnail sketches which can be used for PCs (or NPCs, for that matter). Photocopy the page, cut ‘em out and you’ve got a quick visual reference for your players (or your DM, if your the player). Personally I’m far more likely to use these as a DM, since when I’m a player I tend to have a very specific image of my character (which is one reason why miniatures are usually a tough buy for me).

ROLE MODELS

Speaking of miniatures: Dragon has a miniature column again! Role Models is a monthly column written by Jim Bishop and J.D. Wiker which started up in issue #256. Personally I thought the loss of Through the Looking Glass (the old miniatures column) was a major blow to Dragon (although, at the time, I also felt its quality had dipped to such a low point that the blow had been struck anyway). Bishop and Wiker are doing a great job as they introduce a new generation of fans to miniatures on their way to dealing with more advanced techniques.

PROFILES

The Profiles feature has been around for quite awhile now, but it’s something I like quite a bit. On the last page of every issue we get a mini-biography of one of the people “behind the scenes” at TSR. This has introduced me to several creative personalities who I otherwise wouldn’t have taken notice of, and given me new insights into others whose works I already followed.

DRAGONMIRTH

The comic pages of Dragon have always been a mainstay – the single panel jokes cemented themselves into the D&D tradition, in my mind, with their inclusion in the original AD&D PHB and DMG. Not only has the quality of the two page Dragonmirth feature picked up over the past few years (from a lull in the mid-‘90s), but Gross has decided to include (tastefully and appropriately) several jokes elsewhere in the magazine.

Besides Dragonmirth the regular comic strips and series have also left an impression on AD&D and its fandom. From Wormy to SnarfQuest to Yamara these have become well-known icons in fandom. Right now Dragon has two strips, one of which definitely deserves its place among the greats, and the other which is quickly earning it: Knights of the Dinner Table and Nodwick.

Knights of the Dinner Table, of course, started in the pages of SHADIS, then moved to Dragon, and is now ensconced in its own comic book/magazine. Jolly Blackburn, its creator, however, continues to produce a two page feature for every issue of Dragon. Excellent stuff, as you well know. (And if you don’t know, you’re sadly missing out. Read my dedicated review of the Knights elsewhere on RPGNet.)

Nodwick, by Aaron Williams, has been around for awhile – focusing on the title character, a henchman for a group of adventurers. Nodwick is much put upon by his employers (as every henchman is): A wizard with a dry wit; a hypocritical chivalric knight who can’t live without treasure; and a short, near-sighted priestess who uses duct tape to heal Nodwick whenever he is dismembered by the monsters (which is often, but always off-screen). It grew out of Williams’ single-panel work for Dragonmirth (the same way almost every other major Dragon comic has). It has always been funny, but only recently has it begun to sit comfortably in my mind alongside the other classics of the RPG comic legacy. Nodwick appears in every issue as a four panel strip on the letters page. In the most recent issues, however, Williams has been doing full page features (in addition to the four-panel strip) with his main characters going through the classic AD&D modules ((They Might be) Against the Giants, (Little) Tomb of Horrors, and so on). A tie-in with the Silver Anniversary products TSR is releasing this year, these are absolutely hilarious. Anyone who has played through those old classics will be rolling on the floor (and even if you haven’t, Williams’ talent still makes the strips enjoyable).

THE BAD STUFF

Dragon Magazine is good. Case closed. There are only a couple of things which are serious drawbacks at the moment:

ECOLOGY ARTICLES

I used to really like these – and I still do, when Johnathon M. Richards isn’t writing them. The “Ecology of…” articles focus on one particular monster or creature, expanding what we know of them from their Monstrous Manual entry. Instead of being in dry prose, however, they always have a “hook” – they’re excerpts from an adventurer’s journal; or from a traveller’s tale; or a military spy; and so on.

A couple years back, Johnathon M. Richards wrote an Ecology article which used a meeting of the “Monster Hunters Association” as its hook. These comedic bumblers were hilarious… the first time. Maybe twice. Since then they have grown into a sort of franchise in which their bumbling, punning, and comedic missteps (particularly with spell-casting and obviously poor assumptions regarding the monsters) overshadow the useful information concerning the monsters being discussed (although the footnotes are still quite good… usually). Richards took what used to be one of my favorite columns and rendered it into a perpetual April Fools’ version of itself.

ISOLATION

Dragon has never been an industry-wide magazine, but over the course of the last year or so it has cut itself off entirely from anything which isn’t related to TSR or Wizards of the Coast. First, their industry-wide news column became TSR News. Then they proceeded to abolish and abandon their review columns. Considering that Dragon is the last major print magazine with an RPG focus in the United States (with the exception of Dungeon, which approaches the field from an entirely different angle) this is a sad loss. It is even sadder when you consider that Dragon services the AD&D audience – an audience composed of newcomers to this industry, many of whom are ignorant of their options beyond AD&D. Effectively, by isolating itself from the rest of the industry, Dragon is losing an excellent opportunity to bring people deeper into the industry. If we want to keep the industry alive and vibrant, we need to make it so that people stay here longer than one or two years – and the best way to do that is to show them the diversity of products which are available, so that they can grow into new games as they grow into new tastes.

Dragon Magazine #262 - Tony DiTerlizziThe first time I became really aware of the non-AD&D games available was when I read a review of the fourth edition of Champions in Dragon Magazine. It was a major revelation – first, that a superheroes game existed; but, second, that a generic engine was possible. It opened whole new vistas (although through a completely bizarre chain of events it would be years before I got Champions, after I had purchased nearly a dozen other games, including GURPS, first). It would’ve taken me years to get involved in other games without that single review; and, the shocking thing is, I probably wouldn’t have maintained an interest in RPGs solely through AD&D that long. If it hadn’t been for that review, drawing me deeper into the RPG field, I wouldn’t be writing this review today. Nor would I be buying Dragon Magazine and half a dozen other TSR and WotC products every year.

We’re talking about ten pages an issue – that would be all it would take to expand TSR News back to an industry-wide news sources and to include a reviews column with 2-3 major reviews and a handful of short insights. Several of these reviews, of course, would be of TSR-related material, but I want those reviews, too. There are many TSR products which I own, which I wouldn’t if I hadn’t read a review of them in the pages of Dragon (or, more recently, here on RPGNet).

CONCLUSION

The Dragon Magazine of yesteryear is back – providing an exciting experience not only for old-timers in the industry, but for newcomers as well. In fact, I’m going to go out on a controversial limb here and say that Dragon has never been as good as it is right now. The quality of writing, artwork, layout, and vision is at the finest level I’ve ever seen it (and between my own tenure with the magazine, and through back issues, I’ve seen a lot of it).

If you’ve let your subscription lapse (and have any interest in fantasy at all), pick it up again. If you’ve never had a subscription, get one.

(Okay, okay… you might want to pick up a couple of sample issues before taking me at my word and subscribing. I won’t complain. Really.)

In short, again: Dragon rocks.

Style: 5
Substance: 5

Author: Various
Company/Publisher: Wizards of the Coast / TSR, Inc.
Cost: $5.95
Page count: 112-128
ISBN: n/a

Originally Posted: 1999/08/06

The thing I remember most about this review is a pair of responses it received: First, there was the guy who was upset that I considered the “fattie” on the cover of Dragon #261 attractive. Whenever someone talks about the bad stereotypes that cling to gamers like the funk of a man who measures the span between showers in weeks instead of days that guy always pops to mind.

Second, there was a guy who was angry because I said that people should get a subscription to the magazine. Why? Because he didn’t like fantasy. Ergo, the magazine wasn’t for him, so where did I get off telling him to buy it? Let’s ignore for the moment that the review specifically talks about that limitation of the magazine and get down to the heart of the matter: Any review inherently assumes a basic level of competency on the part of the person reading it. If you need someone to tell you that you won’t like Dragon Magazine because you don’t like fantasy gaming, then what you need isn’t a review: It’s a psychiatric evaluation.

For an explanation of where these reviews came from and why you can no longer find them at RPGNet, click here.

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19 Responses to “Ex-RPGNet Review – Dragon Magazine: A 100 Issue Retrospective”

  1. Broozer Bear says:

    Dragon magazine was great. I read my friends’ copies in H.S. 1982-1985. Also read the White Dwarf magazine. This was the amazing era before the internet, when the TSR was mysterious to us kids. We wrote mail and got brushed off, our only entryway being the tales of the two guys who owned he hobby shop. They told us things, like Ernie Gygax and Gary Gygax were two brothers. Then the shop closed and they moved to their second location across town. May as well have been across the town for us 12 year olds. Our DM in high school was ***into*** D&D, and he dispassionately loaned us form his vast collection and showed us how to use the percentile dice correctly.

    Dragon and White Dwarf were both dedicated to pencil and paper role playing games, but the differences between them larger than between the Time Magazine and US News and World reports. I know that you can get the entire collection of the Dragon Magazine on PC CD’s in PDF format. It started out at $350, but you can now get it for $150. Don’t know if the digitized archives of the White Dwarf are available for sale. Haven’t seen the recent issues to comment on those, but I hope that it didn’t go by way of Omni: It was a hard core Sci-Fi magazine, then it was taken over by the folks who published Penthouse magazine. It got a more polished, more glassy look, like that other magazine, but whereas the pornographic mag would typically publish a single investigative journalistic article, and those were typically really good, like the reports from small wars and little publicized crimes and local politics, the influence on the Omni Magazine was the opposite. The Sci-Fi stories became less hard science and more touchy feelie new age type, I guess they decided to make the magazine more appealing to the wider and female audience. Sort of like post-TSR D&D.

  2. Neal says:

    @ Justin,

    At the time of this article you said you were a subscriber to… dozens… magazines. Wow. Is that still true? What kind of a magazine budget does that take per month?

    Re: “Issue #162 is still one of my favorite issues of Dragon — a fact which, I have no doubt, is inspired largely by nostalgia. Still, when it first arrived in the mail and I looked down at the skeletal rider upon a living steed done in tones of brown…”

    You might want to give that cover a look over again, and reassess whether that steed is a bit off his feed. He could use a few more oats in his diet.

    The early art in the dragon was uneven. A lot of the covers were pretty insipid, formulaic stuff. Always was. As a contrast, look at Wormy, by David A. Trampier, was beautiful stuff. A standard of art that is head and shoulders above the other artists who get too much credit, for too modest abilities. You could stare at Trampier’s work in the Monster Manual, or in Wormy, for Hours. Unfortunately, he seems to have issues, and now he’s a taxi driver, who refuses to do artwork, anymore. He was in my opinion the finest fantasy illustrator in the gaming industry, ever.

    As far as Dragon being all that wonderful back in the day, I’ve still got issues from 1980-81. I gave up my subscription after a year. You mentioned that the magazine had it’s formulaic approach of monster, etc of the month, and other issues. You were right. It always did, and it was over-rated, and I decided to end my subscription for that reason.

    There were the occasional good articles, but after the first few months, they didn’t justify the price of each magazine’s cost. Too much filler. The October theme stuff was good, but the April Fools issues were ALWAYS annoying. You’d pay for the year’s subscription, and that entire month didn’t have anything you could use for gaming, because it was just full of mostly lame humor, as a theme. Humor as a theme should at least be good, and for my money, there should be actual gamable stuff in every issue. Like you said about the monstrous hunters becoming a sort of franchise that overshadows useful information… in this case it was an entire issue that was a bad joke with no information.

    “Under Dave Gross, this has all turned around. He restructured the mail columns (and renamed the primary column to D-Mail) and then added the “Question of the Month” to the Forum. The most noticeable demarcation point between the old school letter columns and the new ones came when the question was asked, “What would you want to see in a third edition of AD&D?” (paraphrased). Critiques of AD&D were suddenly allowed and, with them, serious critiques of the magazine re-entered the columns as well. Gross has allowed a feeling of community to ferment and grow once again in these pages, making them one of the strongest features in the magazine instead of one of the weakest.”

    Well…..ok. Some issues with that interpretation. Sure, it’s ok to ask your readership if they want you to create a new module using Pathfinder or 3.5. But, that isn’t the same thing we are seeing here with new editions being trotted out on a regular schedule by TSR/ WotC/ etc. Sure, criticism of the magazine and AD&D is a good thing. However, this was part of the cycle of bloating the market with product, then reissuing a new product/edition to fix it, because the old edition had issues of quality that were ignored for years on end, as long as sales were positive. It’s a manipulative, cynical scam. There are many comments on record on this issue by Robert Kuntz, Gary Gygax’s co-DM, and sometime business associate at TSR, identifying Wizards of the Coast as having perfecting this marketing ploy, of unendingly fixing the broken previous game that they were only too happy to sell to you for years on end.

    Rob Kuntz was there when Gygax began this behavior, and Kuntz and others left TSR. Kuntz’ website: “Lord of the Green Dragons,” discusses these issues of marketing and contempt for the financial savvy of gamers. He described people in the hobby as “Dissenting Creatives,” and “Eager Dependents.” He also gave an interview in the blog Hill Cantons discussing all these issues.

    Rob Kuntz is also on Youtube: “Rob Kuntz: Conversations, Part 1”.

    The guy’s credentials as Gary Gygax’s co-DM, as his adopted son, one of the earliest playtester’s, a writer of some of the TSR modules, and his 12 years as a Marketing Director, give him a credibility into how the industry (and others) works to manipulate perceptions, generate inferior commercial products, and only find a need to revamp broken products when the money they generate begins slowing down…that can’t be dismissed.

    Give Youtube, Hill Cantons interview, and Lord of the Green Dragons, a look.

  3. Neal says:

    @ Broozer Bear,

    That’s an interesting observation, about the post TSR D&D being made to a wider and female audience by being touchy feelie new-agey. I don’t doubt it, can you give some examples? In your opinion, did the change affect the game for the worse? I stopped playing D&D before all that stuff happened, and it was a revelation to read about it, all these years later.

  4. Greg Bell says:

    Seriously… you think that is good art?

  5. Broozer Bear says:

    Neal, that comment about touchy-feelie wider female audience only applied to the Omni Magazine. WOTC made D&D marketable to a much wider audience, but in a different way. OD&D was the pastime of mostly white college students who read Tolkien. WOTC revamped the game to appeal to a wider audience of 13-15 year olds who never read Tolkien. The color spectrum of the D&D illustrations became more inclusive, with darker skinned heroes sporting punky hair styles and body piercings popular with early teens and early teen girls, in particular. About 2/3 of girls think of themselves as tomboys and most of the illustrations of the D&D characters in WOTC editions, are tomboys. If the 1st edition Gygaxian AD&D illustrations had some resemblance to historic Medieval realism, then modern WOTC illustrations are fantasy themed caricatures taken straight out of comic books. Early on, WOTC made a decision to de-emphasize DM’s books and to shift to selling players supplements, so as to sell more books and to make the dungeon crawl experience more akin to a pencil and paper version of the Diablo, with the trapping and framing of the dungeon in terms of boss monsters to defeat, very video game like. Another thing that makes the WOTC edition so much more marketable to the early teen demographic, is the emphasis on feats and perks for the characters. Children in the 7 to 11 age group become fascinated with rules and with playing by the rules, and the whole emphasis of the WOTC of having your super-powerful characters, and making those characters “legal” in terms of the game rules, results in munchkins running around game to game with their mighty characters and towing dozens of pricey WOTC books and supplements to make sure that the DM doesn’t gyp them of their feats. This might be a bit extreme, but that is the gist of the changes brought by the WOTC marketing strategy.

  6. Bill says:

    Never been industry wide? Dragon may never have been totally comprehensive but it used to cover a lot more than TSR in the days before issue #162. Quite a bit before #162, in fact. There were articles on Traveller, Champions, and Villains and Vigilantes, scenarios for Squad Leader, reviews of all sorts of games and even amateur fanzines. Sure, everything non-TSR was in the minority but then TSR was pretty big and it was their magazine.

  7. Neal says:

    @ Bill,

    Re: *Dragon has never been an industry-wide magazine,*

    I agree, the old Dragon mostly covered AD&D stuff in articles, but as you say, also had pretty much industry-wide reviews. I pulled out some of the ones I’ve got from 1979-1984, some issues I bought off the stands, and some from a subscription. Here are some examples of what I glanced at and found.

    In issue #61, $3.00, May 1982 , page 70 has an article by David Cook reviewing Call of Cthulhu by Chaosium. That same issue on page 71-72 has a review by Tony Watson on “Hitler’s War, by Metagaming inc., designed by Keith Gross. Later in that issue, pages 78-80, it has three full pages of amazing art by David Trampier, with Wormy. Plus, there are advertisements for many other game systems sprinkled throughout the magazine: “I.C.E. Claw Law” by Iron Crown Enterprises; “Invasion Orion” by EPYX; an advertisement for a competing fantasy magazine – “White Dwarf” on page 9. Interestingly, that magazine advertisement calls itself “The best magazine in fantasy and sci-fi gaming…” an advertisement for “Bushido” from Fantasy Games Unlimited, and many more.

    Dragon #81 January 1984: Many advertisements for competing companys’ games and magazines, plus articles reviewing competing products. On page 87 there is an “Index to advertisers,” showing which page number their ad was presented in the issue. Page 76: Reviews by Ken Rolston of “Shadows of Yog-Sothoth” by Chaosium, “Ravenloft” by TSR, and “Brotherhood of the Bolt,” by The Companions, Inc.

    Issue #69 January 1983, an article “Caped Crusaders and Masked Marvels by Roger E. Moore, page 38-41. The article mentions by name the following games: Champions ( Hero Games, 1981); “Superheroes and Supervillains” (Heritage, 1981); “Superhero 2044” (Gamescience, 1977); “Supervillains” (Task Force, 1982); “Superworld” (part of the Worlds of Wonder, Chaosium Inc., 1982); “Villains and Vigilantes” (Fantasy Games Unlimited, 1979); “The Official Superhero Adventure Game” (Brian Philliips, 1982); “Supergame” (Jay and Aimee Hartlove, 1982). In the article, (I just skimmed through it), it mentions “Resources Until recently there were not very many playing aids specifically designed for superhero games, this should not deter prospective referees, however. Ideas for adventures may be taken from many other game systems, if properly adapted.”… it then mentions you can use Gamma World (TSR) or Traveller (GDW ), and RuneQuest (Chaosium) and MagicWorld (Chaosium). This is followed by a half page advertisement with artwork for: “Villains and Vigilantes,” Fantasy Games Unlimited.

  8. Neal says:

    @ Broozer Bear,

    I remember playing AD&D back in 1979 and the early 1980s, starting at the age of 13. We knew in theory, there were older people playing it (a few), but pretty much every male I knew aged 13 played it, in every school I heard of. We just assumed it was pretty much a game for “kids.” When I went to the Boy Scouts summer camp, virtually every guy there was a player, and they were from all over California, and all about 13-15 years old. Virtually everyone had read everything Tolkien had ever written, including the Silmarillion, Farmer Giles of Ham, every ‘guide to Tolkien,’ etc.

    Your comment that children aged 7-11 became fascinated with rules and bought all the books to make sure the GMs didn’t screw them got a chuckle out of me. I’d never heard any of that, but I believe it. I remember buying all the books, modules, and character/NPC sheets, etc., of D&D I could lay my hands on. Many of them wrapped in plastic to make sure you couldn’t figure out you didn’t need them, cause they weren’t all that useful. Of course, since they were shrinked wrapped, the store would refuse to make any refunds once opened, even if it was inside their own store. TSR and its distributors had a very unfriendly policy towards their customers, and a very financially deceptive one… aimed at taking advantage of kids who didn’t know better. I hope Gary enjoyed the part of his rooftop swimming pool that I paid for. It was one of several reasons I left fantasy gaming in disgust for so many years.

  9. Andy Flaxman says:

    These issues of Dragon when Wotc took over leading into the publication of the 3rd edition are lovely things indeed. I had stopped playing in the early 90’s as the quality of TSR’s products took a nosedive and the ruleset was starting to look antiquated (as it did when 2nd Edition came in). Wotc get a lot of hate but they brought me back into this hobby and rekindled my love for Dungeons and Dragons.

  10. The Rot Grub says:

    This was a great read! Makes me want to rummage through my digital archive. Are your other RPG.net reviews up anywhere, or do you plan to post them up regularly here at the Alexandrian? I would definitely read them!

  11. Daniel says:

    Anyone know of a good, print, gaming magazine these days? I am especially interested in 3.5 (and, by extension, Pathfinder) content but always enjoy other systems.

    Once Kobold Quarterly folded I haven’t been able to find a good replacement.

  12. Neal says:

    @ The Rot Grub,

    * “Are your other RPG.net reviews up anywhere, or do you plan to post them up regularly here at the Alexandrian?” *

    Justin Alexander is reposting all these older articles from RPG.net to this site (TheAlexandrian) when as time permits. If you look in the upper right hand corner of this site, you can look at older archives he’s printed by month and year.

  13. Neal says:

    @ Andy Flaxman,

    Re: “I had stopped playing in the early 90′s as the quality of TSR’s products took a nosedive and the ruleset was starting to look antiquated (as it did when 2nd Edition came in).”

    I stopped playing in the early 80’s due to TSR quality (and other) issues with AD&D. What did you find about the rules that looked ‘antiquated?’ I don’t doubt your opinion, I’m just curious to see if it matches my reasons.

  14. Broozer Bear says:

    @ Neal,

    D&D was nowhere near as popular where I grew up. I went to high school in Brooklyn, NY, that graduated 2000 students every year. In the ocean of roosting humanity that was our lunch room. There were maybe four kids who played D&D, about 12 were going to a karate schools. There was a really large Asian gaming group and the small game shop with the most esoteric gaming products was in Chinatown, and that necessitated several memorable kid trips there to browse the shop ide eyed in amazement.

    The stuff about 7-11 aged kids, read up on any of Eric Ericsson’s stuff on human development in childhood and adolescence.

    @ Andy,

    WOTC version of D&D is a different game, that centers on tabletop miniatures and concerns itself with things like miniature figure facings etc, and the other part of it has the feel of the pencil and paper videogame. My interest in role-playing went in the phenomenological direction of realism and open ended story telling. When I went back to running a D&D game in 2003 and reviewed all of the available D&D rules versions, and chose the 1st and 2nd edition AD&D for its relative simple gameplay mechanics, which I can tweak, and the extensive lists of monsters, spells, treasures, and random tables.

  15. Neal says:

    @ Broozer Bear,

    I’d heard of the guy, gotten a book of his many years ago, that I never read, so I just checked out Eric Erickson’s Theory of Psychosocial Development (in brief). Neat stuff. Your 6-11 year olds are in the Industry vs. Inferiority Stage.

    Since you find D&D editions 1&2 to be easier to work with than the later ones, what do you think about the ease of use and comprehensiveness of RuneQuest? I dug out my old version of that, and it seems to have good mechanics, even if a lot of it’s creatures and history are semi-comedic. I prefer realism for a setting, with playability.

  16. Broozer Bear says:

    Neal,

    Funny you should mention RuneQuest. I use the second edition, and I lifted the skill system from it. RuneQuest is fascinating, since like D&D, it too evolved from a social scene and not from the pen of a desk-bound writer. Whereas D&D was started by a bunch of tabletop miniatures war-gamers, RQ was started by the San Francisco chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism. It looks like the game started before D&D, in the late 60’s, I saw an early date of 1966, but it got published after D&D.

    As with D&D, the game’s roots reflect it’s origin, most notably expressed in the Combat system – hit locations, armor and damage, reflecting the fencing done live by the Socieity’s members, with each roll reflecting individual blow. Their skill system and skill improvement, which does away with the artificial concept of a “Level”, should get a Nobel Prize for Elegance!!!! I lifted that game mechanic for my skill check and improvement system (with its table for critical success/failure, which makes narrative and in game effect so much more colorful!), and I also altered the mechanics of spell-casting and made it more playable to play a Magic User. Wizard may cast several spells in the course of the game session, before s/he gets stressed/tired and can’t cast any more. Gygax Vancian magic did not sit well with me, with spells “getting erased from the mind” of the caster. I conceptualized the wizards going over and memorizing the intricate casting technique, much like a figure skater or a gymnast, but not just physical and much more complex performance. Over the course of the adventuring day, that spell-casting technique decays, until the wizard can not cast that spell any more. In practice, it means that a Wizard may or may not get that spell off, when s/he casts, but they may cast that spell, about two, sometimes three, and sometimes four times in the course of the session. I developed a separate set of game mechanics for each spell-casting class, and the acquisition of the spell-casting skills and of spells, magical research, is a mini-game in itself. I introduced the concept of spell complexity and the disparity between the level of the spell in question and the level of the wizard expressed as a logarithmic function expresses the spells difficulty for that wizard. The results translated into playable game terms were quite realistic. A first level wizard studying a spell for 7 to 10 days has about 25% chance of learning it. A first level wizard working with a high level instructor has to study 2 years to get a chance to learn the Fireball spell, and that chance will be in single digits. A low level wizard studying for 50 years has something like 0-2% chance of acquiring and casting a Wish spell. Think of all the historic alchemists. I am very happy with the way my spell-casting system turned out! Learning time for some high level spells goes into hundreds of years and astronomical times, and you can see, where a wizard’s life-span would not be enough to master all of the spells in any given magical school, and becoming a Lich would seem like a great opportunity to the knowledge obsessed.

    With regards to Rune Quest (I used 2nd edition rules), the NPC generation system suffered from the same flaws as current D&D – too many stats, namely skills to describe an NPC. Characters were described in terms of their “culture”, which was expressed much like a college transcript of coursework with the areas of concentration that would allow you to graduate with a certain major/minor/certificate. Another problem was that the skills were used much like current D&D uses them. Everyone has many skills that they do every day, but only a few that they are truly great at, much fewer skills that characterize them as individuals. Let’s take the skill of Horseback Riding, as Gygax Non-Weapon Proficiency, you would only use it, when you try to do something extraordinary, where most people would fail – jump into a saddle, a horse tries to throw you, etc. Under WOTC system and under Runequest, you have to do a skill check as a matter of course, when the characters routinely use that skill, hence WOTC D&D assignd “difficulty levels” and “feats”, to create another cumbersome layer of the game mechanic. Another shortcoming of the Runequest was the abstract spell-casting system. Shamanistic Magic was great, but the spells were too abstract, defined in terms of abstract points. I that respect 1st edition AD&D spells are superior. Same goes for the monsters and treasures of Gygax’s DMG.

    So, I combined the two, taking the best from each. I also have a detailed combat system and I would add the melee weapons list from the Tunnels and Trolls. It clued me in to the difference between the Assegai and the Jambiya, both African spears. Gygax made a similar effort with the pole arms in Unearthed Arcana and with Asian weapons in Oriental Adventure. For all those, who hate the original AD&D weapon vs armor table, that table makes it possible to express in game these two African spears as two distinct weapons, each with its own performance: the broad leaf shaped hunting spearhead of the Assegai and the stiletto-shaped combat (second) spear tip of the Jambiya spear.

  17. Neal says:

    @ Broozer Bear,

    Some very interesting ideas. If you don’t have a blog, maybe you should start one and get these out into the ether.

    Re: *”RQ was started by the San Francisco chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism. It looks like the game started before D&D, in the late 60′s, I saw an early date of 1966, but it got published after D&D.”*

    A few weeks ago I was reading up on the origins of Runequest, and as far as I know Greg Stafford was creating his White Bear and Red Moon boardgame and others around 1975. Runequest came out in 1978. If those guys did anything that predated D&D, that would be too cool, because it should be taken down a few pegs in the public’s imagination.

    Regarding elegance of Runequest rules, I completely agree. I always hated Vancian magic. It wasn’t fun, and it wasn’t balanced. You had wimpy low level magic users that became overpowered high level magic users. That’s like arguing two wrongs make a right, in my thinking. That isn’t balanced, that’s just lame excuses, so the designer wouldn’t have to admit less than perfection and go redo some of the design-work. Typically, Gygax made excuses that everything was for balance, and spell points wouldn’t work. Well, they obviously do work in later editions of the game, they work in Runequest, and other fantasy games, so that was pretty disingenuous of him. I have some links to articles online that blow the lid on these issues from good ole Gary’s own statements to the world at large from years ago. The man routinely contradicted his previous promises about respecting players and GM autonomous decisions at every turn, when he found profitability in it. Other times he was taking obnoxious pot shots at the far superior game designing competitors, like Runequest, or backstabbing Dave Arneson.

    Your ideas about percentages to master more complex spells that take years of study and giving incentives for becoming a Lich is a good one. Looking through my old Dragons, yesterday, I came across a series of articles on becoming a lich, you might be interested in: “Best of Dragon vol. II pages 56-63.” Four articles: “Good Evening,” October 1979, issue #30;
    “Varieties of Vampires,” May 1979 issue # 25;
    “A Look at Lycanthropy,” issue #24;
    “Blueprint for a Lich” June 1979 #26.

    Some sites I found a few weeks ago with data on some of the above subjects (some have many additional links):

    1) http://www.weareallus.com “Ray Turney’s Origins of Runequest”

    2) http://www.maranci.net “The History of Runequest”

    3) http://www.Cracked.com “6 Pop Culture Visionaries Who Get Too Much Credit Jared Whitley” 12/5/11 gives links to Dave Arneson Wikipedia (Royalties owed)

    4) http://www.PC.Gamespy “Dave Arneson Interview” – Allen Rausch 8/19/04. An interesting quote from the interview: Gamespy: “What happened to drive you from the company?” Dave Arneson: “I can’t talk about that.” (THAT’S significant of the legal gag rules Arneson was forced to agree to, to have his rights to full credit continued as co-author of D&D; and all the skeletons in Gygax’s closet.)

    5) http://www.Anthonypryor.com “Gary Gygax: Gamer, Designer, Pompous Ass, Legend… Wait, what?” This last link should be required reading for anyone with an interest in the history of roleplaying games and/or an interest in the actual personalities of the creators of this hobby. As players and GMs we shouldn’t confuse products we like with the quality of their creators as human beings. Just look at Errol Flynn the actor behind moral heroes like Robin Hood. The actor isn’t the same individual as the mystique.

  18. Neal says:

    My comment is awaiting moderation? Where’d that come from?

    Does anyone know how to get any of the post to create:
    ITALICS?

  19. Broozer Bear says:

    Always copy, and post again…

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